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FGC #255 Super Mario 3D Land

Here we goIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while (… there are how many FGC entries at this point? What? When did that happen?), you know that I cut Nintendo a lot of slack. I don’t think you’ll ever find me saying an unkind word about a Zelda game, and even games that may cause crippling hand damage are lauded as revolutionary. When Nintendo is ready to release a new system, I pen a decade’s worth of articles that start with “In the lead up to the Nintendo NX…” as if Nintendo is the cornerstone on which the gaming world pivots.

But… that’s because I do think Nintendo is the foundation of all gaming.

I’m not delusional, I know Nintendo is not the industry leader it once was. I know that I’m an old man ranting at Cloud Strife, and Nintendo hasn’t been Nintendo since Sony destroyed the company’s monopolistic dominance by courting all the third parties that had previously made the Super Nintendo and Nintendo so great. And, yes, thanks to my own myopic views, I’m also entirely basing this on the fact that we haven’t seen a numbered Final Fantasy game on a Nintendo system since the 90’s… but it fits. The harbingers, the big “gotta have ‘em” games are on the “standard” Xbox and Playstation platforms, while Nintendo is left with quirky spin-off titles and whatever can be tailored to the latest Nintendo system’s gimmick. Other than that, all Nintendo has to offer is, basically, Nintendo games. Even when the Wii was the undisputed top of the heap, the best it could hope for was the likes of No More Heroes or ports of games that had been popular on the previous console generation. Grand Theft Auto: Wii was never meant to be.

SQUISHBut there’s a flipside to that coin, and that’s that Nintendo seems to be the only company capable of succeeding with those “gimmicks”. The Playstation 4 does, effectively, the exact same thing as the Playstation 1: play videogames with this standard lil’ controller that could practically be traced back to the Atari. The Nintendo Wii, meanwhile, featured ridiculous motion controls and a controller form factor that was much closer to a standard TV remote. The (unfortunately named) WiiU included a tablet that allowed for remote play and some excellent inventory management options. And the new NX Switch takes that a step forward with a portable system that can transform into something more akin to a console (and we’ll figure out how to properly implement that touch screen in that setup later). All of these systems are wild diversions from the traditional controller/game setup of previous systems, and, when other companies attempted to emulate those innovations, nothing came of it. The Kinect was probably the most successful of the lot, but that only seemed to only be truly supported for a year (remember when it was going to be a mandatory part of the Xbone? I own an Xbone, but I’m pretty sure I don’t own a single game that even includes a Kinect feature). The Playstation Move failed even harder, and is currently only remembered by the six malcontents that can afford virtual reality headsets (not that I’m jealous of their ability to play the latest Psychonauts jaunt or anything). And remember that one E3 where everyone was showcasing tablet/console cross functionality? Did that ever go anywhere? I don’t think I played Watch_Dogs…

GET IT!?The Nintendo 3DS is a Nintendo success story. I don’t believe it has been as profitable as the Nintendo DS, but I believe that’s only because the Nintendo DS cheated, and was able to coast a solid six months on an advertising slogan that went something like “Who wants puppies!?” You can’t be expected to compete with puppies. Regardless, the 3DS has been an efficacious Nintendo platform, which makes it difficult to recall that it was a risky innovation at its inception. The Nintendo DS introduced the idea of a touch screen and “dual screens” to everyone that couldn’t remember Game & Watch, and then the 3DS innovated with a 3-D display. While, again, this seems rudimentary to people that have survived the last six years of 3DS portable dominance, at the announcement of the 3DS, the idea of this scary new “3-D technology” was met with a lot of skepticism. In a time when 3-D was primarily being pushed in an effort to get the general public back to movie theatres and away from the chilling of Netflix, this was seen as Nintendo’s last gasp at relevance, and a stunt that would be quickly buried beneath a mountain of smart phones and idevices (… come to think of it, people think that any time Nintendo releases a console. Or announces a console. Or coughs).

GRRRRRAnd, I will admit, I was skeptical of the Nintendo 3DS, but that’s mainly because I hate 3-D. I have poor depth perception, so 3-D is less a feature and more of a threat. And that’s why I so rarely leave my basement. As someone who didn’t exactly love (see? Can’t hate Nintendo) the previous Zelda DS offerings that shoehorned in stylus controls when a perfectly good crosspad was right there, I was downright fearful of the 3DS, and the possibility that I’d have to use my poor, depth-impaired eyeballs to sink Donkey Kong into a pit infinitely. I fear change generally, but I’m downright terrified when a Nintendo system I know I’m going to buy day one might potentially lead to a decade of games I hate in franchises I love.

