Assassin’s Creed III Review

Its focus on character development heavily harms its gameplay, but denying the sheer extent of the game’s world and content is impossible

acIIIThe Assassin’s Creed franchise is known for its size and ambitions. In fact, it is so remarkably big that it took Ubisoft two games to get all of its details down, and the result was one unforgeable masterpiece in Assassin’s Creed II. Coming at the heels of a series of minor releases derived from the franchise’s Italian endeavor, the third major installment of the franchise feels a little bit like a step back; not because it is humbler or plays it safer than its predecessors, but because – much like the original title – while it is a triumphant success in some areas, it feels awkward and dull in others, as if the team behind the game suddenly forgot some of the lessons so effectively learned from the first game’s reception. For that, while being greatly enjoyable in certain points and invariably impressive, Assassin’s Creed III never succeeds in rising to the stellar level of its mesmerizing predecessor.

It all starts when Desmond and his crew locate the temple that holds the secret that will save mankind from destruction. Upon finding the door, though, they discover that they are missing not only the key to open it, but the power sources to activate it. The solution, as expected, involves having Desmond relive the life of one of his ancestors in order to discover the key’s location.

Connor, our brave new assassin, is the fruit of the quick relationship between a British templar sent on a mission in the United States and a native woman, and he grows up to be an assassin whose targets are deeply involved in the American Revolution. Therefore, players will explore key locations of that conflict, such as Boston, New York and the little towns in their outskirts; meet historic figures; and aid the rebels in their quest for freedom. As it has become a standard for the series, the story is wonderfully told through impressive cutscenes made very believable by the game’s great visuals and the good actors employed in the voice acting.

acIII4Though undeniably interesting and very exciting, the game’s plot is indirectly responsible for the two biggest issues found here. First of all, Assassin’s Creed III features, by a good margin, the most ambitious story development the series has ever seen. The game is not satisfied with simply focusing on Connor’s life as an assassin; instead, it chooses to start from a point way before it all began: the departure of Connor’s father, a man named Kenway, from Britain.

Through a sequence of small hops to advance through time, we see and play as Kenway meets Connor’s mother; the boy is born and plays with his friends as a child; grows up to be a leader in his tribe; and, finally, decides to train to become an assassin after he goes through a life-changing incident. The fact is that the game is so enchanted by the telling of its story that nearly half of its missions are spent getting things started.

Before Connor is truly free to roam the expanse of the game’s world, five of the game’s twelve sequences will be finished. In Assassin’s Creed III, gameplay serves the story; and not the other way around. As a consequence, the title’s first half comes off as dull and extremely restricted.

The second issue derives from the game’s setting. As compelling as it may be to watch the revolution be born and then be a part of it, the large scale war is not exactly a scenario that is favorable to the style of gameplay the series thrives on. Assassin’s Creed II shined, among other reasons, for the design of its missions, which often involved sneaking around, finding different ways to hide, and managing to kill a target silently.

acIII3While Assassin’s Creed III does offer a few missions like that, there are too many where Connor must either simply lead a battalion, fight out in the open, or warn troops of incoming attacks. The game ends up being more about a huge conflict than back-alley tactics that would usually be performed by a silent assassin. The war-related missions can be thrilling, but they do not capture the series’ essence as well as the stealth ones do. It is a change of philosophy that will please some, but make most wonder why exactly such a shift occurred.

It’s a shame, because in its gameplay, Assassin’s Creed III – as expected – offers a wide range of alternatives that can be employed to remain anonymous. If players choose to avoid combat, Connor can rip posts off of the walls, bribe street preachers to talk about something other than his recent exploits, pay the presses that are printing the posters to stop doing so, start riots against the British, hide amongst the crowd, or use his uncannily impressive skills for climbing.

Examining enemy patterns and the environment surrounding them in order to find a way to perform silent kills has always been one of the most engaging actions in Assassin’s Creed games, and here they remain a clear prowess, even if those skills are not as frequently used as they should have been.

acIII7When the alternative chosen to handle some of the missions is direct combat, or if Connor’s stealth skills are not sharp enough to make him invisible; then players will be treated to a fine combat system. Connor can defend opponents’ attacks, break their defense, and attack. The game offers a wide variety of weapons that can be equipped – even some fire weapons – and though enemy variety isn’t exactly a highlight, the battles remain entertaining and challenging all the way through the whole game.

If the fifteen-hour main quest has not remained solid in its quality during the transition between installments, the sidequests that populate the title remain engaging, and it feels like they have grown in numbers too. In fact, there are so many of them that according to the game’s counter for percentage of completion, only about 30% of it is done once the main quest is wrapped up.

Many quests that appeared in previous games of the series make a return. Connor will have to deliver letters, free prisoners, find high viewpoints in order to clear areas of the map, collect page’s of Benjamin’s Franklin almanac, recruit other assassins, engage in combats, find treasure, and find and break into heavily guarded forts that are hidden throughout the game’s enormous world map.

acIII2In the end, more than twenty hours can be pleasantly spent simply exploring the world and finding its secrets. What is most fascinating about this sort of experience, though, is that sometimes the secrets are neither collectibles nor anything that contributes to the game’s completion percentage, but small nuggets of details that show how much care was put into this ridiculously big world.

