Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “nintendo”

Cave Story+ for Switch, 3DS and PC

Despite being released a Nintendo indie staple, I’m late to Cave Story. Developed by one guy in his spare time and released on PC 13 years ago, Cave Story has been remade and remastered in many different ways, most notably a complete 3D remake on 3DS. Cave Story + is a more straightforward port than that and is a neat addition to the rapidly growing indie library for the Switch.

Cave Story follows a cute little robot called Quote, who awakens on a mysterious island, floating in the sky, populated by talking rabbit creatures known as Mimiga. The Mimigas are being persecuted by a mysterious figure known as the Doctor, who has been kidnapping Mimigas and forcing them to eat a strange red flower which causes them to become violent and feral. Quote sets forth to defeat the Doctor and save the Mimiga, discovering on the way that things on the island are much more complex than they first seemed. The story and world of Cave Story are much more complex, compelling and well thought out than you might expect from its simplistic art style. It is frequently funny, but at times genuinely quite horrific and sad. Minimalist or environmental storytelling is more common in modern indie platformers and it’s quite nice to see something so densely plotted and heavy with world building detail.

Cave Story is a platformer, with Metroidvania elements. You’ll mostly be working your way through caves, blasting enemies with a variety of weapons, all of which can be temporarily upgraded with shards, but will downgrade again if you are hit. One thing I loved about this game is how utterly puny and pathetic you feel at first compared with how powerful and dangerous you become with all your weapons fully upgraded. The jumping itself was obnoxiously floaty for my tastes, but the addition of a jet pack mid-way through greatly mitigated this irritation. You’ll fight through a series of areas, with most centring on the Mimiga Village, and most culminating in a cool boss fight. Some issues with balance and difficulty belie the amateur origins of Cave Story, but these issues rarely raised above the level of annoyance. It’s a hell of an achievement. Exploration is rewarded with upgrades to health and missiles, Metroid style, but this is largely a linear experience. Floaty jumping aside, Cave Story plays well, with some smart level and boss design.

With a charming chip-tune sound track and satisfying blasting noises for the weapons, there’s a lot of polish to Cave Story. It’s got a simplistic art style, but it’s very effective, particularly for the character models and bosses. I loved the character designs, which vary from charming to creepy to just plain bizarre. With support from Nicalis, you can see that a lot of love went into this game.

I suspect that playing Cave Story for the first time in 2017 will not have the same impact it would have had back in 2004. Indie Metroidvania platformers aren’t exactly a rarity these days and, when placed aside more modern examples, Cave Story doesn’t come across as particularly special, excepting its strong world and story. It’s an interesting cultural artefact though, and I can see how it’s influence rippled through the indie scene. I’m glad I played it.

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Shantae: Half-Genie Hero for Switch, Wii U, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and PC

I’ve never played a Shantae game before, but I’ve been aware of the series ticking over on a range of Nintendo consoles. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero has an abundance of charm, but ultimately lacks the depth or the tightness of controls needed in the best platformers.

Shantae is, as the title suggests, a half-genie, who protects her town from a range of menaces, most prominently her pirate nemesis Risky Boots. This game focuses on Shantae helping her uncle build a strange machine, as well as uncover some of the secrets of her origin. Half-Genie Hero is a soft reboot and entirely understandable if you haven’t played the previous games. The writing is very self-aware and quippy in a way which treads a very fine line between irritating and endearing. It just about landed on endearing for me, but I suspect lots of people would feel differently. Expect lots of jokes about the game industry and DLC, but it’s the simple but likeable supporting characters that made Shantae’s story a bit more engaging.

Half-Genie Hero, for all its charm, somewhat stumbles out of the gate. The core platforming is pretty unsatisfying, awkwardly floaty with pretty straightforward level design. There are people out there who can tell you exactly what constitute tight controls and strong platformer design and I am not one of those people, but I know it when I see it. The lack of ingenuity in the level design is masked by the charm and style of the environments as well as the range of transformations Shantae can perform. By the end of the game, Shantae had access to eight different transformations with different abilities. Examples include a monkey which can climb walls, an elephant which can smash blocks and a crab which can scuttle around underwater. Transforming to get around is fun and I liked the surprising range of abilities available to Shantae, but I’d prefer fewer transformations and better platforming. One element I did really like were the boss battles; which were generally clever and epic and an area where the game really excelled.

The basic structure of the game annoyed me. You regularly return to a core hub town, where you can purchase upgrades and talk to the locals. Between the levels you will usually need to take part in a Zelda style trading quest, with the items you need usually hidden in previously beaten levels with areas which can now be accessed with new transformations, adding a light element of Metroidvania to the proceedings. I do love a good trading quest, but this felt more like padding than anything else. There aren’t actually that many levels in the game, so Half-Genie Hero seems to feel the need to extend the run time artificially. When returning to the levels you are rarely given a new or fun challenge, it’s more likely going to be crabbing around on the sea floor picking up collectibles, or climbing a tower and elephant stomping on flowers to pick up collectibles and blah blah blah. Games for which the genre are named, Super Metroid and some of the latter Castlevania games, take place in a singular world and the approach doesn’t work nearly so well in discreet, linear levels.

