Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Favorite Games from E3 2015

I tell myself that E3 is nothing but a week long commercial, a hype generator cooked up by business people in business suits engineered to make me want to give them money and treat them like gods and the games shown like holy artifacts, each trailer a hallowed gift. I tell myself to sit back, to be measured and aware of what E3 really is. But there was real emotion last week, there was genuineness, and there were games no one thought would ever see the light of day, games that look refreshing and imaginative, nostalgic games, and games that look like they are really taking the medium to a new level. Sure, the usual onslaught of cars, guns, and bloody killing sprees were there, and yes, all the corporate shilling was intact, but for me all of that was overshadowed by some of the most exciting video games I’ve seen get the spotlight at E3 in a long time.

These are, in no particularly ranked order, the games that stood out to me the most this past week. Whether they were extensively demoed or simply teased, it doesn’t matter. As long as it was a game that was announced or shown off in some fashion at this year’s E3, it’s applicable for this list. There are other games not present that I’m very interested in, but they didn’t make the cut either because I’ve already known about them for a while and didn’t find out much new, or because these ten games just eclipsed them somehow in term of surprising me or leaving an impact on me this particular year. These are the titles I’ll fondly remember from this E3, and the ones that I’m just really jazzed about right now.
Nintendo had a rough E3 this year. Many people, myself included, were a bit underwhelmed by their Digital Event, people are complaining about Star Fox Zero’s controls, and some misguided individuals are petitioning for the cancellation of Metroid Prime: Federation Force. But if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s that Super Mario Maker just looks swell. Easily Nintendo’s star game for me this E3, Nintendo’s celebration of Super Mario’s 30th anniversary looks to be delivering on its full potential with robust and easy to use level creation and sharing options in addition to pipe-loads of quirky charm. It hits all the right nostalgic notes, but it’s also an innovative and spectacular idea. On top of all that, it’s kind of like a direct sequel or expansion to Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World all in one (like a new “Lost Levels”, except for all three games, and with not necessarily all brutally tough levels). Super Mario Maker feels to me like an apology for that lazy Super Mario All-Stars port Nintendo released for the series’ 25th anniversary back in 2010. It had a very strong showing at the 2015 Nintendo World Championships before the show even started, and continued to make me smile all throughout the week. Like seriously, I can’t not smile watching this game.

In the past, I’ve railed on CG trailers and how their abundance at E3 always annoys me. I’d almost always rather see actual in-game footage instead of just a pre-rendered movie that tells me nothing about how the actual work is going to turn out. This E3, however, I’ve realized that CG trailers have their place, and they can be done well. Right from the get go, I was interested after seeing “from Keiji Inafune and the makers of Metroid Prime” (umm…yes, please!), but even beyond that, the music and art design of ReCore immediately set a tone that pulled me in, evoking the likes of both Kino’s Journey and Metroid itself, while also being something fresh. The trailer for ReCore also does a great job of telling a succinct little story that effectively gives me an idea of how the game’s central mechanic is going to work, and the reveal of the title at the end drives this “core” concept home (sorry, I had to). ReCore, you have my attention.

Do I even need to say anything? I think Cuphead’s footage speaks for itself. Shown for all of one second during an indie montage at Microsoft’s conference last year, it was the kind of thing that made me lean forward and say, “Hey, wait! Wait! What was THAT?” The description for the E3 2015 trailer on YouTube reads “Inspired by 1930s cartoons, the visuals are hand drawn and inked and the music is all original jazz recordings”…now that is how you sell me a video game. I love visually-creative platformers as a general rule, but Cuphead really stands out to me because of just how utterly seamless it looks. There is nothing about Cuphead’s presentation that gives away its status as a video game; it’s just a playable cartoon.

