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FGC #468 Shovel Knight

For shovelry!Just the other day, my father walked into my kitchen, and, because I had carelessly left a fresh delivery on my kitchen counter, my dad asked what exactly he was looking at.

“What’s Shovel Knight from?”
“He’s Shovel Knight. From… Shovel Knight.”
“Oh. So is that a movie? Comic book? Comic book movie?”
“Nope, it’s a videogame.”
“Oh. Does he… uh… dig?”

Yes dad, Shovel Knight does dig. And he bounces and battles dragons and saves the love of his life and brings hope to all the people of his homey little hamlet. And he’s been around for six years, and he’s rocketed from nonexistence to possibly the most adaptable character in the last few years of gaming. And, yes, he’s a little golden amiibo that is sitting on my kitchen counter.

And considering that all happened thanks to fan support, focused marketing, and damn good gameplay, it’s hard to believe Shovel Knight’s giant blue helmet isn’t the face of gaming of the last decade.

Now, it’s an easy thing to imagine Shovel Knight sprang into existence in the Spring of 2013 when the official Shovel Knight Kickstarter kicked into high gear. Or, perhaps, you would like to attribute his creation to when Nick Wozniak and his team first pioneered the concept over a lunch “that got too serious”. But to truly understand the origins of Shovel Knight, you have to go back to the late 90’s or so. Back at the turn of the 21st Century, 2-D platforming rapidly went from “is videogames” to “oh God everything that is 2-D is trash, strike it from thine sight”. For reasons that are still mysterious to even our most learned historians (though there is a hypothesis that Gamepro may have been involved), this kind of thinking persisted through many years, causing many a beloved franchise to embrace 3-D or die. Mario 64 was a revelation, Mega Man X7… less so. But the belief that a game could not be 2-D seemed to Shinyhold fast for a decade, and the only place you could find such an experience would be in the Gameboy ghetto of game development. It’s telling that one of the most popular games of 1997 had to retreat to the portable space, while its 3-D rival of the year managed to dominate the console industry for years to come. The message to game producers was clear: you weren’t going to get anywhere with 2-D. And doubly so if you were dropping cutting edge graphics for a “retro” experience. That kind of nonsense best be relegated to some manner of easter egg. No one would every buy a retro platformer.

So it makes perfect sense that Shovel Knight’s initial fundraising goal of $75,000 was quickly surpassed, and Yacht Club collected over four times as much funding ($311,502) in less than a month’s time. Shovel Knight’s audience was starved for Shovel Knight-esque content, and, while the yolk of 3-D oppression had been shaken in the years leading to 2013, it was still a time when the prospect of something “like old Capcom games” was going to appeal to a very dedicated subset of nerds. This meant that the whole of Shovel Knight’s “bonus” content was funded before ol’ SK officially touched his first trowel, so a game crammed with amazing content was forthcoming. 14,749 people were ready for some amazing retro action that would be shared with WiiU, 3DS and PC players shortly.

And, from a gameplay perspective, Shovel Knight did not disappoint. Shovel Knight is an excellent platformer that borrows liberally from the entire NES library, but combines all those pieces to be its own exceptional Voltron. Shovel Knight’s downward stab was apparently inspired by Link, but his greatest hopping challenges seem to evoke Ducktales more than anything. And the “arc” of the quest is much more akin to Mega Man, what with clearly defined “gimmick” bosses (Propeller Knight and Gyro Man were separated at birth) and stages that rely wonderfully on their masters’ theming. And maybe that world map is supposed to suggest Super Mario Bros. 3. Or those upgrades are supposed to remind us of Samus Aran’s evolving arsenal. And there were a few items that inched closer to modern sensibilities, like the collectables that advanced replay value (often hidden in accompanying “challenge” areas), or the death system that was a lot closer to Dark Souls than Darkwing Duck. But wherever the inspirations originated, Shovel Knight combined all of its pieces to be an extraordinary experience. Join the clubAnd it didn’t hurt to see a cast of memorable characters fighting through an unforgettable tale of loss and tragedy (and eventual triumph). Wrap this all up with a host of modern “achievements”, and Shovel Knight was one of the finest games of 2014.

But it wasn’t anywhere near done.

Shovel Knight was everything anyone could want from a retro platformer, but it wasn’t the complete game that had been funded a year earlier. All of those bonus bells and whistles would gradually dribble out over the following months and years. Things like Gender/Body Swap mode was little more than a (staggering and inclusive) skin for our heroes and villains, but Plague of Shadows was practically an entirely different game labeled as merely an “expansion”. The adventure, now featuring the morally gray Plague Knight, was a whole new way to play through familiar levels, and featured an added “town area” and a few other extras (peculiarly powered by washing machines) to boot. This was released alongside a number of quick challenges for Shovel Knight, and, coupled with some new console exclusives (and, uh, additional console releases, too) like challenges from Kratos and The Battletoads, it was clear that Shovel Knight’s additional content wasn’t going to be some hastily manufactured DLC.

And let me tell you, about a year and a half later, just in time for the release of the Switch, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment proved Shovel Knight “DLC” was going to be a lot more than a meager expansion.

