Kirby Triple Deluxe Review

So eat it, just eat it…

They thought it was over. After years of saving their homeland from evil, Kirby and King Dedede thought they were safe. But this morning, their worst fears were realized: Dreamland was invaded by Queen Sectonia and her army. Someone unleashed a giant beanstalk, utterly wrecking the idyllic kingdom and thrusting whole chunks of countryside into the clouds. The queen’s second in command personally handled the attack on the remains of Dedede’s castle. Despite mounting a valiant and desperate defense, the king was kidnapped Princess Peach-style and carried off into skies unknown. With no remaining allies and the fate of Dreamland literally on the edge of destruction, Kirby must ascend the beanstalk and wipe out the new threat.

Kirby’s latest crusade spans six sections of the remnants of Dreamland, each broken down into six or seven levels each. Progression involves the simplistic platforming that has become a staple of the Kirby series. Unless you’re completely inept, the risk of falling into a bottomless pit is practically nonexistent. Oh sure, there are some lava pits and collapsing walls of instant death, but those are exceedingly few and far between. Well-placed collectibles and unlockable hidden stages keep things from being a complete cakewalk. Rather than focusing on difficulty, the game uses its backgrounds to introduce hazards or obstacles. You might have to wait for a train to pass through the foreground before crossing the tracks, dodge falling columns, or navigate through layers of boxes in order to reach a door. Some of the more creative puzzles involve outrunning an enemy running parallel through the background, and defeating them when they jump over to Kirby’s side. It’s a clever use of 3D models and camera perspective; you have to focus on what’s happening in the distance while dealing with the layout in front of you. There are also a handful of obstacles that use the 3DS’s gyroscope, mainly to control the direction of a gondola or aim missiles at unwary baddies. They aren’t bad – few games utilize the motion features at all – but they feel tacked on at best. Considering how much more Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble accomplished with similar technology on the Game Boy Color in 2001, this latest implementation reeks of wasted potential.

The game tries to make up for it with a surprisingly complex combat system. Kirby retains his iconic (and slightly terrifying) power of eating his enemies whole and copying their abilities. Kirby Triple Deluxe boasts 26 different techniques, most of which are from older games. While the swords and beams are always good standbys, they’re completely trumped by some of the newer attacks. The deadliest weapon is the Beetle ability, which can pull off several devastating close-range attacks. Depending on the control inputs, it lets you charge into and skewer targets, carry and throw your victims, or even drill them into the ground. Kirby’s archery skills not only let him snipe foes quickly and efficiently, but give him temporarily invincible camouflage as well. While not game-breaking, these powers render Kirby’s defensive options – a block and dodge mechanic akin to the Smash Bros. series – almost pointless. The biggest addition, however, is the Hypernova ability. It basically supercharges Kirby’s inhaling and swallowing capacity, resulting in him chowing down on everything from vehicles to mini-bosses. Unfortunately, it isn’t used creatively enough; in most levels, the Hypernova is just used to pull blocks or destroy certain obstacles. It’d have been much more interesting to beat levels that are designed around this power. You’re capable of devouring backgrounds, so why not have more interactive and complex stage elements?

Things don’t get interesting until after Kirby’s adventure ends. Finishing the main game unlocks a slew of additional gameplay modes. This includes Dedede Tour, which lets you replay an abridged version of the story as the king himself. His raw power and flaming hammer attacks are balanced out with larger and more aggressive enemies, as well as revamped bosses. It’s not challenging in the slightest – you might be able to breeze through it in a single sitting – but at least your exploits are timed and ranked. Dedede’s Drum Dash is far more engaging; it’s a challenging rhythm mini-game disguised as a platformer. Not only do you have to jump along a row of drums, collect items, and avoid hazards, but you have to press the buttons in sync with the beats as well. Getting perfect scores and unlocking the final level is arguably the toughest part of Kirby Triple Deluxe. The other contender is the True Arena, which pits Kirby against a gauntlet of super-powered versions all the bosses. Considering the ridiculous damage output and attack patterns involved, this brutal test of endurance and gaming skill isn’t for the faint of heart. It does give you access to all of the copy abilities, though; even if you fail miserably, you’ll at least get to practice and hone your strategies against some vicious opponents. The Kirby Fighters multiplayer mode really demonstrates how intense and competitive Kirby combat can be. Unfortunately, it’s limited to only CPU or local matches. Having all of these crazy powers and slugging it out Smash Bros.-style online would’ve done wonders for the game’s longevity. Kirby Fighters Deluxe was later released as a standalone title, but its absence here was a huge oversight.

It’s mostly drowned out by the nostalgia, though. Nintendo wanted to celebrate the Kirby franchise’s debut on the 3DS, and it shows. There are tons of shout-outs to the previous titles, like the reappearance of certain characters from The Amazing Mirror, a boss reminiscent of Canvas Curse’s antagonist, and a wall scrolls depicting Kirby’s old adventures and graphical evolution over time. There are also over 250 collectible key chains strewn throughout the levels, each depicting different Kirby sprites from all the games. Seeing classics like Meta Knight and Dyna Blade redone with a shiny metallic sheen is pretty awesome. While it would’ve been better to have descriptions for each item, they provide a good incentive for replaying stages multiple times. You’ll probably spend more time tinkering with the Jukebox; there are over 100 songs available, all with the superb quality expected from Kirby soundtracks. Special mention goes to the amazing violin and guitar instrumental of Green Greens, which is hidden near the end of the playlist. The piano and xylophone remix from the Old Odyssey stages is pretty catchy as well. Kirby Triple Deluxe might not be the most engaging 3DS game out there, but its soundtrack has some of the best music on the system.

It’s sad. This game tries so hard to make you like it. Using both the back and foreground in tandem is a clever way to approach a platformer, but there could’ve been so much more in terms of creativity and complexity. It looks interesting in terms of 3D graphics and camera perspective, but little else. The combat system is surprisingly deep and rewarding, even though quite a few offensive and defensive techniques are overshadowed by the new ridiculously overpowered abilities. The whole Hypernova concept seems amazing at first, but it could’ve been implemented in better ways. That goes double for gyroscope controls, which are treated more like an afterthought than a gameplay feature. The post-game content is what’ll keep you coming back. Between ridiculously tough mini-games and the sheer amount of collectibles, it’ll take a while to get a 100% completion…assuming you don’t get bored first. Kirby Triple Deluxe is a decent franchise debut on the 3DS, but it hardly lives up to its name.

*Also posted here.

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Star Trek Into Darkness Review

When the Star Trek franchise was rebooted in 2009, many long time fans rejoiced. Gone were the stale plots built up from the previous series; it was time to revisit that universe with a fresh set of eyes, new ideas and possibilities, and a cast that could the characters all their own. With the first film laying the foundation, hopes were high that the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, would be even better. In the attempt to appease the fans and make a modern sci fi action movie, however, something got lost along the way.

****SPOILERS****

The movie opens with what can only be described as a sci-fi homage to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kirk is being chased through an alien jungle by a horde of angry natives. Seriously, the only difference is that the trees are red, the natives are covered in crusty white paint, and Kirk is wearing a shabby robe as disguise. He makes it a few hundred more yards before some gigantic saber-toothed bear…thing rears up in front of the camera. Like any good action hero, Kirk whips out his phaser and stuns the beast unconscious. The monster drops out of view, revealing an angry Dr. McCoy behind it.

“Damn it, man! That was our ride! You just stunned our ride!”

Wait, what?

This is the first of many instances in this move that demonstrate Kirk’s utter inability to think things through. It’s one thing to neutralize a wild animal in your way. But why would he willingly take out something so integral to his own mission? He’s the captain; shouldn’t he, of all people, be privy to the exact details of the plan? They went through the trouble of disguises and exit routes, so it’s not like they’re making this up on the fly. Did he just panic and forget his method of escape? Is he trigger happy? Or just plain stupid?