I have firstest world problems.

Luckily, Super Mario 3D Land proved I had nothing to fear. After an (apparently overpriced) launch that primarily featured a number of ports of craky N64 games, Super Mario 3D Land was released in 3DS’s first Fall. This was appropriate on a couple of levels, as it hit that famous Christmas software sweet spot, and the whole game was vaguely fall themed (or at least falling-leaves-themed). And SM3DL was touted as the first “real” 3-D Mario adventure! It wasn’t enough for Mario to dabble in the 3rd Dimension back on the N64, now there are going to be narrow jumps and “challenge stages” that are all about Mario in a 3-D. That worked in Super Mario Sunshine, right? You all loved the bits without the jetpack… right?

Despite any reservations, though, Super Mario 3D Land is really good. It’s not just a good Mario game, it is, somehow decades after the “invention” of Mario, a really good fusion Mario game. Super Mario 3D Land deftly combines the obstacle course sensibilities of the 2-D Marios with the perspective and movement of the 3-D Marios… and it’s amazing. In a weird way, this is what I expected Mario 64 to be back in ’96, but Nintendo wisely conserved that concept until 3-D Marioing was perfected. Mario 64 stages are principally based on locations that could, potentially, be real (you can’t fall off Bob-omb Battlefield… well, without trying really hard), and that generally persisted through the 3-D Marios. Even Mario Galaxy, a more “obstacle course” Mario game, seemed to rely on slightly realistic planetoids, and not just the “this is a Mario level” of the 2-D games. Or did someone really believe Super Mario Bros. 3’s Piranha Plant Kingdom could have a prime real estate market? But Super Mario 3D Land adroitly weaves together these two concepts with aplomb, and subtlety makes the argument that this couldn’t be done outside of the 3DS, because all of these precise jumps couldn’t be made in faux 3-D, only real 3-D. It’s a complete lie, of course, as Super Mario 3D World did much the same on the WiiU three years later, but the comforting lie did much to assuage fears regarding the 3DS.

WeeeeAnd that’s why I give Nintendo a lot of leeway. That’s why I think they’re industry leaders. Nintendo makes mistakes and publishes the occasional game that is not only bad, but generally mind-numbing (), and even sometimes Nintendo systems are merely just kind of there, and completely fail to capture the same zeitgeist as their greater forbearers. But, despite all of that, Nintendo still knows how to make a damn fine Mario game, and “prove” a system with that same Mario game. One way or another, Nintendo knows videogames, and how to make games that will be entertaining for everybody.

Nintendo, to me, is videogames, and games like Super Mario 3D Land prove that.

FGC #255 Super Mario 3D Land

  • System: Nintendo 3DS. Kind of central to the premise there…
  • Number of players: Just Mario. Well, you can play as Luigi, too, but only one brother or the other at a time. Gotta wait for World for more players.
  • No Princess? The finale image of Princess Peach with a tanuki suit might be the biggest tease in a Mario game.

    Oh my

    Who knew the logical follow-up to that would be a cat suit?

  • Power-Up: Is this the first Mario game to feature a “theme” of Mario’s enemies all using his preferred powerups against him? It seems like such a slam dunk of an idea, but I guess your average goomba couldn’t use a fire flower effectively, anyway.
  • Favorite Level: Which stage drops Mario completely unexpectedly into a Zelda dungeon? It’s that one. I really like that one.
  • Say something mean: Maybe the next 3-D Mario Obstacle Game will feature a Mario that can actually fly instead of “gently float”. I want to say it’s time for the cape to make a comeback.
  • Did you know? There are Yoshi and Magikoopa sounds lurking deep in the code. Does this mean one of these Mario staples was supposed to make an appearance, or is it simply a matter of Yoshi’s hatching sound goes with everything? You be the judge.
  • Would I play again: Did I get this far without noting that I absolutely love this game? I absolutely love this game. I might be playing it again right now.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen…. Nothing? ROB? Everything okay? Um… huh… looks like ROB only goes up to 255. Damn unreliable thirty year old technology! Alright, while I reset my robot, I’ll figure out something to play for Monday. Uh, please look forward to it!

It would be fun

FGC #254 Streets of Rage 2

UPPER!Streets of Rage 2 might be the best beat ‘em up of all time. It’s certainly the best BEU on the 16-bit consoles, and, considering that was the heyday of the genre, it’s hard to believe it could be topped elsewhere. But why is it the best? The BEU genre is pretty straightforward, so how is this game any better than Final Fight or Double Dragon?

