Category: Nintendo

Legend of Zelda HD Remaster

The original Legend of Zelda has received a HD remaster treatment by the romhack community.

The hack is playable through an emulator called Mesen. Mesen is free, and you’ll need a copy of a specific version of the original of the Legend of Zelda ROM as well as the HD remake files in order to play it.

Applying the HD remake files to the game is not difficult, but requires following a series of instructions that are demonstrated in the video below.

I gave it a try. The graphical updates give it a look on part with the SNES, and have a look reminiscent of Zelda III: A Link to the Past, although the sprites appear to be original artwork, not rips from the SNES ROM. Likewise, the audio sounds much like a SNES update of the original LOZ soundtrack.

The terrain sprites are fantastic, and make old Hyrule look spectacular. The repetitive tiled look of the original is completely made over, and now overworld features like bombable rocks and burnable bushes are a bit less of a pain than they were before — rather than having to try to burn every single bush on the screen, there’ll be one bush (or a small handful) of bushes that will stand out and look suspicious from the rest of the background terrain.)

I’m not as impressed by the character sprites. Moblins, Goriya, and Stalfos all look less charming than they did in the original. Creatures like Octorocks, Tektites, Leevers, and Kees look like they are done better, to me.

One thing I notice right away is that Link’s HD sprite looks visually smaller than the original, but his hitbox doesn’t seem to have changed. This makes him feel somewhat clumsy, and I kept colliding with enemies when it looked like I should have a bit of space between us. While I’m sure this can be gotten used to, to me it’s an unfortunate, huge, and immediate negative. Ultimately, enjoying a videogame comes down to gameplay, not graphics, and gameplay is impacted by an improper hitbox like this. I believe the developers of the HD Remaster could fix this pretty easily by making adjustments to Link’s sprite.

Another thing I noticed is that when climbing up/down stairs, there is no animation showing Link descending and disappearing into the dark hole, as there is in the original.

The HD Remaster enhances the game in a few other notable ways: increased bomb capacity, pressing Select toggles your B-inventory item so you no longer have to pause to the subscreen to select it, text draws faster, and the dialogs are somewhat altered from the original, offering better translations and more useful clues than were present in the original.

I’ve played through the first dungeon. I notice that in the dungeons, the map doesn’t seem to give you any visual indication to differentiate between rooms you have visited vs. rooms that you have not yet reached. This is another gameplay issue that I feel should be rectified by the maintainers of the mod.

Overall, this seems like a fantastic mod, very well done, but not without minor flaws. It is nevertheless enjoyable and should not be missed if you’re a fan of the original game. Nintendo legal often clamps down on fan projects like this, so if you want to play this yourself, it’s best to grab it while you can. Although, the maintainers do appear to have taken pains to separate the mod pack from anything that directly infringes on Nintendo copyright, such as the original ROM that is needed in order to make the mod pack work.

I never liked Donkey Kong

There. I said it.

Donkey Kong is the foundation of a modern business empire, a cultural cornerstone, the genesis story of the Marioverse. Not liking Donkey Kong is something akin to blasphemy. I gave it a shot. I wanted to like it. But I just never liked it.

I feel like I am about to regret one quarter just looking at this screen capture.

I first played Donkey Kong when it was new, in the Arcade, on Atari, and ColecoVision, and I never considered it one of my favorites. It was a smash hit when it came out, sold tens of thousands of arcade cabinets, swallowed hundreds of millions of quarters, sold millions of cartridges on home consoles, and been ported to just about every console of its generation and the next few after. It was groundbreaking, both technically and in terms of game mechanics and narrative.

I recognize all of that, and I still don’t care for the game.

This isn’t merely a statement of opinion or taste; I don’t enjoy playing Donkey Kong, and I don’t find it to be a particularly well-designed game.

Let’s talk about that.

For sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the first screen.

How high can you climb?

Donkey Kong is very difficult and unforgiving. Part of its difficulty stems from the tight window for clearing dangerous obstacles, and the narrow clearance for successful jumps. But much of it comes from design choices that tend to make the game feel unfair.

Jumping

Jumping is the key mechanic around which the whole game is based. Yet, the jumping mechanic is rough. When you jump, you can’t change direction or height, so you’re committed to the path of the jump until you land. This makes jumping risky and hard. When you make a mistake, there’s no second chances. You know you’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do but watch and wait for it.

You can’t jump very high — just the exact height to clear a barrel or fireball, and the exact distance to clear two barrels if they’re right next to each other… barely. Miss a jump by a little bit and you’re dead.

On the first screen, some of the ramps look like they might be close enough together to allow Jumpman to jump up to the next platform from the one below, but that is not permitted. You can only ascend to the next platform by climbing a ladder.

Not that you’d normally ever want to, but you can’t jump down from the edge of a ramp to the one below, either — the height is not great, but it will still kill you.

If you jump off a platform, you die if you fall just a short distance. Jumpman can’t survive falling any farther than the peak height of his jump.