Spin it!Plague of Shadows was an all-new story with an all-new character (well, all-new for control purposes), but it still saw its hero (“hero”) venture through (most of) the same levels as Shovel Knight. The new play style radically altered your options for traversal, but it was still just a game starring Luigi instead of Mario (well, Super Mario Bros. 2 Luigi, at least). Specter of Torment reused those same levels, but modified them to the point they are barely recognizable. And that’s a good thing! Specter Knight possessed his own moveset, and, rather than mere rehashes, all of his stages were modified to be challenging for that specific moveset. This made Specter of Torment a complete sequel to Shovel Knight! Well… that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe it’s more akin to a romhack? Or, like the NES games Shovel Knight so adores, it’s an “old school” sequel. Almost all the same assets, but rearranged so completely as to be practically unrecognizable. A shining example of the proper way to recycle pixels.

And, oh yeah, Specter Knight is a blast to play as. He’s the Zero to Shovel Knight’s Mega Man (or… uh… Scrooge McDuck?), and really feels like he belongs in an entirely different game. Which is appropriate, as his “entirely different game” seems to only reuse the general aesthetics of its prequel/sequel. The world of Specter Knight goes to some very unexpected places (like the origins of Shovel Knight’s best gal pal), and eschews some gameplay conventions (like the world map) while picking up all new challenges (like an endless tower of pain)(and grinding! Like Sonic!). It’s still unmistakably Shovel Knight, but it’s a whole new experience through and through.

SPIN FOR YOUR LIFEAnd then, in 2019, they did the same thing again with King Knight and Shovel Knight: King of Cards. Give or take one extremely subjective card game (I hate all card games [even that one], but my understanding is that some weirdos can enjoy such a thing), King Knight’s adventure is another slam dunk. The general tone (and lighting) seems closer to its OG Shovel Knight origins, but Kingy’s quest to be king of at least something features dramatically shorter levels and more bite-sized challenges than any of the other campaigns. And that’s a refreshing change of pace that additionally gives some of the gimmicks of the previous tetralogy some room to breathe. Green goo and a bouncy-butted beetle finally get a showcase in their own, complete level! Considering the number one complaint anyone ever leveled against Shovel Knight was that its stages were too long (which, seriously, you gonna complain about there being too much game to play? Philistines), King Knight’s King of Cards is a sequel to Shovel Knight that listened to its greatest detractors. Yacht Club learned something!

And then, to top it all off, Shovel Knight dropped its own version of Smash Bros. You can control every knight! And make ‘em fight! And most of the significant NPCs are PCs now, too. So, finally, you can see who would hold ultimate victory in a battle between Mona, Baz, Mole Knight, and those purple goo monsters from the final tower. And, for being an 8-bit redux inspired by a game that originally appeared on 64-bit hardware, it’s pretty damn impressive. It can get a little confusing when you’re trying to find your sprite against similar colored backgrounds (or against similar-colored enemies), but the designs of the Shovel Knight cast compensate for a lot, so you can usually tell the difference between a Shovel Knight and a Black Knight. And if you can’t? Well, just go ahead and have fun with it. This is an 8-bit platformer fighting game, after all. It’s supposed to be about as chaotic as a bucket full of enemy crabs.

Get up thereSo that’s 3.5 games, right? We’ve got Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows as two pretty similar experiences, but Specter of Torment, King of Cards, and Shovel Knight Showdown are all as different as Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3. Showdown is practically an entirely different genre. I’m going to call that a total of 3.5 games that all fall under the Shovel Knight umbrella.

And it all came from one Kickstarter.

And if you bought the initial Shovel Knight at launch, the whole package cost a measly twenty bucks. You’re actually rewarded for being an early adopter.

Shovel Knight is a game that seemed to last a decade with its various expansions, but, more than that, it is a shining example of what was possible for a few brief years in the 2010s. Kickstarter was an extremely popular platform earlier in the decade, and, while it produced many excellent games and projects, it is primarily recounted now by any number of fans who wound up burned by creators who had the collective managerial skills of a hamster (and not that hamster with the hardhat). Kickstarter and alike is now seen more as a generally reliable healthcare plan than a platform that might create the next game you’ll play for five years. But in the last decade, it was responsible for Shovel Knight. And the triumph of Shovel Knight paved the way for oodles of retro platformer titles. Was every retro game good? No, of course not. But they never would have seen the light of day without Shovel Knight blazing a trail. And, while this trend is likely coming to its close, the current digital marketplace does speak to Shovel Knight’s success.

And, as appropriate for a knight that came from the crowds, he has now returned to the crowds as the most cameoed newcomer of the decade:

Smash it Good!
Slash it Good!
Bonk it good

Not bad for a dude that didn’t exist when the decade started.

Shovel Knight is the 2010s distilled down to its purest, more hopeful form. It is an experience that could only come from one time in gaming’s history. And it’s a damn fine game to boot.

2010: The decade of Shovelry.

