Sunday, April 21, 2013

3DS Review: "Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon"

Luigi is the most overrated underrated character ever.  Seriously, all I ever hear about him is how neglected he is.  How Luigi never gets any love and all that.  Are kidding me?  Luigi gets all the love!  You know who is really neglected?  Mario.  Luigi is always stealing his brother's thunder!  Luigi is everyone's favorite character.  Every person ever prefers playing as Luigi over Mario.  Since New Super Mario Bros, it has almost become a tradition for Luigi to be your reward for completing a main series Mario game.  He always steals the show in the RPGs.  Seriously, I have never seen a "neglected" character receive so much love.

That said, it is pretty uncommon for Luigi to take star billing all for himself.  Outside of everyone's favorite obscure edutainment title Mario is Missing, Luigi has only ever had one game to call his own.  That game was Luigi's Mansion for the Nintendo GameCube.  The 2001 launch title saw Luigi entering a decrepit old mansion and vacuuming up ghosts in search of his brother who was, as it happens, missing again.  The quirky little adventure wasn't all that scary, but it was memorable, and served as a very unique introduction to the GameCube and paved the way for numerous other games that challenged the normal conventions of Nintendo's beloved franchises.  The GCN era featured many games that offered distinct takes on Nintendo tradition, such as Super Mario Sunshine and Zelda: Wind Waker.  And, right from the beginning, Luigi was there leading the pack.

It didn't last.  These days, the Mario series has come down with a bad case of what I call "New Super-itis," resulting in nearly all Mario series games having no unique identity and having the same plastic visuals.  Now, twelve years later, Luigi is at it again, once again providing a breath of fresh air.  A spooky, hilarious, and thoroughly enjoyable breath of fresh air.

Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon for the Nintendo 3DS shows absolutely no symptoms of "New Super-itis" and instead has an identity all of its own.  The basic mechanics are still largely similar to the original game.  Luigi, armed with a ghost-capturing vacuum cleaner called the "Poltergust 5000," creeps his way around various dark and dusty locals looking for ghosts, sucking up treasure, and solving some basic puzzles.  Like the original game, Luigi is unable to jump, so the focus is more on exploration rather than on platforming.  It's a slower, more deliberate style of gameplay compared to the traditional Mario romp.

Though the basic gameplay is much like the original, Dark Moon takes the formula of the GameCube original and mixes it up considerably.  Luigi's ghost vacuuming mechanics are similar to the original, though Luigi must now stun ghosts with a strobe light before sucking them up.  While the original game utilized two analog sticks for the controls, Dark Moon gets by with just one.  It takes a little getting used to, since you can't adjust Luigi's aim independently from his movement, but the controls are expertly designed to work within the limitations.  Once you get used to the changes, you'll be sweeping up ghoulies like it's second-nature.

Dark Moon also places a strong emphasis on examining your surroundings.  Ghost fights are actually fairly sporadic, so most of the game revolves around exploring your environment and doing some light puzzle solving to proceed to the next area.  Now, I use the term "puzzle" lightly.  The complexity never really exceeds looking around a room for a new button to press.  What keeps the game from getting monotonous is the fact that you never really know what will happen when you do press said button.  Secret panels will slide into place, extra rooms will open up, and all sorts of outlandish events may occur as you work your way through each mansion.  A lot of the game effectively boils down to activating a series of incredibly complex Rube Goldberg machines, often with unexpected results.  The sense of discovery in Dark Moon is immensely satisfying, as you never really know what is going to happen next.

Money is also stuffed into every nook and cranny of the game's five mansions, further encouraging you to mess around with every object you come across.  The more cash you stash, the more you can upgrade your Poltergust.  In addition to the traditional coins, you'll also find extra valuable dollar bills and gold bars.  Health-restoring hearts, Golden dog bones that revive you should you lose all your health, secret shiny gems, and all sorts of other collectables are tucked away in the creepy corridors you'll be exploring, so it definitely pays to poke around any suspicious looking areas you may find.  A new game mechanic, called the Dark Light Device, lets you scan rooms for secret clues and invisible objects.  In addition to helping you gather even more goodies and solving puzzles, the Dark Light Device is also used to help sniff out those dastardly Boos, who are once again hidden all around each mansion.  And, once again, they all have terrible puns for names.

