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FGC #377 Dragon Warrior

Shiny!Dragon Warrior (sometimes Quest) is the game that is widely credited for launching the entire JRPG genre. As such, it must be considered one of the most influential titles in all of gaming, as, even today, there is still a new game every month that harkens back to the Dragon Warrior of old (even if said game stars rejected Sailor Moon characters in a magical high school, it still counts). Dragon Warrior is indisputably the beating heart of all JRPGs.

Which is kind of amazing when you consider how much Dragon Warrior sucks.

Unless some nimrod has managed to stick these words in a book somewhere, you’re reading this post on my website. You will note that this is FGC #377. This means that, with the exception of a few “theme weeks” and medically mandated breaks every fifty articles or so, I have played three videogames every week for the last two-going-on-three years. And nearly 400 games! When I was a child, I could nary imagine that there were 100 videogames in the world, left alone that I would one day play four times that many for a silly website. At this point, I want to say that I have a fairly good grasp on what is good or bad. Even if I once only played AAA, best of the best titles once; now I can safely say that I’ve played Ice Climbers, and lived to tell the tale. After all that, I know what I enjoy, what is fun, and what is… Dragon Warrior.

The basic elements are here! Akira Toriyama, even at this earliest point in the franchise, is knocking it out of the park with monster designs that are adorable (slimes, drackys), menacing (skeletons, wizards), and occasionally somewhere in between (aw, look at the sleepy widdle golem). The world is large (for an NES game), and the plot may be simple, but it’s charming fantasy to a T. The dragon has kidnapped the princess (and stuck her with a lesser dragon), and also stolen the anti-monster bug zapper that keeps the world clean and enchanted. GO TO SLEEPThe Dragon Warrior must now quest to stop the Dragon Lord, and acquire the treasures of his exalted ancestor along the way to eventually ride the rainbow bridge and score 120 stars or something. It’s all there, it’s all exactly what Dragon Quest was made for, and, by all accounts, this should be a fun, if primitive, DQ experience.

But it’s just so, so awful to actually play.

First of all, retro aesthetic aside, there is no way that selecting STAIRS to ascend or descend steps was ever a good idea. Someone managed to program borders into every town to transition between the overworld and a castle, so why the hell is there a dedicated command for activating “go up stairs now”? Hell, you could theoretically justify the TAKE or SEARCH commands with the many tiles that hide buried treasure around the DW world, but stairs are never hidden. They’re stairs. Actually, there is exactly one time stairs are hidden, and you use the SEARCH command, not STAIRS to find ‘em. You had one job, STAIRS! And talking is equally a pain in the ass, because Loto forbid you open a treasure chest when you’re trying to talk to a townsperson that is never anywhere near a damn treasure chest. Just performing basic tasks in this game is a lesson in misery.

But it gets worse! So much worse!

This suuuuucksThe Dragon Warrior world is huge, filled with monsters of varying shapes and sizes, and at least one town that is a secret dungeon. There are optional dungeons, optional towns, and even an optional princess. There’s a lot to do in DW!… Unfortunately absolutely none of it will prepare you for the rest of Dragon Warrior. EXP and Gold values are absurdly skewed against the player’s favor. A lowly copper sword costs 180 GP, and a local slime drops… 2 GP. In only 90 battles, you’ll be ready to go! And you might be level 3 by then! And this is decidedly not the kind of game that is meant to be played with a “low level” hero (without some superhuman RNG manipulation, at least), as later monsters will absolutely obliterate your hero inside of three turns as poor Son of Erdrick whiffs over and over again with his puny punches. There is simply not enough to do in the DW world to justify the kind of gold and experience it takes to so much as make it off the main continent, and mindless grinding has never been an entertaining compromise.