For all I’m complaining, Shantae really is a lovely looking game. The art style is bright and clean and the characters are full of life, constantly moving and jiggling around. My favourite was the zombie girl Rottytops, who seems to never stop dancing. The music is very good too and adds a sense of grandeur, with scatterings of likeable voice acting too. There’s a rather pervasive feeling of style over substance here, but I’d rather have that than neither.

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is not a bad game, but it lacks the cleverness and tightness of level design the best platformers need. It may not be a bad choice if it goes on sale, but it’s not exactly a classic.

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Thumper for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC

Thumper has one of the best marketing descriptions I’ve ever seen; ‘rhythm violence.’ It’s a lovely way to put it and sums up the general vibe of Thumper very well. I’ve played a fair few rhythm games in my time, but none that filled me with the anxiety and genuine sense of dread that Thumper does. A mechanic introduced later in the game killed a lot of my enjoyment, but for most of my time with it Thumper was an intense and unique experience.

In Thumper you play as a little beetle thing, making its way along a track in a bizarre, fractal hell-scape. There are 9 levels, with each culminating in a boss battle with a hideous, demonic face. It may not have a story, but it certainly has an atmosphere and it can be genuinely unsettling and oppressive. You must avoid obstacles in a variety of ways. The simplest are barriers, where you must simply hold a button to smash through them. Some require you to lean your beetle in a particular direction, or change into different lane to avoid sinister snake things. It’s fast, intense and noisy and it’s easy to get into the trancelike groove that the best rhythm games create. The boss battles involve you having to tap a button on these green glowing patches on the track; if you hit them all, you can launch a laser at the evil face and after four hits it goes down. It’s an interesting way to apply the mechanics to a boss fight structure. The whole thing can be punishingly hard, with it only taking two hits for you to die and then have to retry the section you’re on. For most of the early parts of the game, it generally feels fair, but an infuriating mechanic had me turn on Thumper somewhat.

Around midway through you are introduced to these gates, which mean you have to hit blue glowing paths like in the boss fights for the particular run. If you miss even one, a laser descends and damages you. This was fine at first, but when combined into boss fights it becomes punishing for the sake of being punishing. Normally when you are fighting a boss, if you miss one of the green patches you simply restart the section, with no damage or death. There’s an element of trial and error, of getting better and better at each section’s timing that’s very satisfying. In some of the later bosses you’ll hit it three times, with one to go, but then the gates will descend and you know that if you fail you will not be able to try again, but have to start the entire boss fight again. It’s a needlessly cruel mechanic and one which punishes you simply by wasting your time, utterly negating the fun sense of trial and error seen in the rest of the game.

The visuals are striking and there’s a sense of barely restrained chaos at all times. This being a rhythm game, most credit should go to the music. It’s not something I think anyone is going to be listening to for fun anytime soon, being mostly made up of pounding drums and intense synths. The sounds of your beetle as it careens around the track, smashing off walls and through barricades, adds more percussion to the brutal rhythm which pervades the whole experience. I could maybe have done with a bit more musical variety between levels, but I can also see why they went for one style of music and completely leant into that.

Thumper is one of the weirdest rhythm games you’ll play. I felt that in the latter portions its difficulty tipped too much towards arbitrary and cruel, rather than challenging and engaging. Still, when you’re working your way through the levels, utterly immersed in the beat, Thumper takes that classic rhythm game experience and twists it into something evil and oppressive. That’s pretty cool.

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Master Blaster Zero for Switch and 3DS

I’ve played most of the most famous NES classics, but Master Blaster passed me by. Master Blaster Zero is a heavily altered remake, but the core mechanics of the original are essentially the same. It’s an interesting cultural artefact to be sure, but I can’t claim to have fallen in love with it. I think Mario, Mega Man and Castlevania remain the kings of the NES platformer for me.

The plot for Master Blaster Zero is incomprehensible guff. I think it’s post-apocalyptic and about mutants and stuff, but who cares? The original NES game was about a boy whose pet frog jumps down a hole and he uses a tank to rescue him. A frog does still go missing at the beginning of Blaster Master Zero, but it’s only the catalyst for a larger story. I’d prefer it to remain entirely frog focused personally as I quite like the goofiness of the original premise. Final rating for the story of Master Blaster Zero: all frog scenes 10/10, all non-frog scenes 0/10.

