Galaxy out – Back to the roots (not THE roots)

June 25, 2010

Just recently, Super Mario Galaxy 2 was released, the sequel to one of the critically best-received video game-titles ever. And just as its predecessor, SMG2 is as fantastic. Well, almost. Some mean-minded people called SMG2 a “mission disc for SMG1”, complaining about its similar nature. But while it´s true that all the basics are the same, almost each and every mission of SMG2 offers a new challenge that hadn´t been seen before. But I have to admit: A hypothetical Super Mario Galaxy 3 would probably bore me.

Imagination at its extreme

Two 3D-Mario-games, both of the highest quality that can be met in this industry. But nearing SMG2´s end, I couldn´t help but think that a lot of those galaxies featured a very similar style, be it the gameplay or simply the visual premise. Not only that, but SMG1´s ending was by far superior to SMG2´s. Here, you just keep playing and playing, and suddenly it´s all over. Whereas in SMG1, the game really pushed a a whole firework into the player´s face, celebrating the finale of that grand piece of gaming. Still, SMG2 managed to build on SMG1´s strengths, such as not to overuse items. And it certainly one-upped the difficulty to please “hardcore”-gamers. Two fantastic games. But now it´s time for something new. Or should I say: Something old again.

Let me assure you that I know that most gamers consider SMG to be the “new” entry in Mario-evolution that they wanted to happen to the Zelda-series as well. I, however, think differently. And I already wrote an article on that. SMG isn´t new at all. It took the nature of 2D-Mario´s gameplay and perfectly mixed it into 3D-Mario´s basics; thus resulting in the linear, short and fun missions we all know by now. But that´s neither new, nor is it the only option for the Mario-franchise.

Exploring Isla Delfina - Fun without direction

It could be argued that Mario 64´s focus on adventure and exploration wasn´t very Mario-esque, but that´s far in the past. Now, I like that style. I loved Mario 64 when it came out, and, while featuring some reeeally annoying missions, I also loved Mario Sunshine. I loved it because it offered me such big places to explore, jump around, climb upon and find out secrets just about everywhere. Isla Delfino was a super fun place to run around. In both this game and Mario 64, missions weren´t always as clear as in the Galaxy-games. Sure, you were always given a certain objective, but you could also stray away from the original path and explore the level – only to find out that there´s another star to get. It´s this non-linear structure that made 3D-Marios so much fun back then. I very well remember the times when I started Mario 64 or Mario Sunshine only to run around the island or castle. The same can´t be said about Galaxy 1 and 2, where both hubs are completely devoid of secrets.

So, after having greatly enjoyed two of the best Mario-games, it´d be nice to see something new, something fresh: A return to 3D-Mario´s roots. Give me one big, open world to explore. Considering that a new home console-Mario might see its release on the next Nintendo-system, with all the extra power Nintendo could even attempt to create a completely seamless world, without any “levels”. We got the extreme of 2D. Now show us the extreme of 3D, Nintendo.

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Warming up on Skyward Sword

June 17, 2010

I sounded pretty disappointed when I talked about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword in my E3-article. Well, I´m still not entirely sold on the whole thing, but the following gameplay-video that really gives you a nice overview of the whole E3-demo showed that the level-structure is quite open. It remains to be seen just how open the game really is, but I´m now a little bit happier about the new Zelda for Wii.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Gameplay Trailer E3 2010

Stuff that I´m still very skeptic about is the enemy-design, that sometimes is great (see scorpion) and at other times is horrible (see Moblins). Also, the blocky level-design, just from a pure visual point of view. I simply hate those walls that are nothing but non-interactive borders. I really hope that the final game won´t have any load times like The Wind Waker, and maybe even allows the player to climb those walls. After all, if Link really gains the ability to fly, and a lot of evidence points into that direction, then freedom seems to play a bigger part in this game. Which brings us to my last piece of skepticism: If a flying Link becomes reality, then for god´s sake, have it be 100% free-flight, and not some kind of mini-game, like “each time you travel between Skyloft and the land on the ground, you fly on a set path and have to shoot enemies”. That´d be super horrible. Either let me fly by will, by my own decision, or don´t make such a game. At least the new flying-beetle item gives hope that free-flight might be considered.


