Thursday, December 24, 2020

My favorite games of 2020: Moon, The Origami King, and Void Terrarium

I've spent most of 2020 ping-ponging between feeling terrified and traumatized. One of the few areas of my life that has bucked that trend over the last 12 or so months has been the time I've devoted to video games.

In fact, I've both played and enjoyed more games in 2020 than I have in many years. The three games I'm highlighting here are my favorites of the 45 or so I put at least some time into this year. Or at least they're my favorites of the games that came out between Jan. 1 and now. (I'll publish a similar post about my favorite games of 2020 that weren't released in 2020 shortly.)

Moon (Switch)

Although I'm a lifelong fan of role-playing games, I'm far from a stickler for tradition. As much as I adore old-school, by-the-numbers JRPGs (think Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light), I also appreciate attempts to deviate from the norm. Onion Games' Moon--previously known as Moon: Remix RPG Adventure--is a perfect example of the second category. So much so I hesitate to call it an RPG. What is Moon then? An adventure game, I guess. But it also features a liberal dose of simulation and puzzle elements.

Regardless, it's wonderful, not to mention wonderfully chill. There's no rushing while playing Moon. Hell, you can't even run while playing Moon. You saunter. You slowly scour Moon's modest surface in an attempt to help both its earthly inhabitants and its apparitional ones. The latter are the souls of creatures slain by a video-game's unhinged hero, while you are a real-world boy sucked into that make-believe world and charged with righting said madman's wrongs through the power of love.

Moon tends toward the obtuse and melancholic, but that just adds to its peculiar charm--as do the game's eclectic background tunes, which--in another delightful twist--you can change at will.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

Although The Origami King is a more than fitting subtitle for this latest Paper Mario adventure, an even better one, in my humblest of opinions, would've been The Origami Odyssey. After all, this entry in Intelligent Systems' long-running RPG series feels like proper, globe-trotting trek. You zip from one eye-poppingly exotic locale to another while attempting to save Princess Peach (amongst other important--and far more interesting--tasks), sometimes via an appropriately recyclable vehicle.

The rest of The Origami King will seem a bit foreign to Paper Mario fans, too. In particular, this title's turn-based tussles are more like puzzles than the select-battle-options-from-a-menu affairs that are typical of the genre. I prefer the tried-and-true myself, though the new method introduced here grew on me by leaps and bounds once I became accustomed to it.

Even if you fall in love with these brainy fights from the word go, though, you're unlikely to consider them a highlight of the experience. Instead, you'll probably reserve that honor for The Origami King's witty text and wondrous soundtrack.

Void Terrarium (PS4, Switch)

Nippon Ichi Software's Void Terrarium does everything it can to turn off potential players. First there's its name, the full version of which is void tRrLM(); //Void Terrarium. Then there's its post-apocalyptic aesthetic, which seems more banal than breathtaking, especially early on. There's also its "human Tamagotchi" component, which is just... confounding--again, particularly at first.

And yet I found Void Terrarium utterly captivating. Sure, the desolate environments of this part-time dungeon-crawler can be samey, but if you're anything like me, you'll barely pay attention to them thanks to the game's heart-pounding soundtrack and surprisingly compelling story. Oh, and the robot-battling action on offer here is plenty exhilarating, too. Not bad for a title that started off looking like a real dud, eh?

Honorable mentions:
  • Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories (PC, PS4, Switch)
  • Mad Rat Dead (PS4, Switch)
  • Part Time UFO (Mobile, Switch)
  • A Short Hike (PC, Switch)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A few thoughts on the three games I finished in April, May, and June 2020

Based on the headline of this post, some of you probably are thinking I played fewer games in April, May, and June than I did in January, February, and March.

After all, I only finished three games between April and June, while I finished six games between January and March.

The thing is, I devoted nearly as much time to the trio of titles I beat during the April-to-June quarter as I did to the sextet I conquered during the January-to-March one.

And then there's the fact that I also put more than 20 hours into the original Animal Crossing and about 95 hours into Animal Crossing: New Horizons while tackling the games discussed below.

Even if all of the above weren't true, though, I'd still be happy with my gaming accomplishments (if they can be described as such) of the last few months.

Why? Because I'm pretty sure the three titles I managed to complete between the beginning of April and the end of June will stick with me far beyond this challenging year--something I hope to make clear in the text that follows.  

Deadly Premonition Origins (Switch)

I don't think I've ever developed as strong a love-hate relationship with a game as I did during the nearly 30 hours I spent playing Deadly Premonition Origins recently.

On the one hand, I adored its characters, setting, soundtrack, and overarching story. On the other hand, I abhorred its nightmarish, claustrophobic "Other World" segments that forced me to fight never-ending hordes of groaning zombies. And I absolutely loathed the cumbersome, QTE-centric encounters with the game's Raincoat Killer that occasionally popped up during those same passages.

Although part of me thinks I would've enjoyed Deadly Premonition Origins a whole lot more if it had eschewed combat altogether, another part of me thinks it's an integral component of the game. Or at least I think it's integral to the game's off-kilter vibe. As in, I just can't fathom it being quite so breathtakingly bizarre without the aforementioned forays into its bleak and tension-filled alternate reality.

In the end, Deadly Premonition Origins' positive attributes outweighed its negative ones for me. I can't help but feel that won't be true for everybody, though--especially folks who fail to track down the game's more powerful weapons as early on as possible.