So, after discovering that Dragon Warrior is not just “primitive fun” like Final Fantasy, but more “never been fun” like Wizards and Warriors, I was forced to ask the obvious question: why? Not “why does this game suck” (that is already obvious), but why did DW spawn the JRPG genre? Was it some kind of cultural misunderstanding? Was it the monster designs? Was it an unmistakable love of carrying princesses through swamps? No, I want to say the entire reason Dragon Warrior spawned decades worth of sequels, spin-offs, and that one surprisingly sticky controller is this…

Goals!

This is the first thing you see when entering the overworld. Not coincidentally, it is also the first thing you see every time you die, as you respawn back at Castle Useless. Every time you turn on the game, every time you must restart, every single time, you see this same image. You’re at the starting castle, there’s a starting town nearby, and, there, across the humblest of rivers (maybe a fjord), is your final destination, The Dragon Lord’s Castle. This means that, from the absolute moment you grab your controller, you are always reminded of what you are fighting for, what you’re fighting towards, and, even though a Wolf Lord just kicked your ass back to square one, you have a goal, and you must save this poor world of magic key-obsessed people from the sinister clutches of evil.

And that is singularly brilliant.

Very shinyThis is how you get people hooked. This is how you create a genre. The designers of Dragon Warrior enjoy gambling? Yeah, these are the kind of people who know how to keep their audience salivating for that next jackpot. Your winnings are just over that river. You might get a few bad rolls between here and there, but you’re getting better. You’re getting better, and you’re going to get there. You’re so close! And you will be so close for the next few hours!

Dragon Warrior objectively sucks. I will stand by that statement. However, it is also a brilliant game, and an unmistakable classic. It might not be enjoyable for anyone that has experienced modern conveniences like “fast forward” or “a game being actually fun”, but there’s always that drive to save the world, and that counts for a lot. Dragon Warrior might be terrible at conveying your goals on a quest-by-quest basis, but you always know your ultimate objective, and that can carry you through 10,000 slime encounters.

You will make it across that river. You will slay the Dragon Lord. Why? Because thou must.

FGC #377 Dragon Warrior

  • System: Every.
  • Number of players: The Erdrick bloodline has withered down to one dude in a silly hat.
  • What’s in a name: I’m sticking to Dragon Warrior, because it says it right there on the cart. Dragon Quests are for later generations.
  • UghLand of the Rising Fun: Hey, guess what, the game is even worse for the original Japanese release! It has more primitive graphics, so the characters always face stock straight toward the player. That isn’t so bad, but since your character doesn’t turn, you have to manually select which direction you’d like to face every time you want to use a command like TALK. So, basically, it takes an already annoying system, and makes it more annoying. Hooray for localization improvements!
  • Favorite Monster: Forgive me if I’ve confused this dork for one of its cousins, but the Starwyvern looks like a pink duck-snake-eagle that is constantly taunting the player. And it knows midheal, so the odds of ever killing it are super low for anyone not swinging around the Erdrick Sword. It effectively is Dragon Warrior in one wiggly tube of hate.
  • Speaking of Erdrick: Hey, dude, where’s your shield? You had to have one of those, right?
  • Did you know? The Dragon Quest title screen contains a little silhouette of the Dragon Lord, and a sword for the letter T in Quest. The Dragon Warrior title screen retains the dragon shadow, but drops the sword from the (absent) T. Guess which flourish would go on to become a standard part of the logo for future titles.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely not under any circumstances. I don’t care if you take away my gamer card, you can’t make me trudge through those dragon swamps ever again. Erdrick can keep his damn token.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… MorphX for the Xbox 360! … Wait, what game? Isn’t that just a graphics card? Or something? Anyway, please look forward to it, I guess.

YAY

FGC #351 Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

Hashi no kahbi!Nintendo’s worst videogame system proves one simple truth: you can be yourself, or you can be something else, but you can’t be both.