Master Blaster Zero can be split into two clear parts. The stronger half is a fairly straightforward platformer, as you manoeuvre the tank Sophia III through a series of caverns. There’s a lot of jumping and shooting, as well as some light Metroidvania elements, although this never becomes particularly extensive. It feels good and controls nicely, with some nifty abilities like hovering and climbing the walls, but it ends up feeling a little bit half baked. You can also leave the tank, where you’re incredibly weak and tiny. There are some interesting ideas at play when you leave the tank, but again, it never quite goes as far as it needs to.

The other half of the game begins when you leave the tank and enter a cavern, where the camera shifts to a top down, almost Zelda-esque perspective. In these you move through short dungeons, shooting enemies. You have variety of weapon types, from a simple blaster to a fast wave shot that shoots through walls. Every time you are hit you are bumped down a tier in the weapons. When you have the wave shot a lot of the game becomes ridiculously easy, with bosses going down in seconds. This is probably a good thing though as these sections aren’t that much fun. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the idea, but the execution left a bit to be desired for me. There are some cool ideas and variety, like some stealth focused sections (which work better than you might expect) but overall I| got tired of the core gameplay loop after a couple of hours, which isn’t great as the game isn’t particularly long to begin with.

That said, it does look nice, with the NES aesthetic updated very well and some genuinely imposing boss creatures. There are some scenes which are impressively cinematic and the soundtrack is pretty good too. Purely visually, Master Blaster Zero is a good case study in how to bring an NES aesthetic into 2017 but with enough tweaks to make it still feel modern.

All said, I wasn’t too impressed by Master Blaster Zero. I get why it’s so respected as it does a lot of interesting things, but it’s not about to break into my favourite NES games any time soon.

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Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Switch

I had thought that Mario Kart 8 was as close to perfect as the series could get, but it turns out I was wrong because Mario Kart 8 Deluxe manages to improve upon it. Wii U owners, such as myself, may be frustrated that they’re getting a re-release rather than a new game, but I’ve seen Mario Kart 8 take-off on the Switch on a way it never did, or ever really could, on the Wii U.

I won’t talk about the general handling or the tracks or anything like that, because I’ve already covered that in my review for the original game (https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/mario-kart-8-for-wii-u/) and the two DLC packs, which are included here (https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/mario-kart-8-dlc-pack-one-for-wii-u & https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/mario-kart-8-dlc-pack-2-for-wii-u/). Suffice it to say that the handling is perfect and the tracks diverse, exciting and wonderful.

I’ll focus instead on what is added. I’ll begin with one of the most controversial additions, the introduction of ‘smart steering’ to keep you from falling off the tracks and an auto accelerate option. Some people (utter pricks) have criticised their introduction, saying that it ‘plays the game for you.’ Having these features on do not give you any real advantage, as you will always skip shortcuts and never really power slide or boost effectively. You might win in single player 50CC matches but that’s basically it and I don’t think anyone will consider that to be the core Mario Kart experience. It is something which allows the very young, or perhaps disabled gamers, to access and enjoy the game. How anyone could view this as a bad thing is beyond me. However, one tiny niggle is that the smart steering is put on automatically when you start, and this isn’t really indicated to you. It should default to off and then need to be turned on, not the other way around. This is literally the biggest flaw in the game by the way.

There are a couple of interesting changes to the core gameplay from the original. The first is the ability to hold two items at once, Double Dash style. In practice it doesn’t really change things too much, but it’s something nice to differentiate itself from the original product. I suspect that the more significant change will be the introduction of a third level of boost on the power slide, this time sending up purple sparks. The tracks aren’t designed for its use, with few corners lasting long enough to activate it, but the boost is massive and it feels amazing when you do pull it off. Neither of these changes mess with the almost perfect mechanics of the original game, but offer something a bit different nonetheless.

Easily the biggest difference in the re-introduction of a proper Battle Mode, which has been somewhat neglected after it’s arguable heyday in Mario Kart 64. There are plenty of different modes, from the classic balloon battle to the shine catching game from Double Dash. There are new courses too, with the most striking being one based on Splatoon, complete with soundtrack. The Inkling boy and girl are also introduced as racers in this game. The new Battle Mode rounds out and expands an already rewarding package.

All said though, the best addition to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is more a function of the Switch console than the game itself. Portable, instant local multiplayer is a game changer. The Switch’s appeal may not be as immediately obvious as the Wii’s, but I think this feature is a system seller. Each player can use a separate Joycon to split0screen race, anywhere you go. The single Joycon isn’t the most comfortable controller in the world and I don’t think anyone will be preferring it to a Pro Controller, but it does work, much better than you might expect. I’m not a fan of online gaming generally; I love multiplayer, but I usually only get that rush of excitement when I’m in the room with whoever I’m competing. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe shows me a vision of a bright future for local multiplayer, something which for many years has been steadily dying.

