GOD OF WAR (2018) REVIEW – “BOY-OH-BOOOOOYYYY!”

Tell me, dear reader, what kind of relationship did you have with your father? Perhaps it was caring and full of love. Perhaps it was sternly repressed and patriarchal. Or perhaps you struggled to get past your dad screaming at you to shoot the undead monstrosity attacking him before his insides were pulled out onto the forest floor.

No, I’m not reviewing The Last of Us again, though in a sense I suppose I might be, and will probably have to keep doing so for a very long time. It’s well-recognised now that the rather dodgy “save/avenge romantic partner” narrative that dominated gaming narrative for a while is slowly being upended and replaced by an arguably more understood motivation – namely, protect a kid from things that want to kill the kid, at least until the kid can grow up and protect its own damn self. Previous entrants include the aforementioned zombie-poppin’ game from Naughty Dog, as well as Telltale’s: The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite, Dead Rising 2, Witcher 3, and that new Wolverine movie.

And now to that list we can add the new God of War, the sequel that’s also a soft reboot, filled with all the stuff that makes for the usual big-budget, critically-acclaimed AAA exclusive title – but perhaps it can be good despite that?

 

SIT BY THE HEARTH, PICK UP YONDER MEAD FLAGON, AND I’LL TELL YE OF AN ANCIENT LEGEND…

I was never a huge fan of the previous God of War games, but let me give you a refresher for anybody who isn’t familiar with the series. Our protagonist, Kratos, is a Spartan warrior from a hyper-mythical interpretation of Ancient Greece where all the related legends and old religion are completely true, working on a “Clash of the Titans” level. Unfortunately Kratos got bamboozled by the god Ares into accidentally slaughtering his own family, and rode the resulting wave of vengeful aggression for several games, to the point where he’d killed most of the Olympic pantheon and became the new god of war in the process, while finding out along the way that he was Zeus’ secret son. With me so far?

Right, because now we’re dragging a whole new mythos into this story – the Norse gods, Odin, Thor, Baldur, Freya and so on. It turns out in the time since the last game that Kratos skipped town after his run of aggravated deicide and fled to the world of Viking myths and gods to hide out in secret, where he fell in love with a woman named Faye, gave birth to a son, Atreus, and also grew out a big ol’ survivalist beard. Faye then drops dead of… I don’t know, plot-necessitated absence, right at the same moment Kratos is attacked by a mysterious stranger with powers that match his own.

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Kratos returns after a five year absence to come and try out the whole Beowulf thing, armed with a large axe and a small son.

And that’s how the game starts, but frankly this is one of those stories where the plot’s mechanics feel a bit secondary to the character arcs; namely how terrible Kratos is as a father and how badly both he and his son are dealing with Faye’s death. See, you might notice all the other examples of games I mentioned above have father-daughter relationships, but God of War is very clearly not just about fatherhood, but about masculinity as a whole. Kratos comes from a culture where locking your emotions down so you can do unspeakable things is just part-and-parcel of being a Spartan, but both characters are clearly struggling with their feelings anyway and no amount of repression will make it stop, no matter what Kratos thinks. Add to that a violent warrior mentality and that Kratos feels obliged to make his son into a fighter as soon as possible after the attack, and this is clearly going to be the worst road trip since that Vacation remake a few years ago.

Now I have a few issues with this concept. Firstly, while the whole idea of hyper-masculinity is absolutely ripe for deconstruction in the games industry and certainly needs bringing down a peg, the problem is that this whole things takes place in Viking lore, where the only measure of worth is how big the horns on your helmet are and how many villages you can burn down before lunch. A scene where Atreus must try to hold back his emotions as he uncertainly cuts the throat of a deer would certainly make sense in any other situation, except, well… he’s starving to death! The writers seem to have crafted the only world where all of Kratos’ bullshit masculinity lessons actually do apply, and it heavily undercuts the overall message. Yes, Atreus has to kill animals or he’ll have nothing to eat. He has to kill the human bandits or they’ll try to eat him. And he has to shut down his emotions to a certain degree when confronted with the corpse of somebody he’s killed falling over onto him, else he’d go into shock and get more easily picked off by all other threats.

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Friendly NPCs are few and far between in the wastes of Midgard, and can occasionally be a bit too quirky for the game’s more serious tone.

Do you get what I mean? The game spends all this time musing about how wrong Kratos‘ behaviour is, but they all make sense in this very specific situation. I can’t help but feel this dynamic would work better in a time of peace and prosperity, where all of this cold-hearted warrior nature isn’t needed anymore.

Not to mention that the actual engine for storytelling feels contrived and a bit weak – Faye wanted her ashes spread on the highest mountain in all the universe, and rather than cough awkwardly and say “how about just under that tree in the garden instead,” Kratos and Atreus decide to go along with it, and it takes them forever. At one point you think they’re going to accomplish it halfway through the game, but then somebody says “sorry, wrong mountain, the one you’re looking for is over in a locked-off dimension nobody can ever get to,” and you can almost hear the characters groan as they realise that this one job still isn’t over.

All that being said, there is some story stuff I really like. The game’s quite good at the “hell yeah” moments when Kratos or Atreus do something awesome, the changes the two characters go through are solid (if a little rushed at times), and I appreciate the attempt to undercut masculinity in a medium that usually venerates it. I also like how Kratos’ flaws are honestly addressed, and it’s very clear that Atreus is strong in all the places where Special K doesn’t really know what he’s doing, i.e., anything that doesn’t need brute force. At the beginning it feels like the kid is a hanger-on, but by the end of the game they do feel like a team, reflected well by a gameplay system that allows you to upgrade Atreus and his weaponry until he’s a formidable ally in combat.

The only other flaws are those that come as a result of it being a AAA game with marketing obligations. The ridiculously big (and therefore cinematic) world serpent Jormungandr takes up a lot of the promotional material and even gets the lion’s share of the box blurb, but I don’t think he’s involved in the plot for more than thirty minutes tops, and usually to divulge a bit of exposition. There’s also a slightly limp ending that has a very cool fight in it, but then peters out and meanders on for another half hour, with a whole group of promised villains we haven’t even seen yet (presumably planned for the inevitable sequel), and a twist reveal that’s… I don’t know, important, I guess? It’s hard to explain without spoiling it, but it all feels a bit anti-climatic after bringing down supergods a while earlier.

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Though stunning in the sense of scale evoked, SuperSnake feels a little over-promoted by the marketing when he ends up being little more than an excuse for raising and lowering water levels in a lake. No, really.

GAZE UPON THE GLORY…

Yes, of course I’m going to tell you God of War has good graphics. You know it has good graphics, it was always going to have them, what with being a big budget game that’s largely sold itself on spectacle. The rest of it could’ve been absolute pigeon guano and the graphics would still be top-notch.

That being said, what works here is what you’d expect to work on any God of War title – a palpable sense of scale. Things can look very, very big when they need to, whether it’s the world serpent looming into view, his distant tail coiled around mountain ranges, or the incomprehensibly huge corpse of giant dominating the landscape, every beard hair looking like a bridge cable as you get closer and closer. Not only that, God of War wisely doesn’t devalue this by breaking out the super-big monsters every five minutes. In fact, I’d almost wished there’d been a few more beasts of that size, but there’s still moments that make it work. One early fight designed to remind us of just how much power Kratos has within him is particularly effective, destroying the landscape in dramatic, spectacular ways as he clashes ferociously with an opponent of equal power.

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Kratos’ trademark rage is still with him, serving him well in his efforts to brutally pummel anything that looks at funny.

There’s also some decent sound design in there. Kratos is very ably voiced by Christopher Judge, channeling the character on a level that reminds me a little of Darth Vader, and snapping effectively from rumbling monosyllabic speech to furious screams as battle frenzy takes over. Even Atreus himself is voiced pretty well, though I can’t help but feel that there was a conscious effort made not to tax his actor with any overly-emotional scenes.

