Sunday, September 21, 2014

Flower (PS3) Review

Flower is a beautiful little game. It’s…look, I’m going to be honest with you, I haven’t been having the best day. I found myself not wanting to get out of bed today; found myself wondering, as I sometimes do, why I ever get out of bed. It was safe in there, warm; why leave? Why not just retreat back to the land of dreams? Why get up? Why leave such a safe haven and deal with all the stress, fear, anxiety and discomfort that waking consciousness would bring me? I shut off my alarm and tried to just relax. Just forget. I finally did get out of bed and was disappointed in myself. It was already far too late to squeeze in everything I wanted to do today and therefore I didn’t feel up to doing anything at all. As evening came on, physical discomfort joined my emotional discomfort and even though I still had a headache among other aches, I say down to play Flower. In the PS3 menu before even starting the game, a simple image of a blue sky and tall green grass with a single flower in the corner was accompanied by a tranquil musical piece and a simple, three line tutorial on how to play the game, explaining the only two actions needed (“tilt the controller to soar” and “press any button to blow wind”) followed by the words “relax, enjoy”.

Relax, enjoy.

These words…. Maybe such a thing is simple for most people in their down time, but it is very difficult for me to “relax” and “enjoy”, at least completely. But these words still brought comfort. Encouragement. They were quite simply, what I really needed to hear at that specific moment in time.

The opening moments of Flower juxtapose a noisy cityscape with a peaceful green field in the middle of nowhere. This perfectly reflected my current feelings. All the stress and frustration and noise then…peace. Just what I was looking for. The opening moments of playing Flower were exhilarating. As the text earlier informed me, pressing and holding any button summoned a gust of wind that moved a flower petal, while tilting the controller itself aimed it. That was it. I was just a flower petal, weightless and free, soaring over a field of tall green grass blowing in the swift breeze. A blue sky and golden sun were overhead. I felt a breath of fresh air.  For a moment, I didn’t feel shitty or anxious or sad. I felt gleeful.

And that’s really it. Flower is that moment. Sure, the game goes through a few different settings and changes things up with each level (or “flower”) you play; it’s a journey that leads the player through tranquil valleys, over windmill-covered plains into the sunset, across a dreamlike nightscape dotted with streetlights, into a dark and lifeless wasteland and finally to the city itself, all in a quest to restore life and nature and deliver the simple message that something as simple as a flower petal can bring so much joy and meaning to life if you just take the time to notice it.

Maybe this all sounds hokey to you. Too pretentious, overly sentimental, or too obvious a metaphor. But it’s effective, damnit. It’s human. And is it so obvious? How many of us don’t take the time to appreciate a flower blooming in the middle of a city? And I mean really appreciate it. How much better would all of our lives be if we just remembered, every day, every moment, how much happiness little things can bring? Not just flowers but a warm blanket, a conversation with a dear friend, a cool breeze, a really creative video game.

But at its core, Flower is really all about that opening moment of blissful play. That feeling of weightlessness. Of mirthful flight and wonder, a vast landcape with a blue sky above. What a goddamn ingenious concept for a video game: a flower petal floating in the breeze. Maybe this is something you’ve seen in hundreds of art films and read a thousand poems about, but how often do video games tackle this kind of subject? And how perfect are video games for this kind of experience? What other medium uses a combination of sight, sound, and feel to allow us to assume the role of a flower petal dancing in the wind?

Flower isn’t a perfect experience. It’s at its best when it actually makes the player feel like a weightless object gently gliding through the open air. Its central objective of guiding your slowly growing swarm of flower petals into rows of flowers on the ground in order to make them bloom, gather more petals, and magically cause certain environmental reactions can sometimes conflict with the core experience that the game is trying to deliver. It can be tedious if you miss one or two or six little flowers which blend in with the ground and have to awkwardly spin around looking for them. This act can take away from the gracefulness of the whole thing and remind me that I’m playing a video game, looking for objects.

But whatever. The game doesn’t require every little flower be touched, that was mostly just my OCD’s idea, always terrified of “missing something”. This is a game about being a flower petal and joining other flower petals and floating in the breeze. And I got to do that. Flower isn’t life-changing, but it is life-affirming in its own small, but oh so important way. It’s not revolutionary, but it actually kind of is. It gives me so much hope for the potential of video games. Video games…interactive experiences can be about anything. Anything. In an industry and medium that is driving itself into the ground with shallow narrow-mindedness and stubborn, strict definitions of what a “video game” should be and is, Flower might as well be a revelation. And I know there have been plenty of indie games tackling original and experimental ideas since Flower originally released five years ago, but in regards to mainstream video game culture, I still think the previous statement in valid.

More importantly than that, Flower, in its simple way, reminded me on a shit day of how life can beautiful and about what makes me happy in life.

It answered my questions from earlier: it reminded me why I get out of bed, at least for today.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (PS3) Review

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is a celebration of retro gaming. I know similar statements has been thrown around a lot given the recent surge of retro revival games, but Scott Pilgrim, with its old school beat em’ up game design, gorgeous pixel art, rockin’ chiptune soundtrack, and countless references and in-jokes, is so comprehensive in its execution that I feel it deserves special mention. All of this is very fitting given the source material, and Pilgrim is indeed a wonderful realization of the world from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s excellent series of graphic novels (they’re one of my favorite things ever, so you should seriously check them out). The game manages to capture the spirit and style of the graphic novels and successfully translates a story based on the plot of a retro video game into an actual retro video game (or at least a retro-style one).

