Retro(spective) 18-Pokémon Snap

Pokemon Snap

Photography and Pokémon might seem like an odd mixture, but Pokémon Snap demonstrated just how well the two could work in tandem. Developed for Nintendo 64 by Game Freak and HAL Laboratory, Snap is one of those oddball video games that didn’t really fit into a particular genre, was intoxicating in its execution, but has never been reproduced in the years since. It’s a shame, because in terms of spinoffs, Snap is incredibly playful and creative with the source material. Let’s take a look at what made this game so special!

In Snap, players were cast as Pokémon photographer Todd Snap, who Professor Oak handpicked to take photos of wild Pokémon for a research project. Professor Oak sent Todd to a remote location called Pokémon Island to take these pictures, using a buggy called the Zero-One to safely explore the terrain. Players took pictures from a first-person view, and each photo was scored based on how close and clear it was. Similar to the Metroid games, progression in Snap requires players to acquires items during gameplay in order to back and reach previously obscured or hidden Pokémon.

It’s hard to put a finger on a specific element that makes Snap so great. There was the thrill of seeing so many beloved Pokémon rendered in 3D, running around the screen and being mischievous. There was also the sense of satisfaction gained from figuring out how to make a Pokémon pop out into the open or turn around to be photographed. Ultimately, the biggest appeal of Snap was how much the game inserted the player into the world of Pokémon. Sitting in the Zero-One snapping photos felt almost real, as though it was possible to just reach out and touch a Slowbro sitting near the water, or pat Pikachu on his head while he scampered around. Snap is a unique video game that captures everything special about Pokémon and is a joy to play.

Snap also took interactivity to a new level using Nintendo’s partnership with Blockbuster. The movie rental chain (remember those?) had special kiosks set up so that players could print their pictures of the wild Pokémon as stickers. It was something Nintendo would also do for Pokémon Stadium. It was unconventional, certainly, but considering how nonconformist Snap was, it was the perfect compliment. I suppose getting hold of one of those kiosks might be the ultimate collectible, these days!

Fans wanting to experience Snap are always welcome to get hold of an original copy and play it on a Nintendo 64, but for those who can’t, look to Wii’s Virtual Console service for the game. There’s been no word on a sequel, but fans continue to hold out hope that a new installment will come one day. Wii U, with it’s unique GamePad controller, would seem to be the perfect candidate for a revival, so be sure to write Reggie and let him know!

Released 1999. Developed by Game Freak and HAL Laboratory. Published by Nintendo.

Pokémon Snap is available on Nintendo 64. It is also available via download from the Wii Virtual Console service

Graphics Don’t Get Worse With Time

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I was reading a review for NBA Live 14 back when it launched where the writer described what he considered to be a poorly rendered crowd of fans. His descriptor for this poor representation was “[t]he crowd looks PS3-ish”. It was a pretty odd choice of words, considering that PS4 and Xbox One were barley out of their boxes. at that point. Clearly, by comparison there are some notably big differences between last-gen’s systems and today’s current boxes, but when I look at my PS3 and 360 games, I still see some beautiful, intricate graphics. I also feel the same way about GameCube, PSOne, Nintendo 64, SNES, Genesis, NES, and every other system’s graphics that has ever come out. What was good will always be good, so long as a person knows how to appreciate what’s on the screen in front of them.

The easiest way to think about this is remembering that when any system is in its prime, there are good looking games, and bad looking ones. No console has uniformly spectacular graphics across the spectrum of its titles. Twilight Princess on Wii looked a thousand times better than M&Ms Racing, for example. Particular titles represent the pinnacle of what can be achieved graphically on a console. Yet, the vast majority of video game journalists and critics are quick to dismiss what came before because of how shiny and new the graphics look on the latest generation of consoles. To say that game A doesn’t look good anymore because game B came along on the new system is a ridiculous oversimplification.