I love seeing small indie developers with hugely creative ideas get the spotlight at E3, and this trend has become more and more prominent in the past couple of years. One of the most unique and special things about video games, and one of the many aspects of them still brimming with potential, is their ability to let us inhabit the role of anyone or anything, to let us walk in the shoes of someone or something else. The potential here to explore different life experiences other than our own and build empathy is enormous. In Beyond Eyes, the player steps into the shoes of a young bling girl looking for her lost cat. As she moves through her world using her other senses, the landscape and objects within it materialize around her, like watercolor paint expanding across a dry canvas. In one scenario, she might hear some rushing water and think it’s a fountain, only to get closer and realize that it’s actually a sewage pipe. Not only does the game’s art look beautiful and the concept show a lot of promise and originality, but this game is just one example of the power and potential of video games as a unique artistic medium, something that I really like to see at E3 in-between all the gun scopes and improved car textures.

…Speaking of which. Partway into the EA press conference, of all places, out onto the stage comes a shy, visibly nervous man with a tattooed hand and small doll made out of red yarn in his shaking hands. He goes on to explain that he got the idea for his game, called Unravel, about a small creature named Yarny that traverses beautiful environments inspired by Northern Scandinavia and leads a thread that connects all of us together, or something poetic and beautiful like that, when on a camping trip with his family. Unravel is a game aimed directly at my soul and my sensibilities. Saying in an interview that he doesn’t believe in “heavy-handed storytelling”, the game’s creative director, Martin Sahlin (the aforementioned tattooed man) says that he believes in "filling the world with interesting things, with clues, with details” that the player can discover on their own, adding that it's also fine if they don't because "it's more about the atmosphere and the feeling of the whole thing". So Unravel takes what I love about the Pikmin series (a small character running around huge photo-realistic environments) and presents a puzzle-platformer with reason and context for its level design, all wrapped up in a minimalist presentation? I think Martin Sahlin might be my soulmate.

The yarn genre has really been taking off recently, hasn’t it? I love colorful Nintendo platformers, so naturally I anticipate playing and enjoying Yoshi’s Woolly World. But what sets this spiritual successor to Kirby’s Epic Yarn (which is one of my favorite platformers from the last console generation) apart from the likes of something like New Super Mario Bros. is just how much handcrafted effort seems to be being put into this game. Obviously, the game’s artistic design is a huge draw, with everything being crafted out of wool, fabric, and giant knitting needles; it truly looks like something I can reach out and touch and feel. But I just love that the developers actually crafted real-life Yarn Yoshis during the game’s development. In addition, the composer for the game, who is trying to have a different song for every level, actually took up guitar lessons to make sure the soundtrack was up to par. I’m really looking forward to finally playing this during the cool autumn months later this year.

One thing that made this year’s E3 stand out to me was a theme of change, of growth, of this medium and this industry finally beginning to take the first steps of reaching maturity. Sure, there was the usual onslaught of sense-assaulting cartoonish violence, cheers for particularly brutal digital decapitations, and all the familiar faces and concepts present, but there was also creative-looking new worlds and ideas, more of a focus on narrative and how games can evoke emotion. The words “emotional narrative” were uttered onstage at Sony’s press conference, as opposed to another bland, self-defeating joke about “f*cking blood and guts! Video games, am I right?”. In addition, there was a very notable effort in making games and the gaming scene more diverse, to reflect a growing and diverse audience. There were more female presenters on stage and a surprisingly ample amount of new games featuring female protagonists or at least a woman in a strong central role.

Then there was Horizon: Zero Dawn, a game starring a woman of color that takes place in a world unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The game’s extensive and fantastic trailer/demo begins with a well-acted narration over beautiful panoramic landscape shots that tells the story of a modern civilization like our own falling and eventually being reclaimed by natural forces. We then see hunter-gatherer tribes emerge in a “post-historic” world that tells tales of the “old ones” that went extinct. We’ve seen this tale before, but it’s told so well through visuals, narration, and some truly gorgeous music that I was completely immersed and already on board with this game. Then the twist came: “…for this world was never ours…we’ve always shared it…”, the female narrator suddenly says as we see otherworldly mechanical animals enter the scene, first in the form of a few small scavengers, and then followed by massive robotic dinosaurs with disks for heads that come stomping across a stunning, sunlit prairie, like some kind of cyberpunk Jurassic Park. It’s wonderful, and the juxtaposition of the natural elements and the unnatural, metallic creatures makes for an immediately intriguing and fresh-looking world. That would have been enough to get my interest, but then the trailer seamlessly transitions into a lengthy gameplay portion where the familiar narrator, now fully revealed as our player character, starts creeping through wonderfully-rendered plants as she hunts mechanical deer in order to harvest some kind of green canister attached to their backs. Before reaching her prey, she kills a smaller beast, after which she subverts every law of E3 by expressing remorse and actually apologizing to the life she’s taken. It all culminates in a thrilling Shadow of the Colossus-esque battle with a robotic T-Rex thing. In a word: it’s breathtaking, a genuine surprise, and I can’t wait to see more (ok, more than a word).