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

  • System: Whaddya got? Nintendo 3DS, WiiU, and PC to start, but eventually shovelry spread to the Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and the Amazon Fire TV (for some reason).
  • Look away!Number of Players: 2-Players was eventually patched in (with or without amiibo), and Shovel Knight Showdown is 4 players simultaneous. But most people think about the single player campaign, because Shovel Knight appeals to lonely, insomniac nerds.
  • Just play the gig, man: Did I mention the music was amazing? Because it is. Jake Kaufman seems to be responsible for the majority of amazing American soundtracks for the decade, and the addition of one of Mega Man’s composers is just the perfect addition. The fact that every song gets a little in-game director’s commentary is pretty boss, too.
  • Favorite System: Shovel Knight appeared across multiple platforms, but the 3DS version still might be the best. It has 3-D and the ability to quickly switch between items (or whatever they’re called in the version du jour). Battletoads are no substitute for being able to avoid a pause menu.
  • Lucasian Problems: Kudos to Shovel Knight’s team for not returning to Shovel of Hope with every update to “backdate” changes from later expansions. It would be the easiest thing in the world to sneak in “remake” NPCs that allude to what happens in other knights’ adventures (or, hell, advertise those experiences), but Shovel of Hope remains unmolested and devoid of unnecessary changes. Thank you for the restraint.
  • Favorite Character: Percy the Horse Scholar. I will not be accepting questions at this time.
  • Go Toads!Amiibo Corner: Naturally, I preordered the Order of No Quarter amiibos when they were first announced. That was in the fall of 2017. They were released in December of 2019. That might be the longest preorder for a videogame-related item I’ve ever maintained. Good thing I still care about collecting every damn amiibo in existence!
  • Say something mean: Propeller Knight’s stage is the worst in every version/adventure. This isn’t because of the frequent bottomless pits (though, admittedly, that do not help); it’s the auto scrolling areas, and spots that may as well be auto scrolling because you need to wait for a cannonball or wind gust. I hate waiting! I want to run! Don’t hold me down, Propeller Knight!
  • Did you know? Shovel Knight is almost a NES game… though it does include three additional audio channels and four extra colors not available to original Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. There are some other “tweaks” here and there, too, but what’s important is that the screen shakes during explosions unmistakably like in an old school game.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely. This is the cream of the crop for 2-D platformers, and I love me some 2-D platformers. Long may his shovel reign!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokémon Sword for the Nintendo Switch! … Yeah… that was a totally random choice, and not the result of me putting a hundred hours into the thing over the last few months… Yeeeep! Gonna be a totally randomly chosen modern game next week! Please look forward to it!

Shake it

FGC #466 Mario Paint

Wobbles!There will never be another game in my life like Mario Paint.

First of all, in the only instance of this ever happening, I can’t decide whether I should blame myself or Nintendo Power for my initial predicament in 1992. On one hand, there was the propaganda department of the almighty Nintendo correctly identifying that a gussied up Microsoft Paint with a random doodad controller accessory might not be the billion seller that is the usual anything with “Mario” in the title, and their decision to hype Mario Paint from here to the moon was, in retrospect, pretty inevitable. And, yes, as a young lad who was not even old enough to earn a paltry fee for lawn mowing, I eagerly devoured that marketing and demanded my parents purchase Mario Paint right now, I don’t care if it’s August, Dad, I need Mario Paint like the deserts of World 2 need the rain (or at least a less angry sun). Nintendo Power had worked its usual magic on Wee Goggle Bob, and it was kind of inevitable that I’d beg my parents for some sweet Mario Painting from Summer to Winter.

But why did I give a damn? Sure, Nintendo Power is great at riling up preteens on the promise of new Ninja Turtles, but it’s not like I fell for every campaign that showed up in my mailbox. I couldn’t give less of a crap about Ken Griffey Jr., and Nintendo Power claimed he was the second coming of Bo Derek (which, I am to understand, is a good thing?). And, as exciting as a new, two-button controller ever sounded, it wasn’t like I needed that mouse for Gradius or other games like how the Game Genie instantly became my most preferred peripheral. And the general concept of Mario Paint? It wasn’t like I was dumb enough to believe Mario’s presence was suddenly going to make me a better artist.

Oh, wait. Never mind. That’s exactly what I believed

MAAAARIO PAINT HOORAHI’m an engineer from birth. My grandfather built cars back when that meant something. My other grandfather literally invented food additives we use today (editor’s note: I feel I should note that this is not actually a lucrative field, and I am not the heir to the immense fennel fortune), and later became a science teacher. Both of my grandmothers ran entire businesses despite receiving what appears to have been the worst education available. And my parents… well… I guess my mother is pretty good at charades. Point being that my heritage seems to be that I come from a long line of people that “figure things out”. And I used this skill from a young age to be a born and bred computer geek. If it had some “computer-y” component, I was good at it, despite the obvious handicap of being a child (and, reminder, all children are dumb as rocks). So, while I was terrible at drawing (a skill I had always hoped to possess innately, as practice is for nerds), clearly Mario would catapult me to artistic stardom. And there’s an animation feature! I always wanted to make my own cartoons, so not only would my new artistic skills generate the next Mona Lisa, I could also create the next Bugs Bunny while I was at it. Mario Paint wasn’t just a videogame (Dad!), it was a ladder to the lofty heights of unbridled artistic expression.