Ladders

You can’t get off a ladder until you get allll the way up to the top of it, or allll the way to the bottom. Very often, you’ll think you’re there, and try to move left or right, only to find that you’re still locked onto the ladder and unable to move. A better design would have been to treat horizontal joystick input as continuing Jumpman’s previous climbing direction, moving him the rest of the way up/down the ladder until he is clear.

There’s no jumping from a ladder, either. Allowing this would make the game play feel less stiff, and give the player greater control and flexibility.

Some of the ladders are broken, turning the ladder into a deadly dead-end. You can climb up them, but only get part-way. At the top, barrels rolling by below you will still hit you and kill you, even though you’re off the ground. It’d be nice if the game gave you a break and decided there was enough clearance that you could be safe here. And a barrel that decides to roll down from the platform above and take the ladder path will also kill you. You’re stuck on the broken ladder until you backtrack down and get off. If you could jump off the ladder, or jump to clear the gap where the ladder broke, you’d have one more option, open up possibilities, and it would make the game feel a little more fair.

Hammer

The Hammer power-up allows Jumpman to fight back against the barrels and fireballs that are his bane, and earn extra points. But this comes at a cost.

Jumpman can’t climb ladders with the hammer, and cannot jump. This means he is stuck on the platform where he grabbed the hammer, for as long as the hammer persists.

The hammer is a temporary item, which runs on a timer that ends after a few seconds, but without warning. You can be right about to smash a barrel when suddenly the hammer disappears, leaving you defenseless and no time to jump out of the way. And you have no choice but to die. This feels unfair. To fix this problem, the game should give the player a cue to let them know that their hammer time is about to expire — blinking or an audio signal would be helpful. And maybe if the game detects that Jumpman is facing a barrel, and it is within a “close enough” distance just as time is about to expire, give the hammer enough extra frames before despawning it to allow the barrel to be busted.

Since the levels are timed, and running out of time will kill you, getting the hammer can screw you if you grab it while the timer is running low. Your remaining time gives you bonus points, so being forced by the hammer to wait before you can finish the level can actually cost you points, unless you can smash enough barrels/fireballs to make it worthwhile. It would be better if you could cancel the hammer early. Perhaps hitting the jump button while holding the hammer could make Jumpman throw the hammer, giving you a useful way to cancel it early, and a ranged attack that could come in handy and give you one more option.

The hammer may make you seem invincible, but you can still be killed if a barrel gets past the hammer to touch Jumpman. Most players don’t realize this until they learn it the hard way. A barrel coming down a ladder can be hit by the hammer, but if it swings out of the way and the timing is just wrong, the barrel may hit Jumpman in the head before the hammer swings back up. Likewise, the rolling barrels may approach Jumpman from behind, or roll under the hammer while it is above Jumpman’s head. The swinging of the hammer is automatic, not controlled by the player, so whether the hammer hits the barrel or the barrel gets through is somewhat random. Usually Jumpman will hit, but once in a while the barrel will get through. I would fix this design issue by making Jumpman invincible from the front, but still let him take hits from above and the rear.

Barrels/fireballs

Barrel pathing is pernicious; whether a barrel will go down a ladder or continue down the ramp can’t be known for absolutely certain, but it seems that barrels are more likely to go down the ladder if you’re on the ladder, making using ladders especially deadly. It makes you paranoid to avoid starting up a ladder until any approaching barrels have cleared the ladder you need to climb. To some extent, you can manipulate the barrel AI by your position and direction, as the enemies will tend to take the path that is least advantageous to you. So by standing to one side or the other of a ladder, and facing the right direction, you can often influence the barrel to take the short path or the long path.

Barrel spacing is too random and can often kill you unfairly. Donkey Kong will sometimes roll two barrels at you too far apart to jump both together, and too close together to jump the first one and then immediately jump the next one.

Sometimes DK will toss a barrel that will go straight diagonally down the screen, ignoring collisions with the ramps. These move extremely fast and are unpredictable, making them all but impossible to dodge. If you happen to be in their path, at the top of the screen, you have almost no warning and no time to get out of the way.

Collisions with barrels will kill you with any overlap — even if you’re standing on the platform below, with your head poking above the next level, a barrel rolling along that level will collide with you and kill you. An if it passes below and clips your feet even a little, while you’re on a ladder, it’ll kill you as well. Collision boxes could have been made smaller, to make slight collisions forgiving, and allow for exciting “close calls”.

Why did Donkey Kong succeed?

In 1981, videogames were still quite new and very popular, with great interest in any new title that came out. It was a time we now look at as a golden age for the video arcade, after several years of ascendancy through the black and white era that gave way to the mega-popular blockbusters of the start of the 80’s, like Berzerk, Defender, Pac Man, and Moon Patrol. But only Pac Man made more money than Donkey Kong. What made it such an attraction?

Donkey Kong had the benefit of being unlike anything that had come before it, in terms of play style and technology, yet it had instant familiarity all at once, in the way it echoed the familiar King Kong story from classic cinema. It had colorful cartoon-like graphics. Its sound effects and music were charming. The game play was novel, yet intuitive, despite the brutal difficulty level. And for an arcade game, being extremely difficult was actually a good thing, since it resulted in shorter games, more credits per hour, and thus higher revenue. The challenged appealed to many gamers of the time. And there were not yet other games similar enough to compare against it, so the rough edges in the mechanics weren’t very obvious.

