Site News – January 9, 2016

Just a quick note that updates for the blog will be sporadic for the time being.  It’s been difficult for me to work up the motivation to keep posting on a steady schedule, so I’ve decided I just don’t want to worry about it.

There will be new posts, hopefully not too far apart, but they will be on more of a “when I feel like it” basis.

Thanks for understanding.

Top Game Discoveries of 2015: #1 – Splatoon

inkling_iconDespite what many media outlets hastily declared upon the game’s release, Splatoon is not Nintendo’s first original IP since 2001’s Pikmin. It’s also not their first internally-developed original IP since then (unless you ignore two of the best-selling games of the last generation, Wii Sports and Nintendogs), nor is it their first character-based, internally-developed IP since then (is a generic Inkling really any more or less a character than a Mii avatar or the Wii Fit Trainer?). By the time we’re done adding modifiers to the original statement, we’re ignoring a significant number of original Nintendo IP.

Nonetheless, what is true is that Nintendo was being incredibly ambitious to shove Splatoon into the spotlight as a new major franchise that could stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Mario, Zelda and Pokémon. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime even boldly touted that Splatoon would be to online shooters what Mario Kart was to racing games. Those are some high expectations for a game in a genre that Nintendo had no previous experience in – online arena-shooters – and with no established brand recognition. Not to mention it was not created by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto or any of the other old guard, but by a newer, younger team of Nintendo designers. Could this new generation really continue the legacy of the classic Nintendo magic?

Oh, yes. Yes, they can.

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Not being a shooter fan myself, I was only moderately curious about the game before release. My biggest concern, in fact, was weather or not the game would make me motion-sick (one of the reasons I’m not big on shooters of this type). Fortunately, the two free “Global Testfires” Nintendo held in May before the game’s release eased my worries about that, as I surprisingly had no problems. Not only that, but I enjoyed the game more than I expected to, enough to convince me to pick up it up at launch. And that was the beginning of a summer full of near-daily turf wars.

Perhaps it says something that Splatoon appeals to players like me who don’t typically play shooters. Certainly Call of Duty, Halo and any number of other shooters have the genre covered for fans of that type of game. But Nintendo has brought something new, different, and dare I say, “fresh,” to the table. Splatoon doesn’t adhere to the typical tropes often seen in online shooters. It’s not militaristic, but a sport. It’s not serious, just kids having fun. It has its own style, play mechanics and strategies that keep it from being just another shooter with brighter colors. In true Nintendo fashion, its appeal stretches beyond the normal demographic. Splatoon is a shooter for the rest of us.

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Nintendo also did an amazing job of building a unique and compelling world around the Inklings and their Tokyo-inspired civilization. The Inklings, themselves, while not specific “characters” per se, are wonderfully designed, being a perfect combination of cute and cool, and they’re quite easy to get attached to. It’s no wonder players have been asking for more customization options (specifically a “pants/skirt” shop), and some even going so far as wanting to have their own homes to decorate or pets to raise. It’s like some players want the game to be Animal Crossing with a shooting minigame. But it’s perfectly understandable, as the world of Splatoon is bursting with potential, and we’re all eager to see how Nintendo will explore it in the future.

But beyond the design, the game constantly feels “alive.” Nintendo has frequently updated the game with new maps, weapons, gear, and game modes, always making it feel new and interesting. Periodic “Splatfest” events give the game a festive mood while increasing the competition. Even simply seeing other players’ Inklings wandering around Inkopolis Plaza and being able to read their Miiverse postings brings a strong illusion of MMO qualities to the game. It feels like there’s always something happening, and it keeps the game from ever really feeling old.

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Nintendo can be criticized for relying too much on 30-year-old franchises. While it does seem like many of their most recognizable games came from the 20th century, Splatoon proves that they still have the potential to not only come up with something completely fresh, but bat it clear out of the ballpark. If Splatoon is a glimpse at the future of Nintendo, then it’s a bright future indeed.

Top Game Discoveries of 2015: #2 – Ys Origin

yunica_iconAs a series, Falcom’s Ys chronicles the adventures of a red-haired youth named Adol Christin who travels around a European-inspired continent called Esteria. He traverses an overworld, explores dungeons, visits towns, helps people, slaughters hoards of monsters, and usually ends up exterminating some giant demon. In this context, Ys Origin is an anomaly, presenting a unique experience from any other Ys game.

