Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Hi, I'm Daisy!" — The Annoyances of Mario Kart 8

Like half a million other people, I grabbed Mario Kart 8 the month it launched. Being honest, my hurry was only partly influenced by a need to satisfy my high-octane fury—after all, I have six other Mario Kart games, some of them on more than one console. I only rushed the sale to take advantage of Nintendo's generosity and score New Super Mario Bros. U (a game I was hesitant to purchase at full) and enough points from the Deluxe Digital Promotion to scoop a copy of EarthBound that won't ignore me when I tell it to save. The fact that all three purchases also gave me Club Nintendo points (the free game I would get with which would also roll into my DDP) was just the icing on the cake.

This was early on in my days of owning a Wii U. Up to that point I hadn't purchased a single game other than the two I picked up at the same time as the console. I was still feeling salty about the disappointing Wii iterations of my favorite Nintendo franchises, and Mario Kart was the ringleader of that little circus (though I recently had a blast giving it a second chance). Still, the trailers were looking gorgeous and how could I ignore my one opportunity to play as the wicked Wendy O. Koopa?

That's as good a place as any to serve up the red meat of this post. The character selection for Mario Kart 8 is a real mixed bag. While I'm ridiculously happy to finally see the Koopalings featured in a Mario spin-off, their inclusion makes Bowser Jr.'s absence a much more glaring omission than it needed to be. Any removed characters, for that matter, utterly baffle me. Mario Kart isn't like Super Smash Bros. where each character requires unique physics and collisions; the characters in a kart-racer all use the same programming with the stats tweaked. Even if Toad and Toadette share stats, some people are more drawn to playing as Toadette. There's an almost intimate emotional link between the player and the characters. When you take a character out, particularly in a game like this where they can so easily be included, you risk severing that link. Mario Kart, more than any other franchise, should never, ever remove characters. Particularly not if they're going to be replaced by the primary cast wearing different outfits.

Along the same lines, I can't be the only one who finds it at least a little disturbing that Nintendo insists on designing a new baby princess for every console Mario Kart title while somehow ignoring the baby characters which have actually been in the platforming series these games celebrate. How do Baby Daisy and Baby Rosalina rank over Baby Wario and Baby Donkey Kong, who were actually unique characters in Yoshi's Island DS? How can they possibly rank over Baby Bowser and Baby Yoshi—both characters which have played very significant roles in a myriad of titles? It's very strange to me that "brand new" baby characters are added while existing, important ones are given the shaft.

Some people would argue that baby characters don't deserve a spot at all because they're alternate forms of existing characters, but I disagree. The infant incarnations of Mario and Luigi have developed into unique and recognizable facets of the Mario franchise, even becoming staples of the spin-off titles in the Nintendo 64 and GameCube era. It's their influence that paved the way for Yoshi's Island DS and the inclusion of Baby Peach in Mario Kart Wii. Where I begin to draw a line is with power-up characters—literally the same person with a change of wardrobe. I can appreciate the animations and references given to Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach to make them feel less like their counterparts, but I can't help feeling a little peeved by their existence. It's really bizarre to me that they have their own spots on the select screen while the yoshis and Shy Guys are all lumped into one space. I think the Mii characters prove that having similar characters with varying costumes and stats sharing the same space can work, so why can't Metal Mario, Pink Gold Peach, Tanooki, and Cat be folded in with the standard Mario and Peach? For that matter, why limit the costume selection? Fire Mario and Ice Luigi have already appeared in Mario Kart Arcade GP DX, so why not include them as well? Why not power-up forms for all applicable characters? This would be a great opportunity to bring back Frog Mario and Cat Bowser, incarnations of the characters which will otherwise remain relegated to their debut appearance.

While we're talking about costumes, where on Earth are white, purple, magenta, brown, and gray yoshi? Hell, how about an adult form of the glowing yoshi from New Super Mario Bros. U? The different colored koopas from Super Mario World? How about the toads? So much easily remedied inconsistency—I can't take it!

The most painful thing about Mario Kart Wii, and a point that still pricks me whenever I play, is the item balance. Nintendo seems to have this perspective that balance means to radically reduce the role skill plays in a game. To "balance" the Mario Kart franchise, they decided to rig the item distribution: players up front get a selection of five pathetically wimpy items while players lagging behind have a high chance of scoring something which will absolutely devastate the competition. A skilled player can hold first for an entire race, but end up being the last person to cross the finish line once the competition finally runs out of bullet bills, bob-ombs, lightning bolts, and blue shells.

It goes without saying that this isn't balance. Sure, "leveling the playing field" sounds like balance, but it isn't. While Mario Kart 8 drastically improved this aspect of the game, it still suffers from horrible distribution bias. Truly balancing the game should mean giving all players an equal opportunity to obtain any item and giving players different ways to use those items depending on their situation. For all the shit it gets, Mario Kart: Super Circuit did something really incredible with the red shell item that needs to be revisited. Normally the red shell acts as a homing weapon, relentlessly running down whichever player has the misfortune of being ahead of you. In the GBA installment, the item can be placed behind the player where it will sit in wait for some poor sucker to drive by, at which point it activates like one pissed off road cop and pursues Player Two with an unquenchable thirst for blood. This isn't a death sentence, however, as the shell waits for the racer to pass before chasing after them, leaving it vulnerable to defensive maneuvers that work on any other red shell encounter (like destroying it with a banana peel). Modern games allow the red shell to be launched backwards as well, but doing so removes their homing capabilities and essentially turns them into a festively colored green shell. I understand that. A tracking bomb might be too powerful for an item as common as the red shell.

But it's a perfect way to balance the blue shell. Giving the blue shell this functionality would mean players upfront who happen to acquire it won't end up shooting themselves in the foot (or the front tire, whatever). It means they can take a more active hand in defending their position. The functionality would also give players in last more interesting options, because they can choose to launch the shell to the head of the pack as usual or they can choose to drop it behind and leave it as an ambush. The difference seems trivial until you realize that leaving the shell to ambush the leader as they approach it means they won't have the opportunity to prepare for the attack. Where sending it forward would alert the opposition, allowing it to lie in wait means it can catch them unawares. They might not have a Super Horn to stop it with (although the thing doesn't show up often enough to be nearly as useful as it was intended to be), because they weren't expecting it to be coming. Leave it on the finish line for even more fun.

