Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Video Game Memories

I have countless Christmas memories that are tied to video games, or would that be countless video game memories tied to Christmas? Either way, when I think of fond Christmases past, the thought is usually accompanied by memories of playing a certain game either on Christmas day or sometime around it. There are numerous titles that are “Christmas games” for me, but I’m going to focus on two specific memories (involving three games) in this post.

                One game whose opening moments I will always equate with the rapturous jubilation of Christmas morning is The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. To this day, I have probably never been more excited for a game than I was for that one. Back in December of 2006, I had just finished my first semester of living away at college and my life was in a huge state of change. In the span of about four months, I’d felt like so much in my life had drastically changed. It was jarring to be thrust out of my comfort zone and into a brand new world with brand new people and brand new experiences, but before heading off to college I knew however it went there would be Zelda waiting for me at the end of the year. Twilight Princess was significant because it was the first major console Zelda release to come out after I had fallen in love with the series at the release of The Wind Waker in 2003. The years and months leading up to Twilight Princess was the first time I got to experience that sweet, sweet Zelda hype and I drank in every ounce of it (perhaps to a fault, in retrospect). Despite the fact that my life was in a tumultuous state, getting to dive into that game on Christmas morning and through the night made me forget all about everything around me and it was just like any Christmas past when I was an elated kid with a new game. It really was a magical experience. I remember my Mom was disappointed that she wasn't able to get me a Wii with the game (she actually got me both the GameCube and Wii versions of Twilight Princess; I believe she'd bought the Wii version first and was planning on getting the console and just ended up giving me both versions when she wasn’t able to find a Wii; I ended up liking the GC version better anyway), and I remember telling her how much I really didn't care, I was just so happy to have the game. I had a big, goofy smile on my face and all I cared about was playing Zelda. And play Zelda I did. This song will forever remind me of the pure, peerless excitement of Christmas morning, and I wandered around Ordon Village that morning in a sense of awe and disbelief that I was actually finally playing this game. I vividly remember first stepping into the open area of Faron Woods with all the Bokoblins running about and being filled with joy at the first small cave I found. Stepping into the twilight for the first time later in the day, meeting Midna, being completely baffled at the weirdness going on in the game with the giant goat light spirit and this odd triangle-headed villain, and finally conquering the Forest Temple Christmas night. After taking my first steps onto Hyrule Field, I knew that my adventure was only beginning, and over the next two or so weeks, I devoured Twilight Princess. My ultimate feelings on the game ended up being mixed (to put it as simply as possible), but there is no denying the fond memories I have of finally getting to immerse myself in the newest Zelda epic that Christmas vacation.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
                The second game-related Christmas memory I want to talk about predates my Twilight Princess experience by a year and actually involves two games, and it’s a bit of a strange combination: Soulcalibur III and Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. I don’t talk about the series much, but I was a big fan of the Soulcalibur games back in the day (before losing touch with the series when the HD era came around, mainly because I didn’t get a PS3 until a bit later in its life-cycle when there were many other games vying for my attention). I loved the atmosphere and detail put into the Soulcalibur games, and also loved the adventure mode present in Soulcalibur II and III (and maybe the first Soulcalibur as well; I can’t remember exactly) that almost felt like an RPG of sorts. Dragon Quest VIII (to this day the only DQ game I’ve ever played through) was a title that I had been greatly anticipating due to its beautiful-looking art design and also because it just looked like a great traditional JRPG that would be right up my alley. I received both games as gifts on Christmas morning and moseying about DQVIII’s first village, with that tranquil orchestral music playing, on a sunny Christmas morning is a wonderful memory that I have. I also remember sneaking away from my relatives whenever I could throughout the day to play Soulcalibur III. The following week I sunk a ton of time into Soulcalibur and although I don’t remember much about the game right now (except, oddly, for a scene involving a clock tower and that big dude with a giant scythe…I guess I’ll just leave it at that), I do remember having a blast playing it. But there was also Dragon Quest, and that’s one I certainly, absolutely do remember. I adore Dragon Quest VIII; it’s one of my favorite video games ever and one of my fondest gaming experiences. Similarly to Twilight Princess, I remember just immersing myself in the breathtaking, pastoral world of Dragon Quest that Christmas vacation and the days and weeks (and months perhaps) beyond it. I’d never experienced adventure in an RPG or a video game in general quite like in Dragon Quest VIII, where a sprawling fantasy world was laid out before me; not a zoomed-out map with a small avatar running around on it, but an up-close, fully rendered world for me to hoof about in. Dragon Quest VIII is very “traditional” in its approach to fantasy adventuring and it does this so, so well while oozing charm around every polished corner. The first dungeon in the game is a dank cave that the player explores with a burning torch in hand, fighting monsters and looting treasure chests. It just doesn’t get any more classic and charming than that, and DQVIII delivers this kind of experience perfectly. And really I mean that: perfectly. I remember there was a moment about halfway through that Christmas break when I was exploring the massive world in the game and I came to the ocean. A sprawling seaside vista spread out before me with a path bordering the ocean stretching in two directions and hills rolling down to the seaside with rocks and cliffs dotted about. I felt free in that moment, felt inspired and full of joy. To have that kind of adventure when I was younger was simply sublime and I cherish the memory to this day.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
                There are many other Christmas video game memories I could talk about: the year I received my GameCube and Super Smash Bros. Melee (and Luigi’s Mansion!), or the year I got a Dreamcast and Sonic Adventure (and how much that game blew me away back then), or when I experienced my very first Metroid games in Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion one year. I’ve been fortunate and some (myself included) might even say spoiled to have parents who have delivered so many wonderful experiences to me at Christmastime that have consistently supplemented many other lovely memories I have of spending Christmas with my family and friends, especially my Nana, who has now passed away, but who was always an anchor of happiness for me at this time of year. I try as hard as I can to not take how lucky I’ve been for granted and look back on all the happy Christmases that my parents, my brother, my relatives, and my friends have brought me. With my love for Winter and snow and my birthday right around the corner as well, this time of year has always been a source of great joy for me, and I’m incredibly, enormously thankful for it.

