Tag Archives: Nintendo Switch

FGC #469 Pokémon Sword & Shield

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Pokémon Sword & Shield and Pokémon Sun & Moon. If you care about being spoiled on Pokémon stories, like some kind of nerd, this warning is for you. Thank you.

Gonna be a Pokemon tonightI’m worried about the Pokémon Uncanny Valley.

As of writing this article, Pokémon Sword/Shield has been on the shelves for a couple months. In that time, there have been many different opinions tossed around regarding the game(s). Chief among them is that, after the tour de force that was Pokémon Sun/Moon, Pokémon Sword/Shield has the “worst” story in the franchise. And it’s hard not to agree with that assessment! Pokémon SS (that’s some unfortunate abbreviating) has a story that is barely there, and plays as little more than a sports documentary until the absolute finale. Here’s the challenger, here is their rival, and watch as they climb the ranks and triumph over some 50 year old dude that somehow only has acollection of four level 20 fire type pokémon. It’s pretty tiresome, and your only supporting cast is a collection of other challengers with paper-thin personalities. Yes, we all love Marnie, but that’s mostly because she was perfectly calibrated to appeal to Pokémon fans (her signature ‘mon is a goth pikachu, for Arceus’ sake!). Other than that, it’s a sports story, and, for people that play videogames, that’s about as forgettable as Pokémon #775 (it’s the sleepy koala).

But when Pokémon SS decides to care about its story, it does so very well. … Wait, actually, that’s completely wrong. Pokémon SS’s story rears its ugly head during its climax, and, well, it ain’t great. It’s… confusing? There’s a Pokémon that was apparently powering the area, and it’s going to fail in a century, so there’s this dude that wants to do something about that right now, but it’s opposite the Super Bowl, so one thing leads to another, and apparently the world is in mortal danger because some unspeakable Pokémon has escaped confinement. And, frankly, that’s the end of nearly every Pokémon game, right? It might be a little muddled, but there seems to be a constant theme of trying to chain “nature” running back to the experimentation on Mewtwo, and all it ever takes for Groudon or whatever to be settled is a well-meaning preteen that happens to own a Master Ball. These things happen all the time in the Pokémon universe.

Aw nawBut it isn’t what happens at the end of Pokémon Sun/Moon. Yes, let’s take a step back one generation and look at the finale of the first game featuring the madness of Lusamine. Lusamine is, long story short, one of those scientist/billionaire crazy people that has a propensity toward designing self-driving cars and seeking immortality. To this end, she researches “Ultra Beasts”, Pokémon that exist in another dimension. In the process, she terrorizes her children, the protagonist, and nearly the entire world when she tears a whole in time and space to hang out with a beast Pokémon. This plan ultimately climaxes with Lusamine merging with a Nihilego, a poisonous beast Pokémon. Lusamine thus becomes a creature unknown to man and science. She is part woman, part interdimensional Pokémon. This is not Mewtwo. This is not even a mythical Pokémon. This is a whole new monster never before seen in the franchise (give or take a teleporter accident). This is not a problem that is going to be solved with a pokéball, and it is the first encounter with such a creature within the franchise. How will your humble trainer triumph over this abomination of hubris and science?

And then Monster Lusamine just tosses out her usual collection of six Pokémon in a typical trainer battle. Each of the Pokémon have boosted stats… but that’s about the only difference between this “final battle against an unknown enemy” and a skirmish with a kid that really likes shorts. The big bad pinnacle for the entire story is a tussle with a friggen’ Clefable.

It's nice hereAnd while Pokémon Moon/Sun 2 (Ultra!) replaced this fight with a battle against an alien ‘mon in another dimension, it wound up being even more lackluster (this is a very specific pun no one will acknowledge, and I am noting it for posterity), as said alien had very little relation to the overall plot and characters (or, put another way, it might be menacing Nebby, but Necrozma ain’t your best friend’s abusive mom), and it wound up as just another Mewtwo battle. All versions of Pokémon Sun/Moon were (unusually) amazing in the storytelling department, but it seemed there was no way to make the gameplay match the drama inherent in climatic battles.