Unfortunately, despite the emphasis on exploration, the game's structure often gets in the way of your sleuthing.  Though the original game was broken up into four sections, you were pretty much free to explore any part of the mansion whenever you pleased as they opened up.  This time around, the game adopts a mission based structure for exploring each of the game's five mansions.  In one mission you might be searching for a specific item.  Then in the next you'll be taking the item to a specific room.  Then you'll explore an area you unlocked with the item.  Then you'll fight a boss, and so on. 

Between each mission, Luigi is whisked away to the ghost-proof bunker of Professor E. Gadd, before returning to the mansion for the next task.  Though E. Gadd's dialogue is absolutely hysterical, and a highlight of the game, the mission structure does often break the pacing and the sense of exploration.  You may find yourself wanting to backtrack to a previous area your missed, or explore a new area you've just uncovered, only to be pulled out of the mansion for some silly dialogue, and then plopped back down in an entirely different starting location, with the area you wanted to explore now inaccessible.  The later missions have longer and more open-ended goals, which alleviates this issue considerably.  However, for the first two-thirds of the game the mission structure can feel a little restrictive.

Visually, Dark Moon is a sight to behold.  It uses a stylized, angular sort of visual style not unlike that of Paper Mario Sticker Star.  At first the visuals might appear a bit disappointing, as they lack the intricate details and moody atmospheric impact of the GameCube original's.  However, the visuals are still among the finest on the 3DS, and each mansion has a strong sense of place, making every location feel distinct from one another.  It's a simpler and brighter overall look than the first game, but there are still some incredibly good looking set pieces sprinkled throughout, and it's hard to fault the game for having such a strong style of its own.  The bland, plastic visuals of other recent Mario games are nowhere to be found here!

The sound design is more of a mixed bag.  The music tends to sound rather generic and flat.  While the original game made excellent use of dynamic music to craft an eery atmosphere, Dark Moon's soundtrack sounds more like a Scooby-Doo cartoon.  It's not bad, but it's also not very memorable and falls short of the first game's spectacularly spooky soundtrack.

On the other side of the coin, there's not a bad word that can be said about the voice work and sound effects.  Luigi mumbles incoherently all throughout the adventure, and he's hilarious to listen to.  A ton of personality is conveyed through his various yelps and grunts, making Luigi out to be a very lovable, if not the most courageous hero.  The mansions have a lot of life to them, as well.  All the machines and gadgets you'll be interacting with make all sorts of grinding, creaking, and rattling sounds.  Similarly, there are lots of spooky ambient effects, like howling wind and ghostly laughter.  The sound design is incredibly rich, and some of the best moments come when the music cuts away to let the sound effects establish the tone.

Dark Moon also contains a handful of multiplayer modes, though I have not personally had a chance to try them.  I rather doubt they are worth the price of admission alone, as the single player campaign is really the reason to play Dark Moon.  That said, I'm sure they provide a nice icing to an already excellent cake.  More ways to play is never a bad thing!

In the end, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is a very easy to game to recommend.  It's not without some faults, but they never really get in the way of the fun.  The gameplay is incredibly creative and the adventure is hilarious and captivating, if not particularly scary.  The mission structure does present some pacing issues, but once things ramp up toward the end of the game, Dark Moon hits its stride.  And, perhaps most significantly, Dark Moon at last revives the experimental nature and originality that has long been absent from the Mario series.  If you're looking for an expertly crafted and incredibly creative little adventure, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon should fit the bill.  Even with its shortcomings, it's a must-play.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Thoughts on the 4/17/13 Nintendo Direct

Nintendo announced some real whoppers yesterday, so I thought I'd take a look at what was shown and share my thoughts about a few of the announcements.  Yes, I'm still operating under the delusion that anyone would actually care about what I think.  At least it's better than only posting Dragons reviews for months on end...

Yoshi's Island 3DS:

I love Yoshi.  He's one of my favorite Mario characters.  I always find that Mario games are better when Yoshi is along for the ride and it's an extra special treat when Yoshi gets top billing, so I was pleased to see this announcement.  Visually, it does look good...though I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed that, for the most part, it still looks exactly like the original Yoshi's Island.  Same kind of levels, same level gimmicks, and so on.  And they're STILL using those same voice clips from Yoshi's Story, sixteen years later.  After Yoshi's Island DS pretty thoroughly revisited everything from the original, maybe it's time to try and break away a little more for this one?  And am I the only one who thinks Yoshi's feet look a little too big?