Boston and New York hide the old buildings and locations that are now known worldwide, or at least in the United States; while the Frontier, a forest-covered area with many hidden small towns, hides nice little places, creeks, waterfalls, mountains and people that add many layers of content to a game that is already swimming in impressive depths. Though the distance between goals might often be long, it is punctuated by little encounters that give it a lot of meaning.

Out of the numerous side missions the game presents, three are brand new and clear highlights. First of all, there is Connor’s homestead. A big peaceful piece of land amidst all the chaos where Connor decides to build a small community under his protection. At first, it is an abandoned location, but little by little Connor will come across people in need of a home, and by helping them out players will get them to move to the homestead, and aid in its development and quality of life, which makes it the game’s most satisfying quest.

acIII5Secondly, as a native, Connor has developed the ability to hunt, and there is no better place for that than the Frontier. There, Connor can locate and kill many kinds of prey, such as hares, bears, wolves, foxes, and others. The capture of each animal requires a different approach, either direct or using traps, and trapping animals either in large numbers or by using unique techniques will fill up huntsmen challenges, which are both numerous and entertaining to perform.

Lastly, halfway through the game, Connor acquires one mighty ship, allowing him to perform naval quests behind the wheel. Those missions, that hint at the incredible awesomeness that Assassin’s Creed IV would turn out to be, usually vary from navigating troubled rocky waters without taking much damage, to fighting a number of British vessels either through fire and cannonballs, or by boarding them. The ship’s controls are easy to learn, and the ability to upgrade many of the vessel’s parts in order to be able to tackle tougher challenges makes those quests a real test of skill. In addition, they also happen to be extremely thrilling and exciting, serving as a great break from the game’s regular missions.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed III has more content than the average gamer is able to handle. Unfortunately, that overwhelming amount of tasks and the nice design of its overworld are terribly marred by a central quest that is more focused on telling a story than providing players with an exciting gaming experience. It has its moments and it features a very solid group of side-missions that pushes players to explore its world, but the outcome is a title that falls far away from the level reached by its direct predecessor and successor alike.

Assassins Creed III

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One for All, All for One

triforceTri Force Heroes is probably not the Zelda game many wanted. In fact, with its release taking place not even two years removed from the last handheld installment of the franchise, the fantastic A Link Between Worlds, it is probably not the Zelda game we needed either. However, by neglecting those two facts, which are indeed completely irrelevant when what is most important about gaming – sheer fun – is considered, Tri Force Heroes emerges as an excellent little detour on the way towards a bigger destination.

There are indeed criticisms to be made. The plot is decidedly bad, and if it was indeed attempting to be purposely silly it fails in the most important aspect when one is crafting a storyline of the kind, which is letting your target audience know you are not taking any piece of it remotely seriously. It is also questionable whether the single-player campaign should have been released as it is when its general clunkiness is so evident. Finally, as a sequel to A Link Between Worlds, it inherits the game’s core flaw, which is its absolutely bland art style.

With those stones, and a few other nitpicks, out of the way, Tri Force Heroes has – in its first few hours – revealed itself as an absurdly fun game. This is the weird merging point between Nintendo’s knack for producing easy-to-love-and-digest party entertainment and the fully engaging, immerssive, brain-teasing, and exciting journey of going through a dungeon of the Zelda universe. The thirty-two available maps are each divided into four segments, which gives the titular trio checkpoints along the way to the finish, and can be cleared in times ranging from ten to twenty minutes depending on players’ expertise and general difficulty.

triforce3There is a formerly untapped sense of joy in connecting to people from around the globe and then watching as three differently colored Links desperately run across the screen while cooperatively killing enemies, solving puzzles, making mistakes, trying to help one another, getting mad at each other, and sometimes having no clue whatsoever as to what needs to be done in order to clear a particular portion of the level. It produces an intriguing level of simultaneous cluelessness, struggle, and discovery that is satisfying and, sometimes, absolutely hilarious.

The dungeons contribute to that by presenting a careful balance between combat, action, and puzzle-solving. Therefore, at one moment the heroes will be fighting for survival against a horde of enemies; one minute later they might be running for their lives amidst a series of traps; only to them be stopped on their feet by a tricky riddle. The fact that, either through the combined use of the items acquired at the beginning of each dungeon or through the totem technique that has the Links piling on top of one another, the game often demands that players work together is the beautiful icing on top of the design goodness.

There are barely any moments or dangers that can be surpassed without cooperation, and so Tri Force Heroes has its players working together at all times. Some might rightfully complain there is no voice chat, an element that would certainly facilitate the team’s organization, but truth is the buttons Nintendo offers for communication are expressive, straightforward, and effective enough to help people through their troubles.

triforce2At the end of the day, Tri Force Heroes will likely not win any awards or go down in history as one of the greatest and most impressive Zelda games ever. However, it does its job as an exercise in cooperative multiplayer action extremely well, for it checks the boxes that are important for that kind of experience with room to spare. It is simple, easy to pick-up and play, can be consumed in short bursts, and – most importantly – it is fun, satisfying, and laugh-out-loud hilarious in a way that is hard to describe, all of that covered with the Zelda charm and the franchise’s high quality standards for level design.

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Yoshi’s Woolly World Review

Woolly World is more than an attempt to find a magic that was lost; it is a title that carries the qualities of the best Nintendo classics

woolly_worldAs a whole, the story of the Yoshi franchise has been a constant search for an elusive nirvana that had, once upon a time, been found, but that seemed to have been irremediably lost somewhere a long the way; as if its developers had forgotten to write down a map leading to its location. Yoshi’s Island, the sequel to Super Mario World, had given the Yoshi-led line of platformers an incredible start, but what followed was a chain of titles whose highest points merely hinted at the greatness that had once been unearthed. The characters, the setting, the art style, and the mechanics were always there; the level design ingenuity, though, was nowhere to be found.