The Nintendo-show 2010

June 16, 2010

The big three´s press conferences are over. Time for reflecting on what new they brought to the table. But, actually, who am I kidding, let´s jump straight  into the most important game being shown:

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was revealed. That´s the full title of the new Zelda-game for Wii. When Shigeru Miyamoto presented it live on stage, there seemed to be control issues, but as later reports seem to prove, those issues were due to all the light sources in the audience, so not something that will be a problem for anyone playing at home. But let me tell you that I´m disappointed overall. The graphics are what grabs your attention first when seeing that game, and it´s a weird mixture of good and bad design. Link looks fantastic. This is the perfect Link-design as far as I´m concerned. What´s really great, too, is how the game uses some kind of light cel-shading, very similar to the cutscenes of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. Basically, this is The Wind Waker mixed with Twilight Princess, and it´s glorious. But then there´s also the bad. First of all, the new Moblins (I assume these are the new Moblins) look horrible from a pure design point of view. They have ugly, round noses as if they were from a Bugs Bunny-cartoon. And while defending themselves not too bad, they have such short legs that it looks weird how they walk or “run”.  Secondly, I hate the environment. Don´t get me wrong, if you see a screenshot and just judge the visuals from that, it looks good. But I´m looking at the environment from a gameplay perspective. And what I see are non-interactive trees and, the worst of it all, artificial walls that encircle the whole area and that, most likely, can´t be climbed upon. The area in this E3-demo is supposed to be a forest, but it doesn´t feel like one. It feels like a forced playground, not a natural one. And when you see a big mountain in the far in one of the videos that is a perfect cone, it looks like a dumbed down game-world.  So that´s really disappointing so far, but, of course, we only know that one, small area, and I have to give Zelda the benefit of doubt.

What was really cool and a positive surprise were the controls. My personal favorite: Link can now run! Or dash, or whatever you call it. By holding down the A-button, Link will run faster. It seems you can also run up walls and jump out of running, but I haven´t seen that myself, yet. The most important aspect of controls is, however, the sword. And really, they seem to use Wii Sports Resort-controls here. I´d say that there´s an intentional lag when you swing your sword, so it´s not totally as 1:1 as WSR´s sword-controls, but it´s good enough. And when you don´t swing too quickly, the sword really follows your own movement. Enemy-behavior seems to be built around this new feature, so now you have to find openings and slash vertically, horizontally or diagonally, depending on the enemy´s defense stance. The coolest addition to the sword´s skills: By holding up the sword, you can charge it. If you swing it now, it´ll send out a small energy wave that can cut grass. Great! But the sword isn´t the only item that got improvements. Bombs can now be thrown in two different ways, either like usual or you can roll them, much like a bowling ball. Also, there´s a mark that helps aiming bomb throws. The sling shot is back, too, and can be activated simply by pointing at the screen, not item change needed. Speaking of item change, you now simply press a button, draw the wiimote towards an item that´s shown in a ring-menu, and you have it activated. No slow pause-menu anymore. There also have been two brand new items. The whip lets you cut grass and grab items from enemies. Looks really smooth and can be controlled by doing natural movements with the wiimote. The best item, however, is the beetle. This is really like a spy toy. Link sends out a flying beetle. You will then play from the perspective of that beetle, controlling him by tilting the wiimote. Not only is that great for exploration, but the beetle can also grabs items from the ground. One video shows how you grab a bomb and then fly it to a stone wall, making it explode. The one implementation of controls the surprised me the most, though, was the bow and arrow. They really dared to include WSR´s archery controls here, or something close to it. With all my negativity about the environment and some of the enemies above, I´m really excited to see how that changes the game flow. Afterall, that means you cannot quickly shoot an arrow anymore. You have to strategize.

In the roundtable later that day Miyamoto told some more details about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It seems that Link is living on a floating island and will have to travel to a land below, because that land on the ground is befallen of evil.  The sword you saw is indeed the Master Sword. The game is in its final development stage, so it´s doubtful how much of my personal gripes will be addressed. At least it seems that there´s going to be orchestrated music, though Miyamoto didn´t say it clearly. To come to an end with the new Zelda, I´m sure it´ll be a great game. But I also fear that it might be more of the same, rather than the break up that the Zelda-series needed. Putting boss-enemies like that scorpion in the demo on the overworld is nice, but it´s not “shaking up the structure” of Zelda-games. And I really hope that the environments in the final game aren´t as artificial and constructed as in this demo. It looks a lot like Super Mario Galaxy, and while that´s okay for an abstract Mario-game, I want something different from a Zelda-game. Which is a natural, believable, lively world. But that´s not something I or anyone else knows about right now, so for the time being, I´m happy about the controls and movement-enhancements and look forward to seeing more about the world of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

