E3 2014 Overview

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Whoo, buddy. E3 2014 was my first time to the big show, and what a show it was. All three companies came out swinging with solid showings, highlighting a variety of titles that seem to have a great deal of potential. For Sony, I found myself most interested in their reveal of LittleBigPlanet 3 and Uncharted 4 (though I’m really hoping that installment isn’t the end of the line for the series). Microsoft wowed me with its Master Chief Collection. That’s the sort of fan service that I’ve only ever seen come from a company like Nintendo, but I don’t think even its ever done anything as ambitious as what Microsoft is attempting. Nintendo, though, ran away with the show, as far as I’m concerned. Nearly every game on its show floor was a must-have, and the lineup was packed with both familiar faces and pleasant surprises. All in all, Nintendo had the complete package, and it was very apparent.

So, here’s looking forward to the rest of this year and beyond, and please check out my little gallery of pics, below!

 

Intermission

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Getting tired of the semi-hiatus here at Retro(spective)? (All five of you, I mean). Me, too! I did warn everyone though, so I’m not losing too much sleep over it, but still, nothing worse than dead air. What can I say, school has been a beast lately, Nintendojo (which you all should be reading) always has something percolating, and well, I can’t write about games if I don’t play them! Summer approaches, though, so expect things to start getting livelier as we move deeper into June.

Mario Kart 8 will be getting the old review treatment, and expect the same for Tomodachi Life, too. Beyond that, E3 is going to be huge. What I don’t post for Nintendojo will be here, so look forward to hands-on time with whatever amazingness lies in wait for this year’s show. I’d also like to point out, Retro(spective)’s one year anniversary is also fast approaching! Maybe I’ll… give something away in celebration! Exciting times await, dear readers! I hope you’ll all be along for the ride.

Mario Kart 8 Impression

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In case you didn’t get in on the fun, Nintendo had Mario Kart 8 preview events at GameStops this past weekend, and I was lucky enough to give the game a go. I’ve been with the Mario Kart series since its debut on SNES, and have thoroughly enjoyed every installment since. Mario Kart 7 has become something of a benchmark for me following its release on 3DS, with its brilliant new air and underwater additions to the racing formula, so I had very high expectations for 8 as I walked into my local GameStop. I’m happy to report that if the final game is anything like what I sampled, fans have quite a bit to look forward to when it drops on May 30th.

From the outset, the MK8 demo hits the ground running, as players are greeted by way of Mario shouting the title’s name with total abandon. Just to reiterate, this isn’t the final game, so I’m assuming there might be tweaks to certain things in the game’s final retail version. That being said, I enjoyed the serenity of selecting a racer then quickly assembling a kart to my liking. As in MK7, 8 has carried over the simple mix and match system of combining chassis, wheels and tires, and gliders, which I hope is never abandoned. Besides the strategic aspect of it, kart customization adds a small flourish of individuality that I greatly appreciate. From there, players select from one of eight tracks, and it’s off to, well, the races!

It never ceases to amaze me how easy Nintendo makes track design look in the Mario Kart games. In just the small sampling of races that the MK8 demo affords, I was floored by an incredible variety of courses. Toad Harbor feels like a pseudo-San Francisco with its hilly roads and cable cars, while Sunshine Airport sends a jetliner straight at the player as they glide through the air. In terms of visuals, it’s easily one of the top games on Wii U. My eyes were darting all over the screen trying to soak in every glittery detail of the tracks I was zooming around. If Wii U is “last-gen”, I don’t ever want to leave.

As far as course design goes, the MK8 demo is also tops. Course layouts are intentionally pulse-pounding, with mini-events like the incoming jetliner I described packed into every course, which is both visually arresting but also a means of keeping players on their toes. What seem like simple eye candy is often an obstacle or hazard in disguise, tasking players to act on the fly to avoid crashing and falling behind. What’s more, sometimes these events happen once per race, which further amps up the thrills. It’s not as jarringly chaotic as I’m making it sound, either, as players will have clear indications of when road conditions change or a hazard is incoming; it’s a more than fair setup. Essentially, it’s a new way of making every race unique and fun, no matter how many times someone plays through the game.

