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FGC #356 Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed & Mario Kart 8

ARE YOU READY TO RACE?!Theme parks are amazing. Disney World is the happiest place on Earth, Universal Studios allows you to live the movies, and even Six Flags lets you soar like Superman. In a world where technology is traditionally aimed at more mundane pursuits (“The greatest invention since sliced bread!” “But bread is boring!”) theme parks seem to be the last bastion of wonder in the adult world. Nobody is ever going to mistake The Matterhorn for actually skiing down the Alps, but it is a creative and entertaining way to get your adrenaline pumping. Theme Parks are fun, plain and simple.

Unfortunately, theme parks are also pretty stupid.

Look, the rides are fun, whimsical, and mostly just sitting in a chair while stuff happens. You can ride the Delorean from Back to the Future! You can glimpse the world of tomorrow! You can feel real thrills as you hurtle through the air like a magical and fairly speedy god! Or you don’t feel any thrills, because it’s all fake, prerecorded, pre-animated nonsense. The delightful children of It’s a Small World were designed and built by people that were recently buried by their great grandchildren. … Okay, I know It’s a Small World is not an exhilarating ride, but it is required, so I figure it merits a mention. It’s Mega Man 1. The point is that, no matter how theme parks try to simulate excitement, they’re all just pre-made tracks that are about as “real” and “adventurous” as Mario’s initial trip through World 1-1. No turning around, no investigating something unusual, just a ceaseless march forward, and you will have fun.

KA KAW!You readers are a smart bunch, so you’ve likely already noticed the obvious simile that many videogames, and particularly racing games, are much like theme park attractions. And you probably noticed the title of this article, so, yes, we’re inevitably going to compare the tracks of Sega and Nintendo’s top kart racers to theme parks. That much is obvious. But there has to be a twist, otherwise I’m just randomly tossing words at my computer and hoping for the best (oh God, I hope they don’t find out that that’s what this blog has been all along!), and the twist here is a simple one: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a better Mario Kart game than Mario Kart 8 because Mario Kart 8 is a better game.

Wait…

Let’s see if we can’t make that a little easier to understand.

Super Mario Kart started the mascot kart racing genre, but it also… kinda sucked. It was a great game, but it was more proof of concept than anything, and the existence of such tracks as Donut Plains 42 and Bowser Castle 3,214 did rather give the impression that unique course design wasn’t high on the priority list. But that was okay! Because all anyone wanted to play was Battle Mode, and all the AI ever wanted to do was use a starman to ruin your day. The tracks weren’t really the focus so much as they were just map delivery systems (come to think of it, not unlike the original Super Mario Bros. and its limited tileset). Super Mario Kart was, for all intents and purposes, a (time) trial run.

You are now hearing this theme in your headMario Kart 64, though, that’s where Mario Kart as Mario Kart really started. You’d be hard pressed to find even the most ardent of Mario Kart fans that could properly immediately recall the ups and downs of Ghost Valley 3 (pop quiz: did I just make up that track?), but who could forget MK64’s Banshee Boardwalk? Or Toad’s Turnpike? And while Mario Kart 64 relied on more than its share of tracks that were excuses for interesting gimmicks (race the train!), Mario Kart: Double Dash really firmed up the whole “rollercoaster” concept for the Mario Kart franchise. If there was once ever any doubt, it was blasted into space the very moment racers launched themselves up a mountain as a natural part of DK Mountain. That entire track could have easily made sense as a downhill slalom, but, no, you had to “fly”, because that’s a hundred times more interesting than continuous kart-skiing.

But Mario Kart Wii was a change from all that. Mario Kart Wii kept the gimmicks going with aplomb, but the tracks were no longer the main focus. No, the heart of Mario Kart Wii was the appeal and bane of that system: motion controls. Mario Kart Wii was built for its “steering wheel” wiimote functionality, and it seemed to lose a lot of fun as a result. There were certainly amusing tracks in MKW, but the controls, AI, and weapon distribution seemed to exist for the sole purpose of creating a more technical, methodological experience. Mario Kart 8, despite by and large dropping the more procedural concepts from MKW, does appear to be a direct sequel in many respects. Dolphin Shoals is always going to be a great track, but that giant eel can’t touch Dino Dino Jungle for sheer “I am racing in Jurassic Park” spectacle, and we can blame MKW for that.