Judging by the rest of the mission, it’s leaning toward the latter. The objective is simple: lead the natives away from an erupting volcano while Spock, Uhura, and Sulu somehow neutralize the explosion. This involves hovering a shuttlecraft over the mountaintop, lowering an armored Spock on a tow cable, and detonating a “cold fusion device.” Things go awry when the shuttlecraft’s engines overheat, and Spock is dropped onto a rocky outcropping surrounded by lava. As the others ditch the craft, Kirk and McCoy jump off a seaside cliff and swim to the Enterprise hidden underwater. Now they have to somehow save Spock, detonate the device, and leave without being seen.

…Wow. So little of this plan makes sense, it’s kind of impressive. Firstly, why would they hide the Enterprise underwater? It’s a starship capable of planetary orbit; if they were worried about being seen (and it’s not like these natives have telescopes), they could’ve just drifted on the other side of the planet and designated a rendezvous. What’s the ship made of, anyway? Scotty implies that saltwater will potentially wreck it. Also, what’s the deal with the shuttlecraft? As an exploration vehicle, it’s designed to enter and exit alien atmospheres. That requires an incredibly high resistance to heat; reentry is far hotter than surface lava. On that note, why would they even send an away team in the first place? The ship has a transporter. All they had to do was set the cold fusion device on a timer, beam it to coordinates that account for gravity and timing, and let the thing detonate. Speaking of which, the “cold fusion device” is basically useless in this situation. Cold fusion refers to nuclear reactions that happen at room temperature, certainly nothing capable of stopping an active volcano.

But since this is a summer blockbuster action movie, everything works out okay. The Enterprise rises out of the water in an admittedly awesome shot, and they focus on getting Spock back on board. The problem is that by doing so, they’d be seen by the natives and directly violate Starfleet’s Prime Directive of non-interaction. Because stopping a volcano from exploding and drastically altering a planet’s geothermal system with advanced technology totally isn’t the same thing. They do know that just freezing the surface of a volcano doesn’t turn it dormant…right? Way to stave off the inevitable, guys. Whatever. Kirk predictably defies orders and Spock is beamed out at the last second. Uhura is noticeably angry that Spock (her apparent boyfriend in this alternate universe) was so willing to throw his life away. He’s more angry about the Prime Directive thing, but Kirk just shrugs it off. The crew triumphantly hightails it back to space, while the natives draw and worship an Enterprise-shaped symbol in the dirt. Kinda like Comic Con, but with less cosplayers.

After the title card, the scene shifts to a family in London. A mother and father visit their daughter at hospital; it’s implied that the little girl has some kind of terminal illness. Side note: the special effects in the background are pretty cool. Having anti-gravity gurneys in an otherwise realistic facility is a nice way of showing that this isn’t too far in the future. There’s a brief scene with the parents staring teary-eyed at the poor girl, something to which anyone with sick relatives can relate. What can you do for the dying? The answer comes from Benedict Cumberbatch, who walks up to the father with a swell of music and says that he can save the child. The guy asks who this mysterious man is, and of course there’s no answer for the sake of maintaining the drama. Most savvy viewers will immediately – and correctly – guess that he’s really Khan, but whatever. Why is someone so blatantly evil hanging around children’s hospital wings? Is the father so desperate that he’ll believe any random passerby proposing a cure?

Meanwhile, Kirk is having some PG-13 rated fun-time with a pair of alien cat girls. Apparently some traits never die, even if they are in an alternate reality. Side note: Kirk not only has a vintage record player, but he’s playing “Body Movin” by the Beastie Boys. I was in high school when the Hello Nasty album dropped, and this movie has now made me feel old. Lovely. Kirk and Spock get called to Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, apparently for a meeting with Admiral Pike. Kirk optimistically assumes they’ve been promoted for the fleet’s upcoming 5-year mission – a nice foreshadowing/call back to the original Star Trek series – but Spock is doubtful. Even if they’re brief, these glimpses of Starfleet are interesting; there are plenty of people in dress uniform, complete with military-style caps. It’s a good indication that Starfleet has recovered since the events of the last movie.

So has Pike, who’s traded his wheelchair for a cane and an immaculate office. He questions Kirk and Spock about the mission, but it’s obvious he’s not happy. Kirk apparently lied on his captain’s log and tried to cover up the ludicrous plan. Spock, being the responsible paragon of proper protocol, wrote his own report. If this was happening in the old Star Trek verse, the situation would probably be brushed over and forgotten, maybe with a threat of demotion. But this shows what would actually happen if a military captain pulled these kinds of shenanigans: He gets demoted and loses command of the Enterprise. That’s it. It’s amazing he didn’t get a court martial. Pike gives the kid a much-needed dressing down over his recklessness, irresponsibility, lack of humility, and inability to understand his shortcomings. Kirk points out that he was originally given the Enterprise for being such a maverick, but clearly doesn’t understand what being a leader is all about.

Gee, I wonder what Kirk’s character arc is going to be.

This meeting scene is brief, but it’s one of the most underrated ones in the movie. While everyone else is acting like younger, hipper versions of the iconic characters, Bruce Greenwood’s take on Admiral Pike is the most believable. He captures the angry, aging father figure with just the right amount of energy and personality. Of course, the fact that he’s retaking command of the Enterprise (and taking Kirk back as his first officer?! Wow, so much for common sense!) means he’s going to die pretty soon. Mentor characters have a habit of being killed as a way kick-start the student’s character growth. It’s a narrative thing. Side note: the face-to-face argument gives the audience lingering shots of Chris Pine’s inhumanly bright blue eyes. Did the post-production crew think Kirk was secretly an alien?

Back in London, it’s established that Benedict Cumberbatch has magic blood. No, seriously. This is the plot point they’re going with. Apparently it has healing properties that completely disregard things like type or allergic reactions. Why, that’s just what the little girl needs! Dad hooks up the IV and watches his daughter’s stats return to normal. In exchange for this wonderful cure, he is tasked with blowing up the Starfleet building in which he works. He does this by dropping some kind of chemically-enhanced ring that explodes in water. The camera pulls back from the fiery destruction and settles on a snapshot of the little girl. It’s the way to remind the audience that this horrific act was done for her sake by a loving father. But why? After seeing his daughter healed, he could’ve easily contacted the authorities and had Mr. Magic Blood arrested for plotting terrorism. The magic blood could’ve made a temporary recovery; the girl could’ve keeled over the next day. Also, how did he think this was going to end for his daughter? Did he really believe the doctors were just going to let her walk out after a miraculous recovery? If anything, they’d keep her there for scientific study and discover a mutation in her blood…Growing up is not going to be fun for that kid.

Whatever. Starfleet’s been attacked, so Admiral Marcus (played by Peter Weller of RoboCop fame) calls for a meeting of all senior officers at HQ. En route, Kirk gives Spock a bitter talk about the whole honesty thing, and even calls it a backstabbing. He implies that Spock doesn’t understand that the two are friends, something that would actually make sense. In the original series, Kirk and Spock had known each other for years, and their relationship reflected that. In this alternate universe, they’ve only known each other since the events of the last movie. They were at each others’ throats – literally. Not surprising they still don’t work well together. The two part ways at the start of the meeting, believing they’re never going to see each other again. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

Admiral RoboCop explains that the building in London was a Starfleet data archive. The father-turned-bomber conveniently sent a message (Seriously, why didn’t he just send the message without triggering the bomb?!) warning of what was going on. The mastermind is John Harrison, one of Starfleet’s top agents gone rogue. He’s commandeered a ship and gone into hiding, but apparently hasn’t left Earth. Kirk, of all people, makes an astute observation: Why would a terrorist target a data archive? Everything in there is public knowledge and has no tactical value. Also, why hasn’t he stolen a ship with warp capability and vanished into deep space? It’s almost like Harrison wants to stay close by…As everyone mulls this over, a small ship hovers outside the window and starts blasting everything.

Oh, so that’s why Harrison is still there.