To anyone reading this, I can only hope that you find some of the joy that I’ve experienced around this time of year and I wish you a heartfelt Happy Holiday.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Pikmin Short Movies HD (Wii U) Review

Today, I'm going to give a brief review of three short films, a first for this blog! In terms of how faithful they are to the source material and how well-produced they are, Pikmin Short Movies HD is how video game-based films should be done. These three shorts, which were directed by Masaru Matsuse and executive produced by Pikmin series creator (and general Nintendo guru) Shigeru Miyamoto, are a wonderful homage to the Pikmin series as well as a beautiful and charming work on their own. Putting a lens on the world of the Pikmin and illuminating their day to day experiences through short films was a brilliant idea, and I'm glad Mr. Miyamoto decided to try something new. The stories here are humorous and even touching at points as well as consistently entertaining the whole way through. The films look gorgeous, the animation is fluid, and the sound design is also spot-on, including sound effects from the Pikmin games and other Nintendo titles. The music was done by several composers, including Pikmin series veteran Hajime Wakai, and features both familiar tracks and new ones. I'm going to fully spoil what happens in these films so if you haven't seen them, I'd suggest you run to either the Wii U or 3DS's eShop right now and check them out; they're well worth your five dollars (I opted for the HD Wii U versions, which I think probably do the Pikmin's miniature world more justice, although the films can also be viewed in 3D on the 3DS, which I imagine has its own merits). Come back and read the rest of this review when you're done! ...please!

While 'The Night Juicer' is more of a brief taste (no pun intended) before the two longer films, it's still enjoyable and just a little creepy (if not predictable for anyone who's a fan of the games). Seeing such grizzly imagery in a colorful Nintendo-produced work is a little surprising at first, but it's actually not that out of place for the often unforgiving world of Pikmin.