Mind you, I’ll have to buck the trends a little and say that I’m not wowed much by the art design. It’s not bad, not in the slightest, but there’s not a lot that really captures my attention. The ogres look like ogres, the giants look like giants, the world serpent is just a big snake and little more than that, and everything looks like how you’d expect it to look, with a couple of exceptions. Some of it is very beautiful presented – the landscapes, for one – but the issue I have is that there’s very little that seems original or sticks in my mind later on, compounded by a penchant for repeating character animations (you’ll notice that one pretty quick).

I also think the game fails pretty hard in making a lot of the world make sense. This is a particular bugbear of mine, but I can’t stand it when games don’t bother to contextualise the puzzles within their games, such as the silly traps in a lot of Zelda. Atreus can waffle on about how these desiccated ruins we stand in used to be a thriving market, but there’s nothing here to suggest that, and all these traps and puzzles with spikes and trapdoors have no reason to be here. They’re not bad or unsatisfying to beat, but they’re complete nonsense in the world provided to us, almost as bad as the puzzle disconnect in games like Resident Evil.

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Impressive vistas and the promise of satisfying battles make exploration seem both necessary and desirable.

THE GREATEST WARRIORS IN ALL THE REALMS

So here’s my issue with the easy comparison between God of War and The Last of Us: the latter has a decent story, but the whole enterprise is made a little sticky by slightly drab and uninspiring gameplay. Contrarily, Kratos can butcher draugr like an absolute – well, God, appropriately enough – and the hack-and-slash/brawler fighting is actually rather fun, enough to easily paper over any other cracks in the whole enterprise. Gone is the wide selection of weaponry from the previous games, instead brought down to three tidy, well-designed separate forms of attack – an axe that can be summoned back to your hand after you chuck it, rapid fist-fighting that allows you wear down enemies for powerful finishers, and a third weapon that I won’t spoil as it gets introduced later in the game.

But honestly, it’s the first of these that’s the real winner. The Leviathan Axe is fun to wield, freezes anything it’s lodged in, and can be pulled back to your hand at any point just by pressing the triangle button. I’d see a pair of monsters baring down on me, throw the axe at one, holding it in place, unleash a barrage of devastating punches on the other, then duck around behind it and whistle for Old Slicey, watching it scythe through the air, decapitating hel-spawn along the way until it smacks satisfyingly into Kratos’ palm. Along with this is an EXP system that allows you to buy new powers and attacks, most of which I’d forget about immediately until pulling them off by accident and wondering why I didn’t use them more often. And at the same time, Atreus is hanging around with a bow to pick off anybody you tell him to. And though his early attacks are naught but the soft pecks of an emaciated woodpecker on reinforced concrete, he becomes an invaluable asset over time, a nice use of ludonarrative synchronicity to show how he’s growing as a fighter in both mechanics and story.

 

Not to mention that it’s all open world now. It happens suddenly and quite out of nowhere, but about a quarter of the way through the game you look around and realise that you’re in this big lake with paths leading off to explore, secrets to find and many, many more monsters to kill. And I happily did, engaging in just about all the extra stuff I could. I like doing the side-quests because they provide good rewards and usually have some story tied into them, even if it’s just a bit of byplay between Kratos and son. And I like the puzzles, which though contrived and a bit too “video game-y” are still satisfying to beat, usually using the Axe’s throw-summon-freeze functions in some way. Take note, designers, this is how you make an ability really effective in a game: make sure it has applications both in and out of combat.

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Though not as big as they once were, Kratos’ and Atreus enemies are more fun to fight with a system that encourages creative weapon use blended with raw skill.

Mind you, the open world isn’t quite as open as it could be, with linear routes leading off key locations. In fact, nowhere is the freedom/restraint clash more obvious than the main hub location for travelling between realms, featuring a detailed map showing all the wondrous, incredible places we can’t go, and will never go.

It’s really very odd, trying to select the fast travel option for Asgard and seeing a little message telling you that you’ll never set foot there. And this isn’t uncommon either, there’s about four separate realms out of nine that we never get to even see, despite them constantly being mentioned, and out of those five we do get, three of them are too small to be meaningfully explored, two of those have to be unlocked through side-quests, and one just exists for a single, extendable cutscene where you can’t do anything but follow a single path and then leave again. I suspect this is all to tease us with the possibility of DLC – “The Trials of Svartleartlheimmunjorgunbjork” and so on – but I don’t even feel cheated, just confused.

But I guess it doesn’t matter too much, when Midgard is plenty big enough on its own, filled with all sorts of things to discover, and you know it’s a good sign for a game’s quality when you can smell the ending coming and start doing optional stuff just to delay it. In fact, God of War is the first game in a while that I found myself planning for when I wasn’t playing it, which is always a good sign. “Hmm, I guess next time I’ll try to beat the next stage in Muspelheim, free that dragon I heard about in the north, find a couple more stones for my talisman and then get killed by that Valkyrie Queen again, because Gods only know what else she’s there for.”

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AAAAAAAAAAAAGGGHHHHHHHHHH

VERILY, WHAT SAY YE?

In sum, God of War is a good game, almost verging on being a great one. I know it might not sound like that from the amount of things I’ve been ragging on it for, but all the imperfections can’t impede too much on a rock solid core of combat and decent characterisation. The only really significant flaw it has is being too slow, as our two poorly-groomed heroes shrug their shoulders and go to spend another ten hours fighting gods and monsters so they can dump mama’s ashes on the mountaintop, but on a moment-to-moment experience it can really work, and certainly reminds us that having pretentious story ambitions doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice honest gameplay fun.

 

COMPARATIVE RATING: ALL THE VISCERAL SATISFACTION OF BITING INTO A THICK STEAK, AND ALL THE CULTURAL FULFILLMENT FROM KNOWING HOW WELL IT’S BEEN COOKED

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DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB REVIEW

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB, AS WELL AS REFERENCE TO PLOT, CONTENT AND HUMOUR SOME READERS MAY FIND DISTRESSING OR DISTURBING.

I know, this one seemed so outside my particular comfort zone that it might as well have been written in actual Japanese kanji for all the connective tissue between me and it, but I’ll say that the only reason I tried out Doki Doki Literature Club is that I was told that there was a meaty plot twist, ahem, hanging around to surprise the player, a twist so meaty as to be, oh… a hundred and twenty pounds heavy? Maybe one-fifteen if her shoes fall off?

Blimey, that one was dark even for me. Regardless, I downloaded it for free off Steam, and as I loaded it up I couldn’t help but stare contemptuously at the main menu, full of pastel colours, bouncy pink font, chirpy music on a distressingly short loop, and four girls who were clearly so underage that I found myself wanting to apply a short, sharp spray of mace to my own eyeballs.

Fine, I thought bitterly. I’m hungover, the flat’s cold and I’m badly losing in my current game of Civilisation V. If there was ever a mood in which I was primed to go for the jugular, this was it.

 

“WELCOME TO THE LITERATURE CLUB!” – The Plot

It’s worth clarifying that Doki Doki Literature Club has no gameplay to speak of, bar a couple of puzzles which range from the unchallenging but conceptually interesting, to the unchallenging and conceptually UNinteresting (largely the latter) so what this game is selling itself on is the plot, and on that basis it will be judged, whether it likes it or not.

Of course, the first thing I did was pick a name for my avatar, and being an uncooperative sort even at the best of times, I scribbled the label “Bumflaps” on my hypothetical name badge. Turns out that ol’ B-Flap is a generic anime protagonist living a generic anime high school life with a generic anime girl-next-door romance potentially brewing, and this leads me to my first and most major criticism of DDLC: yes, this is a game that’s building up to parody and horror (of a sort), but it’s so committed to its disguise that it maintains the illusion of being a chirpy visual novel for several hours, and does so with impressive accuracy.

Consequently, it’s fucking insufferable during this section. No exaggeration, I was really writhing in my chair in actually discomfort from how much I hated this part. Because even if Mister Bumflaps, Esq. had gotten a nicer player who’d named him Konfident Q. McMagnificent XII, it still wouldn’t make him any more tolerable to be around. He’s annoying in that most typically anime manner, a limply-passive Mary-Sue who wobbles between infuriatingly naïve to acting like he’s seen all this before. Kudos to the creators for catching that famously corrosive tone just right, but I’m reluctant to say I admire or appreciate that work when I had to put up with Bumflaps pussyfooting his way through the plot for the better part of my Saturday, when I could’ve been doing something important like playing with the latch on my suitcase or just eating my own lips straight off my face.

