Monday, December 30, 2013


The Year of the 3DS

As I've said, this was the year that the 3DS really came into its own for me.  I've talked about the games, but there's also been a lot of little cumulative things that Nintendo's been doing since launch that have finally added up to a system that makes sense.

The 3DS XL

Let's start with the big one -- the 3DS XL.  I bitterly resent Nintendo's strategy of releasing a new model of their hardware every year, but when they went on sale at Target for $150?  Yeah, I bit.

This is easily the sharpest machine Nintendo's ever released.  It looks cool folded up, it feels cool in your hands.  It's simply beautiful without doing anything else.

Then, of course, there's the stylus.  I hated the retractable stylus that came with the original unit.  Hated it.  When a game is primarily button-input and it makes you switch to the touchscreen for something, you hold the system with one hand and pull the stylus out with the other.  With both hands full, how do you extend the stylus to full size?  With your mouth?  I never liked that idea.  It was so repellant to me that I would just as often use the little nub without extending it or just rub my fingers all over the screen.  It's nice to have the full-size stylus back.

And just one more cute little feature.  The folding screen clicks comfortably into a sort of "laptop" configuration, which is perfect for setting it up on the table to view streaming video.  Which I've gotten into lately, what with Nintendo Video hosting some cooler shows these days.

All in all, it's a great piece of hardware.  I just wish they could've gotten it right the first time.

The Shop

One of my biggest peeves about Nintendo's online stores has always been that of monetary balance.  Specifically, you can't just add the exact value you need to complete your current purchase.  But now you can!  I'm not sure when they added the feature -- the button isn't labelled very helpfully so it's easy to overlook it -- but now that I've found it, it's been nothing but good times.

I'm starting to make the mental shift toward downloading the major titles rather than buying them on game cards.  In fact, I'm starting to consider repurchasing the games that I already own just for the convenience of having them with me all the time.  The Download Later feature complements this nicely.  Instead of driving around to shops or waiting for an Amazon delivery, I can set up a download, snap the system shut, and wait.  The download times are, understandably, pretty long for this kind of thing, but there's something pleasant about opening up my 3DS and getting a message that a new game has been delivered, magically, right out of the ether while I was asleep or at work.

A few things about it could still stand some improvement.  The organization still leaves something to be desired.  I know there's not a lot of real estate on those small screens, but browsing is still kind of a pain.  It's fine for finding the new titles, the popular titles, and the stuff that Nintendo wants to boost at the moment, but it's kind of hard to discover something.  Sometimes I just like to go to a video game aisle and browse everything, just to see if there's anything that didn't get on my radar recently.  I'd like to see more of that in my download shopping experience.

Also, I'd like the option to download a whole season of Bear Shark or Dinosaur Office to watch at my leisure.  I got money, guys.  Just putting that out there.


With Nintendo pushing a digital distribution future, it's nice to see some consumer-friendly moves being taken to make our digital purchases feel more "real".  Specifically, it looks like Nintendo's removed the restriction on how many times you can transfer a piece of software.  Thank goodness!  In fact, just hearing about this move was enough to give me the confidence to buy a hardware upgrade.  Sure, you can only transfer to or from a given system once a week, and it's an all or nothing deal -- you can't, for example, digital loan a single game to a friend for a week.  But it's something I'm prepared to live with.  It's a good compromise between Nintendo's wishes for security and the consumer's wishes for freedom.

And now we've got Miiverse on the 3DS.  The feature is starting to grow on me a bit.  It's somewhere between a Nintendo-centric Twitter and a cleaner, friendlier GameFAQs forum.  I don't know that I'll ever form the attachment to it that I have with other online social sites, but it's been kind of cute to pop in and see what other people are doing in Animal Crossing.

So that's where I sit.  Let's see what the next year brings us.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Mario Party: Island Tour

I just got done dumping on the new Mario Party for the 3DS, but I want to stress that I actually do like it.  It isn't the same without the "standard" board game that I'm used to -- the one where you race around to earn coins and buy stars -- but I do like what they've done here.

The different gameboards remind me a lot of those novelty board games I used to play with as a kid.  You know the kind.  Mechanically, they were kind of straightforward and unimaginative, but they disguised it with lots of colorful plastic pieces and gimmicks that made them look a lot more exciting than they were.

