Cloudy With a Chance of Adventure

laputa3As the first movie ever released by Studio Ghibli, Castle in the Sky bears some similarities to the films that would follow it while also being drastically different from most animations that the company would put out. The links it shares with many of its descendants are three: the existence of a heartwarming and well-rounded emotional aura that permeates its running time; the presence of a strong female character that beautifully travels through the arch that leads from helplessness to independence; and the theme of nature versus technology and industry.

Those three items are all an integral part of Miyazaki’s film-making signature and – consequently – of Studio Ghibli’s aura as well. However, differently from every effort that succeeded it, Castle in the Sky does not use any of those elements as its core. On the contrary, they merely serve as ornaments to a gigantic adventure; one whose scope has – intentionally – never been reached again by the talented troupe of Japanese artists.

The motivation that sends our heroes towards adventure is Laputa, a legendary floating city – the only one remaining from a forgotten era when most humans abandoned the Earth to live up in the sky – that is believed by most people to be a legend. Pazu, a boy who lives in a large mining town, however, pushed by a blurry picture of the soaring castle taken by his now-deceased father when he was caught in the middle of a peculiar storm, dreams of building a flying machine in order to track down Laputa and prove the authenticity of his dad’s tale.

laputa2Living as a humble assistant to the village’s miners, his fate changes dramatically when – one night – as his shift was about to end, a mysterious sleeping girl named Sheeta floats down from the sky protected by the power of a incandescent amulet. Pazu takes her into his home to recover and Sheeta wakes up with no memory whatsoever of how she ended up there. Later on, when both an extravagant group of pirates and the army simultaneously hit the village looking for a young girl, Sheeta remembers the two groups were after her and, having formed a quick strong bond with the girl, Pazu vows to protect her.

Castle in the Sky is, then, driven by the different – and often conflicting – interests all those parties have in the search for Laputa. The pirates are after the supposed treasures it carries; Pazu sees it as a matter of honor and tries to help Sheeta find out more about her past; while the government has dark intentions regarding one of the city’s rumored powers. Naturally, those threads entwine and frequently bump into each other, providing plenty of tense moments and intriguing conflicts that use the search for Laputa as its intersecting background.

Due to that, the movie is an all-out adventure whose progression would be right at home if featured on an Indiana Jones movie. The difference is that the universe in which the world’s favorite archaeologist lives features no laser-shooting robots and flying machines of absurd design. Hence, Castle in the Sky features a great share of hypnotizing action sequences populated with over-the-top physics, gun-wielding baddies, and impossibly overpowered weapons.

laputa4All of the thrilling segments are made even more exciting thanks to the sheer evilness of Colonel Muska, the government’s leading agent in the search for Laputa. One of Ghibli’s most remarkable villains, the character – brilliantly portrayed by Mark Hamill – is extremely successful in drawing utter hatred from viewers, and his impressive efficiency in achieving his goals is infuriating in a way that makes the entire ride very engaging.

In spite of those constant fireworks and the fact that, unlike other Ghibli movies, the focus here is on an enormous adventure rather than on a believable and delicate human story, the animated feature has a very strong heart. Firstly, the movie’s orchestrated soundtrack – composed exclusively for the American version – is extremely moving.

Most importantly, as an early display of Ghibli’s ability to approach feelings with astounding delicacy, Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship is incredibly innocent, and the sweet way through which it is carefully developed makes it enchantingly pure. In addition, the duo also forms, sometimes through many twists and turns, great truthful connections with other supporting characters in a very organic way, and those bonds are key to the development and growth of the cast as a whole.

laputaThe final masterful touch comes with how, as the plot reaches its summit, Castle in the Sky is able to combine all of its concurrent lines to deliver an environmental warning without making it sound overly preachy or exaggeratedly blatant, turning it into a secondary – yet resounding – element inserted into the film’s satisfying conclusion.

The work is not perfect, though, and the flick’s greatest issue might be a major source of disappointment to many. Even though Laputa is the centerpiece around which everything spins, and despite the fact the script hints the place has an intriguing backstory, the movie simply does not give its viewers enough information to allow them to form a coherent line of events regarding the city. It is commendable that the writers opted to, instead of spelling out Laputa’s great mysteries through a character’s single tacked on speech, scatter sublet clues all around the story, but they never truly come together and it is a tad frustrating to watch the adventure come to an end without being able to coherently express everything that lies behind Laputa’s rise and fall.

As the first effort by Studio Ghibli, Castle in the Sky shows minor signs that those involved in its production had yet to reach their full capacity as movie-makers. However, after building a collection of twenty productions – most of which are highly beloved – it remains one of the brightest entries in the studio’s catalog. Aside from setting in stone many of the characteristics future releases would have – features that are essential elements to the Ghibli spirit, it delivers what is by far one of the most thrilling and imaginative hand-drawn journeys ever. Castle in the Sky joins fantasy, science-fiction, and nature in one mighty package that evokes powerful feelings. Pazu and Sheeta propelled Ghibli into quite a start.

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Half Steam Ahead

codename4For a company like Intelligent Systems, one that is responsible for a number of major Nintendo franchises such as Fire Emblem and Paper Mario, there is something very good about tackling a project like Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Instead of dealing with the constraints naturally brought by traditional properties, which are expected to deliver certain elements, it frees developers to work far outside any kind of comfort zone; it stretches the creative muscles of a number of professionals that might be tired of working on titles whose gameplay pillars are well-set in place.

If the overall result of Code Name: S.T.E.AM. is to be seen as some sort of indicative of how shackled the brains of Intelligent Systems were, then one thing is for sure: they were pretty goddamn frustrated, because – at least from a thematic standpoint – this is as insane as it can get. The game brings together a ridiculously wide assortment of references and influences and tries to stitch them together to form one cohesive universe.

