Game Ramblings #149 – Metroid Dread

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Action/Platformer, Metroidvania
  • Platform: Switch

This is very much an iteration on the work that was started with Metroid: Samus Returns, and that’s a great thing. Quite frankly, you could read my notes on that one and it would be a 1:1 retread of what worked for Metroid Dread. However, this feels like a clear iteration on the formula and even more importantly a clear end point to the series’ story – whether or not that’s ultimately what will happen. This is just a fantastically good game that took far too long for someone to convince Nintendo to spend money on, and I’m glad it finally happened.

The thing that really stood out to me in this one was its difficulty, and that seems to be a common theme across the feedback I’ve seen about the game. A lot of people are calling it simply hard, but I think it’s more nuanced than that. What it really feels like to me is that it’s precise, and that’s really the difference to me in why I had the patience to enter death loops. I’ve shelved a lot of games in the last decade or so within the sort of rise of the indie games. A lot of games feel like they do hard for the sake of hard. Something precise and mechanically tight will come out like Celeste and be incredibly difficult but fair, then a bunch of games will follow that are simply…..difficult. It’s not fun. Dread very much feels like it falls within the difficult but fair.

Bosses in this game are no joke. A missed mechanic will take a full health tank or more. If you aren’t being precise with your movement, you will die. However, once you learn the mechanics and once you get your movement down, you’re just as likely to take no damage in these fights. In that respect it’s incredibly fair. You take damage, you learn mechanics, you avoid damage, you win. Sure you may die a couple times, but you aren’t getting screwed by RNG and you aren’t getting screwed by the fight.

You’re given a lot of tools to avoid damage that aren’t typical of the Metroid series – things like a slide that can transition into the morph ball or an instant dodge that gives some amount of i-frames – that really lean into damage avoidance as a key mechanic. You’re also given some really good new offensive tools to make damage a little more passive and a little less precise in those big moments – things like the return of the melee counter from Samus Returns or a lock-on multi-hit charge missile – that allow you to build up damage without having to be right up in the enemy’s face or having to pause and engage in the slower free aim. The end result of all of this is that while the game is still distinctly Metroid in style and mechanical knowledge, it feels substantially like a modern game where you have full control of damage mitigation and aren’t just being slammed with unavoidable nonsense.

There’s also just a ton of little things that the game does very right that make it feel both Metroid and modern. You’ve still got pickups that drop when you kill things, but they get sucked in at any range. Combined with melee counters dropping more items, this both increases the general pace of the game AND allows the game to have higher difficulty, since you’re always pulling in resources. One of the early upgrades is the return of the pulse radar that reveals hidden breakable blocks. This is again probably controversial, but this feeds into increased exploration and increased pace since you aren’t just playing a game of shoot every block to find the hidden trinket. Free aim is back to give much more freedom of hitting things from any angle, making a lot of the trash encounters much quicker to deal with. The new slide move both replaces a lot of the slower morph ball stuff, but also acts as a fast transition into morph ball tunnels when unlocked AND a way to actively dodge attacks in a lot of the boss fights.

However, the real important change compared to Fusion or the Prime games is that the game really doesn’t give you any direction. You’re chucked into the world and told to get to the surface. You’re given some lore as things go, but more often than not it’s up to you to find your way. This is very much an old Metroid thing that started to go away over the years, so it’s interesting to see it return to very little direction. For me, this is precisely what I’m looking for in a Metroidvania. I love to scan the map to find doors that I haven’t entered or mysterious holes in the map that I haven’t explored, then going back to find new things. Where things really work for the better is that the map itself is far more readable than past 2D entries, although that is entirely down to just having more modern hardware and higher resolution to display the map. It’s just far easier to find things when you can pump more obvious information on the screen and it really benefits the loose structure of the classic Metroid formula. It’s even better with a bunch of fast travel teleportation spots that open up as you find more upgrades, allowing you to quickly scoot around the world at will.

This just ended up being such a good game. It’s been so long since a 2D entry came out in this series that there was probably some amount of valid concern about whether or not this could be done and still be fun. Samus Returns proved that the formula still worked and Dread proved that the series can move forward. This hits just the right mix of classic Metroid and modern gaming, and in a couple key ways goes backwards compared to Fusion and Prime, but it comes out as such a great mix. The difficulty of the game will probably turn some people away, but for me it again hits the perfect mix – it’s perhaps unforgiving, but it’s precise and fair and not based in RNG. You’ll learn where things go wrong, then make it right. It may take a few tries, but you’ll learn and get through it.

