RIP, Satoru Iwata

Yesterday, Satoru Iwata passed away. For those unfamiliar with his work, he was the president and CEO of Nintendo. But he was so much more than that; unlike countless other businessmen and executives, he earned his success the old fashioned way: starting from the bottom and working his way up. He studied programming in the 1970s, when video games were still in their infancy. He began as an unpaid intern for Commodore, then became a freelancer for HAL Laboratory while in college. After graduating, he worked full time and rose up its ranks in the early 90s. He had a hand in founding Creatures Inc., the folks responsible for bringing Pokemon to the world. He didn’t wasn’t just some guy in suit, either. He took over programming for Earthbound and saved it from developmental oblivion. He programmed the original Pokemon Red/Blue battle mechanics into Pokemon Stadium without any reference documents, using just the Game Boy’s source code instead…in one week. He famously compressed the all of the original game into the Gold/Silver cartridge, just to surprise and reward players for beating the regular quest. When Super Smash Bros. Melee was facing a delayed release date due to programming issues, he – already Nintendo’s General Manager of Corporate Planning – went downstairs and personally debugged the game hands-on, all in less than a month.

Yeah, he was that good.

He was in a unique position of growing alongside his industry; unlike many of his peers, his insight into game design came from the effort of making games the old fashioned way, with a focus on the fun experience while dealing with the hardware limitations. He understood that focusing so much on flashier graphics and processing power wasn’t necessarily the answer, and that appealing to people beyond hardcore gamers was incredibly important. Nintendo is often derided for appealing to kids instead of adults, but he was proud of it; he argued that children have an instinctual understanding of whether a game was good or not. He refused to let the company stagnate, constantly pushing them to try new things. He was initially mocked for bringing forth the DS and Wii – both consoles had unorthodox designs and admittedly terrible launch lineups – but was eventually vindicated via record-breaking sales numbers and some of the finest games in the last decade.

What was more inspiring is what Iwata did when the company wasn’t succeeding. Nintendo fell into a slump when it released the Wii U, mainly due to its high prices, strange design, and lacking lineup. The company was losing money, and he was being roasted by both gamers and corporate shareholders alike. Instead of stepping down, he voluntarily cut his salary in half to make up for it! That was the second time he did it, too; when the 3DS’s sales went poorly, he took the same action. When corporate demanded why he hadn’t fired employees for the sake of profit, he absolutely refused to do so, saying that it wouldn’t work well long-term, and that it’d wreck the company’s morale. If you look around online, you’ll find countless stories of people meeting Iwata and saying what a passionate, candid, and kind guy he was in person. When Ocarina of Time was released, he even went out and bought a copy on the way home from work. His hilarious “Direct To You” presentations and sense of humor have become the stuff of Internet memetic legend. The hundreds of thousands of tributes pouring in – even from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo’s business rivals – shows just how loved and respected Iwata was.

I wish I had a personal story about meeting him. I wish I could say that we crossed paths at a convention, or that we shared an elevator, or that I pitched an idea and worked for him. But I can’t, and now I never will. Instead, all I have are the games he made, and the memories of how he helped shape my childhood. Yes, I caught all 151 of the original Pokemon, played almost every Kirby game, and spent countless hours fighting in Smash Bros. My gaming library is full of titles made with him as the Executive Producer; I wouldn’t be the same person without Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and other Nintendo franchises influencing me. While I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, gaming is still very much a part of me. It reminds me of something Iwata once said:

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

Thank you for everything, Mr. Iwata. We understand.

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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: Sonic Unleashed – Spagonia Rooftop Run Night

The Sonic the Hedgehog series has seen better times. In the 90s, it was Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario. These days, it’s become the punching bag the video game industry, and many of the complaints are completely justified. The last few titles were riddled with glitches – including the infamous infinite jump trick – which diminished the already lackluster gameplay. Sonic games have always been about speed and momentum; it worked in 2D because the character operated on a side-scrolling screen. As the series has repeatedly demonstrated over the last decade, such speed does not translate well into 3D environments.

Despite all its missteps, the Sonic series has never faltered in one aspect: its music. Fans are still remixing tracks from Sonic 2, and a lot of older gamers know the lyrics “Escape From The City” and “Live And Learn” by heart. Even Sonic Unleashed, a game often ridiculed for its premise and characters, has some great instrumental tracks. This Spagonia Night theme is just one of several examples of its surprisingly catchy soundtrack.

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

Good gaming, good music.

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.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Super Smash Bros. 4 – Gaur Plain

Since I went back into Smash 3DS to review it this week, I spent some time with its small but oh-so awesome OST. “Gaur Plain” is a track from Xenoblade Chronicles, an excellent RPG for the Wii. It’s hard to explain the plot – it involves a teenager with a magical sword and his friends fighting an army of mechanical monsters – but the game has one of the most gorgeous and expansive settings in recent memory. Imagine huge grassy fields and hills teeming with all sorts of wildlife. You’re given free reign over this amazing landscape, allowing you to undertake an epic quest at your own pace. Few games encourage that kind of exploration, making Xenoblade Chronicles such an amazing experience. It’s only fitting that an epic theme like “Gaur Plain” accompanies you along the journey.

If you want more Super Smash Bros. 4, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Super Smash Bros. Brawl – Fire Field

With less than a week until the western release of Smash Bros. on the 3DS, I thought I’d take another look at the previous game’s soundtrack. With over 250 songs to choose from, there are more than enough pieces worthy of being mentioned. However, I chose the Fire Field theme; it’s a guitar arrangement from Nintendo’s F-Zero series, and its inclusion in Brawl is often overlooked. In fact, the main reason I noticed it was due to Fire Field being my favorite stage in F-Zero GX. Imagine racing down a track not made of flat asphalt, but a curving, twisted cylindrical knot suspended above a massive fire pit…all while going over 1,000 km/h. Seriously, check it out.

If you want more Brawl, you can find the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Super Smash Bros. Brawl – MGS4: Theme Of Love

It’s yet another week leading up to the release of Smash Bros. on the 3DS, so I figured another look into the previous games’ soundtracks was fitting. This particularly epic song comes from Metal Gear Solid 4; Snake, its protagonist, was a guest character in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. However, it’s worth noting that Brawl came out before MGS4; this song and the stage it’s used on were actually little teasers and cameos for MGS fans waiting for the latter game to come out. As a result, the Theme of Love debuted in a completely different franchise and console than the game it was designed for. Funny how video game crossovers work…

If you want more Brawl, you can the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.