Air Hockey, Anyone?

Air Hockey, Anyone?

Time for some old-school arcade fun! Taken at Scandia near Fairfield, CA.


Xenoblade Chronicles 3D Review

Oh, I want to get away…

Once upon a time, two titans clashed in the middle of an ocean. The Bionis and the Mechonis – the deities of natural and mechanical life respectively – fought until they were locked in an eternal stalemate. Both figuratively and literally; both beings died before they could win the battle, and their enormous corpses petrified together. Rather than crumbling under the ravages of time, their bodies formed a new world. Whole civilizations grew and flourished on these fallen gods, but the modern world hasn’t forgotten the ancient conflict. The human race is fighting a losing war against the Mechon, a seemingly unstoppable horde of killing machines. With death already on their doorstep, the ever-dwindling colonies of survivors desperately need a savior.

They’ll have to settle with Shulk.

He’s not a hero. He lacks both the physical capabilities of a soldier and wisdom of his elders. He’d rather spend his days doing research than going on adventures. That’s what makes him more believable than most game characters; he’s a naive bystander that gets swept up in a war, suffers, survives, and gradually becomes a hero. He’s far more interesting a protagonist than his friend Reyn, who acts like a stereotypical thickheaded, temperamental warrior. What starts as a fairly creative story is dragged down by the cliches typical of the RPG genre. Shulk is somehow chosen to wield the Monado, a legendary sword capable of slaying Mechon. His background is hazy at best, which leads to a few predictable plot twists. He’s trying to avenge the destruction of his home town, but eventually gets drawn into something much bigger. Revenge is hardly an original motive, but the game does well in getting you emotionally involved; the heroes seem real and sympathetic, and the villains are sadistic and powerful. While the story is long – even the most straightforward playthroughs take dozens of hours to finish – the decent pacing and character development keep things interesting.

Shulk’s inexperience isn’t just for narrative purposes. He embarks on his quest woefully unskilled, armed with only a handful of awkward slashes and stabs. Finesse and variety are sacrificed for practicality; the combat mechanics focus on teamwork, positioning, and ability buffs. Some attacks deal more damage when he approaches from behind his opponent, while some enemies can’t even be hurt unless they’ve been inflicted with status effects. Battles take place in real-time, and attacks need to be recharged after each use. It’s not so bad early on, but many of the later fights require you to constantly manage your party’s tactics. The controls lend themselves well to the New 3DS’s button mapping, but surprisingly lack touch screen menus; the top screen is needlessly cluttered with information that could’ve been displayed  in other ways. It’s tempting to blindly mash your way through and pray your random commands work, but you’ll just get everyone slaughtered. As you rack up critical hits, you’ll build up a gauge that can be used to either trigger high-damage chain attacks or revive fallen party members. Shulk can occasionally see oncoming attacks and let his friends decide on moves, but it’s inconsistent at best. Since the AI is rarely reliable in terms of advanced strategies, you’ll have to divide your time between keeping everyone alive and dishing out damage. While it seems overwhelmingly complex at first glance, the essentials are easy to learn.

It’s not all about fighting, though. Xenoblade Chronicles was designed around exploration, and it shows. Shulk’s quest spans two continents, taking on over 400 optional side-quests and killing creatures along the way. There are no random battles; just several areas teeming with monsters that don’t necessarily have to be attacked. The game tells you how strong they are, so you can go in or back off accordingly. While most RPGs favor linear designs, this world practically begs you to go off the beaten path. Not only are there tons of nooks and crannies hidden everywhere, but the game rewards you with experience points and other bonuses for your curiosity. There’s almost no downside to getting hurt in battle; health is plentiful, and you’ll re-spawn close by if you die. There’s even an ability to warp to any landmark you’ve previously visited, which eliminates countless hours of backtracking. It’s especially handy if you’ve accidentally passed an area or need a certain item for a side-quest. These tasks are usually menial, but are essential for developing the huge assortment of skill trees, equipment, character affinities, and everything else that factors into combat system. Fair warning, though: You need to find a balance between storyline progression and going off on your own. If you focus too much on exploring, the pacing will slow to a crawl, the characters will be over-leveled, and you’ll likely burn yourself out.