That's a real shame, as this janky, surreal jaunt to, through, and around the fictional--and fucked up, if you'll excuse my French--town of Greenvale, Washington, is surprisingly riveting if you can will yourself past its plethora of niggles and nuisances.

Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories (Switch)

Although I pre-ordered a physical copy of Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories the moment I was able to do so, I nearly canceled it a couple of times between then and when the game finally came out in early April. The reason? It quickly became clear to me (via online chatter) that the Switch port of this catastrophe-themed adventure was more than a bit rough in both the graphics and frame-rate departments.

I stuck to my guns, though, and now that I've played, finished (after putting about 17 hours into it), and thoroughly enjoyed Disaster Report 4, I'm patting myself on the back for my prescience.

Here's the thing: this Granzella-made, NIS America-published title is rough. There are times when its frame rate slows to a crawl--or worse. And its resolution veers wildly from acceptable to muddy to "did someone smear Vaseline on the screen when I wasn't looking?" and back again. Its localization is iffy, too--as in, it's not always easy to understand what the game's text is trying to convey. (Which is a problem when said text is your only hope--outside of a guide--of figuring out what to do or where to go next.)

So far, so terrible, right? Well, somehow Disaster Report 4 manages to compel, and even impress, despite its multitude of issues. I was especially wowed by how it was able to depict life during and after a disaster--an earthquake, in particular. Or maybe I should say I was wowed by how it seemed to depict life during and after a disaster? I (thankfully) have zero experience with such situations, after all.

Disaster Report 4 sure made me feel like I've experienced them, though. And not just in the obvious ways--like making me worry the ground could collapse beneath my feet or a building might crash down upon my head at any moment. It also regularly pushed me to consider what I would do if I encountered someone in peril, as well as how I might help them--or not--in such a situation. It forced me to deal with the ramifications of my decisions in those circumstances, too.

Another notable and sizable feather in the cap of this admittedly flawed release, as far as I'm concerned: I'm already itching to replay it. If that isn't a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions (Switch)

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions
is my cup of tea in so many ways. And yet I dragged my feet in terms of both buying and playing it. Its aesthetic was a big part of the problem, I'm embarrassed to admit. Before I started through its adventure myself, I thought it looked rather hideous. Most of the rest of this title was of questionable appeal, too--like its lack of towns and dungeons.

Well, I'm here to tell you all of those misgivings vanished into the ether shortly after I began playing through SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions this past May.

In particular, the game's lack of explorable towns and dungeons proved to be such a positive component that I now wish other JRPGs would take the idea for a spin. It sounds strange--not to mention limiting and boring and just plain wrong--for this type of game, but SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions makes it clear that nixing these role-playing staples is not only an acceptable alternative to the norm, but a preferable one if implemented thoughtfully and with care.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions proves a few other points, too. Like RPGs don't need inns--or even healing items or spells--if they automatically heal party members between battles. Also, a bit of strategic tweaking can go a long way toward making turn-based combat intriguing instead of tedious.

The latter is especially important to SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions, or at least it was in my experience. Although battles are a key element of any role-playing game worth its salt, they're particularly vital to this one. Thankfully, the tussles you're tossed into here are deep and thrilling and tough (though not cheaply so), and I never tired of them--or any other aspect of this title, truth be told--during my 97-hour playthrough.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Manual Stimulation: Wanpaku Kokkun no Gourmet World (Famicom)

No joke, the English version of Taito's Wanpaku Kokkun no Gourmet World, called Panic Restaurant,  is one of my favorite side-scrolling platformers around.

Which isn't to suggest it's one of the best side-scrolling platformers around. It's not. It's probably not even one of the best platformers released for the Famicom or NES.

Still, I adore it. Why? For starters, I've never been shy about admitting I love games that feature food. Well, that's pretty much all you encounter while playing Wanpaku Kokkun no Gourmet World, which is set in and around a restaurant ("Eaten").

Food's about all you encounter while flipping through the Wanpaku Kokkun no Gourmet World instruction manual, too. Food and people who make food (like the cute chef showcased on the manual's cover and on pretty much every interior page), I mean.

Thankfully, the Wanpaku Kokkun no Gourmet World manual follows in the glorious footsteps of many other old Taito game manuals and depicts all of the above-mentioned food and food-making with the most brilliant of illustrations.

The illustration that serves as the backdrop of this booklet's "story" page (see above) is a perfect example.

None of the other drawings that fill the Wanpaku Kokkun no Gourmet World booklet are as massive as the one that sits behind its story text, but most are just as adorable.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Manual Stimulation: Don Doko Don 2 (Famicom)

At the end of my post about the Don Doko Don Famicom instruction manual, I mentioned that the manual you see here makes its predecessor "look like something that was pulled from the gutter."

Harsh, I know, but I stand by it. I mean, just look at the cover of the Don Doko Don 2 manual, below. It alone is more stupendous than anything you'll find in the first Don Doko Don manual.

Don't take any of this to mean I think the original Don Doko Don manual is a stinker. I think it's pretty snazzy, actually.

Maybe not as snazzy as, say, the manuals publisher Taito created for the Famicom Disk System version of Bubble Bobble, or the PC Engine ports of The New Zealand Story or Mizubaku Daibouken, but still worth the occasional ogle.

I say without hesitation, however, that the Don Doko Don 2 instruction manual is snazzier than all of the above-mentioned booklets--perhaps combined.

Every page of the Don Doko Don 2 booklet features something fabulous, usually in the form of a stunning drawing.