And I can assure you that I reminded my parents of this certainty at every available moment. I’m not convinced there ever was or ever could be a gift that I bugged my parents about more. I remember going to Sears for a live demo of Mario Paint, receiving a free hat, and wearing said hat constantly while begging like a hungry dog. I remember August, and a vacation that consisted primarily of stating how this Disney World is pretty okay, but have you heard of this new Mario Paint? I remember dragging my Mom to garage sales in the Fall, and hoping against all odds and reason that a pre-owned copy of Mario Paint would have found its way into the neighborhood wares. The concept of a videogame-based Halloween “treat” was introduced to my parents. A similar plan may have been hatched for Thanksgiving. Through it all, I was unable to obtain a Mario Paint, so it was all up to Christmas. Surely, by the jolliest of holidays, I would finally have the game that had led to an excruciating, ostensibly infinite four month wait.

And then I got Mario Paint for Christmas. Hooray! Happy ending!

… What? You expected some sort of horrible twist? Come on, this is the official Goggle Bob Christmas Special for the year. You want bad vibes, wait until Wankery Week.

And here’s some further good vibes: Mario Paint might be the most important videogame I ever owned.

Play it again, MarioLet’s get this out of the way right now: Mario Paint did not make me an amazing artist. Despite the fact that I can find all the secret exits in Super Mario World, somehow welding Mario to the experience did not instantly make me an expert in the rewarding field of properly utilizing the spraypaint tool. Nor did it allow me to create the astounding and inevitable Goggle Bob: The Animated Series, as the animation feature in Mario Paint is comically limited (nine frames of animation can barely animate Mickey Mouse’s tiny shorts). And, frankly, while the music composer section of Mario Paint has always been some kind of low-key remarkable, the fact that it didn’t use proper musical notation always bothered my “concert band”-based brain. My oft-stated reason for needing Mario Paint -that it would improve my own artistic prospects beyond anything a mundane set of markers could ever achieve- was clearly an unmitigated catastrophe. Hell, I would have been better off with those (lame) colored pencils and (boring) paper, as at least you can keep paper. Mario Paint only had one dedicated save slot! Any given masterpiece must be erased if you came up with something new.

Except… that wasn’t completely true. Yes, Mario Paint had a paltry save battery for preserving Mario Paint projects, but it was outputting to a television. And, thanks to Nintendo Power and its Mario Paint strategy guide (how could I resist such a periodical?), I was informed that there was a way to configure your Super Nintendo so it output through a VCR. Thus, with the marvelous power of a VHS tape, I was able to record all of my creations! Hooray! Naturally, my dad and I had to learn how to actually configure this sort of cable setup in our actual home (and still leave everything working so we could tape Quantum Leap), so I picked up a crash course in how cabling works thanks to a desperate desire to record the movements of my modified mushroom sprites (and if you’re thinking “so you learned how to hook up a TV, big deal”, then I will remind you how many people in this country still can’t figure out how to make an HDMI cable produce Law & Order on a proper input channel). Screw itAnd, while Mario Paint never left my console for long, this new configuration allowed me to record other games, too. I was able to record the entirety of Final Fantasy 3! Chrono Trigger! I could review these amazing stories and experiences in a manner that didn’t involve having to deal with a monster encounter every seven steps! I could finally absorb my favorite scenes and moments at my own carefully controlled (with a rewind button) pace.

Yes, I’m saying that without Mario Paint, I never would have gained a greater appreciation for the minutia of particular videogames. Without Mario Paint in 1992, there would be no Gogglebob.com in 2019.

(And I’m also going to claim I invented the concept of a video Let’s Play when I discovered I could hook a microphone into the whole arrangement. But that’s neither here nor there.)

And I suppose Mario Paint helped this author through a few more post-1992 projects. Mario Paint may have been limited, but it was still centuries ahead of any animation or “digital” tools that were available through my public education. I wowed many a junior high teacher with “real” animations on VHS tapes for projects where the best rival students could offer was a dinky poster. Some other kid turned in a clay model of a hedgehog? Bitch, please, I got Sonic on my side, and I can marry Genesis gameplay to Super Nintendo-based fun facts. In retrospect, the lettering tools of Mario Paint allowed me to have Powerpoint presentations a solid decade before that program became the bane of every “working lunch” (It’s just a stupid meeting where we get pizza, Debra). And while we’re talking about future innovations, I never did gain that dexterity to actually freely “draw” something that isn’t just an indescribable blob of pixels, but the general skills of Mario Paint eventually did transfer to skills in Adobe Photoshop. Waluigi?There is a direct correlation between the little paint-fill man in Mario Paint, and the ability to properly magic select shapes in Photoshop, and I will hear no debate on this self-evident fact. And, even as a computer engineer, you would not believe how often I wind up having to use Photoshop (computers is websites, right?). So, yes, Mario Paint, a Christmas gift I received when I was barely even ten, is a straight line to how I earn my living a solid 25 years later.