'Treasure in a Bottle' is probably my favorite of the three shorts. It's interesting seeing the Pikmin go about their business without the aid of any captain guiding them, and seeing the Pikmin displayed as intelligent, sentient creatures here capable of communication, laughter, and planning makes me feel even more horrible for all the ones that I've sacrificed in the games or carelessly let perish! It's actually touching seeing all the Pikmin trying to help their trapped buddy (the different-colored Pikmin coming up with plans that utilize their unique skills from the games is a nice touch) and the moment when they all form a chain to grasp hands with the trapped red Pikmin and pull him out of the bottle is actually quite heart-warming. These films as a whole, especially the way the Pikmin are characterized, actually remind me of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, with the Pikmin reminding me of the Soot Sprites from My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away and the Totoros of My Neighbor Totoro. Actually, when presenting these films at the Tokyo International Film Festival, Mr. Miyamoto collaborated with someone who works at Studio Ghibli, and while I won't jump to conclusions, I can't wait for that Ghibli-animated Legend of Zelda film!

'Occupational Hazards' is the longest and fullest of the three films and it delivers on both an amusing first half and an exciting second one. The giant construction vehicle is an excellent set-piece and the many ways in which the Pikmin interact with it and harvest its many parts is a highlight. One of my favorite aspects of the Pikmin series is how ordinary settings and human objects become intricate levels for the captains and the Pikmin to explore, and this short demonstrates that central charm of the series well. The encounters with the Fiery Blowhog and Bulborb are also highlights, although I felt a little sad when the Bulborb fell to its doom (not to mention after the numerous Pikmin casualties during this film, especially when the poor little 'Min who got curious died from electric shock). The Pikmin series has always been relentless in its casual depiction of the slaughter of the countless adorable little titular creatures as well as the gruesome deaths of the territorial enemies of the Pikmin and these films are no different.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed watching these movies. I think that these short films are an experiment for Nintendo and Mr. Miyamoto, to see how Nintendo's lovable properties fair in a different medium. I think the prospect of seeing more Nintendo characters and worlds making the faithful transition to film with the close involvement of the original creators like Mr. Miyamoto is an exciting one. After all, I can only think after watching these films that I want more. I joked before, but seriously, an animated Legend of Zelda film (that's not this), maybe? Or perhaps an actually faithful adaption of Super Mario Bros.? Actually...


Friday, December 12, 2014

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (3DS) Review

Playing through Shantae and Shantae: Risky’s Revenge back to back last year was a great experience and I was happy to discover a new side-scrolling adventure series that took inspiration from some of my favorite games while also being wholly unique. In short, I love those two games and was greatly anticipating Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, the third game in the series and the advertised end to the Shantae “handheld trilogy” (just the end to the story these three games have set up; don’t worry, the series isn’t over). So did it deliver? In one sense, yes: Pirate’s Curse is a polished, well-designed adventure full of the smooth gameplay, beautiful spritework, feverishly catchy music, endearing characters and charming writing the series is now known for. In another sense, however, Pirate’s Curse falls short for me in several key areas and doesn’t quite have the same spark its two predecessors have. So what is Pirate’s Curse? For me, it’s a mixed experience, but let’s start by praising what deserves praise.

Risky’s Revenge is a gorgeous 2D action game, but I think Pirate’s Curse might look even better. I’m so happy that sprite-based 2D games haven’t gone extinct and indie developers like WayForward are keeping the form alive. Shantae’s wacky, fantastical world really comes to life and now pops more than ever thanks to the stereoscopic 3D effect of the 3DS. But more impressive than the colorful, detailed environments are the varied and lively cast of characters and creatures that populate them. Character sprites are full of details and personality. If you want to see what I mean, just stop moving anywhere in the game and watch Shantae and any surrounding characters’ idle animations; it looks like everyone is constantly rocking out to Jake Kaufman’s awesome chiptune soundtrack and having one giant dance party, which is fitting for a game starring a dancer. I also love the new art-style for the game’s expressive character portraits and official artwork, which has never looked better.

