Thursday, February 11, 2021

Captain Toad and chill (or, move over Animal Crossing, this is the relaxing game I want and need in these difficult times)

So many people found solace in Animal Crossing: New Horizons last year. I was not one of them.

I expected to be one of them, of course. Not only have I enjoyed every previous entry in the Animal Crossing series (with the possible exception of Wild World), but I've returned to the GameCube version at least five times since my first obsessive playthrough eons ago.

There's no point in me prattling on about why I didn't gel with Animal Crossing: New Horizons; all I'll say for now is that it felt too much like busywork this go around.

With New Horizons tossed into the bin as my go-to "chill game" for 2020, I set out to find a suitable replacement. A Short Hike could have been it but it was too, well, short. Moon seemed promising as well, but it was a bit too somber and emotional to fill this particular role.

I guess I should have known Captain Toad might fit the bill. Nintendo is well known for concocting such non-threatening offerings, after all. Still, I assumed it would be more like one of the company's three-dimensional Mario titles—generally mellow, but with a slight edge.

Although Captain Toad shows some teeth near the end, the bulk of the experience is the definition of relaxing. You, plopped into Toad's shiny little shoes (and, later, Toadette's), shuffle and waddle around each cuboid stage in search of three diamonds and a single gold star, the latter of which doubles as an exit.

There are coins to grab, too, as well as doors to unlock and open—even chunks of earth and brick to lower or raise.

Oh, and there are enemies! How could I forget them? You can pluck turnips out of the dirt and weaponize them against the game's adorable baddies, but you can also sneak by them.

That's probably why they momentarily slipped my mind; for the lion's share of my Captain Toad playthrough, I ignored the Shy Guys, Goombas, and Boos that sauntered around each level with me whenever possible.

Given that, I can't help but wonder why they're even there. Or why Nintendo's developers didn't allow players to flip a switch and remove them, if that's what they fancied.

Maybe the company's bigwigs demanded (or at least strongly suggested) that Captain Toad needed them to be considered a proper game? Or maybe they (or, more likely, the devs themselves) thought they might provide an entertaining distraction from the rest of this rather low-key adventure?

Whatever the case may be, the majority of Captain Toad has such a tranquil vibe that it shocked me—in the most pleasant of ways, of course.

Note, however, that I said "the majority of" Captain Toad is tranquil. For reasons I still can't quite comprehend, the game veers in a decidedly stressful direction just before its end credits.

We're not talking Dark Souls territory here, naturally, but things do get a lot tougher. I had several "sweaty palm" moments during this portion of the game, which confused and even annoyed me a tad.

Honestly, I wish the folks who made Captain Toad had saved these slightly more taxing stages for the post-game. 

I would've preferred the main campaign to be a fully laidback experience, rather than one that suddenly ramps up in intensity at the last second.

Oh, well, at least the best part of it proved to be perfectly chill. That's more than I can say about nearly every other game I've played in the last year, so I'll forgive this lone misstep.

Have you found any old or new games particularly relaxing in the last year? If so, please tell me about it in the comments section below.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Manual Stimulation: Alien Syndrome (Game Gear)

I don't know if I've made this clear here, on Twitter, on Facebook, or elsewhere on the internet, but I adore Alien and Aliens

I'm specifically talking about the classic horror and sci-fi films, of course; not the, uh, beings from outer space in general.

I mention that because it should go a long way toward explaining my attraction not only to the 1986 arcade version of this game, but the boiled-down Game Gear port from 1992 I'm highlighting in this post.

After all, there's little denying Alien Syndrome was heavily inspired by James Cameron's classic 1986 sci-fi action film, Aliens.

This isn't to imply Alien Syndrome offers nothing new or unique. The enemies and especially bosses it throws at players are a world away from the ones found in the aforementioned flick.

To be honest, the low-level aliens you fend off in this Gauntlet-esque, run-and-gun shooter tend toward the lackluster. Thankfully, the end-of-stage guardians more than make up for it.

This version of Alien Syndrome isn't a straight port of the quarter-munching original, by the way. According to the intro, the Game Gear version a follow-up set five years in the future.

I can't say that's immediately noticeable while playing the portable iteration, but it's a nice bullet point all the same. 

Something else that's worth noting about this release is its brevity. The game offers up just four stages. Successfully finishing them is no easy feat, though, so at least there's that. Still, few are going to describe Alien Syndrome for the Game Gear as a meaty experience.

Most who play it are likely to call it a tense and thrilling experience, though. It absolutely nails that aspect of the source material. As such, playing through it again and again—or at least more than once—is joyful rather than annoying.

Have any of you played the Game Gear port of Sega's Alien Syndrome? If so, what did you think of it?

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Manual Stimulation: Bubble Bobble (Game Gear)

The Sega Game Gear port of Bubble Bobble may be my favorite home version of Taito's arcade classic.

Which of course means it's also one of my favorite Game Gear titles.

In fact, I love Bubble Bobble for Game Gear so much that one of my "bucket list" wishes as a games writer is to interview the folks who developed it so I can learn why they made some of the intriguing design choices they made. 

(Seriously, if you know anyone who used to work for the now-defunct, South Korea-based Open Corp and you can put me in touch with them, please let me know.)

Why am I such a huge fan of this portable iteration of Bubble Bobble? The main reason is that its Bob, Bub, enemy, and item sprites are the usual size, but its backdrops look as though they've been zapped with a shrink ray.

The result is that this Bubble Bobble port gives off some serious Godzilla vibes. As in, Bub and Bob—as well as their enemy combatants—tower over the surrounding environment. It feels strange, yet also thrilling.