Scott Pilgrim: The Game is a classic beat em’ up a la River City Ransom, Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, and Streets of Rage where you move from left to right, beating up hordes of “bad guys” on your way to a showdown with a fearsome boss at the end of each stage. Like River City Ransom (which is one the clearest inspirations for the Scott Pilgrim story as well as for this game’s design), Pilgrim is also part RPG, where building stats such as “strength” and “defense” by buying food, drinks, and other items is crucial to a player’s survival. As they fight the many hipsters, brawlers, bouncers, ninjas, and robots, players gradually level up, gaining a new skill with each level, such as a neat diving kick and a dodge roll. Because leveling up and acquiring money are both tied to mowing down mooks, expect to do a lot of grinding here, especially early in the game. This is one of Scott Pilgrim’s biggest flaws: it’s not an easy game to just jump into and immediately start enjoying like many of the classics that it calls back to (at least if one is playing single player, like I did; having three other friends to join you makes the adventure easier, I’m sure). This isn’t because the game is all that particularly difficult, only because your character (choose from Scott, Kim, Stephen Stills, and Ramona, in addition to one unlockable character and two DLC characters) is so overwhelmingly underpowered at the start of the game. I struggled to get through the first stage on the normal “Rough & Tough” difficulty and it was only with a lot of patience and after leveling up sufficiently and getting enough money to build my stats that I was finally able to move on. I did try switching to the easiest difficulty setting to initially get through the first level (and switched back to normal for the rest of the game after that), but I’m not sure if it really was all that easier, or if it was just simpler because I’d already built up my stats quite a bit on normal. I think it was mainly the latter, because I replayed the first level on normal afterwards and was able to get through it without much trouble. Things only get tougher as the game goes on and I had to fiddle around in the first few levels for a bit until I had good enough stats to not continuously get pummeled in the later levels. Once I was leveled and powered up though, the game became a breeze until the final level and even then, with just a little more stat boosting, it wasn’t too bad. All this grinding didn’t take too long but I’d rather just take a more straightforward path through a beat em’ up like Scott Pilgrim, not meander about the first few levels and waste time grinding.

                But let’s talk about the good stuff now. Right away Scott Pilgrim brought me back to the countless times I played the Sega Genesis Streets of Rage titles (especially Streets 2, one of my favorite games of all time) and other beat em’ ups like the 2003 retro-inspired Viewtiful Joe on the GameCube. Appeals to nostalgia are surely overused in video games today, but Pilgrim does nostalgia well, constantly injecting me with a warm dose of the essence of simpler times. The moment that the music of the first level kicks in, I felt at home. Scott Pilgrim features a fantastic soundtrack by electronic and chiptune artist Anamanaguchi. While some songs definitely stand out more than others for me, there is no denying the retro quality on display here. Just listen to some of these. The sound here is retro but also incorporates elements that couldn’t be done on an 8 or 16-bit console; it feels familiar but also original.

One of the aspects of Scott Pilgrim that struck me right away, besides the music, is the beautiful, detailed artwork. The environments in the game are lovingly painted with copious detail and are populated by brilliantly animated sprites. Familiar faces from the Scott Pilgrim books can be seen on the sidelines of each stage and seeing the likes of Stacey Pilgrim and Wallace Wells and even less central characters such as Joseph hanging out in the various locales of Toronto is not only really cool for a fan of the novels such as myself, but also lends a cohesion and a lot of personality to the world in the game. All the sprites are full of energy, and in classic video game fashion can be seen swaying and bopping in place, as if everyone is dancing to the killer soundtrack. Player character and enemy sprites are equally vibrant (I especially love Scott’s overly-enthusiastic idle animation and his end of stage celebration). This attention to detail carries over into every facet of the game, from humorous descriptions of the items Scott can purchase to graffiti and posters decorating the borders of a stage. As I mentioned, the game is also full of references to the retro gaming golden age of the late 80s and early 90s: there’s nods to Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, all of the aforementioned beat em’ ups, and much more. All of it is here and often in some unexpected and hilarious places that made me chuckle to myself more than a few times. If you’re a retro nerd like me, you simply must play this game.