The plan is simple: bomb the archive to get the Starfleet’s top brass in one room, then blow it to smithereens. It’s brutal, effective, and relies heavily on a complete lack of common sense. Is the audience supposed to think Starfleet is incompetent? They know Harrison is one of their top agents; why would they use the same protocol – which he would know – to set up an emergency meeting? Couldn’t they have chosen a new place to hold a conference? Also, why are they having this secret meeting in the upper floors of HQ, next to a massive window? They live in a world where flying vehicles with guns are normal. Anyone could hover nearby, take a phaser shot, or even read lips with a telescope! Why aren’t they in an underground bunker? How did Harrison even get close enough to the building? They know he’s commandeered a ship. Doesn’t it have trackers or anything on it? This is all happening mere hours after a terrorist attack; shouldn’t the airspace around Starfleet HQ be closely monitored? He should’ve been blasted to smithereens by security as soon as he opened fire.

But of course that doesn’t happen. The attack lasts just long enough for most of the senior officers to be gunned down, including Pike. (Called it!) He spends his final, agonizing moments cradled in Spock’s arms. Unlike certain characters in other Star Trek films, he does not die well; there’s blood flowing out his mouth, and his eyes are brimming with tears. Bizarrely, Spock takes the opportunity to do a Vulcan mind meld. Why? Does he have some kind of fascination with death? Was he trying to preserve Pike’s memory a la Wrath of Khan? Is he using it to better understand his own mortality? Shouldn’t he have been trying to get Pike to a doctor? Meanwhile, Kirk manages to destroy the ship’s engine , and he and Harrison have a brief stare-down before the villain teleports away. Kirk actually has a pretty sad moment when he realizes his mentor is dead. Then airspace security shows up.

In the meantime, Harrison reappears on some other planet, dons a stylish hoodie/trench coat, and vanishes into parts unknown. Scotty has a pretty good idea, though; when examining the wreckage of the ship, he comes across a “portable transwarp beaming device.” No, seriously. That’s the mouthful they’re going with. It conveniently displays its last programmed destination, the Klingon homeworld…Wait, what? Technology in this universe has not only advanced enough that people can carry their own personal transporter, but it lets them go to other planets too?! Why isn’t every ship in Starfleet equipped with these things? Doesn’t this undermine the entire point of building habitable starships? Why don’t they just send probes equipped with these things into deep space? Wouldn’t that save tons of money and resources? Boy, they sure could’ve used one during that  volcano mission…And if Harrison had such technology, why would he even need to get someone else to blow up the archive? Why attack the conference room directly?  He could’ve just teleported a bomb into the room. If he’s Starfleet’s top agent, I shudder to think what the red shirts are like.

Despite the Klingon planet being the space equivalent of North Korea, Kirk is determined to get revenge. Admiral RoboCop inexplicably gives him the Enterprise again – despite demoting him less than a day before – and assigns Spock as his first officer. Also, the building Harrison destroyed wasn’t an archive; it was a secret military research facility run by Starfleet’s clandestine Section 31. Ooh, Star Trek espionage sounds promising. They’ve even developed a long-range, untraceable photon torpedo! The mission is simple: Take all 72 of these bombs to Harrison’s location, blow everything up, and warp out before the Klingons figure out what happened…even though the Klingons would be able to read the Enterprise’s warp signature and trace it back to Earth. They don’t seem to realize that last part. You’ve got to wonder why the admiral chose to reinstate Spock, though; he’s a notorious stickler for rules, and I’m pretty sure the whole murder-from-a-distance-and-possibly-trigger-a-war plan isn’t Starfleet regulation. There’s no way he’d let that happen. It’s pretty obvious that there’s a bigger scheme going on – the lingering shot of the spaceship models in the admiral’s office is blatant foreshadowing – but everyone agrees to go along with it.

Especially Kirk, who poorly attempts to hide his revenge-fueled rage as they prep for the mission. Spock points out the lack of morality involved in killing someone without a trial, how it completely goes against protocol, and the needlessly risky idea of bombing a place home to a war-faring people. If only they had a portable transwarp beaming device…Kirk, of course, brushes all of this off. He’s too busy staring at Carol Wallace, an advanced weapons specialist assigned to the mission by the admiral himself. Carol Wallace…That name sounds familiar. Like Carol Marcus, Kirk’s love interest in the original timeline. But that means she’d have the same last name as the admiral. There’s no way those two could be connected, right? Right?

The mission prep hits a snag with Scotty’s recurring bouts of common sense. He’s refusing the shipment of those long-range torpedoes because he can’t scan their payload, and the contents are classified. He’s absolutely right, too. If you’re working with weapons, especially explosives, you need to know exactly how they work. Are the contents toxic? Does they have to be stored at a certain temperature? What is its fail-safe? What kind of fuel does it use? It’s kind of important. Considering that the ship’s warp core is essentially “a radioactive catastrophe waiting to happen,” Starfleet’s militarization, and his transwarp equation being weaponized, Scotty has legitimate concerns. Since Kirk is too revenge-focused to give him another choice, he promptly resigns and begs him not to use the weapons. Later, man. See you when the plot inevitably needs you again!

Forty minutes in, and we’re finally back on the Enterprise. I’m suddenly reminded of bridge’s ridiculous lighting scheme. It’s like going to an Apple Store, but even more blinding. I get J.J. Abrams has a thing for lens flares, but what kind of spaceship has lights that are positioned to shine directly in the crew’s eyes? After warping into space and replacing Scotty with Chekov (Seriously?) in engineering, Kirk announces his plan to the entire ship: He will take a landing party to the surface, arrest Harrison, and bring him back to face trial. Wow, looks like Spock’s impromptu ethics lesson paid off! So has his background check of Carol, which reveals that she’s the admiral’s daughter and boarded with false documents. Man, Starfleet really is inept; there have been two acts of terrorism in a week, and they just let anyone on without proper inspection? For all they know, she could be some kind of saboteur. They should keep her locked in the brig until they can find out her actual intentions…But due to plot purposes, Spock keeps her secret for no reason.

Speaking of sabotage, the warp drive breaks down 20 minutes away from their destination. Kirk, Spock, and Uhura (and two guys who will probably killed off-screen soon) take a shuttle to Harrison’s location in an otherwise deserted part of the planet. That leaves Sulu in charge, which is a cool nod to his counterpart in the original series. He’s tasked with broadcasting a message to Harrison, warning him to surrender or get wiped out by 72 missiles. “If you test me, you will fail.” Oh, how intimidating. Hey tough guy, how do you know Harrison can even hear you? Does he have a radio? How are you broadcasting this message? You do know the Klingons can probably pick up your transmissions, right? You’d change your tune if you had a few Birds of Prey aiming at you. Why are you even warning Harrison that you’re coming? You don’t know what other resources he has. You’re giving him time to come up with another escape, or even a counterattack! This is supposed to be a stealth mission, right?

Uhura’s priorities are a little skewed, too. She spends a good portion of the ride chewing out Spock over his stoic reaction to the whole near-death in the volcano thing. Because a lovers’ quarrel is exactly what we need in the middle of a high-stakes and possibly suicidal mission. He explains the difference between not caring and choosing to accept death on his own terms, which gives a lot of insight into Spock’s personality. Before anyone can ponder on it, however, the shuttlecraft is attacked by the Klingons. Wasn’t this area supposed to be abandoned? They try to hand wave it by saying it’s a random patrol, but how could they miss something like that? Don’t they have scanners? Maybe if they weren’t so distracted with the soap opera drama…Anyway, a big, loud chase scene ensues, resulting in them being caught and forced to deal with the Klingons face-to-face. Uhura tries negotiating, but gets nearly strangled to death.

They’re saved by Harrison’s grand, bloody entrance. He wastes little time in annihilating over a dozen Klingons in with a hail of lasers, blades, and explosions. The crew tries their best to fight as well – the entire scene has a first-person shooter vibe – but they’re completely outclassed by his brutal efficiency. There’s a reason he’s one of Starfleet’s best. He casually dismisses Spock despite being held at gunpoint, and surrenders after asking about Sulu’s torpedoes. Kirk takes the opportunity to use excessive force (several punches to the face) during the arrest, but it has no effect whatsoever; Harrison just stands there looking bored. It’s a demonstration of his physical prowess as well as his intellectual; unlike most battles, Kirk can’t brawl his way out of this one.