Finally, the controls are as rock solid as ever. I played using the GamePad and Wii Racing Wheel, and while I race exclusively with traditional analogue stick and button controls, I was pleasantly surprised at how much better the motion tracking was in the demo than Mario Kart Wii. That not to say MK Wii had rotten motion controls, but MK8 is clearly a step up. Regardless of which setup I used, my racer controlled perfectly. That’s important, given the insane amount of action happening on the screen. The transition from land to sea to air is as smooth as it was in MK7, and the new anti-grav mechanic is equally sound. It might seem like a mundane new feature, but anti-grav is a thrill to experience. Racing along a wall with other drivers below me was mind-bending and exciting. The avenues this opens for finding shortcuts was not lost on the developers, either, so look forward to secrets peppered about that tie-in to the mechanic.

Overall, I think Nintendo has put together a racer to be proud of. I couldn’t get enough of the demo and found myself even more hyped up for MK8 than I was before. May 30th can’t get here soon enough, and when it does, I’ll be following up with a full review!

Virtual Consolation

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As much as I’m desperate for Nintendo to get its Game Boy Advance games onto 3DS, I’m stoked for tomorrow’s launch lineup of titles hitting Wii U’s Virtual Console service.  People love to tout games like Super Metroid and A Link to the Past (as they should!), but I truly believe that GBA had a rich catalogue that easily equalled some of the best 16-bit titles of the SNES era. Games like Metroid Fusion, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, The Minish Cap, and Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance are just a handful of the excellent experiences that players got to enjoy on GBA. It’s essential that this initiative succeeds on Wii U to help insure that these wonderful titles don’t fade into obscurity.

As much flack as I’ve given Nintendo’s Virtual Console service over the years, there’s no denying what a wonderful thing it is for gamers to have access to. There are so many exceptional games to play on VC that most folks can only dream of ever getting hold of as physical copies. Unlike just about every other form of media and entertainment, video games, especially the old, classic ones, are landlocked to whichever piece of hardware they first appeared on. No old NES meant no old NES games for years, until VC launched on Wii. Thankfully, Nintendo is opening the vault to give a greater variety of its handheld games some time in the sun.

GBA remains one of my favorite consoles of all time. All three form factors were comfortable and attractive (yes, even the original, with it’s unlit screen and AA batteries). The SP is usually the default favorite for many when it comes to this generation of Nintendo handhelds, and for good reason, as it represented a true evolutionary leap in design for the company. I’ve always loved the Micro best though; sleek, light, perfect. GBA, like GameCube, was also the end of simple consoles. Plug in a game, flip the power on, and straight to playing a game. No user interfaces or home screens to be bothered with, just pure, unfettered gaming.

Oddly, there’s not much recognition for the fact that GBA helped keep 2D game design alive and thriving. The world was enthralled with polygons and 3D worlds at the time, so classic platformers and top-down RPGS were all but gone from home consoles. GBA let devs continue to produce the sorts of titles that were being shunned elsewhere, up until the industry finally realized there was room for both styles of play. Metroid Prime is an incredible game, but the world would be a less interesting place if Metroid Zero Mission never was released. GBA kept the old traditions alive for an entire generation of gamers that would have been robbed of them, otherwise.

When the eShop gets updated tomorrow, I’ll be ready to start downloading some very fun games. Good luck tomorrow, Nintendo! Here’s hoping folks show these games the appreciation they deserve.

E3 Anticipation

It’s only March, but I can’t help but think about E3 2014 and how very close it is. Soon, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft will be promoting their newest games (and maybe hardware!) for the world to see, but half the fun is guessing what those reveals might be! Here are five things I’m looking forward to seeing at E3 2014!

5) Halo 5

Last year’s demo built hype, certainly, but it seems likely that we’ll finally get a true glimpse at Halo 5 this E3. Or Halo something-or-other, because Microsoft has been coy about committing to the traditional numbering from the Xbox and Xbox 360 days. Taking a cue from the comic book companies and trying to ditch “intimidating” high numbers on its boxes might be Microsoft’s goal (which sucks), but no matter what Halo 5 is ultimately called won’t mean a thing if the game can’t maintain the high quality the series is known for. Given how embraced Halo 4 was, I think it’s a safe bet that Halo 5 will be just fine. That being said… what comes next for Master Chief?! I’m torn whether I want to see something radically different or more of the same, awesome Halo gameplay we all know and love.