OK, so they're not all as jaw-dropping as the gigantic one that opens the Don Doko Don 2 manual. But, really, not every illustration can be of a huge, crying, king-turned-into-a-frog, right?

At any rate, the pages that follow shine a light on the game's story. Besides all of the art they produced, I also love how the designers who worked on this booklet used pops of red and pink to add drama and interest to the proceedings.

The spread above educates readers on how to play Don Doko Don 2. There's not much to tell them, however; as is the case in the original Don Doko Don, in part two, you dispatch enemies by smacking them with your mallet, picking up their squished bodies, and then tossing their corpses at oncoming clueless baddies.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Manual Stimulation: Don Doko Don (Famicom)

Don Doko Don is one of those old games that avoided pinging my radar for a lot longer than it should've done.

Granted, this series hardly is a household name outside of Japan--despite the fact that Taito, the company responsible for developing and publishing it, previously gave the world Space Invaders, Qix, Chack'n Pop, and Bubble Bobble, among other classics.

At any rate, I remained blissfully unaware of Don Doko Don's existence until sometime after I became obsessed with the PC Engine.

You see, Taito ported this single-screen platformer, which stars a pair of mallet-wielding dwarves, to NEC's diminutive console less than a year after its original arcade release in 1989, and just two months after the Famicom port that's the subject of this post.

Why didn't I hear about Don Doko Don for the Famicom before I heard about its PC Engine iteration? I haven't the slightest idea.

At any rate, and as you might suspect, the instruction manual that came packed inside copies of the Famicom port of Don Doko Don is quite similar to the PC Engine port's manual.

The two booklets aren't identical, however. Take the spread above. The pair of illustrations you see here are completely different from the ones you see on the corresponding pages of Don Doko Don's PC Engine booklet.

For the record, I prefer the unique illustrations in the PC Engine release's manual to the ones used in the Famicom release's manual.

All that said, most of the drawings in these two manuals are the same. Generally speaking, though, the ones in the Famicom manual are given a bit more space to breathe than are the ones in the PC Engine manual.

The drawings highlighted on the last few pages demonstrate to readers Don Doko Don's main gameplay loop, which involves whacking enemies with your trusty hammer, picking up their smooshed bodies, and then tossing them at other unsuspecting foes.

The next handful of spreads focus on educating players about the particulars of each Don Doko Don stage. For example, the first world is forested, contains trees that spit out baddies, and features a multi-jack-o'-lanterned boss.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A few thoughts on the six games I've finished so far in 2020

I came up with what I thought was a brilliant (if also unoriginal) idea for this blog about six months ago: I'd write and publish micro-reviews of all the games I finished in 2019.

Coming up with the idea proved a lot easier than following through with it, though, as I finished 19 games last year. Producing the pair of posts I just linked to took loads of work despite the fact that I limited each write-up to just a handful of sentences.

So, I'm doing things a little differently in 2020. Rather than cram all of these pithy critiques into the last few weeks of November or December, I'm spacing them out a bit.

As such, here are some thoughts on the six games I've managed to beat in the first three months of this year. Look for a similar post to appear in late June or early July--assuming I complete at least a couple more titles between now and then. (That's not a given considering Animal Crossing: New Horizons is doing its darndest to take over my life.)

Alice in Wonderland (DS)--Every single time I ask people to recommend DS games, a handful of them implore me to play this 2010 release. Did their vociferous advice prove accurate in the end? I'd say so. Although this iteration of Alice in Wonderland has its fair share of flaws, overall it's a gem. Truth be told, I'm not sure what my favorite aspect of it is: its Tim-Burton-by-way-of-Okamiden aesthetic, its Metroidvania-plus gameplay, or its near-perfect length. Regardless, I'm glad I finally got off my lazy butt and gave it a try.

Detective Pikachu (3DS)--Here's another game I dragged my feet on playing for far too long. Per the usual, I can't really tell you why. I guess I assumed it would be so "kiddie" it would be boring? Well, it's definitely aimed at a younger audience, but that didn't keep me from having a blast with it. I especially liked how it tweaked the adventure-detective genre in some surprising and intriguing ways. Oh, and it gets bonus points from me for looking great and not overstaying its welcome. (I finished it in less than 20 hours.)

Heroland (Switch)--I don't know about you, but I often have a better time with games I begin with low expectations than I do with games I dig into after anticipating them for months or years. Heroland fits into the latter category. Given that, I shouldn't have been surprised when I didn't immediately love it. It did surprise me, though--probably because the bulk of it (including its adorbs graphics, its jaunty OST, and its quirky gameplay) is my cup of tea. I came around to this weird mashup of a board game and an RPG in the end, but I'd still have a hard time recommending it to others--particularly at full price.

Hey! Pikmin (3DS)--I know everybody and their brother seemingly loves to shit on this portable Pikmin spinoff, but I'm not one of them. On the contrary, I adored the nearly 13 hours I devoted to Hey! Pikmin early this year. Oh, it's far from perfect, that's true, but it's also true that its pros far outweigh its cons--or at least they did for me. Chief among the former, by the way, are Hey! Pikmin's painterly art style and the puzzle-heavy nature of its side-scrolling action.