The producers of Pokémon Sword/Shield took that as a challenge. The finale of Pokémon SS is very confusing (again, I have no idea what the [human] villain was actually trying to do, and this is me talking), but its initial setup is thrilling. The undefeated Champion of the Pokémon League, a standup dude that always wears a cape and has been supporting you from the beginning (yes, he’s Lando), attempts to soothe the savage beast with a pokéball. But it doesn’t work! The literal monster breaks free from the ball, and slices the device in twain. As it is evident a battle is coming, your friend/rival/hanger-on Hop makes it clear he is going to join you in subduing this creature. Hop has helped before (well, “helped”), and his assistance in fighting chubby guys in ill-fitting t-shirts was always… adequate. But wait! Here comes a new challenger! You and Hop are joined by not one, but two legendary Pokémon! They’re fighting as free agents, and, all together, you have four ally Pokémon in play. Your opponent is growing in size and strength (and its HP bar is growing to match), but you’re going to fell this Godzilla with the four-mon army you’ve assembled. It’s a final battle to end all final battles, and, since the basic gameplay is based on the raids you can experience throughout the game, it’s a transition that is as smooth as a jigglypuff. Pokémon gameplay finally matches the weight of its story!

Which is why trying to approach the rest of Pokémon Sword/Shield as a “real” story seems completely insane.

TastyPokémon Sword/Shield introduces the Wild Area. It is the best thing to happen to the franchise since the invention of the Hypno (he’s such a great lil’ guy). Before you win your first gym battle (hell, before you even see a gym), the Wild Area is available, and it essentially simulates the typical Pokémon post-game hours before becoming a champion. It is a wide-open area with Pokémon there for the catching, and there is no cap or gate that requires you to leave to “progress the story” at any point. You can spend literally days in the Wild Area, and the only downside would be having too many Pokémon. And that’s a pretty good problem! The Wild Area Pokémon level up, too, after all, and, should you actually continue the game, you’ll have 90% of the area unlocked at about the halfway point. After that, you just need an aquatic bike (available at about the 70% completion mark), and the Wild Area is your complete playground. The Wild Area is bigger than anything ever before seen in a Pokémon game, and, more importantly, it offers more freedom than ever before. It’s no wonder the story is generally ignored when something with the scope of an old school MMORPG is readily available.

But the Wild Area has a bit of a problem: there’s different weather every thirty feet. You can bicycle across the whole of the Wild Area and encounter snow, harsh sunlight, sandstorms, and then hit a nip of rain before sailing through clear skies. This, of course, all exists for the benefit of Pokémon hunters, as different creatures come out to play in different weather. It is also an excellent way to cram thirty different critters into the same general space, but still keep things interesting and “random” for those dedicated stalkers (“Sure, you can claim you caught all the Pokémon here, but what happens if you come back to this desert in the rain?”). On the other hand, it means the Galar region is facing an unprecedented climate crisis, and blizzards butting against lightning storms down the street from sunny beaches is… concerning.

So safe hereOh, and there are Pokémon as large as skyscrapers randomly popping out of holes in the ground. While the impact this has on the weather is unknown, I can certainly state that it is abundantly obvious why all the towns bordering on the Wild Area appear to possess mile-high walls.

So, at the exact same time the producers of Pokémon discovered exactly how to draw their audience into perfect climatic immersion, they also reminded us all that this is a fantasy world where recurring Mothras flap up localized blizzards. It’s uncertain where the franchise will go from here, whether it will pursue the focused story of Sun/Moon, or more prominently feature the freedom and looseness of Sword/Shield, but one thing is certain: Pokémon will always be a game about a world where electric dinosaurs battle poisonous frogs the size of cars in a world where human beings can apparently survive and maintain a society.

I’ll… just try not to think about it too hard.

FGC #469 Pokémon Sword & Shield

  • System: Nintendo Switch! The first “real” Pokémon game on a console! This is a milestone for people that care about the difference between consoles and portables! All six of us are very excited about the implications!
  • Oh!Number of players: One solo championship career, two players for battling and trading, and up to four friends for raids (or just include that one dick with the solrock if you don’t have enough buddies). Pokémon is a land of players.
  • Where’s Every Pokémon: It appears the big controversy over this game is that it does not include every single Pokémon, or the ability to import every single Pokémon. I couldn’t care less. Frankly, I welcome a day when I don’t have to gather 7,000 otherwise useless items to be sure some obscure ghost type evolves. And the way it impacts the battles! Pokémon Go is currently trying to balance the fact that the same fighting type Pokémon have been #1 since the game’s release, and their only hope is futzing around with new moves and other nonsense. And they’re barely up to Generation 5. Try balancing almost 900 Pokémon! This is for your own good, guys!
  • This hole was made for me: There is an entire mini-game and “dex” based around making new curry recipes. This means that, finally, someone at GameFreak has been getting my letters. I’m disappointed they didn’t include my recipe, but it was still a noble effort.
  • Did you catch ‘em all? You know I did.
    WORSHIP ME