The Super Mario World-inspired world map

Scott Pilgrim is a very solid game, but it could be more enjoyable to play. Character movement, especially at the start of the game, feels stiff and slow. I played the game on PlayStation 3 with a standard DualShock 3 controller and there’s an option to use either the D-pad or the left analog stick for movement. Personally, I always find the D-pad to feel more natural for 2D games like this, but unfortunately only the analog stick has an option to make running the default movement option, whereas running with the D-pad requires a clunky-feeling double tap. Movement becomes more fluid with new skills and an increase in the speed statistic, but never as much as I would have liked it to be. I often found myself struggling just to get away from attacks and position myself where I wanted to be in the game. There were also several times where I thought I was exactly lined up with an enemy correctly, but wasn’t and would fail to attack them. This perspective problem has always been inherent to 2D beat em’ ups like Scott Pilgrim, but this issue in conjunction with other issues can be very frustrating. For example, Scott has two different attacks in the game that require the same button inputs, but one attack is triggered if Scott is close to a downed enemy while the other occurs at any time besides this situation. I would frequently find myself wanting to pummel a downed enemy, but not be lined up with them correctly because of the wonky perspective and instead perform the other attack (which happens to be a charging attack that sometimes landed me in a bottomless pit during these instances). This problem could have been addressed by simply having different button inputs for these two attacks. It also doesn’t help that the AI in the game likes to gang up on the player, sometimes pitting them in inescapable hell cycles. One particularly annoying moment was in the second level, where I found myself pinned between two duos of enemies on either side of me, all four of them constantly spamming projectile attacks that kept constantly knocking me down as soon as I got up. It’s safe to say that Scott Pilgrim made me rage more than once thanks to what felt to me like cheap design.

Despite some drawbacks, Scott Pilgrim can still be a blast to play. It’s an experience that gets funner the more you play it and build your character’s stats and experience. At its core, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game does the graphic novels as well as retro gaming justice with both an experience that is a loving homage and something special on its own. While watching the credits roll and listening to a medley of the game’s fantastic musical tracks, I felt a great sense of satisfaction, even if Scott’s ending was a little lame (apparently, playing as Ramona gets the player the “true ending”, or at least the one that is parallel with the endings of the graphic novel and film; why not give Scott this ending as well?). In some alternate universe where the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series never existed and instead Scott Pilgrim was a video game that came out in the early 90s, I’m sure that game would greatly resemble Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. In other words, I’m pretty sure Scott Pilgrim himself would love this game.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Sonic 3 and Laputa Connection

I can't take credit for making this observation myself. I read about it somewhere on the internet (of course) and later discovered this article (which I referenced frequently while putting this post together and borrowed a few pictures from) as well as this forum thread. Apparently, animation legend Hayao Miyazaki's 1986 film Castle in the Sky (also known as Laputa: Castle in the Sky), one of my favorite films from a director whose work I absolutely adore, seems to have had a hand in inspiring Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Knuckles, one of my favorite games of all time. There is plentiful evidence within both works to support this theory, but Yuji Naka, one of the original creators of Sonic the Hedgehog and producer and lead programmer on Sonic 3 and Knuckles, has also stated in interviews that he is an admirer of Miyazaki's work.

This just blows my mind. One of my most cherished video games from my childhood took inspiration from one of my favorite films from my adulthood by a director whose work I would completely fall in love with years after first playing Sonic the Hedgehog 3. After hearing about the similarities between Sonic 3 and Knuckles and Castle in the Sky, I decided to watch the film and the play the game back to back. It was a fun day.

Let's take a look at the evidence. Both works center around a floating island held aloft by a massive gem:

Laputa from Castle in the Sky
Angel Island from Sonic 3 and Knuckles

In addition to this central premise, there are a lot of visual and artistic similarities between the film and game and even certain scenes from the movie seem to have served as inspiration for scenes in the game. A number of the zones (or levels) in Sonic 3 and Knuckles also parallel several locations in the film:

Could the overgrown arboretum of Laputa have been a template for the lush jungles of Angel Island Zone?

In the film, one of the main characters, Pazu, marvels at an "underwater city" beneath the moats of Laputa, a seemingly obvious inspiration for the aquatic ruins of Hydrocity Zone.

The ruined courtyards of Laputa may have inspired the appearance of the overgrown ruins of Marble Garden Zone; this zone also may have been inspired simply by Laputa's overall appearance as an ancient city taken over by nature.

The military's massive camo-patterned flying warship, Goliath, could have led to the creation and appearance of Dr. Robotnik's camo-patterned Flying Battery.

This one may be a stretch, but the crystallized second act of Lava Reef Zone is reminiscent of the scene in Castle in the Sky of the cave full of glowing volucite rocks.

The heart of Angel Island, Hidden Palace Zone, with its technological look and square patterns reminds of the advanced and cube-decorated core of Laputa. Not to mention...

...both Laputa and Angel Island float in the sky because of the power of a massive gemstone that is sought after in both works by megalomaniacal madmen.

Now we get to Sky Sanctuary Zone from Sonic 3 and Knuckles, which is perhaps the biggest piece of evidence supporting the Laputa inspiration:

The pillars, fountains, walkways, yellowish-greenish hue and overall imagery of Sky Sanctuary Zone brings Laputa to mind immediately.

The climax of both the film and game also share several elements in common. Let's take a look:

Dr. Robotnik's Death Egg (besides being an obvious parody of the Death Star) resembles the spherical, mechanical-looking bottom of Laputa. Both also happen to be doomsday weapons.

The scene where Robotnik releases an army of Egg Robos from the Death Egg is similar to the scene where Muska releases an army of robots from Laputa.

The way Sky Sanctuary crumbles block by block before Sonic leaps onto the Death Egg is very similar to the way Laputa crumbles block by block during the climax of the film. Note the near-identical color palettes hear and the overall symmetry of the imagery.