Shantae and Risky team up

In keeping with the previous games, PC also features an endearing cast of lovable characters and the patented sense of charm that the series is known for. The Shantae series as a whole features some of the funniest writing in the genre and the humorous back and forth between Shantae and the likes of the Ammo Baron, Risky Boots, and several other bizarre characters had me chuckling more than a few times. I particularly like the characterization of Shantae and her nemesis, Risky, who she is now forced to team up with in order to best a greater evil. I enjoyed how their relationship grew throughout the adventure and was consistently amused by the interactions between the two of them. That said, I think more could have been done here and Risky could have had more of an active role in the quest instead of basically just being Shantae’s chauffeur (via her pirate ship), but I ultimately enjoyed their partnership and how it turns out in the end.

Besides being an aural and visual delight, it should not be understated just how good Pirate’s Curse feels to play. This game has some of the most fluid 2D platforming of any side-scrolling action game I’ve played, which is fitting for a game heavily inspired by the Metroidvania games, which also excel in this category. It’s just a joy to move through the world and seamlessly going from hopping about to hair-whipping monsters feels fast and fun. The game’s excellent movement becomes even better when you acquire more and more of the pirate gear, the game’s main item upgrades (think Zelda or Metroid). The more items Shantae acquires on her journey, such as a giant pirate hat that acts as a parachute and a pair of boots that allows her to perform a high-speed dashing maneuver, the more freely she can move through the world and the more wonderful the experience feels to play. It’s that classic Metroidvania appeal of finding new equipment and improving your character as you go, so that by the end, revisiting old areas becomes a seamless experience of stringing together jumps, attacks, and dashes as you effortlessly dance across the environment with all your new skills in tow. You’ll know what I mean the first time you do a dash, followed by a leap into the air into a parachute glide, followed up by a cannon blast in order to stay aloft as you soar over large gaps and enemies below. I do wish more of the game was designed to utilize the player’s skills in stringing all of these abilities together (instead of just a handful of late game sequences), but it’s still a blast using these items to traverse old areas when trying to gather up all of the game’s collectibles.

Click on the picture for a better view!

Pirate’s Curse also makes up for Risky’s Revenge’s relative lack of mazes to explore with plenty of dungeons to traverse this time around, even more than in the first Shantae title. In fact, Pirate’s Curse feels like a much fuller and more complete experience than Risky’s Revenge, thus improving on my only real problem with that title. Overall, the dungeons are well-designed, but they don’t really stand out too much. A few do some interesting things atmospherically, but with the exception of a memorable mini-dungeon in the desert and one other main dungeon that I loved, these labyrinths didn’t really leave a lasting impression on me. They seem to lack stand-out elements like the unique color-switching mechanic in the desert labyrinth from the first Shantae. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two series, but part of what makes the dungeons in, I don’t know, the Zelda series (I know, you’re so surprised I went there, right?) is how each one feels like a unique world in themselves, often revolving around some kind of core gimmick or theme. The dungeons here make good use of the items Shantae finds, but lack that extra pizazz that made the dungeons in a game like A Link Between Worlds so memorable. I know, I know, Pirate’s Curse is working on a much smaller budget and under much stricter conditions than a giant like the Zelda series, and what the team at WayForward accomplished here is still incredibly solid. What Pirate’s Curse’s dungeons do have is a great sense of progression and a fluid design, plus some great bosses to cap them off, including a battle with a huge dragon and another with a giant robotic caterpillar.

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a well-designed, well-executed, enjoyable experience. It improves on the one flaw that I had with its predecessor, Risky’s Revenge, which I thought was otherwise a pretty much perfect game. Unfortunately, Pirate’s Curse missteps in some other key areas, which ultimately hold it back from being that ideal Shantae game that I wanted.