Yoshi’s Woolly World arrives to drastically alter that scenario, for it catapults the green dinosaur’s franchise to a level of awe-inducing quality it had not known for quite a while. The franchise’s first home console entry in eighteen years is, unquestionably, its brightest installment in two decades. It is an assessment that might not carry much weight considering the pile of average software that separates it from the series’ crayon-infused Super Nintendo inception, so its prowess is perhaps best summed up by declaring it is a title that often dares to be as good as Yoshi’s Island.

woolly_world2The core influence behind Yoshi’s Woolly World is blatant; it is a continuation of Nintendo’s adorable experiment of altering some of its properties by visually covering them in cloth and using that artistic twist as a trampoline for gameplay inventiveness. A spiritual successor to the first output of that exercise, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yoshi’s Woolly World comes off as a more confident and fully realized effort than the already great Wii sidescroller.

While the Kirby franchise had to adapt itself to the fabric-centered mechanics introduced in Epic Yarn by, for instance, taking away the character’s signature power-stealing skill; Yoshi, who goes after Kamek after he kidnaps his other dinosaur buddies, covers himself and the world in which he inhabits in fluffy wool and naturally thrives in that environment.

All of the core elements make the cut, and their integration with the stunning art style is seamless: the character’s tongue becomes a powerful tool to unravel pieces of the scenario that need to be dismantled, and his egg-throwing ability now launches balls of yarn that take down weaker foes, temporarily bind stronger enemies, and frequently reconstruct pieces of the environment that are not fully sewn.

woolly_world3The needles, yarn, wool, buttons, and stitches, then, go far beyond serving as eye candy. The astonishing beauty that is projected across the screen during each of the adventure’s minutes is certainly noteworthy. Joined by the high-definition visuals of the Wii U, the unbelievable creativity and attention to detail employed both on the settings and on the character design, which are all finely crafted with the use of a wide assortment of crochet assets, is enough to make Woolly World safely rank among the best looking games of all time.

Moreover, even though Woolly World is guilty of falling into the overly predictable Mario pattern of world themes – starting in a meadow, heading into a desert, a forest, and so on – its art style ends up lending the game a great deal of flexibility, as it is able to explore unique palettes within the domain of each setting. Additionally, there is so much freshness being exhaled by its visual design that its artistic direction never comes even remotely close to being formulaic. Despite all of those aesthetic benefits, though, Woolly World’s visual knitting yields its greatest and most valuable results on the gameplay department.

Through curtains, scraps, scarves, and other cloth-related quirks, Yoshi’s Woolly World is able to positively surprise players with most of its fifty-five levels. Some of them gravitate around obstacles that could have been pulled off without the title’s unique thematic; most, though, ride the idiosyncrasies of the game’s universe, and that is precisely when the game tends to be at its best.

woolly_world6Sometimes, things can be as simple as throwing a ball of yarn at incomplete structures to make them materialize, giving some portions of the game a pleasant satisfying feeling of restoration; in other instances, the inventiveness reaches grand heights through Chomps that can become rolling balls, Boos that turn into floating balloons, velcrum treadmills, knitting spiders, magic carpets, sliding curtains, and uncountable extra cases of level design brilliancy.

True to its kid-friendly aura, Woolly World’s level of challenge is tame. Many of the stages in the first two of its six worlds can be walked through without much trouble; from that point onwards, there is a noticeable difficulty spike that, while not reaching any extremely elevated level, will certainly make experienced gamers happy. Both youngsters and veterans will be pleased to know its levels have a sober amount of checkpoints that are placed decently far from one another, stopping the game from ever being frustrating even on the apex of its challenges.

To those that want to go beyond simply clearing the game, Woolly World – much like Yoshi’s Island and most of the games that followed – features a large amount of collectibles. For starters, five flowers and five wonder wools lie hidden in each stage. The motivation for collecting those goes far beyond pure completion, for while the gathering of all flowers in a specific world unlocks an extra stage that tends to be specially difficult; the joining of five wonder wools from any stage represents the rescuing of a kidnapped Yoshi, hence unlocking a brand new colorful character model for use.

woolly_world5Going after the flowers and wonder wools transforms even the most basic stages into meticulous exploration affairs, as those are frequently either well-hidden or located in places that require a great deal of skill to be reached. Therefore, aiming for that goal is enough to turn even the game’s first level into a twenty-minute affair, a rate of time that grows even bigger if players chase the title’s other two full-completion requirements: twenty special hidden beads in each stage and clearing all courses with full health.

Although the collectibles are undeniably alluring, they also present one of the game’s few glaring flaws; one that was inherited directly from its highly-regarded Super Nintendo predecessor. From time to time (though frequently enough to be detracting), flowers, wools, and beads will only be found if Yoshi happens to walk by the precise point in which an invisible cloud or pipe is hidden, prompting it to show up. Most are so randomly placed that only sheer luck or the obsessive exploration of every corner of the stage will uncover them. That occasional arbitrary placement displays a slight degree of laziness that heavily contrasts with Woolly World’s almost invariable cleverness.

woolly_world7The game’s second, and final, big issue is related to its boss battles. Most, if not all, are positively smart, as they even make use of a tridimensional perspective to extend the might and unpredictability of the enemies’ attacks. Sadly, all of them suffer from being a bit on the easy size. Furthermore, despite the fact that the final battles in each world are always unique, the mid-point struggles recycle the same two bosses – albeit in altered versions – three times each, a move that is, once more, not compatible with the software’s overall high creativity.