It may not have resulted in exactly what I wanted, but, against all odds, Mario Paint is the most important Christmas gift I ever received.

So thanks for putting up with my nonsense, Mom and Dad.

And Merry Christmas, everybody. I hope all your gifts are Mario Paints.

FGC #466 Mario Paint

  • System: Super Nintendo Entertainment System. There was actually a later version for the 64DD, but, unfortunately, that system is just an urban myth that originated in odd issues of Nintendo Power.
  • Number of players: Technically one, but you can fill an entire movie theatre with people that will watch your recorded Mario Paint masterpieces.
  • I hate this thingIsn’t there a game in here somewhere? Oh yeah, there’s Gnat Attack, a game supposedly meant to increase your mouse dexterity. However, all I learned from Gnat Attack is that sentient, disembodied hands scream in a singularly horrifying manner when stung by bees. The more you know!
  • Just play the gig, man: The music of Mario Paint is permanently glued to my very soul. I hum the “loading” theme when I’m trying to remember something. And, sometimes, all I’m trying to remember is the sound a piggy makes.
  • Favorite Tool: I am terrible at free-hand expression, but the teeny tiny pixels of the stamp creation area are exactly my speed. And I can add a set of sunglasses to a Super Mushroom really easily! I am killing it at this creativity thing.
  • Tell us about the Mario Paint Nintendo Power strategy guide: Okay, yes, it does sound like the stupidest thing in the world. But! Back in the pre-internet days (or at least pre-56K modem days), this was about the only way to get Mario Paint… templates? Ideas? This was a big book of fun starting points for using easy-to-follow stamps to create your own Marginally Original Character Samus or Marginally Original Character Link. What I’m saying here is that the Mario Paint strategy guide was the secret genesis of every sprite comic, and, for that reason, we should burn every last copy.
  • Hey, didn’t Homestar Runner get his start from his creators using Mario Paint? Shouldn’t you have been able to produce something equally timeless? No. Shut-up.
  • NOW LOADINGDid you know? Using the “Load” command when first booting up a new, physical copy of Mario Paint will load a piece of art that actually appears on the back of the Mario Paint box. I’m not certain why anyone would ever think to do that, but, hey, it’s good to see that lil’ car.
  • Would I play again: In a way, I never stopped playing Mario Paint. However, in a more accurate way… No. I love this game, and it made more of an impact on my life than I care to admit, but it’s not exactly accessible. I’ll just have to be happy with Undo Dog finally earning a supporting role in Mario Maker.

What’s next? It’s the end of the year, so it’s time for our annual retrospective. Who will win the coveted Goggle Bob Game of the Year award? It’s Kingdom Hearts. Wait, ^&%#, I just gave it away! Dammit! But, uh… there will be other awards? I guess? Uh, please look forward to it.

Seriously!

FGC #465 Tetrisphere

Phear Time!No matter how hard you try, you can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice.

Depending on your rubric, the Nintendo Gameboy is the most successful portable system of all time. Sure, it might not be the highest grossing system ever (that would be the Nintendo DS, I believe), or the most graphically advanced experience (a single color would be nice), but it is the system that put portable gaming on the map. No more would we be stuck with Game & Watch or tiny Tigers; the Nintendo Gameboy was a real game system for real games with physics and powerups and everything. Super Mario Land may have been a whopping weirdo of a Mario game, but it was an experience that beat the pants off anything that claimed to be Mario’s so-called Cement Factory (look it up!). The Gameboy may be primitive by today’s standards (or the standards of anyone that is not enthralled by mushed peas), but its success was the first real example of a portable system being a viable system for the most dedicated (/easily bored) of gamers. Experiences that traced back to the arcade were finally available literally anywhere.

But nobody really cared about any of that, because, dammit, the Gameboy had Tetris.

Gameboy Tetris was ubiquitous. If there was one game that sold the Nintendo Gameboy, it was Gameboy Tetris. It was the only official way to fish out a 2-player mode on Nintendo hardware (and probably sold a few link cables as a result), but, more importantly, it was a puzzle game that could be played anywhere and everywhere. Sega may have eventually had Columns, but Nintendo was immediately associated with the one and only Tetris, and there wasn’t a man, woman, or child on God’s pea-green Earth that didn’t want a Gameboy with Tetris. Gameboy Tetris was pervasive long after other launch Gameboy titles were long forgotten (I’m sorry, who could forget Kwirk?), and it was all a testament to the unstoppable Russian juggernaut that was/is Tetris. After all, Gameboy Tetris is simply Tetris, 90% the same game that was created by some Alexey dude in Moscow a solid five years earlier. Yes, you can link the entire success of the Nintendo Gameboy to some random USSR denizen. How’s that for global relations?

So, when Nintendo needed to push the Nintendo 64, it seems only natural that they recruited some international Tetris-y dudes to sell their next system.