The other Wii-game that now has my full attention is Disney´s Epic Mickey. Warren Spector himself talked about the game on-stage and showed the game. I have yet to find out how long the game is supposed to be and how big the realm of personal choice actually is, but what was shown looked great. The thinner-ability especially. Erasing parts of a level, creating new parts at another spot looked fabulous. And the highlight was when Mickey entered a so-called bridge-zone. Those zones are used to travel from one area to another. In the case of this presentation you had to guide Mickey along a 2D-platforming sequence that looked perfectly like the Walt Disney-classic Steamboat Willy. So even if the 3D-portions of the game wouldn´t be that good, the 2D-portions would easily make up for it. The E3-presentation focused on showing basic gameplay-mechanics, so we don´t know yet how exactly the evolution of Mickey between hero and mischievous mouse works. There is also a story-trailer that was released later on that showed prerendered scenes, introducing the story of the game.

The visual highlight for Wii, however, was Kirby´s Epic Yarn. Yeah, Nintendo finally showed a Kirby-game for Wii! The game uses a very weird look, where everything is made of lines/threads. Kirby can interact with the world, resulting in even more strange effects. Really has to be seen to be appreciated as much as this game deserves.

And that´s it for the Wii. Well, at least for what is worth to me. One of, if not the, biggest disappointments was Donkey Kong Country Returns for Wii. The game itself is fine, it´s classic Donkey Kong-platforming, fans will love it. But why does anybody need RetroStudious for developing such a game?! This game looks so standard-Donkey Kong, nothing has been influenced by RetroStudios. Nintendo could have had this game developed by anyone and it´d have been the same. But instead, they chose RetroStudious, who are famous for their incredible 3D-level design, and have them make a 2D-platformer. This simply sucks. A lot. Really hope that RetroStudios have been working on another game. Oh well.

The dominating factor of Nintendo´s press-conference 2010, though, was the 3DS. And it rocks. We don´t know yet all of the details about Nintendo´s new handheld. What it´ll cost, what the menu-structure will be like, what battery life is like and so on. But what we know sounds and looks great. For many gamers the most important thing: Graphics are fine, about GameCube-level, maybe a bit worse. But well enough for a handheld. I can already see myself spending most of my gaming time in the future with the 3DS instead if my Wii and 360. To allow for ideal controls, the 3DS features an analog-stick similar to the PSP´s, but initial impressions are that it´s a lot better than that one. As could have been predicted, only the top screen is 3D-capable, while the bottom screen remains a touchscreen. The size of the touchscreen is the same of the current DS, but has a slightly higher resolution. The top screen is in 16:9 format and features the same vertical resolution of 240 pixels like the bottom screen, but has 800 pixels in width, which will be devided by two to 400 pixels due to 3D. So one image for each of your eyes. And that 3D-effect appears to be phenomenal. As was predicted, it´s not 3D that pops out of the screen, but rather 3D that gives the screen depth, letting you “look inside the screen”. Something I really wanted also became reality: Nintendo works together with certain studios to bring 3D-hollywood movies to the 3DS. It remains to be seen how you get to see these movies. Buying movies on cartridges would suck, but we shouldn´t rule out that possibility. That´s it for the 3DS-hardware.

Kid Icarus is back! Nintendo finally did it and show a new Kid Icarus-game for 3DS. The full title is Kid Icarus: Uprising and is kind of a shoot’em up with hack’n slay-scenes. Very reminiscent of Sin and Punishment. Not my cup of beer in terms of gameplay, but it´s really nice to see Nintendo finally give the fans what they wanted. And they´re using Pit´s great model from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, too. Not to mention that the graphics will be really nice looking on a portable.

That was, however, but one of a ton of incredible announcements for the 3DS. Nintendo really has all third-parties´ support on this little system. Tecmo is developing Dead or Alive 3D, a franchise that never before was released on a Nintendo-system. Capcom works on a new Resident Evil-game and Konami has Metal Gear Solid 3DS in the works. Then there´s Splinter Cell from Ubisoft as well as an Assassin´s Creed-title. Square Enix has a new Kingdom Hearts-game and an untitled Final Fantasy-game in development. And many, many more. And now you´re asking how Nintendo can top this all? Not necessarily by releasing Animal Crossing 3DS, which looks like another cheap cash-in, but by developing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3DS. Not just a port, but a remake that will be visually enhanced and even be improved in terms of gameplay. For example, Eiji Aonuma mentioned how changing the boots in the water temple will be a lot quicker in this version of Ocarina of Time.