It alters the gameplay quite a bit, too, which I'm sure will irk some Bubble Bobble lifers to no end. Personally, I like how it switches things up—even if it does obliterate the few strategies I've developed for other, more traditional versions of the game over the years.

Anyway, enough about the game itself. This post is supposed to be about the instruction manual that was packed inside copies of this small-screened take on Taito's seminal classic, so let's talk about it.

If you scroll back up a bit, you'll see the Bubble Bobble Game Gear manual kicks off with a two-page comic. Sure, it employs an art style I'm not a huge fan of, but it's still pretty sweet—if short.

Sadly, this booklet isn't as crammed full of lovely illustrations as I think it should be. Still, it includes enough of them that you're unlikely to feel let down at the end. 

Monday, February 01, 2021

11 games I want to return to in 2021

Although I've focused almost entirely on playing "new to me" games—you know, ones I've never played before, like the 11 games I highlighted in my previous post—over the last few years, in 2021 I'd like to return to a handful I put some time into previously.

The following games are the first that came to mind when I started this little exercise a couple of weeks ago. Will I actually circle back to all of them by the end of this year? Your guess is as good as mine. I'll give it my best shot, though, that much I can promise you.

ClaDun x2 (PSP)

I've had dungeon-crawlers on the brain the last few months, so I guess it shouldn't surprise me that this peculiar example of the genre popped into my head as a possible replay contender this year. One of the main reasons I'm thinking of revisiting it is that, while I recall enjoying both the first ClaDun and this 2011 sequel, I can't remember much else about them. Also, both are easily accessible via my sadly ignored Vita, so giving the latter a second chance in 2021 would allow me to spend some quality time with both of Sony's handhelds, in a manner of speaking.

Dillon’s Dead-Heat Breakers (3DS)

I put more than seven hours into this weird Dillon's Rolling Western sequel-slash-spinoff a couple years ago. The funny thing is, I only half-enjoyed the time I spent with it then. I found the grungy, post-apocalyptic setting fascinating and the high-speed race-battles exhilarating, but I also found the overall gameplay loop disappointingly repetitive. Here's hoping the former aspects far outweigh the latter one when I return to it (and maybe restart it) sometime soon.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GameBoy Advance)

I played through and thoroughly enjoyed Final Fantasy Tactics A2 in 2019. I did this despite the fact that I had yet to play its predecessor. Why? To be frank, I wasn't up for playing a game on my GB Micro or DS Lite at the time. Playing Tactics A2 on my trusty 3DS seemed miles more appealing. Considering how much I adored A2, though, I feel it's imperative that I get off my butt and check out the original FFT Advance ASAP—and that's exactly what I'll attempt to do over the next few months.

Half-Minute Hero (PSP)

Here's another PSP game that I remember playing at least a little of sometime in the past but can barely recall any details. Other than it looking great and offering up a curious variety of gameplay styles, I mean. So, I'd say it's ripe for a second—and more extensive—look, wouldn't you agree?

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

I have a surprisingly spotty history with The Legend of Zelda series. Although I completed the first game and A Link to the Past and believe both to be unquestionable classics, I've struggled to finish the numerous sequels that followed in their footsteps. Breath of the Wild is a different beast, which I discovered when I put about 10 hours into it back in 2017 and 2018, but that wasn't enough to keep me from drifting away from it eventually. I'll try to combat that should I succeed in circling back to it in 2021.

Loco Roco (PSP)

Loco Roco seems like one of those games that would be my cup of tea. Yet I've only ever played a few minutes of it. I'm sure most of the blame for that can be aimed at my general lack of interest in the PSP when it was still lighting up the sales charts. Well, I'm much more open to Sony's first handheld these days, plus I have a feeling Loco Roco's length will fit right in with my current interest in games that don't take long to finish.

Lord of Magna (3DS)

I bought Lord of Magna some time ago with high-ish expectations. Its cute-colorful aesthetic appealed to me, as did its bowling-esque battles. Or at least its battles intrigued me—to be honest, I wasn't sure I'd find them enjoyable. I did, though, which makes me wonder why I walked away from it after devoting just a couple of hours to it last year. I guess I'll find out if and when I return to it this year.

Monster Hunter Stories (3DS)

Part of me is nervous about returning to Monster Hunter Stories in 2021. The reason: a sequel that looks to improve on the original in every way is set to be released for the Switch this summer. And as a recent post of mine makes clear, the Switch is my preferred place to play games these days. Plus, I don't want to risk the original burning me out on the formula before I get to the sequel. Given all that, it might be wise to consider this the most "possibly maybe" entry on this list.

My World, My Way (DS)

Unlike most of the other aborted games highlighted here, I have no problem recalling why I failed to finish My World, My Way when I first started through it in 2015. You see, I played it as part of a short-lived series I called "A Decade of DS," which involved me spending a week with a game and writing a blog post about my experience with it before quickly moving on to another title. I always meant to come back to this odd, Atlus-published (in North America) RPG at a later date, but never did. So, I'll try to make a point of it in 2021.

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin (Switch)

Like a lot of folks, I snapped up a copy of this indie darling as soon as I could last fall. I promptly booted it up, put about an hour into it... and then dropped it in favor of another game. (Paper Mario: The Origami King, I think?) I didn't drop it because I hated it, mind you. I just wasn't in the mood for a side-scrolling hack-and-slash title at that moment—even one with a rice-harvesting component. I'm confident I'll be more keen on such an endeavor when I boot it up again in the near future.