Noice!Tetrisphere began its life as “Phear”, a title created by H20 Entertainment, a Canadian game production company. Phear’s biggest difference between its original form and its eventual N64 version? It was intended to be an Atari Jaguar game, and was featured as such in the Winter of 1995. Now, everyone alive knows the sad tale of the Atari Jaguar, and how literally nothing could have ever saved that system (well, maybe an early, polished version of Typing of the Dead), so some would likely see it as a kindness that Nintendo rescued this poor, soon-to-be-forgotten software from the same fate as Bubsy. On the other hand, you can see Nintendo nakedly pulling the same stunt that catapulted the Gameboy into the stratosphere: here’s a cool puzzle game that could push our new videogame system. And, bonus, the advanced graphics of Phear/Tetrisphere could never be replicated on the meager Playstation hardware, so this is going to be the killer app of 1996! Look out, Mario 64, you’re going to have to take a backseat to the new Tetris, baby!

Unfortunately, it was not to be. 1996 came and went, and it was impossible to instantly port the partially completed Phear to the N64 to be the 100% completed Tetrisphere. Though all was not lost! This allowed H20 Entertainment to hit the next Christmas season goalpost, and Tetrisphere was uncut with all necessary bells and whistles by August of 1997. According to interviews, that extra time allowed for an additional second player mode (that was originally intended, but likely would have been dropped for an earlier release date), and, relatedly, the all-important frame-rate was improved so Tetrisphere could look that much more prettier. And I can’t help but notice that Tetrisphere is loaded with more modes and, frankly, character than the average puzzle game. There’s a lot to experience in Tetrisphere, and it’s likely a lot of that resulted from baking long enough in the oven.

But could Tetrisphere be the killer app of the Nintendo 64?

… Well, you can’t say it didn’t have a shot.

L for LoserTetrisphere is by no means Tetris. There are familiar “blocks”, but they’re not infinitely falling from some unseen heavens. In fact, you are responsible for dropping all blocks, and the challenge is figuring out exactly where on the sphere you’re supposed to drop said blocks. If you drop a shape exactly on a matching shape, and that shape is next to a shape of the exact same dimensions, then both blocks are going to disappear. Line up a few shapes of the same size, and you’ve got a lovely little chain reaction going that could spread across the surface of the entire sphere. Your goal is to peel layers off the sphere so the little robot dude trapped inside can be free to escape and do whatever robots do (conquer humanity?), so every block vanished is another step closer to your goal. Of course, if you drop a block on a non-matching square, you’re stuck with another cumbersome lump of useless obstructing your robot rescue. And just for an added bit of stress, if you make three mismatches, it’s game over. And it’s game over if you take too long, too. And it’s game over if you sneeze on the Pope, too, though that rarely comes up. Point is that there are a lot of ways to fail, and Tetrisphere seems like it wants to be challenging.

But the fun of Tetrisphere doesn’t come from the potential challenge, it comes from lining up all the blocks for thrilling chain reactions. There is nothing quite like cramming all the blocks into proper locations, guessing the shapes of the blocks on the lower levels, and watching as the whole sphere destructs after some carefully measured movements. It is very possible to clear entire layers in one wisely deduced drop. Heck, sometimes it even happens by accident! It’s equally electrifying when you drop a single piece, and, thanks to the natural geography of the sphere, layer after layer is obliterated, inevitably causing an instantaneous rush of dopamine. Look at all those blocks go boom! I did good!

And, after this happened a few times, it finally hit me: these poor saps invented Candy Crush a solid decade too early!

WeeeeeeTetrisphere works almost exactly like Candy Crush and its addictive ilk. You shift blocks/colors/candies from spot to spot, and, when they’re all properly aligned, you see a “connection” that eliminates a swath of shapes. Sometimes it’s just one or two blocks. Oftentimes, it’s a whole screen full of nonsense that seems to go on for minutes as blocks you couldn’t have even seen before all appear and instantaneously detonate into tiny pieces. You know you didn’t have anything to do with that enormous chain reaction, but you feel great anyway, because, dude, did you see how many points I just got? Friggin’ nailed it, man! And that’s how players instantly become addicted to these mobile match games: it feels amazing to be responsible for so much winning/destruction. I am become God, matcher of fruits.

And Tetrisphere nailed that feeling back in 1997. Nintendo identified that, and hoisted that feeling onto a system that could have won the hearts of an entire videogame generation. But, alas, the Nintendo 64 was not a portable system, and, given the choice between the sweet happy feelings of Tetrisphere and playing around with an amnesiac with an unusually large sword, audiences chose the blade. Sorry, Tetrisphere, no one can say you didn’t try.

In more ways than one, Tetrisphere could have been the next Tetris, but it was not meant to be. Too late for the Gameboy, and too early for the mobile market. Tetrisphere: the middle child of failure.