    If there are Pokémon, I catch ‘em.
  • Favorite Galar Pokémon: The Impidimp line is everything I want from a Pokémon. It starts out small and cute… but still vaguely unsettling. Then it becomes emo and nebulously pointy looking. And then it becomes Grimmsnarl, a muscular ball of hair that looks equally built for hugs and bench-presses. And it has a gigantamax form! It’s mostly hair! Leg hair, specifically! I can get behind that! Also, its signature move is some kind of hair fake out. I am all about this Fairy/Dark type.
  • He's a good boyFavorite Trainer: Oleana the Battle Secretary has an entire party of “pretty” female Pokémon (like Milotic and Tsareena), but her final (and strongest) Pokémon is Garbodor. Because she’s secretly a garbage person with a garbage-based specialty. That’s some emergent storytelling!
  • Did you know: Depending on if you count the fossilized abominations of Arctovish and Dracovish, there is only one new watery “fish” type Pokémon in Pokémon Sword/Shield: Arrokuda/Barraskewda. There are usually a lot more water-dwellers introduced each generation, but I guess this is what happens when you nix surf. I’m totally okay with this outcome.
  • Would I play again: Short answer is yes. Long answer is oh God why can’t I stop playing Pokémon games please Lord I have other things to do okay fine back to raising this Flapple. … I think I have a condition.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Donkey Kong! The original! Wow! We’re going to get it on like some manner of overly large simian! Please look forward to it!

There they go

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 #463 Kirby’s Dream Land 3

KIRBY!Kirby’s Dream Land 3 asks the unthinkable: What if Kirby wasn’t a complete monster?

In the early days of Kirby, there were tales of two distinct Kirby directors. Most people (nerds) are familiar with Masahiro Sakurai, who directed a number of Kirby games. While all of his Kirby titles have been distinctly Kirby-based, it is clear to see how this “version” of Kirby directly influenced the eventual creation of Super Smash Bros. (particularly if you look at Kirby Super Star and that dang shield). However, a trio of early Kirby titles (Kirby’s Dream Land 2, Kirby 64, and today’s Kirby’s Dream Land 3) was directed by noted cryptid and likely real person Shinichi Shimomura. Many gamers have noted that Shimomura’s Kirby titles were slower and more exploration-based than the Sakurai Kirby titles that came to define the franchise. Arguably, it is the Shimomura joints that follow the “original” intent of Kirby’s Dream Land, while Sakurai went off in search of crazy Kirby powers and maybe a giant robot or two.

But all their games feature Kirby, and Kirby is a force of destruction.

It’s pretty clear that, even divorced from his greatest and most destructive powers, Kirby is still a pink ball of unrelenting fury. At the base level, Kirby’s greatest strength is unfettered consumption, and his goal in nearly every adventure is either food or sleep. Maybe include some bathing, and Kirby is little more than a bottomless, never satisfied cat… and I can think of no creature more horrifying. And, while Kirby is generally on the side of the angels in rescuing food reserves from penguins or granting his Popstar buddies a good night’s sleep, he is still wrecking up the place with practically every step across Dream Land. Have you seen him turn into a wheel? Wheels are not supposed to be that vicious, but Waddle Dee is still lying unconscious at the side of the road.

But, from the very first level of Kirby’s Dream Land 3, something special happens…

Here we go!

You are allowed to play 95% of Kirby’s Dream Land 3 as typical, destructive Kirby. However, the first level offers an alternative: why not stop and smell the flowers? Or, more accurately, why don’t you stop and not completely obliterate the flowers? The flowers of 1-1 are very delicate, and they will be stomped into nothingness by the entirety of Kirby’s moveset. And once you destroy a single flower, sorry, that’s it, it’s not coming back without exiting and resetting the level. But if you do carefully maneuver Kirby around the flowers (which requires little more than steering our hero with a tiny bit care, this isn’t some “don’t touch the walls” carnival attraction), at the end of the level, Kirby will make friends with a very happy flower. This grants a recognizable “completion” token, and teaches the player an obvious lesson: be careful in the future, and you might get more sparkly doodads. And who doesn’t want more doodads?