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Bumflaps’ initial odyssey through high school takes a sudden turn for the uninteresting and stays on that path for a painfully long time.

But whatever you call him, Protagonist-sempai makes his way into a new school year and immediately finds himself peer-pressured by a friend to join the freshly-formed Literature Club, the other four members of which are all ostensibly attractive girls of the sort who look like they’ve just been torn off the front of a love pillow. In fact, considering they’re always shown as flat images who don’t animate, that might be true for all I know. And though things change later, to start with they all have a single personality trait that defines each of them, and these vary from annoying, to irritating, to aggravating, to boring. Very boring. In fact, most of them are boring. Boring to the point that I can barely remember half their names even on the same day as having played it. I remember that they all had statistically and biologically improbable hair framing a set of near-identical faces, but that just sounds like the characters of South Park, and I don’t want the task of seducing them either.

And what doesn’t help is the game not-so-subtly engaging in a bit of meta-commentary,of the type that is quickly beginning to get on my nerves in a lot of indie games, because nine times out of ten it’s never as smart as it thinks it is. “Boy,” loudly exclaims one character early on, who’d clearly have been waggling her eyebrows if the budget could’ve stretched to a second five pound note. “Isn’t it interesting how a writer can play with an absolute IDIOT’S lack of imagination, subverting their expectations to do stuff you wouldn’t expect, hmm? Hmm? HMMM?!”

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Prolonged sequences describing the eating of a cupcake had the distinct effect of making me wish I was staring at a blank screen instead.

So that began to wear on me within the first fifteen minutes, which was a shame, because that was about one-twelfth of the way into the syrupy, fetishistic quagmire of “vis-nov” nonsense that I normally wouldn’t go near without a hazmat suit. The only bits that kept me going were the occasional hint or foreshadowing of what was supposed to come, which admittedly works quite well when it’s not being too meta, played just about straight and subtle enough for you to be uncertain whether this just a failed attempt by the writer to be cute or emotional.

For example, about midway through this nauseating candyfloss maelstrom of a plot, the shy one abruptly tells you that she collects knives and loves how sharp they look, which is one of those suck-air-through-teeth moments that would make any normal person be taking a subtle step back towards the exit. The loud girl drops hints towards a very nasty home life, the school idol seems to know more of the other’s secrets than she has any right to, while the one living next door mentions that she suffers from crippling depression.

And it’s the last one of these that’s actually written with genuine skill and heart. You’ve got this really well-constructed presentation of somebody undergoing a very human, heartfelt suffering, and what I thought was poignant about it was that her pain felt beyond my control. She’s clearly been going through some very hard-hitting issues for a very long time, now too heavily ingrained to be solved miraculously by a pretty-boy haircut and the occasional fumbling, “comical” accident that ends with your face buried in her chest, like a creepy middle-school adaption of The Benny Hill Show.

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Though seemingly inane at first, the group’s poems shared in the early game hint at the darker, somewhat more nuanced material coming later.

So that part has some well-written stuff, and this all reaches a sad, agonising peak when that girl commits suicide, ostensibly at a time where (according to the tepid rules of manga and romance, at least) she should’ve been at her highest point. And whilst I won’t call it horror, it is startlingly affecting, a genuine tragedy that woke me up out of my boredom, made feel really quite mournful, and helped me realise just how well her character was developed in the course of the story…

And then the game pissed all that good effort away again as the horror rolls around in full force. Sigh.

To begin with it seems interesting enough – right after her death the game forces you to restart the plot, only this time the depressed girl is conspicuously absent from proceedings and nobody will acknowledge that she ever existed in the first place. But then things begin to get wearisome as the story becomes more about video games as a medium than any of the characters. So suddenly an emerging plot point about the game’s files being rewritten means that all continuity is thrown out the window, and everything’s fair game now, with any symbolism and nuance vanishing in a puff of nonsense. Bleeding from the eyes? Throw it in there. Having the character suddenly jump towards the screen like a startled house spider? Eh, go ahead. Graphical glitches that distort the images? Sure, why not? What does it matter? This isn’t a complex character drama lampooning an intolerable genre style anymore, this is “HORROR!” Not horror, but HORROR! i.e., silly, scary things happening frequently and without much justification, because… well, that’s HORROR!

It’s an important distinction. Alien is horror. The Shining is horror. But YouTube comments about ghost girls killing the people who don’t copy-paste their story to three more videos with cats on them is “HORROR!

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Late-game attempts at horror frequently fall flat, despite starting strong with a tragic character focus and having some ostensibly interesting ideas to work with.

And what really got on my plums is that this element began to intrude retroactively upon the stuff I liked before, including an infuriating moment where Mary Jane Watson’s suicide is written off as part of the villain’s scheme. Oh, she wasn’t really depressed, she just had her code altered to make her a gloomy Gus. For fuck’s sake, the one thing this game does really well and now it’s trying to go back and ruin it. After impressing on you how unsolvable this problem is without serious effort over a long period of time, the game then tells you it can be solved with minimal effort very quickly, because you have the cheat codes to the universe.

That being said, there is one good puzzle at the end that I alluded to earlier, which involves actually quitting the game, going into the files and deleting the right one. That’s actually quite innovative, though DDLC seems terrified that you won’t pick up on what it’s telling you. “BOY,” says the villain, also wishing for some of that eyebrow-wiggling budget that didn’t exist. “IT’S SO EASY TO DELETE CHARACTERS BY GOING INTO STEAM, RIGHT-CLICKING THE GAME, SELECTING ‘PROPERTIES’, BROWSING LOCAL FILES AND- BWUHHH?! WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING?! I NEVER THOUGHT YOU’D ACTUALLY TRY IT ON ME! NOOOOOOOO!!!”

 

“NANI?!” – The Conclusion

Despite being implemented rather scrappily, there some really good ideas here, and overall I wish there’d been more of that creativity on show. It’s why I don’t hate Doki Doki Literature Club, because the makers clearly have some talent, with stuff like “Girl-Next-Door’s” very human depression and the rather clever puzzle concept at the end, followed by a finale that I actually found quite interesting. Even the early high school visual novel stuff shows skill, because it successfully keeps up the façade of such a game for long enough that anybody who hadn’t read a review like this one would probably be quite shocked by the sudden turn of events. Sure, that early part made me want to bury a spoon behind my eyes and lever them out onto the desk in front of me, but all visual novels do that, so it just meant the disguise was working.

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Despite some admirably strong and emotionally poignant moments that really made my heart go out to the characters, they feel like an underutilised minority in a game that would seemingly rather be courting the “Let’s Play” market.

But it’s not enough to really justify the experience in my eyes, even with the fact that it is free. About half the game had me crawling up the walls trying to electrocute myself on the lightbulb fittings, with writing that manages to feel sub-par to Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties at the worst bits, with the better stuff coming around only just in time to stop me giving up on it altogether. But then that only lasts for about half an hour before the eye-rolling internet HORROR! tropes roll up in such force that it’s a wonder the final villain isn’t flanked on both sides by Slenderman and Freddy Fazbear.

The upshot of this is that when the game ended, I felt very, very certain I’d seen all I needed to see. Then I discovered that you could play around with the files for even more variations on the story and… And actually I’m good, thanks. No, really, I’m good thanks. I’m so full up on Doki Doki Literature Club that I couldn’t take another bite, and I really might get a bit cross if you try and feed me any more, got it?

 

COMPARATIVE RATING: LIKE READING TWO COLLECTIONS OF A SUB-PAR HIGH-SCHOOL MANGA, TWO PAGES OF AN EXCELLENT CHARACTER DRAMA, AND TWO HOURS OF CREEPY-PASTAS IN A SINGLE, DRAINING AFTERNOON.

 

GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 2: “PHALANX”

Last time we looked at the endearingly icy antagonist of Arkham City, “Mister Freeze,” and after several hundred words deduced that boss fights – and stay with me on this one – should generally be a bit harder than the bits of the game that aren’t boss fights.