Finally, in the endings of both film and game, Laputa and Angel Island float higher and higher into the heavens with the help of the giant volucite crystal and Master Emerald respectively, away from the hands of greedy humans.

Could this all be a coincidence? I suppose. Am I reaching too much in some areas? Probably. After all, ancient floating islands covered in mysterious ruins from a civilization long extinct (except for a few key descendants of course) are nothing new. The idea has been presented in plenty of art and media throughout the years. But I think the fact that Yuji Naka has cited Miyazaki as a major influence of his coupled with the similarities in many of both works' environments, scenes, themes, and art suggests a clear link.

Also, the Sonic series is well-known for taking inspiration from other sources. Some may call it "ripping off", and in some cases I can certainly see where they're coming from, but the Sonic games are still remarkably original, and there are many zones and other elements from Sonic 3 and Knuckles that I didn't touch on that don't bear a resemblance to anything in Castle in the Sky. The Sonic series copies and emulates, sure, but much like a lot of art, it uses these elements in conjunction with its own unique ideas to create something original. The Sonic series is also full of references to pop culture and mixes many disparate elements from tons of different sources. I already mentioned the Death Star and Death Egg comparison, but there's also Super Sonic and the seven chaos emeralds being a supposed reference to Super Saiyans and the seven Dragon Balls. And did you know that Sonic's red and white shoes were inspired by a Michael Jackson album cover (Michael Jackson also worked on the music for Sonic 3, ironically enough). Did you also know that Dr. Robotnik's design was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt?

Speaking of Dr. Ivo "Eggman" Robotnik...

Yep, he's in Castle in the Sky too! He also makes a cameo in another Miyazaki masterpiece (and my personal favorite film of all time), Spirited Away:

I'm joking of course, as these are both original characters created by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and the character from Castle in the Sky obviously predated our favorite rotund mad scientist's existence (perhaps Theodore Roosevelt wasn't the only inspiration?), but the resemblance in both cases is uncanny.

It's amazing how one of my favorite video games and one of my favorite films, both works of art very beloved by myself and first consumed separately at very different points in my life are so closely related, with Sonic 3 and Knuckles, which I experienced first, taking so much inspiration from Castle in the Sky, which I first experienced much, much later. Sonic 3 and Knuckles is something that I associate largely with my childhood, while Castle in the Sky is something that I associate with my young adulthood. But the latter is several years older than the former. The fact that Miyazaki's films and Sonic's games, both of which have been hugely influential to me, would be linked's all so strange to me, but it also makes so much sense.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Extended Thoughts on the Finale of Pikmin 3 *SPOILERS*

The strange finale of Pikmin 3 stuck with me so much that I feel the need to address it in a separate post. Pikmin 3 is not a game that ends in an epic, explosive conclusion, but a more personal and disturbing one. The game’s final stage, known as the “Formidable Oak”, is downright spooky. The area revolves around a giant gnarled tree(?) in the middle of a lonely desert wasteland. From the first steps I took in the place, I felt a sense of great apprehension. The quiet, unsettling music put me on edge and even though it seemed at first that I could choose to go in one of two directions, one of these paths was a dead end and so the only way I could go was a straightforward path that winded up the tree to some inevitable final conclusion with what was sure to be a terrifying beast. What awaited at the end of that path, however, is baffling and bizarre in all the right ways.

The final enemy the explorers face in the game is a whole new level of odd and many questions are raised about what is going on with this surreal creature. We first see it as a tiny, oddly-shaped thing that at first glance is hard to get any impression of at all, except that it is standing over Captain Olimar’s sleeping body, just staring at him; it even looks like it’s petting him. This golden entity is eerie, to say the least, but it soon becomes terrifying as its bizarre-looking head swells to enormous size and engulfs Olimar with its face-hole. Freeing Olimar is deceptively easy at first, but soon after the “mysterious lifeform” as it’s called in-game takes on a new shape as a gigantic, transparent blob with a yellow cube at its center that relentlessly chases Olimar (and your Pikmin carrying him) through a winding labyrinth with no end in sight. It’s a tense and frightful experience, especially at first when I wasn’t expecting it or prepared for it. I was running around in circles, not sure what to do or where to go. For a game that I thought I had all figured out, here at end, it completely turned everything upside down. I had hundreds and hundreds of Pikmin, I thought I’d have no problem with whatever giant monster awaited me at the end of the game, but here I was helpless and running around aimlessly as the thing slurked along, moving at a deceptive speed that contradicted its mucus-y appearance.

I soon gathered my bearings and figured out a strategy for alluding the monster by having Brittany run in a literal circle around the environment with five Pikmin and Olimar in tow, keeping the beast occupied while Alph and Charlie forged a path ahead, clearing out all obstacles ahead and looking for a way out of the cavern. As I explored, I found notes left behind by Olimar, notes detailing the chilling cycle the Hocotatian had found himself in: out of Pikmin and resources, without a ship, and all alone, he was trapped with a creature that ceaselessly chased him. Every day, no matter how hard he tried to evade it, the thing would catch him, triggering his space suit’s auto-sleep function, and drag him all the way back to the top of the oak. Olimar would then soon wake up, confused for a moment before remembering his horrific situation; he would try to escape again only to be caught, over and over again. Truly, he was doomed unless I saved him. After spending so much time and going through so many trials with Olimar in Pikmin and Pikmin 2, I felt a great empathy for my former protagonist and wanted to get him out of his predicament as quickly as I could.