Video games suffer from this mindset in particular because of the industry’s ties to technology. Tech moves forward, always, with the idea to make the next new device far more advanced and better than the old. This leads people to categorize what’s old as inferior or lacking, which is totally unfair. Other mediums of art and entertainment embrace what came before. No one is slamming cave paintings or Jane Eyre in their respective communities, yet with video games there’s always some upstart ready to come along and say how a particular classic game isn’t all it’s made out to be.

Ocarina of Time is still every bit as nuanced and visually fascinating as it was in 1998. The vivid pinks of the sky as it transitioned to night, the serenity of the Forest Temple, the frightful depths of the Bottom of the Well, and a hundred other locations and experiences are timeless examples of what Nintendo 64 was capable of. The reason being that within the confines of the limitations of that hardware, Ocarina remains a work of brilliance. There were a hundred Superman 64s, but Ocarina was in a class of its own. Saying Ocarina is ugly now demonstrates a complete and utter lack of appreciation for what made the game so beloved to begin with.

Classic games shouldn’t only be playable if they’ve been upscaled to HD or completely remade. These games resonated with players for a reason when they first launched, and there’s no reason someone shouldn’t be just as absorbed playing them today. So go and bask in the waters of Wave Race 64, feel the rush of air as you swoop through the skies in Ratchet & Clank, and feel the chill of the snow in Metal Gear Solid. The good games will always be beautiful, because art never goes bad.

Toy Box 16-Donkey Kong Together Plus Figure

Released: 2014 | Manufacturer: Together Plus Ltd.

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I found this incredibly awesome figurine while perusing Toys R Us not too long ago. It’s a fairly large figure, clocking in around 4-5 inches in height. The figure is made of a quality rubber with a hard plastic for the girder base. What’s even better is that Donkey Kong here isn’t alone; the series includes Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi! I absolutely love these sorts of figures. It’s not a true statue, so it’s not hundreds of dollars, yet it’s substantial enough to be a real showpiece on a shelf. Go snag one of these now before evil collectors do and charge you double!

Super Smash Bros. Direct 04/08/14

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Well, that was different. An entire Nintendo Direct broadcast dedicated to the upcoming Super Smash Bros. games on Wii U and 3DS. There’s a lot of information to go over today, so let’s get to it!

Release Windows

In a surprise move, Nintendo is not going to release the Wii U and 3DS versions of Smash simultaneously. Smash on 3DS is slated for a Summer 2014 release, while Smash Wii U is now set for Fall 2014. I suppose it only makes sense to let each game have its own time in the spotlights, especially considering the seeming quality of both.

Smash and Run

Further legitimizing the 3DS version of Smash was today’s announcement of the handheld-only Smash and Run online mode. In Smash and Run, players barrel through a dungeon populated with random enemies, collecting powerups to enhance their character. These dungeon crawls last only five minutes, after which all upgrades to the player’s character carryover into a Free For All bout. Cool!

Online

Sakurai noted the limitations of online face by Nintendo when Brawl came out on Wii, emphasizing that things will be different this time around. It was unceremoniously hinted at that players should do their best to have a speedy internet connection, even going so far as to recommend players buy a wired internet adapter for their Wii Us. While just about every online game is better with a good internet connection, it was still an… interesting thing to point out. I’m nervous.

The footage of online play looked good, though, and with Nintendo set to eliminate DS and Wii online play in short order, here’s hoping the extra server space will serve to boost both Smash and Mario Kart 8. As far as actual modes go, Sakurai and company have opted for something called For Glory and For Fun. For Glory is meant for true competitors, with no items and matches occurring only on Final Destination-versions of the bulk of each of the games’ stages. For Glory also keeps track of players wins and losses. For Fun is exactly what it sounds like; traditional stages and items, with only players’ wins counted. Whichever crowd a player gravitates towards, they’re sure to be satiated with this setup!