While the items might need some tweaks and the character selection leaves much to be desired, it's safe to say that Mario Kart 8 is the most successful iteration of the franchise when it comes to absolutely nailing the single core mechanic: driving. The game excels at vehicle control and course design, with enough grip and weight and response-feedback to help the players feel as though they're actually drifting through Moo Moo Meadows. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Mario Kart's second most significant mode: Battle. Battle Mode has been with the franchise since the very beginning and has always sported its own set of arenas designed to best contain the furious frenzy. In Mario Kart 8, however, the mode has been given much less consideration. While there was plenty of opportunity to improve favorite battle arenas of years past (Block Fort with ramps and gliding? Battle Course 2 with underwater segments? Hell yeah!) the developers decided to toss players into a handful of average race tracks instead. This is interesting in concept, I'll admit, but in execution it just doesn't play out well. The courses are simply too large for the frenetic play Battle Mode is known for and players can go an entire round without ever crossing paths. Kind of defeats the purpose.

At the end of the day, these problems aren't deal breakers for me. I can turn on Mario Kart 8 and have a great time zipping around beautifully reimagined retro stages and a host of incredible modern compositions, but these issues do stop it from ranking very highly with my enthusiasm. When I sit down with friends I want to play Pikmin 3, I want to play Hyrule Warriors (but mostly Pikmin 3), but when somebody suggest Mario Kart 8 all I can say is: "Well... okay."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Week #4: Licensed to Play

One month into Jermungandr's Top of the Week Challenge, and he's issued a cool assignment: our ten favorite licensed video games. This is a much needed breather after the incredible weight of last week's prompt. It's not very often that I sit down and think about the quality of a licensed video game, so I'm happy to have this opportunity to really put down some of my thoughts on games that aren't my usual cup of pontification. I'm also pretty eager to hear what licensed games others have enjoyed.

In no particular order, my top ten favorite licensed video games.

1. Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers (NES)

No doubt about it, the first game that popped into my head when I read the prompt was Capcom & Disney's Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers for the good ol' Nintendo Entertainment System. Not only is this one of my favorite licensed video games, it's one of my favorite video games period. To this day I have the cartridge kicking around somewhere, label smeared in the residue of a spilled PB&J sandwich two decades ago. It still worked last time I gave it a go. While most retro fans praise DuckTales and Darkwing Duck (two other excellent Disney Afternoon titles to come out of a partnership with Capcom pre-greed), I've always been partial to the Duck family's tiny tormentors. When you take two of the most charismatic cartoon characters in history and put them into a state of the art platformer with an upbeat musical score and the visual grace of Disney's animation studios, you know you have a winner. The stage design is clever, and the player is presented with a really astonishing sense for the scale of these characters as they timidly traverse a land of giants. Every enemy is beautifully designed with a good sense of personality, and they continue to pose a threat as you progress through the game. Each ro-bull dog is as threatening as the last, and that really drives home how dangerous this world can be for a couple o' little guys. Not to mention that combat isn't the standard stop-and-stomp technique so popular of the genre, nope. Chip & Dale's offensive capabilities rely entirely on how well they can manage the resources in their environment, making a keen eye and a sharp wit imperative to survival. That the game invented the co-op mechanics the Super Mario Bros. franchise wouldn't adopt until 2009's New Super Mario Bros. Wii really shows how far ahead of its time this game was and just cements its place as an important milestone in the genre. As a kid this co-operative play made it one of the go-to titles for my best friend and I, and that has kept it high, high on my list to this day, when my girlfriend and I brave the depths of Fat Cat's lairs. If there were anything to nitpick about the title, it would be the difficulty. Right off the bat the game isn't shy about mercilessly savaging players, and things only get hotter when the rodents are shipped off to the moon. Regardless, the challenge is half the fun. "How far am I going to get this time?" you'll ask yourself. As a kid it bothered me that I could not choose any of the other Rescue Rangers to play as, and if it were to be remade today I would definitely want to see at least Gadget coming in as a third playable option (unfortunately Zipper and Jack don't really share the same dimensions as the other characters...). Minor complaints aside, the game is hands-down fabulous.

2. Tiny Toon Adventures (NES)

The 8-Bit Era seems to have been the golden age of licensed video games. Not to say there wasn't a metric buttload of crap released in the early days (the Atari 2600's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial can surely attest to that), but it was also just about the only time in the medium's history that you could pick up an adapted title and expect it to be good. Tiny Toon Adventures is one that doesn't disappoint. That's largely due to its very Super Mario Bros. style of play, allowing gamers to off enemies with simple head-stomps and putting the emphasis on landing jumps just right. Unlike many clones, however, Konami managed to get the physics down pat, arguably even improving them over Super Mario Bros. 3. Character momentum feels just perfect. Kind of a slower Sonic the Hedgehog. Jamming down while at top speed will allow your character to slide, a maneuver which can take out scores of enemies, much like sledding down a hill in the Mario games. The music, being a chiptune rendition of the ever-catchy TIny Toon Adventures opening theme, is memorable, though it can seem irritating and out of place at times. Visually the game is outstanding--Warner Bros. and Konami spared no expense in meeting their competition (see first entry). They're so good, in fact, that it's almost like watching an episode of the cartoon. Bringing the package together are a slew of memorable boss encounters, mini-games which force the player to avoid the twisted embrace of Elmyra Duff, and a nifty character-swapping mechanic that allows Buster Bunny (the primary protagonist) to swap out with one of three friends: Plucky Duck, Furrball, or Dizzy Devil. Each partner has a unique ability (and Buster himself happens to be both the fastest runner and most able jumper), allowing the player to approach levels in various ways. The only complaint that can be rightly had with the game is its utter lack of multiplayer options. It would have been nice if the game featured the competitive one-at-a-time two-player mode originated in the original Super Mario Bros. and Babs Bunny could be utilized as the Player 2 instead of yet another princess in need of saving. Regardless, the game is a great example of both its genre and franchise, and makes for a fun adventure on lonely, quiet nights.

3. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (SNES)

Whether the television show was any good or not is a matter of much heated debate, but in my mind there isn't any question that the video games spawned by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are among some of the coolest games to grace my consoles. Later titles certainly fell victim to Licenseused Gamitis, but the SNES iteration is an utter classic. It plays as a very successful hybrid of a 2D action platformer and an arcade-inspired beat 'em up. The graphics are superb (although the Rangers share the same sprite with swapped colors, making them all resemble Jason. This is particularly disturbing if you play as Kimberly) with distinct, vivid colors. The whole game has a very comic book feel to it, a style which I think works well for the Power Rangers. Players can choose from any of the five original Rangers, each with their own unique weapons and play styles. Personally I was always partial to the Pink Ranger, as she comes equipped with a bow and can safely pick off Putty Patrollers from across the screen. A glorious, Mega Man X sounding track plays over every level. Some of the tunes are really unforgettable, and it's one of the few game soundtracks I find myself scouring YouTube just to listen to again and again. Controls are usually responsive and very smooth. The game might be a little on the easy side for some players, but for me it provides just enough challenge to be exciting every time without becoming knuckle-whiteningly infuriating like other examples of the genre (probably because this was never an allowance-garbling arcade release). The final stages of the game suffer from a total change of pace, becoming a pure fighting game with the player in control of the most beautifully sprited Megazord I've ever seen. These stages aren't bad, or even poorly programmed (and they are actually used in the game's limited multiplayer mode), but I feel like thrusting them all together out of the blue and at the end of the game's run kind of ruins things. It would have been better to end each stage with a Megazord battle using the same engine. Regardless, the game is still a masterpiece. If I recall, it's the first game I actually completed by myself (at the ripe old age of five). Every year I come back to it at least once--a fact which ranks it among only one other game (Super Mario World) as an annual endeavor.

4. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Game Gear)

That's right, MMPR isn't on here just once but twice! Produced and released on the same timetable as its SNES counterpart (and misleadingly sharing the same name), Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for the ill-fated Sega Game Gear is actually a completely different game. While it has much in common with the Genesis game (also of the same name, and also fantastic), there are some notable differences. For starters, the Game Gear iteration is a much simpler game in all ways: simple controls, simple music, simple (but stunningly effective) visuals. There actually is a multiplayer mode in the game, but I'm pretty sure I was the only 90s child to own a Game Gear in the state of New Hampshire, so I never had the opportunity to try it out. MMPR has two modes of play which are pretty similar. I'll first mention the secondary game mode, which is a pretty typical arcade fighter. What's notable about it, however, is the sheer number of playable characters. Players can choose from six Rangers, three Megazords, and seven monsters. That's sixteen characters, which is utterly mind blowing for a game released at the time (not to mention one of them is King god damn Sphinx). Unfortunately, only certain match-ups are allowed. Rangers and Putties can't fight Megazords (or the giant monster known as Cyclopsis), Megazords can't fight each other, and if you actually get together with a second player you can't be the same character. These decisions really hinder what could have easily been a great Power Rangers fighting game. The other game mode is a singe-player campaign which operates as a hybrid fighter and beat 'em up. While players are restricted to a small play area, they are forced to defend themselves from a rush of enemies, including sub and stage bosses. After defeating the Monster of the Level, Rita Repulsa's magic wand will make her monster grow, initiating a Megazord round. At first players can only pick from the five primary Rangers and their single Megazord, but later stages provide the option to use Green Ranger, Dragonzord, and MegaDragonzord.

It always struck me as odd that Rita Repulsa herself isn't a fighter in these games. I know she isn't much for fighting her own battles, but it's weird for superheroes to never come up against their arch nemesis. Plus, she could probably kick some major ass--she is considered the scourge of the universe, after all.

5. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (N64)

Most people will probably point to 007: GoldenEye as their go-to licensed shooter, but for me nothing will ever come close to the utter insanity of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. Everything about this game secretes coolness. It's got dinosaurs, and I was like six when it came out. Dinosaurs and six-year-olds, there's almost no contest. This was also my first FPS (and as the course of my life would show, one of the few I can actually enjoy), so I'm never going to be able to forget how breathtaking it was to traverse such a hostile terrain from the perspective of this total badass. This total mortal badass. When raptors came running from the fog, tongues lashing, teeth gnashing, they weren't coming to take a bite out of some stoic pixie elf or a fashion-challenged Brooklyn plumber... they were coming for me! Not that I really had to sweat about it, because I was rocking a quiver full of exploding blue-fire arrows. There were also some Indiana Jones type evil archeaologists or something, but who cares about them? Dinosaurs, man! Turok himself gave the game some lasting appeal (it is hard enough that I probably would have stopped playing if it didn't have so much character). It was the first time in my life that I could control a Native American hero, which on its own helps Turok to stand out from the pack. His unforgettably deep voice declaring to the world that, make no mistake, "I am Turok" really seals the deal. This is Native American Wolverine fighting dinosaurs with exploding arrows. And robots! And some weird dinosaur/rock/gorilla things. No part of this game is forgettable. That alone earns it a spot on my list--even if the gameplay itself doesn't hold up very well. I mean, the whole first-person platforming thing didn't really work very well (which, I suspect, is the reason most FPS titles omit the ability to jump), but Acclaim gets three gold stars for trying. And hey, maybe if they hadn't we wouldn't have ended up with a little beauty known as Mirror's Edge.

6. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 (X360)

Let me begin by saying that this entry is specifically about the X-Box 360 version of the game. I understand that the title is available on, like, nine platforms. I also understand that some of these versions are totally different games using the same name. Therefore, I feel equipped only to discuss this specific iteration of the title.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is probably my favorite superhero video game of all time. I won't deny spending many sleepless nights scribbling in my notebook about a MUA3 or various Ultimate Alliance titles featuring different publishing pantheons (my favorite being a gathering of classic cartoon action heroes, featuring He-Man, Inspector Gadget, Space Ghost, and Grumpy Bear). While dungeon crawlers can easily become stale, MUA2 mixes it up by including some very cool team mechanics, a leveling system, and the kind of charm Marvel heroes are known to show off when a talented group of individuals gets hold of them. In the same way that Super Smash Bros. can serve as an introductory encyclopedia to Nintendo's history, MUA2 is successful at introducing rather insignificant characters to a new audience. Who even cared about Speedball's stint as the self-loathing Penance (or Speedball, for that matter) before being given the opportunity to play as him among Marvel's highest ranking celebrities? Thirty people on Comic Vine, that's who. Now there are several hundred thousand gamers, and a very active modding community, who do. The sheer scope of available characters, and the kind of niche characters they brought in, make this a great game even before you bother to master them. The summer I picked this up, I played it though five or six times. At least once on each difficulty. I'm still not bored of it. I still want Ultimate Alliance to take off as its own franchise (DC Ultimate Alliance, TMNT Ultimate Alliance, Hasbro Ultimate Alliance featuring Woody and Buzz--bring it all on, baby).

To be honest, I feel like MUA2 is more successful at telling the Civil War story than the comics. With comics you only spend as much time with each character as the writer deems fit, and you're forced to see the characters through the creator's perspective (hint: Iron Man is bad!). In the video game, you're given the option to choose to follow the story from either the perspective of the Pro-Registration heroes, or the Anti-Registration heroes. This allows viewers to experience the debate from both sides without compromising the characters' integrity or reducing them to black-and-white extremes. The one advantage comic books have over the game would be the side stories. While the game is definitely the better way to experience the story in its broadest form, to get the most out of Civil War you have to read the back-up features and tie-ins featuring characters and scenarios that are a little more out of the way. You have to read about Howard the Duck being denied the ability to register as a superhuman, about Iron Man and the S.H.I.E.L.D.-controlled Avengers trying to pick up the Runaways. It's those little additions that flesh out the event. Still, they'd have been just as effective as stories supporting the game, or even as side missions like the franchise had in X-Men Legends. I'd say they could even be worked in as cheap DLC and be just as effective. Yeah, games aren't good at telling most stories. This one, though... this one works.

7. Porky Pig's Haunted Holiday (SNES)

Porky Pig's Haunted Holiday might not be the most engaging game to a modern audience, and it certainly isn't without its faults (leaps of faith are a big problem here), but it's a special case: it's the first game I remember being fond of because I was impressed with the technical aspects of it. Porky's sprites, even though they clash a little with the rest of the game's visual style, have a very fluid motion and look almost like they might actually be hand-drawn images placed into the game. I mean, Porky looks exactly like a Looney Tunes cartoon here. There is some jumpiness between frames that kind of breaks the illusion, but I can see and respect what they were trying to do. You know, Porky Pig is a pretty weird pick to star in a 1990s platforming title. He may have once been king of Warner Studios (betcha didn't know that. Before Bugs Bunny stole the spotlight, Porky Pig was Mickey's prime competition), but the screwball characters brought about in the 1940s had been way more popular for seventy years at that point. Not to mention the fact that Porky's character isn't really the type to go about bouncing through colorful landscapes and battling dangers of an unfathomable nature. Yet that's exactly what he did, and I just have to respect the game for that.

The environment is a huge draw here. Most Looney Tunes games see your character (usually Bugs) traversing pretty standard environments and the same bunch of set pieces. You get a wild west desert, a pirate-infested beach, a grassy plain, and a very run-of-the-mill haunted mansion. Here every stage, even those that feature other environments (like snow), has a particularly spooky theme, and the game is very good at leaving the player unsettled. Not really what you'd expect from the franchise. Oddly enough, Porky Pig is the only classic Looney Tunes cast member to play much of a role in the game, to my memory. Daffy Duck does appear sporadically, though only for brief moments. The mangy mallard's role is pretty much reduced to being just another one of the monsters out to get poor ol' Porky. Granted, he's perhaps the most terrifying element of the game and is portrayed in such a way that you have to stop and wonder if he's really even Daffy anymore.

I remember the biggest factor that impressed me as a lad (I was about eight or nine when I found this game at my cousin's house and borrowed it for a season) was this level early on where Porky is forced to ascend a very wide tree by hopping from one stumpy branch to the next. The stage doesn't scroll left or right like other stages, but instead plays out like Butter Building from Kirby's Adventure. The tree rotates as you progress, giving the impression that Porky is circling it as he ascends. At the time I hadn't played a Kirby game and was very impressed by the technique. Even going back to it this week, I think it was pulled off remarkably well.

8. Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Bandidos (SNES)

Now here's one from my past that I've never been able to beat. Speedy Gonzales' most well-known video game venture is pretty much a Sonic the Hedgehog clone, right down to the music. That in itself isn't too much of a problem because even as a kid I loved Genesis Sonic titles. In fact, I'm pretty sure this game's infamy comes solely from offering a Sonic the Hedgehog experience to Nintendo gamers (remember, these were the days when a kid was lucky to even have access to video games). Unfortunately, the good folks at Sunsoft followed Sega's example a little too closely; the game is rife with leaps-of-faith and instant kills. Leap down because there's nowhere else to run? Fall for three minutes, then die. Accidentally sniffed a spike? You're gonna die. Got caught in a mousetrap? You are dead. Earlier I talked about Chip 'n Dale demonstrating how paralyzingly terrifying the world can be for the little guy, but even that game didn't drive rodent mortality so deep. Pretty sure if I picked this game up after all these year out of practice, even the first level would kick my ass. Honestly this game really is only here because of nostalgia (and the little mice shouting "Gracias!" when you release them), because it's kind of the beginning of the end for licensed games. The visuals are passable, sometimes even good, but they don't live up to what you could expect from a Looney Tunes game at the time. Same goes for the music, the physics, and the level design. By this point it was pretty clear that licensed games were all about mascot power. Don't let me put you off, though, because there's still plenty of charm to be found here. I just feel like it was a bit of an omen. Shitty media-based games definitely existed before it, but they coexisted with a flood of shitty original games as well (and that's always going to be true). It's just... Speedy Gonzales is kind of the point where the diamonds started to became the rough.