While it’s still an action-RPG, Origin takes place entirely inside a tower. There’s no overworld, no towns, very little in the way of side quests, and most unusual of all, no Adol Christin (well, aside from an unlockable bonus). It’s a fairly straightforward climb up the tower, mainly consisting of combat and platforming. For this reason, many Ys fans consider it one of the weaker games in the series.

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Ys Origin was not my first Ys game (that was the TurboGrafx port of Ys Book I & II via the Wii Virtual Console), but it was my second, so maybe it’s easier for me to appreciate it more on its own terms. However, it does have some specific characteristics that appeal to me, personally.

The game’s general linearity and heavy emphasis on combat almost make it feel more like an arcade game. In lieu of Adol, the game provides three other playable characters: Yunica, Hugo and Toal, the latter of which is unlocked after finishing the game once. The variety of characters, the game’s relative brevity, and its replayability combine to create an enjoyable dungeon crawler that appeals to my affection for arcade-style games.

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The combat, itself, is extremely well done, with enough depth and technique that Ys Origin practically qualifies as a straight-up action game. Each character plays differently, with Yunica and Toal being melee fighters, and Hugo’s magic functioning like that of a run-and-gun shooter (another genre I’m quite fond of). The boss fights are clever and epic, and while they can occasionally seem cheap at first, rest assured, there’s always a technique to it.

But beyond the gameplay, I found the characters and story to be quite charming, and they really won me over. Yunica, in particular, struck a chord with me as an appealing character whose development over the adventure was really enjoyable to experience. Hugo, by contrast, is an enormous prick for most of the game, but if you can put up with him for long enough, he turns out to be pretty cool by the end. Toal’s game is considered the canonical version of the story, and it ties everything together, but even he has a few surprises in store. It all culminates in an ending that (as you can probably guess) sets up the events that unfold in the original Ys I & II.

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I enjoy action-RPGs in general, but it takes a lot to get me to play through one three times in a row. Ys Origin did just that, and while I really enjoyed the other Ys games I’ve played, the uniqueness of Origin makes it stand out for me. It’s not just one of my favorite game discoveries this year, but easily one of my favorite action-RPGs ever.

Top Game Discoveries of 2015: #3 – Shadowgate (2014)

shadowgate_iconRe-imagining a classic game for a new generation is a tricky endeavor. It becomes a balancing act between how much you change and how much you stay faithful to the source material. In many cases, old franchises get “rebooted” into something that’s sometimes completely unrecognizable from its original incarnation. But Zojoi’s remake of the classic first-person adventure Shadowgate takes the risky approach of sticking very closely to its source material, while updating it just enough to make it a new experience.

Shadowgate was originally released in 1987 for Macintosh computers as part of Icom Simulations’ “MacVentures” series (which also included the genre classic Déjà Vu), but most people remember it from Kemco’s NES port. The point-and-click adventure saw players in the shoes of a warrior king infiltrating the treacherous halls of the castle Shadowgate in order to defeat a warlock lord. The game was infamous for its difficulty, not just in its obtuse puzzles, instant deaths, and un-winnable states that were common in classic adventures of the era, but also for its turn-limits, in which if you didn’t finish the game within a certain number of turns, it would come to a screeching halt, requiring a fresh restart.

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Surprisingly, despite these elements being considered player-unfriendly and poor design by today’s adventure game standards, Zojoi’s remake retains them all. Not only that, it boldly embraces them. In fact, there’s an in-game achievement for discovering all of the “hidden deaths.” Yes, there are deaths you have to go out of your way to find, essentially turning them into a game mechanic. (Heck, there’s even a Death Count on the official website.)

While the harsh penalties it deals out certainly won’t appeal to everyone, I think the remake demonstrates that they’re an important part of the game’s personality. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a version of Shadowgate where death isn’t just around the corner, or without the pressure of a flickering torch forcing you to consider your next move very carefully. In modern terms, Shadowgate is a survival-horror adventure.

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That’s not to say the game doesn’t offer some accessibility. It includes multiple difficulty levels, the easiest of which removes all turn-limits, greatly simplifies the puzzles, and makes it very difficult (though not quite impossible) to die. It also offers in-game hints in the form of a silly talking skull named Yorick.