Taking it a step further, online behavior will be monitored, with bans put in place for disruptive players (that includes tattling on players not doing anything wrong). Unfortunately, there won’t be true leaderboards, but there will be something called Global Smash Power, which ranks how many other people the player has outscored in solo player modes. Interesting, but I’d still like to know where I stack up online. At any rate, Sakurai and Nintendo have clearly put a lot of thought into this new online setup, so hopefully it pays off for players, in the end.

Characters

Individual fighter transformations are now out, meaning characters like Zelda and Samus, who could become Sheik or Zero Suit Samus, respectively, can no longer do so. Instead, these alter-egos have become their own, separate fighters. This has resulted in some balancing tweaks, as Zero Suite Samus, for instance, was intentionally weaker than armored Samus in Brawl. Now her own character, the developers had to augment her to be competitive with the other fighters.

Officially announced as players on the roster were Zero Suit Samus, Sheik, Yoshi (big surprise), and two, new Pokemon; Greninja and Charizard! Charizard seems to have replaced the Pokemon Trainer along with Squirtle and Ivysaur, but with three other Pokemon playable, it probably would have been overkill to make the other two their own characters. Who knows, E3 is still coming, but these seem to be the Pokemon we’ll be brawling with!

That brings to a close all the news fit to print on today’s Smash Bros. Direct! A tad underwhelming, but overall I was very pleased to learn so much more about the new Smash Bros. games. I’m sure Nintendo will have more to say leading up to the impending launch of both (I will eat my watch if Nintendo doesn’t include a Namco character), but in the meantime, enjoy this glimpse by watching the actual video from today’s broadcast. There’s some more tidbits about frame rates, stages, and trophies that I didn’t touch on here, so it’s worth a look. Until next time, dear readers!

The Games That Make You Think

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I’ll never forget the end of Super Mario RPG, when, with their mission done, Geno ascends back into the sky and leaves his friends down below. After all the hours invested playing, it didn’t occur to me that at the end Geno, who’s only goal was to restore Star Road, would have to go home. I was a kid, and I gravitated towards titles that featured characters I liked more than how “good” they were. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, EarthBound, all those SNES titles that so many people were enjoying at the time were lost on me, because I didn’t know any better. As a result, for all intents and purposes, Mario RPG was the first true RPG I ever played. I spent the whole time laughing at the oddball characters, soaking in the graphics, and tapping my toes to the excellent soundtrack. When it finally ended, though, I just wasn’t ready to let go; I believed it wasn’t right that my reward for beating the game was to lose a friend.

Deep narratives aren’t uncommon in video games, but not all of them resonate the same way for different people. Whereas some will site the twist at the end of the first BioShock as their favorite moment in gaming, others might say that triumphing over the Elite Four in Pokemon Diamond left them breathless. It sounds weird, but really, it’s the player’s attachment to any given title that makes the experience special. Take Super Mario Galaxy, for example. When Mario’s little Luma buddy throws himself into that vortex at the end, I’m crushed every time. I might have saved the day, but ultimately all I cared about was that the Luma was by my side, then he wasn’t. That was twice in my life that a Mario game made me think about loss, and each time was potent.

It’s an incredible thing to have a game connect with a player beyond just having fun. There’s a certain amount of escapism to video games, but I know that when I’m playing, for me there’s a lot more it it; I’m soaking in everything that’s on the screen in front of me. The design of the characters, the worlds, the sound of the music, the story, all of it is being absorbed by my brain. I’ve seen and done things that left me in awe in all my time gaming. I count leaving behind poor, brave Makar to guard the Earth Temple in Wind Waker right up there with watching Atticus Finch defend Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird. Pushing forward relentlessly to find the source of the pillar of light in Journey resonates as strongly to me as Gatsby reaching futilely towards the green light across the water in The Great Gatsby. The themes and tropes video games explore are just as compelling as the written word or projected film.

