Game Ramblings #119 – Super Mario 3D All-Stars

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Available On: N64, Gamecube, and Wii

Replaying these three all at once is an interesting experience. They’ve each got their quirks, and to some extent some have aged better than others, but there’s still a lot to like here 15-25 years later. There’s a common mechanical thread that you can see through each of them and you can see the lessons learned in how the next game has improved. That process of iteration gave us three great games, and ultimately led to Super Mario Odyssey, which is arguably the best of the 3D series.

Of the three, Super Mario 64 has aged the worst. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, but it definitely feels like a 25 year old game. Mechanically it ends up just feeling kind of stiff. All of the new 3D moves are there – your triple jump, side somersaults, wall jumps, ground pound – but they aren’t quite there yet. Jump distance is still a little too dependent on your speed, the threshold for side somersault is still a little too tight, the difference between diving forward and doing a jump kick is still a little too vague, but the thread is there to future games.

The biggest problem at this point for Mario 64 is the camera though. It’s just not good. It wasn’t particularly good when it came out, and compared to modern 3d platformers it’s pretty rough. The mix of some camera control for the player and some forced rotation from the level just feels really bizarre. The games that do it best today are ones that either go full player control or full level control and stick to making those feel smooth. To some extent though, I think it’s hurt by playing on a modern gamepad. Playing on the N64, the different levels of camera depth and direction at least felt correct in that you press a button and a single action occurs. On a stick, there’s a large mental hurdle to get over when holding the stick off to the side doesn’t just smoothly rotate the camera. I don’t particularly care that they didn’t go actual remake on this one from an aesthetic level, but having the camera redone as a modern camera would go a long way to improving on the game as it exists.

Sunshine is where things start to really age better. The mechanics are just that little bit tighter across the board to where actions do what you want consistently without being either too loose or too tight on their requirements. The level goals are a little bit more clear, with a nice introductory cutscene before you start off giving you some clue as to where to head. The levels themselves also have a lot more variety, since each goal is tailored to the specific star, rather than having a sandbox level to get any star at any time.

On the other hand, there are definitely some things where it hadn’t quite reached modern smoothness. Kicking the player out of a level into the hub when they die instead of resetting the star is a weird point of friction to the experience that carried over from 64. The lack of checkpoints is similarly unfortunate, especially given they have checkpoints at the start of the handful of areas where they take away your water pack. This one is especially weird because giving more checkpoints would have allowed them to increase difficulty throughout instead of having sort of low difficulty with longer segments. As a whole though, Sunshine is still a really fun and really playable game.

Galaxy is where it all comes together. If this game came out today instead of 10 years ago, it would still be an instant classic. Mechanically, it’s extremely tight, having reached the peak of iteration on the core 3D mechanics at that point. Lives became so abundant that the stale mechanic of game over became near impossible to hit, which ultimately led to lives going away in Odyssey. There’s checkpoints all over, letting each segment of a goal be more interesting on its own, rather than having to be smooth enough for the player to marathon through the entire thing. The gravity manipulation added on top of it is still engrossing, and it’s something I wish we’d have seen used more often in the years since. Playing through this is one of the few times in recent memory that I’ve played a remaster or emulated port that I simply fell into, rather than seeing the warts.

It was also surprising to me how easily the Wii pointer controls moved over to the Switch Joycon. The pointing isn’t 1:1, but it still feels extremely natural. Given they also have a reset button, it’s also comfortable, which is a huge change. You find a comfortable resting point, hit the pointer reset button, and you’re good to go. The sort of flicking motions you do to grab stars is extremely natural, and now that the spin jump is on a button, you don’t accidentally do that all the time either. It’s a minor change to the overall gameplay, but it goes such a long way to improving the experience over the original.

When playing these, it’s easy to see how much Super Mario 64 influenced the future for the Mario series. The move set alone is in everything Mario related at this point. Triple jump, wall jump, and side somersault are instinct moves in Mario games, and not just in 3D. The New Super Mario Bros games inherited just as much of the bloodline of Mario 64 as it did Super Mario Bros 3. These games were hugely influential on release, and are just as worth playing now.

Would I have liked to see Nintendo do something more than an emulated port for these? Sure. Am I disappointed that we got these anyway? Not at all. Playing through these games is still a treat, even with some of the age spots that are showing on them. There’s been a lot of 3D platformers in the 25 years since Super Mario 64 came out, and the three in this package are still right up at the top of the list in terms of their pure playability. Having them in one spot, and more importantly, having them easily on the go is a great package to have out there, regardless of how little things have changed.

Game Ramblings #117 – Paper Mario: The Origami King

More info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG-ish
  • Platform: Switch

This one was surprising to me, but only in ways that are relevant to the recent history of the series. If taken by the original game and Thousand Year Door, this being good isn’t a surprise. Even with Super Paper Mario, we saw some capability of the series to have spinoffs that are still quality. However, Sticker Star and Color Splash introduced combat focused on really obnoxious collectibles, and it felt like the series had gone off the rails. The Origami King in that regard is an oddity. It’s sort of an RPG, or at least feels closer to one than the last couple of titles. However, its progression isn’t based on XP, it doesn’t really have turn-based battles, and to some extent battles aren’t typically all that necessary. However, the systems in place – while not working great 100% of the time – still work well enough to make this one a really fun experience.