I know, I know, it’s certainly bold new thinking, but what made Monsieur Gel work so well was the fact that he was testing every aspect of the player’s skills up until then. In a game split evenly around reaction-brawler combat and stealth, Freezey is the enemy who demands perfection in the latter of those two, as well as an organic understanding of how to use all the tools you’ve acquired.

But now we’re leaping back in time by half a decade and a whole console generation to a game beloved in indie circles, to the point where it’s recently gotten a shiny new re-release to bleed pennies out of all the people who bought it the first time, but don’t get to play it on the new, (allegedly) superior consoles. That’s progress, apparently.

 

“PHALANX/COLOSSUS 13/THE SNAKE,” SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS

Replaying Shadow of the Colossus recently, what struck me was how many of the Colossi frankly seem to be struggling to live up to the promise offered by the first few you encounter – that promise of big, epic struggles between towering monstrosities and an anime pretty-boy in a poncho, who hangs from their pubic hair and hacks diligently at their exposed ‘nads.

You can certainly tell which Colossi feel more like gimmicks than fleshed-out ideas: Buffalo Bill and his baffling pyrophobia, Crash Thompson and his penchant for headbutting pillars into perfect locations, or Tooth-Temple Terry pootling around his lake until you steer him into a wall. They’re not bad, these fights, they’re just a little… token, dropping in quality because of what they’re not, rather than what they are.

But then there’s the thirteenth Colossus, referred to as “Phalanx,” or sometimes as “the Snake.” Neither term does it proper justice. Show up at the vast stretch of bleached desert sands to the North-West of Dormin’s Temple, and there’ll be a moment of confused searching before the ground begins to rumble and nearly six hundred feet of flying tapeworm explodes out of the sand, dwarfing even the huge monsters you’ve seen so far and making you feel like something barely worthy of notice as it begins to fly in wide, looping patterns, supported on giant, organic balloons of gas.

Uh… now what?

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

A bit of everything, largely. To begin with, you can’t even get up to reach Phalanx as he circles lazily through the air, and must engage in a bit of precision shooting with your bow, trying to pierce the three air sacs that keep him at his lofty altitude. This done, he’ll descend to the point where the tips of his sixty-foot fins are dragging through the sand, and this is probably the best moment of the fight, as you charge alongside him on horseback, trying to keep pace, trying to keep an eye out for obstacles, trying not to freak out at the size of this thing, and must organically pick a moment to throw yourself at the fin and cling on for dear life before his airbags refill and he begins to raise back up into the stratosphere. Hope you don’t mind heights.

And suddenly, you’re higher than most birds can fly, gawping over the edge of oblivion as you pull yourself up onto his broad, fur-flecked back, and try to hold on as you pull yourself against the wind currents to his three weak spots and stab furiously at them in an attempt to bring this beast down. He’ll try and shake you off, even dropping back down into the sand to get rid of you if you take too long, which means you’ll have to try and pull this off again. Sounds good to me.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

What, weren’t you listening? This is a huge fight that actually feels like both of you are doing your utmost to get rid of the other, and has a sense of scale and majesty that few other games can match. It’s not just big, it’s… well, colossal.

Heck, not only that, but nothing here is scripted. Yeah, there’s an order to how you need to do things, but the way you go about it is up to you, no quick-time events or anything. Start by doing a bit of sharpshooting with only your own skills to rely on, ride on Aggro alongside this runaway train of a beast, literally stand on the horse’s back to leap at Phalanx’s fin (desperately trying not to miss), then pull yourself up to his body proper and crawl around his lengthy frame at your leisure, hunting down the magical equivalent of jugular veins and carving them up royal. It’s big, and it’s epic, and it feels like you’re the one doing it, not just the game setting you up for this moment disingenuously like it’s a fairground ride at Disneyland. And when Phalanx barrel-rolls through the air to shake you off, hanging upside down off his back hair by one hand as your feet drag through the clouds feels like an untouchable adrenaline high.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

If I had to object, I might say that the fight is perhaps a smidge too easy and could afford to be little more punishing when you do something stupid. Traditionally, once you’re on a colossus, the big threat is running out of stamina and losing your grip, but at this point in the game you’ve got a stamina bar as long as Das Boot and playing with even a modicum of care should see you getting rid of at least two of Phalanx’s weak points before he finally just throws himself back into the dirt for a guaranteed breather.

Not to mention that if you do fall off his back before then, the end result is surprisingly tame, with our prepubescent protagonist not even losing half of his health as he drops though the air and lands face down in sun-scorched rocks and sand. Hell, it’s not long before you realise that Phalanx never actually attacks you, just trying to shake you off his back after you stab him one too many times, so there’d be odd moments of disconnect where I’d look up at this thing soaring overhead after I just hacked half the blood out of it, still apparently unconcerned by the aggressive little microbe shooting arrows up at it and screaming angry, Ico-brand non-language.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

That huge-scale stuff has to be handled carefully, and never to the player’s detriment, putting the cinematic too far forward. I admit, running around all over the giant figures in the God of War series never really did much for me, because everything about it felt scripted and planned in advance. Not to mention that Kratos’ absurd power didn’t make it feel like that much of a fight to begin with, so who cares about the distinction in size?

But Team Ico designs Phalanx like some strange, alien airship, something so big that it can hurt you by accident, and placing it in an environment large enough that you keep forgetting how huge this thing is until you ride close to it. Then moving around on its back feels real, roughly speaking, with everything going towards making the battle feel plausible and terrifying in scope. The game doesn’t give you anything, you have to claim it all for yourself, and that’s far, far more satisfying.

 

NEXT TIME: “I’ve done everything this world has to offer. I’ve read every book. I’ve burned every book. I’ve won every game. I’ve lost every game. I’ve appeased everyone. I’ve killed everyone.

“Sets of numbers… Lines of dialog… I’ve seen them all.”

GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 1: “MISTER FREEZE”

Few video game traditions go as far back as the noble boss fight. From the valiant pursuit of a single pixelated barrel-slinging, kidnapper ape in the original Donkey Kong, to the cinematic destruction of cosmic beings and the gods themselves in the Bayonetta series, half the games we remember, we remember for their climatic showdowns.

That being said, a boss fight is no guarantee of excitement, nor of satisfaction. A lot of modern games are happy to condense what should feel like an epic confrontation down to a series of quick time events, like the pirate slavery goon squad leaders in Far Cry 3, or perhaps decide to test something totally illogical, like making the Bed of Chaos in Dark Souls a platforming boss. Or what about Fable II, in which you spend the whole game trying to get to your hated nemesis, only to press one button and unceremoniously blow a hole in his head ten minutes from the end, never to be mentioned again?

So bearing that in mind, over the next week or so we’re going to be going over five great boss fights from gaming history, what made them work, what they have to teach us, and where they might just have fumbled too. And to begin with, we’ll begin with something a little…

Hold on, were there any ice puns that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t use up?

 

“MISTER FREEZE,” BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY

Nobody would initially look to the Arkham series for examples of good boss fights. Out of the whole four games and all that DLC, I think I recall only one worth mentioning, maybe two if you count the Scarecrow sections (which I do think are slightly over-praised as a whole).

That boss fight is, of course, the confrontation with frosty foe Mister Freeze, taking place midway through the second game. After an uneasy alliance between him and Batman collapses with all the predictability of the Statue of Liberty in a disaster movie, Freeze seals the doorways with ice and decides to clip this bothersome Bat’s wings. Acting fast, the caped Crusader retreats into the shadows – and the game is suddenly on.

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

This is one of those fights that actually feels like you’re doing the Batman shtick, because Freezey isn’t going to just go down with a sturdy punch to the face. The guy’s surrounded by more metal than the editor of Decibel magazine, and the only thing apparently bigger than all that power armour is the ice-powered proton pack he’s carrying around with him.