Xenoblade 3D is indeed a massive game, both in terms of gameplay content and sheer scale. You won’t understand just how big and open-ended it is until you see Gaur Plain for the first time. The green fields and hills seem to go forever, and the silhouettes of the Bionis and Mechonis loom distantly in the drifting clouds. It gives you a sense of how utterly small you are, and how much there is left to see. Since there are so many creatures with widely varying strengths roaming around, the world feels more like a cohesive, living whole instead of a pre-structured journey. It’s no wonder the game can only be played on the New 3DS; it would’ve been impossible for the older handhelds to process these kinds of visuals consistently. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, though. The Wii version of Xenoblade was absolutely gorgeous at a distance, but suffered from poor texturing and bland facial designs up close. These issues are more prominent on a handheld; even with its impressive frame rate and 3D effects, the New 3DS can’t match the splendor of a console and television screen. Everything just seems a little fuzzier and faded, which lessen the overall experience. That being said, this is still one of the best-looking games on the system. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might be more colorful and look smoother, but Xenoblade 3D trumps it in terms of draw distance and size.

The downgrade wasn’t limited to graphics, either. The Japanese voice acting was removed entirely, but the localized cast does an admirable job at bringing the characters to life. Phrases like, “Now it’s Reyn time!” or “I’m really feeling it!” are grating in their repetition, but the thick English accents are endearing and memorable. That goes double for the hammy villains; their “MUH-NA-DO BOY” nickname for Shulk is both sinister and unintentionally hilarious. The soundtrack is back in all its glory, too; if the visuals don’t stun you, the superb audio certainly will. You Will Know Our Names, Mechanical Rhythm, the Gaur Plain theme, and other instrumental tracks add so much emotion and atmosphere. It’s tempting to wander into an area, put your system down, and just listen to the music. If you want to enjoy the songs without the adventure, you’ll have to unlock them in the newly-added Jukebox. It’s pretty gimmicky – you have to either rack up tokens via StreetPass or buy a Shulk amiibo – but it’s well worth the effort. Combined with some good headphones, you’re in for one of the greatest soundtracks in recent memory.

That can be said for the game as a whole. It’s a testament to the quality of the original Xenoblade Chronicles that a technically inferior port is arguably the best RPG on the 3DS. Its visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re still impressive. The game’s design was ahead of time; no other handheld title gives you the kind of freedom and sense of exploration seen here. The sheer scope, scale, and complexity of this adventure might be intimidating, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than limiting you to a strict path, it encourages you to find your own pace and rewards curiosity. With hundreds of side-quests, it’s so easy to ditch the lengthy story and go hiking for a few hours. Shulk’s cliched revenge isn’t nearly as important or compelling as the journey he undertakes to achieve it. Thanks to the New 3DS, you’ll be able to experience each amazing moment at a time, all in the palm of your hand.

When was the last time you got lost?

Soundtrack Saturdays: The World Ends With You – Calling

In early 2008, I was fortunate to be one of the first Western game reviewers to get my hands on The World Ends With You. I was immediately hooked by the idea of a Square Enix RPG that wasn’t set in a medieval fantasy; TWEWY is set in modern Shibuya, a famous district in Japan. Urban fantasy – and the entire concept of magic realism – really appeals to me, so I immediately jumped at the chance to cover it. I wasn’t prepared for its clever writing, ridiculously complex battle system, and incredible artwork. Most people take touch screen interfaces for granted these days, but the game was far ahead of its time. Several areas of the game are visually identical to their real world counterparts; the buildings, businesses, and iconic crosswalks were faithfully recreated in 2D. The soundtrack is still one of the best ever seen on a Nintendo handheld; the rock, hip-hop, and electronica lend themselves well to Shibuya’s culture. Upon its release in the States, the game quickly became a modern classic. If you ever get a chance to play, I highly recommend it.

If you want more TWEWY, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Silent Hill 2 – Theme Of Laura

Trying to explain Silent Hill 2 is tricky business. It’s not because it’s difficult to understand from a narrative perspective, but because I really don’t want to spoil anything. It’s about a man named James Sunderland who comes to the titular town after receiving a letter from his wife…who died three years ago. What starts as a forlorn trip down memory lane quickly develops into one of the best psychological horror stories and character studies in gaming history. I could spend hours analyzing Silent Hill 2’s storytelling – particularly how Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment influenced it – but I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t played yet. After all these years, Laura’s Theme is still one of the most emotional songs in an already memorable game.