The Perilous Palace Path is positioned as the centerpiece -- at least it has the largest selection button in the menu.  Like all of the games, it's a simple race to the finish line, but it has some of the trappings of the traditional Mario Party.  There's a minigame every round, and extra dice are awarded based on proficiency.  There are items to speed yourself up and slow down your opponents.  And just to even things out a bit, there are four obstacles along the path that have a random chance of slowing you down, just to keep the game from being decided completely by high rollers.

Banzai Bill's Mad Mountain is an interesting game that puts more emphasis on actual board game play and less on the minigames.  As you walk up the path, you have the choice to spend your entire roll on forward movement or to sacrifice some of your move to hide in a safe spot.  If any player rolls the Banzai Bill -- a 1 in 6 chance -- anyone who's not in a safe spot is moved backward, either to Start or to the halfway point.  Minigames only appear every three turns, and although they can sway the game a bit by moving you forward, they won't decide the game nearly as much as your luck and how far you're willing to press it.

Star-Crossed Starway is interesting in that racing to the finish is kind of a secondary goal.  There are checkpoints along the board, and you collect mini-stars based on whether you're the first, second, third, or last player there.  But the order that the bonuses appear can change based on the spaces you land on, so sometimes it's advantageous to come in later.  Mini-stars can also be won from mini-games, but those only happen if someone lands on an appropriate space.

Rocket Road is probably the most straightforward of all the games.  You're just trying to race to the end.  Along the way, you can earn boosters that give a multiplier to your die roll.  You can use them one at a time, or stack them for larger bonuses.  The kicker is that the die is labelled 0 to 5 -- roll a 0 and you waste all of the boosters you used.

Kamek's Carpet Ride is maybe the most strategic game.  The object is to reach the end of the track by exact count.  Instead of rolling dice to move, you play cards from a hand of three.  Some cards move you forward by a random count, but most of them move you forward an exact number of spaces.  There's a mini-game every round, and the better players get to choose a new card from a pool of four before the others.  There's still some luck involved, but there's more room for strategy than in some of the other modes.

Bowser's Peculiar Peak is sort of an inversion of the Perilous Palace Path.  The first player to get to the end loses, and the winner is determined to be the player who stayed furthest away.  There's a mini-game every round, and the losers are saddled with bonus dice that increase their roll.

As I said, these are kind of silly games, and there's really not much to them.  One time down the Perilous Palace Path, and the obstacles are going to lose their appeal to anyone over six.  But it's cute.  The different boards actually feel like different games, not just the same game played on different boards.  And I admit, I have a sort of nostalgic fondness for these kinds of kiddy board games.  Having the opportunity to stick six of them in my pocket is no bad thing.  But unless that's your thing, it's probably safe to give it a miss.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013



Something's been bugging me about Nintendo games lately.

I kind of touched on it when I was talking about New Super Mario Brothers 2.  Lately, it feels like Nintendo's games have something... missing.  I don't know how to describe it except that there's a kind of... flatness to them.

It's weird because, on a purely intellectual level, I think a lot of their most recent games are pretty great. And really, what I'm worried about might have more to do with the fact that I'm a 34-year-old nerd who's spent a quarter of a century oversaturating his brain with Nintendo stuff.  But...  Well, let's take a look.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

This game is awesome.  It's one of those rare Zelda games that I actually love.  So... what's the matter?

I dunno.  I just remember playing Zelda games as a kid and getting lost for days.  The worlds were so huge and so undirected.  I'd take wrong turns and end up poking at things I'd never expected to find.  I'd spend days at a time trying to attack a single dungeon, trying to figure out the puzzles that had me stumped even when I was away from the game.

A Link Between Worlds is a much more accessible experience.  All of the "access items" -- the ones that clear obstacles blocking your path -- are available almost from the start, leaving very few areas of the overworld out of your reach.  I've been clearing dungeon after dungeon, usually in just one sitting.  The overworld of Lorule is helpfully demarcated into accessible regions, slicing it up into what amounts to discrete "levels".