…did I say Shadow of the Colossus?

It’s real, and Sony opened their show with gameplay of it.

I know I said I wasn’t putting these games in any significant order, but I obviously saved these last three for a reason. After years of rumors, cancelation scares, and many dashed hopes, The Last Guardian’s long-awaited, often doubted, and always hoped for return kicked off an hour of dreams. I said this E3 was special for showing signs that this troubled and stagnant industry is changing, but it was equally as special for how it spoke to a generation. How it resurrected old legends and made me cover my mouth in stunned disbelief. I just don’t even really need to say it, do I? The Last Guardian. It’s one of those games, those ones I sigh about at the end of every E3 press conference cycle because once again it didn’t show up. But this time it did.

The spiritual successor to a work of interactive art that defined an era of video games for me and remains one of my most cherished interactive experiences, The Last Guardian also just looks like an incredibly touching and ambitious game, and it’s central “mechanic” revolving around the bond of a young boy and his giant gryphon-cat-bird friend has me enchanted all over again. Sure, there have been many games since The Last Guardian was first unveiled back in 2009 that have aimed to capitalize on the emotional potential of interactive art, but The Last Guardian still excites me due to its promising concept and its masterful pedigree. It also just makes me tear up every time I see it (why does Trico have to look so much like my own dog?). I don’t even know if I’ll be able to handle this game when it hopefully, oh please hopefully, releases next year.
So they opened with The Last Guardian? I mean, what could they possibly have if they…Oh. Ooooooh. Even though it was set up by Adam Boyes beforehand, Final Fantasy VII fans have learned better than to trust a smug presenter promising the world. Even as the trailer went on and a recognizable Midgar began to be more and more slowly unveiled, with talk of “reunions” and “promises” accompanying the proceedings, I still wasn’t convinced. At first I thought it was a proper, full-fledged sequel to FFVII, then perhaps another movie. Even at the end of the trailer, at first only a logo appeared with no title. Well, in order to dissuade any confusion, to make things perfectly, perfectly clear, a single word appeared with booming fanfare afterword:


Now this is how you use a CG trailer. And what a fantastic trailer it is. Every word spoken, every shot, just designed to evoke specific emotions in those watching, just toying with all the fans hoping and anticipating. Now, I like Final Fantasy VII a lot, and there’s plenty of things that I admire about it, but I’ll admit that I don’t have as emotional a connection to it as many others, due to me not playing it when it was in its prime. I still remember how huge it was at that time though, and still have a lot of nostalgia for finally playing through it myself one summer years ago (though, I must shamefully confess, I never finished it, stopping just before the crater and Sephiroth; I hope to go back and run through the whole thing again sometime, this time to completion). I realize how massive the FFVII remake’s announcement is, and I think the way it was announced and the trailer itself is all brilliant, but it was almost immediately followed by an announcement that was my personal moment to start shouting things at my computer screen…

Shenmue III (When it’s ready)

Even as I write this, as I continue to look at the kickstarter (and yes, I backed it, of course I did) and the title: “Shenmue III”, I still can’t quite believe it, and I laugh to myself. Let me back up. I received a Dreamcast on Christmas day of 1999, right after it launched, and it blew my mind. Way ahead of their time, the games for that console delivered experiences I’d never dreamed of (heh…) in video games before. Sonic Adventure’s clean visuals and sense of speed made my jaw drop, Jet Grind Radio’s pioneering cel-shaded visuals and unique style were unlike anything I’d ever seen, and then there was a little game called Shenmue that made me realize the potential of video games. Never before had a game felt so real to me, had so much to interact with, and transported me to a place like the way Shenmue did. At the time, its detailed, fully interactable world, voice-acting (now notorious), and potent story-telling fully transported me, and not only cultivated my love of eastern culture, but cemented my love of video games.