4) New Vita IP

I don’t care what anyone says, Tearaway was an amazing game that played to Vita’s strengths. It was as charming as LittleBigPlanet and a breath of fresh air regardless of platform. I’d love to see a sequel make its way to Vita (or even PS4), but I’d also like to see some more, original IPs head to the handheld, preferably straight from Sony itself. PSP brought the world the wonderful Patapon and Loco Roco series (which need Vita sequels, like, NOW), and I’m curious what other sorts of unique, fun handheld games Sony has up its sleeve.

3) Mega Man

It’s just sad that fans have been waiting years now for a true, new Mega Man game from Capcom, but that’s the world we live in, folks. With all the attention that Mighty No.9 has been (justly) receiving, it would be foolish of Capcom not to capitalize on the Blue Bomber. There’s room for both series in the world, and maybe now would be a good time to unveil a Mega Man title to create some friendly competition between Comcept and Capcom. Fans would be the winners, in the end, no matter what! Just to geek out a bit, here, but after the Worlds Collide crossover between the Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog comics by the folks at Archie, I’d love to play a video game with the two characters. The comic was fun and introduced some weapons concepts that would be awesome to see in action!

2) New Nintendo Hardware

I’m thinking that Nintendo will either reveal a new variation of the Wii U hardware or a redesigned 3DS. As far as Wii U goes, I don’t foresee a full-blown redesign, but I can picture Nintendo either doing something to make the system differentiate itself more from the original Wii, or offer models with way more memory or a slimmer GamePad. A redesigned 3DS is probably the safer bet here. The base model 3DS remains the weak link of the three versions of the handheld, with low battery life and some clunky design choices (I’m looking at you, Home/Pause/Select buttons!). As it stands now, the 3DS is the middle child and not all that appealing. I’d be pretty happy to see Nintendo put out a new model that’s reminiscent of the XL’s design, with rounded edges, better buttons, slightly bigger screens, and longer battery life. Make it ultra thin, and it would be pretty dang cool.

1) New Zelda

This is a foregone conclusion, as Nintendo has already confirmed we’ll be seeing the first glimpse of the next installment of Zelda, but no one knows what it’s going to be like. Realistic graphics? Toony? A middle ground like Skyward? Will the waggle be back? Where in the timeline is it going to fall? So many questions! Just talking about it gets me excited, and with the incredibly fun and gorgeous games that Wii U has already graced us with, I know that the next Zelda is going to be amazing. I just want to know more about it!

A handful of predictions/guesses, but here’s hoping that some of them come true! Until then, I should probably get to actually finishing a bit of the mountainous backlog of games I have piling up. Till next time!

REVIEW-Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

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It was when I heard Aquatic Ambience almost note for note as it sounded in the original Donkey Kong Country that I knew I loved Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It was almost like composer David Wise was saying, “hey, that remix on Wii was nice, but if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. Tropical Freeze as a game adheres to that particular idiom, but also isn’t afraid to boldly address some of the small complaints levied against Wii’s Donkey Kong Country Returns. The taught, challenging platforming of the series is now complemented with the return of swimming, two additional Kong partners, and a litany of new mechanics, camera angles, and a wonderful soundtrack. Wii U continues to add feathers to what is quickly becoming quite a full cap. Tropical Freeze does not disappoint.

Like ReturnsTropical Freeze opens with a small cinematic explaining the basic premise of the game. The baddies this time around are the malevolent Snomads, a pack of icy animal warriors who have evicted DK from his island paradise and overrun it with frost. Donkey, Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky Kong must make their way back to reclaim their home. Admittedly, beyond this bit of animation (which is outright beautiful and reminiscent of a Pixar or DreamWorks film), there’s not a lot of story to experience in the game. Not that it matters; video games are in the unique position of not needing to have a deep narrative if the focus of the experience is on gameplay. Tropical Freeze is all about its gameplay, and is all the better for it. Still, for those wanting a LittleBigPlanet-level of narrative, this is not that kind of game.

The platforming is as challenging as ever, but as a result is immensely satisfying to pull off. The Donkey Kong Country games are all about creating perpetual motion, learning to time and master DK’s jumps and rolls so as to careen through enemies in a seamless, silky barrage. Hopping and bopping Snomads is almost rhythmical in its execution, something that really helps differentiate this series from the Super Mario Bros. games. A new addition to this dynamic are the new zip-line vines, which DK slides down uncontrollably and must maneuver between while avoiding enemies and pitfalls. I loved these segments, which felt both familiar and refreshing all at once. I did find it a bit disappointing that Donkey’s blowing mechanic was removed, this time around. It seems to have been replaced by the ability to pull items from the ground (which is fun), but the action felt so unique and whimsical that I was sad to see it go.