Those missteps, however, are almost completely negligible under the blinding bright light emitted by everything else Yoshi’s Woolly World does right. The first Yoshi game worthy of being put in the same category as Yoshi’s Island is a satisfying journey whose impressively elevated degree of inventiveness is guided by its cloth-inspired visual elements, which – more than lending the game an astonishing aesthetic – inspire its gameplay to take flights towards some rather surprising grounds. Woolly World, as a consequence, surfaces as more than an attempt to recreate a magic that was somehow lost twenty years before its release; it appears as the reestablishment of a beloved franchise and as a title that carries all qualities present in the most remarkable Nintendo classics.

Woolly World

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Lego City Undercover Review

Never had a Lego game been bigger; never has a Lego game been better

city_undercoverAny child who has ever toyed around with a Lego set has eventually dreamed of building something huge with those glorious tiny pieces. In our youthful lack of skill we tried – and most likely failed – to construct ships, buildings, trains, rockets and entire cities made of colorful bricks. In our minds, those projects were entirely possible to materialize, and even if they never came to fruition in any shape that vaguely resembled what we had originally planned, we kept imagining and dreaming.

The Lego games are, in a way, the fulfillment of those wild childhood thoughts; not only projecting those objects on the screen, but also making them move and take part in over-the-top scenarios. Without an inch of doubt, Lego City Undercover is the biggest game of the series yet, and although size does not always translate into quality, in this particular case, the game takes advantage of a considerable expansion to climb far above all of its predecessors.

To explore the marvelous city, players will assume the role of the seemingly unshakable Chase McCain. After accidentally revealing the identity of a key witness during an important investigation a few years earlier, Chase was removed from the city’s police force and sent to develop his skills elsewhere. However, when a huge wave of crime, led by the evil Rex Fury, strikes the city, Chase is promptly asked to return in order to aid the police in capturing the criminal.

city_undercover2To do so, Chase will have to utilize his fantastic disguise-related abilities to infiltrate the town’s many gangs, discover Rex Fury’s plan, and track him down before it is too late. As a consequence, Lego City Undercover offers both the traditional GTA outlaw moments – after all, one must pull off some really outrageous thefts in order to be accepted in a gang; and segments where McCain attempts to clumsily save the day.

Comparisons to GTA should not be reserved to the occasional law-breaking activities the game demands of players; it ought to also be applied to its fantastic world. Lego City is just huge. The place is divided into about twenty different districts, each with very distinct characteristics, which makes each one of them full of personality and easy to identify.

The extravagant spirit of the series allowed designers to throw a little bit of everything in one fully-connected map without making the place look overly uncanny. Lego City has portions clearly inspired by the rolling hills of San Francisco and the skyscrapers of New York. Additionally, it offers one national park, one space center on an island, a rural area, a Chinatown, a Venice-inspired Italian neighborhood, a fancy touristic beach, and much more.

city_undercover4The fact that the missions usually send McCain all across town serves as a natural invitation for players to go and explore at will, and a lot of time will certainly be spent looking around for secrets and things to do, because it is simply impossible to resist the charm of Lego City.

The game features two basic types of quests during the course of its main story. The first type usually involves having Chase drive around the city while performing some sort of task – like avoiding the police, for example – or finding a way to navigate through the buildings and rooftops in order to get to a certain spot; meanwhile, the second sort of mission works as the normal levels found in every Lego game – they are self-contained and feature their own collectibles and locations.

While the former kind tackles a more environmental style of gameplay, where Chase must explore his surroundings, act like a silly version of Spider-Man in his attempt to climb buildings, and go through obstacle courses; the latter is a much more settled-down and puzzle-focused gameplay that is familiar to the fans of the series. On these, Chase will use his abilities to unlock doors, find objects, and beat down enemies.

city_undercover5TT Fusion was incredibly sensible in the setting-up of the game’s main story, because the two kinds of missions are nicely alternated, always offering a change of pace that makes the game very playable for long stretches of time without making players feel worn out. The fact that there are a whole bunch of collectibles scattered across the city is just an added layer of gameplay that further enhances the game’s pacing, because like most open-world games, Lego City Undercover gives players the choice to do things their way.

If a player wants to quickly go through the story because they simply cannot wait to see what is coming next, then that’s absolutely viable; on the other hand, if a player wants to do some side-missions because he is imply not in the mood for another dash of puzzle solving, then the city will be right there for the taking.

Each of the game’s many areas offers around fifteen extra missions. Some are more on the complex side, like stealing a car and taking it to a warehouse, chasing a criminal before he manages to escape with his recently stolen vehicle, stopping the havoc caused by gangs, and doing some time trials either by driving through some very nicely designed courses on the city’s streets or bodies of water, or by running around series of obstacles on the rooftops.

city_undercover7On the other hand, others are just a matter of finding something, like an ATM to smash, a cat to rescue, a vase of plants to water, or conquering the neighborhood by finding a high spot where a flag can be unfolded. And if those tiny missions sound like they are not enough, which would be odd as they total more than 200, there are characters and vehicles to unlock – which are found as tokens hidden in the city’s areas, and Lego structures to build – which will either aid McCain or simply beautify the city.