Here, Abraham Lincoln – with the help of other historic figures – is the leader of a secret agency tasked with defending the world from an alien invasion (hence the extremely appropriate and bafflingly direct Japanese title of the game, Lincoln vs. Aliens). Piloting a gigantic flying ship whose design resembles a stylized Statue of Liberty, he recruits a team of characters ripped straight from American literature and folklore to combat the rising extraterrestrial menace.

codename3Henry Fleming, from The Red Badge of Courage; Queequeb, from Moby Dick; Scarecrow and Lion, from The Wizard of Oz; Tiger Lily, from Peter Pan; and others come together on a steam-punk cell-shaded setting whose lines and motifs were clearly inspired by comic books. One cannot help but wonder what kind of creative oppression could possibly lead to such a sudden wild outburst, but the bottom line is that the final result is mixed.

Occasionally, players will be intrigued by watching personages from outrageously disparate universes interact with one another and join forces under the same banner. However, at times, the whole fabric sewn by all these patches does not seem to work; the game is too random and shoots at way too many directions for its own sake.

True the game’s inconsistent thematic, its gameplay also alternates moments of sheer brilliancy with dullness. S.T.E.A.M. borrows a page from Sega’s stellar Valkyria Chronicles and embraces an ecosystem where turn-based strategy meets a third person perspective. Characters advance through grid patterns on 3-D scenarios, with their movements being restricted by the amount of steam produced by their boilers, while having no clue whatsoever of what might lie ahead.

Given there is no overhead map, navigating the battlefield is delightfully tense. Players must balance actions of reconnaissance – as they try to grasp how exactly enemies are currently positioned and how they can use the terrain’s setup to their advantage, while playing a game of cat-and-mouse against the alien army to determine which side will be caught off-guard and – therefore – have a huge disadvantage on one-on-one conflict. It is a exercise in setting traps (which is done by conserving a certain amount of steam by the end of the turn, hence allowing a character to fight back when the foes are on the move), avoiding being cornered by aliens, shooting, healing, working together, and slowly making the four S.T.E.A.M. soldiers head towards their goal.

codenameEach of the available units – a group that eventually features twelve members – has a set-in-stone main weapon and an adjustable secondary arm, and that variety supports an impressive amount of strategies that need to be chosen carefully according to each map. While Henry Fleming carries a riffle, Scarecrow has a pumpkin launcher whose explosions stun enemies, Tiger Lily is a skilled healer, Tom Sawyer uses a wacky long-ranged but low-damaging Punch Gun, and John Henry specializes in explosives. It is a pleasant mixture of over-the-top weaponry with traditional firepower that provides gamers with intriguing choices whenever they are faced with choosing the quartet that will go out onto the field.

The gameplay, however, has two central problems. First, there are the infamous lengthy enemy turns. Even with the patch that works towards reducing their duration, they are still a bit too long and break the pace of the battle by forcing players to sit and wait for between 10 and 30 seconds depending on the quantity of hostile units that are active. It is clear Intelligent Systems decided to implement turns in such a way to give players the chance to observe – even if it is via sounds, camera tilts, or quick glimpses – alien movement in order to estimate where the foes are, but it is an option (perhaps caused by a lack of funds to optimize the code in order to allow those turns to be completely skippable) that is detrimental to the experience.

Secondly, the stage design is a bit irregular. Whereas some missions are spectacular, offering amazing challenges that must be overcome by strategical thinking; others feel lazy due to the fact they rely on endless and constant enemy re-spawns to achieve a level of difficulty that, sometimes, turns out to be exaggeratedly high in the worst possible way. When in the first group of missions, it is impossible not to feel like Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is indeed a product of the same studio that put out the masterpiece that is Fire Emblem: Awakening. However, while navigating through the latter, there is an overwhelming feeling of frustration in the realization that in lieu of using intelligence to construct a challenge, the developers opted to mindlessly throw enemies towards the screen.

codename2When looking at those issues, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. comes off as a disappointment – particularly given the astounding pedigree of the company that is behind it. Yet, to those who are willing to make their way past its flaws, there are some rewards to be reaped along the way. It does not come through as a completely solid product, but it can be a good diversion, especially to fans of the strategy genre.

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Epic Mickey Review

Epic Mickey’s attitude in art, concept, and direction is undermined by bland gameplay

epic_mickeyThe first few glances that the gaming world was able to take at Epic Mickey revealed a game that was supposed to be the antonymous of everything that has the Disney name added to it. Instead of shinning splendid castles, the first art screens showed torn landscapes; where once happy characters existed, sad, broken and troubled figures inhabited a disturbed world that mirrored the happiest place on the planet.

The choice to go in an opposite direction in every sense of the term ends up reflecting positively in the overall result of the Epic Mickey experience. Mickey games of the 3-D era have always had a tendency to be shallow, unimaginative, and too silly for their own good. Epic Mickey – on the other hand – takes itself seriously enough not to come off as dumbed down, but not excessively to the point of pretentiousness. It delivers a one-of-a-kind experience for Wii owners.

However, although Mickey moves towards a brighter horizon with this gloomy adventure, there are still a few number of stumbles along the way that prevent his most ambitious gaming outing yet to be called anything other than a good platforming game.

epic_mickey6Epic Mickey begins with Yensid, the sorcerer from the legendary Fantasia segment “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, at his workshop crafting a world that is a carbon copy of Walt’s Disneyland. This world is created with the intent of serving as a home for the Disney characters that were forgotten with time. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – Mickey’s predecessor, is the leader of this world, and everything is in fine balance until Mickey’s big curious nature leads the mouse inside the room where the gates to that universe reside.

When playing around with the brush that was used to engineer that place, Mickey ends up accidentally creating an evil creature – the Blot. In his desperate attempt to destroy his devilish creation, Mickey throws tons of thinner into the peaceful Disneyland, creating havoc and tearing apart the life of its inhabitants. Mickey returns frightened to his house; however, a few months later he is surprised when a mysterious shadowy figure breaks into his place while he sleeps and drags him into the broken Wasteland. Mickey, then, has to choose between two diametrically opposite fates: fix the mess he caused, or extend the reach of the damage he did.

