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Mario Kart 8 Deluxe: The Retronauts review

I didn’t really play much of Mario Kart 8 in its first run on Wii U. Much as I liked the Wii U console — that poor, benighted thing — sandwiching the joyless mundanity of Mario Kart Wii between the excellence of Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart 7 helped turn the series irrevocably into a portable experience for me. And while Mario Kart 8 proved to be every bit the equal of its immediate predecessor, if not better, its being on Wii U meant I had to play it on a television. Alas, Nintendo, I just can’t go back.

As it turns out, my reticence worked out for the best: I was, it turns out, simply saving myself for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Not only does the Switch’s “remastered” version compile the entirety of the Wii U’s original release and downloadable updates into a single package (along with some new content), it does so in that all-important portable format.

Yes, I know: Technically, Switch isn’t a “handheld” system. Nintendo has gone to great pains to present Switch as the Wii U’s successor to the console market, leaving ample room for 3DS as its portable offering — not surprisingly, given the remarkable 3DS lineup they’ve laid out for the remainder of 2017. And Switch’s on-the-go fluidity remains its strongest feature. It feels capable if somewhat underpowered as a console, but its makes for an extraordinary portable device.

I’m not sure if you could reasonably call Mario Kart 8 Deluxe the Switch’s killer app when (1.) Switch also has Breath of the Wild and (2.) MK8D is ultimately a marginally tweaked version of a game that launched four years ago. Technicalities aside, though, what MK8D offers is an intoxicating glimpse of the play experiences capable with Nintendo’s new handheld. Console. Handheld-console hybrid. Whatever.

Docked, MK8D doesn’t really do much to sell itself. That’s how I first experienced it at Nintendo’s pre-launch event back in January, and it didn’t do much for me then. If you skipped owning a Wii U, sure, you finally have a chance to play the excellent latest entry in this long-running racing series. And if, like me, you never bothered with the Wii U version’s extensive DLC offerings, it’s pretty nice to have all those extras available and unlocked from the start.

The moment you launch the game, it offers four dozen tracks, each playable in five different difficulty levels (including mirror mode), with enough characters to choose among to inspire envy among Capcom’s “Vs.” fighters. The DLC material included here contains some reused vintage content, of course; about half the tracks you can play on are legacy remasters from older games, spanning from the Super NES original to the dreaded Mario Kart Wii. (Turns out the Wii tracks are pretty fun when divorced from the game itself.) And you could easily cull about half the character lineup and never miss them. Does anybody really want to play as Metal Mario or Pink Gold Peach? But, on the other hand, you can also choose from a decent selection of non-Mario characters, which breathes some new life into the lineup. Some are new to this version — Splatoon‘s Inklings, for example — while others showed up as DLC add-ons to MK8. Of them all, I think Isabelle from Animal Crossing may be my new favorite Mario Kart racer, if only because she spouts her in-race taunts entirely in Animal Crossing gibberish.

The new, non-Mario material goes a long way toward freshening up the MK8D package, especially when it comes to courses. We’ve been racing through Ghost Houses, Bowser’s Castles, Luigi Speedways, and Rainbow Roads for 25 years now. And while it’s amusing to have a Yoshi-themed race track in which the speedway is shaped in the outline of the baby-voiced dino itself, I find myself drawn far more to the opportunity to cruise through, say, Hyrule (at least on something faster that a grumpy pony). It helps that these excursions beyond the Mushroom Kingdom demonstrate some of the liveliest attention-to-detail MK8D offers, such as the way the F-Zero course’s “damage zones” create drag on your kart or the fact that your coin indicator icon is temporarily replaced by a bag of bells for the duration of the Animal Crossing track.

Great as all of these details may be, though, none of this really gets to the heart of what makes MK8D so momentous: Its flexibility. It’s the first major release for Switch that takes full advantage of the system’s dynamic nature. Bomberman was fine, Snipperclips was amusing, and 1-2-Switch made for a decent icebreaker, but with MK8D we have a Switch title with near-universal appeal, a ridiculous amount of content, and substantial mechanics — and it’s been heavily revamped to allow players to enjoy competitive racing under an enormous variety of circumstances.

Fundamentally, Mario Kart games haven’t changed all that much since the Super NES original. Still, a few key moments in the series’ history stand out. Mario Kart 64‘s addition of proper 3D geometry to course designs allowed for more complex track designs and the wild unpredictability that comes in uneven race surfaces. Mario Kart DS added proper online multiplayer. And now, this: The freedom to play with others, anywhere, at a moment’s notice.