The other thing Shadowgate was known for was its atmosphere, creating a dark, foreboding castle full of mystery and danger, accompanied by text narration with a snarky sense of humor. While a more commercialized remake would’ve automatically tried to shove everything into 3D, Zojoi makes a strong case for how detailed and atmospheric 2D art can be. Artist Chris Cold created dozens of absolutely gorgeous paintings for the game’s backgrounds and objects, while Wang Ling painted equally beautiful artwork for the cutscenes. It’s accompanied by a completely re-orchestrated soundtrack by Rich Douglas, based on Hiroyuki Masuno’s original score from the NES version (which is also included if you’re in the mood for some chiptunes), and some pretty good (although sparse) voice acting.

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Perhaps most impressive of all is that despite the dark, brooding atmosphere it all creates, it never felt oppressive. The presentation is so beautifully detailed and well crafted that I found it stimulating. That, combined with the occasionally humorous writing and in-jokes, keeps it from ever getting too grim. It’s dark, but in an “up” kind of way.

Being that it sticks so close to its source material, you might wonder if this Shadowgate is really a remake rather than just a glorified port with pretty graphics and sound. Well, personally, it reminded me a lot of the 2002 remake of Resident Evil. It didn’t just upgrade the presentation, but it also redesigned the puzzles, added new areas, and fleshed out the story so as to create an experience that stood on its own. That’s exactly what Shadowgate 2014 does, and it’s every bit as good of a remake. It’s no surprise to learn that Zojoi was founded by original Shadowgate creators Karl Roelofs and Dave Marsh. This game was clearly a labor of love for them, and they knew exactly what they wanted it to be.

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I first heard of Shadowgate from the NES version, and while it looked interesting, I never had the chance to play it. My first experience with the game was actually the Game Boy Color port from 1999, which was based on the NES version, but I was never able to finish it. Playing the remake this year, however, has truly made me a fan. It’s not only one of the best remakes I’ve ever played, but one of my favorite adventure games.

Top Game Discoveries of 2015: #4 – Freedom Planet

lilac_iconGalaxy Trail’s Freedom Planet kinda snuck out there under a lot of people’s radars at first, including mine, but its reputation quickly spread due to enthusiastic word of mouth. Originally conceived as a humble Sonic the Hedgehog fan game, it almost immediately shifted into an original concept. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013, it finally saw releases on Steam and GOG in 2014, and eventually made its way to the Wii U eShop earlier this year. It now stands with the likes of Shovel Knight as one of the best retro-throwback indie games of recent years.

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And yet, a lot of people still seem to write it off for no other reason than because it somewhat resembles a Sonic game. Whether that’s due to stigma from the Sonic series or its fanbase, it’s not really a fair assessment. Freedom Planet takes its inspiration from several 16-bit classics, not just Sega’s blue mascot. For me, the best description I’ve heard of it is “if Treasure had made a Sonic game,” because in many ways, it feels more like a Treasure game than a pure Sonic game.

The controls are somewhat floaty, but not quite the same as the momentum-based mechanics of a classic Sonic game. What really sets it apart, however, is the presence of a dedicated attack button, which moves the game beyond being just a platformer into action game territory. While running and jumping is still very much part of the equation, mastering the variety of attacks and learning enemy patterns is also essential. And in true Treasure style, there are plenty of large bosses.

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The presentation is immediately reminiscent of the Sega Genesis, but it really goes beyond that. Lots of large, rotating sprites, tons of moving objects, and liberal use of voice acting make it seem more like an homage to the 32X CD or Saturn. The sprite work is impressively detailed and well animated, which adds a lot to the game’s personality. And I loved that all of the cutscenes took place within the game’s normal side view rather than with Ninja Gaiden-style stills or animated sequences. For me, it makes the overall experience feel more cohesive.

As with any good Treasure game, the more you play it, the better it gets because you can really feel your skill increasing. And the game certainly makes it worthwhile to play through it several times. There are multiple playable characters, all of which play completely differently from each other (with an exclusive level available for each), so it’s a different experience to take each one through the game. There are also numerous unlockables, achievements, and just cool little secrets to discover throughout it, as well.

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While some fans consider Freedom Planet to be a substitute for Sega’s recent Sonic games, or “Sonic done right,” I don’t really agree with that sentiment. It may wear its inspirations on its sleeve, but Freedom Planet stands on its own. It’s not a clone, but a game with its own distinct identity. And as such, it deserves to be explored further. Here’s hoping that Galaxy Trail has more plans for the charming world of Avalice in the future. [Update: And just two days after I posted this, the sequel was announced.]