The greatest delight offered by Epic Mickey is that it works as a vault packed with Disney references, some of which are rather obscure and destined to fly over the heads of a big part of the audience, while others will be as clear as water. For big and knowledgeable fans of the company, opening that treasure chest is a sheer pleasure on its own.

The biggest universally accessible nod the game executes is the setup of the Wasteland itself, for the overworld where the adventure takes place is a virtual version of Disneyland with twisted versions of Fantasyland, New Orleans Square, Frontierland, Tomorrowland and Toontown being organized around a crooked Sleeping Beauty castle.

epic_mickey3Being able to play and fight enemies in such a scenario is an amazing experience for Disney fans, one that is made even more fantastic due to how the game bursts open the door to the company’s rich artistic history. Sadly, though, those who have a neutral relation with the entertainment giant and come in simply looking for a great platformer to play will be able to look past all those fanservices and notice that, in its central structure, Epic Mickey is a little bit rusty, as if a soft blowing of the wind would be able to bring everything down.

In the game, players take the role of Mickey, who is armed with both a brush and thinner. By using those contrasting tools, the mouse will be given a series of goals by the inhabitants of the Wasteland who had their lives affected by the thinner disaster. The good thing about those missions is that all of them can be performed in two different manners: a friendly resolution, dubbed the Paint Path; or a not so honest solution, dubbed the Thinner Path.

Choosing to solve problems more frequently in one way, instead of the other, will directly affect the final outcome of the game, which is surprisingly deep for a Mickey Mouse title. Besides, as an obvious consequence, the game gains huge replay value from the two manners through which all of the missions can be cleared; Epic Mickey cannot, in any way, be finished in only one playthrough. The software’s value is further helped due to the impressive number of extra quests the game presents.

Those extra missions, in particular, will certainly lure in players who are looking to fully complete the title, for their rewards are unquestionably alluring. Pins, the same ones that are a huge success around Disney’s parks; film reels that unlock remarkable old Mickey Mouse cartoons; and paper sheets that reveal amazing pieces of art in the game’s extra section are the three biggest ones, and they show extra tidbits of Disney’s history, revealing the astounding care that was put into the title.

epic_mickey2The creativity applied to the conception of the game’s basic premise, however, is nowhere to be seen when one looks at the way it has been structured. Most of Epic Mickey’s missions consist of silly fetch quests; there aren’t many moments in the journey when players will be amazed by the ingenuity applied to the platforming sections. Everything Epic Mickey offers in terms of level design has already been done, and in a much more inspired fashion.

As a consequence, missions that should involve fun segments and obstacles stopping you from reaching a certain item become a simple exercise in jumping and running through bland challenges that just don’t go anywhere for players who are into the genre. It all comes down to the combination of running, jumping, and either erasing a wall or painting a missing piece of the scenario to reveal a new possible path towards your final goal. The missions, which are many, get repetitive pretty fast and after a certain point in the game the only thing that will keep players going is the surprisingly intriguing and heart-warming story that is very well developed.

Another considerable problem Epic Mickey presents are its sidescrolling levels, which are always used to connect distinct 3-D areas of the Wasteland. The concept is brilliant: not only do they work as references to the fantastic Mickey sidescrollers of old, but they are also smartly centered around black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons, with obstacles and enemies coming right out of those unforgettable animations.

epic_mickey4Going through them for the first time is a blast. Sadly, though, players will have to clear them over and over again. Given they separate 3-D locations, whenever Mickey travels between those, players are forced to play the 2-D stages, having no option whatsoever to – after a nice first playthrough – skip them and just proceed to their destination. Naturally, those extra trips through the levels add nothing to the game, turning a possibly fun transition between scenarios into an extremely annoying activity.

The third major issue the game presents lies in its combat. Enemies can be found all across the Wasteland, but while they are visually great, their design makes up for skirmishes that are quite dull. Battling all enemies comes down to using enough ink to make them friendly, or enough thinner to make them disappear from the world. Therefore, combats are restricted to running around while spraying the enemy in question with as much paint as possible.

Much like what happens with the levels themselves, there isn’t a moment of awe-inspiring creativity in the enemies’ designs, and even though they have different forms of attack, defeating all of them requires pretty much the same method. The fact that game’s camerawork is decent at best also doesn’t help make fights more compelling than they are; on the contrary, it can turn them into frustrating ordeals.

Epic Mickey is not all about shortcomings, though. Despite its slip-ups the game is still a fun platformer, and the biggest part of the credit goes to the artistic department involved in its production. The artists behind the title were able to transform an environment – Disneyland – that is, by all means, a real-life artwork, into a distinct videogame scenario full of personality, crafting – therefore – a highly artistic version of a place that is already artistic in itself.

epic_mickey7The scenarios are wonderful in their torn-apart state and they become even more overwhelming if players work on filling them up with ink and restoring a part of their original beauty and colors. Painting the environment and watching it fluidly transform is one of the most fun activities in the game, and it compels players to explore and play around with the scenarios around them for a little bit. The Wasteland is an extremely immersive location, and the solid story behind it turns it into a rather believable place.

To go along with the great visuals, a masterpiece of a soundtrack was also crafted. The game is full of dark instrumentals that perfectly convey the feeling of despair and sadness one has upon walking into such broken environments. The tunes are not catchy, but they are deeply atmospheric and very successful in bringing players closer to the action. That outstanding combination between sound and sight is the main factor that makes it worth it giving Epic Mickey a try. The title also features good voice acting into some of its key cutscenes; the ones who don’t possess that mark make up for it with extremely high artistic values in their presentation.

To sum things up, Epic Mickey is a mixed bag. The creativity and attention to detail that are seen in its visuals and soundtrack are on a far higher level than the craftiness applied to the stages and challenges that keep the game rolling. For a 3-D Mickey game, it is without a doubt better than average, but when compared to top-tier platformers, it fails to impress. Still, anyone who has a love for what Disney has produced through the years will be delighted to know the license was well-used by the game’s developers. Epic Mickey is definitely not the brightest platformer out there, but its interesting concept and unique attitude make up for a nice package.