World of Final Fantasy Maxima (Switch)

I had a blast with World of Final Fantasy Maxima while playing it for a little over 26 hours two years ago. It can be odd and even ugly, but overall I found it to be refreshingly unique and addictive. As is too often the case for me, though, a vacation stole my attention from it, and after I returned home, rejoining its convoluted story daunted me. Normally I'd just start over, but there's no guarantee doing so would produce a different result. As such, I'm planning to grit my teeth and force myself back into Maxima's world. I can always turn to GameFAQs or YouTube if I find myself helplessly lost.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

11 games I want to play in 2021

I played a lot of games in 2020—44, at last count.

The vast majority were Switch games, though I played several 3DS and DS games, too.

In 2021, I want to branch out a bit. Specifically, I want to add at least a few PSP and Vita games into the mix—with the ones highlighted below leading the way.

Boku no Natsuyasumi Portable (PSP)

I've been itching to play this distinctly Japanese life sim since I first became aware of it ages ago. Actually, I've owned a copy of the original PS1 release for years now—I've just never played it. I'm hoping this portable port will prove a bit more attractive in that regard.

Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings (DS)

This Final Fantasy XII spinoff is one of those DS titles I've long wanted to experience but have also long dragged my feet on purchasing and starting. Why have I waited until now to try Revenant Wings? The main reason is that I've never had the best grasp of its gameplay, and that's made me a more than a tad wary of it. 

Hades (Switch)

I've spent a lot of time with roguelikes in the last few months—first via Void Terrarium, then via Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate and Etrian Mystery Dungeon. Am I really in the mood for more of this genre after all that? We'll find out shortly after I start Hades.

The House in Fata Morgana (Switch or Vita)

Visual novel fans on the internet have hyped up The House in Fata Morgana since an English Windows version released in 2016, and probably even before that. Thankfully, that hasn't impacted my expectations of the game, as I know next to nothing about it. Fingers crossed I dig what I eventually encounter.

Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk (Switch)

I have a great track record with Nippon Ichi Software-made games, so my hopes are high for this first-person dungeon-crawler. This is despite the fact that I'm hardly the biggest fan of into-the-screen RPGs—my mostly positive experiences with the Etrian Odyssey series notwithstanding.

Magical Starsign (DS)

Despite the fact that I've always adored the look of games made by Brownie Brown (now known as 1-Up Studio), I've only played a couple of them. And even those games, Mother 3 and Fantasy Life, were collaborative efforts with other developers. So, Magical Starsign will be my first real taste of this seemingly talented dev's abilities. Fingers crossed I like its gameplay as much as I like its aesthetic.

Poison Control (Switch)

Truth be told, I pre-ordered this game simply because it's coming from Nippon Ichi Software. OK, and because I previously asked the company to bring it to our shores. A few times. I only barely understand how it plays, and what I understand makes me think it might not be my cup of tea. I'm sticking with it anyway, though, as I loved Lapis x Labyrinth and Void Terrarium after being similarly unsure of them early on.

PoPoLoCrois (PSP)

I've heard that this PoPoLoCrois game is a kind of a mess, as it combines chopped-up versions of the series' first two releases with a connecting interlude. Normally, that would bug me. Since I'm mostly uneducated on these titles and so won't know what I'm missing, though, I'm barely bothered.

Project X Zone (3DS)

Don't bother telling me that this game is a dud. I've heard it all before—though I've also heard a few folks say they had a blast it. I recently bought a copy of Project X Zone based on my possibly delusional belief that I'll side with the latter group of fans. I mean, how could I not, with a cast that includes Arthur, Chun-Li, Ulala, and Valkyrie?

UFO: A Day in the Life (PS1)

Without trying to sound snarky, most of the games made by the crew of now-defunct Love-de-Lic have similar vibes and stories. That's fine by me, as I adore two titles fitting that description, Chulip and Moon. This 1999 offering sounds even more intriguing, though, thanks to its star—a super-cute, photo-snapping UFO.

What Did I Do to Deserve This, My Lord!? 2 (PSP)

Yet another PSP game that I always meant to buy and try but also always overlooked in favor of other titles. Like Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and Poison Control, I'm a little iffy on its gameplay, but I'm sure to enjoy at least one of these games, so why not this one?

Are there any particular games you want to play—old or new—between now and the end of 2021? Tell me all about them in the comments section below.

Monday, January 25, 2021

How I spent my time with video games in 2020

It's starting to feel like at the end of every year I either say I played more games than the year before or I spent more time with games than the year before. (See my 2019 write-up for evidence.)

For 2020, both statements are true. Big surprise considering how locked down everything was last year, right?

Speaking of surprises, it may surprise some of you to learn that Animal Crossing: New Horizons wasn't the game I played most in 2020. In fact, I didn't even put 100 hours into it. I gladly poured hundreds of hours into previous entries, so bouncing off this one so quickly shocks me, too.

Not at all shocking to me is that I spent more time with SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions than I did with any other game last year. Even after I finished this most recent SaGa sequel, I didn't want to stop playing it. And although I nearly started a second playthrough right away, I convinced myself to move on to something else (The World Ends With You, I believe) before that happened.

