Saturday, November 24, 2012

Review: "Paper Mario Sticker Star"

The Paper Mario RPG series has long served as one of Nintendo's quirkiest Mario offshoots.  The original Paper Mario for the N64 pioneered the bizarre world of paper cutout characters living in a pop-up Mushroom Kingdom.  Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for the GameCube refined the formula in every way and produced one of the finest games in the entire Mario franchise.  Super Paper Mario for the Wii downplayed the RPG elements but kicked up the story a notch, providing an experience that dragged on a bit but was still highly enjoyable.

Now the Paper Mario series has come to a handheld console for the first time in the form of Paper Mario Sticker Star for the 3DS.  In many ways it is a return to form for the series, as many of the conventions discarded in Super Paper Mario make their return in Sticker Star.  The gameplay has returned to the 3D diorama design instead of the side-scrolling levels presented in the previous game.  Turn based battles are back.  And many of the level gimmicks and concepts from the first two games make a return in this installment.  If you enjoyed the first two Paper Mario games, you'll feel right at home exploring Sticker Star's world.

However, in many ways Sticker Star is also just as much a departure from the first two games as Super Paper Mario was.  The ways in which it shakes up the formula just aren't quite as obvious at first.  The most significant change is the introduction of stickers.  Stickers do everything now.  Every attack in battle now requires having a certain sticker in order to perform it, even basic actions like jumping and using the hammer.  Stickers are also used extensively outside of battle for puzzle solving and various other tasks too.  Fortunately, stickers are all over the place.  They're littered about the world, stuck on walls, inside boxes, and you'll even sporadically run into shops that sell various kinds of stickers too.  Even though your album holds a finite amount of stickers, you aren't likely to ever run out.  The trick is ensuring you have the right types of stickers on you for whatever situation you're facing, and that's were the depth and strategy of Sticker Star really lies.

In addition to regular stickers, you will often have to make use of "thing" stickers.  These stickers are acquired by finding various mundane items hidden around the world such as scissors, a cell phone, or a refrigerator.  These boring things can then be transformed into special thing stickers that often have devastating effects in battle.  There's a lot of fun to be found in discovering how such uninteresting stuff can significantly impact a world made out of paper and cardboard.

Things are also used for solving a handful of puzzles throughout the game.  The solutions to these puzzles aren't always made very clear and may often require some serious backtracking if you missed the thing you need.  However, when solved the solutions to these puzzles are almost always inventive and clever, making it worth the head scratching that is sometimes required to deduce the answer to a puzzle.  Sticker Star is usually pretty good about providing multiple paths to explore at any given time, so if you do hit a brick wall in one direction there's usually something else to do while trying to solve the puzzle at hand.

Mario no longer levels up or gets stronger by battling.  Your strength only increases by finding more powerful and rarer stickers as well as the occasional health power up scattered about the world.  As such, battling can sometimes feel a little pointless and tedious since it isn't strictly required for getting stronger and progressing through the game.  Fortunately the game doesn't really punish you for avoiding enemies if you choose to do so.  Your reward for winning battles is typically coins, which are primarily used to buy more stickers.  If you skip battles, you won't get many coins, but you really only need coins to help better equip yourself for more battles.  So you only have to battle as much as you want to with no real negative consequences for avoiding enemies.  It's an odd set-up for an RPG, but it's reasonably well balanced.

Unfortunately it would seem that even the world of Paper Mario could not escape the plague of "New-Super-Mario-itis" that has been infecting all recent Mario games.  The wildly inventive locations and characters of past games are out.  In their place are those same generic worlds we've seen over and over again in the New Super series.  That same grassland, those same mountains, that same desert, that same poisonous forest.  You've seen it all before.  Many many times.

The entire cast, bosses included, is also made up of characters from previous games.  Specifically, the New Super Mario Bros series.  Many enemies frequently seen in the previous Paper Mario games are gone and any recurring characters from the series are out too.  The only new character to be seen is Kersti, Mario's traveling companion.  And other than a very subtle and easily missed nod to one character from Thousand Year Door, this game shares no continuity with the previous games.

Worst of all, for some inexplicable reason, Bowser does not utter a single line of dialogue in the entire game.  He's completely mute.  In the previous games, Bowser has always dependably been the source of the best dialogue and the biggest laughs in the series, but in this game he's just the final boss and nothing else.  His personality has been almost completely stripped away in Sticker Star.  It's a baffling and incredibly disappointing creative decision.