FGC #465 Tetrisphere

  • System: Nintendo 64. Could there be a remake in the future? No. No there can’t.
  • Number of players: Two player mode is viable in this game, unlike some versions of Tetris. Unfortunately, two Tetrispheres on screen at one time is kind of nauseating, so screw that noise.
  • These guysFavorite Bot: You’re supposed to take on the “control” of a handful of different robots, and each supposedly impacts a different stat like “speed” or “power”. But damned if I can tell much of a difference between the different automatons, so I’m just going to say… Rocket? He is first…
  • Opaque Fun: Hide & Seek mode is actually where the bulk of interesting modes are hiding, but you would never know it from such an innocuous title. It technically plays like normal “destroy the sphere” mode, but there are all sorts of fascinating additions, like “drill” (random extra “bombs” are around the sphere) or “tower” (an annoying tower has to be worked around at all times). This is where a lot of creativity shines through beyond the usual modes of your average puzzle game… and most people never even tried the mode in the first place. Who over the age of seven gets excited about hide & seek?
  • So, did you beat it: Who has the time? Wasn’t this on the same system as Ocarina of Time? I think that may have held my interest a little longer…
  • Did you know: I cannot emphasize enough how the Atari Jaguar controller would have completely destroyed any ability to properly control this game. That control stick was terrible, and its 27 buttons wouldn’t exactly help a game that requires a whole two different kinds of input. Phear really dodged a bullet there.
  • Would I play again: This is another one for the “super interesting anomaly… but I’m not playing it again” pile. I like what I see, and I could see how Tetrisphere could have been amazing on a more viable system… but it’s not like there aren’t better alternatives all over the place right now. Pass.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Our annual Christmas Special! I’m going to wax poetic about the best videogame Christmas gift I ever received. What is that game? You’ll find out! Please look forward to it!

Yay!

FGC #464 Pokémon Snap

Gotta photo capture 'em allPokémon Snap doesn’t get enough credit for being the only Pokémon game that matters.

Pokémon Snap was not always a Pokémon game. It apparently started its time well before the release of the Nintendo 64 as “Jack and the Beanstalk”, a game that does not, in any perceptible way, exist. Was it intended as another Mario 64-esque platformer? A beanstalk-explorer like Ocarina of Time? Or was it actually some manner of JRPG? That last choice might be the most accurate, as, apparently, features from Jack and the Beanstalk were eventually integrated into the N64 release of Mother 3… which was then also scrapped. However, we do know that the original Jack and the Beanstalk did involve photography, as Iwata once confessed that Snap’s ancestor did allow the player to take pictures, but nobody could figure out why the player would take pictures. Yes, in the days before camera phones, selfies, and a built-in screenshot button, it was assumed that someone wouldn’t take random pictures if they didn’t have to (Final Fantasy 15 would be a very different game with this philosophy). What was the solution? Add something people actually liked looking at! Pokémon! Yes, Pikachu is on everything, so why not capture him on film instead of in a pokéball? He’d probably be happier that way…

So Pokémon Snap was designed around taking pictures of “peaceful” Pokémon, and not the pocket monsters that constantly assault young children scampering through tall grass. This, bizarrely, transforms the game into a first person shooter. You’re stuck on (literal) rails behind the eyes of Todd Snap, a kid who has been conscripted into a photographic war that vaguely resembles Disney Land rides. Todd must take the best pictures of Pokémon possible, and, while this is supposed to be a serene environment, he’s often asked to hurl apples and smoke bombs in the name of that perfect shot. Yes, Todd, we all believe that you beaned that Diglett into catalepsy because you were trying to feed the little critter. But, even with the nonlethal ammunition, the entire experience seems a lot closer to Doom than Pokémon Red or Pokémon Stadium. Even ignoring the lack of critter kidnapping, this is a very different Pokémon game.

And, in 1999, that is exactly what the franchise needed.

SAUR!Gamers almost always, as a rule, ignore tie-in media and how it impacts their favorite games. Many of Mario’s biggest fans grew up with the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and now publicly disavow any knowledge of that time Luigi was cursed by Mario’s errant copy of the Necronomicon, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, had to be summoned to purify our favorite plumber. That is not canon. Nor is it canon that Link frequently uttered “excuse me, princess” while palling around with a surprisingly horny fairy. And Mega Man certainly was never green (unless he was equipped with Leaf Shield) and was never transformed into a robot caveman. Cartoon tie-ins (and their brethren: cereal, toys, and all other kinds of merchandise) are to be considered completely non-canon. And nothing much about that has changed in the years since Captain N. Yes, Persona and Blazblue have their own modern animes, but they’re wholly useless, as they just rehash the already robust story modes of their respective games. It’s cool to see Yukiko in full animated regalia, but it’s an experience just as empty as watching Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm. Actually, at least MK:DotR had the decency to include original content to sate an appetite for stories…

But there’s a reason Pokémon: The Animated Series blazed the trail for the “anime invasion” of the early 21st Century. You could claim it was simply its easy to understand, but robust story. You could claim it was the generally gorgeous animation (for, ya know, the late 90’s). You could even claim it was just a matter of good ol’ Pikachu being as cute as a button. But all that is secondary to the real reason Pokémon: The Adventures of Ash Ketchum and That One Squirtle was good: it took the concept of Pokémon Red/Blue and made it real. Let’s be honest here: Pokémon Red/Blue (and Green?) is an extremely limited experience. You find monsters, you catch monsters, you fight monsters against monsters. The end. There’s an overarching plot, and there’s an evil organization of propulsion-based baddies out there to defeat, but the world of Pokémon Red/Blue is otherwise very… sparse. Psyduck might have an interesting pokédex entry about lulling opponents into a false sense of security with its odd expressions, but it’s effectively the same as any other random water Pokémon in a battle. And battles are all you have!