I recognize this dudeAnd, while not every action Kirby takes to earn these friendship points is as gentle as during the first mission, many take a very “slow down, Kirb” approach to proceedings. Sometimes you have to collect puzzle (or random robot) pieces, occasionally it’s a lost child that must be found in an alternate route, and, in rare cases, you have to carefully study alien biology in an effort to bring peace to the galaxy. Every level offers a different challenge for our pink puff ball, and many of those challenges are far outside of Kirby’s traditional modus operandi.

And that’s pretty damn impressive for a platforming character best known for being a walking black hole.

It’s often noted that videogames are violent (and, make no mistake, I firmly believe that stomping a chestnut creature into a fine jelly is violent) because videogame characters only have so many ways to interact with their worlds. As such, it makes perfect sense that “secrets” or “alternatives” in platform/action games are often simply “look slightly off the beaten path”. Mega Man was entirely straightforward until Mega Man X introduced searching for armor and powerups in hidden areas. Mario was linear (give or take a warp pipe) until World added alternative exits, and then Yoshi added additional findable rarities. Basically, your only choices in many old school franchises for “scoring” beyond “Bowser is 10,000 points” are added alternative paths/secrets, or some manner of accuracy percentage (see: Contra). In both cases, the hero of the piece is not asked to do anything different beyond more effective murdering or maybe murdering in a slightly different location.

None of those heroes ever stop to smell and/or save the flowers.

Beautiful dayKirby has a more varied moveset than most videogame protagonists, but he still didn’t need a single new power to preserve nature. Later levels reward Kirby for bringing a certain skill or animal to the table, but, by and large, many of these events are of the nonviolent nature. You might need the cutter to earn the secret in one level, but it’s simply so you can pop a balloon that frees a chick to waddle back to its mother. What’s more wholesome than that? And speaking of which, one stage per level may feature a reunion between animal pals if you play your cards right. Girl cat and boy cat getting together means adorable kittens. More adorableness! And, added bonus, that darn cat actually looks happy for once. Hugs all around!

So congratulations to Kirby’s Dream Land 3 for allowing Kirby to solve a problem or two without overt violence. Kirby might be one of the most destructive heroes in all of gaming, but, for one title, he was allowed to help without the hurting. Thank you for giving us a kinder, gentler Kirby.

… Well, until it’s time to knock the evil right out of King Dedede. There are some times you just have to go nuts.

FGC #463 Kirby’s Dream Land 3

  • Can't get enough of those guysSystem: Super Nintendo initially, but also available on that Kirby compilation for the Wii, and more recently as part of the SNES series on the Nintendo Switch.
  • Number of Players: Two! That’s right, this was the first game to introduce Gooey, the nondescript blob of a Kirby partner that is mostly tongue. Please do not touch Gooey for any reason.
  • Rare Find: Kirby’s Dream Land 3 was released at the absolute tail end of the SNES’s lifespan, a full year after the release of the N64. As a result, Kirby’s Dream Land 3 was hard to find on shelves already cleared for Playstation titles of the day. In fact, when I found a copy of KDL3 at a Funco Land in early 2000, I was still under the impression the game had never been released in America, and this was somehow an errant Japanese copy. I thought it could only ever exist as a ROM!
  • Favorite Animal Buddy: Nago the Calico Cat always seems less like he wants to actually help, and more like he wants to play with the ball-like Kirby. I already preferred cats over hamsters to begin with, but Nago winds up earning my attention simply for how little he cares for our lil’ dude. Very cat behavior.
  • Sad Secret Truth: So much of this game is easier with Kirby’s inhale ability and no animal friends. Kirby is too powerful to be restrained!
  • So cuteFavorite Boss: Pon & Con seem to wholly replace Lolo’s place in the world of Popstar for “bosses that push blocks around”. Considering how little I like Lolo, I am practically elated at this development.
  • Did you know? Okay, maybe this isn’t the first appearance of Gooey. Gooey may surface in “kidnapped” bags if Kirby defeats a miniboss while already riding an animal buddy in Kirby’s Dream Land 2. However, it was only ever confirmed in Smash Bros. that this blob-creature was actually Gooey, so let’s go ahead and just say that Kirby’s Dream Land 3 was the first playable appearance of Gooey.
  • Would I play again: I prefer Kirby Super Star, but this is still an excellent Super Nintendo title. I would certainly guide Kirby through his kindest adventure all over again.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokemon Snap for the Nintendo 64! Get your cameras ready! And Pikachus! Please look forward to it!

WHISP!

