Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Super Mario 3D World for Wii U

From its lacklustre reveal at E3 to the ecstatic reviews upon release, Super Mario 3D World has generated strong emotions for months. The initial disappointment that we weren’t getting a ‘proper’ 3D Mario game gave way to some reviewers praising it as the best 3D Mario game, surpassing even 64 and the Galaxy games. I have to wonder if these reviewers were playing the same game as me. Although 3D World is much much better than I initially feared, and is a legitimately great game, it simply does not stand up to its predecessors, and I’m still left craving the epic Mario game that we were promised.

The plot is predictably non-existent, with the kidnapping victims being a collection of small fairy princesses, with Peach this time being spared Bowser’s attention due to her position as a playable character. Mario games don’t need much plot, as we saw in the weird narrative of Super Mario Sunshine, but they hit a sweet spot with Galaxy, which had just enough plot to lend your actions context but without distracting from the core focus of the gameplay.

As the name might suggest, 3D World has most in common with Super Mario 3D Land, its little brother on the 3DS. The style is a hybrid of the linear side scrolling originals and the 3D gameplay that we’ve seen since Mario 64. The addition of four player co-op, with players taking on the roles of Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad, will be a big draw for some but it didn’t seem particularly well implemented to me, particularly when compared to the sublime co-op of Rayman Legends. It all handles very nicely, and the level design is, of course, pretty much perfect, with very few duds in the generous package. There are a handful of Wii U screen poking and blowing gimmicks, but by and large the main use of the tablet controller is for off-screen play. There are a handful of irritations, such as the retention of the archaic and unnecessary timer and life systems, but by and large Super Mario 3D World is a highly slick, responsive and enjoyable game. Essentially, Super Mario 3D World plays incredibly well, and is a hell of a lot of fun, but something about it simply failed to reach me as it’s predecessors did.

I think that the issue is that Super Mario 3D World is, fundamentally, a conservative game. Many reviews have praised this game’s creativity, and although it is bursting with fun and good ideas, the best ones are cribbed from other games. The best levels are the ones that play homage to other games, such as Mario Galaxy, Mario 64, Mario Kart, Luigi’s Mansion and even Zelda. Mario 3D World fails to forge an identity of its own. For all its many, many flaws, Super Mario Sunshine still had a unique character, but 3D World is too reverent to it’s past, something which has effected almost every Mario game in recent memory, scared of forging its own identity. I think that we can thank the massive financial success of the New Super Mario Bros. subseries for this, which has shown Nintendo that a co-op Mario game which nonetheless doesn’t stray far from the traditional series tropes is going to make much more money than a genuinely innovative and bold new entry. I don’t think that many people will disagree with me when I say that Super Mario Galaxy was a better Wii Mario platformer than New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but the latter vastly outsold the former. There was a time when Nintendo used a new 3D Mario game to redefine a genre, as they did with 64 and Galaxy, and even the misfires such as Sunshine were noble failures, but 3D World is not on par with those games.

One area where 3D World does outshine its predecessors is its visuals. To put it simply, 3D World is an unbelievably gorgeous game. The levels are colourful and vibrant, the enemies filled with character, and the water and lighting effects utterly beautiful. For this kind of game, Mario 3D World proves that the Wii U will be able to hold its own against the PS4 and Xbox One. The music is lovely too, although it doesn’t quite match the simplistic charms of 64 or the grandiose orchestra of the Galaxy games.

Super Mario 3D World is a great game, but a new 3D Mario game needs to be more than great. Perhaps my expectations of Nintendo are too high, but they are only that high because Nintendo raised those expectations themselves. If you own a Wii U, buy it. If you don’t own a Wii U, buy one and then buy this game. Just don’t expect the innovative, epic new platformer that you may have been hoping for. download (2)

The Last Dark by Stephen Donaldson

It’s over…it’s…finally over. I have a rather complicated relationship with Stephen Donaldson’s renowned Thomas Covenant series. On the one hand, the series offered psychological depths to its characters hitherto unseen in fantasy, but on the other hand, they’re possible some of the most miserable and wretchedly overwritten books that I’ve ever read. I’m a masochist who is pretty much incapable of not finishing a series, so I’ve pursued with Thomas Covenant to the bitter end. Was it worth it? Did the final book redeem the nigh-unreadable nature of much of the series? In short, no.