But is the Plasm Wraith, which turned out to be the “mysterious lifeform’s” official title, really a monster? It wasn’t hurting Olimar, in fact it seemed to be protecting him. It even placed him on a little leaf bed at the top of its oak. Perhaps Alph, Brittany, and Charlie were seen as threats to Olimar and the creature was misguidedly trying to help him. Was it acting as a protective parent? Or perhaps it was just lonely and wanted a friend? Just what is this sad, mysterious entity? I found myself pitying it and felt guilty that, after finally finding a way out of the labyrinth and the creature, now infuriated, engulfed Olimar once more and swelled to enormous size, the game would now ask me to wear the thing down piece by piece and kill it. This wraith felt different than the other beasts on the planet. It felt intelligent.

There is a lot of subtext here, a lot more than I expected from the end of this game, and a lot it is left up to the player to decide what is going on. Is the situation here really creepy? Or really sad? Or cute in an odd way? Or all of these things? The final creature in Pikmin 3 is not so much the gigantic horrifying kind of beast that lay at end of the previous two games, but more of a puzzling, bizarre, and questionable thing. I also can’t help but be reminded of the Water Wraith from Pikmin 2, another bizarre entity that relentlessly chased Olimar and Louie throughout the entirely of one of the game’s dungeons, an experience that still chills me to think about (just listen to the music that plays in the dungeon before the Water Wraith appears; that is legitimate horror game material). Could the two wraiths be related? The same species or something more? At the very least, I’m sure the Water Wraith, which is one of the most memorable aspects of Pikmin 2 for me, served as inspiration for the Plasm Wraith.

Above: The Water Wraith. Below: The Plasm Wraith's liquid form. Any relation?
In regards to the guilt I felt about having to slay the pitiable, lonely Plasm Wraith, it turns out the game designers had this in mind as well. I felt a bit of relief after the Plasm Wraith finally toppled over and let Olimar go, not only because I’d finally bested it and finished the game, but because I watched as the Wraith’s golden gooey remains slowly slinked away in the background as Alph, Brittany and Charlie celebrated their victory. Then, as the explorers and Olimar blasted off in the S.S. Drake, the Plasm Wraith, reformed, can be seen at the top of the oak flailing about; is it waving goodbye? Or writhing in anger, shaking its “arms” in fury at the explorers that stole its precious Olimar away? It’s very telling that the final boss is actually still alive at the end of the game (I looked it up and this is true for every ending of the game, including the best one, which is what I achieved after acquiring all of the fruit in the game), which is different than the past two Pikmin titles, where the final creatures in those game fell to their death in a hail of glory. But I felt the Plasm Wraith surviving was appropriate; outright slaughtering the thing would feel wrong given all the character the designers gave it.

Beyond the final boss, Pikmin 3’s conclusion leaves of lot of unanswered questions, some of which might be setting up a sequel, but it also leaves the game with a sense of mystery. Throughout the story, Alph would ponder in his end of day logs about how he had a feeling that there was something more to the S.S. Drake’s crash landing, almost as if he had the feeling that something from the planet’s surface had reached out and pulled the Drake down. Weird, right? I thought I’d get the answer to this question at the game’s conclusion, but instead the narrator ponders what the cause of the Drake’s accident was before musing that “perhaps it wasn’t an accident after all…” Was the Drake’s rough landing the Plasm Wraith’s doing, afraid that these aliens would try to take Olimar? Or did the Wraith call Olimar and Louie’s ship down before, which lead to its wrecked state in the Garden of Hope and this is just something that it does? Is it reaching out to try to find friends, to try to cure its loneliness? Or perhaps there’s something else going on here, something even more surreal…

The Plasm Wraith says goodbye
In another log, Alph mused about how because of him and his friends, the Pikmin were thriving. The three explorers had saved their Onions from predators and harrowing circumstances, guided and led them and increased their numbers dramatically in a short time span. It of course seems as though the Pikmin are pawns being controlled by the captains, but Alph pondered whether it was the Pikmin who were really controlling the captains, before dismissing the thought as ridiculous. That idea is ridiculous…right? In the original Pikmin, Olimar thought about something similar, about how perhaps his arrival had taught the Pikmin how to fend for themselves and survive. At the end of that game, the Pikmin are seen attacking and fighting a Bulborb on their own, having learned how to defend themselves through Olimar’s guidance.

And that brings us to Pikmin 3’s final scene: after the narrator cryptically states that perhaps the Drake’s accident at the start of the game “wasn’t an accident after all”, we are treated to a beautiful and moving credits sequence showing the Pikmin going about their lives on their own before we are treated to a final shot of a group of Pikmin idling around a tree stump in a field of tall grass before a fiery meteorite comes crashing down to the planet’s surface in the distance. The Pikmin then all run towards the object, whatever it is. Is it not a coincidence then that in every Pikmin title, the captains always seem to land near Pikmin and Onions? Is it the Pikmin themselves who are responsible for the S.S. Drake’s “accident”, that they somehow call down these travelers so they can propagate their species? And that meteorite at the end: perhaps some new captains we’ll meet in Pikmin 4, when the whole ordeal repeats itself?