So the key is to slink around, staying stealthy, and using all kinds of special tricks to slowly compromise Freeze’s suit until it’s worn down to the point where you can drive your fist through his helmet and take time showing him the true meaning of the phrase “cold snap.” But Victor isn’t exactly going to go along with that, and what makes him genuinely intimidating is the fact that every time you use one of your tactics, he does something to ensure it can’t be used happen again. Leapt up at him through a floor vent? He seals it shut when he realises what’s happening. Power up a generator to mess with his electronics? He’ll break it afterwards. Tried sneaking up behind him? He turns on a jetpack to burn you if you try it again. No gimmick will work twice, so you’d better be playing it smart, and playing it very, very careful.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

Oh, this is good for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, you’re forced to Batman as well as a Batman can. This is the make-or-break moment, where your cunning is suddenly put against an AI who learns from your actions, and it feels tense and exciting in a way that we haven’t encountered since Killer Croc in the first game, and certainly not as well.

In fact, considering you’re usually against thugs who pose about as much threat to you individually as a stale Hobnob, the single figure of Freeze suddenly throws that sense of superiority off-balance, making you feel like you’re the one being hunted. He can follow the warm footprints you leave behind, devastate your health bar in a couple of shots, and even getting close to him feels nerve-wracking, as he scans for a hint of bodily warmth or fires off drones to pinpoint your location. Not to mention the fact that his emotionless, artificial voice and glowing red goggles beneath the misted helmet make him startlingly creepy as an antagonist, even in a series that was usually pretty good at that sort of thing to begin with.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

As crazy as it sounds, I think a bigger environment with some more elements at play wouldn’t have gone amiss, nor would I have objected to seeing him come back in a different location with new tricks later on, considering he’s a great part of the game that’s finished with halfway through the second act.

Also, taking stock of Freeze’s tricks does take a while, but once you’ve worked out everything in your arsenal, he’s not as difficult as you’d think to take him out. The warm footprints can even be used to lure him around into certain traps, and he’s slow enough and loud enough that a clever player can avoid being caught without using their detective vision. Ideally, this would be the moment in which he brings in more drones or throws something new at you, but that never really happens. It’s not so much an error in the fight as the unused potential to be even better.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

A boss fight is not only some culmination of spectacle or the chance to try out a gimmick, it’s the moment where the player’s skills are truly put under the magnifying glass and milked for all they’re worth. There’s so many times where a boss doesn’t seem measurably much more difficult than their collected minions, and you wonder A) how they got to be the boss in the first place, and B) where on earth the challenge is supposed to be if not here.

But Freeze is most certainly the grand exam for the stealth element of the game, testing the player by forcing them to try out every pouch in their utility belt, not to mention stopping them from using the same tricks over and over. He pushes you in every respect, surely the true point of a boss fight?

Well, depends who you ask. I know some games that would Pokemon X. Er, I mean, that would disagree.

 

NEXT TIME: Big, bad and beaky.

TOP TEN GAMES OF 2017

So as gaming goes this was… actually a good year. Not quite bottled lightning with an ice-cream float, but certainly not a jockstrap full of angry and litigious bees either. I think anybody with semi-functional neurones will agree we got the A-grade material in the first six months and all the energy disappeared from the industry post-summer, but half a year is better than nothing, and so are the following games.

 

  1. PREY (2017)

Number ten on this list was tricky, as I found myself torn between three possible candidates, all for different reasons. Would I give a spot on the list to Prey, the Sexy Brutale, or Persona 5? Basically, do I award the bronzest of bronze medals for effort, for ingenuity, or for style? Eventually I settled on Prey by merit of having a dash of both the other qualities as well, not to mention having the balls to homage Bioshock without having to directly rip it off (and you should never rip off Bioshock’s balls, that’s just impolite). Check this one out for its rich science-fiction story, though not for the balancing issues and frequent, often irritating deaths.

  1. NIGHT IN THE WOODS

Despite a monumentally slow start and the occasional hiccup where social drama bumps up awkwardly against thriller horror, Night in the Woods manages to do the one thing that can justify a walking simulator – have an engaging story. And though the protagonist looks like a DeviantArt original character drawn by a talentless fifteen-year-old, Mae turns out NOT to be an infuriating Mary Sue, but a complex and flawed figure who’s worth investing in emotionally, with a journey that’s interesting enough to be worth sticking with even in the feet-dragging sections.

I dropped it a couple of notches for the daily commute and the Guitar Hero bits though. I’d feel like a liar if I didn’t.

  1. RESIDENT EVIL 7

After failing so hard with RE5 and RE6 that Capcom were lucky not to have burnt down their own studios in the process, the team obviously realised that they should take a step back, have a think, and go back to the basics. Big scary house, fumbling protagonist who keeps getting injured, intimidating enemies and the kind of horror that actually has an impact, i.e. getting your hand chainsawed off and having to run around with a bloody stump, trying to nudge the ammo clip into a pistol. And though it loses a bit of faith with its own premise in the last act and would’ve been well-advised to shake off the silly puzzle elements that haunt the series, Resident Evil 7 is one of the most effective big-budget horror games since Alien: Isolation. If you weren’t scared of rednecks even after the Trump election, you will be now.

  1. WEST OF LOATHING

The surprising successor to the free browser game: Kingdom of Loathing, this western comedy game brings a satisfying (if rather unbalanced) turn-based combat system to the table, along with the playing cards, whiskey and the pocketful of spare change that was presumably the budget for the art department. With solid writing that’ll make even the gloomiest cynic snort their drink from time to time – I can raise my hand and vouch for that – West of Loathing is a solid indie game that reminds us that comedy doesn’t have to be Uncharted’s snarkiness or Sunset Overdrive’s unhealthy pop-culture parody obsession.

  1. SUPERHOT VR

Take note, this is how you translate a game into virtual reality – by exploring a core mechanic that’s actually improved by being in virtual reality in the first place. With Superhot’s central idea of slowing down time when you stop moving, that takes on a whole new perspective in VR, as you contort your body into all sorts of bizarre positions to try and avoid the bullets slowly chugging towards you through the air, matrix style. And it means you can pull off all manner of epic tricks that make you feel like a bona-fide badass. Use the motion controllers to gun down a couple of bad guys, throw the empty weapon at a third enemy, snatch the sword he drops out of the air and turn to bisect a fourth enemy on your flank. It’s an experience so mind-bogglingly cathartic and satisfying I practically wanted to have a post-coitus cigarette afterwards.

  1. DARK SOULS 3: THE RINGED CITY

Nobody will be more surprised than me to see two separate DLCs on this list, but there’s really no way of getting around it – they’re both really, really good. After a rather tepid addition to the canon with the Ashes of Ariandel add-on , it seemed like the last chapters of Dark Souls were set to fade away without much excitement… And then The Ringed City changed everything. Beautiful design, thrilling gameplay, hours of material, and a bombastic, incredible conclusion that feels like the most perfect way you could end a series that is in itself about the end of all things – not with a whimper, but with the kind of bang that made my eyes actually widen with amazement when I realised the true implications of what I’d just seen. Well-bloody-played, From Software.

  1. XCOM 2: WAR OF THE CHOSEN

And unlike The Ringed City, this DLC is less of a conclusion and more of a revitalisation. XCOM 2 was a game I found myself less impressed by as time went on, but this is exactly what it needed. A whole new campaign with new characters, missions, mechanics, ideas, and more importantly, three very punchable enemies to center all of our bubbling aggression onto. Nothing will make your heart plummet like seeing one of the cackling, melodramatic Chosen snatch your best soldier and drag him screaming into a portal to be tortured, and nothing will make you want to punch the air like putting a shotgun in that Chosen’s mouth and watching yellow blood spray over the opposite wall when you pull the trigger. Especially the Warlock, that insufferable cu-

  1. CUPHEAD

Newsflash: pretty game looks really pretty. Far less obvious newsflash: pretty game is actually very well made and not just selling itself on looking pretty.

Yes, Cuphead’s 1930s cartoon style is so utterly wonderful and encapsulating that it’s really hard not to start grinning as you watch the newest examples of the artwork bounce energetically into shot, combined with a suitably lively gameplay model that, whilst blisteringly challenging in those last few missions, is never truly unfair and always worth pushing through, just to see what comes next. If you like your tough games as much as I do, this is definitely for you.