That´s it for Nintendo. Normally, I´d go on to talk about the other two, Microsoft and Sony, too, but their conferences were terrible. Sony´s was a bunch of already known games and some hardly convincing Move-games, while Microsoft did what Nintendo did in 2008. I guess Halo Reach could be interesting. Unfortunately, no mentioning of Mass Effect 3.

To conclude, this was one of the best E3s in years, if you like games that are not HD. As disappointed as I am with Zelda: Skyward Sword, I´m sure that next time we see it, it´ll look much more interesting. And with an Ocarina of Time-remake in the works, I´m on the safe side anyways. What´s most surprising, though, is that I´m totally excited about a lot of third party-games for 3DS. It´ll be so nice to play games with GameCube-like visuals on such a small handheld, and I can´t wait to play Dead or Alive 3D or Final Fantasy on that system. My only doubtful hope now remains that the 3DS supports music-and video playback off an SD-card. If that becomes reality, the 3DS will be the perfect handheld. Ah, who am I kidding? It most likey already is.


See you in another life, brother

June 7, 2010

Only eight days remaining. Then the biggest moments will be over. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony will have finished their E3-press conferences. And that will mark only the beginning. As for me personally, I´m close to losing it because of the hype about Zelda Wii and the 3DS. And that hype is only going to get worse from now on. That´s why this will be that last blog-entry before E3.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you all will enjoy E3 2010, video gamers´ biggest and most important event of the year. Whatever megatons await, we´ll get to know about it all starting with June 14th and be finished on June 15th. Guys, have fun,

we´ll meet again on the other side.


Allowing gamers to use real skills in games

June 4, 2010

Playing games to experience a certain story is fine for most gamers. But there is a kind of gamer that wants more from a game than just seeing it once and then proceed to the next one. Most of these gamers can be found playing multiplayer-focused games. Games that allow for the player go learn certain skills that allow for more effective moves and whatever. However, even these multiplayer-games, no matter how skill-based they are, have their foundation in what I call “gamey skills”.

As good as Diablo 2 was, its skills were very gamey

Gamey skills simply means that whatever it is that you´re skill in, is still only a skill you have inside that certain game, with that certain controller in your hand. It is not the kind of skill you have access to in real-life. Learning button-combos for maximum damage, button-smashing or precise aiming with an analog-stick. It´s all stuff that is only good for games. These games also require you to learn their rules. Unless you obey their rule set, you´ll achieve not a single thing. But couldn´t that be changed?

When I´m talking about using real skills in games, I´m obviously heavily talking about motion-controls. But let me tell you that this is not all to it. Anyways, what advanced motion controls do is to analyze your movements and inputting them into the game. That´s fine, but the way these controls are used for now are only at the minimum limit of what could be done. So let me use the best and most simple example of what I mean. Assume that you´re playing a game that features sword-fighting. You swing your motion-controller, and the on-screen character moves his sword according to your movements. That´s where current game design ends. It´s all you´re able to do at the moment. You can swing your sword, but that is all the game allows the player to do. Everyone can swing a motion-controller, so no real skill is involved. Whatever skills are used in-game are gamey skills.

Now, real skills would be different. Imagine you´re still playing the above game. An enemy is approaching and you´re starting your attack. But instead of just swinging the motion-controller downwards to do the usual sword slash, you actually throw the motion-controller up in the air. The controller spins vertically. As it comes falling back down, you capture it with your hands, and seamlessly proceed to swing the controller downwards. What happens in-game is the following: The character threw his sword into the air, the sword was spinning around vertically, the character captured the sword just in time and smashed it onto the enemy´s head, using the built up-power from the thrown sword. That is NOT an attack that every player could use. Just go try it out for yourself, and then think about how you won´t have time for trying outs when you´re actually facing an enemy who´s there to kill you. And that is but one obvious example. Think of other real life skills that would make sense in-game.

What for?!“, some might ask. And the answer is the only kind of answer that makes sense: Because it´s fun being able to do so. Almost all, if not really all, games fail to create real individualism. There are western RPGs with hundreds, if not thousands of customization options, but in the end, whatever you do is probably being done by someone else, too. And when we´re talking about actual active gameplay-skills, no game offers individual customization here, due to balance reasons alone. Allowing players to use skills that they need to be capable of doing in real life would greatly increase the satisfaction of pulling of awesome moves in games. Even if someone else did it, too, you´d know that that person really is skilled…instead of just having put some skill points on some ability-tree in the game´s menu.