Epic Mickey

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Lights That Never Go Out

IwataEvery human being that reaches a position of relative power is faced with two options: either become completely self-absorbed inside their bubble of perceived superiority, hence shutting out external influences and productive exchanges of ideas; or – like an adult who comes to his knees when talking to a child – reach out to the outside world and, at the expense of being able to feel and be looked at as a creature of heavenly strength, leave the door wide open to truthful feedback and human values by letting others know they are your equals.

Satoru Iwata took the latter road. Aside from treating his employees as peers with whom he could sit down and have a light-hearted talk about their common hobby – fun videogames, which also happened to be the ultimate creative goal of their professional lives; he did the same for his fans.

Nintendo had always been known for its colorful characters and family-friendly franchises, and Iwata dared to bring the same loose and goofy philosophy that gave life to icons such as Mario and Kirby to the business environment. The board of directors may have awarded him with a position that required him to wear a black dull suit, but under it he carried the same passionate heart that made him turn towards game development in the first place.

With him, the inventiveness of Nintendo’s line of software leaked right into its hardware. Traditional control schemes took a backseat to touch screens and motion-based technology. Surely, he was not the sole responsible for the advent of those features, but it takes one courageous soul – and a person who truly believes his instincts – to put his position and the company he loves on the line by green-lighting projects as utterly insane as the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii.

More than that, it takes someone with incredible power of persuasion and honesty – someone that is willing to leave the throne to which he is entitled by the title written on his business card and reach out to all of his employees (from the high-ranked folks to those that sweat to make the magic happen), to make everyone believe it will all work out in the end.

Iwata pulled that off because to Nintendo’s programmers and hardware engineers he was one of them. He had suddenly become the one calling the shots, but his background was that of a guy that coded, projected, and pulled off amazing feats by himself. Bigwigs that arrive on an industry as outsiders have a hard time understanding what the new market they face is all about, and no amount of studying or good-will can compensate the lack of hands-on experience. Iwata did not need any of that; he had been born and bred within the gaming world, and his impressive technical career paired up with his humility made people believe him.

In fact, his ability to communicate a message and affect people positively was so big that it transcended the walls of the Kyoto headquarters. Firstly, it was via little gems such as Kirby, Smash Bros., Balloon Fight, and Earthbound – series whose existences can be accredited, partially or entirely, to him. Lastly, it was by making a world of people – both gamers and those living on the outskirts of the industry – test and buy into his ideas of fun and intuitiveness over sheer power.

Like all human beings, his track record will display both successful endeavors and sad failures. Unlike many, though, and especially those that reach positions as high as he did, his life will show a person whose professional actions were guided by one single purpose; not money, not profits, not greed, and certainly not fame. His target was to entertain as many people as possible, and every business decision he made during his tenure was rooted in good intentions, because – first and foremost – he was a passionate and silly gamer sitting on top of a giant of the industry.

Iwata2Whether through the Nintendo Directs, his own special way of having a heart-to-heart conversation with the legions of fans that longed for his every word and announcement; or through the software and systems that Nintendo has produced, and will certainly continue to do so, under his philosophy, his legacy will live on.

As long as there is a console out there turned on and serving, either to a starry-eyed child or to a delighted adult, as a colorful window into a fantastic world, Iwata will live on. The magic he worked so hard to keep alive will continue to travel, in the form of bright bits, directly to our souls.

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The Wonderful 101 Review

Action-packed and fast-paced, The Wonderful 101 features a stellar battle system and amazing characters

wonderful_101The heir of a line of games that includes the overwhelmingly beautiful Okami, the gory Madworld, the wicked Bayonetta, and the thrilling Viewtiful Joe, The Wonderful 101 shares one trait in common with all those titles: it is brimming with personality. Better described as Pikmin on steroids and a whole lot of caffeine, it is a game that does not take itself one tiny bit seriously. Sporting the somehow clichéd message that with teamwork and mutual trust there is nothing that cannot be overcome, the game manages to broadcast its concept without being cheesy about it, and even though it has a considerable amount of flaws, the thrill of its action-packed gameplay is not met by any other game of the Wii U’s early life cycle.

The title takes place during Earth Defense War III, which beings after a group of aliens – appropriately named GEATHJERK – attempts to invade the planet. William Wedgewood, an elementary school teacher, is on the school bus with his students when the attack commences. As the vehicle is blown up by the blast of one of the alien army’s giant robots, he reveals himself to be Wonder-Red, the leader of the Wonderful 101, who, together with his other skilled allies, must join forces to turn the mighty alien forces to dust. It is the perfect storyline for a mindless beat ’em up, but – as it is to be expected from a company like Platinum – The Wonderful 101 ends up going much deeper than that.

For a game of its kind, The Wonderful 101 packs a surprisingly amount of storytelling and character development. Not only are the the game’s plot and the growth of its cast masterfully done, they might as well be its strongest features. Each one of the seven leaders of the group of superheroes has distinct personalities that, while one-dimensional, are smartly explored by Platinum to their fullest, creating a core of heroes that is extremely likable and whose many relationships offer golden opportunities for dialogue that ranges from conflict to friendship. As if the vast group of central heroes was not enough, the game also has a considerable amount of supporting personages that come together with the game’s biggest stars to form the threads of one epic storyline.

wonderful_1016The game wisely takes advantage of its voluminous plot to give strong support to its gameplay. Even though the game is divided in many pieces, featuring a total of thirty missions, every single one of them provides a considerable dose of humor, silly dialogues that make players’ bonds with characters grow stronger, and occasional story developments and twists. Sometimes, those morsels of good writing appear in the midst of the missions, as the group takes a break in the middle of all the chaos to fool around or fight amongst themselves, and pretty much all operations end with some good-natured exchange.

But regardless of when those moments come, they are always enjoyable, and their rewarding value keeps players going strongly throughout the game. As a testament to how good the game’s writing is, by the middle of the journey it is impossible not to feel you are hanging around with a bunch of awesome super-powerful buddies.