Pokémon Shield (Switch)--I've had a real hit-and-miss history with the world-conquering Pokémon series. After adoring, and finishing, the very first game way back when, I responded to almost every subsequent release with a shrug and a yawn. Or I did until I played, and beat, Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! in late 2018. As much I as loved that remake, I loved Pokémon Shield even more--so much so I've already put over 80 hours into it. The highlight for me: the thrilling and endlessly explorable "Wild Area." No joke: probably half of my Shield playthrough has been spent in this sprawling region thus far.

Raging Loop (Switch)--Although I had a feeling I'd enjoy this horror-tinged visual novel, I never dreamed I'd fall head over heels for it. What changed between when I first became aware of it and when it dug its claws into me? I got pulled into its Groundhog Day-esque story, for starters. I also got to know its curious cast of characters. Even its initially off-putting art eventually grew on me. Still not convinced? How about this: despite the fact that it took me about 30 hours to reach its end credits, I'm already looking forward to playing through Raging Loop again. If that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.

Have you finished any games this year? If so, which ones? And what did you think of them? Let me know in the comments section of this post.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Manual Stimulation BONUS: Hello Kitty World sticker sheet

I'm a sucker for games, especially old Japanese games, that come packed with sticker sheets.

Sadly, I don't own too many of these treasured goods. In fact, I can only think of four examples at the moment: Detana!! TwinBee, Loopop Cube: Lup Salad, PoPoLoCrois Monogatari, and Rhythm Tengoku.

Four examples other than the one I'm discussing and highlighting in this very post, I mean.

Funnily enough, I didn't even realize I owned this sticker sheet until I pulled my copy of the 1992 Famicom game out of the closet to scan its instruction manual.

To my utter surprise, stuck inside the pages of the Hello Kitty World manual were the stickers you see here.

Truth be told, I'm a bit miffed this precious sticker sheet focuses entirely on Hello Kitty, aka Kitty White.

Granted, she's the star of the show--er, game--and this sheet only contains eight stickers, five of which are pretty darn small, so the lack of any Mimmy or Tippy stickers makes some sense.

Something that makes a lot less sense: none of these stickers directly refer to Hello Kitty World. (Erm, except the one at the top.) It's almost like Character Soft, the publisher of this Balloon Kid knockoff, just took a few existing Hello Kitty illustrations and slapped them onto the sheet you're ogling now.

All that said, I'd rather get a sticker sheet than not get one, so please don't take what I've written so far to be serious complaints.

See also: scans of the Detana!! TwinBeeLoopop Cube: Lup Salad, and Rhythm Tengoku sticker sheets

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Manual Stimulation: Hello Kitty World (Famicom)

I've been a huge fan of Hello Kitty World ever since I first became aware of it well over a decade ago.

This isn't because I adore Hello Kitty, mind you. Although I think she's cute enough, I'm hardly obsessed with her or anything of the sort.

I am slightly obsessed with the Character Soft-published Famicom game that stars Kitty-chan (as well as her sister, Mimmy), however; or at least I've been obsessed with it at various points in the last 10 or so years.

The reason: it's basically a re-skin of one of my all-time favorite GameBoy games, Balloon Kid.

OK, so this Japan-only release from 1992 is more than just Balloon Kid with Alice's sprite swapped out for one that resembles the iconic Sanrio character. It's not a whole lot more than that, though.

For example, the playfield in Hello Kitty World is, or appears to be, much larger than the one in Balloon Kid. Also, the former seems a tad slower than the latter, though that, too, may just be an illusion.

Sadly, I can't tell you how Hello Kitty World's story, which is shared with readers of the game's instruction manual via the pages that precede this sentence, differs from that of Balloon Kid, or even if the two differ at all.

Speaking of the Hello Kitty World's manual, the spreads above and below explain this game's controls, start screen, and more.

And the next two pages of this instruction booklet discuss Hello Kitty World's dearth of collectible items.

I believe the following spread further educates players about how Hello Kitty World works, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

10 unfinished games I want to return to in 2020

Although I've gotten better in recent years at not only playing, but finishing, the games I buy, a few still fall through the cracks. By which I mean I walk away from some titles before I reach their end credits.

I'm OK with that now and then. For example, I failed to beat both Penny-Punching Princess and Umihara Kawase Fresh! in 2019, but I have no interest in returning to either of them.

I also failed to beat Dandy Dungeon, Dragon Quest XI S, and World of Final Fantasy Maxima after starting them last year, but I desperately want to rectify matters in 2020.

Here's why, plus similar info on seven other unfinished games I hope to get back to and wrap up between now and the end of December.

Contact for the Nintendo DS

Contact (DS)--I explored a good chunk of this Grasshopper Manufacture-made game back in 2015. Sadly, I don't remember much about my previous Contact experience other than I mostly liked it. Mostly. (If memory serves, a difficulty spike, or at least a tougher-than-usual boss, irritated me rather severely near the end of my 11-hour playthrough.) That's enough for me to want to give it a second chance, though--especially since I do remember loving its looks.

Dandy Dungeon (Switch)--While coming up with the list of titles that serve as the backbone of this post, it struck me that I rarely walk away from games because I hate them. In most cases, I leave them behind when I go on vacation, when I become obsessed with a book, or when work briefly takes over my life. That first reason is what caused me to drop Dandy Dungeon after putting more than 20 hours into it last year. I've been struggling to go back to it ever since, and I'm honestly not sure why. The only answer I can come up with is that maybe I got all I wanted or needed from the game in the time I spent with it in 2019. Hopefully that's not the case, but I'll find out one way or the other should I manage to boot up my save file again in the next few months.

Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers for the Nintendo 3DS

Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers (3DS)--I devoted a good seven or so hours to this bizarre Dillon's Rolling Western follow-up in late 2018, and though I enjoyed what I encountered then, I only played the game for another hour in 2019. Typically, I don't recall why I walked away from it at that point, but I'm pretty sure another game was to blame. Something I do recall is that I was finding Dead-Heat Breakers a bit repetitive around the time I dropped it. Still, I want to know how its curiously post-apocalyptic tale ends, so I'm going to do my best to slip back in the saddle as soon as possible.

Dragon Quest XI S (Switch)--I have a real hit-or-miss history with the Dragon Quest series, which probably goes a long way toward explaining my ho-hum reaction to the initial eight-ish hours of Dragon Quest XI S. For the record, I adored both the first and the ninth game in the series, but found the seventh too long by at least half. Why am I currently leaning toward the latter with XI S? The lone culprit that comes to mind right now is that it's too just sleepy for me. In a way, I appreciate and respect that it's not as peppy as, say, Pokémon Sword and Shield, but I also wouldn't complain if it were a smidge more energetic. Regardless, that shouldn't keep me from Dragon Quest XI S' finish line forever.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the GameBoy Advance

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GameBoy Advance)--Against my better judgment, I started this Final Fantasy Tactics spinoff shortly after I started its sequel. Only one game could survive such an endeavor, and in this case, the one left standing was the DS follow-up. I don't expect to leave my aborted playthrough of the original hanging for long, though. I loved Tactics A2 so much that I spent more time with it than any other game last year, so I'm expecting to feel similarly moony about this precursor.

Great Greed (GameBoy)--I've started this Namco-made RPG numerous times since first becoming aware of it many years ago. None of those playthroughs ended with me watching Great Greed's credit roll, however--despite the fact that I adore pretty much every aspect of it. I especially like its snappy, one-on-one battles and its eclectic soundtrack. So, I'm going to take another stab at it sometime this year. Hopefully this time I'll make it far enough to marry either the king or the chief of bodyguards.

Great Greed for the GameBoy

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)--I put more than 10 hours into Breath of the Wild back in 2017 and 2018, and both stints absolutely thrilled me. Sadly, both stints were rudely interrupted by vacations. As I've already made painfully clear, that's often all it takes the break the spell a game has on me. I always--or almost always--intend to return to these discarded adventures, but only rarely do. I have no idea when or how I'm going to buck that trend with Breath of the Wild, but I promise to try my hardest to make it happen in 2020.

My World, My Way (DS)--I gave over 10 hours of my life to this Global A-made RPG in early 2015. At the time, I was knee-deep into #ADecadeofDS, a blog series I started to celebrate the existence and impressive game catalog of Nintendo's first dual-screened handheld system. As part of that series, I played a DS title for a week--and only a week--and then reported how long I spent with it, what I thought of it, and more. I was so taken with My World, My Way that I ignored my self-imposed "week only" rule and played it for seven more days. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough for me to reach the game's climax. The question is: when (not if) I circle back to it this year, will I start fresh or return to my woefully unfinished save file?

My World, My Way for the Nintendo DS

VA-11 HALL-A (Vita)--I own way too many copies of this cyberbunk-tinged visual novel to have never completed it, but that's the embarrassing truth of the matter. The only way to save face, I guess, is to force myself to finish it sometime this year. The thing I'm most looking forward to re-experiencing during my latest run at VA-11 HALL-A: its sublime OST. I'm pretty sure I could listen to some of its tracks for hours on end without tiring of them.

World of Final Fantasy Maxima (Switch)--Given how long I hemmed and hawed over buying a copy of World of Final Fantasy Maxima, it's amazing I ended up adoring the 26 or so hours I spent with it in 2019. It has its share of flaws, but none of them have bothered me much. In fact, the only thing that's bothered me about this odd Final Fantasy offshoot is the sinking feeling that I'll be completely lost when I jump back into the fray after so many months away. Fingers crossed those fears are proven unwarranted.

See also: Five 3DS games and 10 Switch games I want to play in 2020

Monday, February 24, 2020

Alice in Wonderland for the Nintendo DS: a hidden gem with a few flaws

People have been telling me for years that Alice in Wonderland for the Nintendo DS was one of the dual-screened system's hidden gems.

So, why did I wait until a couple of weekends ago to find out if I agreed with their assessment? Honestly, I dragged my feet on playing this version of Alice in Wonderland up to now because I found its box art repulsive. That's a terrible excuse, I know, but it's the truth. Plus, all that really matters is I eventually pushed my stupid biases aside and gave the game a chance.

Actually, I gave it more than a chance; I finished it--and in three days, no less. What did I think of the seven-plus hours I spent with Alice in Wonderland? The gist is I adored it. It's not without flaw, though, so keep reading if you want the full story on this portable puzzler-platformer.

Five things I loved about Alice in Wonderland

Its art style is surprisingly astounding--Imagine the gothic cartoonishness of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas mixed with the chunky, cel-shaded adorableness of Capcon's Okamiden. That's about what you get, visually speaking, from the DS version of Disney Interactive Studios' Alice in Wonderland. Not exactly what you expected from a throwaway licensed game, right? Me neither. But, boy, did I appreciate the unasked-for effort developer Etranges Libellules put into this 2010 release's aesthetics.