The answer is simple: Streets of Rage 2 doesn’t suck.

… Hm, I should probably elaborate on that.

The beat ‘em up genre, one way or another, started in the arcades. If you want to cite Kung-Fu Master or Double Dragon, either way, they both premiered in arcade cabinets well before they hit the home consoles. From there, it was a only a matter of time before we got Final Fight, and then, inevitably, the parade of licensed beat ‘em ups that offered no real innovations to the genre, but God in Heaven is it fun to hit random dudes with Bart Simpson’s skateboard. The beat ‘em up completely conquered the arcade scene roughly until Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat decided it was fighting games’ turn, but even today, you’re likely to see Turtles in Time or X-Men at a roller rink (assuming roller rinks are still a thing at all… sorry I’m not a twelve year old girl).

HIYA!So, for the beat ‘em up to maintain arcade dominance for so long, the genre must have been doing something right. But what was it? The licensed beat ‘em ups have an easy answer: do you need to hear anything more than the title “Alien vs. Predator” to waste a quarter or two on finding out what that’s all about? “Be The Punisher”? Yeah, I’ll take a chance on that. But even the less “established” beat ‘em ups offered some level of “role play” that you couldn’t really experience at home. When Mario still looked like a random collection of brown pixels, here were King Arthur and his two or three knights, traipsing across the countryside, occasionally riding amazingly obedient horses. Here are all your favorite Saturday morning and mythological heroes, all at the arcade, and all ready to be controlled for the low, low cost of a single Washington (and the silver kind to boot).

That’s enough to get 25¢ out of practically anybody that can grip a joystick, but why was the beat ‘em up so successful? Simple: OCD. Or maybe just sunk cost fallacy. In general, unless it’s your absolute first time and some damn foot soldier keeps you in an arm lock for too damn long, you can make it up to the first boss on any given beat ‘em up on one credit. And then that boss is going to trounce you. And, depending on the game, that boss is going to laugh at you while the timer ticks down. Want to add another quarter? You know you will. You’re not going to let Abobo get away with that, are you? Come on, you got through the whole stage on one quarter, you can spare another to make this doof go down.

And so begins the worst problem in beat ‘em ups: quarter-killer, damage-sponge bosses. Rocksteady of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, possibly one of the most fought level one bosses in any videogame, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. He has, what, three moves? A kick, a charge, and a gun for jump kickers. That’s it. He should last for maybe eight hits, because, come on, a mouser is more complicated than this guy. But, no, he lasts forever, because if he can’t take the punishment, he’s not going to require more quarters to defeat, and if he doesn’t fleece your poor pockets, then what’s the point in being an arcade game?

YummyIn other words, beat ‘em ups were kings of the arcade because they were fun… and they made their owners a lot of dough. I don’t think those fat cat arcade barons are moving to Maui, but Final Fight probably did pay for at least a few trips to Disney World.

Streets of Rage apparently started in the arcades, but, fun fact, I have never seen a SoR cabinet in my life (I’m pretty sure this is another case of Wikipedia lying to me). Regardless, SoR started off a little… janky, and, in my humble opinion, wasn’t very good. It’s one of those Metroid 1 situations: you know there’s something cool here, but there is a lot of cruft involved, and, by the time you’re finally used to everything, it’s over. Though I suppose I’ll preserve that kind of whining for when ROB chooses that particular game…

What we’re here for today is Streets of Rage 2, and it does one thing absolutely marvelously: it actually scales boss health to something reasonable. It even scales all enemy health to a practical level.

It’s the subtlest little change, but it means so much to the game. The first boss in Streets of Rage 2 does not, at any point, retreat and force you to fight some random thugs while he eats a hamburger. The fourth boss does not have seventeen lifebars. Heck, the second boss brought a damn jetpack to the fight, but his HP is scaled to account for the fact that he can’t be hit all the time. He barely has more life than Symbol Y! It’s like Streets of Rage 2 actually respects the player’s time, and accounts for “this boss has three main patterns, he doesn’t have to be fought for the next ten minutes”. The average Streets of Rage 2 boss goes down in about as much time as a Robot Master, and that’s phenomenal! I might finish this game before I run out of imaginary, arbitrarily assigned credits because this is a console game, dammit! Somebody finally acknowledged that simple fact!