The Wonderful 101 does all that while constantly exuding a fantastic vibe where superhero comic books meet Saturday-morning cartoons. And nowhere is it clearer than during the absolutely ridiculous cutscenes where enemy robots that are as tall as a mountain are brutally dismantled by fantastic series of attacks. Although those moves are performed by quick-time events, there is nothing to criticize here. It is all done incredibly smoothly and naturally, and the mighty explosions that follow every massive hit blast any complaints away with their sheer magnificence.

That simultaneously epic and loose feeling transcends cutscenes and dialogues, infecting the gameplay itself with a large level of careless excitement. Though the game’s many missions do offer a few smart puzzles, their focus is combat. Controlling a group of up to 100 characters, players must navigate through stages in an isometric view while using the group’s powers to proceed by uniting to form bridges, ladders and other objects; and blast enemies away with tons of hits. By the end of each mission, players are awarded a medal based on the time used to defeat all the enemies, the damage taken, and the awesomeness of the combos that were performed. Getting good ranks is absolutely difficult, and it sends the game’s replay value and challenge through the roof.

wonderful_1013At the start of each mission, gamers will be in control of about twenty heroes, but as the operation goes on it is possible to recruit more people and increase that number to 100. Having lots of allies is vital during battles, because a larger number of wonderful ones means that more powerful versions of attacks can be summoned during combat. Given the game’s focus on fighting, the quality of its battle system is of utmost importance, and The Wonderful 101 does not disappoint in that regard. Each of the main seven heroes has its own special move (a giant punching hand, a sword, a gun, a whip, and even a bomb that slows enemies down temporarily), and those attacks are quickly activated by drawing a specific shape on the gamepad’s screen that makes the heroes unite to form the weapon of choice.

By using the gamepad to switch between leaders and attacks, the whole process becomes seamless and quick, which plays right into the hands of combat sections that are often frantic and require timely strategies in the midst of utter chaos and flooring explosions. The vast enemy variety keeps battles entertaining throughout the war, and even though most foes can be beaten by any of the available attacks, there is frequently a more effective strategy that can only be found through some trial-and-error and, especially, total mastery of all the moves – which can lead to some awe-inspiring combos that make it possible to destroy even the most powerful enemies before they can touch the ground and recover from the beating.

What truly makes combat one balanced and fairly challenging affair is the game’s Unite Gauge. Although it is possible to power-up attacks by holding the A button (if one has sufficient numbers) and conjure up defensive forms to evade or block incoming attacks, those actions have a cost: they consume the gauge. Even if it does refill itself as time goes by, the gauge imposes a restriction on the usage of upper tier moves that can considerably shift the power balance during battles. In addition, the existence of the gauge, not to mention the marathon-like feeling of some of the lengthier combats, add a layer of depth to the battle system that keeps the game well away from being a senseless beat ’em up, which would have otherwise heavily diminished its value.

wonderful_1015For all its greatness and the unbelievably epic scope of some missions and battles, The Wonderful 101 has a big amount of flaws that lead to some frustration. For starters, the game’s camera has the weird habit of zooming in whenever your army starts to move around. While it is not bothersome during battle – the camera is flawless on those occasions – it is downright annoying during the exploration segments that take place in-between combats, especially given the fact that the game has a lot of cool collectibles hiding around the scenarios. Hence, the camera, unfortunately, makes it nearly impossible to locate them all without having to stop every ten seconds to zoom out and look around.

Another glaring issue is that the game often does a very bad job of explaining itself. As the team gets stronger, attacks are slowly updated and new combos are unlocked for each one of them. Sadly, the game never tells players how to perform those, and where a visual cue with the buttons would have sufficed, gamers have to halt gameplay and pro-actively look for the tutorials on the game’s menus; a much more boring solution. The same lack of presentation affects many of the items, moves and power-ups that can be purchased on the game’s shop, which are never introduced and can only be found if the menus are thoroughly explored.

In its technical aspects, The Wonderful 101 is a mixed bag. Its sound is absolutely flawless, starting with the game’s superhero-like songs and extending to the fantastic cartoonish voice acting. Meanwhile, its cutscenes – even if not technically impressive – are an absolute wonder to look at, and its impossible to get tired of both the interactions between the team, and the giant robots exploding into gorgeous gaming glory in absolutely epic ways.

wonderful_1014However, the game stumbles a little in its graphics. Although it must be considered that there is a lot going on the screen at the same time, the environments are far from being detailed. During battle – when the game needs to process the movement of 100 characters – some frame rate drops occur here and there. Even if its ideas are big and well-executed, it is in the graphics that it becomes visible that The Wonderful 101 was built on a tight budget.

In the end, though, instead of causing players to pity the title, those financial restrictions make The Wonderful 101 even more fantastic, because – most of the time – it is a very nicely produced game. The fifteen hours of its main quest are complemented by lots of great collectibles, not to mention the adjustable difficulty and the true challenge of getting great ranks on all the missions. The game strikes a surprising and unique balance, especially for the genre it is filed under, between gameplay and stellar storytelling, and its combat system is extremely well-built.

By the time the task at hand is finally accomplished and earth is saved once more, players will start missing the gang of heroes and their fantastic personalities. It is the ultimate proof of the power of the game’s greatness, for it is able to shine through the title’s many flaws, and it makes us hope the titular superhero society will return very soon. Earth Defense War IV cannot arrive fast enough.

The Wonderful 101

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The Right Way

mario_sunshineDuring the fifth and sixth gaming generations – to Nintendo fans, the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube eras respectively – developers and gamers alike became deeply enamored with 3-D graphics. Such phenomenon was rather natural, for while on the first timespan they were something completely new and almost unimaginable, naturally generating great degrees of curiosity and expectations as to how franchises that were staples in the 2-D world would translate to a new era; the subsequent period brought a considerable technological leap and took tridimensional graphics to a whole new level.