It's no cakewalk--Disney may have published this tie-in to the 2010 film of the same name, which the above-mentioned Burton directed, but it ain't no kiddie game. No sirree. That's not because the few enemies you encounter in Alice in Wonderland are tough to topple, mind you. Rather, it's due to the fact that it's not always easy to figure out where to go or what to do next. On a related note, one of the first things that went through my mind after I started this title was that it would flummox most youngsters. Hell, I think it would flummox most older players, too. I appreciated the challenge myself, but I have a feeling some folks will walk away from it in frustration.

It's the perfect length--One of the main reasons I finally got off my butt and booted up my long-ignored Alice in Wonderland cartridge was suggested it would take me around 10 hours to finish. Anything under 20 hours is especially appealing to me these days, so I was thrilled when I reached this game's credit roll in just over seven hours. If that sounds too short to you, consider this: I'll definitely tackle Alice in Wonderland DS again down the road. Not simply because I enjoyed it the first time around, but because I think I'll enjoy it even more the second time around thanks to everything I learned in my earlier playthrough.

It's more than yet another Metroidvania--At its heart, Alice in Wonderland is a member of the ever-popular Metroidvania genre. But it's a bit more than that, too. For starters, you explore and re-explore the game's multifaceted world map not alone, as you do in most such games, but with a partner (Alice herself) in tow. Also, you don't lead her around as the same character for the whole adventure. At various points, you join forces with three other "guardians" you can switch to whenever you'd like. Even better, each one gives you access to special moves that help you do things like cross gaps, remove obstacles from your path, and see the flipside of a level.

It makes ample use of the DS' touch screen--If you tend to like games that put the DS hardware through its paces, you should love Alice in Wonderland. Pretty much every aspect of this title is controlled via the touch screen. You use it to move the protagonists, fight enemies, interact with the environment, and more. You can even use it to mark interesting locations on the map so you can return to them later. It all works surprisingly well, too--though I'm sure it helps that Alice is a fairly slow-paced game that favors brainpower over reflexes.

Five things I didn't love about Alice in Wonderland

Some might say it uses the touch screen a little too amply--Why? Because you pretty much only use the DS' touch screen while playing Alice in Wonderland. You can't use its directional pad or buttons to control characters or battle baddies even if you want to do so. I can't say that kept me from having a blast with the game, but I also can't say I wouldn't have had an even bigger blast with it if it had allowed me to, say, use my 3DS' circle pad instead of its touch screen to move the white rabbit and his blond, bug-eyed charge left and right.

Fighting enemies isn't much fun--After my first hour or so with Alice in Wonderland, I groaned every single time the background ripped open and baddies poured out of the swirling vortex that tear revealed. The resulting battles never proved to be overly difficult; in fact, I don't remember losing a single one. As a result, I'm not sure why the game includes them--or includes so many of them, at least. In my humble opinion, the overall experience would've been a lot more pleasant if Alice either offered up fewer of such fights or filled them with fewer enemies.

It can be pretty confusing--Alice in Wonderland doesn't always do a great job of explaining how things work. The game's "jigsaw system" is a great example. Early on, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the puzzle pieces I uncovered during my travels. I eventually figured things out, but I got close to throwing in the towel a couple of times before then. I doubt that was the intention of the title's developers.

I wish the jigsaw system had more depth--This system is seriously cool in theory, if not always in practice. As I just mentioned, you collect puzzle pieces as you traipse across Alice in Wonderland's numerous stages. Whenever you come across a new one, you plop it onto the world map. How you connect it to the existing pieces determines which level, or which part of a level, you can access next. Unfortunately, the aforementioned map is small, so you barely get to explore the potential of this intriguing system before your journey comes to an end.

The soundtrack is a real bummer--Given Alice in Wonderland's visuals (not to mention its Tim Burton connection), I expected its soundtrack to be equal parts ominous and quirky. Instead, it's tepid and orchestral. Don't get me wrong, it's far from terrible, but in my mind it's at odds with the overall vibe of this darkly whimsical adventure.

See also: 'Six reasons all the people who suggested I'd hate A Witch's Tale were wrong'

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Raging Loop would've been one of my favorite games of 2019 if I'd played it when it came out

It's funny how frequently the games I least expect to like end up becoming my favorites.

Four cases in point from the last 12 months: A Witch's Tale, Hey! PikminLapis x Labyrinth, and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince.

To be honest, I approached Raging Loop with a bit less apprehension than I approached the just-named titles, but only a bit.

I say that because although I always liked the premise of Raging Loop, which is a Groundhog Day-esque visual novel (or VN) set in a secluded Japanese village and mixed with the social-deduction game called "Werewolf," I wasn't so fond of its art style.

In fact, I kept Raging Loop--or Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P, as it's known in Japan--at arm's length due to the latter until I read this old, glowing game-forum post about it.

Although the above-mentioned write-up pushed me to eagerly pre-order a physical copy of Raging Loop, I didn't pop its cartridge into my Switch as soon as it arrived on my doorstep in late November.

Part of the reason for the delay is I planned to race through it in the lead-up to Halloween. (Physical copies were supposed to hit North America on Oct. 22, but didn't actually do so until Nov. 19.) Also, by the time I got my grubby hands on it, I was knee-deep into Romancing SaGa 3. And after I finished that game, I dove right into Heroland.

Forty-plus hours and far too many weeks later, I wrapped up my mostly positive Heroland campaign and looked for something else to play. That's when I remembered Raging Loop--and promptly fired it up.