9. Justice League Heroes (PS2)

Let me be honest: I'm more of a DC guy than a Marvel guy, by concept alone. Marvel has definitely produced better comics, I don't dispute that. They have awesome characters, the majority of their video games blow DC's out of the water, and every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is without compare. But you may have figured out by now that I'm a really big cartoon guy--I wouldn't hesitate to say that cartoons are my all-time favorite medium. And cartoons are really the one arena where Marvel's properties have pretty much stunk and where DC's have reigned for several decades. I grew up on reruns of Super Friends, on the glorious days of the DC Animated Universe and Teen Titans (hell, even Krypto the Superdog), I fondly recall the little-known Legion of Super Heroes cartoon. I even got my ass out of bed every Saturday morning to watch Young Justice when they stupidly moved its timeslot. Even in the realm of live action television DC topples Marvel. I watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter in ceremonious fashion, but I'm absolutely irate if I miss out on The Flash or Arrow (and I moved Heaven and Earth to get home in time to catch Harley Quinn's cameo in that one Suicide Squad episode. I was not disappointed [actually I was a little disappointed because fuck you commercials playing her up as more important than she was]). DC's characters, campy as they often are, have always appealed to me in a way that Marvel's haven't. They're colorful, and they can be fun when they're handled tactfully. The only Marvel cartoon that has ever tickled me the same way has been The Spectacular Spider-Man, but that got canceled for this shit.

Needless to say, I leaped at the opportunity to finally have my DC: Ultimate Alliance dreams realized. Unfortunately, they kind of weren't. Where MUA is flashy and fluid, JLH falls into the trap that so often plagues DC's work: it's dull and slow. I still get a thrill out of mixing up teams of characters that don't normally work together, and the roster certainly shouldn't be sneezed at, but the game just kind of misses the mark. Arguably its largest shortcoming is in forcing players to pick from only specific heroes for any given mission. Even though there are twenty-something characters to choose from, you can only use twelve or so of them in a couple short missions midway through the story. There isn't even any kind of "free" mode unlocked after you complete the campaign, which is just balls.

Still, the game is close enough to my wettest dream that I switch it on every now and then. I always have fun, even when the number of bad creative decisions plaguing the title is frustrating.

10. Spider-Man (Windows XP, ME, 98)

This one I haven't played since 2002, so forgive me if anything I say is totally inaccurate. Simply titled Spider-Man, I remember this as being the pinnacle of a Spider-Man gaming experience. The only game that has ever come close to capturing how I felt while playing this is Ultimate Spider-Man, but even that can't stand up to the awesomeness that is Doctor Carnagepuss. It's interesting that Spider-Man is actually entirely unable to stand up to Monster Ock. The whole battle is about fleeing as the beast chases you through a narrow air duct. There's a certain triple A franchise that recently (successfully) experimented with marathon-style bosses. What was that again?

I remember the game as being pretty darn glitchy, as early 3D games are known to have been, but when it worked, man, what a dream. The story and character designs are steeped pretty heavily in the 90s animated series, and that's always a good thing, but what this game manages to really do well is make the player feel like Spider-Man. A lot of Spider-Man games are beat 'em ups or fighting game crossovers, all action-oriented (and this game isn't short on that either), but Spider-Man had a focus on stealth as well, which is really what a guy who can climb on ceilings is all about. Sneaking over hapless bank robbers and zipping them up to my level? Now that's a good time! A healthy dose of cameos, collectibles, and costumes keep the game interesting for Spidey enthusiasts everywhere (this was actually my introduction to both the Punisher and Black Cat), and while the story isn't a reason to write home it's perfectly serviceable Spiderfare. In fact, I'd say if there's one thing comic book video games could benefit from it's more comic book storylines.

Well, that wraps things up here. To be honest I almost included Doki Doki Panic because, hey, that's a licensed game! Except I've never played it--I just really like Super Mario Bros. 2... Anyway, what are your top ten (or just top) licensed video games? I know at least some of you who are really into a certain dragon-inspired MMO right now. Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yet More Game Boy Inserts

You might remember last week when I talked about improving the traditional Game Boy cartridge case for shelf storage. Basically that amounted to printing off some tiny labels and pictures to slide into the cases, better facilitating the browsing of Game Boy collections while saving space (which is something the previous method of using modified Nintendo DS cases was not good at). In the original post, I provided my insert for Trax as a sort of template for others who want to do something similar with their collections. I thought that this week I would go ahead and upload the other inserts I've made for my collection. Additionally, I've improved the template since the previous post by making the Game Boy logo a little larger so it can be more easily read. I just wish the plastic used to make the cartridge cases wasn't so cloudy. The method still works at least, it just isn't as pretty as the alternatives (but pretty enough that I'm going to keep doing it).

I did make a batch of Game Boy Color inserts as well, but it seems that—like an idiot—I forgot to save them. I'll keep digging, but it looks like there's at least a few GBC inserts that won't be uploaded to the site...