After notifying Starfleet, they put Harrison in the brig. This results in an unintentional homage to The Silence of the Lambs. A creepy, intelligent, and cultured killer trapped behind a wall of thick glass, while the heroes try to get information out of him? Yeah, Cumberbatch is channeling a sci-fi Hannibal Lecter. As McCoy takes his blood sample, he implies that he knows why the warp core is busted and offers his insight. Kirk angrily shuts him down at first, but eventually gets a set of space coordinates and the suggestion to open one of the torpedoes. It’s a start, but Harrison didn’t need to be so cryptic. Why not spell out what’s going on right then and keep the plot moving? …To bring Scotty back into the picture, of course. He’s busy getting hammered in San Francisco (sharp-eyed Bay Area viewers will note the club is at the end of Pier 3 near the Ferry Building), and takes a personal call from Kirk. Wait, what? Their communicators have a range that spans across planets?! How far apart are they? Scotty agrees to look into the Harrison’s mysterious coordinates and accepts the captain’s apology.

That leaves the torpedoes. With Scotty gone, Carol is the only person qualified to examine them. Kirk’s confused reaction to her being Admiral RoboCop’s daughter is funny, but it’s a reminder of how pointless the coverup was. Did Spock keep it a secret just to mess with Kirk? Shouldn’t they be more worried about the security breaches involved with someone using fake transcripts? They’re lucky she’s not evil; she’s here because she knows her father is pulling some kind of scheme. After her ridiculous and pointless fan service scene (seriously, who thought that was a good idea for Kirk to ogle while she stripped down?), she and McCoy start operating on a torpedo. Since this would be too boring on its own, the bomb somehow arms itself and activates a timed explosion. Carol fixes it with the good old pull-out-all-the-wires trick from every action movie ever, and it’s revealed there’s someone cryogenically stored inside. Harrison then drops the big reveal of the movie:

His true name is Khan! (Dun dun dun!)

For a second, I thought they’d put in a bolt of space-lightning for dramatic effect. It’s supposed to be some huge revelation, even though long time fans could’ve picked up on it long beforehand. It was so obvious, even the back of the DVD case spoils it. The only real reason to have Khan return is because he’s the most famous villain in the Star Trek lore; people are familiar with the name, so it instantly makes the film more interesting to the average viewer. He reveals that he and his 72 followers were genetically engineered to be superior to human beings in every way. They were condemned as war criminals and frozen over 300 years ago, but were found by Admiral RoboCop sometime between the two movies. Khan was revived alone and tasked with developing weapons technology, thus laying the foundation for the admiral’s dream of a militarized Starfleet. Kirk asks, “Why would a Starfleet admiral ask a 300 year-old frozen man for help?” That’s a very good question; no matter how intelligent someone is, it takes time to learn things. Going by the timeline, Khan would’ve needed to learn three centuries’ worth of technology and science – including the development of interstellar travel and warp engines – in less than one year. That’s like asking Benjamin Franklin to design the Large Hadron Collider! Are there really no better qualified tacticians in this continuity?!

Khan tries to gain sympathy with Kirk (and the audience) by pointing out their similarities: they’re both leaders who would do anything for their “families.” Only difference is, Kirk didn’t go on a murderous rampage when he lost someone. Admiral RoboCop clearly isn’t working with a full deck, either. Not only did he try to blackmail Khan by threatening to kill the other 72 crew, but he knowingly sent the Enterprise into enemy territory with a sabotaged warp core as well. All for the sake of kick-starting a war with the Klingons and getting rid of any evidence of the conspiracy. Using the long-range torpedoes with Khan’s crew inside was just the icing on the cake…even though it makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re a evil military mastermind and have six dozen pieces of evidence linking back to your scheme, why would you let someone else dispose of them?! Why did the admiral even bother giving the torpedoes to Kirk? He could’ve just cremated the bodies and then equipped the Enterprise. Did he seriously think they’d risk bombing the Klingons after the engine broke down?

Admiral RoboCop tries to make up for it by personally taking the USS Vengeance – an absolutely massive warship Khan designed – straight to the Enterprise in a last-ditch attempt at a cover-up. Boy, he sure could’ve used a portable transwarp beaming device right then. So much for being discreet. He chides Kirk for disobeying orders (I don’t know why he’s surprised, as Kirk is an established rule-breaker), and asks for the prisoner’s location. After both sides give up on the pretenses of this being a real mission, the admiral admits the truth and demands Khan be given up. They attempt to warp back to Earth, but the ship is gunned down a hail of phaser fire and explosions. Carol tries to talk her father out destroying the Enterprise, but is promptly teleported to the other ship. With death mere seconds away, Kirk frantically tries to surrender himself to spare the crew – a nice parallel with Khan – but is mocked and shut down. It’s at this point that Kirk finally realizes what being a leader is all about: taking responsibility for your choices. You can’t just go gallivanting through life without handling the consequences. With his pride finally crushed, he turns to apologize to his crew before being vaporized…

…Or at least that’s what would have happened, but Scotty snuck on board the Vengeance and temporarily shut it down. Yes, he went to Khan’s coordinates and found a huge warship at a secret base, and somehow infiltrated their security. How convenient. Couldn’t he have sabotaged the weapons down earlier? You know, before all the explosions and death? With both ships now adrift and incapable of fighting, Kirk decides to team up with Khan, jump over to the Vengeance in a spacesuit, and take it over from the inside. When Spock calls him out on his ridiculous plan, Kirk admits that he’s just making things up as he goes along and isn’t fit to command the Enterprise. It’s true on both counts, considering that they’re only the moon’s distance away from Earth. Why don’t they just call for help? Kirk used his personal communicator to phone Scotty from Klingon airspace. Also, why are there no other Starfleet vessels in this area? Did Admiral RoboCop somehow plan for this to happen and order everyone else on deep space missions before dealing with Kirk? There were two terrorist attacks against Starfleet within a week; if anything, there should be even more ships near Earth than usual.

Whatever. Scotty warns that the Vengeance will have weapons restored in three minutes, so time is of the essence. While the entire space jump scene is nonsensical, it provides some of the coolest-looking visuals in the movie. If you’ve ever seen any of the NASA space walks, you know how awesome they are. This version goes much, much faster, and the visor navigation displays have a nice Tron vibe. There’s even a bit of tension with Scotty temporarily getting caught by security (Finally!) and the entrance being wide enough for only a couple of people. Of all the potential teams to infiltrate a ship in Star Trek, would anyone expect Kirk, Scotty, and Khan to do the dirty work? They make it up to the bridge just as the Vengeance powers back up – the infiltration actually takes about nine minutes instead of three, but the audience is supposed to be too distracted to care – and hold Admiral RoboCop at phaser-point.

Kirk is savvy enough to have Khan stunned at this point, but apparently forgot that he’s capable of withstanding physical injuries. The villain plays possum just long enough for the admiral to babble some last-minute fanatical warmongering. With the dramatic tirade over, Khan jumps up, knocks out both Scotty and Kirk, breaks Carol’s leg, and crushes Admiral RoboCop’s skull like a melon. With full command over the deadliest starship in the area, he triumphantly contacts the Enterprise and demands Spock hand over the crew in the torpedoes. It’s kind of disappointing. In Wrath of Khan, there was a similar battle between two ships. But what made the original Khan so dangerous and awesome was his cunning; he nearly destroyed the Enterprise by using a smaller, less-equipped ship. This time, everyone knows he’s going to pull something, but he wins via superior firepower anyway. Oh sure, there’s a brief spoken battle of wits – Khan and Spock are the two smartest characters in this continuity – but Khan wins by virtue having the only ship that can actually function.