As for the rest of my most-played games of 2020, feast your eyes on the following stats:

  • SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions (Switch) — 97 hours, 40 minutes
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch) — 95 hours, 30 minutes
  • Pokémon Shield (Switch) — 80 hours, 55 minutes
  • The World Ends With You (DS) — 39 hours, 15 minutes
  • Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate (Switch) — 36 hours, 00 minutes
  • Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch) — 34 hours, 15 minutes
  • Void Terrarium (Switch) — 33 hours, 35 minutes
  • Raging Loop (Switch) — 29 hours, 50 minutes
  • Deadly Premonition Origins (Switch) — 29 hours, 15 minutes
  • Animal Crossing (GameCube) — 22 hours, 50 minutes
  • Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (Switch) — 22 hours, 15 minutes
  • Heroland (Switch) — 20 hours, 30 minutes
  • Moon (Switch) — 19 hours, 05 minutes
  • Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories (Switch) — 17 hours, 15 minutes
  • Kirby Mass Attack (DS) — 13 hours, 20 minutes
  • Clubhouse Games (Switch) — 12 hours, 40 minutes
  • Hey! Pikmin (3DS) — 12 hours, 35 minutes
  • Again (DS) — 12 hours, 20 minutes
  • Super Princess Peach (DS) — 11 hours, 50 minutes
  • Mad Rat Dead (Switch) — 10 hours, 20 minutes
  • Alice in Wonderland (DS) — 7 hours, 20 minutes
  • Yomawari: Night Alone (Switch) — 7 hours, 05 minutes
  • Time Hollow (DS) — 6 hours, 30 minutes
  • Part Time UFO (Switch) — 6 hours, 05 minutes
  • Cruel Bands Career (Switch) — 4 hours, 35 minutes
How did all of you spend your time with games in 2020? Feel free to share your own play-time stats, or simply list your most-played titles, in the comments section of this post.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

One sentence about each of the 24 games I finished in 2020

I began 2020 intending to review every one of the games I finished during the year. Although I did that—to a point, via this post and this post—until the end of June, I completely dropped the ball after that.

I'm going to try to make up for things here—although, again, only to a point. Instead of writing multi-paragraph reviews of each of the 24 games I finished in 2020, I'm going to devote just a sentence to them.

Here are the blurbs in question, which I've organized according to when I completed them. (Alice in Wonderland was the first game I beat in 2020, while Paper Mario: The Origami King was the last.) 

Should you want additional details on any of these games, let me know in the comments section of this post. Or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

A unique, touch-controlled Metroidvania that's far more challenging than its awesome, adorable art style implies.

Detective Pikachu (3DS)

This Pokémon-themed adventure game may be aimed at kids but adults can enjoy it, too—as long as they don't have a deep-seated hatred of Pikachu, of course.

Heroland (Switch)

Made by folks who previously worked on Fantasy Life and Mother 3, Heroland is a theme-park-based, board-game-esque RPG with a superb soundtrack that intrigues until it overstays its welcome.

A beautiful, blissfully short side-scroller that does a surprisingly brilliant job of combining the Pikmin series' characters and controls with thoughtful platforming action.

Pokémon Shield (Switch)

I loved Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! when I played through it in 2018, and I loved Pokémon Shield even more when I played through it last year—thanks mainly to its charming, Pokéfied British setting, slew of appealing new 'mons, and thrilling "Wild Area."

Raging Loop (Switch)

A terrifyingly engrossing visual novel that features "Werewolf"-inspired gameplay and a Groundhog Day-ish looping story.

Deadly Premonition Origins (Switch)

One of those "greater than the sum of its parts" games, with the positive parts of Deadly Premonition Origins being its quirky, compelling characters, WTF story, and weird soundtrack, and the negative parts being its "please don't make me do that again" combat and QTE segments.

Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories (Switch)

I've never had to live through a natural disaster myself, but I kind of (only kind of!) feel like I have thanks to this adventure game, which is harrowing not just because of drama and trauma it puts you through, but because of its iffy graphics and even iffier frame rate.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions (Switch)

Another RPG that's shockingly similar to a board game, SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions offers players a wide-open world, a minimum of direction, a ton of potential party members, and a predictably sublime OST.

The World Ends With You (DS)

A dual-screened action RPG that makes full use of all that acreage during its thrillingly chaotic battles, supported by some of the most stylish visuals around and fabulous, pop-tastic soundtrack.

Void Terrarium (Switch)

One part post-apocalyptic roguelike, one part human Tamagotchi—all set to an appropriately (and enjoyably) industrial OST.

Mr. Driller Encore (Switch)

Mr. Driller goes to a theme park and adds some much needed depth and variety to his eponymous series' previously straightforward race-to-the-bottom-of-the-screen gameplay.

Moon (Switch)

A melancholy "anti-RPG" that sends you into a game world to clean up the mess of an unhinged hero by saving the souls of slain creatures and helping its human inhabitants in various ways.

A Short Hike (Switch)

If you've ever dreamt of exploring—by land or sky—a mountainside getaway as an anthropomorphized bird and at your leisure, this is the game for you.

Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (Switch)

A touching, vaguely EarthBound-esque RPG that lets you time travel and tackle mechanical foes with the assistance of a robot that can transform into a boxer, cowboy, and more.

Kirby Mass Attack (DS)

Using your DS' touch screen to control up to 10 Kirbies through a series of side-scrolling and puzzle-filled stages is cool; if only it were more fun.

Part Time UFO (Switch)

Leave it to the masters at HAL Laboratory to create an instant classic that combines a claw crane, a balance-puzzler, and the most sickeningly sweet soundtrack you've ever heard.

Yomawari: Night Alone (Switch)

Yomawari proves that survival-horror games don't need to be remotely realistic to be fully and properly unnerving.