Being realistic, I guess the place to start with these ramblings is with combat. Combat has been the major downfall of the last couple of titles. In this one, it’s at times a blessing and a curse, but it’s at least unique and not surrounded by obnoxious collection anymore. The main catch for combat is that everything is based on setting up patterns in a ring. At the start of a turn, you’re presented with enemies pseudo-randomly placed on a ring, and with a limited set of moves you’re meant to slide and twist them into either a column for jump attacks or a 2×2 for hammer attacks. Do it right and you get a big damage boost. Do it wrong and you don’t.

That little detail though ends up being a blessing and a curse for combat. You want the damage boost because it lets you avoid taking damage yourself. It also results in you gaining a significant amount more coins in finishing. The reason you want more coins is so you can buy better items, since the upgraded attack items break every few battles. However, there’s no reason to need to buy a ton of items if you aren’t really battling. If you aren’t battling, then you won’t use the items and won’t need to battle to get more coins. It’s a weird sort of pull where combat for the sake of combat often feels super rewarding, but because your goal is to one shot everything it also ends up feeling inadvertently easy. Because you don’t really need to battle, you end up avoiding battles. Because you end up avoiding battles, combat feels inconsequential.

That said, there is something to be said for how satisfying combat feels when you do engage in it. Getting your board pattern right is a big positive gameplay boost. Seeing the big damage numbers is really gratifying, and even better when you see enemies explode in a flurry of coins and particles. This is enhanced by the typical timing-based bonuses from past Paper Mario titles where timing things just right gives you damage or defense bonuses in active combat.

However, bosses flip this all around. Rather than being in the middle of the board fighting outward, you’re starting on the outside of the board and moving inwards. You push and spin the board to line up a series of arrows and attack pieces to attempt to move you into the right position for maximum damage in a turn. Everything I’d read in previews of this game seemed to indicate that these fights could be grindy and boring, but honestly I found them anything but.

Admittedly, yes they can be long fights. However, they’re generally only grindy if you make them so. Each boss has a handful of core mechanics that really give you a ton of damage. Figure these out and you’re getting through the fights in a small handful of turns. Don’t figure them out, or don’t do your board setup right in a turn, and you could be in for a world of pain, or a turn with no damage output. From that perspective, I can see where some of the criticism comes from. In some cases, the mechanics at play are probably more vague than they should be. However, it’s incredibly rewarding to figure out one of these mechanics and really lay into a boss. Seeing a third of a health bar disappear in one turn will never feel bad, and this one definitely has that happen if you’re playing your cards right.

There were also a handul of real-time combat bosses that caught me off guard in the best way. The Blooper fight above is one example, where I’m dodging and jumping over different attack patterns trying to hammer the tentacles. Another example had me fighting a gigantic Papier-mâché Pokey while driving around a desert in a boot. These little real-time segments were never necessarily a core focus of the game, but had a habit of turning up at just the right time to let the game breathe a bit. They acted as a fun little challenge to tie into some portion of the story without forcing a turn-based fight. They stretched the overworld mechanics a bit to provide something the player could hop right in without a tutorial, but still be challenged in new and interesting ways.

As far as the rest of the RPG-ish stuff goes, it’s there in small ways that provide a power curve, but remove complexity from the genre. There’s no built-in XP system, but you’re provided fairly regular health and damage upgrade bonuses to give regular power growth. There’s no real gear system, but you can buy accessories to provide battle and world bonuses. There’s no weapon upgrades, but there’s an ever increasing strength of weapon items that you can buy, which do break, but cost far less in practice than the amount of coins you gain in winning a bunch of regular battles. It’s in an interesting place where they kind of take the RPG elements that work for the game, but don’t push into all the expectations of the genre. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t have preferred something more akin to Thousand Year Door here, but for what it’s worth it ends up working out well, and at the very least doesn’t end up getting in my way.

The rest of the experience is core Paper Mario, and if the battle system doesn’t scare you off, you don’t need to know anything here to know you’ll enjoy it. The origami visual style is phenomenally gorgeous, and they strongly use that to differentiate the paper people from the origami enemies. The writing is top notch and often laugh out loud hilarious. You’ll see creatures and characters from all walks of the Mario life, and you’ll see them in ways that are often very different from how they’re presented in the core platformers, but again that’s no big surprise here.

End of the day there’s really just one thing here to be said about this game – pleasantly surprising. The previous two games in the series really lowered my expectations coming into this one. As much as I was being cautiously optimistic about the combat, seeing another non-traditional turn-based system had me pretty nervous about the state this one would land in. Luckily, it landed pretty well. There’s definitely some oddities around how necessary combat ever is in this game, but engaging in combat is at least fun on its own. Even better, the boss fights are super interesting with some twists on the core mechanics at play within them. Again, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I would have preferred a more direct sequel to Thousand Year Door, but for the time being this one still leaves me pretty happy.