The cycle begins anew?
Besides the idea itself being very bizarre, there are holes in this theory of course, such as how in the first Pikmin game, Olimar crashed into an asteroid, which caused him to crash land on PNF-404. And in Pikmin 2, there was no crash landing. Also, the S.S. Drake was going to the planet’s surface anyway, so why the need to make it crash? Also, in the final scene of Pikmin 3 I just talked about, the Pikmin don’t seem to be paying much attention to the sky and only after one of them notices the burning meteorite and starts to run towards it, do all the others follow. They at least don’t appear to be consciously guiding the travelers to the planet’s surface, but perhaps it’s a subconscious thing? In any case, I think it’s a fascinating idea. The Pikmin series has always carried a lot of mystery and intrigue with it and I love that while the Koppaites’ story seemed to be nicely wrapped up in the end, there’s still a whole lot of questions that add to the mystery surrounding this young game series’ universe, and I only hope this mystery is given further layers in future games. Perhaps we’ll get some answers and many more questions to go along with them; perhaps we’ll never really know the full story, which is actually how I prefer it. Also, Louie is apparently still on PNF-404, forgotten once again, or maybe he’s doing this on purpose? I just had a horrifying thought: perhaps the Plasm Wraith snatched Louie up when the others weren’t looking and has now simply replaced one Hocotatian for another? I wish I didn’t think of that…

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Pikmin 3 (Wii U) Review

Pikmin 3 is a garden of delights. It is an experience that evokes both a sense of childlike imagination and natural beauty. These are attributes which could also be applied to the previous two Pikmin games, however Pikmin 3 refines old elements and adds new ones and emerges as perhaps the best in the series. The improved processing power of the Wii U also lends to a more beautifully realized natural world than ever before. This review will focus primarily on the main story mode of Pikmin 3, so most everything I say is in regards to that aspect of the game. I did spend some time with Mission Mode and managed to earn at least a bronze medal on every course (I also got a few silvers and one platinum, if you’re curious). Mission Mode is actually quite a substantial side dish with some decent DLC (that adds several unique new environments to explore) and is overall a cool bonus for those looking for a pure, focused strategy experience. I haven’t had a chance to play the multiplayer Bingo Battle mode with friends, but I did check it out by myself just to get a feel for what it was about, and it actually seems like it’d be an intense competition and a lot of fun with some buddies around. Also, Mission Mode and Bingo Battle have some of the game’s most interesting environments (especially if you get the DLC for Mission Mode), and you’ll never see most of them if you only play the story mode.

Pikmin 3 caught me off guard when booting up the game for the first time because after the initial load-up screen, the story began immediately. There were no menus, nothing to break the immersion, just an immediate dive into the story. I was greeted with a view of outer space and a planet as a narrator began to tell me about the plight of this world, which is known as Koppai. Due to ill planning and resource management, Koppai had exhausted its food supply. After a series of probes were dispatched to find nearby potential sources of food on other planets, one scout came back with results: a mysterious, wild world dubbed PNF-404 seemed to provide a possible source of nourishment for the Koppaites, and so three explorers (or “captains” as I’ll be calling them, as they are the captains of the Pikmin)—Alph, Brittany, and Charlie (A, B, and C…get it?)—set off the explore PNF-404 and try to rescue their home planet.

The planet Koppai
However, something goes wrong upon arriving at the massive, imposing planet and the S.S. Drake (that’s the name of our protagonists’ spaceship) experiences a rough entrance into PNF-404’s atmosphere before the three explorers are ejected and crash land in different regions of the planet’s surface. The early parts of the game follow one protagonist at a time, starting with Charlie, who quickly finds himself in a terrifying situation. Next we meet up with Alph, who goes about trying to find his lost friends. These early stages and the narrative surrounding them makes this Pikmin game stand out from its predecessors both from a narrative standpoint and a gameplay one. This introduction made me feel engrossed in the Koppaites’ plight and made the progression of the game feel more natural than the traditional formulaic Pikmin approach (which the game eventually does fall into; not necessarily a bad thing, just a point to note). Thanks to Pikmin 3’s main mechanic of having to harvest giant fruit in order to make juice in order to keep surviving, I felt more directly connected with the story than ever before in the series; the game brings back the sense of urgency from the original Pikmin, but with a more forgiving twist: as long as I keep gathering fruit, I’ll be able to keep surviving, instead of there being a set number of days from the beginning.

Pikmin 3 also does a wonderful job of easing the player into its mechanics, which could potentially be overwhelming for new players (they were for me at least when I first played the original Pikmin), such as how to efficiently manage switching off between the three captains in the game in order to make the most of each day. To start, the game makes sure the player is comfortable controlling one captain, than introduces a second one, and eventually gives the player command of all three captains at once. One early level teaches the player how to effectively use two captains by tasking Alph and Brittany, separated on opposite sides of a region, to work together and use Pikmin to build a massive bridge that will allow them to reconnect with each other. This “tutorial” portion doesn’t feel overbearing or pandering, and doesn’t really feel like a tutorial at all, thanks to the pressure to continue to collect fruit and survive and the way new mechanics and Pikmin types are measuredly introduced.