Without further adieu, the next batch of cases: Ms. Pac-Man, Toy Story, Top Gun: Guts and Glory, Hatris, Pokémon: Red Version, and Pokémon: Blue Version.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Playing with Game Boy Storage

Tired of sifting through piles of Game Boy games, tediously studying the front label of each loose cartridge until you find the right one? Well, not anymore! You may have noticed my page of "custom" inserts (I hesitate... they're just cut-and-paste jobs) which most heavily focuses on creating material for properly housing a Game Boy Advance game in a Nintendo DS case. This is something which can also be done for Game Boy and Game Boy Color titles, and I have kept those games in modified DS cases for two or three years now. However, my interests have begun to broaden since I began that project. I've started to enjoy plug-and-play machines, Skylanders, Amiibo, and other NFC gadgets, hardcover books (oh so many books) and it's turning out that I just don't have the space to keep everything in cases larger than they really need. In short: I want to fit more games in the same space without culling my collection.

Obviously the first step is to grab Virtual Console versions of whatever I can and sell or trade or gift my physical copies. That's worked out fairly well for games with digital counterparts--although, instances like Tekken Tag Tournament 2 force me to choose the more economical route (seriously, the eShop still wants full price for that game. I grabbed it brand new for 1/3 of that price. What the hell). Let's not forget that Nintendo's emulation library is incredibly meager in comparison to the vast pantheon actually produced for their consoles. They haven't even gotten all the first and second party stuff published yet, nevermind third-party and games now owned by competitors. People like me, who are just huge fans of the gaming medium, have no choice but to keep old hardware if we want to get the most out of what we love.

I've begun several initiatives to reduce the surface area occupied by my games (so that I can buy more). You'll get to see eveything come together as soon as my latest Amazon order arrives. In the meantime, here's a glimpse at what I'm doing to control my Game Boy and Game Boy Color collections (this will also work for over-size GBA games, like Drill Dozer, although I'm having trouble figuring something out for over-size GBC games. In particular, Pokemon Pinball).

That is a standard Game Boy cartridge case. They're only a tiny bit larger than the cartridges are, which means they're still prone to getting lost if you're the sort to leave your games lying haphazardly across your desk. However, the cartridge case offers multiple benefits over a modified DS case--chief among them being not accidentally plunging a box cutter into your thumb. They're also better at keeping out debris, they cost less, and they occupy less space. The only problem with these cases is that they don't make it any easier to browse your collection. You're still forced to remove the entire pile of games, shuffle through them until you find what you need, then put everything else back. That's a lot of steps if you're looking to play something on impulse or if you want to try something new but you don't already know what.

All of these problems are solved by printing off a teeny-tiny picture and sliding it into the bottom of the case. I thought about making a full case, with front matter and typical back matter, but the font was too small to read and the front label just fell down when I opened the case. What a pain. I suppose side matter could have worked out as well, but that's not something I need for my specific situation. What I need is top matter and top matter alone--even the larger picture is just there to support the spine. Now I can stack Game Boy games as high as I want and quickly pick whichever one I need. And you can too! Here's the image I used for Trax:

Just print that off at 100% its native size and it should fit perfectly in a cartridge case. Fold the top part so it can press against the hinged wall and you're good to go.

Now I've got to figure out what I'm doing with GBA games...


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

For Sale: Punch-Out!! for Nintendo Wii (2009) - Used - Good Condition

"Mac is Back!"

Today I'm selling my copy of Punch-Out!! for the Nintendo Wii. Punch-Out!! is an action boxing game with rhythm and puzzle elements designed as a successor to the NES classic of the same name. It's rated E10+, meaning it's appropriate for all children ages ten and up. Join Little Mac, most recently known for his appearance in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, as he rises the ranks to become the boxing champion of the world!

The game is complete in the box with all original paperwork. Everything is in awesome shape. The disc is clean and plays like a dream. Case and label look great. Instruction manual and other associated paperworks have been a little dented by the clips which hold them in place. The Club Nintendo flier is included, but the code has been used. Item is from my personal collection and has been well cared for since launch (when it was purchased brand new).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Game Haul: Professor Layton: Dinosaur Hunter

Note: This was written on Friday, January 23, 2015.

I noticed people seem to be really into "haul" videos (videos where a vlogger showcases what they've recently purchased or acquired). For a long time I thought about why many hundreds of people—and myself—were interested in watching somebody talk about what they bought. The answer still eludes me, for the most part, but after reading and participating in what is essentially a hauls thread on a forum I frequent, I realized a great part of the fun is in listening to a person's opinions of media you're familiar with, or of learning what kind of person they are by looking at what they buy over a period of time, or introducing yourself to new material by studying the things purchased by people whose tastes typically align with yours. I think a certain part of it is primal. An ancient social desire. Everybody wants to feel accepted; knowing that somebody else out there has purchased that awful Howard the Duck miniseries kind of vindicates you. Anyways, I thought I'd give haul blogging a try, since I have absolutely awful microphone-fright.

Let's cut right to the chase.

It's not much to behold, but this here's the entirety of yesterday's "haul". Money is something I'm trying to do a better job holding onto after the spending frenzy Nintendo's Deluxe Digital Promotion had me in for 2014, but as an avid media consumer and collector it's difficult to pass things up. So I set myself a twenty-dollar spending limit when I went out. Only went a single George Washington over.

The first thing I'm going to talk about, and the thing I primarily went out to grab, is the Nintendo eShop card. Originally I wasn't going to include it in the post at all, because gift cards just don't hold quite the same allure as more defined items. Eventually I decided to go ahead and put it in because I went at it with a specific plan. That plan was the Super Indie Connection Sale #2. Make sure you read the fine print if you plan on taking advantage of that sale (which you definitely should) because I didn't and, man, I was pretty bummed out when I got home. You see, my plan was to have about five dollars left in my account after picking up this:

Unfortunately the sale isn't a straight 60% off... you have to purchase a title from the selection of six at full price before the other titles get the discount. I felt a little cheated at first, because I didn't have enough to buy Guacamelee! at its full price ($14.99) and it looked like the other titles were expensive enough that I wouldn't have sufficient funds left over to nab it at the reduced price ($5.99). Even worse: Guacamelee! never impressed me enough to want to spend fifteen dollars on it. Seeing it at e3 definitely put it on my radar, but I've been burned before, and fifteen is a hefty price for a virtual unknown. Basically if I couldn't have it at the sale price, I was just going to hang onto my ten dollars until something more worthwhile came around. That's when I saw...