As one of the earliest platformer games, it broke ground and innovated, and for the time that was enough. Despite the shortcomings, rough edges, and unforgiving difficulty, it captured the minds of the public and gave them entertainment.

For all that, though, it just wasn’t for me, and I’ve come to accept that. For my quarter, though, Ms. Pac Man or Zookeeper is a far better play.

Pac Man Championship Edition NES Demake

In 2007, Pac Man creator Toru Iwatani gave me all the reason I needed to buy an XBox 360 when Namco released his farewell game, Pac Man Championship Edition.

The original Pac Man Championship Edition for XBox 360

Easily the best Pac Man game ever made, it was a fantastic modernization of the classic game which updated the design to maximize Flow, the zen-like state of consciousness sometimes called being “in the Zone”. Featuring a split maze, where completing one side spawns a prize on the opposite side, which, when eaten, refreshes the completed side, the game is perfectly set up for non-stop maze running and high score runs, where your goal is to maximize points in a timed run through a combination of eating dots, prizes, and ghosts.

I learned yesterday that a NES demake of Pac-Man CE has been released on the latest Namco Museum anthology, available on Nintendo Switch.

Graphical glitches aside, this is absolutely amazing!

The demake has actually been around for several years, and is available for download if you can find it.  You can play it in a NES emulator, or on real hardware, if you have an Everdrive. It’s implemented on MMC3 and weighs in at 257kb.

The original Pac Man CE was designed for 16:9 TV screens, while the NES is obviously engineered to display its graphics on an NTSC 4:3 display at 240i resolution. So to work around the limitations, the demake uses an ingenious programming technique to scroll the maze, using the NES’s video buffer to create an infinite horizontal wrap when you use the warp tunnels.

This is a must-play, must-own if you’re a fan of Pac Man or the NES. It’s also worth owning on the Switch. Apart from online leaderboards, it is fully featured, quite faithful to the XBox 360 original, and extremely well done.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Diaries (1)

I bought a Nintendo Switch last spring, two years after launch, when Super Mario Maker 2 was announced, and I bought my obligatory copy of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the same day.  And then didn’t play it until a global pandemic swept through the country and forced everyone into becoming homebodies.

I guess that’s weird, right? You should see my backlog of Steam games I have purchased but never played.

So, I’ve read reviews and know a bit about the game ahead of playing it, but I’m trying to experience this game as much as I can by figuring it out on my own, and not going to walkthrough sites and reading how to win the game. I think this is the best way to enjoy the game, because it seems like the designers meant for it to be a journey of discovery, and I want to experience it that way, and not as a list of tasks that I need to complete in order to say I’ve experienced the game.

So far, I’m liking the game. I think my response to the experience of playing BOTW is more interesting and nuanced than gushing fanboy praise. Zelda games are Top Shelf, and typically get high 90% reviews. And while they’re clearly lavish, and intended to be special, I think I’m enjoying being critical of it as well, perhaps more than I would enjoy the game if I felt nothing but awestruck by the whole thing.

I’m playing it handheld, and I wonder if maybe the small screen contributes to my feeling this way. There’s no denying the graphics are beautiful, but maybe they’d be much more impressive on a 40+” screen rather than on a 7″ or however big the Switch’s screen is.

At any rate, I started posting my progress and impressions on Facebook, and as I’ve gotten into it more, I think it’s more fun to post this sort of thing on the website too.

I haven’t done something like this before, but I think what I’ll do is continue posting to Facebook, journaling my progress in the game, and then re-publish them, cleaned up, here, later. The Facebook posts aren’t public, but these articles are. They’ll be published on a delay, so commenters won’t be able to spoil the experience for me. Hopefully this will be interesting and worthwhile for people to read along.

I get that these days the hip thing to do is stream and talk, and that’s where the monetization is (or was, for a while), but I’m a bit more old school than that, so it’ll be text, and occasionally images. Assuming I can remember to take screen caps, and then post them. While pictures are great, I’m not really here to sell the game, but to talk to my experience of it and my reflections on those experiences. And I’m not sure that images are all that necessary for this. If you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about.

And it’s been out almost 3 year snow, so if you haven’t, well, you should have already. What’s wrong with you?

Oh, and it goes without saying, I’m not worried about posting spoilers. The game’s been out.

Thoughts on Nintendo Switch Lite

Yesterday, Nintendo announced their hardware revision for the Switch Lite. As I already have a Switch, I’m not likely to buy one, and if I didn’t have a Switch, but wanted to buy one, I’m not sure whether I would opt for the original or this new version.

The new version is cheaper, by about $100, but it gets to that price point by dropping features.  The controllers are not detachable from the unit, which has a number of repercussions, both good and bad:

Good:

  • The controllers don’t get lost.
  • The connector/locking mechanism is a weak point that is prone to wear and breakage.
  • The controllers don’t need to have separate batteries so they can be used wirelessly, independent of the battery in the main body of the Switch.
  • This makes it considerably less expensive.
  • The left side incorporates a D-pad rather than the 4 separate buttons, which many gamers agree feels better and is better.