Spock isn’t out yet, though. While the others were busy with the Vengeance, he took the time to call Spock Prime and give Leonard Nimoy a cameo scene. He did this to get advice about Khan, even though he just assumes his alternate reality counterpart knows about the villain. It’s supposed to be a haunting callback to Wrath of Khan, but it’s kind of pointless. Spock Prime’s scene can be summarized as, “I’m not supposed to tell you anything that might alter your destiny, but Khan is a really dangerous guy.” No kidding. Presumably Spock Prime explains how Khan’s pride and vengeful nature makes him easy to manipulate and outwit, but those are insights the younger Spock could’ve realized on his own. Did we really need to drag the older, wiser Spock into the fray just to give a villain a little more credibility? Also, if you’re capable of contacting someone on a nearby planet, why are you not calling for help?!

Spock must have learned something, though. His plan is simple: Pretend to give into Khan’s demands, but take the frozen crew members out of the torpedoes first. Set the bombs to detonate, and watch the pretty fireworks of a huge space ship exploding. It’s actually a clever trick, and it’s much more interesting than the mindless battles in some of the other movies. The problem is the fact that Khan let it happen at all; he willingly teleports armed torpedoes onto the Vengeance without thinking it through. At first glance, it’s a way to demonstrate Khan’s flaws and overconfidence, but it doesn’t work. Before taking the bait, he spends a few seconds to scan the torpedoes. It would be befitting of his methodical and tactical nature, except that he doesn’t notice his crew has been removed. How did he miss that?! The entire point of the scan is to confirm the physical makeup, contents, or location of an item; do life signs not show up in cryogenics? The oversight is baffling.

Khan’s temporary triumph is admittedly awesome, though. After getting the torpedoes, he teleports Kirk, Scotty, and Carol back to the Enterprise. His taunt, “No ship should go down without her captain” is easily one of the best lines in the entire movie. He even dishes out ten more direct hits on the Enterprise before the torpedoes detonate. The crew doesn’t have time to celebrate, though; the ship took way too much damage and is now caught in Earth’s gravity. Sulu says that without shields, the ship will burn up in the reentry. If they don’t get the engines back up and running, they’ll crash in minutes! It’s an interesting dilemma, even if it isn’t scientifically possible. The battle took place near the Moon, and both ships lacked propulsion. Nor were they using momentum from coming out of warp; from that distance and lack of speed, it would’ve taken them months to drift to the planet. However, it gives Kirk just enough time to get a serious reality check. As he and Scotty race down to engineering, he gets to see the consequences of his actions: the Enterprise is being torn apart, his crew is dying, and there’s no chance of escape. Watching him trying to save someone from plummeting to their death – and failing – is gut-wrenching. Some of the scenes, like people running through a sideways-tumbling hallway, are some of the most nightmarish visuals in any Star Trek film.

Boy, they sure could’ve used a portable transwarp beaming device.

This doesn’t last long, unfortunately. Considering how much this move takes from Wrath of Khan, it’s not surprising that it’d reuse the ending as well. Kirk makes it down to engineering, goes directly into the housing of the warp core to fix it (apparently it involves a bunch of dropkicks from impractical angles), and gets a lethal dose of radiation. He gets it working just after the Enterprise falls through Earth’s cloud layer…Wait, didn’t Sulu say they’d burn up in reentry? They should’ve been a giant cinder by the time they reached that altitude! At least seeing the battered, broken Enterprise triumphantly rising was worth it. However, Kirk’s conversation with Spock and his death-by-radiation kind of spoil the mood. It’s sad watching Spock with a trembling voice and teary eyes. He just lost the closest thing to a friend. However, any tragedy is lost when he turns his head skyward and screams:

KHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

…Wow, I never thought I’d be laughing so hard at a Star Trek death scene. Did you really have to go there, screenwriters?! That scene was hammy enough in Wrath of Khan. Can’t you at least try to let this film stand on its own? Whatever. Turns out the Vengeance is also crashing back to Earth, and Khan aimed it straight for Starfleet HQ. Of course. He actually misses his target and destroys a huge chunk of San Francisco, and manages to jump to the ground with only a small face wound. Then a prolonged foot chase between he and Spock ensues. No, seriously. Because there’s no better way to end a blockbuster space action movie than a foot chase through San Francisco.

They end up fighting on top of a floating barge, and it seems promising in concept. Both Spock and Khan are gifted with extraordinary intelligence and physical strength…so they battle like a couple of drunken brawlers. It’s the Vulcan Nerve Pinch versus raw genetically-enhanced power! Khan actually has a few opportunities to kick Spock off the edge – the fall would’ve easily him – but tries to crush his head a la Admiral RoboCop. So much for being a master tactician. Uhura teleports in as a distraction and says they can use Khan’s blood to save Kirk. This gives Spock the reason not to succumb to vengeance – hence the big theme of the movie – and manages to haul Khan back to the Enterprise off-screen. Two weeks and a magical blood infusion from McCoy later, and Kirk wakes up in the hospital. Way to go, screenwriters. You’ve completely negated the tragedy of a main character dying, thus cheating your audience of any lasting emotional torque. Kirk was dead for less than ten minutes! Now that they’ve found a way to cure death, how are they going to handle mortality in the next movie? Rather than having Khan studied and the effects replicated, they put him back in a cryogenic tube and leave him in storage. What about a trial? Whatever. Skip forward a year, and the Enterprise has been rechristened and is embarking on her iconic 5-year mission. Cue credits and a classic Star Trek theme music remix.

…Well, that could’ve gone better.

It’s a shame. Star Trek Into Darkness has a lot going for it. The premise of Starfleet espionage and the issues of its militarization are interesting. Having an intelligent villain like Khan is great; it makes him more dangerous and fascinating. Kirk’s overall character arc is great; he starts as irresponsible braggart and gets a deadly, painful lesson in responsibility and leadership. From a narrative standpoint, however, the rest of the movie falls flat. Several characters didn’t get enough development, and there so many plot inconsistencies that it’s mind-boggling. There’s a fine line between paying homage to the original series, and using it as a crutch. Wrath of Khan was an amazing movie; Into Darkness should be able to stand on its own without it, but doesn’t. Don’t go in thinking like this is an old-school Star Trek film. If you just want sci-fi that’s more about flashy explosions and action, go for it. Otherwise, trek somewhere else.

Super Smash Bros. 4 (3DS) Review

He’s got the whole world in his hands…

Designing the new Smash Bros. must have been hard. It’s understandable why Nintendo did it; adapting a famous franchise for their currently most popular system was the obvious, practical, and lucrative option. Actually producing the work, on the other hand, must have been Herculean undertaking. It’s one thing to make a follow-up to Brawl, which was by far the most content-extensive title on the Wii. But how do you take something so over-the-top epic and cram it into a 3DS card? Not only did it have function with the limitations inherent to a handheld format, but had to meet the ridiculously high standards set by the previous game as well. The results aren’t perfect, but it’s a valiant effort nonetheless.

It looks promising at first glance. Iconic fighters like Mario, Link, Kirby, Fox, and a slew of others make their triumphant return. Zelda and Samus now have separate entries for their alter egos, resulting in some much-needed move set revisions. The Pokemon Trainer from Brawl has retired and left only Charizard to do the heavy lifting. The Ice Climbers were completely cut due to the technical limitations of the system. Metal Gear’s Solid Snake is also missing, though it’s likely due to licensing issues. Once they get over the loss of some of their favorite characters, longtime fans will find several new characters to master. Pac-Man’s appearance is practically a given considering the growing ties between Nintendo and Namco, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see the original Mega Man – complete with a range of signature attacks from the NES games – back in action. Others, such as the Wii Fit Trainer and the dog from Duck Hunt, are completely unexpected. Some of the returning franchises boast even more characters, like Lucina and Robin from Fire Emblem: Awakening, Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy, and Palutena from Kid Icarus: Uprising. Aside from a few wasted slots (Did we really need Dark Pit?), the nearly 50-strong roster is varied and impressive.