As a final point, I’ll share a video of what I was doing on Saturday night. For clarity’s sake, I’m the guy who’s amazing at Mario Kart, not the guy who’s amazing at rapping. I’m a good rapper at best. This guy is called Mega Ran by the way and he’s great, go see him. Support independent musicians.

https://www.facebook.com/MegaRanMusic/videos/10154717487563473/

I love this console and I love this game. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is essential.

 

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment DLC for Switch, Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

The third Shovel Knight campaign was the second game I ducked into on the Switch after Breath of the Wild. It was a good choice; after the sprawling grandeur of Zelda, a nice, tight platforming campaign was exactly what I needed and jumping back into the world of Shovel Knight seemed the best way to do so.

Specter of Torment tells the story of how Specter Knight came to be the ghostly presence we see in the main campaign, as well as how he first recruited the Order of No-Quarter for the Enchantress. Yet again, Yacht Club provide a masterclass in how to include story in this kind of games. It’s light, it never gets in the way, but there’s enough to add an extras layer of engagement to the rock solid platforming gameplay.

Ah yes, and speaking of the gameplay, Specter Knight is just as fun to control as Shovel and Plague Knights before him. Just as with Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment reuses the same locations and boss fights from the base game. Although I certainly hope we get some truly new levels down the line, the subtle alterations that are made to each level make them feel distinct. Alongside Shovel Knight’s bouncing shovel and Plague Knights bombs, Specter Knight has some interesting, fun traversal mechanics. One is the ability to slash towards enemies and certain objects, launching you across the screen. This can be combed to cover large gaps, with close timing being frequently required. Less commonly, you can also grind on your scythe along rails, which is fun but perhaps a little underused.

There’s a lot of joy in catapulting yourself around the areas and the boss fights are as fun as ever, even if Specter Knight’s abilities make them a little too easy. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of an overworld this time around, with Specter of Torment instead simply containing a level select screen inside a small version of the Enchantress’ castle. It doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as Plague of Shadows, but it’s still a really fun, challenging experience.

By this point, the base game for Shovel Knight is bloody good value, with three excellent campaigns. Specter Knight is distinct and fun to play as, although I do hope that Yacht Club begin to move beyond the original campaign as their basis.

 

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for Switch and Wii U

I don’t even know how to go about reviewing this game. Zelda is my favourite game series, but it’s hard to deny that it’s been stuck in a rut. I think the last genuine classic is almost 15 years old; Wind Waker. The following games have been good, even great, but have not captured me as much as the games that preceded it. There were two major transformative moments in the series prior to this year; 1991’s SNES classic A Link to the Past and the seminal 1997 Ocarina of Time on the N64. Since then, the series has stayed roughly within the established formula. Now, almost 20 years later, the third transformative moment for the series has arrived with Breath of the Wild. It’s not perfect, there are definite roughs around the edges, but Breath of the Wild is a game changer both for the series and open world game design in general.

I think Breath of the Wild has the greatest open world ever made because it is truly open. Even in GTA you can’t enter all the buildings, but if everything you see in Breath of the Wild is attainable, everything is reachable, everything is tangible. There was a moment I headed towards a shrine which had popped up on my sensor. I later realised that the story would have taken me to its location eventually, outside a gate near one of the main villages. Instead, I climbed up a mountain and down again to my destination, seeing a glimpse of strange ruins I would come to later. On my way up the mountain I came to a plateau upon which I had a perfect view of Death Mountain, Hyrule laid out before it. I’m not ashamed to say I got a bit teary; this was the Zelda game I dreamed about as a child, the game I wanted Twilight Princess to be and it never could. The plateau I was on served no real purpose, it wasn’t how you were clearly intended to reach this shine, but it was there and it was gorgeous and I think Nintendo put it there on purpose. The world is massive, but still feels handcrafted. I don’t think Nintendo have even heard the word procedural generation. This is the Nintendo difference, this is why I will always love this company, for all they can be infuriating.

There has been a rigid Zelda formula since A Link to the Past. You explore a bit, you do a dungeon, you get an item, you beat a boss, you explore a bit, you do a dungeon, you get an item, you beat a boss etc. There’s usually a major focus shift a bit of the way through, like A Link to the Past’s Dark World or Ocarina of Time’s 7 year timeline jump, and then you do the same thing. It’s not a bad structure by any stretch, but the spirit of adventure of the original NES game was missing. Breath of the Wild abandons the formula almost entirely. Dungeons don’t really exist anymore and are replaced with Shrines scattered around the map. There are 120 in total and most contain some kind of puzzle. Some a very brief and some are like mini-dungeons and each give you an item which can either put towards giving yourself a Heart Container or expanding your stamina wheel. There are four larger dungeon-like areas, the nature of which I will not spoil, but they never reach the scale of the previous games’ dungeons. The puzzles themselves work very differently; you no longer have a set of equipable items you use to solve a dungeon’s puzzles. That design locks you into a particular path and you can tackle Breath of the Wild’s challenges in any order you like. Instead, you are given almost all of your tools in the first hour and sent out into the world. These powers are linked to your mythical Shiekah Slate and can do things like manipulate metal objects, pause time for a moving object, freeze ice and others. The puzzles are much more physics based and designed differently to traditional Zelda puzzles, often with multiple solutions, reminding me more of something like Portal or The Talos Principle.