FGC #461 Space Harrier

GET READYLet’s give credit where credit is due: credits suck.

Space Harrier is a fun game. At its absolute most “please define this game”, it is a shoot ‘em up of the general fantasy/space variety. However, when you actually grip that special flight stick and start jetpacking around and obliterating dragons, you realize this is something unlike anything else in the arcade. The perspective is “3-D”, a stark change from the other shooters of 1985 and beyond, and there’s just some indescribable something about the sheer rush of adrenaline one experiences when whistling through rapidly scaling rocks and mammoths. Maybe it’s the unusual choice of nixing the typical spaceship or jet and featuring a flying beach bum. Maybe it’s battling absurd and alien monsters that are vaguely enigmatic but wholly murderous. Or maybe, as ever, it’s the moai heads. Whatever the reason, Space Harrier is an incredible experience, even now, as the game approaches its 35th anniversary.

And speaking of things in their thirties, I had the pleasure of playing Space Harrier in my local arcade a number of times as a child. It wasn’t my favorite game (by the time I had a disposable income [my grandfather’s wallet], some certain turtles had already drawn my attention), but Space Harrier held my interest for a number of play sessions. I wasn’t actually any good at Space Harrier, but something told me I should return to that cabinet every once in a while when Magneto or Shredder was defeated. I never saw the final level (let’s be honest, despite the unwavering belief of the adults in my life, I was not actually all that good at videogames as a child), but I did find my way to at least one bonus stage that seemed to reprise the best parts of The Never Ending Story. That was enough for me! Time to go play some Pac-Man before I retire for my afternoon nap.

WeeeeeeBut just because I didn’t beat it didn’t mean I didn’t want to beat it. My grandfather’s quarters may have seemed unlimited, but hours at the arcade were at a premium. I only had time for the best of the best, and, let’s face it, how was a game that was already nearly a decade old going to compete with Konami’s The Simpsons? What would have been ideal for a Wee Goggle Bob was a perfect port of that sweet, Space Harrier goodness. Okay, maybe “perfect” was asking for a bit too much. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game was pretty great! It may have had compromised graphics, but it was still something I could play at home with Jimmy on a Saturday afternoon. And it had two extra levels! Yes! A port of Space Harrier might have had to ditch the delightful graphics and controller of the arcade release, but it would be worth it to finally see the Fantasy Zone conquered if a home port could bring home the action.

Actually, strike that. There was a Master System port of Space Harrier, and it was barely recognizable. It tried to hoist a plot onto this nonsense! You can’t do that, Sega! I want to obliterate skeletal dragons divorced from any sort of stakes! … Oh, also the graphics were terrible.

And, like Nintendo of America, we’re not even going to acknowledge the NES version.

But! Space Harrier did get a “real” port in 1994. By that time, Sega home hardware had progressed to the incredible graphics of the 32X, and we were granted the most accurate port of Space Harrier yet available. And there was much rejoicing! This was distinctly Space Harrier, complete with huge sprites, detailed backgrounds, and that unmistakable feeling of adrenaline as your lil’ dude zooms over the horizon. Maybe dig out an appropriate controller, and this is truly an arcade experience that, after nearly a decade, finally makes it way home.

Except you won’t see anything past the third stage.

Rock 'n RollThere are eighteen levels in Space Harrier. There are a couple of bonus stages in there, but, aside from that occasional Flammy ride, every thing in every stage is trying to kill you every second. Bosses are bullet sponges, mundane mooks are menacing many minutes, and even inanimate objects are instantaneously fatal at the slimmest contact (though, granted, ol’ Spacey is moving pretty fast). There are no distinct power ups in Space Harrier, so the best you can hope for is temporary invincibility after a lethal collision. A new life grants you a few seconds of sanctuary, but after that grace period is terminated, you could die in every Space Harrier stage literally every five seconds. And suffice to say, if that’s your playstyle, you’re going to need a lot of quarters to see the boss parade finale.

The 32X “arcade perfect” version of Space Harrier offers… five. Five credits. Max.