I digress.  More Yoshi is never a bad thing, but after some of his more mediocre outings on the GBA and DS, I'm not certain this game is going to do much better.  For now, Yarn Yoshi still has me much more excited.  At the very least, though, it's nice to see the Yoshi art style getting mixed up again.

Mario Party 3DS:

I'm glad it's getting made, as Mario Party 9 did a good job of breathing new life into the series.  Looks like this game is going to continue the trend of mixing things up by not only not repeating the Mario Party 9 formula, but also not reverting to the old formula either.  The fact that each board will be dramatically different from each other is intriguing, given how previous games in the series have dabbled with that concept.  I'm sure it'll be a big hit, though I'd be more enthusiastic if I actually knew anybody else with a 3DS to play with.  Mario Party's no fun alone, and I assume that won't change.

Legend of Zelda 3DS:

In the interest of full disclosure I feel I should admit that I really don't like A Link to the Past.  I've tried to play it many times but, similarly to Ocarina of Time, while I can easily see why it's so beloved I just don't find it that enjoyable.  That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Link's Awakening and Minish Cap, which both owe much of their existence to A Link to the Past, so another game in that style is okay by me!  The new trailer makes it look like this game will be great fun, and I really like the look of Link and the other characters.  It's been a long time since I was legitimately excited about a new Zelda game, but this definitely looks like one to watch!

DK Country Returns 3D Has New Modes and New Levels:

I really enjoyed DKC Returns on the Wii, though I did find it a little irritatingly frustrating at times.  (Rocket-barrel-bat-chase-level, I'm mostly looking in your direction.)  I'm glad to see they're easing up on the frustration factor a bit, as that should really make the game more fun.  I'm also glad to see that there will be a handful of new levels for old veterans to look forward too.  I'm still not entirely sure why they decided that, out of the whole Wii library, this was the one that should get a 3DS port, but it does look to be shaping up to be the definitive version!  And I'm impressed that the graphics don't appear to have been downgraded and appear to be pretty much unchanged from the Wii.  I'm looking forward to playing through DK again on the go!

More info on Mario Golf: World Tour and Mario & Luigi: Dream Team:

Mario & Luigi is certainly looking good.  The new visual style is very appealing and the game looks to be building on the foundation of the previous games nicely.  I prefer Paper Mario, but I really enjoyed Bowser's Inside Story, so I have high hopes for this one as well.

As for Mario GolfIT'S ABOUT TIME!  The last Mario Golf game was on the Game Boy Advance, for crying out loud!  How the heck did this series never show up on the Wii?  After the 3DS got a Mario Tennis game, I was really hoping that meant Golf was on the way.  Thank goodness I was right!  The new online modes sound promising, and visually it's an extremely bright and colorful game.  I know Mario Tennis was a little light on content, but Mario Golf: World Tour looks to be a fine successor to Toadstool Tour and Advance Tour.  This is one of my most anticipated releases!

Other Thoughts:

Even though Mario games are really my cup of tea, I was also glad to see some games announced that were previously thought to be Japanese exclusive, like Bravely Default.  It's nice to see that Nintendo fans probably won't have to be resorting to another Operation Rainfall in the near future.

I was also extremely glad to see how graphically diverse all the Mario games on show were, for the most part.  Mario Golf still looks to have a touch of New Super-itis to an extent, as does Mario Party, but it looks like the days of all Mario games having the same boring plastic look may soon be behind us!  And it looks like the 3DS will have some very strong additions to its library this year!  Zelda and Mario Golf, especially, looks very promising!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

App Review: Sonic Dash

I'm surprised it took this long.  Sonic the Hedgehog has long had a strong presence on iOS devices.  Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, and Sonic CD have all had ports to iOS, with shiny new versions of the former two games on the way.  Sonic Spinball has made an appearance, as has Sonic & SEGA All Stars Racing, as well as both episodes of Sonic 4.  Sonic has even had his very own game designed just for mobile devices, Sonic Jump.