It’s also funny looking back at my notes about Samus Returns. That one ended with a new little cutscene showing the rise of the X parasites on SR388. I mentioned in passing that maybe they were hinting at something else. Boy was it ever. I don’t know if they were still hoping to do a Fusion remake or Dread at that point, but seeing the end of the post-Prime Metroid and X saga finally arrive is both great to see and something that I never really expected to happen.

Seriously, go play this.

Game Ramblings #144 – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Released On: Wii

Playing remakes is usually a bit weird. They’re typically a mix of nostalgia with enough of a new platform benefit to make replaying worthwhile. Skyward Sword isn’t necessarily different in that regard, although I think a lot of people’s opinion of the original was not great. This one on the other hand benefits from some core things being reimagined – because the Pro Controller is a thing, there’s now a control scheme for this game that isn’t simply motion waggling. While that was a big change that benefited the game a lot, it was interesting seeing where other parts of the game have aged better than others.

The input changes are the obvious focus of this remake, so it’s also the obvious place to start. Waggle sword has been replaced with right analog sword, and in isolation its an interesting and powerful change. The game was able to keep some of the direction based mechanics in an easy to use form factor (ex: scorpion boss requiring specific direction claw strikes). It still has spots where it felt like the responsiveness wasn’t quite there if I didn’t flick at the right speed, but it was a marked improvement over the Wii Remote input system. Nunchuck thrust shield bash has been replaced by a simple click of the left stick. Not having to lift off the movement controls or swing my arms around was a huge boon to shield bashing, and led to me using it to a far greater effect than the original game, despite the fact that my timing still sucks.

On the other hand, having two sticks dedicated to movement and combat means that the camera system is the odd man out. On the one hand, having to hold a button to use the right stick as a camera is still a significant improvement over the original game and other single-analog Zelda experiences. On the other hand, I’m not really entirely sure why they didn’t have an option for a simple L/R camera rotation system. With ZL target locking, having vertical camera movement isn’t super important. Not being able to move the camera at the same time as swinging was definitely a hazard during boss fights to the point where the camera button was frustrating in those situations. It felt like a weird way of trying to blend modern camera systems with a game clearly not built for them when there was likely better intermediate solutions.

On the general gameplay front, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying the overall meta game. In my original playthrough, I remember being frustrated that there was so much re-traversal of areas that you’d already been to. Compared to previous Zelda games, it felt like a cop out to minimize content production. I don’t know if it’s because Breath of the Wild was so fundamentally different, or that I’ve been playing a whole hell of a lot more Metroidvanias in the last decade, but this go around I really enjoyed it.

Part of this playthrough for me was that I was a lot more intentionally completionist than I typically would be. I was making mental notes of areas that I couldn’t get to, treasures I didn’t have the right tool for, paths I couldn’t make my way through, etc. Because of this, I also had a checklist of new things to do when revisiting an area. Sure there was always a cool new section of the regions to visit, but I also had other things to do – grab heart pieces, grab rupies, grab bugs, get those item upgrades – so revisiting an area never felt like a chore. I think ultimately it comes down to me just playing games differently now than I did at the first release of this game, and the overall meta game setup just hit better for me this go around.

What didn’t hit so well with me was The Imprisoned trilogy of boss fights. The amount of times this thing fell just right to completely block the path, or fell just right to knock me off a cliff DURING ITS OWN CUTSCENE to my doom was obnoxious. I actually died in the second fight because I flippantly started it at low health already, got knocked off the cliff all three times when it collapsed, and died. These fights just didn’t age well, and it was entirely down to bugs.

The other bosses generally worked much better. Some of my frustration with them stemmed from odd camera difficulties that existed in the original game, so in a lot of cases it was expected frustration. I ended up dying my first go around in the final fight against Demise because my shield bash timing was quite frankly that bad. Some of the Ghirahim stuff was mechanically weird in ways I didn’t remember (ex: hold sword to the left as a distraction then QUICKLY do a swipe from the right to damage him?????). By and large though the fights are generally as good as other 3D Zelda games, even if they have the same typically three phase pattern in all of them.