The Nintendo 64 was Nintendo’s third console system. The Nintendo Entertainment System was synonymous with videogames, brought the entire industry back from the brink, and managed to turn Nintendo into an uncontested juggernaut of the industry. The Super Nintendo had to deal with the upstart Sega Genesis, but it was still home to some of the best games of the era, and a number of releases that, even to this day, unequivocally are the greatest hits of the medium. The Nintendo 64, though… the N64 got problems. It started with a rocky, anemic launch. It bled third-party support almost instantly. It never hosted a worthwhile JRPG when that genre defined the epoch. Its final first-party game was a scaled-up Gameboy title (I’ll save you some googling, it was Dr. Mario). There were some great games for the N64, but Ocarina of Time had to share shelf space with Turok: Rage Wars. The N64 made it hard to be a Nintendo fan.

But let’s take a step back and consider what being a “Nintendo fan” really meant at the time. We take it for granted nowadays, but the very concept of a “console war” didn’t seem to exist before the 16-bit era. The Atari didn’t seem to have any significant competitors, and the NES was videogames for the 80s. It wasn’t until the Sega Genesis decided it needed a chunk of that market share that the flames of “us vs. them” had to be fanned. Did you ever read Nintendo Power from that time? Or Sega Visions? What were already basically propaganda magazines decided to go all in on the most important battle of our time (hedgehogs vs. plumbers), and every other month you’d get new information on how blast processing isn’t even a real thing, riding a dinosaur is for babies, or the essential truth that so much as demoing a second videogame console is infidelity of the highest order. You cannot serve two masters, little gamer, and you should inflict this vital fact upon everyone on the playground.

ROCKYSo, by the time we hit the Playstation vs. N64 years, don’t worry, Nintendo Power, we got this. We know those vipers at Sony are trying to eat our lunch again with their Final Fantasies and Mega Mans and other franchises we used to enjoy on Nintendo systems, and we’ll defend you! We’re forever in debt to the Mushroom Kingdom, Hyrule, and Castlevania. Wait… they got a new Castlevania? And the N64 just has some dork with a chainsaw? Dude. Dude. Look, guys, I’ll keep playing Pokémon, but, uh, I gotta get going. Tekken is waiting, and it’s got a panda fighting a dinosaur.

And Nintendo noticed. Before the N64 was even released, it became clear that CD based systems were finally going to be the wave of the future (after a rocky bump in the road compliments of INXS), and the cartridge was to quickly go the way of Caveman Games. But Nintendo didn’t like the looks of load times, so we were forced to read the phrase “expensive cartridges” for the next five years. And then the Nintendo 64 launched with dopey Mario and frivolous Pilotwings. Wrong! We needed more big boy games for big boys, so we quickly received Cruisin’ USA, Mortal Kombat Trilogy, and Killer Instinct. Ah, yes, that’s the stuff. Mature games for a mature gaming community. And 2-D games are out of style, so we need all 3-D, all the time. It worked for Mario, so how about we get Donkey Kong into the 3rd dimension. And keep churning out those violent fighting games and grown-up shooters. It’s what the people want!

RAINBOW RIDEIt’s clear what happened here: Nintendo had a solid vision for the future of their console… and then “course corrected” to please the masses ten minutes before the system even launched. The controller with camera buttons and an analog stick wound up chasing the system that could be operated with one hand (say what you will about JRPGs, but they only require all of two buttons), and all those polygons decided to stumble over full motion video instead. What developers remained on the N64 were scrambling to match the cinematic experiences available on the Playstation, and the whole library became a mess of neither fish nor fowl nonsense. Look, I love Jet Force Gemini as much as the next guy, but you have to admit that, even that late in the N64’s lifespan, it comes off as pretty patchwork.