Bad:

  • They dropped the HD rumble feature, which means that pretty much kills any future game development that might have made use of this feature.  
  • The motion-tracking capabilities (accelerometer, gyroscopes, IR camera) of the controllers and their ability to be used in various configurations are gone, too.  Even if they were kept, being attached to the console would prevent the controllers from being used freely in the way that detachable controllers could be.  This marks a move away from the novel motion controls that Nintendo were lauded for innovating with the Wii. 
  • It doesn’t connect to a TV, so is portable only. While the smaller size will appeal to gamers who want a more truly portable Switch, this likely means that the end is near for Nintendo’s venerable 3DS line of handhelds. (Of course, that writing was already on the wall the moment Nintendo revealed the Switch.)

To me, the bad outweighs the good, here.  Dropping these features means that gaming consoles are reducing the scope of their capabilities, which means that game developers will have to work within a more limited set of constraints for how they can deliver experiences to gamers.

The reality is that most games are developed for multiple platforms, ported to any system that they can.  The result of this is that game developers are already constrained to designing within the set of feature constraints represented by the least common denominator across all systems.  As such, unique features that differentiate a console tend to go unused, and thus aren’t worth investing in.  This means that innovations can only make headway if they’re adopted industry wide by all competitors. 

That is, if everyone decides to do HD rumble and motion control, then game designers can create designs that target these capabilities, and by making use of them, will justify their existence and the large R&D and manufacturing costs associated with providing them.  In other words, it’s use it or lose it.  

This isn’t really anything new.  In the NES era, there were very few games produced that supported the light gun.  The Zapper was an optional accessory that didn’t come standard with every NES, and as a result the install base was too small, so a game developer who wanted to maximize sales would want to target the widest possible audience, which meant constraining themselves to develop games that could be played on any and all NES consoles, and this meant ignoring the people who spent the extra money to invest in the Zapper. 

When Taito ported the arcade light gun rail shooter Operation: Wolf to the NES, they implemented an on-screen target reticle controlled by the D-pad, rather than support the light gun.  I bought that game, assuming that of course they would provide a means to play the game for people who didn’t own a Zapper, but would surely have supported the Zapper as well, to provide the best translation of the arcade experience to the home console.  But they didn’t.  Instead, you had to deal with a slow, awkward control mechanism which made the game horrible to play. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. The game was a hit in the arcade, and a bomb on the NES.

In like fashion, we can now expect game developers to ignore the dropped features of the Switch that differentiated it from the market and made it special, but now are “non-standard” and not part of the full feature set. In large part, most 3rd party developers probably were already ignoring those features, rather than expending extra effort to create Switch-enhanced versions of their games that made full use of what the hardware could offer. But now even first party Nintendo titles that Switch-exclusive will likely not support these now-“extra” features.

Considering that Nintendo put so much effort into engineering these features in the first place, and made it a big part of the appeal to customers to buy a Switch instead of the more standard PS4/XBOne ,to me this feels like an admission that they were mistaken that such innovations would drive sales, and now they’ve taken an alternative track to target budget gamers. This might be a sound business decision; I’m not saying it isn’t. But it is a sad thing to realize; we’ll be seeing a blander future for games with the library of features reduced to just buttons and sticks.

It might well be that this is all any game designer “needs”, but I feel like the painter’s palette has been reduced. Imagine if painters had developed paints that produced scents that reproduced the odors of the subject, creating an enhanced experience for the viewer. Or textured paints that reproduce the tactile experience for someone touching the artwork. Not every painting would need olfactory features or haptics, but it would be more immersive for those that did make use of it, and would open up new worlds of possibility for people working in the medium. But if only a few painters bothered to make use of the capability, and if the enhanced features could only be experienced in person, and not through prints, photographs, or other-media transliterations of the original, many painters might well think “why bother?” and abandon the enhanced paints, leading to their death in the marketplace, and an endpoint to further development of the innovation.

What about “Switch Pro”?

The other rumored Switch revision has not surfaced. It seems unlikely now that it will. But many Nintendo fans had expressed a desire for a “Switch Pro” with features like a bigger, higher-resolution screen, larger JoyCons for adult-sized hands, larger internal storage and a beefier processor/RAM, and possibly losing the handheld mode and going TV-mode only.

While I’d definitely be more interested in this, I don’t think we’ll see it, especially now that the Switch Lite is out. Switch was intended to be a crossover device that unified living room and portable gamers. Splitting back up to “Switch Lite” for portable gaming and “Switch Pro” for higher-end entertainment center gaming would be a reversal of course, and for that reason alone I doubt Nintendo would make such a move.

It’s more likely that a hardware revision for the full Switch would bring additional RAM, CPU, and/or internal storage, but I wouldn’t count on a bigger screen with higher resolution (too much battery drain) and it seems to me there’s more than enough controller options for players with larger hands, particularly the Nintendo Pro Controller that if the JoyCons are too tiny for you, they’ve got you covered already.