Each Shantae game has followed a somewhat different formula in regards to how it has handled its world design. The first Shantae took an approach akin to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Risky’s Revenge went for a more traditional Metroidvania route, and now Pirate’s Curse takes an approach comparable to Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, where there are several, smaller Metroidvania-style maps selectable from a “map screen” of sorts. Instead of one big, interconnected overworld, this time Shantae and Risky Boots travel to several separate islands, each with their own area maps and dungeons. This is a neat idea and I’m a big fan of the seafaring adventure trope, so I was excited to see what each new island had in store. I have two big problems here though. Firstly, I was disappointed with the layout and design of most of the outdoor areas in the game. My problem with most of the field areas in Pirate’s Curse is that they are very linear and straightforward in design, often consisting of a single, flat pathway with a few hidden areas branching off of it. There are a few more maze-like areas in the game, but I wish this had been the standard, instead of reserved for a few special areas. Actually, the design of the first island Shantae visits is more what I wanted the rest of them to be like, as it involves more branching paths and verticality instead of just a straight line. These linear paths just don’t lend themselves to much exploration or imagination. The dungeons are less linear, but I was expecting more of an intricate overworld to explore. Instead of a single large overworld containing several different regions, the different islands just end up feeling like small, disjointed areas that don’t feel fleshed-out and feel somewhat hollow as a result. Also, I miss the awesome “plane-switching” mechanic from Risky’s Revenge, where Shantae would jump from the foreground to the background and so on. Not only would this mechanic be perfectly suited to the 3DS, but it would also go a long way in giving the areas in Pirate’s Curse more depth (literally) and making them feel more rich and expansive.

My second problem with the areas in the game is that, by and large, they are all heavily based on familiar locales from past games. I was excited to finally be traversing beyond Sequin Land after exploring its environs for two games, and these islands are supposed to be mysterious new lands beyond that familiar domain, but instead each island is based on one of the regions from the first Shantae game, and at this point these environments are starting to feel a little too samey and familiar. The desert island is a prime example of this, as that’s a trope we’ve seen in every Shantae game now, and I’d rather have something new at this point. There are exceptions: even though the zombie-filled forest is familiar, it’s never looked so beautiful or given off such a sweet Castlevania vibe as it does now; Mug Bog Island, while also based on a location from the original Shantae, still has a brilliantly eerie (Metroid-influenced?) atmosphere and the Village of Lost Souls section is a notable portion of the game. There are also some later portions that feel fresh as well, but in a large way, I feel like these islands aren’t necessarily new places, but just the same Sequin Land staples, except cut up and scattered across the ocean. The island idea is nice, but overall I do miss having one connected world to explore, as I usually always prefer that to a more “level select” approach. While I think the island idea could have worked better if the areas were fresher and less linear in design, I also partly wish they’d stuck with the model from Risky’s Revenge and just expanded the world as well as updated the map to the new Metroidvania-style one in Pirate’s Curse.

Besides my issues with the way its world is designed, there’s something else about Pirate’s Curse that hold the game back for me. Put simply, the overall structure of this game is very familiar to me and quite frankly, overly formulaic. Whereas past Shantae games clearly took a lot of inspiration from the likes of Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania, they still felt fresh with mechanics like Shantae’s belly-dancing and her animal transformations that took the place of traditional item upgrades in those other games. In Pirate’s Curse, however, Shantae has lost her magic and as a result the game follows the “Zelda/Metroidvania formula” more rigidly than ever: it’s go to a new area, find the dungeon (usually doing some kind of task or mini-dungeon in order to do so), get the dungeon item, use that item to beat the boss, backtrack to the immediately previous area and use that new item to find a “key” that unlocks the way to the dungeon in the next area, and then it’s basically rinse and repeat for the whole game. This is another case of me respecting the developers doing something new with the pirate gear items, but ultimately these items, while a lot of fun to use, detract from the uniqueness of Shantae’s identity, and all this amounts to Pirate’s Curse feeling much more like a traditional experience than ever. That said…

…That isn’t particularly a bad thing. After all, I love those kinds of games and this formula does work. Pirate’s Curse just seems a little too formulaic, or at least enough for me to really notice. The bottom line is that Pirate’s Curse is very solid and well-built, it just doesn’t feel as original or unique as its predecessors, and doesn’t do as much mechanically to feel distinct from its contemporaries. The game does what it does well, just not in such a way that really stands out to me. Whereas games like A Link Between Worlds are finally taking strides to change up the classic “Zelda formula”, Pirate’s Curse feels archaic and overly familiar. Unique mechanics in the past two Shantae games helped to circumvent this issue, and thus Pirate’s Curse feels a bit like a step backward to me.