MK8D shines brightest when you play with others, and Nintendo has added in a huge number of multiplayer format options. That’s true in terms of content — the Battle Mode this time around is excellent — but more importantly, it affects how you play as well. Console-based Mario Karts have always allowed split-screen multiplayer and, more recently, online racing as well; portable Mario Kart games have always included local competitive play, along with online support beginning with Mario Kart DS. MK8D incorporates all of those options, too. But then it ups the ante. In addition to both handheld and docked wireless play, splitscreen docked play, and multi-system local wireless play, you can also play splitscreen on the handheld itself by disconnecting the controllers and using them for impromptu head-to-head racing.

Of course, this has been Switch’s sales pitch all along. But it’s one thing to watch stylish 20-somethings grinning through a manicured promotional video and quite something else to prop up a Switch on a kitchen counter, hand the Joycons to a couple of kids, and let them get to racing against one another with a single, self-contained game system. And while it’s not the 100% frictionless experience Nintendo’s demo reel would suggest, it’s nevertheless quick, easy, and completely engrossing.

I could play MK8D and weigh in on it with the perspective of a seasoned adult, but I found far more value in putting it to the test by letting my young nephews and cousins give it a go over the weekend. What I found was that, yes, the game and system both were instant hits with a gaggle of kids who until then had been aware of Switch but had little real interest in it.

The impromptu multiplayer setup isn’t without its minor snags, of course. The Joycons don’t slide as freely off the system’s core as Nintendo would like them to, and the wrist strap attachments are always a hassle to attach and remove. And even with the attachments, the Joycons are much too cramped for extended play sessions for all but the youngest of players. On top of that, the Switch’s screen itself seems pretty tiny when you’re playing at a distance greater than holding the screen directly in front of your face; arguments nearly broke out every time one of the kids tried to surreptitiously nudge the screen closer to them. But after the initial two minutes of setup (and once I laid down the law about placing the screen in between players, to be fair to everyone), MK8D remained in active use for the rest of the night. We started off with standard races, but once the younger kids with the shorter attention spans wandered off to find other amusements, the two older teens switched over to battle mode for the remainder of the evening.

It’s not difficult to imagine extending this use case to dozens of other games on Switch. Instant-match fighting games? Infuriating New Super Mario Switch multiplayer sessions? Cooperative Contra III on Virtual Console? Sign me up, for all the above.

Due to its necessary technological restrictions, handheld gaming has always felt like a format that lags a generation behind the cutting edge of console play. Switch doesn’t change that — while Microsoft and Sony are delving into 4K visuals in an attempt to remain competitive with personal computers, Nintendo’s new system doesn’t even output 1080p on a consistent basis. In handheld mode, though, MK8D‘s small-screen 720p resolution looks sharper than the game did on Wii U. And above all, MK8D delivers an experience you can enjoy anywhere, anytime, with anyone. For perhaps the first time, handheld gaming (even if the company’s marketing doesn’t refer to it necessarily as such) doesn’t feel so far behind consoles. Switch may not have the horsepower of PS4 Pro, but it breaks handheld gaming away from the one-to-one system-to-player ratio that’s always been one of the format’s greatest drawbacks and allows for an impromptu session of console-caliber gaming with almost no friction.

Granted, this potential has always been there, ever since Nintendo first showed off the Switch. It’s just that MK8D is the first release to feel like it truly makes good on it. Zelda may have been the system-seller, but MK8D demonstrates why Switch might actually live up to all those Wii-sized sales aspirations and predictions. If the kids’ reactions to my weekend play sessions are any indication, a head-to-head countertop Mario Kart race is the kind of game experience that makes true believers out of skeptics. As a game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe perfects a long-running series; as an experience, it defines a new standard for how multiplayer portable games should work.

Not bad for warmed-over material.

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Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap | The Retronauts review

Remaking a beloved classic forces developers to grapple with their own pixellated version of the Ship of Theseus paradox: How heavily can a game be altered while remaining fundamentally the same work? What parts should be altered? To what degree should those modifications be allowed to reshape the underlying work?