Like many games nowadays, Lego City holds a whole lot of content. But unlike many of them, the game is absolutely effective in drawing players towards the collection of that content; it is the game’s greatest quality, and one that is directly derived from the amazing design of the city, which hides many delightful and rewarding locations.

The game, however, stumbles in one particular area that ends up working against its prowess. Though exploring Lego City is undeniably alluring, the city only becomes fully explorable in the later stages of the game. Opening certain doors and getting to some locations can only be done after Chase acquires a few abilities. It is a natural quirk of the Lego games, but it is something that does not work well with the open-world nature of Lego City Undercover.

city_undercover3While inside the isolated missions (which are usually the bones of traditional Lego games), it forces those who want full completion to backtrack, something that is the norm in the saga; outside on Lego City it creates a situation on which after going exploring and finding a neat nice location, players will be unable to open a door or press a switch due to the lack of an ability. Not only is it slightly frustrating, but it also creates limitations in a game that thrives in its lack of strict boundaries.

Another issue that harms the game is how uninspired combat is. Whether Chase is inside an individual mission or out in the city, he will eventually come across groups of baddies looking to beat him down. However, those few minutes of fighting will become a boring chore within a few seconds, because Chase cannot be die or be defeated (another characteristic that has been inherited from past Lego games) and the mechanics for fighting are just way too simple to cause any sort of excitement, as bashing the punch button is pretty much everything players will have to do.

While Chase’s invincibility works perfectly fine for the platforming sessions, because it avoids the hassle of having to replay certain portions of the stages; it removes any of the thrill that could be gained from combat. Add Chase’s lack of variety in his moves, and players will naturally sigh whenever fighting comes up.

city_undercover6Yet, those shortcomings do not stop the game from being fantastic. Pretty much everything else about Lego City Undercover is very well-done, including its graphics. Though the characters are very simple in their design, after all they are Lego toys, the city is not. The buildings and locations are completely packed with little details that give the place a lot of life, and the vivid colors of Lego City suspend the place above reality, adding a lot of charm to it. Loading up the city takes a while, but once the game is set to go, it takes off in the visual department without any hitches. Some problems do arise due to the game’s scope: vehicles, which are loaded on-demand, sometimes pop out of nowhere; and frame rate dips occur in very busy locations. Those drops, however, with the exception of one specific area, are not annoying.

All in all, Lego City Undercover is a stellar third-party exclusive, and TT Fusion has done well in utilizing the system’s unique controller either as a map, or as a scanner that when aimed towards the screen allows Chase to investigate his surroundings. It is a game that has over twenty hours of extra content to go along with its fifteen-hour main quest. Its few core issues are directly related to the line of games it belongs to, and how some of its quirks did not adjust so well to the vast ambitious project that is Lego City. Other than that, the game is blessed with the same charm, silly humor and great cutscenes – this time with full voice acting – that have always been such an important component of the Lego games.

Lego City Undercover

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Playing Miyamoto – Part II

As it turns out, I have had a few productive weekends with Super Mario Maker. Below is another batch of levels alongside brief descriptions containing their motivation, inspiration, and other random thoughts. Here’s hoping that those who try them have fun.

wrigler_bridgeWiggler Bridge

Code: 53D3-0000-00A4-9677

Butter Bridge has always been one of my favorite Super Mario World areas. Therefore, when I decided to make a bridge-themed level, using that game’s art style was a no-brainer. This level has a mix of puzzle solving and platforming; each bridge segment is separated by gaps that cannot be traversed normally, so players have to figure out a way to climb up to access the passage to the next portion of the stage.

Sometimes, the feat is achieved by jumping on Wigglers; on other occasions there is a little riddle that must be figured out. Personally, I don’t think it is one of my best stages, but it has been relatively successful in terms of earning me stars.

crystal_minesCrystal Mines

Code: 1D67-0000-00A4-13D8

Crystal Mines has been, for some reason, by far my most successful stage in terms of stars and users. I took a few of the puzzle solving elements of Mariotroid (see the original Playing Miyamoto post) and squeezed them, once more, into a tight cave stage. However, the backtracking vein of that stage is not present here; it has a far more straightforward sequence of finding items and using them appropriately and then, after the midway point, it becomes a platforming-centered affair.

It has a pretty wide assortment of enemies, moving platforms, shafts, narrow passages, and wider environments all punctually decorated with the titular pink crystals.

bowser_factoryBowser’s Factory

Code: 5CD4-0000-00A6-C0A5

I had not incorporated treadmills into any of my previous stages, so I thought about coming up with a level centered around them. A factory setting seemed like the most appropriate choice for something of the sort, but unfortunately Super Mario Maker does not offer one (I am not even sure there has ever been a factory theme on a Mario sidescroller). So I chose the next best thing: Bowser’s castle.

The result is a level that mixes treadmills with other enemies in order to create challenge. Most of the time said enemies come in the form of Bob-ombs, but I threw in some Piranha Plants and Thwomps for the sake of variety. I am particularly fond of the last segment where I created a wide puzzle and platforming mixture by using very long treadmills, a couple of walls, and Bob-omb-spitting pipes.

ghost_shipyardGhost Shipyard

Code: 490E-0000-00AD-1478

Haunted Houses are nice and all, but they are sort of overdone by now. So how about a Ghost Shipyard?! Initially, that was my thought; in the end, though, I was forced to use the Ghost House theme for the internal part of the ships since nothing else felt quite right. The outside portion of the level has a bunch of differently sized vessels scattered around, and Mario must explore the inner parts of two of them.