Besides a lot of uninspired area designs and the overly formulaic structure, there’s one more aspect of Pirate’s Curse that left a bad taste in my mouth and distracted me from enjoying the adventure as much as I could have. Yeah, you know what’s coming: this game is straight male fan-service incarnate. I mean, Shantae games have always had sexualized female character designs, there’s no denying that, but Pirate’s Curse takes it a little too far, making sure that every single female character, from humans to monsters to zombie girls, has large, emphasized breasts, a sexualized physique, and a plethora of sexualized poses. While the male character designs, on the other hand, are far more varied, with men being allowed to be deformed, overweight, monstrous, handsome, cartoony, whatever. For a good example of what I’m talking about here, just compare Rottytops’ design to the designs of her two brothers, Abner and Poe, all three of whom are sapient zombies. It’s very telling that the only really “hunky” male character here is a cyclops. The straight male “fan-service” moments are around every corner here: at one point spring breakers get into their bathing suits for a pool party and the method for unlocking the path forward involves light shining off of their half-naked bodies and then there’s an entire dungeon devoted to dressing up all of the female leads in sexy metal bikinis against their will (the different explanations for each of them happening to be there are all laughably flimsy as well). The premise of this chapter is a humorous idea (a bizarre cult mistaking Shantae and co. for their “long-lost” princess when the real princess was just out getting groceries), but the clear purpose of it to objectify all the female leads is tasteless, and the final punchline of this section basically making a joke about female body image is off-putting. And if that weren’t enough, the game dresses Rottytops up in a skimpy schoolgirl outfit. It just never ends. While there are certainly a lot of funny moments in Pirate’s Curse (such as everything involving the Squid Baron; I love that guy), I feel that the humor in Risky’s Revenge was overall stronger and more consistently funny without having to rely on so many tasteless attempts to please a straight male audience. At the end of my review for the first Shantae, I wrote this: “Shantae proves that it's really not that difficult to have an action adventure video game that stars a cool, interesting female protagonist whose main power isn't her ability to grow a pair of gargantuan breasts that would break the back of any normal human female.” While I still think that Pirate’s Curse having a large cast of mostly female main characters and an endearing, powerful female protagonist is a positive thing, I’m a bit disappointed that the team at WayForward decided to make female objectification such a focus this time around.

Shantae addressing the game's developers

While I have a lot of gripes with the game, I really don’t want to understate that Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a great game that I enjoyed playing through a lot. It’s an incredibly polished and endearing 2D action game with a great soundtrack, great art, great gameplay and overall an experience that stands well with its predecessors for a fantastic trilogy that I’d highly recommend to any fan of action adventure games or just 2D sprite-based games and artwork in general. But…I have a feeling my opinion is going to be in the minority here, but Pirate’s Curse is my least favorite in the series, and I feel it’s less memorable and creative than the previous two. I just love what the previous two games did with the dancing mechanic and connected overworld and think the perfect Shantae game for me would just be expanding on Risky Revenge’s formula (which remains my favorite game in the series), adding some of the tweaks that PC made (like the better map), and making it a longer, fuller, more complete experience than Risky’s Revenge is. All this said, Pirate’s Curse is still a very solid title which retains the endearing charm and personality in its world, characters, and themes that the previous Shantae titles have (I mean, a half-genie using pirate gear to save the world? Awesome). I also respect the fact that each of the three handheld Shantae games feels unique from each other while also having the same spirit. I enjoyed the way in which Pirate’s Curse concluded the story set up in Risky’s Revenge as well and was overall satisfied with the game’s finale. Overall, it’s a great trilogy and a great series and I’m looking forward to Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, which I hope will improve on some of the qualms I have with Pirate’s Curse.