THE ENDishAnd there are a lot of little things in Streets of Rage 2 that make it appear as if the designers actually wanted to see the player succeed, and not just empty their coin purses into an imaginary arcade console. Food distribution is less random and closer to the power-up distribution of Super Mario Bros. games, for instance. Yes, there’s still a big fill up of meat before every boss, but you’re a lot more likely to see a life granting apple at more conscientious points than in any other beat ‘em up. And the average mooks, like their big boss brothers, aren’t massive damage sponges, so you’re not stuck in the same six square feet of a random city until the timer runs out. And even some of the less fair baddies, like those Road Warrior rejects or that one dude with a knife knifing around, can be defeating easily by acknowledging that jump kicks exist. There is not a single situation where there’s an infinity trap on the screen, and you’re going to die a thousand deaths to some random laser while you’re trying to position your character around that damn blast radius. Oh, and the special moves are pretty rad, too.

So, yes, you put it all together, and Streets of Rage 2 is the best beat ‘em up out there. It’s a lot of little things and one big thing working in concert, but, when it all combines, it forms a Voltron that blazing swords the competition.

Other beat ‘em ups are quick to rely on their arcade roots and suck for it. Streets of Rage 2 doesn’t (suck).

FGC #254 Streets of Rage 2

  • System: Sega Genesis and arcade, though it has also seen rerelease on more systems than I’m going to list. The 3DS version is, as always, pretty damn rad.
  • Number of players: Oh, yeah, another reason people play beat ‘em ups is for the “easy” two player factor. Practically anyone can join in and be “helpful”, so whether it’s your videogame adverse mate or little brother, you can get a few extra punches in with a buddy.
  • WeeeeWhat’s in a name: The arcade machines glimpsed in Level 3 are for a game called “Bare Knuckle”. Ha! What nitwit would play a game called Bare Knuckle?
  • Favorite character: Normally Blaze would be my go-to, as I (almost) always favor the “faster” character in beat ‘em ups. But, in this case, I’m going to go with Skate. He’s faster than Blaze and he’s the only character with a proper dash attack. Considering the dash is my preferred attack in any BEU, that’s kind of deal sealer. Guess I do always go with the quickest choice.
  • Did you know? Let’s not talk about Blaze’s underwear. Let’s… just not.
  • Would I play again: Yes, which is always surprising for an “ancient” Genesis game. I just have to convince my friends that this is the beat ‘em up to play, and not The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, X-Men, Battletoads, Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fight, Knights of the Round…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS! Get your leaves ready, it’s time to go fluttering with Mario! Please look forward to it!

DO NOT CLICK

FGC #253 Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Monkey NoisesVideogames can do a few things better than any other medium, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze does one of those things perfectly.

DKC:TF is a pretty straightforward platforming adventure. Donkey Kong was just donkeying around, enjoying his birthday with the members of his family that he remembered exist this week (sorry, Lanky Kong), when a group of malevolent penguins invaded his home. With the helpful flippers of some Viking walruses, Donkey and pals were escorted far from Donkey Kong Country, and banished to an even five islands away from home base. Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, and even Cranky now must fight their way back to their tropical island, and there’s only an army of owls, deadly pits, and other assorted nonsense to repel the apes. At least there are a few frozen bananas to nab along the way.

And, so I can pretend I maintain a proper gaming review blog, I’ll note the experience does play like a dream. The DKC series may handle like Super Mario Bros. on a fundamental level, but the big guy always feels completely different than his plumbing rival. Recent Donkey Kong Country games dial that “heavy inertia” feeling from the original Rare games up to eleven, and, If you’re doing your best hedgehog impression and always moving as fast as possible, it’s very easy to experience a “rollercoaster” feeling. Yes, you have full control of everyone’s favorite gorilla, but there’s that unmistakable feeling that you can’t slow down, that you’ve gotta go fast, and you’re just doing your best to steer this barreling freight train as best you can. Mind you, that metaphor becomes a bit more superliminal on the actually-a-rollercoaster minecart levels, but that feeling persists through the rest of the game. And, if you don’t like it, don’t worry, you can still take it slow, too. Well, on most stages. I wouldn’t slow down when you’re attempting to outrun a lava flow.

But that’s all auxiliary to the best event in the game (and possibly the franchise). After five “worlds” of random island hijinks, the final (well, final-not-secret) world is… Donkey Kong Country.

THIS IS EVERYTHING

You’re finally home! Hooray! … Except, yes, the Snowmads have conquered the tropical paradise, and turned it into a frozen stronghold. So DK and pals must fight from DK home up to the tippy top of Big Crazy Volcano… which is the premise of the previous game, Donkey Kong Country Returns. The final world of Donkey Kong Country Tropical freeze is Donkey Kong Country Returns.