The fighting and puzzling is as good as ever.  But the world as a whole doesn't seem like it has that same sense of depth, like it's a giant puzzle box that you work out piece by piece.

Isn't that a weird complaint for me to make though?  Isn't my biggest gripe against Zelda always how inaccessible it is, how undirected, how it's possible to stick with it for hours on end without accomplishing anything?  I should be grateful for the change.  In fact I am.  But there's also a part of me that feels like it's just not the same.

Mario Party: Island Tour

I stopped following the proper Mario Party series with Mario Party 5.  And why not?  Five entries in the series, and they were all basically the same game.  The only thing that really differentiated one from the next were the side amusements.  In fact, it got to the point where I preferred the sideshows to the long, predictable party game.

Well, it seems like in the time since I left it, Mario Party has indeed changed.  The star-chasing board game that used to be the centerpiece is gone.  Now the games seem to be about the sorts of things that used to be relegated to the sideshows.  The 3DS entry, Island Tour, has a number of games that basically amount to a standard "race to the finish" style board game.  There's quite a bit of variety, too, with different games requiring different levels of skill, luck, and minigame prowess.  It's pretty cool.

But... gosh.  Isn't it a little weird not to be running around in a circle, collecting coins, buying stars?  No Battle Games?  No 2-vs-2 or 1-vs-3 games?  What happened to those 50-turn games that took eight hours to finish?  It's just a simple race to the finish now?

Not that the Mario Party games were ever designed to be especially deep or strategic -- they're just a framing excuse to play all of these little mini-games.  But... doesn't this linear race feel a little bare?

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Gosh, I love the new Animal Crossing!  I think it's great!  So many more places to go, so many more things to do.  Customizing your town with public works.  Customizing your house, putting new designs on your furniture.

So what's wrong?

I don't know!  It's just... weird.  Little things.

Like the fact that Blathers doesn't personally give you a story about the items you donate anymore.  Or like how the villagers don't seem to have as much to talk about.  Sure, they've got chores for you, and information about events, but... it doesn't seem like they're likely to talk to you about random unrelated stuff anymore.  The thing that interested me most about Animal Crossing, especially when it first came out, was that it was this little world that had a life and personality that went beyond you and your interactions with it.  But it seems like, more and more, the characters are sort of flattening out into the sorts of NPCs that populate any RPG -- they're just there to dispense a piece of information, initiate a side quest, or make a transaction.

While I love the fact that there are more interactions than ever before -- more things to actually do -- it seems like it's come at the expense of making the village animals seem more lively.

And So On

I'm not really sure if this feeling is worth complaining about, but I can't shake it either.  The impression I get is that Nintendo is trying to combat the rising costs of game development by making games that aren't quite as... nuanced?  Refined?  Complicated?  I'm not sure exactly which ingredient I think is missing.  It might be something as simple as the fact that Nintendo is changing internally, and different project leads are going to have different priorities.  Shigeru Miyamoto can't run everything, after all.

And like I said, I don't think it makes the games bad.  I love all three of these games!  But it is what it is.  Something's happening here, I've noticed it, and I figured I'd put it on the blog to get it out of my head for a bit.


Friday, December 20, 2013


What's Nintendo Up To?

It's been an interesting year for Nintendo fans, hasn't it?

Just from a franchise point of view, it's been spectacular.  Between the Wii U and the 3DS, we've seen two Super Mario games (New Super Luigi U and Super Mario 3D World), two Zelda games (The Wind Waker HD and A Link Between Worlds), Animal Crossing, long-awaited sequels to Pikmin and Luigi's Mansion, a new generation of Pokemon, and -- thanks to Capcom -- a new Ace Attorney.  And it's not just that they're ticking off a list of obligatory sequels to keep the fans happy; they're consistently hitting these games out of the park.  All of their big titles are being lauded by critics and fans alike.  The thing I keep hearing (anecdotally) is that new life is being breathed into these old ideas.  People are falling in love with Pokemon all over again.  I fell in love with Zelda and Animal Crossing and Ace Attorney all over again.

Let's unpack some of this.

The 3DS

This is the year that the 3DS really "happened" for me.  Whenever a new system comes out, there's always that long initial period where you have the one game that you bought it for, but for the most part you go with your older system.  But now it's reached the tipping point where it's the system that I'm mostly likely to pick up when I want to play a video game.