Which is a shame, because first party Nintendo games that followed the “Nintendo way” from the start are pretty amazing. Mario 64 feels like a natural progression of the franchise, and Ocarina of Time is right there with it. Mario Kart 64 refined (SNES) Mario Kart into solid gold, and Star Fox 64 truly used the new technology to turn a bunch of random shapes into a thrilling story of fox versus wolf. And Donkey Kong 64 isn’t responsible for any homicides (as far as we know)! And then we’ve got Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

Kirby 64 is a 2-D platforming game not unlike many other Kirby adventures. It’s (incredibly disappointingly) much slower and less frantic than Kirby Super Star, but it is right about at normal Dreamland speed. Basically, if you liked any Kirby game featuring helpful hamsters, this adventure is about what you’d expect. There are doodads to acquire (a staple of both the N64 and slower Kirby titles), but, by and large, this is a very straightforward platformer. Move from left to right, occasionally climb a ladder, and have a ball utilizing Kirby’s eclectic moveset. Maybe you’ll eat a hedgehog? That’ll show those Sega dorks.

And, side note? This game is beautiful.

WeeeeeOkay, granted, it’s Playstation/N64 style beautiful, but it is still beautiful nonetheless. The pastels of Pop Star really pop, and everything moves just right. In spite of Kirby’s N64 Smash model, Kirby is actually spherical, and not a pile of edged polygons. Special effects from special powers may seem basic, but in the same manner that a Kirby Krackle can sell a comic book (uhhh… different Kirby), Kirby makes self-immolation look perfect across every system. Everything combines wonderfully, and, without a doubt, this is a game that is undeniably a gorgeous experience.

And this stands in stark contrast to every other N64 game.

N64 games are terrible looking. They contain some of the worst draw distances and fog warnings outside of H.P. Lovecraft. Their protagonists almost always look like they were carved out of some particularly unpleasant rocks by a partially blind sculptor (who maybe is missing a few fingers). Nobody ever moves right. Let’s face it, Majora’s Mask was a success because it identified that every last character populating N64 Hyrule was horrifying. And this happened to third and first party games alike: in an effort to ape the most popular games of the day, polygons and Vaseline were smeared everywhere, and suddenly our greatest heroes started resembling Tobor: The Refrigerator That Walks Like a Man.

Let's chillBut here’s Kirby, just doing the thing he’s always done. There is no attempt to force 3-D gameplay. There is no byzantine story mode. There is no desire to go full angry eyes. It’s just Kirby, a character that premiered on a system without so much as the possibility of color, scaled up to modern technology. It’s fun. It’s pretty. And it’s one of the best games on the N64.

And game reviewers of the time derided the game for being “too kiddy” and “a throwback”. One of the best games on the system, but “too easy”. It generally got great scores, but the expression “no Goldeneye” was thrown around a bit.

So… uh… I guess maybe don’t be yourself? Let’s stick to the blocky bitmaps. Gotta be popular.

FGC #351 Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards

  • System: N64. It also resurfaced on the Wii and WiiU, but I want to say it wasn’t on the super awesome Kirby collection released at the end of the Wii’s lifespan. … It was? Dammit! I turned on my N64 for nothing!
  • Number of players: One for the main gameplay, four for the inevitable minigame sections. Which reminds me…
  • What may have been: Early screenshots of this title seemed to indicate that it would have been four players, with Dedede, Waddle Dee, and Adeleine (the painter dude) filling the other playable slots. This would have been very consistent with N64’s emphasis on four player titles, and an excellent “upgrade” from the two player modes of Kirby Super Star. Alas, it was not to be, and was likely lost with the 64DD. And then we wouldn’t see a similar four player Kirby experience for eleven years.
  • Away we goFavorite Power: All this talk of Pretty Soldier Kirby and I didn’t even mention the main hook for the title: combining powers. Mix cutter and fire to build a flaming sword! Ice and needle to make a deadly snowflake! And rock and spark to make a… lightbulb? Whatever. What’s important is that bomb plus needle will transform Kirby into an invincible Gordo monster, and that’s been a dream since Kirby’s first adventure. Show those jerks who’s the spikiest, Kirby!
  • So, did you beat it? This is one of the rare N64 games that I didn’t finish while the system was fresh (because, admittedly, I was playing those more “mature” JRPGs at the time), but 100%’ed well past its initial release. It’s that good! Or Kirby is that good! Or I have OCD! It’s one of those!
  • Turn the lights off: You ever notice that Kirby seems to see a release toward the end of the system’s lifespan? Kirby 3, Kirby 64, and even Kirby’s Dream Collection were all practically the last boats out of their respective systems. Weird. Anyway, look forward to Kirby Battle Royale for the 3DS!
  • Did you know? The familiar “Kirby dance” does not appear at any point in this game, as worlds end with Kirby waving to the screen instead of dancing. Maybe he just noticed the player, and got self conscious?
  • Would I play again: It’s on the short list of N64 games I enjoy playing, so that’s a yes. I… I think all the rest are all Nintendo games, too. What a weird little system.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bloody Roar 3 for the Playstation 2! Roar! And… Blood! Please look forward to it!