Fortunately, it's not all bad news.  The writers apparently didn't get the memo that this game was supposed to be bland because, even though the story is extremely basic and almost non-existent at times, the game is still packed full of the same brand of humor that the series is known for.  Even though most of the characters you'll run into are generic Toads, they are positively exploding with personality.  Throughout the entire adventure you'll be constantly encountering bizarre and hilarious situations, just like the previous games.

A great deal of comedy is derived from the increased emphasis that this is a world made of paper.  You'll find characters folded up, crumpled, and even stacked together, all to hilarious effect.  The writers even figured out how to make Bowser Jr. and Birdo, both making their Paper Mario series debut, funny and entertaining.  Given how irritating both of those characters tend to be, that's quite the accomplishment.  Sticker Star still delivers its fair share of laughs.  It's just a shame none of them come from Bowser this time.

Similarly, the level designers do their best to provide the most interesting renditions of these stale old level themes possible.  Almost the entire world is made out of cardboard this time around, and Sticker Star makes the most of this premise wherever possible.  Entire set-pieces can be knocked over like dominoes.  Dangerous puddles of poison can be flipped over to reveal that they too are harmless cardboard on the backside.  Using Kersti's powers, it's even possible to peel off entire sections of levels and move them around.

A large potion of the levels rely mostly on basic Mario platforming, but just when it seems like things are getting stale, Sticker Star will throw something completely unexpected at you, like a game show level or a crazy river raft ride.  Sticker Star's world is split up into levels accessed from a Super Mario World-style map screen.  But this mostly just aids in speeding up travel from world to world and does not decrease the scope of the game in the slightest.  Even if you're really booking it, this is a 15+ hour adventure.  The worlds are now split up into smaller levels, but there's just as much to see as what was offered in the previous games.

The Paper Mario games have also always been known for their music and Sticker Star doesn't disappoint in that department.  The signature off-beat sound of the previous games is still present, but this time around the soundtrack tends to favor jazz music, incorporating lots of horns.  It's a great evolution of the sound of the series, and most of the tracks are a joy to listen to.  Sticker Star also cleverly works in a few themes from other Mario games, sometimes subtly and sometimes less so.  Overall, Sticker Star definitely boasts one of the strongest Mario series soundtracks in recent years.

So, in the end, Sticker Star does have a lot of faults.  But it manages to retain enough of the charm and inventiveness of the previous Paper Mario games to overcome its shortcomings.  The game is much more conventional in terms of characters and locations and the story is paper-thin, but the surreal humor and creativity of the previous Paper Mario games still manages to shine through.  It may not live up to the perfection of Thousand Year Door, but it comes far closer than I expected.  Even with its flaws, Paper Mario Sticker Star is still a must-play for 3DS owners.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dragons Review: "Heather Report Part 2"

When we last left off in "Heather Report Part 1," the deceptive Heather had delivered the Book of Dragons to Alvin the Treacherous.  Now Heather is claiming that she was only working for Alvin to keep him from killing her parents.  However Hiccup and his friends are much too concerned with planning their attack to retrieve the book to consider whether or not Heather is trustworthy.  Astrid suspects she might be able to get the book back more easily if she disguises herself as Heather.  But if Heather really was working for Alvin against her will, that plan may not end very well...

Despite the story having so much to do with Heather, she does not actually appear a whole lot in this episode.  Once again, Astrid is firmly in the spotlight, even more so than in Part 1.  But the episode does mange to culminate in an extremely exciting finale that gets all the dragons and their riders into the act.  There's not much story to analyze with this one!  Since Part 1 did all the set up, this whole episode could be non-stop action.  And boy did it deliver!  Alvin got to prove himself a worthy antagonist for the series one again and Heather even got to redeem herself, even if she did kind of turn out to be a minor player in the overall plot.

Another element of this particular episode that I enjoyed was that we finally got to see some other dragons!  A lot of previous episodes have seemingly operated under the notion that the only dragons around are the ones ridden by Hiccup and his friends.  It was nice to see some other wild dragons get some screen time, to the point that a particular Monstrous Nightmare that Astrid bonds with ends up crucial to the plot.