Game Ramblings #114 – Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Available On: Wii, 3DS

So, this is admittedly the third time I’ve played this game. I knew I would enjoy it, I knew it would take a long time, and I knew what the experience would be like. However, it was interesting playing it after Xenoblade 2. It didn’t necessarily make the remake better or worse, but the big changes in combat for Xenoblade 2 are something that I think I now appreciate more having gone back to the older combat style. My ramblings here are generally going to reflect seeing the changes the series has gone through now that I’ve played the two book ends sort of back to back.

Combat in the remake is the same as it was in the original. Your artes are lined up in a row to be used. Some artes are attacks, some are buffs or debuffs, some are defensive maneuvers, etc. Some of them are based on positioning (ex: bonus damage if attacking from behind). Some are used in tandem to effect the enemy (ex: Break -> Topple -> Stun). The basics that are there are the same that have been in the Xenoblade series the whole time.

What surprised me going back now that I’ve played Xenoblade 2 is how much I wish they’d have applied that game’s combat system to the remake. Ignoring some of the features that are definitely tied to the Xeno 2 story, the core change to that combat is that instead of a bar of artes that you scroll through, each attack is tied to a hard button – either on the d-pad or on the face buttons. This would have made the combat in this remake so much more fluid. You’ve got 8 buttons that could be used, 8 artes that you can assign anyway, and then a center activation on each character that could easily be applied to one of the shoulder buttons. Instead, you’re stuck doing a scroll to get to the arte that you want to use, while at the same time trying to juggle movement.

It also caught me a bit off guard that I never hit a point where I really felt a need to grind. I’m not sure if this is just because I’m generally familiar with the game, or if they did a rebalance pass, but balance was almost always in line with my expectations. Bosses felt reasonably balanced for where I expected to be in the game. If I was hitting a point where I was feeling a bit pressured, there was generally enough side quests around to give me boosts. I was generally collecting enough general stuff to keep up with money needed to grab the relevant current set of gear. It was just kind of a nice level playing field for the bulk of the game. I admittedly dropped it down to easy at the end, but not because I was frustrated of the grind like 2 or X. I was simply at a point where I wanted to see the remastered finish and epilogue content, rather than go through a boss gauntlet I’d already been through before.

On the other hand, boy do I really not miss the complexity of the systems in place in Xenoblade 2. That’s not to say that this game was ever really that simple, but it still only has three real forms of progression – XP for levels, AP for leveling up artes, and SP for leveling up passive skills. This is a far simpler game than the Excel simulation that Xeno 2 ultimately became. If there’s anything that really is still a bit of a chore to manage, it’s the amount of side questing involved.

That said, the overall UX for this is much improved over the original game anyway. Getting to your quest list is super fast (d-pad down). The in-world indication of where quest items or quest kills are is significantly improved. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more obvious what I should be doing at any point, and far quicker for me to change my focus to a different side quest with a few clicks.

There’s also some bonus points for how easy it was for me to change the cosmetic look of the party in the remake. Buying a piece of gear once permanently allows you to equip its cosmetic look to the characters it applies to. This is a super nice change, since your party can very rapidly turn into a multicolor shit show with all the random gear you’ll end up finding. I set my party’s look pretty early on to be consistent with roughly where they started, with a few minor color variations that I preferred, and stuck with it. On the surface, this may seem like a small feature, but I was always more of a fan of the numbers behind gear in JRPGs, and typically less of a fan of the visual impact in games that supported it, so finding my look and sticking to it is one of those things I really appreciate.

However, the real reason I suspect most people will want to replay this is for the Future Connected epilogue. This one was interesting in that it’s substantial, but not nearly as substantial as the Torna expansion for 2. It provides some nice story closure specifically for Melia, but not much else for the rest of the gang. It adds an interesting mechanic with the Nopon Ponspector horde that replaces chain attacks, but also significantly scales back your party flexibility. I suppose ultimately, it was a nice way for me to wrap up my gameplay of the remake, but it left me wanting to see more of what happened to the rest of the party. There may be some potential for them to add more of these epilogues to the game if they need to stretch the schedule before whatever Xeno project comes next, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend playing through an entire long JRPG again unless you’re really as big a fan of the series as I am.

Remakes are always a tough one, but in cases like Xenoblade I’m pretty happy about it. Beyond exposing the game to a much different audience than the previous go arounds, it’s just nice to hop into a game I loved in a way that is significantly better looking. This has continued my sort of run of JRPG remakes that I’ve been doing lately, and this is probably the safest of my recent bunch, sticking to the original framework entirely – FF7R was a distinct explosion, and Trials of Mana was similar in gameplay, but much different in visual style. However, it being safer didn’t make it worse. The game largely still works great. Would I have liked to see them take some risks and make combat smoother with lessons learned from 2? Ya. Am I glad to see that they didn’t add heaps of new systems? Even larger ya. This game wasn’t accidentally a 92 metacritic its first go around, and that shows. This game has aged remarkably well, and with a fresh coat of paint it’s still going to be worth playing for newcomers, and returning players may just take it as an opportunity to revisit a game they loved.