Despite all the new faces, the basics remain the same. The goal is simple: knock your opponent off the stage. The more damage they rack up, the further they’ll go flying. If they manage to make it back on solid ground, you’ll have to keep fighting. Aside from an assortment of punches, kicks, slashes, and throws, each character has a set of special moves taken from their respective games. Link’s Spin Attack isn’t just for cutting grass, Mega Man’s Buster even has the classic power-up sound effect, and Kirby’s copying ability remains as versatile and somewhat unnerving as always. Hidden tactics, like Ganondorf’s Reverse Warlock Punch and Samus’s Grapple Beam ledge tether, have returned as well. That’s on top of the usual blend of dodging, tactical rolls, shielding, shield breaking, and wall jumping. The old ledge-grabbing tactics have been completely revamped; if your character grabs a ledge while someone is already on it, you’ll automatically latch on and send your opponent scrambling. The most important revision, however, is the removal of random tripping. It allows players to focus more on competitive strategies instead of luck. The overall gameplay pacing falls somewhere between Melee and Brawl; it’s slow enough to keep new players from being overwhelmed, but fast enough to keep veterans satisfied.

That’s assuming you can even keep track of what’s going on. While the gameplay is solidly built, how it is presented and played certainly isn’t. The Smash Bros. series was originally designed with televisions and consoles in mind; the scale of the stages, the number of items, camera perspective, and everything else were built for a larger screen. To make that work on a handheld, a few sacrifices had to be made. Longtime fans might have trouble getting used to the button layout, especially on the original 3DS model. Playing on relatively large stages like Corneria or Boxing Ring becomes a hassle because the camera has to zoom out to maintain view of all the characters. At least it spares you from seeing the limited texturing. Even with the optional highlighting reticule, it’s still easy to get characters mixed up or overlook smaller items. That’s really troublesome when you have to contend with motion-sensing bombs, banana peels, smoke balls, bee hives, and the slew of other weapons that randomly spawn. Using such items also demonstrate the 3DS’s technical limits. The game runs at a surprisingly smooth 60 FPS most of the time. However, Assist Trophies are animated at 30 FPS, and Pokeballs only appear one at a time. It’s telling that, unlike previous Smash titles, there’s no way to adjust the frequency of item appearances. If there were, it’d be too easy to crash the game completely.

These problems are even worse in online matches. Smash 4 is much faster than Brawl’s infamously laggy multiplayer…some of the time. As there’s no way to see your opponents’ connection speeds before you commit to a match, you’ll often be flung blindly into an unplayable fight. Sometimes the game completely freezes before kicking you back into the menu. Even decently-running matches are slightly slower. It’s doesn’t completely break the game, but it messes up more advanced tactics and input timing. When you manage to get a great connection, the fights are smooth and responsive. You’re allowed to manage lobbies with people on your friends list, but there’s no way to narrow down based on location, voice or text chat, and other features common to fighting games. The ability to play one-on-one matches with strangers via For Glory mode is a great feature for more competitive players, yet it lacks a ranking board. Though it’s possible to view other people’s matches via either live spectating or replays, you can’t look up specific playbacks. Speaking of which, there aren’t any options for the replays you save on the system; there’s no way to share them with friends, upload them to YouTube, etc. While the online multiplayer functions on the most basic level, it could’ve been so much more.

The designers tried to make up for such shortcomings by giving you more gameplay options. One of Smash 4’s most touted features is its customization menu. All of the fighters have unlockable variations on their special moves. Most have practical effects, like adjusting jump trajectories or attack range. For example, Ganondorf’s Warlock Blade not only lets him wield a sword, but it extends his punch as well. The game also lets you equip items that boost the characters’ attack, defense, and speed capabilities. In an attempt to keep things balanced, you can only equip three things at a time. Tired of Bowser being so slow? A little tinkering with his speed stat – at the expense of his raw power – can make him far more dangerous. Some equipment has secondary effects, like auto-healing, stronger smashes, etc. While this adds some much-needed variety, its implementation is lacking. Aside from a brief description and stat chart, the equipment is utterly forgettable. That’s a step back from the image stickers in Brawl, which served the same function while delving into Nintendo’s back catalog.

The customization is taken even further with Smash Run, a gameplay mode exclusive to the 3DS. Taking cues from Melee’s Adventure Mode and Brawl’s Subspace Emissary, Smash Run drops four fighters in a labyrinth crammed with platforms and enemies from various Nintendo franchises. The goal is simple: Explore under a time limit, slaughter tons of foes, and pick up whatever items they drop. Every last Kremling, ReDead, Goomba, and wild Pokemon leave stat boosts, allowing you to build up your attack, speed, defense, etc. There are also treasure chests containing unlockable character moves, extra equipment, and additional power-ups. Doing a Metroid-esque Shinespark and summoning laser beams is quite awesome. Actually playing Smash Run is another story. The platforming is straightforward, but it becomes a hassle when you’re completely surrounded by enemies. Depending on your stats, it’s easy to get thrown around and killed without any chance of recovery. It’s annoying when you’re just out of reach of a valuable item, only to get denied at the last second. All of your efforts culminate with a brief battle with the other contenders. Most of these fights are based on the old Special Melee rules; giant characters, set stamina, and enemy teams are common. Others are designed as contests, like the traditional Race to the Finish mode. The problem is that rule types are randomly chosen; there’s no way tell if you’ll have the necessary stats built up until the fight starts. It would’ve been far less frustrating had these matches been selectable separately.

Once Smash Run inevitably goes stale, you can fall back on more conventional single player features. Classic Mode returns with its usual assortment of giant and metal opponents, but it’s been expanded with branching paths, random rewards, and varying difficulty settings. Since you bet more of your in-game currency the higher the difficulty, there are much bigger risks and rewards involved with a playthrough. All-Star Mode is still a gauntlet of opponents set in chronological order, but little has changed about it. The same goes for the Multi-Man Smash modes; aside from recording matches and high score bragging rights for Cruel or Rival Smash, there are few incentives to play them more than once. At least Melee’s iconic Home Run Mode is back and tough as ever. That can’t be said for Break the Targets, though. The formerly grueling test of your ability to handle characters’ moves has devolved into a simple Angry Birds knockoff. You merely launch a time bomb at a huge wood and block structure from different angles. In their attempt to make things more appealing to new players, the designers completely missed what made the target challenges fun and interesting. It’s overshadowed by the new Trophy Rush, in which you fight through an onslaught of falling boxes and explosions to nab dozens of collectibles. It’s entertaining, but it doesn’t make up for the game’s lesser offerings.

The same can be said for the stage selection. As this is a 3DS game, there was an effort to design levels based on Nintendo’s handheld titles. Some, like the Magicant, 3D Land, and Paper Mario stages, are fun in their variety and colorful visuals. Gaur Plain inverts the usual layout by having all the platforms on the sides and a huge hole in the middle. The old Gameboy-styled version of Dream Land was a nice touch. Others fall flat, though. Of all the places in the Zelda franchise, the decided to go with a collapsible Gerudo bridge fraught with fire and ice attacks. The Unova Pokemon League has the same basic stage hazards, yet is even less interesting to look at. Not all of Tomodachi Life took place in the apartment complex; as funny as it is seeing your Mii cowering in the background, it would’ve made more sense to tour the entire island and vary the platforming. At least returning fan favorites like Jungle Japes and Brinstar keep things from getting too bland. It’s disheartening when to play in the Living Room or the Trophy Rush mini-game, because they’re so reminiscent of Brawl’s level editor. It’s a shame that feature didn’t make it into this version. Even with the optional flat levels for competitive players, it feels like something’s missing.