Meanwhile, there’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. The sequel to Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (wait, why did they drop the “Sega” from the title? Was it because of Ralph?) did its best to improve on the original formula by adding planes (cool!) and hovercrafts (works for bards). But that’s a superficial reading of the new stunt du jour. What’s really important about the “transformed” franchise is that nearly every track morphs and transforms over the course of a race. Bridges collapse, lava floods caverns, and maybe Eggman blows up the moon at some point. … I think… I think he’s become addicted to the rush. Regardless, the tracks of S&ASRT change from lap to lap, so you’re never quite sure what you’re going to encounter.

And it is amazing!

Burning sensationIt’s a theme park! It’s a roller coaster! It’s inevitable that the third lap will feature a dozen explosions, and it’s exhilarating! And, assuming you’re not grinding one particular track against a time trial or two, this rolling delight will keep up for an entire grand prix. Tracks are just short enough that they don’t overstay their welcome, and they’re long enough so it feels like there’s even spacing between rounds. I know Rogue’s Landing is going to decay into a flying course by the third lap, but it still winds up gripping every time. It’s a preset track with fixed obstacles and “events”, but it perfectly captures that feeling of wonder and excitement through every race.

Except… I quit Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed a long time ago, and have won every single trophy in Mario Kart 8. Twice.

And it all comes back to theme parks again. For a long time, people jubilantly exclaimed that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed had successfully eaten Mario’s lunch, and the new king of the kart circuit was now Sonic being showered with trophies by a cheep cheep in the skies. And I understand that feeling, as I was one of them, still feeling the rush of steering Gilius Thunderhead through Graffiti City. But those accolades seem to have faded over time, because it’s too much like an amusement park ride. You ever notice how nobody really stays at Six Flags? How the people that live near one, people who could potentially go every day… don’t? It’s because adrenaline fades, and, eventually, even a rollercoaster can become boring.

VroooomSo what’s left after that? All the technical mumbo jumbo. All the nonsense about powersliding and steering and scooting along a speed booster like you own the place. What’s left is where Mario Kart 8 excels. Even if you can randomly produce a glider, it’s not as interesting as NiGHTS transforming into a jet, but it’s still fun to soar over a pack of stacked goombas. It’s still entertaining, and “thrilling” or not, there is still a lot of meat on those Mario Kart bones. It might be the old reliable of the kart racing pantheon, but it’s one of the best Nintendo franchises out there for a reason.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. Mario Kart 8 is the gift shop where you know you can order the entire inventory online from the comfort of your home. And they’re both pretty great.

FGC #356 Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed

  • System: Sega Genesis. Wait, no! It’s Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii U. There are also Nintendo 3DS, Playstation Vita, and friggen iPhone ports, but I can’t speak to their collective authenticity. Let’s assume they’re all great?
  • Number of players: Four sounds right.
  • Other Advantages: S&ASRT has maybe the most robust single player experience in kart racing games with its Career Mode, which is basically the quest mode from Soulcalibur. There are all sorts of interesting challenges available as you fight your way toward finally unlocking a playable VMU. Unfortunately, the whole thing seems a little too stretched out and tiring, so maybe the extra content isn’t the best thing in the world.
  • Say something mean: The powerup/weapons/whatever you want to call them in this game kind of suck. They’re mostly more boring rehashes of what you’d see in other kart games, and, really, Sega? You couldn’t do better with all of your franchises contributing characters and concepts? Mecha Bees are cool, but the generic twister could be replaced with, say, any damn thing.
  • WeeeeeFavorite Track: Graveyard Gig, a House of the Dead house party, is everything you could ever want from this premise. After far too much media exposure, we’re back to zombies only being cool when they’re members of The Rolling Stones.
  • Favorite Racer: Vyse, because I enjoy being reminded that we will never see Skies of Arcadia ever again. It hurts so good!
  • Head Canon Corner: Sonic the Hedgehog, the fastest thing alive, is racing in a car as a handicap. He wants a nice, fair match.
  • Did you know? Toejam & Earl were planned for original Sega All-Stars Racing, but there was some manner of snafu in actually contacting T&E’s creator. He claimed that he was interested, but the game was too far along by the time he found out. But, you know what? I don’t see the Funkotronians rocking around in the sequel, so I think everyone involved is crazy.
  • Would I play again: Without a doubt. Sometimes you just want to roll around the Death Egg. But, you know, with wheels.