When in the Shipyard, the main challenge is going from one ship to another and exploring the place to find any hidden areas. When inside the ships themselves, the level turns into a bunch of challenges involving Boos and Dry Bones, including an elevator shaft, a haunted engine room, and a storage area.

cloudy_piranhasCloudy With a Chance of Piranhas

Code: B2C6-0000-00AF-617D

Piranha Plants are awesome little foes that are quite flexible: they can pop out of pipes, spit fireballs, and even fly when given wings. A level on the clouds centered around them felt like a good idea, sort of like a hellish garden in heaven, and a shift away from all the winged Koopas and Goombas. During the first portion of the level, Mario navigates towards the creatures’ main garden through a series of platforming-related challenges.

On the stage’s second half, he hits the motherload: the piranhas are everywhere. The plumber, then, needs to go through their main hiding spot while riding a Koopa Clown Car until he finds their nest, behind which lies the escape towards freedom. A big thanks to themancalledscott for providing me with inspiration for that second portion with one of his awesome levels.

hedgeThe Hedge

Code: 408B-0000-00B2-47C0

I was toying around with the New Super Mario Bros. U theme when I discovered that, by shaking one of its assets, it turned into a beautiful green hedge. I immediately decided I had to build a level around that gorgeous little element and then proceeded to try to cover the entire screen with that green beauty. With the theme set in place, I started coming up with natural-looking obstacles that would fit the stage’s look, choosing to utilize vines, Monty Moles, Koopas, Piranha Plants, and mushrooms.

Given this is one big hedge, there is a lot of climbing taking place across the stage and even three alternative paths to choose from; I tried to make them all equally difficult, but I am under the impression that one of them is slightly easier than the others.

frozen_undergroundThe Frozen Underground

Code: 2579-0000-00B2-F403

Given the success of my Crystal Mines level, I wanted to revisit the underground theme. This time, though, instead of a simple cave, I decided to go for ice-covered caverns. Aside from an eventual moving platform, there is no ice-free ground here and players must literally slide their way through various obstacles and control Mario’s forward motion so he does not get hurt by carefully placed saws and Thwomps.

I also ended up using plenty of Spikeys, given I feel they are the enemy that better suits the ice theme, forcing Mario to watch out for any thorny creatures that might be hanging from the ceiling. In order to make the whole thing look prettier, and hopefully not too visually busy, I decorated the entire cave with green crystals. After creating the level and uploading it, I realized the name may be a weird unconscious combined reference to The Velvet Underground and Disney’s Frozen.

shelter_stormShelter From the Storm I / Shelter From the Storm II

Codes: FCD8-0000-00CB-7120 / 36C3-0000-00CB-715C

Lakitus look quite lovable. Sadly, they are generally seen as utterly obnoxious enemies. In an attempt to improve the overall perception on the poor creatures, something that might end up having the opposite effect, I came up with Shelter From the Storm. Named after one epic Bob Dylan song the levels are thrilling platforming-centered obstacle courses. Mushrooms that provide the titular shelter from the rain of Spikeys, alongside a nice little power-up, are placed after each level segment, giving players plenty of room for mistakes.

Koopas, Chomps, Monty Moles, Piranha Plants, Giant Goombas, Munchers, and Wrigglers come together in different ways to make up the obstacles Mario must jump over. Originally, the two levels were meant to be one. However, due to a Super Mario Maker limitation that does not allow players to have control over the camera’s focus while creating their levels, I could not properly divide the two areas available for level creation into two floors. Therefore, I had to split what I had created. I feel the result is far better than the original, though, because otherwise the whole level might have ended up being way too long.

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Yarn and Needles

woolly_world3If there is any truth to the motto which claims that practice makes perfect, then Yoshi’s Woolly World is Good-Feel’s opportunity to sharpen their ability to weave levels centered around the concept of a world made of cloth. The company’s second incursion into a universe of fabric and needles, following Kirby’s Epic Yarn for the Nintendo Wii, is the first Yoshi game to hit a home console in seventeen years; and even though following a title with the mixed credentials of Yoshi’s Story is not exactly a pressure-laden affair, the towering ghost of Yoshi’s Island is always lurking around the corner as a high bar against which all titles featuring the green dinosaur must be measured.

As it turns out, and contrarily to what most reviews out there will make one believe, with one world already cleared in my personal journey through this vortex of colors and cuteness, Woolly World comes off as a resounding success in the two fronts it approaches. Firstly, as a spiritual sequel to Kirby’s Epic Yarn, it feels like a more confident and better-designed product, which is saying a lot considering the quality of that title.

The cloth-related mechanics are better integrated to the aura of the Yoshi franchise. They do not drastically alter the series’ gameplay like they had done – to the dismay of many fans – to Kirby, which was stripped of his signature sucking and power-hijacking skills.

woolly_worldInstead, they add fuel to the mechanics that were already set in place. Yoshi’s tongue is a natural weapon for unraveling knots and revealing hidden passages. Likewise, his eggs – now transformed into differently colored and sized balls of yarn – are used to either bind more aggressive enemies, such as piranha plants; or quickly weave platforms and other elements that occasionally show up as mere bare-bones structures, adding a bit of a satisfaction-inducing Okami-like restoration undercurrent to the gameplay, as stages sometimes transform thanks to Yoshi’s actions.