That infatuation ran so profoundly that 2-D games started being viewed as icons of the past. Very few were the games that took place in sidescrolling scenarios, and whatever impact they may have had during those years was vastly overshadowed by the shock waves generated by their 3-D competition. Some became overlooked masterpieces, like Klonoa; others garnered mixed reactions, such as the original Rayman; and a few were dismissed as being almost poor, like Yoshi’s Story. Pretty much the sole huge franchise to truly still embrace the genre and succeed was Castlevania, with its classic Symphony of the Night.

For a while there, sidescrollers were either relegated to the galleries of gaming’s museums or seen as suitable only for the inferior hardware of the handheld platforms. The console landscape was dominated by the big players, and those craved to sport visuals that were as flashy and technologically impressive as possible.

Failing to see sidescrolling as a design choice rather than a thing of the past was so endemic that some major videogame characters that had ruled the 2-D world were hurt by it. Samus, for example, never got to star on a Nintendo 64 game because neither Sakamoto, its creator, nor the Big N could figure out how to use the Metroid structure on a 3-D environment. SEGA, meanwhile, kept putting Sonic on miserable tridimensional efforts even if it was clear the formula just did not work that well with an added plain. Eventually, though, 2-D gaming rose to the surface once more.

new_super_mario_brosIt is hard to pinpoint exactly when that tide began to shift and developers started looking at sidescrollers differently, but on the Nintendo camp that turnaround could easily be traced back to 2006’s New Super Mario Bros. The first original Mario sidescroller in a whopping fourteen years, the game – as its title plainly indicates – was marketed as a return to the stripped down platforming basics of the Super Mario Bros. trilogy.

Needless to say, otherwise they would not have released it, Nintendo did expect the game to do well. What they did not expect, however, was that New Super Mario Bros. would become a gargantuan and almost unstoppable sales phenomenon that would move one million copies in twelve weeks and outsell every Mario adventure not named Super Mario Bros. – a software that came packed with an extremely popular system – on its way to becoming one of the ten best-selling games ever.

As an effective comparison, by the end of its run, in spite of its exaggerated simplicity and very easy quest, New Super Mario Bros. would sell 30.75 million copies while Mario’s 3-D adventure on the Nintendo DS (Super Mario 64 DS) sold 11.03 million units. Sidescrolling Mario was not merely more popular than 3-D Mario, it was almost three times as well-liked. Couple that with the fact 2-D games are naturally less expensive to produce than 3-D blockbusters, and Nintendo had basically discovered a twisted version of the Konami code that, instead of giving a character a full set of power-ups, flooded its vaults with gold.

The sign was understood by the company, and the floodgates were opened wide. New Super Mario Bros. gave life to a franchise that has spawned three other games in three different platforms and that has sold around 70 million units worldwide. And, true to the long-ignored popularity of sidescrollers, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, by itself, outsold the platforming perfection of the Super Mario Galaxy duo by nearly 10 million.

wooly_worldKirby, a character that never truly abandoned his from-left-to-right roots, has – since then – appeared on two home-console sidescrollers, Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, and has just starred in another, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. Likewise, Yoshi – whose Yoshi’s Island series has been getting constant handheld releases since its Super Nintendo debut, will soon make the leap back to home consoles with Yoshi’s Woolly World.

Wario, who had taken a life as a videogame designer and a participant on various spin-offs set on the Mushroom Kingdom, saw his glorious Wario Land franchise, that had been lying dormant since 2001, be revived in 2008 through the Wii’s Wario Land: Shake It.

At the same time, Donkey Kong, who – after the monstrous Donkey Kong 64 – had also been downgraded to being a Mario sidekick, not to mention starring on a bunch of bongo-based games whose only creative highlight was the clever Jungle Beat, was rescued from falling into the gutter – or worse yet, the limbo reserved to characters such as the Ice Climbers – and was rewarded with the comeback of the franchise that propelled him to stardom: Donkey Kong Country. The saga has, since that return from the dead, spun two stellar sidescrollers that rank among the best ever.

That influence reached such depths that even the Zelda franchise (which is as far from the sidecrolling realm as it is possible to be), after the somewhat great-but-not-that-great 3-D duo of Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, decided to turn its handheld line of games towards those old-school waters with A Link Between Worlds, the most consistent and streamlined Zelda game in quite a few years.

rayman_legendsNot ignorant to what was happening on the world outside, some third-parties decided to follow suit and apply the same make-up of simplicity to some of the world’s most popular characters, which explains why Sonic (Sonic the Hedgehog 4) and Rayman (Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends) both went back and found very different degrees of success – Origins and Legends were spectacular, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was ok – down that 2-D pathway.

After long years of being thrown to the wayside, sidescrollers now, more than coexisting with the bigger and more expensive 3-D giants and being seen as a design alternative – not a retread, have risen as a more economically profitable option to certain franchises, allowing characters such as Mario and Link to simultaneously hold series that take place in very different perspectives and, hence, offer players extremely distinct gameplay styles.

Underlining all those mainstream names, and aiding that pleasant sidescrolling revival by the production of small-scope titles of high originality, the advent of indie developers – an occurrence supported by digital distribution – has also enjoyed that same wave of 2-D acceptance triggered by New Super Mario Bros. to create many high-quality works and be widely recognized by them. Games like Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Shovel Knight could have flipped the indifference towards sidescrollers by themselves due to their overwhelming charm, but it sure was nice to get help from the red plumber.

dkFollowing that ripple-turned-tsunami, there is no point in gaming history – other than the 8 and 16-bit eras – on which 2-D gaming has ever been this healthy and productive: masterpieces that compare fairly to the classics of yesteryears are slowly turning up, while inventive little morsels of gaming goodness are being born on the hands of independent developers. As gamers, all we have to do is sit back and enjoy as – once more – beloved characters travel sideways towards the right-hand corner of our TV screens.

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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review

Skyward Sword is the first considerable shift in the way Zelda games have been structured, and it is almost a complete success

skyward_swordUp until the release of Skyward Sword, it had been 25 years, or 9125 days, or 219000 hours since Nintendo first unleashed The Legend of Zelda onto the world. It is possible to say that, through that amount of time, there had never been a single second elapsed during which no developers inside Nintendo’s headquarters were working on a title of the franchise, just like there has never been a millisecond since then without a Nintendo system being turned on while a Zelda adventure unfolded on the screen.