  1. ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD

I guess reinvention is the name of the game this year, as franchises worked to improve themselves in new and interesting ways (or worsen themselves, if they’re Shadow of War or Star Wars: Battlefield 2), and Breath of the Wild feels like a good example of that. A well-crafted and delightfully organic form of gameplay, one that’s fine with you going straight to the final boss if you think you’re tough enough, squire. This Zelda game is all about experimentation and discovery, not just discovering the world through exploration but seeing how you can play with the mechanics to have that unique edge in combat. I mean, how many games with axes and trees will actually let you combine the two and actually start playing lumberjack? Surprisingly few, I must say. And if you can drop that tree trunk on a moblin’s head, all the better.

  1. HOLLOW KNIGHT

Newsflash: pretty game looks – oh, wait.

Yes, Hollow Knight is my game of the year for 2017, and quite deservedly so. This cute little mash-up of Metroidvania, Dark Souls, and even Earthworm Jim is a beautiful, bittersweet, bewitching little romp through adversity and triumph, as our diminutive insect hero pioneers across an underground kingdom of bugs laid to waste by a mysterious sickness. Drawn in an elegant, simple style and matched by a sound design that imbues everyone with character even before they start speaking, Hollow Knight may just be one of the best indie games in the last few years.


 

Happy New Year to everybody, and thanks to everyone who enjoys my work here or on other websites. Hopefully next year will bring even better things – but who really trusts hope, anyway?

THE MINI SNES SAGA 3: SUPER MARIO KART – “A GRIM RACE/WAR”

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INTRODUCTION

I had a bad feeling about this one before I even began. See, Mario Kart as a franchise was always one of those slightly dodgy series in my mind, not innately bad but with a few gaping flaws in the formula, like a waterslide which nobody remembered to add water to. I mean, even if you like these games you must be able to see it? Like the fact that dealing with the blue shell is obviously bullshit because there’s no way to defend against it, the way that item distribution means that races become more boring the better you’re doing, and the fact that every installment usually has about two or three fun tracks and the rest are just not worth the effort.

Which isn’t to say they can’t have their charms, only that even the best Mario Kart games come with a string of asterisks so long they look like a constellation map, and some of them have more caveats than they can bear. So yeah, bad feeling overall when coming to the first of the line. I hope to proven wrong.

STORY

There is no story in Super Mario Kart – or any Mario Kart, that I know of – but screw it, I’m going to invent my own. Wealthy, vacuous, airheaded dilettante that she is, Princess Peach decides that she’s grown bored with her rule of the Mushroom Kingdom (and why wouldn’t she be bored, she never does anything but bake cakes) and in a decision born of years of consequence-free living and too much rosé wine, she decides that she’s going to gift the royal crown to whoever can win a series of bloody death races in weaponised vehicles, a la Mad Max via Wacky Races. Meanwhile, Peach herself will retreat in obscene luxury to live in a series of beachside villas and holiday mansions, spending the rest of her life being serviced by moustached gigolos and dead-eyed servants.

Side note, who the hell actually are Princess Peach’s parents? There must’ve been a King and Queen Peach at some point (not including those being Mario’s nicknames for her buttocks), and either they’re still alive and ruling, in which case I feel we should hear about them more often, or they’re dead/abdicated/kept in a living state of torturous hell in one of Bowser’s dungeons, in which case Peach should be an actual Queen, not just a Princess, right?

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Old tracks manage to be just as lethal as the new ones, if less flashy.

Oh, whatever. Her challenge is accepted by over half a dozen lunatics each with their eyes on the nation-spanning prize, and each with their own different motivations. Princess Peach is racing herself, of course, because she needs something to do between her 11.00 AM manicure and 2.00 PM appointment for vacantly staring out of the window, but a series of allies and enemies have also appeared on the starting line. Mario is in the pocket of Big Plumbing and also wants to instigate prima noctae, Luigi hopes to have his brother executed, the lowly Toad wishes to make a communist utopia and massacre the bourgeoisie, Bowser wants a totalitarian state through which he can carefully begin his extermination plan of the Toads themselves (spoiler alert: it’s a frying pan), Yoshi and Donkey Kong Jr. each want to dissolve the governmental system in preparation for a primal, survival-of-the-fittest world where the advantage goes to those with the ability to swallow objects larger than themselves or the ability to throw barrels respectively, and that one measly Koopa Trooper who showed up just wants to create a fair, just state where personal freedoms are balanced equally against sensible legislation to protect the disadvantaged, which may go some way to explaining why he never, ever wins. No, seriously – NEVER.

Now the race is on to see who can claim several thousand square miles of fungus farmland for themselves, as they battle to the death on weaving race tracks covered in more death traps than an Indiana Jones temple, slinging scavenged munitions, old fruit and whatever else they can find at each other until everyone is dead or until the final flag flutters across the burnt, bloody battlefield and somebody can stagger onto the victor’s podium.

Well, then, let the games begin. Ave Imperator Peach, qui nos ad lapsum ariera salutant!  (Which I think translates as “Hail Peach, we who are about to slip on banana skins salute you.” I’m sure the Latin Nazis will leap down my throat if there’s any of it wrong, and I’d like to retort by reminding them they bothered to learn Latin.)

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

Oh boy howdy, I’d forgotten about the visual horror of that period in time where 3D polygons weren’t around yet, but everybody was still trying to do 3D anyway, using 2D sprites arranged on various planes to awkwardly move around each other like the world’s most complicated line dancing routine.

Which is not to say early 3D polygons necessarily looked better (they were usually just as bad, giving the appearance that you were being attacked by origami horrors from the land of the geometry people, see Ocarina of Time for a prime example) but two-and-half-D, as it’s often referred to, comes with its own batch of problems, namely the perspective. Playing 2.5D games makes me feel like somebody stole my glasses and one of my eyeballs to boot, so judging relative distances with any kind of precision is an exercise in futility and optician bills. Judging when to fire your green shell is so inaccurate that you might as well just shoot it into the lava pit straight away and save yourself the bother, and none of the character models feel like they any kind of depth, looking like cutouts wobbling around the track on tiny little Roombas.

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Environments and characters don’t even look especially good for SNES era graphics, missing out on any distinctive style or flair that isn’t eye-gouging.

None of this would be as bad if the actual visual design looked any good, which it doesn’t. Nintendo, what the hell happened to the gorgeous, arresting, and above all else clean style of Super Mario World from the previous year? All the character models look too small for their own good, meaning there aren’t enough pixels for any elegant design, and the landscape is a garish, swirling, weaving vortex of primary colours, like pouring several tons of food colouring into a whirlpool and trying to sail across it without drowning or getting seasick. And though the music’s actually quite good in a chipper sort of way, it’s hard to hear when there’s a sound effect triggered every other second, not to mention the constant hairdryer whine of everybody’s go-kart beetling around the track.

GAMEPLAY

Like I said, I went into Super Mario Kart with a notable sense of unease, but after playing half a dozen matches with a close friend and coming out the other side with a smile on my face, I realised I was having fun! Yes, finally! Maybe I’ll get lucky and have it happen more than three times this year! I already saw that hedgehog get run over on my way back from the cinema, so there’s been two solidly enjoyable days in 2017 already.

Unfortunately a thought occurred and I tried playing Super Mario Kart on my own, and within ten minutes my smile had frozen and warped into a stiff-lipped expression of startled disappointment. Because hanging out with friends is fun all on its own, and Super Mario Kart… well, not so much. After all, it’s basically impossible to review any game objectively when you’ve got the bonds of companionship elevating the overall experience. Having somebody on hand to share the trauma of Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties might’ve lessened the horror considerably, but that doesn’t make it good. Likewise, I used to think that Grand Theft Auto V was fairly solid, up until the point where I played it on my own and realised it was basically a string of loosely-connected rich-kid’s toys strung weakly together by witless humour and low intentions.