I enjoyed the narrative in Pikmin 3 quite a bit. The central plight of the three captains works well enough and their personalities are fleshed out through optional interactions in the S.S. Drake in between each in-game day, coupled with charming gibberish “voice acting”. But besides this, there’s also a mystery surrounding the heroes from the earlier Pikmin games, slowly detailed through memos scattered throughout the environments that hint at the fact that another adventure is simultaneously going on with our old friends Olimar and Louie. Eventually the paths of all of these characters meet, which leads to some surprising twists and unexpected moments. All this culminates in a bizarre finale that is unique, intense and surprisingly creepy. 

You'll need to split tasks between the captains to get the most out of each day
Pikmin 3, like its predecessors, can be quite a stressful game at its core: it relies on strict time management, keen strategizing, and a quick mind in order to properly command an army of hundreds of tiny creatures against hordes of gigantic and fearsome creatures while also solving problems and adding to an ever-growing fruit supply needed for survival. There are few things in video games that I’ve found more distressing than having a situation in a Pikmin game spiral out of control, and few sounds more disheartening than the cries of tons of tiny Pikmin meeting their demise. Thankfully, most of these situations can be avoided by careful planning and strategic thinking. There are some situations in Pikmin 3, however, that I have trouble avoiding even with strategic thinking, often brought about by the annoying design decision that has persisted throughout the series to have idle Pikmin automatically perform certain actions such as carry or attack nearby objects and attack certain enemies against my will, which can lead to confusion and unexpected consequences. I’d rather have full control over everything my army of Pikmin does, so I can effectively strategize. These instances can be very annoying, but luckily, with a quick toot of the whistle to call the Pikmin back, I can usually avoid any serious damage and thus these circumstances are a nuisance, but not too detrimental to the experience. Despite this gripe, I found that by using the in-game map to plan ahead, dividing labor between captains, and trying to get the most out of each thirteen minute day, a sense of supreme satisfaction can be attained after a particularly fruitful day, the likes of which few other video games have been able to provide for me.

Pikmin 3 employs several control schemes, but the one that I would recommend is a dual scheme of using the Wii remote/nunchuck combination and the Wii U GamePad. This setup, which requires juggling two controllers, is certainly awkward and far from ideal, but I find the Wii remote pointer controls to be the best way to play Pikmin and unfortunately if I want to view the area map and a plethora of other important information, I have to use the GamePad because there is no option to display any of this information on the TV screen. This is a silly and aggravating decision on the developers’ part, and one that makes me think Nintendo simply stubbornly wanted to shoehorn GamePad functionality into the game, as they could have easily mapped the information on the GamePad’s screen to any of the numerous unused buttons on the Wii remote (in fact, they did exactly this in the Wii version of Pikmin 2). I found that by placing the GamePad on a small table to my side that I could easily glance at the map when I needed to, while using the Wii remote and nunchuck for all my main actions. This method works, but is very cumbersome, especially when I find myself frequently putting the Wii remote and nunchuck on the floor to pick up the GamePad for a few seconds to scroll through the map for a moment, before putting it back down and switching controllers again. In addition to housing a map, the GamePad mirrors a device that the three captains use in the game called a “KopPad”, a personal portable computer of sorts which stores memos, tips, and a thoughtfully written (with some hit or miss humor) fruit file detailing all the edible matter the player finds in the game. An option to use the GamePad only is also available complete with off-TV screen play, where a player has the option to use the traditional face buttons, or (thanks to an update) use the stylus and touch screen to control almost every action. Finally, the Wii U Pro Controller can also be used and at least in Mission Mode, this option also requires the use of the GamePad if I want a map (as of this writing, I am not sure if this also applies to story mode, but I’d say it’s a safe bet). These control methods all work decently, but not as well as the Wii remote and nunchuck, which allows the player to precisely and fluidly aim and throw their Pikmin. While having the GamePad serve as a hub of information is a nice idea and being able to always glance at a detailed area map is nice (if you can find something nearby to prop the GamePad on), if I want to have the optimal control experience with Pikmin 3 I unfortunately need to handle two different controllers at once. This issue doesn’t ruin the game by any means, but I would have greatly appreciated an option to be able to bring the information on the GamePad up on the TV screen with the simple press of a button. The whole point of pushing all the menus and maps and so on to the GamePad’s screen is to make things more convenient for the player (see: The Wind Waker HD), but there is little that is convenient about the way Pikmin 3 uses the GamePad if the player chooses to use a Wii remote and nunchuck to control the game.