Zelda games have long had a clear divide between exploration and puzzling, with the two halves of the games kept distinct through the dungeon structure. Breath of the Wild unifies the two, with a little and often approach to puzzling rather than dense and lengthy challenges. Initially I saw this an entirely positive thing; some of the puzzles are truly brilliant, but as time went on my opinion shifted somewhat. There may be 120 shrines (and the four mini-dungeons), but many of these shrines (too many) are combat focused and for a lot finding the shrine itself is the puzzle. All shrines have the same visual design and music, meaning that by the end I was feeling a bit like I’d seen it all before. A few fewer shrines and more themed and expansive dungeons may have been a better approach and I hope this is what they do with the sequel. The shift to shrines from a few massive dungeons is a good thing, but I think a slightly better balance could have been struck.

Link is the most manoeuvrable and fun to control he’s even been in 3D. Almost any surface is climbable, limited only by your upgradable stamina wheel, and any height can be used as a platform to glide from with your sailcloth. This is the most tangible open world since Metal Gear Solid V. Since I finished Zelda I’ve started playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, and whilst I’m enjoying it, it feels limited after Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild is entirely laissez-faire about how you approach its world. If you want to climb over the mountain in front of you rather than following a path wending round it, feel free. Many open world games use mountains and rivers to guide and block your exploration, to provide barriers, but Zelda simply places them as another challenge. Exploration is almost always rewarded, maybe with a shrine or with a Korok seed which you use to expand your inventory. If you see an interesting looking spot and wonder if there’s something cool up there, there almost always is. I love exploring in games, but many open world games are unwilling to remove the leash. Even games I love like The Witcher 3 would be very hard to play without waypoints, with a world designed in such a way that you need a map to get around. Early in the game, you will be sent to go through a valley between two mountains and then get directions. You don’t need a glowing marker to show you where to go, you can just look at the key landmark. There are more HUD options if you want them, but I played very minimalist, navigating by directions from passers-by and environmental clues. The last game I bothered to do this with is Morrowind.

This openness extends to the combat, which is another significant departure from previous games. In previous games you would generally have one sword, two at most, with which to fight. I mean, sure you could whack things with the Biggoron Hammer in Ocarina of Time, but why would you when the Master Sword is better and quicker? Breath of the Wild has an aggressive weapon durability system, which has been controversial. I totally get why people would hate it: I thought I would and sort of did myself at first. Your weapons are ridiculously brittle, with many weapons barely surviving a single protracted encounter before they literally shatter, never to be seen again. Breath of the Wild isn’t a game about acquiring loot and becoming more powerful; the difficulty curve instead fluctuates. There will be moments where you are powerful, fully buffed from food, quiver filled with arrows, powerful weapon at your side when you can take on the world. There will be times when you are low on health, depleted and with no weapon of any value. Breath of the Wild nudges you away from playing one particular way, from simply approaching each encounter by charging in with a sword. You don’t want to waste your finite resource of the weapon for no reason. You are instead encouraged to be clever, using the environment or stealth to clear areas. There’s something of Metal Gear Solid V’s vast toolbox of tricks in Breath of the Wild’s design. Some may find this nudging oppressive; if I want to charge in and just use a sword than why should the game stop me having fun? I see their point, but I don’t think I would have experimented as much as I did if I didn’t have to by necessity. Other games would teach you these mechanics through pop up or tutorials, Breath of the Wild teaches you to play smart by necessity. The actual melee combat itself is pretty basic, and feels like a step backwards from Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, although the game is more about encouraging you to approach enemies in a variety of ways. Using the bow feels better in Breath of the Wild than it ever has before.

The biggest issue with the combat is a lack of enemy variety compared to previous games, with creatures like Re-Deads, Darknuts and Dodongos missing, with the world populated almost entirely with Bokobins, Moblins and Lizfalos.

One element I was very dubious of before release were the crafting and survival mechanics. I generally hate these in most games, but there’s a tactile charm to everything which makes even these irksome mechanics somehow delightful. Rather than collecting hearts from chopping grass, you heal from meals that you cook over a fire, which can also provide other buffs. Most games would just do this through a menu, with the outcome of your cooking clear based on your ingredients. Zelda is cheerfully chaotic, with cooking literally done by holding up to five items, dropping them in a pot and taking what comes out. Experimentation is rewarded and the buffs are considerable. There are areas which are too warm or cold for Link to survive, so these can be alleviated with particular outfits or foods. Zelda did something impossible; it actually made me enjoy crafting and survival. It’s essential that you take these mechanics seriously too because this game can be hard. It’s the hardest Zelda game since…Link’s Awakening maybe? It’s never cruel or capricious however and generous with autosaves.