Not to be constrained by the limits imposed by Sega executives of 1994, your humble author decided to try the real arcade version with unlimited quarters. The results? Even as a seasoned future gamer from the far-flung future of 2019, even as someone who has been playing shoot ‘em ups from birth, even as someone that is a registered cyborg (okay, maybe not really, but I strongly believe that the number of hours I’ve spent with a controller welded to my hands should count for at least partial credit) I still averaged about one or two deaths per level. To be clear, I very much mean “averaged” here, as some of the earlier stages saw me zooming unmolested through the skies as Koschei the Deathless, and other fantasy zones ended with a cavalcade of credit-based corpses scattered across the land. The final stage, a grueling boss gauntlet, was obviously a quarter killer, but, aside from that bit of digital malice, Space Harrier seems like a very doable game with approximately 35 credits. That would be nearly ten bucks worth of quarters in 1985 credits. That, arguably, seems fair.

TOO FASTSpace Harrier 32X allows for five credits. That is about thirty less than I would need. If my mother were playing this wonderful game, that would be about three hundred less than she would need. And that’s ignoring the final boss gauntlet, which, even for a seasoned veteran, would likely require a fiver all on its own. In short: your average player isn’t seeing the end of Space Harrier on five credits. Your average player might not even see the second level.

And that’s terrible! Because Space Harrier is good! And, while it is a bit repetitive in general gameplay, it’s still a game that literally never stops throwing new challenges and monsters at the player until the finale. Up to that point, every stage is different from the last, and the difficulty progressively ramps up to compensate for a more confident player. It’s not like Space Harrier ever turns into Battletoads, but greater challenges do wait on later levels.

But the average player would never see those levels. Limited credits meant that a game had to be grinded into a fine paste until a player had the skill to perfectly fly across level after level. And, even if that were achieved, you still only had a handful of lives to conquer the final challenges. That bone-dragon come out of nowhere and wreck your perfect playthrough? Well, welcome back to level one, loser, get ready. You’re doing great (wasting your life)!

AH!Credits, luckily, have gone the way of the dodo in recent decades. As arcade games (and arcades!) fell out of favor, less and less games seemed to exist to gobble up quarters. Credits were forgotten for loot boxes, DLC, and loot box DLC. Companies found new and exciting ways to fleece customers, usually with items that contain the adjective “rare” (“legendary” is also acceptable). And, ultimately, we’re better for it. A Space Harrier released today might include suspend state saves or infinite credits detracting from the inherent challenge or tension of the experience, but it would allow your ailing granny to actually see Planet Nark and Wi Wi Jumbo. And that’s a privilege everyone should have, regardless of skill, reflexes, or whether or not you own an entire camel full of quarters. Credits are a scourge on allowing someone to enjoy an entire game.

And before anyone wants to tell me that I’m wasting my time, and I may as well be railing against polio or wooly mammoths, let me remind you that Neo Geo emulation with credits is still a thing. A horrible, horrible thing.

Limited credits need to stay firmly in the dustbin of history.

FGC #461 Space Harrier

  • System: Arcade and 32X for this review, but it has also appeared on… Didn’t I cover this as part of the article? I am not going to repeat myself! But do pick up the 3DS version! Switch also available!
  • Number of players: Space is a great big place that can only fit one Harrier at a time.
  • Ready? Many more battle scenes will soon be available !
  • Stop Complaining: Yes, the 32X version does have an “arcade mode” code that offers infinite credits. But it requires a second player controller and an immediate stop over at Gamefaqs (or Sega Visions). I’m going to claim that doesn’t count, because I couldn’t be bothered to check for cheats online before playing (now or in the 90’s).
  • This guyWhat’s in a name: Uriah is the fuzzy, white dragon that helps during bonus stages. That is a weirdly biblical name for a magical reptile (or mammal?). David married your wife, dragon!
  • We’re all friends: The title screen seems to imply that, like Altered Beast, all the characters are friends when the game isn’t in session. All the game’s a stage, and the players merely… players.
  • Favorite Boss: For inexplicable reasons, the double skeleton dragon (Salpedon) appears before the single-skulled skeleton dragon (Valda). I don’t know what makes Valda so special, thinking he can show up with a mere one head when his better has already appeared in an earlier level, but that takes guts, and I respect that.
  • Did you know? Considering Space Harrier was one of the first 16-bit titles in the arcade, and it used a vaguely analogue-esque “stick” for controls, it would be very appropriate to say Space Harrier was ahead of its time. Considering Space Harrier was released the same year as Commando (not Bionic) and Gauntlet, you can see why Space Harrier’s gorgeous purple skies caught players’ eyes.
  • Would I play again: On the 32X? Never. The arcade version (with infinite credits)? That sounds about right.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… SoulCalibur 6! And the soul appears to still be burning. Maybe someone should put that out? Please look forward to it!

I hate these bugs