Update: Nintendo announced a revision to the original Switch, bringing a larger battery capacity, and no other upgrades.

Super Mario Maker 2 review

Although my friends know me as someone who is an avid video game player, I have a confession to make.  My last Mario game was Super Mario World on the SNES.  I never played Super Mario 64, or anything later than that on the main Mario sequence.  I mean, I’ve played Mario Kart and most of its sequels, but in terms of 2D run and jump platformer Mario games, I kinda left off early. By the time Nintendo 64 was out, I was in college, I had to work, and didn’t have as much time for playing games as I once did.

It wasn’t that the Mario games weren’t good. But I did feel like Mario was kinda over-hyped, and a bit overrated.

There, I said it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Mario.  I do!  But he’s everywhere. With Nintendo’s other star franchises — Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Punch Out, Kirby, Pokemon — you had time to miss them. A new game might or might not come out for this generation’s new console. But it might only be one game. And there wouldn’t be a slew of cameos and guest appearances in other games, either. Mario hype was just relentless, and for me at least, it became somewhat tiresome. It felt like they should come out with a game called Super Mario Saturation, and be done with it.

That’s kindof where we’re at now. After three, almost four decades of Mario games, the developers have a robust, mature Marioverse. They keep coming up with new ideas, somehow, but one wonders just how many more Mario concepts there might be left to explore. Infinity – 1, of course, but one might well ask: Does the world really need another Mario game?

The answer, of course, is: of course. The world will always need another Mario game. Nintendo will see to that, rest assured.

But that said, Super Mario Maker 2 just might be the last Mario game you ever need.

I missed out on the original Mario Maker, as it was a Wii U release, and I didn’t buy into the Wii U. But man, was I tempted to buy a Wii U just to be able to make Mario levels!

The idea of Mario Maker was obvious: Take classic 2D Mario platforming and add the level editor from the original Excitebike, and garnish with social media. This was everything a Mario platformer fan could ask for. Fans unleashed their creativity. People created amazing levels that pushed the limits of Mario physics. Some really amazing levels were made. I can only imagine that Shigeru Miyamoto’s own expectations were exceeded.

So when Nintendo announced Super Mario Maker 2 for the Switch, I pre-ordered it immediately. This is noteworthy, as it’s the first time I’ve ever pre-ordered a videogame. I’ve always felt that videogame preorders were a bad deal and a bad idea — games get canceled all the time, and frequently games don’t live up to the hype when they’re finally released, and it’s always cheaper to wait a bit and buy games on sale. But I’d been waiting — since 2015! — to get my hands on Mario Maker, and I would not be delayed.

So I picked up the game on Friday, and have been playing it for a few hours a day since then.

Mario Maker lets you create levels using most of the 2D Mario engines: classic SMB, SMB3, SMW, New Super Mario Bros. Notably missing is the capability of making levels in the SMB2/Doki Doki Panic engine, which I find sad as SMB2 is a different game and among the best in the series.

To my surprise, I have yet to make my first Mario level. The game has a Story Mode, which I’ve been using to get caught up with all the changes that have accumulated since I last picked up SMW. The story is: the mushroom people had just completed a new palace for Princess Peach, when Undo Dog accidentally sets off the Reset Rocket, obliterating the entire construction. Wiped out, they must build anew, but lack the coins needed to fund the rebuild. So Mario must complete “jobs” in order to earn coins, which are used to rebuild the castle bit by bit. So far, I’m a bit less than halfway through the reconstruction.

The Story Mode gives me the opportunity to experience a wide variety of course designs, and appreciate them as a designer as well as a player. If I struggle with a level, the game gives me the option to edit the level to add a power up, or remove a challenge, to make it easier to complete. This is such a clever way of giving the player a way to get into level design — by editing a professionally designed level, rather than having to start from scratch. If I really have trouble, I can also “call Luigi” to clear the level for me. I had hoped that this would involve watching a computer-controlled Luigi run through the course, so I could see how it’s done, but it all happens off-screen, which is a bit disappointing.

For clearing these Story Mode levels, you are rewarded with coins, which you can use to rebuild the new palace, and each bit of building advances the story a bit further. I find that it really does make me feel like I want to play more levels, beyond my desire to enjoy the levels for their own sake.

So as I’m playing these levels, I’m getting ideas for how I might design a level using the multitude of design elements: time limits, auto-scrolling, platform jumping challenges, hidden secrets, puzzles, enemies, all the different power-ups a Mario game has ever given us — to create an interesting and fun level. There is a lot to work with.

I will probably follow up this brief review with another article focusing on the Mario Maker editor in greater depth. My initial impression is that while the variety of pieces you can work with is a bit daunting, the level editor is polished enough that it is enjoyable to work with it. While a Mario level can be quite complex, it’s pretty simple to get started. From there, you can get as complicated as you want. If you’ve been living under a rock and would like to see what’s possible, without actually owning the game or a Switch, just check out all the videos on YouTube of people showing off their amazing, crazy level designs.