Mine carts and rocket barrels have returned, much to the chagrin of some players. I’ll be honest, I live for those levels. They’re a perfect way of preventing monotony from setting in, while also providing an additional layer of challenge; as Nicolas Vestre might appreciate me saying, these levels separate beef from side salad (that’s a Dream Team reference!). I was thrilled when the camera pivoted behind the Kongs in certain levels, requiring them to swap between tracks to avoid certain death. Speaking of the Kongs, the implementation of Dixie and Cranky was perfectly handled. Dixie’s spinning hair acts as an opposite to Diddy’s descending downward glide, instead wafting her and Donkey upwards a short distance. Cranky is altogether different with his Scrooge McDuck pogo cane antics, bouncing high and across deadly hazards. While there are certain areas and secrets that can’t be discovered without a specific Kong in tow, the game lets the player be very liberal about which partner they prefer to use at a given time.

I also can’t not mention how swimming has been brought back. It’s brilliant. rather than the simple bobbing up and down of the original DKC trilogy, Tropical Freeze grants Donkey 360 degree movement through the water that would make an olympic swimmer jealous. I felt a wave of giddiness wash over me when I saw DK dive into a pool of water for the first time; it reminded me very strongly of the second stage of Donkey Kong Country 2 and seeing the water down in the hold, realizing quickly that yes, I can jump into it. (I’m a huge sucker for water in a video game; am I alone with that?) The absence of swimming in Returns was palpable, as it was such a big part of the explorative nature of the SNES DKC games. Explore you will, by the way, as there is a ton of bonus areas and hidden exits to find in Tropical Freeze. Players are rewarded for poking their noses into every corner of the game, is all I will say, so be sure to take your time taking in the sights. The game is also playable with a friend, with the same fun co-op gameplay of Returns.

Graphically, Tropical Freeze demonstrates just how important it was for Nintendo to make the switch to HD with Wii U. If Returns was gorgeous, this game is Emma Stone-levels of otherworldly. Shimmering water, African-inspired grasslands, giant octopuses, rain, snow, fire, and a million other environments and effects are on display throughout. I spent as much time just staring at the screen as I did actually playing. This is a masterclass of level design that outstrips most other contemporary platformers by a wide margin. It doesn’t hurt that original series composer David Wise lent his musical stylings once more. I loved what Retro did to recapture the sound of Donkey Kong Country in Returns, but there’s a very pronounced sound to Wise’s work that is more than welcome to hear again. The score is epic, bubbly, and toe-tappingly memorable, with both new tracks and remixes/reinterpretations of favorites from DKC2 and 3, for good measure.

Joining Pikmin 3Wind Waker HD, and Super Mario 3D LandTropical Freeze is yet another reason to own a Wii U. Its blissful platforming is the stuff that inspires people to play video games and make even better ones. I loved every minute I spent getting the Kongs back home, and truly wish that Retro rounds off a trilogy with one, last DKC game. Everything that would have made Returns a better game is on display here, and its wealth of content will keep you busy for many hours and days to come. In an industry dominated by headshots and blood splatter, it’s more important than ever to support and appreciate titles like Tropical Freeze that excel at being something different.

Score: 9.5/10

+ Tight controls; the return of swimming; all three Kongs are fun to play with; multiplayer is strong; graphics are spectacular; exquisite soundtrack; mine carts and rocket barrels-that’s right!

– Light on story, which might irk some; no more blowing

Building a Better Wii U

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Normally, I write about video game series in these “Building a Better” pieces, but in light of Nintendo’s latest sales woes, I thought it might be appropriate to analyze Nintendo itself. As ever, critics and fans alike are quick to start nailing the coffin lid shut on Nintendo’s time as a hardware manufacturer, but let’s face it; this is nothing new. Let’s take a peak behind the curtain and see how Nintendo can fix things and remain viable now and moving (hopefully) into the future.