But Super Mario Kart isn’t bad in the same way, it’s just kind of dull, with relatively stale track design and items that don’t really have any punch to them. I’m not really angry about this because I know I’m looking at a very old game that’s had years of upgrades and sequels since it came out, but here’s the thing: Nintendo are still charging money right now to play it, so yeah, it has to be judged on how it holds up against other, current games. After all, it’s operating in the same market as those sequels at time of writing, and anybody who’s browsed the retro games section on the Nintendo market has almost certainly felt that sharp intake of breath when they see the slightly outrageous pricing on games from over twenty years ago.

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Aw, split-screen. Remember split-screen? Remember how you could play games with people without having to go online and pay a subscription fee? Good times.

I think the word that best describes Super Mario Kart gameplay is “drunkenly.” Everything feels a bit unwieldy and tends to slide around more than you want it to, probably partly due to the aforementioned perspective problem caused by the graphics tech of the time. I never feel like I’m actually up against the other kart racers, because their AI is so simplistic it could be out-strategised by a patch of dry rot. What you’re actually battling is the controls and simple physics, and that’s not quite the same thing, nor is it necessarily as enjoyable. It feels like I’ve been sabotaged before the race began, having my tires replaced with icy cylinders with all the gripping power of an arthritic seal. As a result, all the items and little shortcuts exist for me not to battle equally with my enemies, but to hamper the other racers long enough to let me catch up, like adding a fat guy to the Olympic 100 metre dash and claiming it’s fair because he’s got a stun gun.

The long and short of it was that once I got a handle on how to compensate for all the sliding around, the game became so insultingly easy that no difficulty increase could compensate. I know that’s like saying “once I became the world’s greatest marksman, all those archery contests were a doddle,” but I’m rubbish at driving games, and the gap between being an inexperienced crap-out and becoming the apparent reincarnation of Schumacher took less than an hour, which coincidentally marked the point at which I found my patience beginning to seriously wane with Super Mario Kart. Because if all the items are boring, and the courses don’t feel meaningfully different, and the challenge was quickly evaporating, and there was nothing else to build up towards because everything’s unlocked from the start, then what was I playing for? When the answer didn’t really provide itself, I realised it was time to stop playing.

CONCLUSION

I still struggle to say Super Mario Kart is bad, because I’m not sure that it is, I just think it’s suffered quite a lot over the passage of time and been surpassed more often than is really good for it. I’d probably be recommending this back in 1992 (you know, if I’d been born), but standards of what to expect from racing games has changed in the quarter-century since then and some things just don’t apply anymore. I’ll give Super Mario Kart this, the more reasonable items and low-tier attacks make it feel like there’s more focus on racing than just pulling the right weapon from random crates, but it’s lacking a certain panache that would definitely come from the later games like Double Dash.

COMPARATIVE RATING: LIKE BUYING A BURGER AND DISCOVERING THAT IT’S GOT ALL THE WORST FILLINGS AND SAUCES, EVEN IF THE MEAT ITSELF IS BASICALLY FINE.

THE MINI SNES SAGA 2: EARTHBOUND REVIEW – “HARDLY DOWN TO EARTH”

INTRODUCTION

I know I hinted at Contra III last week, but I’m still working on Bloodborne DLC and I needed some sort of stress break. Maybe next time, though let’s be fair – maybe not. Probably not.

Instead, I finally carved another meaningful notch into the chipped, paint-flaking bedpost of my gaming knowledge. Earthbound was one of those titles I’d been hearing about for years, spoken about with the reverent tones of somebody discussing a religious event. Fair enough, but I couldn’t help but be a bit baffled by all this rumour, like hearing somebody talk about Bigfoot sightings. I know UnderTale raised the game’s profile in recent years by planting its flag firmly as one of Earthbound’s descendants, and the Mother series does stretch beyond this single game, but it was weird how all I’d heard was the rumour, you know? Almost no memorabilia, no posters, no sign of a wider continuity, none of the things you’d expect to see for a game that was so apparently legendary. Occasionally I’d get the equivalent of a silhouette amongst the trees, such as a cameo in Smash Bros. or a single, Earthbound-themed Amiibo (the second one of which shouldn’t count for much because even the Wii Fit Trainer got a bloody Amiibo), but I still felt I had no idea about what the game was.

Well, now I got my Mini SNES, I finally get to photo Bigfoot myself, so let’s see if people remember it too fondly, or whether they forgot about it too quick. Earthbound, that is, not Bigfoot.

 

STORY

“Oh, goodie, a chance to name my character and all the members of my team,” I thought as the game started. I ended up calling the hero by my own magnificent moniker, because that’s a cheap and easy way to provoke a bit of investment, but then I decided that if this was a role-playing game then I was going to roleplay, namely somebody characterised by poisonous levels of misanthropy. So when it came to labelling Lil’ Joel’s ragtag bunch o’ buddies and harrowed household pets, I named them Slave, Serf, Woman and Dog, not in reference to what I thought they might be called, but to how my absolute bastard of an avatar would be thinking of them. Though just to keep things interesting, those names weren’t assigned to the characters you think they would be.

And then just to make matters better, I got to pick out my character’s favourite food and hobby. Oh, Earthbound, you spoil me! Lil’ Joel’s psychotic tendencies meant a plate of congealed blood was his meal of choice, and what he liked to do in his spare time is best left unmentioned, though it kept the bodily fluids theme going admirably.

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I bet you didn’t think that Grimer could let itself go even more.

So the rough plot starts thusly: whatever your name, you play a small boy in a baseball cap living in small-town America (oh, sorry – I mean small-town Eagleland), who wakes up in the middle of the night when a meteorite lands on the next hill over, and right away I worked out something very peculiar about Earthbound that seems to give it an identity all of its own – it’s genuinely creepy in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, yet doesn’t feel totally intentional, and now I shall have to explain why.

It all comes down to a matter of not feeling quite real enough. The town of Onett feels a little too American, a little overly-emblematic of what it’s supposed to represent, but at the same time doesn’t quite seem to understand the particulars and keeps getting small but important details wrong. It’s almost like being in a sequel to The Stepford Wives, one in which the androids seem to have replaced all the townsfolk except for you and a couple of other people. Sure, everything will seem normal, but then your loving mother will give you a vacant smile and say “Sure thing, sweetie, why not go out sneaking past armed police barriers at two in the morning to find a burning meteorite we don’t know anything about? And better bring your sister’s baseball bat in case you have to defend yourself from the increasingly aggressive townsfolk. Boy, I do love drinking this Ovaltine.” Or look to a scene later on, when you ask the local police chief if you can get past a barricade, whereupon he takes you into a backroom and sets five burly cops on you just to see if you can handle yourself.

Thanks, Officer Crazy. You’re the only one we can depend on to Protect and Serve (me my own teeth).

And when it’s not being weird it’s being downright Lynchian, such as one early scene where your next-door neighbours coldly tell you that your parents have borrowed so much money off them that they’re going bankrupt as a result, and I felt myself squirming uncomfortably as though I’d just found out something that I wasn’t supposed to. It certainly makes the fact that dad just wired me twenty bucks feel a bit awkward, though I’d be buggered if I was going to give it back at that point.

I’ll say now that none of this is bad, far from it. Earthbound’s combination of twee, childish innocence and subtle darker themes is pulled off in a way I’ve rarely seen before, mainly by ensuring that the nasty stuff is kept infrequent and to the background, and as a result it feels like the central group of kids never really understands its significance.

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Er… Hooray?

But the point is we go to see the meteorite, whereupon a bumblebee from the future shows up and tells us that ten years from now the world will be destroyed by a monster named Giygas, and the fact that everybody is getting more and more aggressive is a hint of what’s to come. In order to stop this, you have to go and collect eight funky beats from around the world that’ll apparently mellow out the Lovecraftian horror to the point where he’s just content to groove back to the 8th Dimension without destroying anything. That’s the theory at least, except even though I haven’t beaten the game yet I still get the feeling we might have to personally rap Giygas on the knuckles before this is all over. Call me paranoid, but it’s just this hunch I have.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

I’m sorry to harp on about this, but even here it’s creepy! Whereas last week Megaman X had a whole style and aesthetic to call its own, Earthbound just feels peculiar. Environments look perfectly fine in the forty-five degree perspective, but the characters feel like they’re a few pixels too small for all the detail that the artists want to cram in, and consequently they look distorted and bizarre, such as the people who have three-quarters of their head taken up by a gurning, red-lipped mouth. Hindsight counts for a lot, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the years since Earthbound, it’s to draw character models with neutral expressions, because the audience can impose emotion over the top of that without too much mental strain. But when somebody with aggressive intentions and a fixed smile is advancing on you, it’s scarier than the rednecks in Resident Evil 7. Things improve immeasurably when you go into combat and the sprites have more space to breath, but there’s still elements that feel peculiar and a bit unnerving.