FGC #356 Mario Kart 8

  • System: Nintendo WiiU and Nintendo Switch. The Switch version was used for this review, because I can’t get enough of those squid kids.
  • Number of players: This time I know it’s four.
  • I am a consumer whore: Yes, I purchased this game in its entirety, bonus tracks and all, for the WiiU. Then I bought it again for the Switch. I figured that, since I’m going to have the Switch for a while, and it’s portable, I may as well have an entire Mario Kart game available at all times. I have not regretted this decision.
  • Favorite Track: Cloudtop Cruise is a fun track, features an airship, and reuses music from Super Mario Galaxy. Technically, one could claim this entire course was designed exclusively for me. Or, ya know, any other Mario fan.
  • Favorite Racer: Princess Daisy deserves her own game. Read my newsletter to learn more! (There is no newsletter.)
  • Don't look right at itA shape of things to come: Now that Mario Odyssey features a food world and a decidedly Japanese castle, Sweet Sweet Canyon and Dragon Driftway seem almost prophetic. Or maybe the people behind Mario Odyssey actually played other Mario games. It could go either way.
  • Did you know? This is one of the few games that requires Amiibo functionality only once, as Amiibos unlock new costumes, and are then never need be scanned again. This is in stark contrast to many other Amiibo-based games, like Breath of the Wild or Smash Bros 4, that require frequent visits from your favorite statues. Granted, the Amiibo functionality was kind of grandfathered in anyway, so I wouldn’t see too much into it.
  • Would I play again: Until the Switch is retired, it’s kind of inevitable. And after that? Only the kart under Mario’s butt knows for sure.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Um Jammer Lammy for the Playstation! Rock out with your wool out! Please look forward to it!

Winner!
Eat it, Beat. … No, not you.

FGC #051 Super Mario Land

The substituteSuper Mario Maker is currently the new hotness on the WiiU, and, like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros 4 WiiU, it looks like a game that is going to hold the public’s interest well after contemporary releases have faded from memory. Transformers Devastation or Dragon Quest Heroes are both fun and all, but it’s kind of hard to beat the possibility of infinite Mario courses. It’s funny, even that “infinite courses” concept could go a couple different ways: while a Super Mario Bros “rogue-like” that just randomly loaded levels from SMB, SMB3, SMBW, and NSMB would be good on its own, here we have an unlimited number of stages created by an innumerable amount of people, all with different experiences and motives. It really is eclectic, endless Mario, and that’s a dream-realized for anyone that has been playing video games since ‘85.

But even if Super Mario Maker only contained the requisite eight worlds with four stages, it would still be worthy of attention. Why? Because Super Mario Maker takes all the normal, comfortable aspects of Mario gameplay, and remixes it into something new and, frankly, exciting. Lakitu isn’t limited to spinies anymore, no, now that cloud-based cancer can rain down goombas, fireballs, or even hammer bros… which seems physically dubious. Bill Blasters can shoot mushrooms, and Circling Boo Buddies may erupt from question blocks. As was unequivocally proven during the 2015 Nintendo World Championships, Super Mario Maker’s greatest skill is subverting the expectations of a franchise nearly old enough to run for president, and creating something fresh from all the familiar pieces.

So it’s kind of amazing that Super Mario Land accomplished the same trick back in ’89.

Super Mario Land was a lot of firsts. It was the first Super Mario game on a portable system (I said “Super”, shut-up). It was the first Mario game to pit the plumber against a non-lizard adversary. And, most importantly, it was the first Super Mario game without Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario’s metaphorical father, at the helm. As the story goes, Miyamoto had absolutely nothing to do with this game, so (goddamn legend) Gunpei Yokoi and Satoru Okada took the reins. These were the guys behind Metroid, so it’s really no surprise the game turned out well, but there’s some debate on whether or not it turned out… Mario.

This could be 1-3... right?Super Mario Land has a lot of decidedly un-Mario elements. Perhaps most famously (because it’s right there on the box), is the underwater level that doesn’t feature swimming, but a one-man submarine useful for gunning down various kinds of a calamari. Similarly, the final stage forgoes the usual castle gauntlet for a sky-high ride through the clouds to confront a menacing alien of unknown origin. And then we’ve got the parade of “unknown” monsters, like moai heads (with wings!), hopping jiangshi, giant spiders, and a dive-bombing bird named… chicken. Couple all this with a collection of bosses that are at once generic (giant seahorse? That’s it?) and strangely detailed (Tatanga, the princess capturing creature from space, really seems like he should have more backstory), and you’ve got the recipe for a really odd game in a franchise that already sees its hero downing mushrooms and gobbling glowing plants.