The music fares better, though. There’s no way Smash 4 (or any game, really) could top Brawl’s gargantuan playlist. Instead, the soundtrack uses a couple of optional tracks per stage. Though lacking anything as grandiose as MGS4’s “Theme of Love” or Wind Waker’s sailing theme, this OST focuses more on the essentials. The Corneria and Fire Emblem themes from Melee are obvious choices. Tracks like “Ocarina of Time Medley” and the orchestrated “Tetris Type A” were far too good to pass up. Several familiar tunes are back, but as arrangements. The “Gerudo Valley” guitar instrumental and Donkey Kong Country 2’s “Stickerbrush Symphony” are some of the best versions out there. The Gaur Plain theme and the Mega Man 2 remixes are more than enough incentive to play their stages. Combined with a little voice acting – the Kid Icarus and Fire Emblem casts especially – Smash 4’s sound menu exemplifies quality over quantity.

It’s been a long time. The build-up to this Smash Bros. was unlike anything else in gaming. No title could have lived up to the expectations, but this one tries so hard. The results are far from perfect; most the single player modes are flawed, the online multiplayer needs an overhaul, and every technical aspect of the gameplay limited by the 3DS’s capabilities. Despite such glaring issues, the game has a huge roster, hundreds of collectibles, tons of stages, a deep (albeit bland) customization system, improved combat mechanics, faster pacing, and a great soundtrack. To take all of that and make it work on a handheld system is an impressive feat. Is this the best Smash Bros. ever? No. Is it one of the best 3DS games? Absolutely. Nintendo’s greatest fights are finally in the palm of your hand.

*Originally posted here.

Contra: Evolution Review

Shot through the heart…

Once upon a time, there was a game called Contra. While it wasn’t the first run-and-gun scrolling game, it was probably the best of its kind. It featured Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, whose flagrant machismo and Rambo-esque exploits made them stand out amongst other arcade heroes. With their trusty, oversized guns at the ready, they bravely ventured forth into a futuristic wasteland and systematically slaughtered an invading alien horde. It was a grueling, harrowing task. Not only were the enemies and landscapes unforgiving, but the heroes could die with a single hit. Beating Contra quickly became the stuff of childhood legend; no one would blame a young gamer for resorting to the now-famous Konami Code and all the extra lives it offered. The game’s reputation only grew from there, spawning a long-running series that spanned decades and consoles alike. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, Contra was poised to make a triumphant return for a whole new generation…

And it failed miserably.

The problems with Contra: Evolution begin before the game even starts. Due to a programming bug, the app crashes almost every time you make it past the first menu. It looks so full of promise; a few bonus modes, a couple of unlockable characters, flashy colors…and a loading screen that takes so long that it freezes. After being kicked back out into your phone’s home screen, you summon enough patience for a second attempt. The official Konami logo pops up, almost reassuring you that no, this was all just a silly misunderstanding. The title screen appears again, giving you shadowy glimpses of the alien queen and desolate, fiery wasteland. Eagerly, you start up Arcade Mode and watch the little red loading icon spin merrily in the corner…and suddenly you’re back on the home screen, this time with a slight but ever-growing headache.

When the law of averages (or just blind luck) finally works in your favor, the game will load and you’ll be thrust into Contra’s world. If you grew up with the older game, it’s easy to be swept away by the nostalgia; the iconic levels have all been revamped with updated graphics and backgrounds. The rocky outcroppings and tree lines have better textures and scaling, and that first wall boss actually looks metallic. The characters look better proportioned and animated. Not bad, you might think. Maybe this will be worth it after all! Then you try actually getting through the first level, and you realize how horribly wrong you were. As a run-and-gun game, the original Contra required accurate directional inputs; responsive controls allowed you turn around, duck under enemy fire, aim at different angles, jump to avoid attacks, and manage the uneven terrain. In Contra: Evolution, the controls are mapped to a touch screen directional pad and a jump button. It would’ve been fine, if the buttons actually responded to your fingers. Missed landings and ducks, accidental kamikaze runs into enemy fire, and abysmally inaccurate diagonal shots are common.

The control layout makes things physically worse as well. The original Contra was built as an arcade game, with a large display and easily-accessible buttons. When you try to cram all of that into a smartphone screen, everything becomes cluttered and difficult to see. The buttons obscure huge chunks of either side of the level, which potentially leads to unnecessary deaths. Not that it’ll matter much, though; there are fewer enemies to kill, and your characters fire their weapons automatically. As you’re frantically wrangling with the controls, you might mow down a small army unintentionally. The game has the usual assortment of laser beams, spread shots, and machine gun power-ups, but you probably won’t need them. Since you spend in-game gems on extra lives, it’s possible to finish the game in a single blind run. However, using those extra collectibles can come back to haunt you; without gems, you can’t earn as much money for weapon upgrades or character levels. That’s where the game tries to trick you into using in-app purchases. You can either grind through levels with the frustrating controls, or you can spend a few more dollars to max out all of the stats. But you don’t need to; the game is beatable without additional upgrades. It’s just thinly-veiled attempt to fake longevity and get your money.

The game desperately tries to keep your attention with its extra challenges. The Mission Mode puts you back into the same levels, but with focus on high scores, completion times, and the number of deaths. Elite Mode does something similar; the weakest cannon fodder enemies take more hits, explode after dying, etc. It’s a welcome twist on the otherwise bland gameplay, but still lacks creativity. Nostalgia-prone gamers will likely dive right into Boss Rush, though the luster fades quickly. There are trophies and leaderboards to contend with, but they’re probably not worth the time. Your efforts also result in more funds for weapon upgrades, as well as medals that go towards unlocking another character. Unlike Bill and Lance, Ricci and Sally have more unique play styles; the former can dual-wield guns, and the latter a katana and shurikens. They exist for the sole purpose of adding variety and bragging rights – killing an alien queen with a shuriken is pretty cool – but offer little else. It would’ve been interesting to see a story mode, some dialogue, or anything resembling a reason to keep playing.

But there isn’t. Contra: Evolution is easily the worst version of its classic predecessor. It’s as if the designers attempted to capture everything that was awesome about the arcade experience, only to completely miss why it was great. Yes, the graphics look amazing for a cell phone game. Yes, there’s plenty of nostalgia go around. But the joy of Contra didn’t come from its graphical details; it was due to the satisfaction of surviving the brutally difficult levels and mastering the controls. There’s none of it to be found here; the touch screen buttons are clunky and unresponsive, the continue system makes it easy to blindly charge through levels, and there’s no reason to bother with any of the extra features. The hardest part of the game isn’t the bosses, but actually getting it to run in the first place. It’s so glitchy and broken that it makes you want to quit before you even begin. Ironically, Contra: Evolution is anything but.

Originally posted here.

Bravely Default Review

Communication Breakdown…

The realm of Luxendarc is on the brink of destruction. The oceans have gone stagnant, trapping travelers on land. The winds have dropped to a standstill, and the heat has become unbearable. A volcano in the southwest has erupted, reducing the surrounding countryside a fiery, smoky wasteland. But for Tiz Arrior, the impending apocalypse just became personal. His idyllic hometown of Norende was devoured by a gigantic chasm, and he was the sole survivor. In his throes of sadness and guilt, Tiz wants to salvage what little of his life remains. He’s teamed up with Agnes Oblige, an aloof young maiden with mysterious powers. She thinks restoring four corrupted elemental crystals will fix everything, but she’s too busy being hunted down by the authorities. They’re joined by Ringabel, an amnesiac Casanova wannabe, and Edea Lee, the antagonist’s daughter gone rogue. The fate of the world depends on these four unlikely heroes. They just have to survive long enough to save it.

Sound familiar? A group of heroes traveling around the world in order to prevent an apocalypse is one of the most common plots in the RPG genre. It’s a reliable way to structure an adventure; the player is immersed in a fantasy world, and hopefully the characters develop along the way. It can be brilliant or bland, depending on how it’s written. Wary of making another stale RPG, Square Enix designed Bravely Default as a deconstruction of the cliches expected of such a game. It’s difficult to explain without getting into spoilers, but there’s something off about this world-saving journey. If an entire army is mobilized to stop you, there might be a good reason for it. Though enemies can be cruel and outright homicidal, not everyone against you is automatically evil. Nor are allies saints, for that matter. Before gallivanting off on your quest and killing monsters, maybe you should actually think things through and find better solutions. The wisest character in the story even explains the meaning of the “Bravely Default” phrase: you need to be brave enough to decide and act on your own accord, and not blindly follow someone else.