Once you’ve designed a level (which I have yet to do), you can upload it and share it with the world. Then you can download and play levels made by other players, and challenge yourself to complete them. The replayability offered is truly unlimited. And, I would imagine, probably frees up Miyamoto to retire from designing new Mario games, if he would like. I hope that he continues to produce new, creative works, but at 66 years old, it’s inevitable that day will come sooner or later. And, let’s face it, with all that he’s given the world in his career, he’s definitely earned it if he wants to step away.

Even if Miyamoto-san becomes immortal and never stops working, perhaps we could say that the Mario Universe has now been completed, and that from here out, we can make our own Mario levels, and Nintendo can reassign their design teams to developing some brand new ideas. But I’m sure there will probably be a Mario Maker 3, maybe it will be a Mario Maker 3D, and give us the ability to make Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, and Odyssey levels. But I’ll be satisfied if they release a 2.1 that includes the ability to create SMB2 levels.

Even the title screen of the game is fun. It is actually a complete, playable SMB3-style ship level. No, wait, it’s better than that. It’s a random different level every time you restart the game! I got to the end of it, hoping something special would happen, like I’d get a trophy or unlock something, but I guess it was just for fun. For all I know, maybe there’s some secret I didn’t discover in there.

Super Mario Maker 2 offers so much to the player. I’m tempted to say “everything a Mario fan could want” but without a SMB2 physics engine, it feels a bit incomplete. Still, there’s no end to the creativity enabled by this tool. And even without creating anything with it at all, there’s still a ton of fun to be had from playing the included Story Mode levels, and playing the thousands of levels thas SMM players have created already. Whether you’re a creative, level designer type or just a casual Mario gamer, Super Mario Maker 2 is a must-buy.

I’d love to see Nintendo bring out a Zelda Maker for top-down classic Zelda fans. And if Capcom would put their blessing on the MegaMan Maker project and give them funding, publishing, and everything else they need, that would be sweet. And we should all be asking for a Metroid Maker, and a Castlevania Maker.

Game review: Tetris 99

I bought a Nintendo Switch about a month ago.

Since buying it, I’ve only played one game, so far: Tetris 99.

I’m a long-time fan of Tetris. I played it on my NES ever since 1989. I’m decent, but not great at it. My skill tops out around level 13 or so in the NES original. I can cruise comfortably up to about level 9 or so. My best efforts these days are about 1/4 what it would take to qualify for the Tetris World Championships, as I found out when I was at Portland Retro Gaming Expo last October.

Chances are excellent that you need no introduction to Tetris. It’s only the most famous and successful videogame ever. Blocks fall, you rotate and drop them to complete lines and clear them from the well. Everyone is born knowing this now.

Tetris 99 takes the classic mechanics and puts you up against 99 other players in a battle royale. It’s amazing how quickly a new tournament can get ready. It seems that at any given time, there is always at least 100 Tetris 99 players ready to go within a minute’s notice.

That’s incredible. I don’t know how it’s possible, but you never seem to have to wait more than a minute or two for the next game to start. Nintendo has sold 8.7 million Switch consoles since launch. The subset of Switch owners who are playing Tetris 99 at any given moment must be considerable. If we assume every Switch owner is playing Tetris 99 24/7, that works out to 6250 tetris players per minute of the day. Obviously, Switch owners are playing lots of different games, and not playing 24/7, but even so, the fraction who are playing Tetris 99 might well be around 1/62 of the total install base. So, just maybe, it really is plausible that in the real world that you can get 99 players for a pickup game at a minute’s notice. But I’m still amazed that it’s consistently the case every time I want to play another round. Perhaps they’re filling slots with bots? I wonder.

The tetris gameplay is fine. I wouldn’t say there’s any major problems with it. If I want to nitpick, though, I could think of a few things:

First, it’s a bit too easy at times to accidentally hit Up on the control cross, and instantly hard drop your block right where you didn’t want to. Maybe I’m just clumsy, maybe my hands are too big to work with the joycon. But I’ve also played a lot with the Pro Wireless controller, and I still have issues. And from what I’ve read, it’s not uncommon.

Second there’s no tutorial or guide built into the game, and this seems like a real oversight. In the NES era, Nintendo’s first-party games always had outstanding manuals, with higher page count than any other publisher, and high quality content inside. While Tetris may need no introduction or explanation, the competitive aspects that they’ve introduced could use some explanation. Sadly, this is lacking.

Fortunately, you can still get a good experience from Tetris 99 by just playing Tetris, overlook the new features and still have a fun time. That said, it’d be good to appreciate the new features and understand them!