Through that quarter of a century, Nintendo was constantly creating quirky characters, calculating puzzling dungeons, drawing stunning art, engineering immersive scenarios, and constructing moving plots; and during that same period, the company – with almost full accuracy – hit its target of creating games that rank among the best titles ever right in the bullseye.

Legacy, though, is a very heavy burden, and as it is to be expected, every new game in the series is already born with a huge weight on its shoulders: the weight of being automatically compared to its glorious predecessors. No series in the gaming world, and perhaps in the entire universe of entertainment, is as demanded and analyzed as microscopically as The Legend of Zelda, because no series has garnered the same level of respect for being so consistently amazing for so long.

skyward_sword2Whether or not The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the crowning achievement of the series is one endless discussion, but one thing is for sure: until its launch, no game in the franchise had tinkered with the pillars of a Zelda game the way Skyward Sword did. It is a title that doesn’t blow all other Zelda games out of the water, but it proves that – if necessary – successful changes can be implemented to the series; shifts that could give it enough vitality to roll for another 25 years.

Skyward Sword serves as the prequel to Ocarina of Time and deals with the origins of many legendary aspects that are recurrent throughout the series. An epic orchestrated piece sets the tone for the telling of the story of how the Triforce was created by the three goddesses – Din, Farore and Nayru – and entrusted to Hylia. Soon after that event, the Demon Lord, Demise, amassed an army in order to grab the Triforce for himself since the object would grant him his wish for endless power.

During the battle between the good tribes of the world and the evil army, Hylia used her power to send pieces of the land skyward in order to fully protect humans and the Triforce from Demise. The battle was fought, Demise was defeated and sealed, and with the passing of time the world under the clouds became a source of mystery, interest, and fears to those living in peace in the sky. And it is on one of those islands that Link, the chosen hero of the goddess, lives his life unaware of his fate.

From the get go, Skyward Sword manages to develop a deep relationship between Zelda and Link. He is the quiet absent-minded boy who is about to compete in the Wing Ceremony, an important competition whose winner gets promoted to a knight, and Zelda is the daughter of the headmaster of the academy where Link and other students have classes and train.

Through its first three hours, Skyward Sword takes a turn towards cinematic territory and develops its central characters masterfully. The underlying feeling of romance in Link and Zelda’s relationship is absolutely heartwarming and their dialogues are very well-written, not stepping into clichéd land-mines at any times.

skyward_sword6By the time tragedy strikes and Zelda falls to the land below the clouds following a mysterious incident, players will be so involved in the duo’s sweet relationship that the source of the urge for adventure will not be restricted to seeing what dungeon comes next. There will be real motivation in saving the damsel in distress and bringing those two friends back together, and the plot is smartly developed by alternating the unraveling of both the traditional good-versus-evil saga and the human aspects that surround the journey.

By the time one gains control of a fully equipped Link, it is possible to notice how big of an overhaul has been done in the controls department. They are definitely hard to get used to, not because they are bad – although there are indeed some hiccups here and there, but because never has a game been so integrated with actual motion controls.

Skyward Sword throws a whole control philosophy out the window, and brings in a new paradigm. Even the most experienced players will fumble with the setup at first, as if they were 5 year olds having their first contact with a joystick and having to look down at the position of the buttons before every move. It takes patience and a bag of good will, but within four or five hours the difficulties will be surpassed and it will be easy to see the benefits brought by the Wii Motion Plus. Zelda games have never been this streamlined and engaging, and it is all because of the controls.

Undoubtedly, the game’s focus on motion will disappoint some of the fans, which will see the little issues of responsiveness and a few other quirks – such as the occasional but far from bothersome recalibration that is prompted by the game – as proof that such philosophy does not work in a game of the Zelda brand. Those that are able to look past the little issues, though, will probably not want to go back to a traditional control method.

skyward_sword4There are two central benefits brought by this new implementation, the first one being combat. Players can now accurately perform a large number of different slashes, and it is all done by performing the correspondent move. It is possible to stab – a motion that sometimes is indeed problematic in its capture; perform vertical or horizontal swipes; and start moving the sword either from the left, from the right, from the top, or from the bottom. The game gives players total freedom as to what attack to execute.

The large array of moves becomes vital because all enemies in the game are designed so that only specific slashes will successfully land; for example, Deku Babas can have either vertical or horizontal mouths, which means only a slash parallel with its mouth orientation will defeat it. Combat has now become a puzzle in itself, and by doing so Nintendo has added a lot of value to a game whose battles would have otherwise been solved in button mashing affairs.

The second benefit comes in the equipping of items. Players no longer have to map equipment such as the bow, boomerang or hookshot to a limited number of buttons. Instead, all that it takes is a press of the B-button and a wheel with all items will open up. By dragging the cursor towards the item of choice players will select the item and quickly equip it. There is no need to pause the action, and the switch from one item to another can even be done as Link is walking.

Boss battles, dungeons and, as a consequence, the whole game gain a brand new dynamic, which is incredibly beneficial since for the first time ever the dungeons, the overworld, and the bosses require a balanced use of all the items in Link’s inventory. The item acquired in the dungeon is no longer the key to do everything, working – instead – as an extra ingredient on the recipe that allows Link to travel further and further into his quest.

The alterations brought by Skyward Sword are not limited to the controls, though. The game’s structure has also been considerably shifted although it still follows the pattern that has been present in the series since A Link to the Past. Here, Link will do a small quest above the clouds, which will open up an area below the sky; explore the area; reach the dungeon; and go back to the sky to open another area. It’s a cycle that repeats itself constantly, but that is made interesting by the different puzzles, scenarios, and enemies that show up along the way.

skyward_sword3During its second half, the game will make players backtrack into previously visited places, as there are only three distinct areas below the clouds. In Metroid-like fashion, the backtracking centers around the discovery of incredible brand-new locations that could not be accessed due to a lacking piece of equipment.