Breath of the Wild doesn’t have the protracted opening for which most 3D Zelda games are guilty. Link awakens in a strange chamber and emerges into a Hyrule devastated by the arrival of Calamity Ganon. No clear timeline placement is offered, but the implication is that Breath of the Wild may be late in the timeline, as Ganon has abandoned any vestige of humanity or intelligence as Ganondorf, descending instead into as primal force of sheer evil. 100 years before, Hyrule had been overrun when Calamity Ganon turned the kingdom’s own highly advanced defensive Guardians against their masters. Link must piece together what happened 100 years ago and put an end to Calamity Ganon as it lurks in the ruins of Hyrule Castle.

Zelda has never had complex plots, but at their best they tap into a sense of epic destiny. Breath of the Wild is, in many ways, post-apocalyptic, and there’s a sense of melancholy and loss which pervades the whole thing. I had worried before release that Breath of the Wild would be a barren wasteland and would lack the loveable cast of weirdos which help make the series so special. Happily, this is not the case, with a cast as entertaining and eccentric as we’ve come to expect. Standouts include the charmingly positive Zora Prince Sidon and the intimidating Gerudo warrior Urbosa. The minor cast has some real stars too; I’m glad to see that the proud Zelda tradition of ridiculously effeminate carpenters is alive and well. Still, the actual plot is a bit underwhelming. We’re introduced to a key supporting player in each of the game’s four main dungeon locations, with their own subquests attached and I had been expecting, and hoping, that the game would return to them in the conclusion. The open structure and ability to approach the goals in any order make a story which feels more like a series of vignettes than an epic adventure. Nothing much can really change or grow. The lack of a true villain doesn’t help, with the mindless fury of Calamity Ganon never making anywhere near as much as an impact as Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker’s Ganondorf, or the titular Majora’s Mask.

The majesty of the open world would be nothing if it didn’t look incredible, but it really does. This is the best looking Zelda since Wind Waker, with an art style which falls somewhere between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. I played it on the Switch and it looks amazing both on the TV and on the little screen, with beautiful bright colours and truly stunning art direction. The characters are also brilliantly expressive and funny, with charming animations. The music is minimalistic but wonderful. This isn’t a triumphant soundtrack I’ll listen to over and over again like Wind Waker and I don’t think it’s going to inspire complex tributes like Majora’s Mask, but it’s the perfect soundtrack for the game it is. A booming orchestral score would feel out of place in this Hyrule, but there are some lovely tunes in a lot of the towns and villages. Some are entirely new and some are truly stunning re-workings of songs from previous games. There are some problems; Breath of the Wild introduces voice acting to the series for the first time and the result is…mixed. Some supporting characters, particularly in the Gorons and Gerudo sound perfectly fine, but a few too many major characters are very stilted. I hated Zelda’s voice, which was breathy and a bit pathetic sounding. There are also regular framerate drops, particularly in chaotic scenes and when docked in TV mode. It’s not awful and anyone who tells you it ruins the game is an idiot who doesn’t deserve videogames, but it would undeniably be better if the framerate was more solid.

So, in summary. Breath of the Wild isn’t perfect, because no game is. What it does do is transcend its flaws, offering something which feels truly new whilst respecting the storied past of this great series. It’s a wonderful experience and Nintendo’s best game since Super Mario Galaxy. People may knock the Switch line up for only having one big game, but if you must launch a console with only one game it might as well be one of the greatest of all time.

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Lego Dimensions: The Simpsons Level Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

Ok, this will be the last Lego Dimensions review for a while, I promise! I skipped out on buying this one as the lack of new voice acting put me off, but I saw it on sale so picked it up anyway. Through excellent animation and the already brilliant vocal performance from the show itself, the lack of new voice acting mattered less than I’d expected, at least in the main level.

The level included in an adaption of the classic episode ‘The Mysterious Voyage of Homer’, which sees Homer eat several powerful chillies, hallucinate a strange desert landscape and seek his soulmate. It’s a great episode, one of the most visually experimental episodes with a heartfelt conclusion which shows Simpsons at its best. Lego Dimensions can’t really claim the credit for how entertaining this is, but it certainly does the episode justice.

The actual level felt a bit on the short side as these things go, but it’s certainly fun enough. The level pack gives you Homer Simpson himself, his iconic pink car and, oddly, the TV set which explodes when removed from the portal. It was a smart choice to adapt this episode, as the trippy chilli induced dream scape offers something more visually interesting than Springfield itself. There’s not much to this pack at all, but it’s certainly a fun curio for any Simpsons fan.