It’s important to recognize the depth of emotions and feelings that people have experienced in video games, because then it becomes easier to validate the industry outside of its own community. Twitch is great, or posting videos of playthroughs on YouTube, but it’s also integral that gamers move past the pure, visceral aspects of gameplay and take a deeper look at what these games mean, the stuff that lies under the surface. We’ve had enough talk of head shots and hidden rooms; it’s time to start saying what it all means. Think of when players saw Aerith die for the first time in Final Fantasy VII; thousands of people across the world were convinced that they did something wrong. PlayStations were reset, shutdown, or unplugged from sockets as a response, with some folks going so far as to even restart their entire playthrough. That’s an incredible moment in storytelling, let alone the industry, that only people who play games have any inkling of, and as time progresses it’s a memory that fades. Let’s do our best to recall and catalogue these experiences so that the legacy of gaming is more than negative news reports and congressional debates.

Ouya Uh-Oh

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I’d been looking forward to getting an Ouya for quite a while, despite a general lack of enthusiasm for the console. I started embracing all platforms a long time ago, so I knew that when I finally got one, I’d find games and features that would make me happy. After trekking to a local Target and bringing my Ouya home, I have to say it’s been one of the most disappointing experiences in my years of gaming. It has promise, but Ouya needs a lot of work if it’s ever going to be a contender.

Taking the system out of the box, it certainly looks as forward thinking as its marketing would have consumers believe. The system is sleek and small, not much bigger than a pool ball in the palm of a hand. Those used to the multiple ports and holes on the back of contemporary consoles will be shocked by how few actually exist on the Ouya; HDMI, power, and a USB port are just about it. Not that that’s a bad thing, as I found the minimalist approach refreshing. It felt very much like stepping back in time to the days of plug and play.

The controller got the better of me, though, as I fell victim to what stumped many early adopters and asked: “how the heck am I supposed to get the batteries in?!” That thought wracked my brain until I finally wimped out and went to Google to find out. For the handful of you who don’t already know this, the face plates on both the left and right halves of the controller actually pop off, and that’s where the batteries go in. Sigh, I know, weird. The controller feels sturdy and has a typical Xbox 360 setup, though the face buttons read O, U, Y, A, and there’s a neat touch pad in the middle of the device. It’s comfortable, but I thought overall it felt a little aftermarket, with stiff buttons and a weak d-pad. I haven’t had any problems playing Sonic, though, so I’m giving the Ouya the benefit of the doubt that it’s all in my head.

Booting up the Ouya, and after a lengthy software update, I made my profile and was off to the races. Until I started browsing for software, that is. Again, I can normally find things to keep me happy on any given console, but Ouya’s marketplace is woefully underwhelming. I immediately downloaded all three Sonic games (which are really fun), and I’m eventually going to get Final Fantasy III, Canabalt HD, and Super Crate Box, but beyond those titles, I didn’t see much that looked all that great. Amazing Frog? seems interesting, and there are other games that people have raved about, but I’m going to have to do some research before moving forward.

The digging for new content is half the fun of any system, but it shouldn’t be the only way to find games to play. My biggest gripe, though, wasn’t the lack of software, but the overabundance of Nintendo emulators. Ouya makes itself out to be the fourth head at the big table, yet allows its marketplace run amok with pirates swiping off one of its competitors. That’s far from classy and not something that gives me much solace as a customer. I know Google Play has more than a few of these emulators, too, but it’s not a very good excuse. Something should be done, and Ouya should be the ones doing it, not waiting on consumers to email complaints that they’ll eventually get around to reading.

I’ll be sticking with Ouya, though, and searching for the diamonds in the rough. I’m not sold on the idea that free-to-play can fuel an entire system, but Ouya is trying something different that just might work, in the long run. With shifts to that policy being made, a wider variety of publishers will hopefully start showing up, and sampling games under the original model has been interesting. Pricing is also pretty reasonable, which is one of the things I like about mobile and am digging on a home console. Whether a Dreamcast in the making or a force to be reckoned with down the road, it’s going to be an interesting journey.