It’s given an extra layer of WTF by the fact that the whole thing feels like it was made by adults channeling the ideas of children, with mixed success. The visuals certainly look like pixel-art recreations of a kid’s drawings, which would certainly explain away all the misaligned facial features and the occasional wonky perspective. And even when it looks good, it has the style of a cartoon, right down to the extraneous features added on that makes it look like something from a Saturday morning show. I’ve no idea why the crows all wear sunglasses or what makes a pogo stick a formidable weapon in the hands of a gang member, but that’s playground logic for you. The day it stands up to proper questioning is the day it stops being what makes it special.

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Ah, the creepy circus at nighttime. What could go murderous? Wrong! I meant wrong. I definitely meant to say… Well, let’s just forget about it for now.

GAMEPLAY

So I walked out of momma’s house with my bat and baseball cap equipped, and immediately saw a little sprite of a snake wriggling towards me. One human/serpent collision later, and I was presented with a battle screen and what appeared to be the usual kind of turn-based combat we’ve all come to expect from early RPGs.

What makes this combat unique is a certain amount of nuance and a pleasantly laissez-faire approach to the whole thing. Taking damage doesn’t immediately take a chunk off your health bar, instead it ticks downwards over a period of time and can be alleviated by ending the fight quickly. Or if you’re up against a weak enemy, there’s an auto-fight button that allows you to slap at the guy in front of you, and reflexively use your healing power when you get into serious trouble. And best of all, if you’re attacked by an enemy so piddlingly pathetic that there’s no challenge whatsoever, Earthbound doesn’t even bother to let the fight start. The enemy automatically dies and you get the measly experience reward and items without having to lift a finger.

This last one is a brilliant idea and one which I really wish had become standard practice in the decades since. Yes, turn-based combat can be fun when done properly (I’ve been playing a lot of Darkest Dungeon over the last few months and so should you), but being set upon by enemies who can’t provide challenge isn’t anything more than busywork. Taking them out of the equation is like having an option in Pokémon Blue that stops you getting abused by cave-dwelling Zubats or all those bloody Tentacool.

(And yes, I know there were repels on sale in every shop you found, but that’s the game just selling you a solution to a problem it created, so shush yo’ mowf.)

But here’s the thing – these are all good ideas for the turn-based combat, but the core combat itself is just sort of… basic. It’s certainly serviceable and given a bit of spice by being quite challenging, but all the stuff above is only methods of alleviating the problems that come with this kind of gameplay. What they aren’t is a unique selling point that captures the imagination or adds a new layer of tactics to the gameplay, like XCOM’s base management, Steamworld: Heist’s ricochet mechanics, or Civilisation’s oddly nuke-happy Mahatma.

And again, I know what everybody’s going to say: the game was invented in the 90’s before the time when turn-based combat had become quite so standardised, and can’t be blamed for being part of the phase that caused that standardisation later; much in the way that you can’t blame Tolkien for every other fantasy writer stealing elements from Lord of the Rings.

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Hello, Mr. Saturn. Is it off to work you go?

And I certainly don’t think less of Earthbound for that fact, but this isn’t the 90’s anymore, and I’m more interested in seeing how these games hold up, especially considering that Nintendo is still charging money for them. The best thing Earthbound has to a defining USP is the fact that you can bring multiple characters into battle, but even then this wasn’t especially new and doesn’t really shake up the gameplay in the way you’d hope.

And while I’m getting comfortable complaining, the game is rather poor at telling things to you that could be very important. Remember earlier how I mentioned that my in-game Pa had wired me twenty bucks? Well, I presumed the way to make more money was to scavenge items from defeated enemies and flog them at the drugstore, because nobody had had told me any different and this was all I had to go on. But this turned out to be a very slow and unreliable method of saving up, because not all enemies drop items and when they do they’re usually not worth squat, as you’d expect for a stale cookie that’s had two previous owners (ew).

But I persevered until I’d scraped together about forty bucks, and went to stick my handful of crumpled bills in the ATM for safe-keeping. So it was only then that I realised that Dad had given me five hundred dollars and neglected to mention it. What?! No wonder the neighbours are bankrupt if we’ve borrowed enough cash to pay Joel Jr. several grand per week! And consequently when I went to buy all the best weapons and armour with my new wealth, my stats made me feel over-levelled, because I’d spent the last two hours kicking snakes to death for handfuls of spare change, not realising that my father was also try to play the role of my sugar daddy (again, ew).

 

CONCLUSION

Looking back over the review, I wonder why I like Earthbound as much as I honestly do, because I’m not entirely sure what it’s done to deserve it. I remember playing it and enjoying it, but now I feel hard-pressed to justify that. If the gameplay was a bit unimaginative, the visuals were janky and they weren’t telling me stuff I need to know, then what on Earth was I getting out of the experience?

It might be because of the difficulty, which became startlingly well-balanced for tension once I got over the initial up-down bump in the road caused by Dad holding out on me. Or it might be because of the item and power rewards, which are varied and palpable and motivate you to keep playing.

Or it might just because of how weird it all is. Yeah, I think that might be it. Even now I’m not entirely sure how much of Earthbound’s surreal, slightly uncomfortable atmosphere is intentional, but I don’t think it really matters, because it’s there regardless and certainly makes it feel different to anything else I’ve played.

In fact, nearly everything that’s wrong with this game is somehow made to work for it, turning the errors and lapses in style into a style all of its own, like a demented, flea-bitten puppy with several chunks taken out of its ears (shout-out to the mysterious dog who wandered over to my table at that moment to inadvertently provide inspiration for that simile, who’s a good boy?). It feels like the kids who starred in the game were the ones making it, and luckily they just happened to be very talented.

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I wanna see the bloody car crash! I wanna see!

So Earthbound gets a recommendation, but I think it’s worth discussing exactly what we can learn from a game that has created this enduring legacy despite everything wrong with it. being viewed poorly by critics at the time, and being the only game in the Mother trilogy to get a Western release, so unconvinced were Nintendo by its ability to stand on its own merits. In this era where the main industry is falling to more rampant homogenisation than ever and companies are stumbling over each other to cram in more brown-haired white guys and sodding loot boxes, how much goodwill does it really buy you? I don’t mean financial success, but how many places in people’s personal Top Ten Lists? How much ‘twoo wuv,’ to quote The Princess Bride?

It’s a tricky question, because being enjoyable isn’t actually synonymous with being memorable, or even interesting. Take Overwatch, for example. Overwatch is fun to play and I wouldn’t ever claim otherwise, but everything unique about it was hammered into the ground in order to force it to be as marketable as possible, with one of the most tedious superhero plots I’ve ever heard (and I’ve read Youngblood) and the vast majority of its characters reduced to maybe two basic ideas at most, and as a result there’s nothing there that has me thinking about it when the match is over. It’s filler, it’s fast food, it’s Modern Family.

By contrast, I can think of some heavily flawed but fascinating games that I would recommend in a heartbeat, and that stay in my thoughts far longer than Blizzard’s polished perpetual profit machine. Sunless Sea, for example. Or Bioshock Infinite. Or Quadrilateral Cowboy, Elite: Dangerous, Papers Please, and, for that matter, Earthbound.

 


8.5/10 

If Calvin and Hobbes made a video game, I suspect it might be a lot like this. Immature, clumsy, patchwork and downright surreal at times, it all somehow comes together and becomes something very special for it. Play it if you get the chance, because you probably won’t find this sort of thing anywhere else.