The Last Dark picks off directly from where Against All Things Ending left off. Covenant has killed his insane ex-wife Joan and stopped the caesures wracking The Land, and Jeremiah has emerged from his construct with his mind returned to him. An eternal night has fallen as the Worm of World’s End makes its way to The Land, and Covenant, Linden and Jeremiah must find a way to defeat the multitude of foes before them;  the mad Elohim Kastenessen, Roger Covenant and his Cavewrights, the skurj, the Ravers and behind them all, Lord Foul himself.

The Last Dark is a book going through the motions. One of the few things that I liked about the final ‘Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’ series has been the intimidating range of foes posed against Covenant and Linden. At almost any point they could be attacked by one of their many varied and interesting foes, and that tension was quite enjoyable to read, but everything plays out in a predictable and boring manner in The Last Dark. Every foe is reduced to simply another obstacle which has to be knocked down until Covenant’s inevitable final conflict with Lord Foul.

Probably my favourite thing about the first trilogy was the constant question as to whether The Land was real, or simply the fantasy of a dying man. This question was at the core of the first trilogy, with Covenant’s choice of contradiction, of both believing and unbelieving in the Land being what ultimately gave him the power to control White Gold and defeat Lord Foul. Although it wasn’t quite as key a focus in the second trilogy, it’s entirely gone in The Last Dark, and not really considered at all. The question as to The Land’s reality, or its relationship to our world, is not present whatsoever, which was my number one hope for this book. The characters of the book still call Covenant the Un-Believer, but he stopped being that a long time ago, and with that the most interesting element of the series is lost. We don’t get to see much of The Land in this book, and the world isn’t expanded in any way. As with the other conclusions in the series, most of the final third is spent crawling through caves. I wonder how many pages I’ve read over these ten books of crawling towards Gravin Threndor? The Land has always had an air of unreality in it, but with the essential confirmation that The Land is real, that unreality becomes impossible to defend. With Donaldson’s refusal to engage with The Land’s reality, he shoots himself in the foot by exposing his own inability to create a compelling and consistent setting.

Although Donaldson was prone to laborious over-writing and use of obnoxiously archaic language in the earlier books, it’s only gotten worse. The over-use of certain words such as ‘mien’, ‘despite’ and ‘extravagance’ set my teeth on edge. Donaldson can write, of course he can, but this is a writer who isn’t really trying. Although his purple prose may look impressive at first, it takes a lot more effort and skill to rein it in. He’s not even an intelligent wordsmith like China Miéville, so this writing is pretty indefensible. I’d take the relatively plain prose of Brandon Sanderson over the ridiculous attempt at grandeur that Donaldson works towards any day.

Continuing with Donaldson’s attempts to extract everything good about this series in the ‘Last Chronicles’, the characters have all tended towards blandness. The bitter, angry rapist Covenant of the first trilogy was a loathsome figure, but we weren’t meant to like him. Reading a series where the great prophesised hero of destiny is clearly a horrible person (but with the supporting cast still affirming their essential goodness) was a big part of the first trilogy’s appeal, but, no, Thomas Covenant is a redeemed hero in the final series. Linden is pretty much the same as always, and the newly emerged Jeremiah is annoying. The supporting cast has a couple of standout characters, such as the Giant commander Rime Coldspray and the disillusioned Haruchai Stave, but they’re still mostly a series of racial characteristics rather than fully fledged characters in their own right.

The earlier Thomas Covenant books were uneven and difficult, but they did contain some clever ideas and were oddly compelling, but that cannot be said for The Last Dark, and the final four books as a whole. If you must read the Thomas Covenant books, just read the first trilogy, or maybe the second (which wasn’t awful), but do not touch these last four books. They really are utterly, irredeemably terrible. download (1)

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for Nintendo 3DS

A Link Between Worlds is a bit of a contradiction. In some ways it represents the greatest shake up of the Zelda formula in many years, but the crutch of its predecessor, the seminal A Link to the Past, holds it back from being everything that it could have been.

A Link Between Worlds takes place hundreds of years after A Link to the Past, although Hyrule is largely unchanged. The effete villain Yuga appears and turns a young maiden into a painting as part of a plot to resurrect Ganon and take his power. Link ends up drawn in to stop him, and in the process is dragged into Lorule, a parallel Hyrule torn apart by dark powers.