And I love seeing this kind of thing in a videogame.

Other noisesEven if nobody noticed, this got its start back in The Legend of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. If you hang out on the south-western “Death Mountain” region of the map, you’ll note the bottom section of the peninsula is actually the entirety of the overworld from The Legend of Zelda (1). In one instant, that simple plot of 8-bit pixels completely recontextualizes Link’s entire adventure, and, wow, did you see that? This new game is, like, 800 times larger than the old one! Oh man, how is Link going to survive his biggest adventure ever!?

(And, for the record, I feel like every Zelda after Ocarina of Time has failed for using the same basic layout as OoT [and arguably A Link to the Past]. It’s not exciting to find Death Mountain in the North or Gerudo Desert in the West, I want to see what’s past those landmarks. C’est la vie.)

But this same trick has been used in a variety of games for a variety of reasons. In Metroid Prime, a frigate is explored early in the adventure, and then, after it crashes to the planet below, it becomes a sunken “ghost ship” that is an entirely new “level”, but is still recognizable from its earlier appearance. Speaking of Metroid, you see this often in “prequel” games, where an important location from the “next” game is revisited by a different group that has no idea about the significance of the latest locale. See Lufia and Lufia 2 for a fun, fatal example of this concept. And while we’re on the subject of 16-bit JRPGs, time travel is great for video games for this exact reason. The Black Omen might be unchanging, but it’s fun to see how the simple villages and dungeons of 600 AD evolve in 400 years.

Hot stuffAnd why does this work? Why is this fun? It’s all because videogames have to be very mindful of “space”. While your average modern action movie doesn’t have to worry about the surrounding area for its epic battles at all (pop quiz: how many countries have been destroyed by random Transformer fights?), videogames are all about space, because the player must inhabit those locations for proper exploration and storytelling experiences. It doesn’t matter in every game (I admit, I might not be able to draw a map of Metro City), but so many games must keep an eye on distance and location, else, well, nobody likes to get lost forever. And, if everyone is doing their job right, the player learns the ins and outs of any given area almost subconsciously, and, before you know it, you’re able to recall the layout of Midgar a lot more easily than your home town. If you’re going to swing by my place, just take the third left after Wall Market.

I’ll save any further gushing about this concept for when ROB inevitably chooses Bioshock, but the flipside to memorizing a map or area is that, when that area is changed, your brain immediately notices. Even if it’s been fifteen years since you played the previous game, since you spotted the new, “different” area, some part of your head recognizes that something is wrong, and why is this wrong, and let’s explore a little further, and find out what happened here. And, on top of that, when something that was previously “the size of an entire game” is reduced to “now it’s smaller”, you I can't see what's happening!subconsciously feel awesome, because, wow, look at how much more I’ve accomplished than last time! Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is six times larger than Donkey Kong Country Returns! DK is huuuuuuge!

Oh, and it is pretty fun to replay through reimaginings of all the Donkey Kong Country Returns levels in a frozen wasteland, too.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an entertaining game all on its own, but the way it recontextualizes Donkey Kong Country Returns is amazing.

FGC #253 Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

  • System: Nintendo WiiU. A months ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a 3DS port, but now I’m kind of expecting a Switch port. We’ll see if that pans out.
  • Number of players: Two! And I really want to try that sometime! Diddy and the other helpers apparently can assist with a second controller, but I’ve never thought to actually try that with any of my real-life buddies. There are so many other games we can play where we can have apes fight, ya know?
  • Favorite buddy: Cranky Kong has Scrooge’s pogo stick! That makes him tougher than the toughies. On the other hand, the pogo ability is just as finicky as it was back in the NES days, so I’d rather have Diddy in my corner. Can’t tell you how many times that jetpack saved my bacon.
  • Jerks!Favorite Boss: One baboon laughing at Kongs is bad enough, but a baboon that splits into three just to mock a monkey even more? That’s cruel.
  • Did you know? There’s a patch/update for this game, and it seems to exist entirely to fix a glitch in the third world that would prevent the next level from unlocking. “Beat stage, go to next stage” is pretty much videogame 101, so you have to wonder how that glitch got out into the wild.
  • Would I play again: If there is somehow never another Donkey Kong Country game “like this” again (you never know with Nintendo), then I’ll play this again in due time. If there is a DKCR3, then I’m all about leaving the past behind.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Streets of Rage 2! Good! I was getting tired of using the “Nintendo” tag continuously. It’s time to see some streets raging! Or maybe people raging at streets. I don’t know! Please look forward to it!

Huge hooters