The Adventure World is extensive and fun to explore, but here the lack of new voice acting became a much bigger problem for me. Springfield is only such a great setting because of the characters in it and that element is pretty much missing, aside from a few archival recordings from major characters. Considering how much the Simpsons cast costs these days I understand why this wasn’t possible, but it undeniably lessens the experience.

Still, Springfield and its characters are charmingly rendered in Lego. The lack of music from the show is disappointing too, with a grating theme song ‘sound-a-like’ replacing the main tune. I can’t help but compare it to the vastly superior Adventure Time pack, which had much greater attention to detail to things like music and voice than this one.

It’s not a terrible pack all around, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it. It sits above the Sonic the Hedgehog pack because this one is actually fun to play, but it sits below pretty much every other one I’ve played too.

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Pokémon Sun and Moon for Nintendo 3DS

With my Switch pre-ordered and all eyes upon Nintendo’s (hopefully) glorious handheld/home console hybrid future, 2016 was largely the death knell for both the Wii U and the 3DS. Where the final Wii U game I’ll buy was the likeable but largely forgettable Paper Mario: Colour Splash, the Nintendo 3DS went out with a much bigger bang: Pokémon. I know that the Game Boy existed prior to Pokémon, but for me it is the series which has defined Nintendo’s handhelds. It therefore seems fitting that what is probably Nintendo’s final pure handheld ends with the latest instalment in this now venerable series with an entry which shakes up the formula to the greatest extent seen in years.

Pokémon Sun and Moon take place in the Hawaii inspired Alola Region, which is structured differently to other regions seen previously. Where in all previous games a rigid structure of collecting eight Gym Badges before challenging the Elite Four has been enforced, Alola instead sees children sent across the four islands of the Alola Region to complete a series of Trials before confronting the leader of the island, known as the Kahuna. This being a Pokémon game there is also an evil team with nefarious aims; this time it is the unbelievably silly but oddly lovable Team Skull.

Pokémon games aren’t exactly known for their story, but since Black and White there’s been a marked improvement and this continues in Sun and Moon. The story goes to surprisingly epic places, from parallel dimensions to personal family struggles. Pokémon Sun and Moon has actual honest to God plot twists and it’s clear that real effort has been put into the writing and localisation. It’s quite funny at times, as most localised Nintendo games generally are these days. Look, I’m not claiming that Sun and Moon are particularly complex, but there’s a genuine narrative impulse to keep on going, something which could not really be said about most past Pokémon games. I particularly liked the dopey and loveable Team Skull, easily the most (only) memorable team since the original Team Rocket. They’re so…silly, with their juggalo aesthetic and white boy hip-hop hand waving. They’re so desperate to seem tough and scary but so not. The world of Alola feels alive and vibrant in a way previous settings haven’t.

Whilst a lot of the trappings have changed, the core gameplay is still much the same as it was 20 years ago. There are lots of big sweeping changes, but the ones that made me happiest were the simple quality of life fixes. When choosing a move, you can now see whether it is effective/super effective/not very effective beforehand, meaning that memorising type charts is a thing of the past, and any changes to stats like attack or defence are tracked and easy to see. There will doubtless be people why decry this as dumbing down, but memorisation was never an interesting part of the Pokémon tactics anyway. A pointless barrier is removed. There are all sorts of little changes like this, such as being able to add a new Pokémon to your party immediately upon catching them. Pokémon has been full of little niggles for years and Sun and Moon obliterate a large number of them. Bigger issues are fixed too; HMs are finally gone, replaced by the Ride Pager which summons Pokémon to do the same thing. Rather than teaching a Pokémon to Surf, you summon a Lapras to carry you. Rather than learning Rock Smash, toy summon a rideable Taurus who can do it for you. The days of having to lug around a Pokémon with ‘Cut’ and ‘Strength’ and all the others are finally gone and good riddance. Another nice change is an expansion of the Pokémon Amie feature from X & Y, which saw you directly petting and feeding you team. Now called Pokémon Refresh, after every battle you can cure any status ailments and boost their affection, which drastically quickens their rate of experience growth. The virtual pet element of Pokémon has never been stronger than it is in Sun and Moon.

Other changes include the addition of ‘Z-Moves’, which largely replaces the previous games’ Mega Evolution. Z-moves can be used once per battle and are essentially super powered version of regular moves. They’re…fine I guess, but don’t feel nearly as interesting or game changing as the previous generation’s Mega Evolutions. The new trials which replace Gym Battles are generally fun and varied, although not that far removed from the simple puzzles which you would often get in previous games’ gyms. There is one addition which I really hated and that was the ability to wild Pokémon to call for help, summoning in another monster. You can’t capture Pokémon with two on the screen at once, so you have to knock one of them down. The real problem lies in the fact that it doesn’t take up a turn to summon a new Pokémon, meaning that battles can get incredibly protracted and there’s essentially nothing you can do about it, as every time you knock down one Pokémon a new one is immediately called in. This mechanic is used to interesting effect in Totem Pokémon battles, which see you battling powered up versions of regular Pokémon during some of the Island Trials, creating some gloriously tense and challenging encounters. The problem lies when the random Zubat you encounter in a cave starts doing that and you’re stuck fighting Zubats in the same battle for five bloody minutes. It’s an annoying blight in an otherwise extremely solid game.