Fix the Online Experience

Xbox Live needs to be the model for every single console manufacturer in the industry. The architecture of Microsoft’s online service is so sound that it’s boggling why any company, Nintendo included, wouldn’t embrace the core tenets of its design. I’ve said this before and will repeat it until I’m blue in the face, but certain standards always have to be recognized. The basics of online interaction as defined by XBox Live are so ingrained in players’ minds that it’s foolish to ignore them.

I applaud Miiverse and think that it’s the shining jewel of what Nintendo has accomplished on Wii U, but it’s not enough. Wii U’s online needs to be XBox Live plus Miiverse. Making friends, forming parties, and cross-game chat should be seamless and easy to do. People coming to Wii U from Live and even PSN are greeted with an alien experience that feels underdeveloped. Pro Controllers should have headphone jacks. Players should be able to report problematic Nintendo Network users. At this point, being different isn’t good enough; Nintendo needs to be on the same level as its competitors on top of offering unique features like Miiverse.

True Unified Accounts

I was happy to unify my Nintendo Network account across Wii U and 3DS, but it was a merger by name, only. Nintendo’s version of having an “individual” account is a bit of a farce, at this point. One ID for one Wii U and one 3DS; that’s it. For customers who buy multiple Nintendo consoles, there is still no reprieve from being forced to re-buy games and DLC multiple times.

As with XBox Live, the precedent for how to do individual accounts right was set many years ago by Sony’s PlayStation Network. I have multiple PS3s, PSPs, and a Vita, and Sony recognizes this, allowing me to spread my account across a host of consoles. Nintendo might have their reasons for being so stingy, but for a player who has invested in multiple systems, it’s more sensible to accommodate than restrict.

There’s simply no benefit to not being able to spread my collection across a handful of Nintendo devices. I have a 3DS I take out on the road with me and an XL that I keep at home. If Nintendo were reasonable like Sony, I’d be able to share my huge collection of games on both systems, but instead, my XL sits mostly dormant of downloaded titles because I don’t want to pay twice for a game. It’s a waste and it’s discourteous to consumers.

Diversify and Increase Development of Wii U Software

A common assertion that fans (and even I) have made about Wii U is that its fortunes will improve if it starts getting more and better software the way 3DS has. Here’s the problem with that line of thought; Nintendo’s handhelds have always gotten a wider variety and greater amount of games than its home consoles. Wii U certainly had much better titles in 2013 than in 2012, but just look at the difference in volume between it and 3DS.

Dream Team, A Link Between Worlds, New Leaf, Awakening, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, and many more games graced Nintendo’s handheld, while Wii U had to make due with a fraction of that amount. If Nintendo does want to use software to push Wii Us, it needs to bring to the table the wealth of titles that have appeared on its handhelds for years. Some games, like the Mario & Luigi series, have never ventured beyond handhelds; perhaps by embracing series like these and bringing them to Wii U, Nintendo can truly turn the tide.

Considering the interfaces of Wii U and 3DS aren’t all that different, Nintendo should stop focusing so much of its creativity on 3DS and turn some of that ambitions towards its struggling home console. Don’t abandon 3DS, obviously, but allow the Wii U to benefit from some of the ambition that Nintendo invests into gaming on the go. The lineup for Wii U is too safe and predictable; shake things up!

Hurry it Up With Virtual Console

Iwata himself touched on this previously, but Nintendo has to start pumping out the Virtual Console games faster. The company’s back catalogue is huge and invaluable, and there are a lot of players out there waiting to play classic games on the GamePad. The Nintendo 64 games are obviously waiting in the wings, and Game Boy Advance titles have been promised, but beyond those two systems, GameCube needs to become part of the picture. It’s yet another wonderful collection of games that players love, and it’s outright foolish not to be offering them for download.

Resuscitate Old Franchises

At this point, nothing and no one in Nintendo’s pantheon of games and characters should be dormant. Not every series is a system seller, but just about every single Nintendo franchise has a ravenous fan base. As Pikmin 3 demonstrated, even the more low key series can inspire new fans if done well, and that can easily be the case with F-Zero, Star Fox, Metroid, and a ton of others. Other companies would kill just to have one of Nintendo’s franchises, so there’s no reason to be underutilizing anything.

There are a lot of other things Nintendo can do to draw in more players, but these are some of the more glaring problems, in my opinion. 3DS is doing well, so Nintendo should really make Wii U its priority for the next year or two. One thing is for certain; Nintendo is far from dead, and far from done.