At the same time, endless runner games have become one of the most popular iOS genres, outside of chucking projectiles at precariously place towers.  Endless runners task you with zipping along down a path and trying to survive as long as you can without bonking into something in your way.  Games like Temple Run and Subway Surfers remain exceedingly popular.  That so many endless runners are free no doubt contributes to their immense popularity.

What with Sonic strutting his stuff on iOS all the time these days, it was a match made in heaven to bring the two together, and the result is Sonic Dash.

What began as a three dollar app with some heavy-handed in-app purchases has now become the delightful little freemium game I'm reviewing today.  In-app purchases are still lurking around, but I'll get to them in a bit.  The main goal of Sonic Dash is, of course, to run like the dickens.  Sonic sprints his way through Seaside Hill, complete with all the crumbly ruins and checkerboard hills one would expect to see.  As Sonic motors his way along there are many obstacles to avoid, Badniks to defeat, and rings to collect.  Pretty standard fare for these types of games.

There are three lanes that Sonic can run along, and changing lanes is as simple as swiping your finger back and forth.  By swiping up on the screen Sonic will jump, and swiping down causes him to roll into a ball.  At times, some context-sensitive situations will prompt you to swipe or tap in certain ways to make Sonic do some acrobatic tricks on his way to the next bit of level.  Once you fill up your dash meter, you can make Sonic boost along in auto-pilot for a while, taking out anything in your path. 

 If all this sounds familiar, it should.  Sonic Dash basically takes the quick step portions of Sonic Unleashed, Colors, and Generations and adapts them to the endless runner formula.  The end product is a game that doesn't break a lot of new ground as an endless runner, but should feel very familiar to fans of the blue hedgehog.  The controls are largely adequate, though when things start to get hectic it sometimes feels like the swipe controls have a little trouble keeping up.  From time to time you will lose to obstacle placement that feels unfair, but the game is largely well balanced and quick reflexes will serve you well.

Like most games of this variety there are lots of little purchases one can make in-game should they choose to do so.  Sonic has lots of upgrades that can be purchased, and to do so you'll need rings.  Regular old golden rings are collected pretty rapidly while playing normally, so you likely won't have any problems collecting what you need to unlock what you want.  That said, the option is there to fork over some real cash to increase your ring stash.

Much less common are Red Star Rings, which are dished out more sparingly, and are required to unlock the more desirable goodies, such as extra characters.  Thankfully, courtesy of a few recent updates, Red Star Rings are reasonably attainable just by playing the game regularly.  Daily Missions and special challenges not only provide goals to work for on a regular basis, but also hand out rings and unlockables for your troubles.

So, in the end, the in-app purchases aren't a huge pain here.  If you want to pay up and progress faster, the option is prominently presented to you on a regular basis.  But, unlike a lot of other freemium games, there really isn't anything stopping you from just playing the game and unlocking everything that way.  You can have plenty of fun without spending a penny in Sonic Dash.

One way in which Sonic Dash definitely does not disappoint is in the audio and visual department.  This is a very good looking game, with extremely detailed models and some lovely scenery to enjoy as you play.  Most everything is derived from Sonic Generations, and is put to good effect!  The music is very fitting as well, offering up a fast-paced techno remix of the Seaside Hill theme from Sonic Heroes.  Given that Seaside Hill is one of my favorite pieces of music from any Sonic game, it's always a treat to hear it return!  The game plays very smoothly on a shiny new current generation iPhone, but even on my out-dated old third generation iPod Touch, the game still runs smoothly enough to be perfectly playable, even if the visuals take a big hit for it.  Your mileage may vary, but since it doesn't cost anything to download, there's not risk in giving it a try.

In the end, what you want to put into Sonic Dash is what you will get out of it.  If you're looking for an enjoyable little time killer that captures the same spirit as the last few main series Sonic games, Sonic Dash will be perfect for you.  If you want to hurry up and unlock everything and see everything the game has to over, you might need to pay up a little to do so.  However, even with its flaws, Sonic Dash is still a great experience for Sonic fans and fans of endless runners alike.  There's plenty of fun to be had here!

Sonic Dash is available for iOS here.  An Android version is in the works, but is not yet available.