Part 1 may have had its problems, but it was worth it for the pay off.  "Heather Report Part 2" managed to be one of the most excited episodes thus far!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dragons Review - "Heather Report Part 1"

Hiccup and the gang discover a mysterious girl washed up on the shores of Berk.  Holy mackerel!  It's a girl!  Given how rare those are on this show, Astrid is immediately suspicious.  According to the girl, whose name is Heather, she was shipwrecked while trying to escape pirates who have captured her parents and are threatening her island.  Heather and Hiccup hit it off right away, but it seems Astrid's suspicions may not be unfounded.  Heather immediately takes a big interest in the dragons and how they are trained.  Is she up to no good?  Wouldn't this be a really uninteresting episode if she wasn't?

This episode wastes no time in revealing that Heather isn't just the helpless shipwreck victim she appears to be at first.  Like many of the episodes, the pacing suffers from the short length of having to fit into about twenty minutes.  Even with this story split into two parts, the plot still zips along a little too fast.  Fortunately, thanks to the plot breaking some new ground (it's not Mildew!) it manages to feel relatively fresh.  It's also nice to see Astrid get a bit more of a starring role at last, given that she really hasn't had much to do on the show thus far besides antagonize Hiccup from time to time.

Ultimately, this episode isn't much more than a set up for Part 2.  Heather is a reasonably interesting character, but she "turns to the dark side" so fast that you never really get a chance to care about her before she simply becomes another bad guy.  But "Heather Report Part 1" does set up a few interesting plot threads to be resolved in Part 2 that should be fairly interesting to see play out.  It's not among one of the better episodes on its own, but I do look forward to seeing the rest of the story play out next week.

Also, chicken makes dragons fly faster.  Who knew?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Donkey Kong vs. Fix-It Felix Jr.

In Disney's latest film Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph serves as the villain in a classic arcade game known as Fix-It Felix Jr.  The title is an obvious nod to Donkey Kong Jr. but the rest of the game notably draws influence from the first game in the series, the original Donkey Kong.  But have you ever noticed just how thorough Disney was in their homage?  Let's take a look...
Can you spot the differences between the picture on the left and the picture on the right?
Right off the bat, the similarities are obvious.  Both cabinets are of near identical design and a very similar shade of blue. And, upon closer inspection of the artwork, it's crazy how closely the details of Fix-It Felix are modeled off of Donkey Kong.  Let's examine some of the individual elements on their own...
Evidently DK beat Felix to the arcades by a year.
The marquee up top is nearly identical to DK's but with one noteworthy change that carries through most of the artwork:  Felix and Ralph's positions are swapped compared to DK and Mario.  This motif is seen throughout the artwork on the cabinet.  Despite the hero/villain placement swap, the overall composition is still highly reminiscent.  Ralph punching the bricks closely matches the look of Mario and the barrels on the DK original.  The "TobiKomi" logo is placed in a shape very similar to that of Nintendo's own logo and the copyright notice is also placed identically.  The text is styled very similarly as well, and the use of Hobo for the Felix logo definitely recalls the traditional DK logotype.  They even go as far as to place a pie-holding NPC in a circle next to Felix, just like Pauline's placement on the original.
Poor Ralph.  Why does Felix get two pictures?
For the screen boarder, the shape is a little different and the stripes aren't the same, but beyond that, the similarities are obvious.  It's worth noting that while DK has two images of Pauline on the top of the boarder, Felix gets two pictures of himself on the bottom.  Ralph doesn't even get a spotlight here.  Poor guy.  The little characters that surround the boarder are very closely modeled on the original with Ralph and Felix actually striking identical poses to their Nintendo counterparts.  The bricks that Ralph punches at the bottom are even arranged in the same pattern.  Crazy, no?
So I guess Gene is Pauline?  I suppose their names do rhyme at least...
The artwork for the controls is pretty self-explanatory.  Ralph and Felix have switched places compared to DK and Mario, as is the norm.  The background is blue.  Beyond that?  Almost identical.
Wait a sec.  What's exploding behind Mario?  I don't remember that from the game.
The artwork on the side of the cabinet is a bit less blatant, but the overall design is still very similar.  The standard hero/villain placement swap is seen here again and the framing for the logos is once again very similar.

So there we are.  All the extreme similarities between the designs of the original DK arcade cabinet and the Fix-It Felix artwork.  They are a great deal more alike than you probably realized!  So, what does all of this mean?  It means that Disney was exceptionally thorough in their design and research in order to create an authentic feel for something that's actually on screen for very little time in the film itself.

And that I'm a huge nerd for noticing it and pointing it out...