Honestly, what followed was something akin to a fever dream. For 10 straight days, I was utterly charmed by and obsessed with this visual novel's nail-biter of a story.

Why is Raging Loop's story so darn compelling? For me, the remote, rural Japanese setting was a big part of the pull. It made everything that happened after the protagonist, a mysterious grad student named Haruaki Fusaishi, enters it all the more unnerving and captivating.

Speaking of which, the "everything that happened after" also plays a major role in making Raging Loop such an engaging experience. As I mentioned earlier, it's got a Groundhog Day-esque time-loop thing going on that I'm sure will aggravate some, but for me it added enough twists and turns to that storytelling trope to seem uniquely thrilling.

The characters that help bring Raging Loop's story to life are another standout component of this creepy VN. It'll take you a while to warm up to most of them, if you're anything like me, but once that happens you'll do as I did and root for more than Fusaishi to make it through "the feast" alive.

The contentious art style grows on you after a while, too--or at least it grew on me over time. In the end, I thought Raging Loop's at-times-off-putting aesthetic was a perfect match for its unsettling vibe.

Still, I have a feeling the visuals here won't sit well with some folks. And even those who like them may be turned off by the general "cheapness" of the game's presentation. There isn't much variety to its character or backdrop illustrations, and while that didn't bother me, it may bug others.

Something else that might annoy Raging Loop readers is its overall linearity. Yes, there are decisions to make, the aforementioned time loops to deal with, and a vast assortment of (mostly bad) endings to muse over, but for the most part you have to tackle them in a fairly straightforward manner.

Clearly that didn't keep me from enjoying the hell out of Raging Loop. In fact, I can't point to a single component of the game that irked me in any meaningful way.

Will you have a similarly positive reaction to this VN should you choose to play--or read, as the kids say--it? It's hard to say. If what I've said so far intrigues you in the least, though, I'd recommend giving it a try.

And if you still need a little push in that direction? Read this Raging Loop review, or check out this game-forum thread devoted to it. They should nudge you to one side of the fence or the other.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

My unasked-for review of Hey! Pikmin: I liked it, I really liked it!

I bought Hey! Pikmin a couple of years ago when retailers were selling copies at a fraction of their original asking price.

It's been sitting in a drawer ever since it arrived on my doorstep, though, because the negative word of mouth that surrounds this side-scrolling Pikmin spinoff convinced me it was a dud.

What prompted me to slip my Hey! Pikmin cart into my flame-red 3DS at long last? This recent write-up played a role, naturally, but so did my desire to play a DS or 3DS game that wasn't an RPG.

Hey! Pikmin fit that bill as well as any other game in my collection, so I started my way through it late last week. Five days and just about 13 hours later, I was done with it--final boss, credit roll, and all.

Although this post's headline should make it pretty clear how I feel about the time I spent with Hey! Pikmin, I'm guessing most of you would like to know a little more about those feelings than just, "I loved it!"

For those folks, here are some of the positives--and negatives!--that stuck out at me while I traipsed my way through Hey! Pikmin.

Hey! Pikmin pros

It looks great--Visually, Hey! Pikmin reminds me of Yoshi's New Island. Which makes a lot of sense, as developer Arzest made both of these 3DS games. Don't fret if you despise New Island's aesthetics. Not only are the graphics in Hey! Pikmin more consistent than those of its Yoshi-starring counterpart, but they're more consistently pretty, too.

The puzzle-centric gameplay is refreshingly unique--At times, Hey! Pikmin feels like it began life as a Kirby or Yoshi game. An example: you use the Pikmin you collect here to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, much like you use eggs to complete those same actions in your average Yoshi title. Overall, though, Hey! Pikmin's gameplay differs just enough from that of the aforementioned counterparts to feel unique. There's no real "platforming"--or even jumping--in this spinoff, for starters. Also, the pace is a lot slower and more deliberate than it is in most Yoshi and Kirby games. And then there are the eponymous, carrot-like creatures, which, as you might expect, provide their own twist to this well-worn genre.

It's almost blissfully short--When I was younger, Hey! Pikmin's brevity would've caused me to blow a gasket. These days, short games thrill me. I no longer have the time or attention span to play more than a couple of super-long games each year. So, Hey! Pikmin was perfect for me in that regard.

Another way it was perfect for me: it didn't overstay its welcome. You might be thinking, "Of course it didn't, you only played it for 13 hours!" My response is that if Hey! Pikmin had included one more sector (world), even one more boss, it would've actively annoyed me. In other words, it basically ended right around when I thought it should. How many times does that happen with modern games?

Also, it's perfect for short bursts of play--If you, too, prefer games that allow you to plug away at them a little bit at a time, you should track down a copy of Hey! Pikmin pronto. Assuming you're still in the mood for 3DS titles, of course. Most Hey! Pikmin stages can be finished in just a few minutes. And most sectors can be finished in an hour or so. It all makes for a pretty wonderful situation if you don't have a ton of free time and you're not a huge fan of games that take months to complete.

I'm pretty sure I'll replay it sooner rather than later--And that's not something I say about a lot of games these days. So why am I saying it here? Because I'm already looking forward to experiencing certain Hey! Pikmin levels a second or even third time, that's why. I'm especially looking forward to revisiting the frosty stages of the "Snowfall Field" sector--like the one that tasks you with controlling Olimar and his pluckable, pint-sized crew while sliding down a mountain atop a bottle cap.