I could go on. But suffice it to say, when Shenmue II was released in the west as an Xbox (at the time I only had a GameCube) exclusive, I was pretty bummed. I never played it, but I always, always wanted to. Well, now it’s finally time to get on ebay and pick up an original Xbox, I guess.

What made the announcement of Shenmue III (or to be more exact, its kickstarter) all the more potent was not only just how long it’s been since the release of Shenmue II (fourteen years), but because the continuation of Shenmue has long been nothing but a dream: the series’ continuation has become a joke, and has always been something I never thought would happen. But in front of a bewildered audience still recovering from Final Fantasy VII’s return, a shower of flower petals and Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki showed me that nothing is impossible, and that the legacy of Shenmue lives on, long after those enchanting Dreamcast days met with an all too abrupt end.  

While not in fact a video game, I had to mention the always entertaining and somewhat revolutionary live stream that GameTrailers put on this year. Filled with genuine human moments and giving off the vibe of a bunch of friends hanging out and talking about E3, GameTrailers’ stream was the cure for the stiff, PR-fueled interviews and more “professional” streams that litter the internet during E3. Their stream was a constant highlight throughout the week for me, as I would dip in to see what they were up to, only to see Brandon Jones’ hilarious impersonations of his colleagues, Michael Huber crying about Shenmue, and more serious conversations about the potential of video games. The GT crew feels like a family and I just loved seeing their shenanigans all throughout the week. Also, their reactions to Sony’s “Triforce of Dreams” are simply the best thing on the internet.

Honorable Mentions: Dishonored 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, No Man’s Sky, Dreams, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Star Fox Zero, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, Earthbound BeginningsThe Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, Fire Emblem Fates, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, FAST Racing Neo, Typoman, Kingdom Hearts III, Below, Edge of Nowhere, Soma…a lot of great and interesting games this year.

Some disappointments from Nintendo aside (that were, honestly, tempered by some great times with the still awesome Treehouse Live and some definitely fantastic-looking games on display; also puppets and Miyamoto visiting shrines and Mario courses on graph paper), this was a great E3. A legendary E3 even. And even though I tell myself it’s just a big, loud, silly, week-long corporate magic trick, hell if it isn’t a lot of fun, and hell if I’m not just excited for video games right now.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Splatoon Embodies Nintendo’s Creativity

Nintendo’s developers have a collective gift of coming up with a single unique gameplay mechanic and building an entire experience around it. In the case of the recently-released Splatoon, this concept was as simple as shooting ink. After deciding that a squid-human hybrid that could change between the two forms could, logically, shoot the ink as a human and swim through it as a squid, they then built an entire world out of the concept. The last Nintendo game I played before Splatoon that made me really think about just how creative the Japanese developer can be when given total freedom was Pikmin. A couple of years ago, when I sat down and really got into the Pikmin series for the first time, I was struck by not only the uniqueness of the actions I was performing in the games, but by the rich, fleshed out world the Pikmin lived in. I really had never experienced anything like Pikmin before (or since). And while parallels can be drawn between everything from the Super Mario series to SpongeBob SquarePants (and oh have people drawn those parallels), I feel quite similarly when it comes to Splatoon.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Nintendo’s games hold such a special place in my heart is because they capitalize on the medium’s core strength, interactivity, by taking a central gameplay concept and building a whole universe around it. In addition to this, when they’re at their best, Nintendo often shows me things I’ve never seen, even in familiar series. In Splatoon, evolved sea creatures live in a very human-looking city known as Inkopolis. At the center of this bustling metropolis is a plaza where the city’s youth engage in this world’s freshest sport: Turf Wars. Two teams of four “Inklings” (what the aforementioned human-squid, or kid-squid if you will, hybrids are called) compete to cover the ground with as much of their team’s colored ink as they can in defined arenas. When not inking and splatting each other, the kids buy clothing and shoes from all the most popular brands (and yes, there are multiple fictional clothing brands, each complete with their own unique logos) in a mall run by a colorful group of shopkeepers, including a giant shrimp in a beanie cap wearing sneakers on his many appendages and a bashful sea anemone with a rude clown fish living in her hair. On the other side of the plaza are a pair of Inkling newscasters named Callie and Marie (get it?) who are local celebrities among the other Inklings, as well as a shady humanoid sea urchin lounging in an alleyway, a pile of terrified-looking shelled creatures by his side (as well as a few suspiciously empty shells). As soon as I got the chance to explore this vibrant plaza, I immediately got the urge to leave it, to branch out and see more of Inkopolis. This world has its own language, its own slang, its own youth culture and celebrities. Not only that, but it has quite an involved history, which I’ll get into in a bit. The world Nintendo has built for what is at its core an online multiplayer shooter is so interesting and unprecedented that all I could think about was wanting to learn more about it and see more of it upon first booting up the game.