Swords & Soldiers is a game I remember as having come out for the Nintendo Wii shortly before my Nintendo Power subscription ran dry. At the time it was a game I really wanted to give a go, but my interest absolutely sunk once the gameplay videos started rolling out. It looked so much like a typical Facebook game that I was worried it would be littered with micro-transactions and fluttery physics. Not that Flash games are bad, mind you—I just feel like they belong on Newgrounds with ad-supported revenue. Regardless, it was my $2.99 gateway to the six-dollar Guacamelee!, so I took it. I figured nine dollars to try out two indie titles that always had my attention was a good deal.

At GameStop (which I went to for the eShop card) I dug through their little rack of budget Nintendo DS games. Let me just take a moment to say that the boxes they keep these games in are far too deep to have them stacked. It's almost impossible to flip through them all without nearly knocking the whole display to the ground. Also, it's an awful shame what they do to these poor games—if you're going to deal in used video games, you need to understand the value of the casing, artwork, and paperwork. They have some real balls, disposing of all this stuff and still being the top game retailer in the country. I digress; there were some cheap one and two dollar games that called to me as a collector and a person interested in trying out new games. Adhering to my budget, however, I boldly settled on a somewhat pricier game I was sure would be good.

The Professor Layton franchise is one I've been meaning to get into since it debuted so many years ago. Unfortunately, I never got around to it when I was younger—and now six or seven games into the story, it's always been a more daunting endeavor than I've cared to give time to. For $5.99 I figured it was finally time to give this series a try. Too bad this isn't the first game. That'll teach me to conduct proper research from now on. Made some real dunce moves in that regard, between the Indie sale and the Layton game. Still, I might give this a try even if I can't get my hands on Curious Village. The art and character designs are just too appealing to keep away.

Next stop was an awesome little store called Collec-Tiques. They handle the antiquities of pop culture, chief among their wares being video games. While they have no shortage of the true classics (NES, SNES, Genesis), I always zoom in on the mid-nineties. There's a few reasons for that. Mainly it's about nostalgia—I've spent a lot of time trying to reclaim the video games I lost in my childhood. Things get traded, you know? Traded to friends, lost because you're a crappy six-year-old, "lost" because certain members of your immediate family are technophobes. That's not to say this era is all about pure nostalgia; as a child I grew up on Nintendo's home consoles (NES, SNES, later on the Nintendo 64) with limited access to handhelds and other consoles. I had the Pokémon games, sure, and Sonic has always been a big part of my life, but my meager assortment of Game Boy titles was laughable and Sega kind of disappeared as far as I was concerned. And PlayStation? Back in those days the console wars were hot. I wouldn't be caught dead playing with Sony's PieceaShit. That makes me weep for Little Nate, because these days I absolutely adore original PlayStation titles and the Game Boy library is full of magical gems. However, this visit I stuck with trusty ol' N64.

The first game I got was Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. I've been collecting the N64 Turok games this year as I had the first two when I was young. Finally I've reclaimed this little beauty—and it's in pretty good shape! This one came essentially free as I got it on credit. Traded a handful of memory cards (PS2, PS, GCN) and a few other odds-and-ends, and it's certainly worth it. Too bad I forgot my N64 memory card is corrupt. If it's not one thing it's another... Well, that can come later. For now I'm just glad to have this Jurassic gem back where it belongs.

Wrapping things up (both the post and my Turok N64 collection) is Turok: Rage Wars. This one cost a mere $4.00 as I still had one extra in credit. The only fifth-generation Turok game I'm less familiar with is Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion. What I do know is that Rage Wars is some kind of non-canon with a TimeSplitters-style emphasis on multiplayer competition and making absolutely every programmed organism a playable character. That's the thing that always made me want to play this game. After getting my hands on Turok 2: Seeds of Evil and watching The Lost World: Jurassic Park I was obsessed with compies, which are these little chirping dinosaurs that don't seem like much because they're only ankle-high, but man can they swarm. And you know what?

You can play as them in Rage Wars.

I'm feeling excited all over again. After all these years, after fervently watching my childhood friend tackle this title in a single weekend rental, after gazing at my dwindling (and at long last rekindling) game collection, I can play as compies!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fantasy Smash Bros.: Virus

It might surprise you to know that Mario's second most recurring adversary isn't actually Wario, Donkey Kong, or even Tatanga! No, it's the Virus trio of Dr. Mario! They've been major villains in every Dr. Mario title to date (including Dr. Luigi and the little-known Dr. Wario) and minor opponents in two Mario & Luigi series games--making them the only traditional villains other than Bowser and the Koopa Pack to oppose the plumbers in an RPG. While Wario, Waluigi, and Donkey Kong have all appeared in many more games than these ne'er-feel-wells (and sometimes even as antagonists, as in the introduction to Mario Power Tennis), they haven't taken their vendetta quite as seriously as these vile virii.

With the other villains already scumming up the scene, it's only fitting that the scummiest of scumbags should make their Smash debut--especially with their arch-rival Dr. Mario marking his return!


Up Special: Colonize - What is a virus' most principal power? Proliferation, of course! This ability works fairly similarly to Pac-Man's Power Pellet special, albeit in a terrifying way. The Virus will shake, giving birth to a swarm of smaller viruses which continue to reproduce along whatever path the player commans them to. When at last this colony runs out of reproductive steam, they'll deposit a large Virus at the end of the trail. Better hope you reach a ledge before then, however, or the large virus will simply plummet once more, with no energy left to resist. Enemies caught in the swarm won't necessarily be knocked away (unless the large virus spawns ontop of them, which acts as a launcher) but will succumb to the elemental effects of the swarm's color (more on that in a bit).