LizardCube’s new remake of SEGA Master System metroidvania Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap is one of the rare instances in which the developers were able to sidestep this question altogether right at the outset. This remake began as a programming exercise for an enthusiastic fan (Omar Cornut) who wanted to dissect the tech behind the game and rebuild it for new systems. Rather than taking broad liberties with this new rendition of The Dragon’s Trap, Cornut prioritized fidelity first and foremost. This is a remake in the most literal sense: Not a reimagining, but rather a genuine recreation of the 8-bit work from the ground up.

Much as with Saber and 343i’s Halo Anniversary Editions, The Dragon’s Trap gives players a visually upgraded overlay that sits atop the original game, modified to run on new hardware and containing a handful of bonus secrets, but ultimately unchanged. The world layout, the physics, the enemy movements: They’re all the same as they were way back in 1989 on Master System. In fact, as with the aforementioned Halo remakes, The Dragon’s Trap allows players freely toggle between the new look and the original game sprites with the press of a button. The 8-bit visualizer mode isn’t simply the original Master System game running under emulation, either; the graphics have been modified to fill the widescreen layout of modern devices like Nintendo Switch (the version I’ve been playing) or PlayStation 4.

It’s a stunning exercise in digital archaeology, the programming equivalent of unearthing a dinosaur fossil and reassembling it perfectly… then allowing viewers to observe it as either a bare skeleton or with a detailed new skin. It almost seems excessive, but in the best way possible. How many remakes allow you to take a password into the original version of the game to play for a while, then seamlessly carry the progress you made there back into the new rendition?

This scrupulous fidelity to the source material comes with both benefits and drawbacks, of course — the developers’ pixel paradox in action. On the plus side (and this is an enormous plus), it means the extravagant new visuals don’t compromise playability. The Dragon’s Trap looks absolutely gorgeous, with elaborate, stylish, and above all fluid animation fleshing out the game’s sprawling world. Purists can opt to play with the original bitmaps, garish color palettes and all, but I can’t see why anyone would. The remake looks as good as any other 2D platformer I’ve ever seen, and possibly better.

But LizardCube’s core design philosophy — that is, change none of the game’s substance — neatly sidesteps the biggest issue that normally arises when a game looks this nice. Beautifully animated games tend to prioritize animation above responsiveness, an issue you’re especially likely to experience in other hand-drawn games of European origins. Think Rayman: Games that look great and move with visual grace, but which insist on playing out a full animation cycle on-screen before responding to player inputs. Because The Dragon’s Trap is ultimately running on a reconstructed 8-bit framework, it moves like an 8-bit game. When you tap the controls in a given direction, your character immediately moves in that direction. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment on display here (in a release that sets several technical standards for future classic remakes) is the way in which the characters still manage to animate fluidly within those limitations. There’s a whole lot of in-betweening work that plays out between the stilted animation cycles of the Master System original, and each of your protagonist’s five incarnations manages to pull off a variety of moves without ever breaking the illusion. It’s truly extraordinary, all the more so for the impression that every frame of every character and bad guy was drawn individually rather than relying on Flash-style “puppet” animation that many other best-of-class 2D developers (e.g. Vanillaware, WayForward, or Klei) sometimes use as shortcuts.

Taking such a faithful approach does present its share of problems, though, and The Dragon’s Trap unfortunately falls afoul of the biggest of them: Namely, by holding so faithfully to a game from nearly 30 years ago, LizardCube chose to forego any opportunities to refine it.

Now, some may hold to the idea that new developers have no business monkeying around with someone else’s classic, that the point of a remake like this is simply to reproduce the source material, warts and all. I disagree. Game design has come a long way in 30 years; back when Westone first created Wonder Boy III, developers were still tinkering with fundamental concepts of balance and fairness. To their credit, this game feels far less punishing than other contemporary nonlinear games. Wonder Boy (or Girl — one of the more thoughtful cosmetic elements of this remake is the option to chose your protagonist’s gender) can soak up quite a bit of damage from foes. If you venture into an area and find yourself hopelessly outclassed by the bad guys there, you shouldn’t be in that area just yet.

That said, the original game still had its share of minor frustrations. The physics can feel a little odd for those accustomed to the elegant jump mechanics of other games, and there are a few places (especially late in the game) where enemy placement feels needlessly punishing. The world desperately needs a few reverse shortcuts, too. Every area has a door to warp players back to the main village that serves as the game’s hub, but you need to trek the whole way on foot when you want to venture out to the hinterlands. If you lose to a boss, you can look forward to slogging your way back from the start. Likewise, the one shop that sells precious life potions is a good five-minute jaunt through a mouse-sized maze, even for a powered-up hero. You’ll get to know that route quite well, since you have to bumble through it any time you want to restock your potions.