We've got a runner

FGC #331 Super Mario Galaxy 2

It's a-him!So here’s why Mario games are good.

Today’s game is Super Mario Galaxy 2, the final part of the Super Mario Galaxy duology. While some endlessly debate whether Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the better game (and I will remind you that SMG2 contains Yoshi), it is perhaps better to look at Super Mario Galaxy as one solid piece, accidentally fragmented into two sections. Let’s face it, SMG was released on the cusp of Nintendo learning how to add expansions to games (see the eventual joys of Smash Bros, Hyrule Warriors, and Mario Kart), and, should SMG have initially been released on the WiiU, we likely would have seen new planets until the release of the Switch. But, for now, the two games are separate but equal, with slight differences between the two, and an aggravating need to switch discs when you have to choose between riding a dolphin or a vulture.

But the reason the difference between the two games is insignificant is because both titles are amazing. Super Mario Galaxy is easily the apex of the Mario franchise (note for future readers: this article was published before the release of Mario Odyssey, or any other inevitable future endeavors, like Mario… Omniverse?), and the sheer volume of creativity and care on display in these games is astronomical. Yes, there are a few misses bouncing around the title (mostly experiments involving motion controls), and it would be nice to be able to play this Mario game with a “real” controller, but, by and large Mario Galaxy & Mario Galaxy 2 are perfect Mario games.

But why are they perfect? What is it about blasting around Mario’s Galaxy that makes these games so much fun? Is it the gravity? The enemies? The Bowser fights? (No, it’s never that.)

I’ve got a theory for Mario games (and nearly all action/platforming games), and it’s called “The Joy of Movement”. What makes a great Mario game? It’s whether or not you actually enjoy moving around.

WeeeeeAt first blush, this seems abundantly obvious. After all, sloppy controls are often the death knell for poorly received games. Amagon probably would be a passable adventure if it were at all possible for the hero to actually deal with the encroaching threats of Everything-Kills-You Island. And while even games with terrible controls may occasionally succeed (looking at you, Grand Theft Auto), they usually nail at least one thing completely perfectly (like using rocket launchers on pedestrians). But for successful franchises, it’s obvious that enjoying actually moving your digital avatar is the most important thing. Sonic the Hedgehog is the poster child for this phenomenon (and the recent Sonic Mania being essentially Sonic & Knuckles 4 and being wildly successful cannot be a coincidence), but Mega Man also slots in perfectly here, too. Mega Man might not have 360° aiming or the ability to bend his robo-knees, but he’s perfectly suited to his world, and there’s joy to be had in flawlessly stomping over the corpse of a robot monkey on your way to barbecuing a wooden man. The joy of movement is real, and you’ve subconsciously experienced it practically every time you’ve played a worthwhile videogame.

And Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2? Here is the apex of joy of movement.

It’s initially very simple: Mario just plain controls well. You’ve got analogue walking/running, you’ve got the triple jump, and you can even hold a button to crawl along. Start combining some of these commands, and you’ve got the inimitable long jump and backflip. Go a little further, and you’ve got Mario exploring weird little planets with their weird little gravities, but still “moving” exactly the same. And intuitively, too! Leaping from one planetoid to another always “feels right”, and switching gravities is as natural as stomping on goombas. And speaking of feelings, the aggressive spin attack or the frantic spin jump both feel wonderful when you use the technique to survive an incoming chomp or avoid a crushing black hole.