Love that eggBut that’s the rub about Pokémon Red/Blue, the iconic pokédex (which appears to be some kind of magical, hand-written encyclopedia in the original game) tells a tale about a much more interesting world of magical creatures. Marowak throws its bone like a boomerang. Jynx starts dance parties with its mighty hips. Porygon can live in the internet at will. Lapras was hunted to extinction by previous generations. Hell, the very concept of a “legendary” Pokémon barely exists in the gameplay of the original game. The super birds are just randomly found in caves (and one power plant), but their pokédex entries claim they are mythical monsters that appear before the damned (which, granted, is probably the natural outcome of encountering a creature that can capriciously summon lightning). There are oodles of lore, both magical and mundane, relayed through the pokédex, but absolutely none of it appears in the game proper. If you ever wanted to see a herd of Pikachu in the forest, or a Cubone gently weeping from behind its skull mask (you monster), you needed to look elsewhere. You needed to look to the Pokémon official anime.

And, eventually, you could look to the first game that involved Pokémon being Pokémon: Pokémon Snap.

Mew!Yes, Pokémon Snap has very different gameplay from other Pokémon games. But, more importantly, it allows its Pokémon to be divorced from their usual game-based battles, and lets Pokémon just be… Pokémon. Pikachu is allowed to scamper and surf around. Gyarados is free to swim up waterfalls with impunity. And events that could only occur thanks to a boring “level up” in the “real” games are free to happen as nature intended. Magnemites gather in a trio to form a Magneton, and Slowpoke fishes up a Shellder to become Slowbro. These are all events and behaviors outlined or implied in the greater lore, but never given a chance to breathe thanks to the gameplay being entirely monster violence based.

And, ultimately, this is why Pokémon Snap doesn’t need a sequel (though, let’s be clear, I would jump on such a thing immediately). What’s important about Pokémon Snap isn’t beanstalks, photography, or its gameplay, it’s that the world of Pokémon was finally fully realized in its proper, digital format. Taking random cues equally from Pokémon Red/Blue as the Pokémon television series, Pokémon Snap took the Pokémon franchise into a direction that allowed its monsters to be more than movelists. Yes, a thunder stone will evolve Pikachu, but wouldn’t you rather see Pika play with some berries? Maybe, maybe not, but what’s important is that Pokémon Snap created a world where that was possible. And that world…

Bewear!

Is now the world we live in…

Pikachu!

In more ways than one.

Pokémon Snap was the first Pokémon game to truly explore the world of Pokémon. And that matters.

FGC #464 Pokémon Snap

  • System: Nintendo 64 for the initial release, but also eventually available for Wii and WiiU. I highly recommend the latter versions, as the N64 is unpleasant to look at.
  • Number of players: Sorry, my dude Todd rides alone.
  • Wasn’t Hey You, Pikachu the first real Pokémon spin-off? I didn’t say it wasn’t. It was just not at all important to anyone but microphone enthusiasts. Didn’t Alakazam own a shop in that thing? Non-canon.
  • They can be friends!Not Canon: The three legendary birds hatch from eggs found around the various environments. But everyone knows legendary Pokémon don’t hatch from random eggs! They are summoned by Lord Arceus in a grand and unerringly confusing ceremony that takes place on a sacred mountaintop. And then they hatch from eggs! But smaller eggs! I think!
  • Make it a Blockbuster Night: I still have the original manual and insert that advertises how you can take your Pokémon Snap cartridge to Blockbuster Video to print out poképhotos. When Snap was rereleased on Wii/WiiU, it changed this functionality to online sharing. And that’s great, but looks like I still have to go to Blockbuster to hang these gorgeous polygons on my wall.
  • Favorite Pokémon (this game): Magikarp appears in more stages than Pikachu, so it is clearly the MVP of the event. And it only gets to evolve into a Gyarados in its final appearance. What a little trooper!
  • An end: Your reward for completing all the (relevant) tasks is an opportunity to float above the clouds and photograph the mythical Mew. And that’s right about when the game just wholesale turns into Killer 7, as you have to “pester” Mew into losing its shield, and then take photos of the naked genetic Pokémon. It’s an odd choice, particularly given the whole “cloud” area would be the perfect opportunity to involve other flying/fascinating Pokémon. Also, harassing Mew is just plain mean.
  • Did you know? A mere 63 Pokémon appear in this adventure, despite the fact that the entire goal of the franchise is “catching ‘em all”, which, at this point, was a measly 151 Pokémon. This is likely the result of Pokémon Snap being demoted from its original position on the doomed 64DD expansion, and not at all an intentional slight against my man Drowzee.
  • Would I play again: Maybe for a level or two. Pokemon Snap requires a lot of “grinding” to gain the more useful items (it’s a good way to get extra play out of a game with only seven short levels), but replaying stages with everything available is rather enjoyable. I wouldn’t say no to a portable version that already has a flute unlocked…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Tetrisphere for the N64. It’s like Tetris, but round! Please look forward to it!

I have no idea