The thing I think I’ve got out of this is that I can recommend Skyward Sword a lot easier than I could before. I always really adored the original game, but I was cognizant of the fact that it was a hard recommendation. The controls were just too inconsistent. However, that’s mostly gone away and the rest of the game has aged well enough that I think it’s worth playing. It’s an interesting transition point between Twilight and Breath where it’s still got the linear dungeon path, but starting to move into some open worldish stuff and upgrade systems, and despite the odd controls it’s a lot of fun to run through. It being readily available on a very popular system also isn’t going to hurt its case. If you’re looking for that classic 3D Zelda itch, you probably won’t do better any time soon.

Also, the cat dog bird thing is a jerk.

Game Ramblings #131 – Bowser’s Fury

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Switch

I’ll make this simple – Super Mario 3D World is still fun and still worth playing. If you buy the cart just for that game, you’ll be happy. However, Bowser’s Fury is easily the more interesting part of the package. It’s an entire experiment in what Mario could be as an open world game. Some of it works well, some of it doesn’t, but it’s an interesting look into what the future of the series could potentially be.

It took me a while to really put my finger on what this game felt like, but it hit me that this feels like playing Super Mario Galaxy, minus the gravity manipulation. As you run around the world, you hit cat gates that act as the entries to individual objective areas. Each of these areas acts similar to a galaxy in that you go through it multiple times to get shines, and each shine has its own little modifications to the environment of the section. Where the magic comes in is that there’s no load times. You finish a shine and can go wherever you want. The next time you come back to the area, a new shine is available and the modifications to the environment in the area are already active.

From a general game rhythm perspective, it ends up being a sped up version of Galaxy. It’s such a small functional change, but not having to drop out of the world speeds up the game so much. You finish a shine and just keep going. There’s no transition back to an overworld or hub. There’s no waiting on loads and title screens. You just run and go. It helps that some shines are also available for partial credit as you run around doing others. For example, each area has a cat badge collection shine that can be finished at any time, including in the middle of working on other shines. It all feeds back into keeping the player moving as much as possible, rather than having to hop back and forth.

This kind of feeds back into what I talked about in the Ys IX ramblings, but this ends up being a game that just keeps you moving, and it’s what I’m most excited about in a potential open world Mario game. Super Mario Odyssey did a great job of packing the individual worlds with a ton of stuff. While those worlds were big and fun, they were also distinctly separate. Taking the scale and scope of things to do and packing it into a future open world (maybe an entire open Mushroom Kingdom?) is something that I never really thought was possible. After playing Bowser’s Fury, I think there’s a nugget of possibility there.

On the other hand, the Bowser part of this experience is just kind of average. As a mechanic tied into the story it serves its purpose but it just isn’t that fun. Bowser pops up periodically to basically just fuck shit up. He throws a bunch of crap around that basically serves to annoy you and then you either fight him as giant Mario or he goes away after a short period of time. There’s also a number of shines that require Bowser’s fury attacks to break some blocks and give access to shines. It just ends up feeling like an unnecessary distraction from the exploration. In general I’d expect this to not exist in a larger open world Mario game, so I’m not overly worried about its existence, but I could deal without the player friction it causes.

However, the boss fight portion of it is fun. Fighting as giant Mario vs Godzilla Bowser is really cool. Mechanically, it’s not that far off of normal Mario fights, but suddenly being as big as an entire level section is fun. Picking up a giant rock spear and chucking it at Bowser is fun. Trying to whack him out of a side spin with your cat attacks is fun. Like most Mario boss fights it isn’t complex, but it’s extremely satisfying.

This is distinctly an experiment. It’s absolutely a pack-in for the port of Super Mario 3D World, but it’s a fascinating way for Nintendo to experiment. They can sell the main game on its own, but still get a lot of player feedback in a way that doesn’t allow for failure. If people don’t like the experiment, no harm, they still have the main game. However, if people do like the experiment? You gave them a great bonus experience and got a ton of good feedback.

Given how well this one turned out, I wouldn’t be that surprised if the next Mario is open world. This one felt instantly recognizable, but new at the same time. Having a very Galaxy-style environment setup without load times is fresh and interesting in a way that surprised me. I could live without the Bowser mechanics, but give me a game with the rest of this experiment and I suspect I’ll be a happy camper.