Secondly, as a successor to Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Woolly World hits that title’s two greatest legacies right on the head: its overwhelming visual cuteness, and its level-design greatness. The former is blatant to anyone who is willing to give any of the game’s screenshots a look; Woolly World is a never-seen-before explosion of adorableness, colors, and astonishingly brilliant scenario and character model design. It is a Nintendo big bang where microscopical details assembled with yarn and needles come together to form a uniform fabric of visual delight; a sight to behold.

Meanwhile, the level-design greatness quietly sneaks on players that might come in expecting yet another dully designed package of Yoshi levels. Before the first world’s halfway point, Woolly World will already be moving full-steam ahead, especially to those with a completionist inclination to go after its many collectibles. With nine levels into the adventure, Yoshi has already gone through a forest of bouncy trees, faced bomb-wielding Shy Guys, stormed a fortress where swinging balls of yarn and tilting cloth platforms are prominent, reconstructed the windmills of a gorgeous valley, surfed waves, and transformed into an umbrella and even a speeding motorcycle.

woolly_world2Like the best Nintendo games, Yoshi’s Woolly World – thanks to its collectibles – smartly navigates the waters between undeniable accessibility and pleasant challenge, and while doing so it delivers glorious amounts of visual candy and varied – yet constantly engaging – platforming. If it keeps yielding such spectacular goods with that same consistency all the way through, it will be easy to call it one of the finest Wii U games.

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Super Mario Maker Review

Nintendo’s first step into the collaborative realm is a beauty with a few rough edges waiting to be polished

mario_makerSuper Mario Maker is a game that is, at the same time, conspicuously safe and dangerously bold. The safety is fully derived from both the title’s concept and source material. Allowing players to try their hands at the creation of Super Mario levels is an idea that had been floating around the gaming microcosm for quite a while, one that had been unofficially implemented in a number of ways that featured different degrees of accessibility. Additionally, the building blocks of the Super Mario saga are so simple and recognizable that Nintendo’s philosophy of reaching out to all kinds of players, whether they are experienced gaming aficionados or youngsters and their families, can easily exist within a creation tool (a usually cumbersome element to most) centered around such assets.

Meanwhile, Super Mario Maker’s boldness lies in the rather obvious fact that, by crafting a universe whose bare bones must be filled by content created outside the controlled environment of the company’s Kyoto walls, Nintendo is – in a way – putting the quality of the experience in the hands of its fans. The often overprotective, for good reasons, giant is trusting its followers to manufacture the ultimate goods of the Mario series, the plumber’s most valuable property: the courses.

Those two opposing factors are behind Super Mario Maker’s most flagrant vital qualities and annoying flaws. The security of succeeding by giving players a powerful environment within which they can let their creative juices flow would not truly materialize if Nintendo had implemented a poor sandbox. Unsurprisingly, as it turns out, they did not; by choosing, on the title screen, the simply titled “Make” option, gamers are transported to a creation tool that checks the two main boxes of user satisfaction: it has loads of options and it is easy to use.

mario_maker6Perhaps as an attempt not to overwhelm newcomers, just a few of the assets are unlocked from the get go. Out of the four game styles available (Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U), which aside from offering huge aesthetic differences also feature minor gameplay distinctions, just the first and last are there from the start. Likewise, out of the six course themes (Ground, Underground, Underwater, Ghost House, Airship, and Castle), only the first couple are unlocked as soon as the game is turned on for the first time. Initially absent are also elements like Boos, Bob-ombs, Lakitus, Fire Flowers, and many others.

Unquestionably, some might be disappointed by that restriction, but truth is the whole unlocking process will take just a few hours of messing around with the creation tool. Therefore, it strikes the correct balance between providing younger players with a pleasant learning curve and not exaggeratedly hindering the creative exploits of those that are used to the Mario brand.

A good portion of the creation tool’s victory, and – subsequently – of the game itself, derives from its use of the Gamepad. Super Mario Maker does what few to none Wii U games have been able to achieve: it validates the wacky controller. Designing stages becomes, then, a matter of drawing the landscape and dragging the available elements (enemies, blocks, traps, and others) to the screen. Secondary actions, such as selecting a group of items to either move them, erase them, or copy them are equally performed with uncanny ease. Without the Gamepad, Super Mario Maker’s simplicity and seamlessness would likely fly out the window.

mario_maker2That straightforwardness is pleasantly joined by a good degree of freedom, without which Super Mario Maker would never reach the levels of insane greatness it often does. Nintendo gives players plenty of options to go crazy with their level design.

It is possible to pile up enemies in order to form menacing towers of death, give them mushrooms to use their gigantic forms, place them inside blocks or endlessly spawning pipes, shake assets to change their properties (like turning a Green Koopa into a Red Koopa), alter the stage’s time limit, activate different auto-scrolling speeds, use an array of sound effects, and deploy doors that transport Mario within the same sub-level or pipes that lead him to a completely new area.