I thought the personality and culture seen in the main plaza was as far as the detail would go, but Splatoon’s developers went even further and decided to let curious players learn bits and pieces of the history of this world. Splatoon has a single-player mode, tucked unceremoniously out of the way, accessed from an unassuming storm drain in one corner of Inkopolis Plaza. The single-player adventure tasks the player’s Inkling with tracking down the missing “Zapfish”, electric catfish that power Inkopolis, which we are told have been stolen by the Octarians, an Octopus-inspired race that are apparently the natural enemies of the Inklings. We travel to their home of “Octo Valley”, and via giant tea kettles, explore bizarre underground spheres with artificial suns suspended from their rocky ceilings and fake skylines projected by dozens of giant monitors lining their walls. If this all sounds delightfully original and weird, it’s because it is. The level layouts themselves are well-crafted, taking ample inspiration from EAD Tokyo Super Mario games (Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D World, etc.), and presenting plenty of creative gimmicks that make good use of the core concept of splattering ink around and swimming through it. There are giant inflatable sponges, inkrails, invisible walkways, spinning splatforms, and all manner of Octarian-built machines that try to splat our little Inkling with purple goop. The gameplay involves an interesting mix of stealth combat and ink-fueled platforming that makes for an engaging and novel design. The level aesthetics could be better (as interesting as the concept of the Octarians’ world is, most of the levels sort of blend together and all end up looking like similar mishmashes of floating junk by the end; while there are some more visually-distinct levels along the way, they all feel more like something akin to obstacle courses or test chambers than an actual world) and the music, while very creative in style, vocals, and instrumentation throughout the game as a whole, is very lacking in variety for most of the single-player adventure (you’ll be listening to the same two short tracks for most of the single-player levels unfortunately), but it’s a decent adventure nonetheless with fun stages and some truly fantastic boss fights being the absolute highlights (the final boss deserves special mention for being a boisterous, jubilant rave party of a finale that’s some of the most pure, blood-pumping, intense fun I’ve had in a game in a while). But while the single-player gameplay experience is a colorful, abstract journey about blasting at cartoonish anthropomorphized tentacle creatures, the completely optional “Sunken Scrolls”, one of which is hidden in each level, hold a much more intriguing tale. These notes start out by giving nifty little factoids about the world of the Inklings, with some gorgeous artwork accompanying them to boot, but end up telling a fairly detailed account of the surprisingly dark history of this fascinating world.

Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers (or still haven’t found all of the Sunken Scrolls yourself). Still here? Apparently, it turns out that the world of Splatoon is actually a post-apocalyptic version of our own (you might be surprised by how many of Nintendo’s colorful worlds are hinted, theorized, or confirmed to be post-apocalypse scenarios of our own…including Kirby) where humans ignored warnings of climate change and rising sea levels and eventually became extinct (yeah, there’s a message about climate change nestled in Splatoon; keep ignoring global warming people and we’ll soon be replaced by a bunch of fresh, paintballing squid kids!). In a world mostly consumed by the ocean, all manner of sea creatures sought the light of the surface and crawled out of the sea to occupy the now abandoned land (maybe it doesn’t make the most sense, but hey, it’s a neat story). Gradually over thousands and thousands of years, squids evolved into Inklings and Jellyfish evolved into…Jellyfish with eyeballs. In the beginning, the Inklings and the Octarians got along swimmingly (when talking about Splatoon, one must strive to use as many aquatic puns as possible), but as sea levels continued to rise evermore and the available land dwindled, the two dominant species began a real “Turf War”, with the victors (it’s implied partly accidentally) ending up being the Inklings. The Octarians were driven underground to live in caverns deep beneath the sea, while the Inklings and a variety of other species (who were apparently fresh enough to live aboveground with the Inklings) thrived and built the sprawling Inkopolis…or possibly just took over Tokyo, Japan, which Inkopolis is clearly inspired by, and renamed it. In the present day, while the Inklings enjoy engaging in less serious Turf Wars for sport and fun in majestic Inkopolis, with ample energy supplied by the bountiful Zapfish, the Octarians struggle to survive underground. Faced with an energy crisis in the form of a dwindling supply of electricity, coupled with an overall deteriorating society (the Octarians’ world is full of failing technology, lights and electronic signs shorting out, lopsided buildings, and an overall aesthetic that brings to mind a junkyard; the complete opposite of the bright and bustling Inkopolis above), the Octarians sought to steal the Zapfish from the Inklings. All this is told through text and lovingly composed, detailed artwork, ranging from diagrams showing the evolution and anatomy of the Inklings to old black and white war photos showing more realistic-looking adult Inklings holding old-world weapons during the Great Turf War. There’s also something about a cryogenically-sealed cat from the human era in there. I’m not kidding, this is actually the narrative to this game about kids that turn into squids and shoot each other with rainbow ink for fun. Needless to say, this aspect of the game took me completely by surprise, and I am very happily surprised. The contrast between the game’s colorful nature and this rather serious backstory is another part of the experience’s charm, and something that Nintendo often likes to do in their games. There’s tons of potential to explore this universe further, and maybe I’m the only one who cares about all this (as opposed to just ignoring that sewer grate and jumping into the online and splatting ink about), but I only hope a more expansive single-player is in the eventual sequel, where we get to explore less abstract environments and instead more of this world’s locales that feel like real places, and learn about more of this fishy universe.

Every inch of Splatoon is considered and designed to bring the vision of this unique world to life: the colorful visuals, the wacky and creative soundtrack, the character designs, and the core gameplay, which has been obsessively polished to a fine, tentacled point. It is abundantly apparent that the developers rigorously obsessed over making sure the way the ink effects felt was perfect, and it really shows: the way it looks when you splat it around, the sound effects when you plunk into it and swim around in it, the squelching sounds your messy footsteps make, it’s all so perfectly polished that I feel like I can smell the ink, and am immediately brought back to the experience of finger painting as a child. Satisfying is the word that comes to mind when thinking about Splatoon and its ink; it just feels so damn satisfying. This game-feel is something Nintendo always nails with its games, and perhaps this, combined with their often understated ability to craft unique, living, breathing worlds (when they really put the effort in) is perhaps why I keep coming back to them. And won’t shut up about their games.

Splatoon isn’t perfectly-executed, and there’s still tons of untapped potential here, but through its imaginative world-building, sense of style, music, level design, character design, and gameplay, Splatoon embodies Nintendo’s creativity, and represents their enormous potential for delivering brilliantly-unique new experiences when they branch away from their already established, safe worlds and characters. I’m not saying that the likes of Mario and Zelda haven’t been delivering creative new ideas for years as well, just that there’s nothing quite like an entirely new universe, new characters, new atmosphere, etc. with brand new gameplay concepts to boot, and it’s something I want to see more of from Nintendo. Given Splatoon’s success and current popularity, I’m happy that the potential for not only an expansion of Inkopolis, but for even more new worlds in the future is a definite possibility. Stay fresh, Nintendo.