Super Princess Peach (DS)

Forget what you've read about this vivacious platformer; in my humble opinion, Super Princess Peach is every bit as good as your average Kirby, Yoshi, or even Mario side-scroller.

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends (Switch)

Take the Bubble Bobble that started it all in 1986, replace the simple-yet-snazzy backdrops with ones that are simply boring, remove all the character from its kooky cast, and make the overall experience more awkward as well as less enjoyable, and you've got 4 Friends.

Mad Rat Dead (Switch)

Come for the move-to-the-beat platforming action (and the amazing OST that coordinates it), stay for the surprisingly touching tale of a dead lab rat who just wants to relive his final day—OK, and exact revenge on the scientist who killed him.

Time Hollow (DS)

Anyone who had a blast playing through Hotel Dusk: Room 215, Ghost Trick, or any of the Ace Attorney games should give this similar offering from Konami a go ASAP.

Again (DS)

This CiNG-made point-and-click adventure game isn't quite as great as the company's other DS efforts—Hotel Dusk, Last Window, and Trace Memory—but it's close enough to be well worth your while if you dug those titles.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

The Origami King gives me hope there's still some life left in Nintendo's depressingly inconsistent Paper Mario series, though I wouldn't mind at all if the next sequel's turn-based battles were more traditional than tactical as they are here.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

My favorite game soundtracks of 2020

When I was younger, I didn't have the greatest appreciation for game music. Oh, I dug a good background tune now and then, like Matoya's Cave theme from the original Final Fantasy or the overworld theme from Super Mario Bros. 2, but listen to entire game soundtracks (OSTs) when I was done playing? Never.

Nowadays, I regularly listen to game OSTs during my "down time," especially while working. The OSTs for Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, Hotel Dusk: Room 215Kirby's Epic Yarn and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince are a handful of good examples.

The game OSTs discussed in this post, which are my favorites of the past year, have joined this rotation—for all the reasons shared below and more.

Mad Rat Dead (PS4, Switch)

In the run-up to Mad Rat Dead's release last fall, I asked folks on Twitter if they were planning to buy and play it. A few people replied they had pre-ordered copies simply because of Dyes Iwasaki's involvement. At the time, all I could say in response was "that's interesting," as I had no idea who Iwasaki was or why he would inspire such action. 

After experiencing, and thoroughly enjoying (yes, despite including it in my most disappointing games of 2020 write-up), this game and its soundtrack, I can see why. The electro-swing and glitch-hop tracks Iwasaki—and others, like Camellia and a_hisa—produced for the Mad Rat Dead OST are blissful. Not only are they the kind of tunes you can enjoy (over and over again) after you're done playing Mad Rat Dead, but during the act they provide exactly the kind of push you need to successfully complete this game's often-brutal side-scrolling stages, too.

Moon (Switch)

The hallmark of Moon's soundtrack is that it's full of songs made by actual indie musicians. As such, its vibe is decidedly different from what you normally get from game music. 

That isn't to say the tunes here are better than what is typical for the medium; rather, it's to say they're structured differently. I guess you could say they sound more like the kind of pop or rock or dance music any of us listen to in our daily lives—particularly if you tend to listen to music from more experimental artists. 

To put it another way, most of the music on Moon's soundtrack isn't as obviously epic or rousing or triumphant as it can be in other games, especially other RPGs. It's the sort of OST you might put on while enjoying a drink at the end of a long day, or even during a chill get-together with some adventurous friends.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

This Paper Mario sequel's OST is as eclectic as the rest of its contents. Some of its musical creations sound like they came straight from one of Mario's platformers. Others sound like they belong in a Broadway production. The rest? Many defy easy categorization. 

Most are also surprisingly subtle—to the point that you probably won't hum or even think of them much after you save and quit you globe-trotting adventure for the day. While you're actually playing The Origami King, though, they seem like perfect accompaniments to the action or activities at hand. 

That said, I often found myself daydreaming about tracks I had no idea I'd internalized, so maybe the music here is more infectious than I'm giving it credit for right now?

Part Time UFO (Switch)

Part Time UFO's soundtrack is as gorgeously simple as its graphics and balance-puzzler-ific gameplay. It basically consists of a single melodic hook (which centers on a robotic vocalization of its Japanese title) that is broadly interpreted into different musical genres, like country, disco, and jazz. 

The resulting tunes are so whimsical and adorable—not to mention really damn catchy—that I can almost guarantee you'll walk away from every stint with Part Time UFO incessantly humming its main theme.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions (Mobile, PC, PS4, Switch)

All the best role-playing games have stellar overworld themes and similarly sensational battle themes. The soundtrack for SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions checks both of those boxes—the latter one, especially.

That's a big deal, as Kenji Ito's battle themes are the star of this game as well as its OST. I say battle themes, plural, here because SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions has several of them, including one for each of its four main characters. They're all splendid—filled with swirling strings that inspire even during the toughest of fights. (And let me tell you, you'll encounter some challenging bosses in Ambitions. Hell, you'll encounter plenty of challenging low-level baddies, too.)

In that way, at least, this enhanced version of SaGa: Scarlet Grace is more traditional than the rest of the game's components. Even then, it's hardly ho-hum or average. If a game OST could be described as "elegant," this one is it. Maybe that's why it feels like such a breath of fresh air, despite not being altogether unique.

Void Terrarium (PS4, Switch)

Is Nippon Ichi Software secretly the best producer of game soundtracks these days? I'm not sure, but I'd certainly make the argument that NIS is one of the best in this area at the moment. 