Naturally, though, in spite of the borderline perfection of the creation tool, as players get increasingly creative some restrictions will be obviously felt. For starters, each level is limited to two sub-areas that can be differently themed; while it is understandable that Nintendo would want to control the size of the levels, there could be a trade-off between reducing the size of each sub-level and having access to more of those. Secondly, altering the vertical extension of the stages cannot be done, something that stops players from creating stages that gravitate around that kind of progression.

mario_maker3Finally, having no control over the camera might overcomplicate the triggering of more complex mechanisms, like not letting players see something until the time or position is right; or the use of design tricks, such as not allowing other portions of the stage to be visible from certain areas.

In terms of stage-building assets, even though the most iconic elements of the Mario universe are certainly covered, some notable absences can be felt. Important themes like ice, desert, forest, and beach are nowhere to be seen, making each game’s standard scenario the sole outdoors area that can be used. Creating small bodies of water is also out of the question, as that element is only available on the Underwater theme. Similarly, slopes and – more importantly – checkpoints are nowhere to be found at the present time, the latter of which could play a major role in reducing the frustration created by harder stages.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the room to beautify a stage by adding some visual candy – such as bushes and flowers on the standard theme, or clocks and lamps in the Ghost House – is somewhat lacking due to the fact those are randomly generated as ground is placed. It certainly would have been nice to be able to lay those down without having to resort to copying the visual assets that have been randomly placed and moving them somewhere else.

mario_maker4Super Mario Maker’s second component is accessed by the “Play” option. By selecting it, players go through the doorway that leads to the Course World, where the creations of players around the globe are gathered to be consumed, rated, and commented on. As it is bound to happen to anything that is left in the hands of a very large online community, what emerges is one gigantic mixed bag.

There are some remarkable treasures waiting to be found, levels that are on-par with Nintendo’s own creations and that sometimes surpass the high average quality of Super Mario stages. And Nintendo provides players with the tools to locate those. It is possible to visualize them through a list of featured levels chosen by Nintendo itself, stages that have garnered the highest amount of stars during a certain period of time, the latest uploaded stages, and stages the user has marked as favorites; and also by focusing on the most popular makers or those one has decided to follow.

Playing stages, starring them, going through the list of the creations of a specific user, navigating the menus, and looking at a level’s stats (the number of people who have played it, the percentage of attempts that have been successful at clearing it, which is a great automatic measure of difficulty), are actions done with a simple touch on the Gamepad, making the browsing experience greatly smooth.

Super Mario Maker is, then, a huge repository of platforming goodness that can be easily navigated and that never stops renewing its content. From a value standpoint, at least, it is undoubtedly the strongest entry of the Mario franchise, and as long as talented users keep on producing new creative courses that either follow the property’s traditional design rules or bend them in incredibly inventive ways, it will keep on delivering refreshing gameplay. However, while the user-creation component is what makes the cogs of the game’s engine turn frantically, it also happens to be its Achilles’ heel.

mario_maker7As hands-off quality control devices, Nintendo only allows the upload of levels that have been cleared and limits the number of stages users can send to the servers based on the stars they have earned. All players start with ten available spots, and that threshold is only altered when at least fifty stars are acquired, with the requirements for extra room growing bigger and more demanding from that point on.

It is a nice little touch, but as – fortunately – a democratic game, there is still a considerable amount of content that treads the line between dull and infuriating. Stages that look like they have been put together by a clumsy random generator, with blocks and enemies placed without any care or thought, are abundant. So are automatic stages that play themselves with no user input whatsoever, courses that are meant to troll and kill Mario, and other recurrent gimmicks.

When manually moving through the lists, stages such as those can be easily avoided and Super Mario Maker’s greatness rises far above the irregularity of its content. The same cannot be said about the 100 Mario challenge, a mode in which players are given 100 lives to clear a series of levels.

Here, given each stop along the way to Bowser’s Castle is randomly picked from the database according to the level of difficulty chosen, players are basically forced to sift through huge amounts of bad content – which is thankfully done by simply swiping the screen in order to discard the course – in order to try to have any sort of fun. The fact that the reward for clearing that challenge is one of one hundred character figurines that can be used as mushrooms to transform Mario’s model during a stage will certainly make many players frustrated.

mario_maker5Like it occurs with the course creator, the system backing up the sharing of levels does have a few punctual minor issues. Possibly in an attempt to deter negativity, commenting can only be done after awarding the course a star, an association that makes it impossible to give users constructive feedback without starring the stage and moving it to one’s list of favorites. Moreover, the commenting system is done through Miiverse, which slows down the process considerably given Super Mario Maker must boot Nintendo’s social network before allowing comments to be written and posted.

The most glaring issue, though, is the lack of a powerful search feature. The lists Nintendo provides are useful and nicely implemented, but the nonexistence of a text box to permit more detailed filtering by a stage’s name or its features, and an underlying level-tagging system to support that, is perplexing. Sharing levels with other users, and finding them, can only be done through sixteen-digit IDs – which would have been fine if other options existed as well, and it is a step back for a company that had moved on from that hideous mechanism.

All in all, despite its many small flaws, most of which can be easily fixed either through minor software updates or future installments, Super Mario Maker is mostly a delight. Creating levels is incredibly satisfying thanks to its flawless interface and controls, the flexibility of the building blocks, and the sheer simplicity of the gameplay it supports, which can be made rather intricate with a good amount of creativity. Similarly, going through the endless piles of user-created content is a scavenger hunt that yields impressive results and allows players to optimize and customize their experience by starring their favorite levels and following their favorite creators. It is Nintendo’s first step into a rather collaborative realm, and it is a beauty with a few rough edges waiting to be polished.

Super Mario Maker

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