The final 15 minutes of A Link Between Worlds contains more plot than the entire rest of the game which…really isn’t great storytelling. Some potentially intriguing plot points appear, but little interesting is done with them. Zelda games never have complex plots, but the best ones tap into broad, stirring emotions, using its own mythology to convey a sense of wonder, history and grandeur. Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker probably did this best, but Majora’s Mask deserves a large amount of credit for its twisted and dark narrative and setting. A Link Between Worlds takes the same minimalist approach to plot that has characterised the Mario games recently, but where the loss of plot from Mario is no great loss, something feels missing when it is stripped from a Zelda game.

Thankfully, A Link Between Worlds makes up for it where it counts; the gameplay. It’s really difficult to describe just how much of an improvement in control there is in A Link Between Worlds compared to other 2D Zelda games. Link moves with a degree of precision that he never has before, and for the first time in the series, each death is definitely your fault. The dungeons are beautifully designed; not necessarily that challenging, but so clever. There are two main schools of thought as to what makes a good Zelda dungeon; for some it’s the fiendishness and complexity of the puzzles, which is fine, but for me playing through a good Zelda dungeon is like watching an artisan making a beautiful object; I just marvel at the cleverness of the design and how wonderfully it fits together. If you’re like me, A Link Between Worlds offers the best Zelda dungeons in years.

However, it’s not the dungeons that really make a Zelda game for me. For me, Zelda games are all about adventure and exploration. It’s the reason that Wind Waker is one of my favourite games, despite the fact that it arguably has some of the weakest dungeons in the entire series. Sure, there’s a lot to see in Hyrule and Lorule in A Link Between Worlds, but nothing that we haven’t seen before. I suppose it all comes down to nostalgia; my first Zelda was Ocarina of Time, so it’s that game that will always mean most to me, but for the people whose first Zelda was A Link to the Past, this return to Hyrule must be nostalgic ecstasy. I love A Link to the Past, but I first played it when it was remade on GBA, so the nostalgia isn’t really there. The reusing of this Hyrule holds this game back from true greatness, since there’s nothing new to see or discover. It’s a shame, because A Link Between Worlds makes so many wonderful additions to the series, and I’d have loved to see those additions in a new setting.

So, about those additions? The most obvious is the ability for Link to meld into the walls and shuffle around. Although it’s a little gimmicky, it looks really cool, and forces you to completely reassess your surroundings. It adds a whole other layer to what Link can do, and is used in some really fun and interesting ways, particularly during the final boss fight. The biggest change is the shake-up of the typical linear Zelda structure; after the first two, each dungeon can be tackled in any order that you like, and new items are no longer discovered in each dungeon. Instead, they are lent out by Ravio, a merchant who sets up shop in Link’s house. The player can rent items for a small fee, although they are lost if Link dies, but for a higher price they can be bought outright and kept forever. When owned the items can also be upgraded by finding Maimais, strange little creatures which must be returned to their mother. The item renting/non-linear structure is the most radical shake up in the series for years, and unlike gimmicky motion or touch screen controls, they genuinely improve the experience. I’m not saying that every Zelda game should go this route, but it sure as hell works here, and I know that I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

Now, the graphical style has many detractors, and whilst A Link Between Worlds isn’t going to win any beauty contests, it gets the job done. Everything works fine. The 3D is probably the best for the system, and the game would be extremely difficult to play without it. The dungeons are much more vertical than before, and when I turned the 3D off I found it very hard to judge where I was…so, sorry 2DS owners, I fear that this game may be more or less unplayable for you. The music is wonderful, of course. It’s mostly made up of tracks from A Link to the Past, but the handful of new ones are great too.

A Link Between Worlds does so much right, but in the wrong world. I suppose in that sense it’s the opposite of Wind Waker, which was a much more technically flawed game but in a truly epic and magical setting. Being completely honest, A Link Between Worlds was, for me, an enjoyable but forgettable experience, something to tide me over until Zelda on Wii U. I’m well aware that this is mostly due to my personal tastes in Zelda games, and being objective A Link Between Worlds is a wonderfully crafted game, but it just wasn’t quite for me. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t love A Link Between Worlds, but don’t listen to me, because there’s a very good chance that you will. original

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