I've written about the new Animal Crossing before.  You can see what I thought here and here.

The new Ace Attorney is fantastic, a real return to form after the less interesting Apollo Justice and Miles Edgeworth games.  The new Mood Matrix mechanic is a really interesting addition to the game, and it fits in wonderfully.  And although the game is trumpeted as the return of Phoenix Wright, you actually spend roughly equal time in the shoes of all three lawyers from the Wright Anything Agency -- which is great!  Having the lawyers work together as a complete legal team is a really refreshing change from just focussing on a single character.  Dare I say it's exactly the sort of thing the series needed.

As you may know, it's quite a trick to get me to like a Zelda game.  But they've done it!  A Link Between Worlds got me interested when it was announced that it would be a non-linear game in the spirit of the original Zelda.  Instead of threading your way through a complex web of item interdependency, all of the important items could be rented from a shop (and later purchased) pretty close to the beginning of the game.  On top of this, all of the dungeons are designed to be fairly self-contained little puzzle boxes where all of the puzzles can be solved with a single item.  It reminds me of the Gamecube Four Swords Adventures, where you could trust a level to be completable without having to hunt the countryside for necessary items.

I'm thinking about that new Pokemon game.  Who knows.

The Wii U

Super Mario 3D World is arguably the event of the year for the Wii U.  And it's a pretty good game!  Arguably the biggest news is its multiplayer element -- there are five playable characters, each with unique abilities.  They've made some interesting refinements to the multiplayer rules that began with New Super Mario Brothers Wii.  All players now share a single bank of lives.  Multiple items don't pop out of a ? block simultaneously, and there's an item-banking feature to reduce those "Mario steals all the fire flowers" moments.  The last unbubbled player can't enter a bubble himself, to prevent those embarrassing "no confidence" defeats.  And players can pop their own bubbles, reducing time spent shaking your controller and demanding to be let out.

But the thing that interests me most about the Wii U isn't any single game so much as how Nintendo's trying to get into our living rooms.

Wii Sports and Wii Fit have come to the system in untraditional "stealth packages".  Current balance board owners had an opportunity to download and test Wii Fit free for a month and unlock the full version by buying a new piece of hardware to go with it.  Wii Sports is an enhanced version of the original Wii launch title, sliced up into individual sports, and sold individually -- or, with a "day pass", you can rent the whole set for a day.  You might just see Nintendo trying to rehash their proven brands, but I see them testing the waters with some experimental pricing schemes.  I think Nintendo realizes that the so-called "casual" audience that made the Wii such a darling is into free phone games now and using their proven brands to see what kind of pricing will get their attention.

Then there's New Super Luigi U, basically a "second quest" for New Super Mario Brothers U.  It has the same number of levels as the Mario game, but those levels are shorter and harder, and some tweaks have been made to the gameplay.  You can buy it as a stand-alone game for cheaper than the Mario game, or if you already own Mario, you can download it as DLC for cheaper still.  It's a curious product because it re-uses the Mario assets, meaning it's a smaller development cost for Nintendo, but it still has enough content to justify itself as a complete game in its own right.  It'll be interesting to see if Nintendo continues to pursue this idea of mini-sequels as DLC.

I don't think the Wii U has really come into its own yet.  In fact, I think that the Wii's problems, coupled with a lack of advertising presence, have become an albatross that will sink it into a distant third place against Sony and Microsoft's new boxes.  I think that the plan was to launch a year early to iron out the kinks and cultivate some exclusive software so that they could stand as the budget console with the ready library when the PS4 and X-Box One arrived to duke it out, but they haven't yet found the thing with the mass-market appeal that'll really get everyone's attention.  And I don't think they're going to.

Still, it's a nice box.  Particularly if you're already a Nintendo fan.  Hell, I think it's neat just to put it in Wii mode and play games on the gamepad while the TV is in use.  And it's got Earthbound.  And that new NES Remix game is pretty cute.

After striking off into indie and tablet gaming for so long, I'm starting to grow fonder of Nintendo again.  Maybe I'm coming back.


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