But as good as general weirdness can be, the best part of Super Mario Land is the perversions to the standard Mario formula. I don’t envy Yokoi and Okada, as they had the seemingly sisyphean task of not only designing, but more importantly, coding a Mario game without the man that had defined not only the franchise itself, but an entire genre. Mario moves a certain way. Mario jumps a certain way. Hell, from Super Mario Bros 2 (Lost Levels version) on, Mario even has a very certain way of catapulting off a defeated enemy. I cannot imagine having to simulate that perfect “Mario” feel (and look at how many other platformers tried and failed) while balancing completely new hardware. So Y&O (alright, R&D, as in Nintendo R&D1) gave up from the get-go: they knew they couldn’t produce exact Super Mario Bros. on the Gameboy, so they did the next best thing: made a sort of Mario parody.

The first thing anyone notices in Super Mario Land is that Mario is moving a little “different”. If everything was “normal” and Mario still moved weird, it would be natural for the player to assume something is wrong with the game itself, or that the game was made “wrong”. It’s an exclusively North American notion that Mario wasn’t “established” at this point in his life, in his native Japan, home of the people actually making this game, Super Mario had seen three adventures, and they were all very precise and similar in their controls. A change in that movement would have to be excused by… something? Right? The answer comes very quickly: after a few rote goomba encounters and a couple of minor pitfalls, the player encounters two wholly new items:

  1. Assuming the goombas were no issue, Mario obtains a fire flower, and the player likely assumes it’ll be the same incendiary shrubbery as in the previous games. It’s not. It grants Mario a bouncy wrecking ball that hops all over the stage. This item will show its true teeth in later stages that actually contain ceilings, but for now, it’s a brand new toy.
  2. And here’s the thing everybody remembers: stomping on that koopa troopa, expecting it to hide in its shell and be punted across the field like a good little turtle, but then, nope, it explodes, likely damaging a very surprised Mario in the process.

SCARY!Yes, Super Mario Land knows it’s “wrong”, but it embraces that wrongness and uses it to great effect throughout the game. The first world ends with a bridge over lava occupied by a fire-belching monster, but Bowser is soaking in a green jacuzzi somewhere while Mario battles a sphinx. Piranha Plants pop out of pipes, but so do Bill Blasters. Time and time again, just when you think you’ve settled into knowing exactly what’s coming next, (because, come on, it’s just a Mario game, right?) you’re thrust into another bizarre situation, whether it be navigating a block maze or piloting a plane. Or both.

And therein lies the genius: this, the game that followed Super Mario Bros. 3, could have been a simple, compromised rehash of Super Mario Bros. (1), but no, though a clever mix of the normal and abnormal, Super Mario Land is very much its own animal… perhaps a chimera would be most appropriate. Maybe a sphinx? Whatever the beast, it’s one that was ideal for its platform, perfect for long car rides, and a worthy diversion on the road to Super Mario World.

So come on, Nintendo, where’s my Super Mario Land collection in Super Mario Maker?

FGC #51 Super Mario Land

  • System: Nintendo Gameboy, though also available on the Nintendo 3DS.
  • Number of Players: Just one. Luigi decided to stay home for the first time. Wouldn’t be the last.
  • Hi I’m Daisy: This game also marks the premiere of Princess Daisy, and her only time in the “victim” spotlight. It’s funny, but I bet the only reason Nintendo remembered she was a separate-from-Peach entity in later games was due to the text involved in her unique “another castle” speech.
  • HI IM DAISYAnd then she turned into a spider: Arachnophobes beware, and do not date women from Sarasaland.
  • Tatanga Troubles: And Tatanga reappeared in Super Mario Land 2, and then never again. Seriously, Nintendo, listen to me, he’d be an ideal monster to face from a floating Koopa Clown Car. And how was he not in Super Mario Galaxy!? I like to imagine Tatanga and Wart are going on amazing adventures through all of dreams and space.
  • Did you know? Super Mario Land was originally intended as the pack-in for the Gameboy, but it was shifted away in favor of Tetris, a little known game that basically conquered the globe for a couple decades or so. It’s funny to think how that event may have changed history, as it proved early and definitively that Nintendo didn’t absolutely need a Mario game to launch a system. Without one hard working Russian, we may have had Super Mario 128, but no Wii Sports. Also, we’d all be speaking German for some reason.
  • Would I play again? Sure, why not? Oh, right, as I mentioned in a previous post, there’s like ten other Mario games I’d probably play first. But I can also play this game to completion, all levels, in about forty minutes, so it’d be kind of ideal for an ego booster that isn’t just Super Mario Bros. (1) again. Super Mario Land gets a “definite probably” rating.

What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… to defer to the calendar on this one. We’re basically looking at a holiday coming up, and those only come around so often, so tune in on Wednesday for a very special look at a very special game. At least one of those “special”’s is sarcastic. Please look forward to it!

DAMMIT!