Not only is Void Terrarium's OST a prime example of the kind of brilliance that has regularly come out of this pint-sized publisher over the last few years, but so are the similarly noteworthy soundtracks concocted for Destiny Connect (highlighted below), Mad Rat Dead (discussed above), and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

All three are completely different, and delightful, beasts, with Void Terrarium's OST being full of synthy, sometimes crunchy, sometimes crystalline, backing tunes that, like their counterparts in Mad Rat Dead, positively propel you through the game's murky, post-apocalyptic dungeons.


All of the soundtracks discussed up to now were made for games that released--and that I played--in 2020. The following pair were produced for games that came out prior to last year.

Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (PS4, Switch)

The Destiny Connect soundtrack is probably the most traditional of all the OSTs discussed here. Even so, it's eminently listenable—in large part because it does a masterful job of tugging at the ol' heartstrings. A lot of the music in this Nippon Ichi Software-made RPG features twinkling piano melodies that help drive home the game's wistful and nostalgic story.

Don't worry, the Destiny Connect OST isn't limited to tearjerkers. It features several heart-pounding tunes, too. Most are string-heavy, all are properly dramatic. Again, they don't exactly break the mold as far as RPG soundtracks are concerned, but they're still impressive for how well they complement the overall experience.

The World Ends With You (DS)

If Moon's OST leans indie, The World Ends With You's tilts toward the mainstream. While the former is full of funky, dub-like ditties, the latter is bursting with pop-rock bangers.

Which one is better? Don't ask me. I think both are beyond magnificent. I'll tell you what, though: I never tired of hearing any of TWEWY's background tunes. Sure, I had my favorites, like "Give Me All Your Love," but the fact is, they're all gems that will energize you while you tackle the game's often-frantic battles. And, of course, they might energize you after you shut down your DS or 3DS, too. That's certainly been true for me in the months since I finished this dual-screened classic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

My most disappointing games of 2020

According to my notes, I played 44 games in 2020. (Yes, I keep notes on the games I play.) Not all to completion, of course, though I did finish a good number of them.

I loved most of them, too, as those of you who follow me on Twitter probably know. Some pleasantly surprised me. And while I can't say I downright hated any of them, I can say a small handful—the ones discussed in this post—disappointed me. Here's why.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

I know, I know—I must be one of the few people in the world who found Animal Crossing: New Horizons disappointing. Especially since it's not like I'm a newcomer to the series. I've played, and loved, every single entry. Yes, even City Folk. Also, I put just under 100 hours into New Horizons before I walked away from it early last summer, so I must've liked a thing or two about it, right?

I did, actually. It's easily the best looking Animal Crossing game around, or at least the cleanest looking. (I personally prefer the chunky, chibi-esque aesthetic of the original release, but I'm odd like that.) Its soundtrack is wonderful, too—though I once again hesitate to flat-out declare it the series' best.

Another feather in Animal Crossing: New Horizons' cap is it gives players more to do than ever before. Loads of people love that, of course, but I can't help but think it's chiefly responsible for souring me on the game. (Also helping matters: the animal villagers in this iteration seem to have less personality and less to say than they did in earlier ones.)

You see, I've long wished the series would go in the opposite direction—streamlining and simplifying things so the overall experience is more tranquil and languid. I know I could just ignore all of the busywork New Horizons throws my way, but that's easier said than done. Plus, it makes up the bulk of the game's content; I get the feeling giving it a cold shoulder might transform what remains into a snooze-fest.

In the end, I decided Animal Crossing: New Horizons just wasn't for me. No hard feelings, and all that. Oh, well. At least I didn't shelve it with my nose wrinkled in disgust like I did with two other games discussed here (Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, in particular).

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends (PS4, Switch)

I guess I should've known 4 Friends would be yet another crappy Bubble Bobble sequel. What was the last acceptable Bubble Bobble title, after all—1996's Bubble Memories?

Regardless, I bought a physical copy of Bubble Bobble 4 Friends hoping for the best. Clearly that didn't pan out. Although it doesn't look awful in early screenshots and video clips, it's dreadfully and depressingly boring when you actually play through it yourself.

Visually, it reminds me of Super Bomberman R. Which is to say it resembles its full-of-character predecessors, but only at a glance. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that most of what made the earlier releases so charming has been power-washed from existence and replaced with dull imitations.

This is true not only of Bub, Bob, and the game's selection of baddies, by the way, but of its backdrops, too. The same component of the classic original release may have been on the stark side, but they were still both colorful and comely. In Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, they're frankly hard to tell apart. How someone could make a new Bubble Bobble without going wild on whimsical backgrounds is beyond me.

Sadly, the gameplay offered up in 4 Friends doesn't even begin to compensate for its uninspired graphics. Controlling the dynamic dragon duo just doesn't feel right. It often feels slow and sluggish—or, the polar opposite of this title's quarter-munching precursor.

Popping bubbles is even worse. The shimmering globules of gas and liquid that traditionally serve as both weapons and stepping stones in this series seem almost unbreakable here. That screwed up my go-to strategies so much that it all but ruined the rest of the game for me.

The only reason I soldiered on and finished Bubble Bobble 4 Friends was that it took me just two hours to reach its credit roll. Had it taken any longer, I surely would've dropped it like a hot potato right around that same milestone.

Kirby Mass Attack (DS)

I played Kirby Mass Attack after playing Hey! Pikmin. This is noteworthy because the two titles boast surprisingly similar gameplay that combines tactical thinking and puzzle solving with side-scrolling platforming. Unfortunately for Kirby Mass Attack, Hey! Pikmin does all of those things better—or at least it does them in ways that are actually fun.