Well, I like itBut the powerups… now that’s where things get crazy. Bee Mario buzzes along and crawls exactly how anyone who has ever been outside would expect (though, granted, not every Mario fan has been outside recently). Boo Mario’s spectral floating feels fittingly weightless. Rock ‘n roll Mario moves with all the heft of a boulder, and no one bats an eye when inertia causes that Mario to go meteor. Running around at full tilt with an invincibility star is always cool, and fire flowers exploit a player’s desire to shake that wiimote and vaporize everything on six planets. Cloud Mario is likely the best thing to ever happen to the franchise, as generating your own platform with a panicked spin is something Mario has needed since he first dropped into that hole in World 1-1. Spring Mario can be a blast… you just have to think like a kangaroo. Or maybe an injured bird? Frog? I think frogs hop a lot.

Even Yoshi gets into the act. Tongue twisting across platforms is an innate delight, and swallowing every troopa in a ten mile radius is literally the reason these Yoshis were born. And Yoshi gets his own powerups! Balloon fetishists delight at a round and floating Yoshi. And the dash pepper leads to new and exciting challenges of the Turbo Tunnel variety, but with the important caveat of not being terrible. And, whether you’re riding a dinosaur or literally skating around a frozen planet, it’s all completely instinctive and… fun.

WeeeeeAnd that’s the joy of movement, the joy of a good Mario adventure. Every trot, every jump, every powerup just feels good, and that’s what keeps the player running towards 242 stars. Every obstacle course is masterfully crafted with Mario’s skills in mind, and every powerup is utilized in unique and electrifying ways to surmount new challenges.

When it feels good to just move, that’s when you’re playing a wonderful videogame.

FGC #331 Super Mario Galaxy 2

  • System: Nintendo Wii. Also available on the WiiU download service… but that system plays Wii discs, anyway. So does that even count?
  • Number of players: I laud any game that involves a two player mode that is meant for casual accompaniment. Not enough people celebrate the humble person that wants to participate in a friend’s favorite past time, but has absolutely no skills suited to the task. I blindly tried to help my buddy, One Handed Joe, with his carpentry hobby a couple of years back, and it ended… poorly.
  • And where is the joy of movement in Fluzzard? The joy of Fluzzard is selecting another level that does not include Fluzzard.
  • Question for the Ages: What nimrod decided they should replace Princess Rosalina with Party Pants Starfy?

    GO ON A DIET

    Hey, Rosalina, get out of the shot! You’re ruining my bullet point.

  • Favorite Powerup: Cloud Mario has saved that plumber’s peperoni more times than I care to admit.
  • So, did you beat it? Of course. I got all the stars, and conquered the final daredevil challenge. I even tried that final stage again for this article… and I barely got past the first area. Look, I need to get back in practice, okay?
  • But you still beat the repeat of Luigi’s purple coins, right? Some things never leave you.
  • What’s in a name? The internal title for Super Mario Galaxy 2 is Super Mario Galaxy More. I agree.
  • Did you know? The Flying Star that barely appeared in Super Mario Galaxy is buried in the code of Super Mario Galaxy 2. But it’s not completely forgotten! It has an updated theme, and can be patched into being a wholly working powerup. This seems to suggest that the star was intended to be used in Super Mario Galaxy 2, but was left on the cutting room floor because it was too joyous for this fallen world.
  • Would I play again: I love this game. I love it so much. I’d like to be able to play it with a “real” controller, as the wiimote/chuck has never felt 100% natural to me, but, other than that, this is one game that I can practically guarantee I’ll play again.

What’s next? Random ROB… better shut his trap, because I feel like playing Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite. That’s just the way it is, robot. Please look forward to it!

Yay Mario!