It’s a testament, then, to the excellence of the original game that it still plays well in 2017 despite these quality-of-life issues. The third chapter in the sprawling Wonder Boy series (along with the other Wonder Boy III, Monster Lair — yes, it’s confusing, but we’ve sorted it out for you in podcast form) built on the rudimentary action RPG elements that appeared in 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. Where Monster World had the brisk pacing and simplistic structure required for a game originating in arcades, though, Wonder Boy III appeared strictly on consoles and could afford to indulge in fully non-linear design. It’s packed with secrets, equipment, and pathways that you may spot right off but can only explore once you’ve acquired the appropriate power.

Those powers helped make the game so interesting. The journey begins at the finale of the previous game, with the final boss encounter working as a sort of prologue; once you defeat the last game’s boss, Wonder Boy is cursed to become a monster. With each new boss you destroy, you’re cursed anew to become a different creature: A lizard, a mouse, a fishman, etc. Each form has both advantages and drawbacks. The mouse, for example, has absolutely awful attack range, but can slip through tiny passages and climb certain walls. In time, you gain the ability to swap between your cursed forms at certain key locations, and learning when and how to make the most of each curse becomes a huge part of completing the game.

Original developers Westone put together one of the most advanced and interesting action RPGs of the ’80s, one that could stand toe-to-toe with hits such as Zelda II and would go on to exert some very obvious influence on the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the NightShantae and Little Samson. Its problem was one of obscurity. Wonder Boy III appeared on multiple systems back in the day, but they were all the least popular platforms of each category: Master System, TurboGrafx-16, Game Gear. Hopefully the fact that this visually stunning (and still quite entertaining!) remake is showing up on the most popular platforms of the era — PlayStation and Steam, as well as being one of the first notable releases for Switch — will allow this 8-bit masterpiece to finally receive the acclaim it’s due.

The remake’s changes are literally skin deep… but what a great-looking skin they’ve created. And that skin been fitted over a game that didn’t really need much corrective surgery in the first place. I wouldn’t have complained about a few minor gameplay refinements, especially options to make navigating back to conquered areas less time-consuming, but I can’t fault LizardCube for creating a brilliantly, beautifully faithful take on this 8-bit classic.

Verdict: Highly recommended

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Developer: LizardCube | Publisher: DotEmu
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Steam, Switch, Xbox One
Release date: April 18, 2017

This review was based on software provided by the publisher for review purposes.

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Retronauts Micro 57: A Blaster Master retrospective and Blaster Master Zero review

A game review? On Retronauts? It’s more likely than you think. In fact, there’s one right here.

But this is not your typical game review — it’s a game review that takes the form of a podcast, and the review itself has in turn been commingled with a retrospective. My hope is that it’s a review format you could only experience here in the one, the only… Retronauts.

Is it a good review format, though? Or one that you only find here because it’s a ridiculous concept and no one else would ever bother. I leave that as an exercise to you, the listener, to determine.

So, yes. Episode 57 of Retronauts Micro is a two-part affair: First, a retrospective of the original Blaster Master, including some handy context to help explain why the game had such impact and remains so well-liked, and a loose rundown of its sequels. The second part (after the obligatory ad break) delves specifically into the new Inti Creates remake, Blaster Master Zero. My goal here was to create a chunk of game commentary that upholds the Retronauts goal of tying present to past, while also taking advantage of the fact that this venture is, ultimately, about the podcast.

It’s about 30 minutes long in total, so it goes into pretty considerable detail without (hopefully) wearing thin its welcome with your ears. So please have a listen!

Episode description: It’s a different application for the Retronauts Micro format this week as Jeremy uses the show to present a review of the newly released Blaster Master Zero alongside a series retrospective.

MP3, 14.6 MB | 31:46
Direct download
Retronauts on iTunes
Retronauts at PodcastOne

And that wraps it up for me for a little while. You’ll be glad to know Bob’s back on duty next week with a look at celebrity video games, and he’ll be handling the next Micro as well (two weeks from now). So you can enjoy a bit of a respite from my monotone drone…

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