Managing two controllers at once isn't the best thing ever

On a more positive note, the feel and atmosphere of Pikmin 3 is one of the areas where the experience truly excels. I can practically feel the textures on the lovingly detailed fruit models in the game, as well as taste the juice from newly acquired fruit when it cascades into a tiny container before being sealed in with a satisfying “Thuke!” The visuals, set pieces, sound effects, and ambient musical score create an atmosphere that is unrivaled, except for the previous Pikmin titles. Thanks to a fully realized, high definition natural world, Pikmin 3 captures the feeling of being a tiny character in a huge environment better than ever before. A new ability to use the GamePad as a camera to look at one’s surroundings and even up at the sky only adds to this feeling and puts a new perspective on the world of Pikmin, although I’m not sure how to feel about the blurry and muddy-looking flat images used for the skyline when in camera mode. But I do love taking pictures of the environments in the game and posting them on Miiverse; after The Wind Waker HD and Pikmin 3, I feel like every Wii U game should have a camera function, at least those of the adventure variety. I love chronicling my journey, especially in a game like Pikmin 3 where each region is a lovingly crafted garden that invites players to thoroughly explore it. Climbing onto overturned flower pots, investigating drainpipes jutting out of ruined brick walls, exploring caverns filled with luminous mushrooms, and travelling on a lily pad down a stream in an autumn wonderland is delightful for a nature lover such as myself, as well as for someone like me who loves appreciating the finer details in one’s surroundings that often go unnoticed. Like Pikmin 2, Pikmin 3’s regions take players through the four seasons in all their beauty, while focusing even more on organic sights this time around (although the remnants of a long extinct human civilization can still be spotted here and there, half buried in the dirt, or being embraced by vines and plants). The ambient soundtrack, just like in the previous Pikmin titles, is used in conjunction with realistic outdoor sound effects to compliment these environments perfectly and is used to great effect to evoke both a sense of peace and a sense of urgency when appropriate (and occasionally a sense of apprehension and dread, such as in the game’s eerie final level).

The Pikmin series, and thanks to its even more life-like world Pikmin 3 especially, draw up a childhood wonder in me that stems from my long fascination with and love for tiny worlds. When I was a child, I would look at something like a garden or a patch of grass and imagine it as a forest, a miniature realm, a world full of life and tiny inhabitants that most people simply walk past without ever noticing (actually, I still do this). On warm spring and summer days, I would turn on the garden hose and let it run, creating a miniature bubbling brook that cut through the grassy jungle, carving out streams in the landscape. I would use small toys as avatars and act out a journey in my head as I made them roam down long planks of wood and through the interior of my grandfather’s house, imagining these environments as levels from a video game in my head. The Pikmin series draws on this creativity of mine and delivers a real video game tailor-made for my imagination. In truth, the Pikmin games are stressful experiences for me to play and my own personal struggle with anxiety doesn’t help matters. I’ve also never been much into strategy games, but the payoff and satisfaction of having a successful day in a Pikmin game make everything worth it. Pikmin is a dual kind of experience, a contradictory experience even, because even though it is stressful, it is also peaceful, feeding both my imagination and my love of natural beauty, merging my love of nature and my love of video games with beautiful harmony. It’s a fascinating blend and makes Pikmin an experience that is very special to me.

A beautiful experience

Pikmin 3 is a beautiful video game on many levels. The game’s concept is so charming that the actual end product doesn’t even seem to matter, but it just so happens that this is also a fleshed-out experience. It is also delightful enough from an aesthetic perspective, but the fact that there is a balanced, satisfying, and engaging game here is an extra bonus. I know that throughout this review, I’ve admitted that much of what makes Pikmin 3 great was present in the previous two entries in the series, and it’s true that Pikmin 3 doesn’t necessarily evolve the franchise in a ton of significant ways, but it refines and polishes, and brings the world of Pikmin to life like never before.  In fact, thanks to a streamlined design that cuts out tedious elements from the past two Pikmin games and adds smart new features, a visual presentation that captures the vision of the Pikmin series better than ever, and a merging of ideas from the past two Pikmin games in addition to several original ones, Pikmin 3 might be the definitive Pikmin experience (although Pikmin 2 will always hold a particularly special place in my heart). I definitely think it is the most accessible Pikmin experience, and I mean that as a positive; the game isn’t dumbed down, it just feels much more intuitive and streamlined, and does a terrific job of teaching players its mechanics without being pandering (my only complaint in this regard are the boss hints that ruin the discovery of finding out a foe’s weakness for oneself, but I suppose players can choose to avoid picking up these notes if they wish, and ultimately they don’t really detract too much from the experience anyway). I recommend Pikmin 3 to both those who have enjoyed the previous games in the series and those who have never touched a Pikmin game alike. When Shigeru Miyamoto first unveiled Pikmin 3 at E3 2012, opening Nintendo’s press conference with a montage of Pikmin scampering about the real world (and even ending up in Miyamoto-san’s jacket pocket), he playfully warned that players might start seeing Pikmin all around them after experiencing the game for themselves. He was right, as I find myself looking at small gardens and patches of flowers and imagining Alph, Brittany and Charlie roaming these environments with Pikmin trailing behind them. I see an overgrown garden and think of how it could be a level in Pikmin. I also found myself with a particularly strong craving for fruit while playing Pikmin 3. This is the strength of this game’s imagery and tone. This sense of the game carrying over into the real world and captivating my imagination on a day to day basis is also something that many of my favorite gaming experiences end up doing. When I can’t stop thinking about the game, I know the experience is something truly special indeed.