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review: Wreck-It Ralph

 Wreck-It Ralph has a rather thankless job.  As the villain of the classic arcade game "Fix-It Felix Jr."  it's Ralph's job to destroy an apartment building day in and day out, just so Fix-It Felix Jr. can show up with his magic hammer and save the day.  Over and over and over again.  For 30 years.  After all this time, Ralph is starting to question his profession a bit.  Just once, he'd like to be the one who nabs the shiny gold medal, the praise, the adoration, and the pie that Felix enjoys on a daily basis.  Just because he's the bad guy doesn't mean he's a bad guy, right?

But when Wreck-It Ralph abandons his game in search of his hero's welcome, he accidentally sets off a chain reaction of chaotic events that may ultimately threaten all the games in the arcade...

Well, obviously the first things I must discuss about this movie are the video game references.  Prior to its release, Wreck-It Ralph was frequently described as the "Who Framed Roger Rabbit? of video games."  Does it live up to that lofty goal?  Not quite, but that's not really a bad thing because that really isn't the type of film Wreck-It Ralph sets out to be.  Wreck-It Ralph primarily spends its time within the realms of three arcade video games purpose-made for this film which evoke lots of other games but are completely unique to the film's world.

That said, the first third of the film is absolutely crawling with cameos.  The oft-promoted bad guy support group scene is just the tip of the iceberg.  I suspect viewers will need to go frame-by-frame on the DVD for nearly the entire first act of the film to catch all the easter eggs.  There are all sorts of great little references to a remarkably large assortment of video games in this film.  Even a certain portly plumber, whose paycheck was apparently too high for even Disney to pay, gets his due early in the film in a couple of clever ways.  Once the main plot picks up the cameos take a backseat for the rest of the film, but there are still a handful of clever nods here and there if you're paying attention!

The character of Ralph really carries this film quite well.  Voiced by John C. Reilly, Ralph is lovable and endearing from the first moment he appears on-screen.  He's a very easy character to root for during his quest for acceptance.  The second primary character is Vanellope von Schweetz, a game glitch voiced by Sarah Silverman.  Vanellope takes a little while to warm up to at first, but the character is surprisingly complex and as the film progresses, Vanellope's character arc almost eclipses Ralph's as the primary focus of the film.  As unlikely as it seems at first, Ralph and Vanellope's friendship is actually the source of most of the film's heart and is quite well done.

Secondary characters Fix-It Felix Jr. and Sergeant Calhoun, voiced by Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch respectively, also consistently entertain whenever they appear on screen.  Felix serves as an obvious stand-in for Mario and Calhoun is essentially a mash-up of every first person shooter protagonist ever.  The bizarre romance that occurs between the two characters is a lot of fun to watch unfold.

The biggest thing that surprised me about Wreck-It Ralph, however, is the film's scope.  Despite having a relatively simple story, the scale of this film is huge.  A rule established early in the film is that characters who die outside of their own games can never regenerate, which add some higher stakes to the events of the film.  The various subplots and story arcs are cleverly woven together so that when all the puzzle pieces do finally come together in the end, the climax that unfolds in the third act is a massive, frantic, and epic sight to behold!  This a big movie!

Wreck-It Ralph comes after a wave of previous animated films that featured villains put in the protagonist role, but it manages to use clever story telling to set it apart from those earlier movies.  Thankfully, Wreck-It Ralph also resists the temptation of casting Fix-It Felix as the villain of the film.  Instead, it features a much more creative antagonist that is neither too obvious and predictable but also isn't completely out of left field when he is finally revealed.

If there are any complaints to be made about Wreck-It Ralph, they are fairly minor.  The kart-racing candy world of Sugar Rush is perhaps featured a bit too heavily in the film.  Several other game worlds are seen early on, but once the story enters Sugar Rush, that's primarily where the story stays from then on out.  The video game references and cameos pretty much stop here.  The resulting onslaught of candy puns and subtle product placements (Nesquik-sand!) are witty and clever, but seem a bit out of place within the video game focused context of the film.  Why would a kart racing feature all these brand names and candy characters that have little to do with the actual racing going on?

Beyond that, though, there is little bad to be found in Wreck-It Ralph.  The humor does stray a bit farther into potty humor territory than one might expect from a Disney film, but the lovable characters and compelling plot more than make up for it.  In the end, Wreck-It Ralph is one of Disney's best films to come out in years, and it doesn't rely too heavily on video game in-jokes to tell it's story.  The characters are very appealing and the frantic energy and huge scope of the story make it great fun all the way through.

The fact that Bowser appears in this film is just icing on the cake!