As for the Pokémon themselves? Sun and Moon may very well be my favourite generation in a long time. There are lots of brilliant brand new Pokémon with some interesting type combinations. For example, my adorable grass owl starter Pokémon Rowlet eventually evolved into the mixed Grass/Ghost Decidueye, not the Grass/Flying I was expecting. One of the absolute best additions are the Alola Form Pokémon, which are Gen 1 Pokémon redesigned and given a new type combination. For example, the previously fire type Vulpix/Ninetales become Ice/Fairy. My favourite of these was the incredibly adorable Alolan Raichu, who is now Electric/Psychic and surfs on his own tail. I wasn’t convinced on the concept at first, but now I see it as clever merging of nostalgia with invention. Some of the most unique type combos can be found in these Alolan forms and they play very different roles in the party, but they nonetheless feel familiar and tickle you right in the nostalgia. I played Sun and Moon entirely with new Pokémon and Alolan Forms and felt no temptation to go for any of the old ones.

Sun and Moon are easily the most beautiful Pokémon games ever made, with gorgeous environments and brilliant character designs. The music is solid too and the genuine sense of atmosphere created on the dinky little 3DS is impressive. By far though, the best part is the Pokémon themselves. They are best seen in the Pokémon Refresh mode. Every single Pokémon has several unique animations which are truly brimming with character. Some like to be rubbed certain places and not others; Pichu’s bereft face every time you rub it somewhere he doesn’t like never failed to get a reaction from me. The thing that blows my mind is that there are 802 Pokémon and that’s not even counting alternate forms, which likely add at least another few dozen. Every single one is given this level of love and attention and the work involved, as well as fitting it all on the cart, is truly impressive.

There are lots of other features I haven’t mentioned; like the whole series, this is a very feature rich game. There are whole mechanics and systems I essentially ignore as I’m here for the core gameplay of collecting, battling and levelling up, but as always there’s so much here for you if you want it. Pokémon Sun and Moon has a couple of niggles, but all round it’s a hell of an achievement. It’s the perfect swan song for the 3DS, a console I’m really going to miss. If you like Pokémon you’ll get this anyway, but if you haven’t played Pokémon in a few years and want to get back to it, this is a pretty damn good place.

 

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Lego Dimensions: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Story Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

This is the second of the more extensive ‘Story Packs’ for Lego Dimensions, after 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. My feelings towards Fantastic Beasts as a movie is very similar to my feelings towards Ghostbusters; somewhere between lukewarm and positive. I’m a big Harry Potter fan but Fantastic Beasts as a movie just didn’t quite land for me; nonetheless, I liked it enough that I was happy to receive this pack as a Christmas present.

Just as with the Ghostbusters pack, this is essentially a straightforward retelling of the story of the movie. There are some funny asides and visual gags from other franchises, but nothing side-splittingly hilarious. The presentation is held back by the use of a lot of archive sound from the movie, with more subdued delivery which made sense in the movie just coming off as weird here. The newer voice acting from some of the cast is much better.

As ever, the Fantastic Beasts story pack doesn’t do anything new in terms of gameplay. The pack gives you Newt Scamander and the Niffler. Newt doesn’t offer anything unique; in fact, he has essentially the same move set as Gandalf from the starter pack and the Niffler simply allows you to use dig spots. Playing through the six story missions will take you a couple of enjoyable hours. The same enjoyably structured if entirely uncreative general unfolding of the environments which makes these games so mindlessly satisfying is in full force here and it is lacking the over-abundance of irritating boss fights which can slightly hamstring these games.

The Adventure World is fine and has some nice missions, but I must say that I’m a bit over New York as an Adventure World setting. It’s definitely more exciting than the Ghostbusters one, but compared to the beauty of the Adventure Time world or the labyrinthine complexity of the Portal 2 world, it ends up coming off a bit bland. I think these worlds are better when they move away from cities; it forces the developers to be a bit more creative. The general look is great and the voice acting solid, with the excellent soundtrack from the movie helping to elevate the experience.

These packs are getting harder and harder review because generally I feel the same about all of them. There are some I’m more enthusiastic about (Adventure Time) and some I’m less (Sonic the Hedgehog), but in general they all operate at the level of decent. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is another decent Lego Dimensions entry and I think that’s all I’m really asking for.

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