Neutral Special: Sneeze - Sneezing has got to be one of the worst parts about catching a cold. Sneeze here, sneeze there, leave your boogers everywhere. Since the viruses are essentially living sneezes it seemed only fitting to give them the one aspect not represented by a specific color. In this limited projectile attack (it has about the same range as the Ice Climbers' down special) the virus simply sneezes at his foe. Gross! The effect is different depending on which color you are: blue sneezes a frosty air, red sneezes a bust of flame, and the yellow's sneeze can cause a random status effect (either flower, sleep, or electrocution).

Side Special: Driver Virus - Mario Kart's little-known arcade equivalent, Mario Kart Arcade GP, introduced a very specific type of virus to the Mario universe: the Driver Virus. This little guy resembles Chill, although he wears a pair of swirling spectacles. In that game he would infect other racers' machines and slow them down. He acts much them same here, being thrown by the primary Virus. If it lands on an opponent, it'll circle around them and bog down their movements. Don't worry, it's not too difficult to eradicate the little pest--any attack will do, and it is possible to simply dodge-roll away. Bumping into another player will also pass the virus along, and it is possible to give it right back to the Virus. I guess it's true what they say: "What goes around comes around".

Down Special: Shake Off - The Virus is known for its trademark dance, and it has no problem with getting down right there on the field of battle! As it dances, small viruses of all colors launch from its body in a slew of different directions. They can protect the larger virus from attacks, or they can make other fighters ill if they come into contact with them. These viruses are a little like Pikmin, able to inflict a small amount of damage as long as they're attached. Fortunately they don't inflict any status ailments (aside from the red virus' burning sting).

Final Smash: Plague - All three viruses appear, performing their trademark dance while a storm of smaller ones rain down upon the stage. Players are given control of the falling swarm in much the same way that Mario manipulates his megavitamins in Dr. Mario. Unlike the little viruses in the down special, these ones will definitely inflict elemental damage when they hit opponents... so it's a good idea to watch your step!


Height: 3/10
Defense: 3/10
Jump: 8/10
Attack: 4/10
Speed: 5/10

Size - Viruses are usually tiny, but these ones come to about Mario's stomach. They're your typical ball-type character.

Defense - These little dudes aren't used to direct confrontation. They're pretty easy to knock away.

Jump - All viruses are great jumpers (how do you think they spread? Poor hygiene?) but these guys hail from the Mushroom Kingdom, where pretty much anybody can jump a mile high from a standstill.

Attack - They don't hit very hard, but don't let that fool you...

Speed - They're of average speed... They can get away from situations if they need to, but they won't be winning any footraces, that's for sure!

A Closer Look - It can be difficult to define the Virus stats because of they're gimmick. What? I haven't told you about their gimmick? Well let me fix that!

I know, I know, "Transforming Characters aren't in Smash anymore". While these guys technically are transformation characters, their method of transformation and the result of that transformation are pretty different from what we've seen in the past. Nothing as drastic as Zelda to Sheik or swapping between Pokemon, that's for sure. Also, this is Fantasy Smash Bros. I can do whatever I want. Originally the plan was to have them rotate in an out of battle like the Pokemon, but I thought: "No, they can be more unique than that!" For a while I went back and forth about making them a trio of clone characters or even alts. in the vein of Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings. Eventually I settled on a gimmick they exhibit in the Mario & Luigi franchise: damage-induced transformation. Because of this they are simply referred to as "Virus" on the select screens and victory menus (although they do actually have names--Fever, Chill, and Weird).

Whenever Virus takes a hit, even one as meager as 1% damage, it's forced to transform into another virus. The order is always Chill to Weird to Fever. Each virus has its own animations demonstrating their personality: Chill is cool, confident, and collected, Fever is jittery and craving to cause chaos, and Weird is timid. These personalities also give them slightly different stats, with Chill being the basic set posted above. Fever has a higher attack stat and can launch the farthest (the other two actually aren't very good for killing) while Weird is slower and has a bit of lag in its movements. The colors also feature different elemental attributes to some of their attacks. Chill can encase enemies in ice, Fever can engulf them in flames, and Weird... well, he's a little weird. Weird can induce flowering, sleep, paralysis, or electrocution entirely at random. This makes him the best at building up damage, even though he has the weakest launching potential.

Remember, the transformation is triggered by taking damage--it's impossible for the player to force a transformation. This can make it more challenging to find a winning strategy, but it also creates a conundrum for the opponent: they can attack the Virus, but this risks making it more powerful. The attack could also make it generally weaker, but also able to inflict more damage. Decisions, decisions.

Like any cold, it's best to take Virus out as quickly as possible!


Things got a little hairy when choosing the colors for this terrible trio. Since there's three of them, they used up the primary colors pretty quickly... but I had to fill out at least eight (as per the new rules of Super Smash Bros. 4. I guess I have to revise some of the older Fantasy Smash characters...). There also isn't a whole lot of material to draw from--the Viruses have been largely unchanged throughout their history. As such, this is going to be a lot less broken down than other palette entries have been...

Basic Colors - These are the primary colors for the trio, as of Dr. Mario 64.

Second Color - Yellow, cyan, and magenta are the colors of the new viruses (Drowsy, magenta, and Dizzy) in Dr. Luigi. I tried to match the colors with personalities. Drowsy is relaxed, basically, so yellow went to Chill. The magenta virus looks afraid, so I gave it to the timid Weird. Dizzy looked to embrace the chaotic nature Fever has, so obviously cyan went to her (oh yeah, Fever's a girl if you didn't know).

Third and Fourth Palette - Green, Orange, Purple and Black, Gray, and White palettes are just fillers. I finished the rainbow colors, and added the extreme ends of the light spectrum.

Fifth Palette - The fifth palette (first on the left, second row) is the basic NES colors. There's only a slight variation in tone and the colors for gloves and boots are different enough to the standard colors that I figure it should be okay.

Last Three Palettes - I really had to reach for inspiration with these last few. Eventually I decided to pull some influence from the other monster-driven Mario puzzler: Wario's Woods. These colors are all based on these weird little dudes that I thought looked suspiciously similar to the Viruses...