It’s an interesting take on old school RPG conventions. It could’ve been amazing, had the story not shot itself in the foot around the halfway point. The narrative leaves little room for subtlety; a character directly stating the core theme of the game is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of our heroes’ hardships could’ve been avoided had everyone just stopped and talked things out. The antagonists don’t want anyone touching those magical crystals, but won’t say why. The few people helping you aren’t doing so just out of the goodness of their hearts, so you should listen closer to what they say. The problem is that no one – on either side – is willing to communicate. Edea is the biggest offender; her rampant idealism (hence the pun) prevents her from taking more objective and practical actions. She suffers the consequences of it multiple times. It’d be easier to feel sorry for her, had her character development not been so predictable. Agnes is even worse; her narrow-mindedness makes her seem stubborn and naive. Tiz has no personality beyond survivor guilt and a desire to rebuild his town. Once those problems are resolved, his relevance quickly fades. Ringabel is the only one pragmatic enough to figure things out, but his amnesia lingers for the sake of drama.

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Not that it really matters, though. If you pay attention during the side-quests, the game tells you the big twist several hours before it comes up normally. There are lengthy explanations that couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted. If you act on this information, you can cut the game’s length in half and call it a day…but you won’t get the true ending or any of its bonus content. This completely undermines the point of the story; you’re given an opportunity to act independently and end the game on your terms, but you’re only rewarded if you keep blindly following the original plan. If you choose the latter option, most of the objectives and dialogue remain unchanged despite the huge revelations. As a result, the characters look ridiculously stupid and gullible. The adventure becomes less and less interesting with each passing hour; you stop caring about the story and wish it’ll end sooner. Reaching the true ending becomes a tedious, repetitive exercise. If just a couple of chapters were cut, the pacing could’ve been salvaged. When the characters start complaining in-game about how pointless and nonsensical things have gotten, you know something’s wrong.

It’s especially frustrating because, aside from flawed narrative and pacing issues, Bravely Default does everything else so well. Unlike most recent fantasy games, its gameplay is designed as a throwback to the turn-based combat mechanics of old console RPGs. Instead of racking up hits one at a time, you get to choose between the Brave and Default commands. The Brave option lets your character attack and use items up to four times per turn, but leaves you wide open for a counter move. Defaulting lets you guard against attacks, take less damage, and save up Brave Points for more powerful moves on the next turn. If you’ve got a foolproof plan and don’t want the hassle of pressing buttons, you can set the battle on automatic mode and turn up the animation speed. It’s fast-paced, easy to use, and much more strategic than it first appears. Since your opponents use the same system, winning major battles requires extensive multitasking. Spamming attacks only gets you so far. Not only do you have to deal damage, but keep the party covered against status ailments and debuffs, maintain enough magic to perform healing and offensive spells, and defend against everything else as well. Bosses are more akin to puzzles than fights. You have to figure out what abilities and weaknesses they have, and how to get around them. It’s not just about having the strongest equipment stats or leveling up; if you go in unprepared, you will get slaughtered.

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You’re given plenty of options, though. Bravely Default boasts 24 character classes, each with unique stats and techniques. As you win battles, you’ll level up in class and acquire new attacks and spells. Most of them are straightforward, like the White Mage’s healing, the Performer’s stat buffs, and the Thief’s speed and stealing. Others, such as the Merchant and Salve-Maker, are more specialized in terms of the party’s funds and item usage. Since each character can have a primary and secondary class at a time, you have to figure out which combinations offer the best balance. The key to mastering the game isn’t about specializing in one class, but in all of them. As you unlock more support abilities, you’ll be able to choose and equip them individually. The Ninja is great by itself, but its Transience and Dual Wield abilities can make you unstoppable when combined with the Red Mage’s Turn Tables technique and the Swordmaster’s Katana Lore. If you’re getting killed multiple times in battle, a pair of Vampire and Dark Knight abilities let you deal tons of damage per KO, and a fifty percent chance on auto-reviving on the next turn. A little experimentation can work wonders. While unlocking all these powers requires tons of level grinding, the tactical options they provide are worth the effort…

Unless you want to do it the easy way. Square Enix must have been aware how painfully tedious all those hours could’ve been, because they designed the multiplayer to help you as much as possible. If you’ve got other Bravely Default players on your 3DS friend list, you can sync them into your game. There’s no competitive battling – that would’ve been amazing – but you can browse each other’s classes. If their characters have higher levels, you can link them to your party and use their techniques. If utilized well, you’ll gain access end-game abilities long before you’d be able to alone. You can send and receive customized attacks as well. If you’re having trouble with a boss, check your friends list; if you summon someone with high damage stats, your fearsome opponent might crumble in a single hit. It’s a cheap tactic, but it’s completely optional. So is the Bravely Second DLC, which lets you freeze time to do more damage. If you don’t want to pay, you have to accumulate points by putting the 3DS in sleep mode. While not necessary, it provides an incentive to use StreetPass. The more players you connect with, the faster you’ll be able to complete the game’s Norende restoration mini-game. It’s bland and simplistic, but finishing it unlocks several powerful weapons, armor, and an endless supply of items. It also lets you tackle the game’s bonus bosses, which are far more challenging than anything you’ll find in the story.

Or more interesting, for that matter. The game’s bestiary has nearly 200 entries, but they’re mostly variations on orcs, bats, zombies, and other generic RPG enemies. The bosses are designed with more creativity and personality. Some, like the swordsmen Khint and Kamiizumi, are soft-spoken and intimidating. Barbarossa is just as boisterous as his pirate costume and oversized axe imply. Praline is ridiculous, though; her peppy music and Japanese pop star-style costume are completely out of place in the grim, war-torn Luxendarc. While such designs are meant to make the bosses more appealing to the player, their presentations are flawed. Rather than interacting with the party for the sake of character development, the majority of their information comes from Ringabel’s journal. There are hundreds of pages that cover every aspect of the game. Since you probably won’t bother reading the records, you’ll miss the depth and motivations driving your antagonists. Instead, you’ll just track them down, enjoy some voiced dialogue, and stop caring once you’ve won. Only a few characters get the attention they deserve. The game tries to distract you from such shortcomings by showing off some absolutely gorgeous settings. Visiting a town is like looking at a piece of art; the first time you see Caldisla, it’ll be hard not to stop staring at moving clouds, the shadows, or the beautiful vistas in the distance. Ancheim isn’t just a bustling merchant haven, but a massive, intricate clock as well. These places feel alive, making you want to save them even more.

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It’s sad. Few games manage to be both awesome and terrible, but Bravely Default pulls it off. The turn-based combat mechanics are fun to use and test your strategic and multitasking abilities. The wide variety of unlockable classes and techniques give you plenty of opportunities to build the perfect party. This is one of the few 3DS titles to implement online connectivity in productive and interesting ways. Not only does it let you interact with other gamers, but enriches the single player experience as well. There are great design ideas, and hopefully other developers will take note. Despite all these amazing features, however, the immensely flawed and repetitive nature of adventure can’t be ignored. RPGs need a decent story to succeed; they need to engage the player and keep them interested for the dozens of hours required for completion. It should feel satisfying, not like a chore. While Bravely Default deconstructs some elements of its genre well, it falls apart in its latter half. If a game spells out its own themes and has predictable twists, it’s hard to stay emotionally invested. After a while, you stop caring about the characters and what they’re trying to accomplish. Maybe Luxendarc just needs to be saved from its saviors.

Originally posted here: http://www.gamefaqs.com/3DS/729328-bravely-default/reviews/review-157818

All image source credits go to The Gamer Nerd, Pocket Gamer UK, Senpai Gamer, and the original artists of the works respectively.