If you want more Silent Hill 2, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D Review

I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night

Termina is on the brink of annihilation. Armed with the dark power of Majora’s Mask, the Skull Kid wanders the land and corrupts everything in its path. Nothing can escape it. The Southern Swamp has been poisoned, and its holy temple is now in ruins. In the north, Snowhead’s idyllic springtime countryside has been ravaged by an endless winter storm, and its inhabitants are dying in the frozen wasteland. In the west, a family grieves for those lost in the Great Bay’s monster-infested waters. In the east, the ancient Ikana Kingdom is being slowly overrun by its undead subjects and rotting from the inside out. In the middle of it all, the residents of Clock Town go about their daily lives. They’re pretending that everything is still normal, that the sense of foreboding and desperation is just their imagination. But they know better. The moon is falling, and it’s going crash soon. When it does, all the suffering and loss will be forgotten in the apocalypse.

You have three days to save the world. Go.

It’s not going to be easy. If the hero was anyone than Link, it’d be impossible. Thanks to the Ocarina of Time he acquired in the previous game, he can travel back in time whenever he needs to…and he will. A lot. Termina is a massive place; fully exploring even one section requires you to relive same days several times. The basic game structure is standard Zelda series fare; you complete a dungeon, load up on items, find hidden areas, collect heart pieces, etc. But what makes Majora’s Mask 3D different is that you’re operating under a time limit. Termina will die in three days, but each in-game hour equates to 45 seconds in real life. Even if you use an ocarina melody to slow things down, you’ve got a maximum of three hours to get your business done and escape back to Day 1. It’s pretty tense at first – you’re under enough pressure as it is – but this new version makes the process far easier to get into. There are more save points, which are ideal for portable gaming sessions; unless you have to stop while deep in a dungeon, there’s little risk of losing much progress. It’s perfect for newcomers, though veterans of the original might be disappointed by the lack of difficulty. The clock display is simpler to read, and even displays the progressing minutes. The game also introduces a revamped Song of Double Time, which lets you fast forward to specific hours of the day. This is a huge improvement over the original N64 game, which only let you skip between day and night. With this new song, you have much greater control over how you plan and progress through each loop.

There’s good reason to have it, too. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that you’re supposed to cram as much adventure into each three-day session as possible. That’s not always the case, though; some of the most important moments in the game happen at various – but specific – hours of the game. While you’re gallivanting all over Termina, its inhabitants have their own plans. Sakon always tries to steal from the old lady on the first night. There’s a mystery afoot at the Romani Ranch, and its horrific extent isn’t revealed until the third day. Reuniting Anju and Kafei is one of the most intricate (and tragic) side-quests in the Zelda series, and it requires you to be at <i>exactly</i> the right places and times. You won’t figure most of these things out unless you stand back and observe where and when people go. This Groundhog Day-style method of getting to know the NPCs is mitigated with the Bomber’s Notebook. The N64 version of this daily side-quest planner was functional, but a vague; rather than using its cues, you were far better served by reading a guide to complete it. Majora’s Mask 3DS improves upon it with entries for all the pertinent characters, their locations, and active objectives. It’s more organized and takes a lot of the time-wasting guesswork out of the equation. It’s a double-edged sword, though; discovering stuff through your own observations and effort felt more rewarding. Having everything spelled out for you lessens Termina’s mystique. Regardless, you’ll be surprised at the tapestry of bizarre and twisted stories interconnected throughout the game.

You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a collection of masks. There are over twenty, each with different effects on either Link or the surrounding environment. Some are used to progress certain side-quests or acquring heart pieces, but others are more practical. For example, wearing the Captain’s Hat or Gibdo Mask in front of ReDeads – those nightmare-inducing enemies from Ocarina of Time – they’ll perform a harmless interpretive dance. The Stone Mask makes you invisible to minor enemies, and the Bunny Hood lets you move faster. You’ll spend most of your time using the three main transformation masks, though. These are obtained during key moments in the game, and allow Link to physically transform into a Deku, Goron, or Zora. Each of these has their own playing style and drawbacks; the Deku is tiny and slow, but can temporarily fly and hop across water. The Zora swims quickly and has boomerang fins, but weak against elemental attacks. The Goron fares better against heat and cold, but sinks like a stone. However, it lets you curl up into a ball and roll around at high speeds. Zooming around Termina Katamari-style is ridiculously fun. When you’ve acquired a few masks, take the time to explore and experiment with them; you might be surprised at the results.