A few of those missions lack creativity and end up coming off as dull means to extend the playing time, but most of them are actually deeply engaging and creative, such as when Link – having lost all his equipment – must find smart ways to sneak through a slightly altered enemy-ridden version of a previously visited scenario while trying to recover his items; or the long mini-epic ocean-centered quest that leads to the finding of a haunted vessel.

The biggest difference between Skyward Sword and all previous Zelda games lies in the fact that, here, the dungeons seem to have leaked to the outside of their own structures; the overworld, instead of being the usual empty landscape through which Link mindlessly rushes with his transportation method of choice, has now become an open-wide dungeon where, in place of distinct rooms, players will find one large area that needs to be carefully explored by killing enemies and solving progressive puzzles so that Link can reach the actual dungeon in the area.

Consequently, the game loses to its recent predecessors in terms of explorable area, but the result is an adventure that is just as long and much more engaging, as it is always demanding players that they look around, explore, find ways to get through treacherous land, and use their entire inventory in the search of items that will open up the way to the dungeon. Skyward Sword is, therefore, much denser and more constant in its challenge than previous Zelda games.

Once players reach the dungeons, they will be treated to the usual mind-blowing Zelda design, and it is worth mentioning that Skyward Sword has the strongest most consistent bunch of dungeons among all titles that preceded it. Because dungeons are no longer centered around one specific item, most of the puzzle solutions are much less obvious this time around, instead making Link dig to the bottom of his inventory to find previously acquired items that will help him in certain situations.

skyward_sword7Link’s inventory, which presents the usual items such as the slingshot and bombs, has also received some brand-new clever pieces of equipment that make use of the motion-centered nature of the game, such as the beetle – a flying insect controlled with the tilting of the Wiimote – and the whip, which can be used to beat down enemies or manipulate far away switches depending on the way players flick their wrist.

While the land does not offer any open-wide spaces where no goal is present other than going from point A to point B, the sky will satisfy players that still have that desire to feel like they are on a journey through a sprawling world. Controlling Link’s giant bird, however, can be a dull affair. Since all of the creature’s movements are done with motion controls, navigating to the hero’s destination usually takes more effort than it should, forcing players to keep the Wiimote pointed towards the screen while shaking it every once in a while so that the bird flaps its wings to recover lost altitude.

The main problem with the sky, though, is that – far more than that of The Wind Waker – it feels empty even though its size does not even touch the gargantuan proportions of The Great Sea. With the exception of Skyloft – the central town in the game – and another four pieces of ground where fun mini-games and interesting people can be found, the sky simply lacks cleverly designed islands, as most of them look like bland floating patches of grass.

Due to such general lack of life, the sky lacks the strong sense of discovery and exploration that was present on The Great Sea and that made traveling between islands for 3 minutes an engaging experience. Instead of the excitement of exploration, players will mostly smell the heavy air of missed opportunity while mounting their Loftwing.

skyward_sword8Like all Zelda games, Skyward Sword is filled with sidequests that complement the adventure. Skyloft is packed with interesting characters whose characteristics are made more extravagant by the game’s expressive visuals, hence giving them more personality and making them much more likable, and – as expected – most of them will have problems Link needs to solve by moving a little bit out of his central quest’s path. The rewards for clearing those tasks offer plenty of motivation, but while some missions are clever and provide neat bits of character development, a few of them feel padded and entail long trips through the world.

Additionally on the department of extras, under the sky, players will find Goddesses Cubes, which when activated by Link’s sword will open up treasure chests with big rewards located above the clouds. Finding and activating those cubes requires an extra deal of exploration of the earthly scenarios, and, in conjunction with the aforementioned sidequests, they are likely to turn Skyward Sword into a fifty-hour game for most players.

On the technical side of things, Skyward Sword is certainly – alongside the two Super Mario Galaxy games – the Wii’s finest hour. The art direction, a curious blend between the extremely cartoonish Wind Waker and the more realistic Twilight Princess looks perfect for the series. The Legend of Zelda has always been a series sitting between a real medieval world, strangely populated by extravagant characters, and the uncanny magical spiritual realm, and the graphics – which seem to have been taken out of a watercolor painting – convey exactly that. The anticipated orchestrated soundtrack lacks the catchy value some past Zelda songs featured, but in the other hand they add a lot to the game by making it undoubtedly grander and more urgent.

skyward_sword5In a game as huge and Skyward Sword some occasional missteps are bound to show up. Fi, Link’s companion through the whole game, is a character whose robotic behavior starts off as amusing, but ends up being tiresome and stops players from creating any emotional connection to her relationship with Link. Skyward Sword also presents the minor game design flaw, inherited directly from Twilight Princess, where – after resetting the game and picking up from where they left off – players will have to go through a quick explanation on any bugs or materials they acquire even if they had already done so in a previous gaming section, an unnecessary feature that breaks up the pace of the game and annoys players.

Finally, whenever players select an item from their inventory list, the game will recalibrate the Wiimote by considering the point to where the cursor was pointing to at the moment Link brings out said item as the center of the TV screen, players who fail to notice that will invariably have to go through the hustle of re-centering their Wiimote every time they use an item. The game could have made such process clear so that all players know that, when pulling out an item, they must focus the pointer on the center of the screen so that the calibration is not out-of-sorts.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the first considerable shift in the way Zelda games have been structured, and it is almost a complete success. The main staples of the series are all here: puzzles, stunning bosses, incredible dungeons, overwhelming scenarios, and lovable characters, but at the same time it is clear to see that Nintendo tried to move away from many features that were rusting with the passing of the years, and they have done so quite well.

With 25 years on its back, there may be no harder task in the whole gaming industry than creating an amazing new title on the Zelda franchise, because as soon as a new installment is born, it will have to shine brightly under the light of comparison against masterpieces like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker. Therefore, Nintendo’s ability to constantly rise up to that challenge during the series’ long history is worthy of praise and many thanks, for The Legend of Zelda’s ability to conjure up the feeling of awe from both longtime fans and newcomers remains perfectly intact.

Skyward Sword

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