Hey! Pikmin cons

It chugs a bit on an OG 3DS--It's possible Hey! Pikmin is like Poochy and Yoshi's Woolly World and performs better when played on a New 3DS. My only experience with the former title to date, though, is on an OG 3DS. And when played on an OG 3DS, Hey! Pikmin's frame rate struggles a bit on several stages. I'd even go so far as to say it struggles mightily on a few. That's never really bothered me, strangely enough, but I know it bugs others, so I thought I'd point it out here.

It's pretty easy--You know how in most Kirby and Yoshi games, the real challenge comes from nabbing all the collectibles in a stage or finishing a level without taking a hit? Well, the same is true of Hey! Pikmin. If you hate that sort of thing, you'll probably hate this side-scroller, too.

Too few stages force you to use multiple kinds of Pikmin--Considering Hey! Pikmin features five different Pikmin types, you might think it would be chock-full of levels requiring you to use all, or at least several, of them. Nope. The majority only let you use one or two. Just a handful let you use three, and I can't think of a single one that lets you use all five. A missed opportunity, if you ask me.

A number of stages are locked behind Amiibos--Of all the negatives I'm highlighting here, this one irritates me the most. Actually, it's the only one that irritates me, period. Thankfully, most--all?--of the Hey! Pikmin levels that are locked behind Amiibos seem to be of the "secret spot" variety. Meaning they're single-screened, puzzle-centric stages rather than full-fledged ones. Still, it's beyond annoying that you need to own Amiibos to access them.

See also: 'Five Nintendo 3DS games I want to play in 2020'

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The good, bad, and ugly of Heroland (or, why I'm thinking of walking away from this oddball RPG after putting 20-plus hours into it)

The topic of this post may surprise those of you who noticed that I named Heroland in my "favorite games of 2019 that aren't The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince or Lapis x Labyrinth" write-up.

Don't get me wrong, I stand by its inclusion there--despite the fact that I'm giving serious thought to pulling the plug on my lengthy Heroland playthrough well in advance of the game's end credits.

How could I both enjoy this unique PC, PS4, and Switch RPG--called Work x Work in Japan--and bounce off it before encountering its credit roll? That's what I'll hopefully explain here.

The good

Physical copies come with a frickin' instruction manual--And not only that, but Heroland's manual is pretty nice. It's 25 pages long, printed in full color, and filled with a ton of lovely illustrations. Oh, and it's small enough it actually fits in the game's case. I wouldn't suggest buying a physical copy of Heroland just so you can flip through this booklet whenever the urge arises, but it sure is a nice bonus if you purchase one for at least a couple of other reasons.

It dares to do things differently--I love role-playing games to death, but even I think they can be a little too samey. Well, Heroland approaches the well-worn genre from a unique angle. I guess I should've expected that. After all, it was made by folks who previously worked on Fantasy LifeMagical Vacation, and even Mother 3. Heroland doesn't play like any of those titles, though. It's actually kind of--gulp!--mobile game-esque in its design. To advance the story, you take on quests that revolve around guiding four-person parties through areas of a theme park. Said park has an RPG theme, so naturally it features battles with baddies. (Though the baddies here are just other humans in costumes.) Being a guide, you don't do any fighting yourself; rather, you bark out orders to customers who paid to partake in such tussles. That probably sounds boring to a good portion of you, but I've found it fairly fun so far.

Heroland's soundtrack is surprisingly magical--Or maybe I should call it sneakily impressive? I say this because Heroland's OST didn't strike me as superb right away. It wasn't until a couple of days after I started playing it, when I realized I was humming the game's main battle theme, that such a thought entered my head. On a related note, Tsukasa Masuko's work here is more playful than serious or somber--appropriate, given Heroland's amusement-park setting.

The bad

Everyone in Heroland talks too much--Everyone except the silent, afro-coifed protagonist, that is. I'm not always keen on silent protagonists in games, but Heroland's thrills me. I mean, if ol' Lucky (that's the main character's name) added his two cents to every conversation, this role-player would be even more blathery than it is already. Oh, well, at least Heroland's wall of text is witty.

I wish its developers would've gone further with the board game-esque playfields--Although it's possible things open up in this regard as Heroland approaches its denouement, I'm not betting on it doing so. Assuming I'm right, that's a real shame. While the game changes up its sorties now and then by tossing new environments and enemies at the player, they otherwise remain disappointingly straightforward. Personally, I would've loved it if the playfields that serve as the backbone of Heroland's silly quests were filled with twists and turns--or at least a few more slight bends.

The ugly

Battles don't become a whole lot more strategic or even interesting after the five- or 10-hour mark--Though there's more depth to Heroland's skirmishes than the game leads you to believe early on, things seem to level off in that regard once you're a few hours into its story. Admittedly, I'm still enjoying them quite a bit, but I'm pretty sure I'd enjoy them a lot more if I could make even a couple more choices while telling the park's customers what to do against the horde of adorable enemies they encounter during their Heroland adventures.

It lasts way too long--When I started playing Heroland, I assumed it would take me 15 to 20 hours to finish. Around the time I hit the 15-hour mark, I asked folks on Twitter how long it took them to beat the game. The answer I received shocked me: over 40 hours. Twenty hours in, I've long since forgotten the thrust of Heroland's story--which suggests to me it's already gone on far too long. How on earth am I supposed to give it 20 more hours of my time?

See also: 'A few impressions of the recently released Romancing SaGa 3 remake now that I've put more than 20 hours into it'