That's too bad, because the idea of Kirby Mass Attack is a good one. Controlling multiple (up to 10) Kirby clones using your system's stylus and touch screen is intriguing—at first. Unfortunately, those intriguing controls lose a lot of their luster over the course of this DS title's overly long stages. The vast majority of them go on and on, as does the adventure that encapsulates them. This one-two combo thoroughly dampened my enthusiasm for Kirby Mass Attack—so much so it took me several months to complete. (And it's only about a 10-hour game.)

The thing is, Kirby Mass Attack could have been so much more compelling. The handful of surfing and tank stages offered up here are not only brilliantly entertaining, but delightfully brief. Sadly, they're the exception, not the rule.

In the end, I doubt I'll ever play through Kirby Mass Attack again. A shame, as every aspect of it suggests it should be a great game. Which it is, I guess; it's just not an enjoyable one.

Mad Rat Dead (PS4, Switch)

OK, this is a weird one to include here. Even weirder than Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in fact. How so? Well, I finished Mad Rat Dead, for starters. Also, I spent more than 10 hours with it along the way. And the cherry on top: I actually enjoyed—even loved—the overall experience.

All that said, Mad Rad Dead, which is one part side-scrolling platformer and one part rhythm game, regularly pissed me off. To the point that I often worried I might break my Switch in half over my knee, or maybe slam it into the nearest wall.

What about Mad Rat Dead caused such aggravation and anger? The gist is that it's difficult. Often brutally and cheaply so. There were numerous occasions during my playthrough when I thought I'd never successfully complete a certain section of a stage. I eventually did, but every time I swore under my breath that hell would freeze over before I'd attempt them again.

Of course, I only got through those seemingly impossible stage sections by using—over and over again—Mad Rat Dead's rewind function. It's a nice option to have, especially in a tough game like this, but it comes with some pitfalls, too. As in, constantly dying and rewinding kills the flow of the game. That wouldn't be such a big deal if this were a typical platformer, but the platforming in Mad Rat Dead is closely tied to the title's background music. Mad Rat Dead is at its best and most enjoyable when you're in a groove, dashing, jumping, and smacking baddies to the beat. That high takes a hit whenever you croak, and if you're anything like me, you'll croak a bunch while playing this quirky Nippon Ichi Software release.

If only Nippon Ichi's developers had thought to, or been able to, include an easy mode. That alone would've made Mad Rat Dead a lot less disappointing for me. Granted, I'm still glad I bought and finished it, and I even have strangely fond memories of the experience, but I'd be more glad if it had been a less halting and harrowing affair.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

My 'pleasant surprise' games of 2020

Given my oft-positive attitude toward this hobby, you might assume I approach every video game with the expectation that I'll at least somewhat enjoy it.

In fact, I go into a lot of games with fairly low expectations in that regard.

The games highlighted here are prime examples. For various reasons, I was wary of them before I pressed start for the first time. In the end, though, I adored each one.

What prompted that wariness, and how did I turn it into adoration? Read on for all the juicy details.

Again (DS)

Considering my love of now-defunct game developer CiNG's other releases for the Nintendo DS—Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, and the latter title's sequel, Last Window—you could be forgiven for thinking I've owned a copy of this similar, Kemco-published offering since I first became aware of it.

In reality, I only bought Again a few months ago. I'd previously dragged my feet because numerous folks whose opinions I respect warned me that it doesn't hold a candle to the other CiNG-made mysteries namechecked above.

Although the aforementioned friends were right that Again isn't as stellar as CiNG's earlier efforts, it's still pretty great. The art style and soundtrack aren't as resplendent as the same components are in, say, Hotel Dusk, but they're hardly repulsive. On the contrary, I actually like the J.B. Harold Murder Club vibes Again gives off visually, and the worst I can say about its background music is that it's "fitting."

As such, I'd personally recommend Again to anyone who, like me, enjoyed Hotel Dusk or Last Window, in particular. It lacks some of the brilliance of CiNG's more highly praised products, but it comes close enough to those highs—and provides a few pleasant tweaks of its own—to be well worth your money and time if you've got even a little interest.

Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (Switch)

Unlike some of the other games discussed here, Destiny Connect intrigued me from the word go. Those positive feelings toward it dissipated in the run-up to its release, though, thanks to several previews that suggested it was a bit of a stinker. Still, I persevered and maintained my pre-order.

Shortly after I got around to putting it through its paces last fall, I nearly sprained my shoulder patting myself on the back for that prescience. Destiny Connect is one of the sweetest RPGs I've ever played. Nearly every aspect of it makes you think wistfully about your childhood—especially if that childhood was spent in the US. It feels vaguely EarthBound-ish in that way.

Does this mean Destiny Connect is an overlooked classic in the making? Not quite. The time-traveling story has its moments, but it also tends toward being disappointingly juvenile. Battles can be fun, due in large part to a customizable robot named Issac, but they can be repetitive, too. Speaking of repetitive, Destiny Connect takes place in and around a single town. As such, you get to know it really well during the 20 or so hours you spend with the game. Some might feel like they get to know it a little too well, if you get my drift.

All that said, I'm glad I took a chance on Destiny Connect. Not only that, but I'm fairly sure I'll make my way through it again down the road. I found it unexpectedly winsome, and the soundtrack was far better than it had any right to be. That, combined with its relatively short length, all but ensure at least one future replay.

Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories (Switch)

I was thrilled when I heard Disaster Report 4 was coming to the Switch. I'd long wanted to give this much-ballyhooed series a try, but the PS2 has never been my cup of tea and the PSP entry is a Japan-only no-no for me. Then I heard the Switch port was a blurry, choppy mess.

Still, I held my ground. I'm no stranger to games with frame-rate issues, especially, so I could handle whatever Disaster Report 4 dared to throw at me, right? I could, in the end, but I've also got to admit the often-molasses-slow action tested my resolve more than I anticipated.

Thankfully, Disaster Report 4 is far from an action-packed game. The bulk of your time in it is spent walking around sections of the fictitious Hisui City, talking with its citizens, and even helping some of them when you can. You're rarely asked to do anything that requires quick thinking or reflexes, which goes a long way toward making the regular frame-rate drops (some might call them plummets) less aggravating.

Helping matters even more is that the story in Disaster Report 4 is surprisingly captivating. It alone made up for the game's many shortcomings for me, in fact. Which I think says a lot, considering just how janky every other component of this title can be at any given time.

Hey! Pikmin (3DS)

Hey! Pikmin is another of those games that the masses warned me against buying or playing. I tend to ignore such warnings, though, and instead make up my own mind about games that interest me. And Hey! Pikmin interested me from the moment it was revealed, let there be no confusion about that. I know it's not a mainline sequel and strays far from the series' roots, but I liked the look of it and so picked up a copy shortly after its 2017 release.

As is sadly typical of me, I didn't boot it up for the first time until many months later—in early 2020, to be more specific. What I encountered as I ambled my way through its plethora of side-scrolling, puzzle-filled stages made me wonder how Hey! Pikmin could be so hated. Not only does it sound and look great, with graphics that have a lovely watercolor tinge to them, but its gameplay is equal parts engaging and enjoyable. This isn't a fast-paced platformer a la Mario; it's slower, more thoughtful, and that lets you savor everything in a way that's difficult to do when the scenery is racing by as it does in speedier examples of the genre.

Honestly, the only criticism I can hurl at Hey! Pikmin is that it chugs now and then. The slowdown here is nothing like it is in, say, Disaster Report 4, though. Most seasoned game fans will barely notice it.

So, my comment to anyone who has even a passing interesting in Hey! Pikmin—and still has a working 3DS—is to grab a copy and give it a go with an open mind. I think it'll pleasantly surprise you, too.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

I'm one of those annoying cranks who loved the first two Paper Mario games and then hated every additional sequel that came after. As a result, I started The Origami King with the lowest of expectations. Actually, I almost didn't start it, period, as I got it nearly five months after it released—and even then only because my mom bought it for me as a birthday gift.

Paper Mario: The Origami King provides a good first impression, thankfully. Had it not, I would've hustled away from it and never looked back just like I did after spending a disappointing handful of hours with Sticker Star and Super Paper Mario. Which isn't to suggest that the entirety of The Origami King's opening salvo is hunky-dory. Its puzzle-centric, turn-based battles are unique yet annoying early on—and take their sweet time to become anything close to pleasurable. Boss fights are better in this regard, but they also frequently feel like obstacles that need to be overcome rather than events that should be enjoyed.

The good news here is you can avoid the vast majority of non-boss tussles. Doing so allows you to savor every other delightful element of this effervescent RPG, like its jaw-dropping, craft-heavy visuals, its subtly amazing OST, and its witty-as-always between-character banter.

Pokémon Shield (Switch)

Pokémon may seem like a series I'd love to pieces, but the fact is I'd only ever finished two of its many entries—one being the original version of Pokémon Red and the other being Let's Go, Eevee!—before Pokémon Shield came into my life. I've played a few other Pokémon games than this trio, of course, but dropped all of them within a few hours for reasons I couldn't even begin to recount.

Given that and the general online pissiness that preceded Pokémon Shield s launch, I almost passed on this latest mainline release entirely. I can't remember why I eventually did a 180, but I'm glad I did. Shield captivated me from the word go. I found its British-inspired setting enchanting, for starters. I also had a positive reaction to the raid encounters the game introduced.

The aspect of Pokémon Shield that most grabbed me, though, was the new "Wild Area." No joke: I could spend all day in this open-world addition to the series, thanks to the changing weather and similarly dynamic mix of collectible 'mons.

I know a lot of Pokémon fans found Shield (and its companion, Sword) disappointing, but I couldn't have had a better time with it. And that's saying something, as I devoted more than 80 hours to its amiable adventure before calling it a day.

Super Princess Peach (DS)

Technically, my November playthrough of Super Princess Peach wasn't my first. I previously experienced its cheery and colorful world in 2007. Because I didn't much like the game at that time (or, um, in 2011), I quickly erased it from my memory bank.

After randomly encountering some screenshots of it early last year, I decided to give Super Princess Peach another chance. This time around, my response to it couldn't have been more agreeable. I especially appreciated Peach's extensive repertoire of moves. Yes, even the semi-questionable (sexist) "vibe" moves.

Speaking of which, Super Princess Peach simply feels good to play. Controlling Peach is a joy. Watching her bounce and flounce around each pastel-plastered stage is a joy, too. There's a sort of comic-book quality to the visuals here that is beyond charming and puts New Super Mario Bros' comparably uninspired aesthetics to shame.

Although Super Princess Peach can be a bit too straightforward for its own good, I didn't find it to be such a cakewalk as to be boring or not worth my time. The game is fairly Yoshi- or even Kirby-esque in that way—and being analogous to those classics is rarely a negative, in my experience.