So, to fix the missing manual, here’s what I understand:

  • On either side of the Tetris playfield, you see mini thumbnails of the 99 competitors.
  • You can (in theory, less in practice) tell how well you’re doing relative to the competition by seeing the stack size, see who’s in trouble, and see their Badges. Typically, I’m too busy worrying about the next falling block to look around and check on 98 other opponents.
  • When you complete lines, it sends garbage rows to whomever you’re targeting: 0 if for a 1-line completion, 1 for a 2-line completion, 2 for a 3-line completion, and 4 for a 4-line completion.
    • The garbage rows don’t pop up under your opponent’s stack immediately — rather there’s a timer that counts down, to give a player fair warning.
    • If you have incoming garbage, and you manage to complete rows while the timer is counting down, it will deduct the incoming garbage so you don’t have to deal with it, rather than sending garbage to your targets.
  • Targeting isn’t explained in the non-existent manual, and this is the thing that players should really understand in order to fare well in the battle. Using the right analog stick, you can select between:
    • Random (the default option), randomly attacking one of the 99 opponents out of whoever’s still left,
    • Attackers, counter-attacking those players who are targeting you,
    • Badges, targeting players who have a lot of badges, or
    • Killshots, targeting players who are close to elimination.
  • Eliminating a player awards you with Badges, and the more badges you acquire, the more “damage” you deal out when you complete lines.
  • If you eliminate a player who has badges, you claim their badges and add them to your own. So it’s smart to target players who are close to eliminated, and players who have a lot of badges, to maximize your badges. It can also be effective to counter-attack your attackers, and perhaps dissuade them from targeting you, or if not hopefully eliminate them before they eliminate you.
  • You can also target an individual game using the left analog stick. Who you’re targeting is denoted by the lines connecting the bottom of your playfield to one of the opponents’ playfields in the background. Or maybe that’s who’s targeting you, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I see multiple lines targeting me, and it’s unclear what’s going on.
  • Hard Drop: This feature isn’t in OG Tetris, but if you’ve played a modern implementation, you’re probably already used to it. Press up to instantly drop the piece in play to the botton and lock it into position. This enables much faster play, which is essential to competitive battle. It can take some time to get used to it, if you’ve never used it before. But if you’ve played a modern Tetris in the last, I don’t know, 15 or so years, maybe, chances are you know about this already. There’s also a convenient “ghost” block that shows where the piece will lock into position if you hard drop it. This is really helpful and will enable you to be more precise and cut down on mistakes.
  • Hold block: Another handy feature that wasn’t there in OG Tetris. This is a holding cell that can be filled with a piece, taking it out of play until you need it. Press the left shoulder button to add the current active piece to the Hold. Press again to swap the held piece for the current piece. Grab those I-blocks when you can, and hold them for when you’re ready to deal out the damage with a 4-line Tetris move. Or put a piece that’s currently a problem on hold, and play it later when you’ve got a clean landing spot for it.

One thing about the Targeting feature, I find that after a certain point I’m pretty much only able to focus on positioning my next block, and can’t devote any mental capacity or time to retargeting. It’d be neat if targeting were also possible through Controller 2, so that a second player could assist me by targeting opponents intelligently while I focus on falling blocks. Wouldn’t that be a cool 2p-coop mode?

My only other nitpick with Tetris 99 is that there’s only one background music for the game. Technically there’s one track for when you’re in game, and one track for between games. But I would have really liked to have seen a variety of tracks, remixing and revamping the old classic Tetris BGM, and giving me some variety. Having the same song for every game gets repetitive and feels skimpy.

I’ve managed to place as high as 4th in round, but more typically I tend to finish in the top 50-20 range. It just depends on how good of a game I’m having, and how many players are targeting me.

After taking this picture with my smartphone, I discovered that the Switch has a built-in screen capture button with social media integration. Slick!

I doubt I’ll ever be able to win a round, though, as the game becomes impossibly fast for me when the second speedup happens, with 10 players remaining. When this happens, I’m hopeless and bound to make mistakes quickly, busting out in short order. Still, it could happen if I get into the Top 10 with an extremely clean stack and my opponents are all close to KO.

While I wouldn’t say that Tetris 99 is worth the cost of the entire console, I will say that it’s definitely worth the price of the subscription to Nintendo’s Switch Online services. Considering that Tetris 99 is a free game, but cannot be played without the subscription, it’s just what Nintendo needed to get people to sign up. At $20/year, it’s not expensive, and well worth it for Tetris 99 alone.

New “Link’s Awakening” triggers debate on remakes

It seems a lot of forum activity has been generated by yesterday’s announcement by Nintendo about the remake of Link’s Awakening on the Nintendo Switch.

In short, it seems that a significant number of fans are not in favor of the remake for one reason or another. Mostly this can be summed up as: “It’s not the exact same game as the original.”

Which, is true. The remake completely changes the graphics style, from the old 2-D look of the Game Boy original to something almost claymation-like, using a fixed 3/4 perspective, but with 3D models done in a cartoonish style. It remains to be seen what other changes are in store, and whether they are good or bad. It’s rather likely that the game will play differently in some respects, whether due to differences in the game engine, or changes in the design of the game.

I happen to love the way the new graphics look, so this doesn’t bother me. I liked the original graphics, too. And if I want to play the original game, I still can, and so can anyone with a the original hardware or a decent emulator.
But it seems that, among Zelda fans, there’s a certain segment who prefer the graphics to look “serious” — like Ocarina of Time, Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild, etc., and not “cartoony” like Wind Waker or Four Swords Adventures. Somehow, original LoZ pleases both camps, and Link’s Awakening is in the vein of LoZ and Zelda 3: A Link to the Past. And I guess the new look for Link’s Awakening is too cartoony for them. This does not bother me. I like good art direction, and that can be “serious” or “cartoony” or something else.