The process of equipping masks – and any item, for that matter – is streamlined thanks to the 3DS’s touch screen. The menus are well organized and responsive, allowing you to choose and button map the inventory quickly and efficiently. This is especially rewarding in later dungeons like the Stone Tower Temple (arguably the most tedious part of the original game), which require you to use several items to solve puzzles and get past obstacles. The biggest improvement, however, is the revamped camera controls on the New 3DS. The older games relied on Z-Targeting to keep the camera focused on enemies and important items. For its time, it was a revolutionary new method of maintaining perspective 3D environment. Outside of combat was another story; you’d have to constantly re-center the camera behind Link, or enter first-person view to look around. If you’re playing Majora’s Mask 3D on a regular 3DS, you’ll have to contend with those limitations as well. Unless you’re a masochist, there’s no way you’d suffer the alternate gyroscope aiming mechanics. The Circle Pad Pro gives you more control a la Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, but it’s rather cumbersome. If you can, play this on a New 3DS; the C-Stick gives you free reign over the camera, allowing you to explore areas without having to deal with awkward and rigid angles. It takes some getting used to – it’s a pity Nintendo couldn’t incorporate a second control stick instead of a relatively tiny nub – but it’s responsive and definitely worth using. It’s a great example of how updated technology can make old games feel new again.

That goes double for the overall presentation. The original Majora’s Mask reused just about every asset from Ocarina of Time. Thanks to the N64’s Expansion Pak, it managed to hide its creative, but undeniably aged appearance. Its transition onto the 3DS is nothing short of stunning; textures and colors have been redone in gorgeous detail. Unlike most games, it makes you actually want to use the 3D effects. You can waste a whole time loop just wandering around Clock Town and seeing how alive it is. Look at all the mosaics and posters on the walls, or how the lighting and shadowing change over the day. The Great Fairy Fountains are incredibly shiny, and the sunset view at the Great Bay is amazing. Even Tatl seems more energetic than before. The sheer scale of the buildings and the draw distance are really impressive; Termina Field and Ikana Canyon feel much larger than they used to. It feels like Link is merely a tiny part of a much larger, vibrant world. More importantly, it retains the sinister tone of the original game. The moon is not only falling, but it has a monstrous, leering face that gets ever closer to devouring everything. Listen to how the music subtly shifts as the days pass; the cheery Clock Town theme becomes increasingly frantic and deranged, eventually giving way to a somber, tragic theme in the final ten hours. The lack of an orchestrated soundtrack is such a shame, especially given the 3DS’s audio quality. No matter where you are, the sudden clanging bells are always an ominous reminder that time’s running out. Not to mention some of the NPCs; the Happy Mask Salesman is somehow even creepier now that his smile is more fleshed out. The phrase, “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” is still strangely chilling.

Looking back, the original Majora’s Mask deserved so much more attention than it received. Ocarina of Time was a hard act to follow, and the time-based mechanics seemed strange and unfitting for the series. It’s great to see it finally take center stage; it’s a wonderfully nostalgic trip for old gamers, and newcomers will find unique and engaging experience. Termina is one of the most lively – and often terrifying – places in the Zelda series, and you’ll want to explore every last inch of it. Some of the new features, such as the upgraded Bomber’s Notebook and the Song of Double Time go a long way in making things more accessible. However, they also make the game incredibly easy; some of the mystery and intrigue was lost in the translation. Uncovering the windy, twisted story felt like an accomplishment when done alone. However, the touch screen menus and updated camera controls are inarguable improvements; once you’ve gotten used to these, going back to the N64 version will be difficult. The visuals are among the best on the 3DS; Nintendo took an already beautiful game and made it absolutely stunning. There are only three days to save the world, but you’ll enjoy every second of them.

*Also posted here.

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.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Gran Turismo 3 – Light Velocity

When talking about racing video games, most people immediately mention the  Mario Kart series. It was fun, memorable, and a huge part of 90s American childhood. While it certainly deserves the nostalgia, it was only one of many amazing franchises out there. When it debuted on the Playstation in 1997, Gran Turismo stood out for its accuracy to real-life racing and selection of cars. However, the series didn’t really hit its stride until Gran Turismo 3 on the PS2. It was 2001 and very early in the console’s life cycle, but it was one of the first games to demonstrate what the new hardware was capable of. There weren’t as many cars due to the focus on graphical detail, but those cars were realistic and (for their time) utterly gorgeous. Having entries from Formula One, Lamborghini, and Porsche was a car enthusiast’s dream. Combined with the superb jazz and rock soundtrack, Gran Turismo 3 quickly became a modern classic, and one of the highest-selling games of all time.

If you want more Gran Turismo 3, you can find most of the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.