It’s certainly true that many attempts at re-making some original classic game fail to capture what was special about the original game. It’s tempting to try to re-imagine something that was very, very good, thinking that adding something more will make it even better. Often that’s not the case.

Certainly, there’s a built-in expectation that a remake has to live up to, which a fresh new game doesn’t, and this can offset whatever advantage the remake had in being based off of a familiar, known, successful game. It can be very easy to mess up by deviating from the original in the wrong way. For example, updating the graphics in a style that fans don’t like, or likewise with the music. But worse would be a major change in the story, something that violates canon or continuity, or is just a change that upsets fans by breaking an unwritten contract to keep the game authentic to the characters and world that Fandom has already accepted. And perhaps the gravest mistake would be failing to ensure that the controls feel tight and responsive and give the game a good feel, ideally something virtually identical to the original. There’s nothing like tasting someone else’s attempt at your favorite recipe that your mom made when you were a kid, and no matter what they do it’s always just slightly off in a way that, even if it’s not bad, it prevents you from accepting it. I think that’s ultimately what makes fans of the original all but impossible to please when it comes to embracing a remake.

But that’s not to say that remaking a game is always a bad thing. I don’t view a remake as an attempt to replace or supplant the original. Rather, I look at it like in the way I look at theater: A playwright can write a play, and it can be performed by an original troupe of actors. And other theater companies can put on productions of the same play. Some may try to do it exactly the way the original was done, following a tradition, while others may stray and experiment. Some will be good, some will not. But it’s not like people shouldn’t continue to put on performances of Shakespeare just because purists who were fans of the original will find something not to like about it. And of course people should continue to write new, original scripts. The entertainment industry is large enough, and the audience is large enough, to sustain both.

Ultimately, it will come down to how the game plays. It’s only fair to judge the remake based on what it is, and not what it’s not. And to be clear, it will not be:

  • The same as the original.
  • A brand new, original game.
  • Different from the original in exactly the way everyone would like it to be.

Will it be worthy? That remains to be seen, and will be a matter of opinion and consensus. But I’m excited about it.

I’m buying a Switch, and other reasons I’ll be a happy gamer in 2019

So a bunch of great announcements from Nintendo came earlier today. For me, the highlights are:

Link’s Awakening Remake

Yeah, Breath of the Wild blew everyone away at launch and sold a few million systems, and I’ll admit I was very tempted to rush out and buy a Switch when it was released.

But I’m not an early adopter and I wanted to wait and see if the system would be a success, particularly after seeing how Nintendo struggled with making the Wii U realize its potential. So I held off.

I like 2-D Zelda more than 3-D Zelda, because 2D > 3D, as far as I’m concerned. And this Link’s Awakening remake looks fantastic.

I’m actually maybe more excited about this than I am about finally getting to play BotW soon.

Super Mario Maker 2

I told myself at the time, I would buy a Switch if they had Super Mario Maker for it. For a while I debated getting a Wii U so I could play both Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Maker, but I decided I wanted the real, full BotW experience with the improved controls made possible by the Switch’s joycon technology.

I’m glad I waited, now. I didn’t have to wait, I could have predicted even then that we’d see a SMM at some point on the system; it was just too popular not to be a thing. But now that it’s announced and official, I can’t wait. Really looking forward to designing some Mario levels in June.

Tetris 99

Battle Royale Tetris, awww yeah!!!!

Non-Nintendo news

Well, actually I’m not quite done with Nintendo news, but these next two are NES homebrew releases.

Full Quiet

First, Full Quiet has got me all hot and bothered to put some more hours on my AVS console. I backed the Kickstarter, and got to play it and talk to creator Tim Hartman at Portland Retro Gaming Expo back in October of last year. I’m pleased to say that this game is already looking incredible, and it should be out later this year. Even if it’s not, and release slips another year, it will be worth the wait. This is not one to miss.

Just look at the latest video showing it in action.

Without exaggerating, I will say that this may end up going down as one of the greatest releases on the NES. And considering the greatness of the NES library, that’s a truly staggering accomplishment.

From talking to Tim, I’m aware that his game will also be released on Steam, playable on PC though emulation of the NES hardware, which means that even if you don’t own a working NES for some reason, you can play this game. And you should.

MicroMages

MicroMages should also be shipping sometime in 2019. This game bears a resemblance to Towerfall, the 4-player archery arena battle indie sensation from a few years ago, but runs on NES hardware, and is pretty fantastic in its own right.

FPGA retro consoles

If that’s not enough, I’m also looking forward to the delivery of the Analogue Mega SG, a FPGA-based, HDMI-output implementation of the Sega Genesis, and the Collectorvision Phoenix, a FGPA-based, upgraded ColecoVision plus.

I can’t imagine that I’ll have enough free time to play all of these nearly as much as I’d like to, but I still can’t wait, and I can’t believe all the good stuff that’s happening in the world of gaming, so much of it the product of cottage industry efforts devoted to keeping older systems relevant. 2019 is going to be a fantastic year.