Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Review

Developer - Tantalus Media
Publisher - Nintendo
Platform - Nintendo Switch
Price - $49.99

What better way to prepare for Tears of the Kingdom than playing Skyward Sword HD? I could think of a dozen better ways, but this is what I played. Skyward Sword was where all of Nintendo's worst ideas came together. Long tutorials, chatty companions, collectathons, gimmicky controls, you name it. Some of this stuff didn't even come from Zelda games. Skyward Sword just came out during the worst possible time, Nintendo's "Blue Ocean" era. That's when they were obsessed with reaching the widest audience possible with games like Brain Training, Wii Sports, Nintendogs, and Wii Party. Skyward Sword was the straw that broke the camel's back for many Zelda fans. This game was so badly received by gamers that they completely rethought how to make Zelda games afterwards. I guess, in a way, we should be thankful that Skyward Sword was such a mess because it led us to A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild.

The main reason I'm playing this game now is for the story. There's a reason why Nintendo chose to release this game right before Tears of the Kingdom, and not something like a Wind Waker and Twilight Princess double pack. Skyward Sword tells the story of the first Link and Zelda, and introduces the evil being who possesses Ganondorf to create Ganon, Demise. There's some retconning going on here, but whatever. Skyward Sword also gives us some details about Hylia, like how she sealed Demise, created Skyloft, the Triforce, and the Master Sword long before the events of SS. She was basically just God in previous games. It's very interesting because we know Demise and floating islands are both in TotK. Did Hylia put the islands in the sky in TotK? Is Hylia herself in TotK? I'm hoping that having SS fresh in my mind helps me get the most out of TotK's story.
I never had a huge issue with Skyward Sword's motion controls on Wii, but the Joycons are no replacement for the Wiimote and Nunchuck. SSHD's motion controls are borderline unusable. They're just too finicky. Just like with all games that use motion controls on Switch, you constantly have to recenter your aim because the Switch doesn't have a sensor bar, like the Wii. I don't think it even matters if you move around too much or not. My aim drifted away from the center no matter what I did. The wireless connection of the Joycons is also very bad. I had to sit about 5 ft away from my Switch to avoid Joycon drift-like issues with the analog sticks. There also just seems to be some issue with the game registering right analog stick movements when trying to move the camera to the right no matter what controls you're using.
Even though the button controls are incredibly awkward and counterintuitive, that's how I played the game. I had to rewire my brain to use them, but at least they work. The biggest issue with the button controls is that you have to swing your sword with the right analog stick. You can swing in 8 directions and press R3 for a stabbing move. This means you also have to hold down the L button to move the camera around with the right stick. Of course, this led to constant accidental sword swinging. Now that I'm done with the game, I keep trying to hold L down when moving the camera in Pokemon SV. Moving the stick around is also just physically more work than pressing a button. And if that didn't feel unresponsive enough, you have to quickly let go of the stick after pushing in a direction for Link to actually swing the sword.
There's a saying that goes something like "going around the world to get across the street". That's the ongoing theme with this game's controls and UI. You can't map items to a button, the button to use items is the same one you hold to bring up the item wheel, you have to hold L to move the camera with the right stick, you have to be dashing to jump off a ledge, you have to equip bottles in your inventory, and so on. There's plenty of other 3D Zelda games with perfectly fine button controls, so why didn't they copy those? Couldn't they find a way to let you attack in multiple directions without making the controls so awkward?
The way the world of SS is structured reminds me of an N64 platformer. You have a hubworld in the sky and 3 separate areas on the surface. Unlike in other Zelda games, the 3 areas on the ground don’t connect to each other directly, they can only be accessed by skydiving down to them. While the sky area is huge, there really isn’t a lot in it. The most important thing up there is Skyloft, which is the Kakariko village of the game.
In Skyloft, there’s stores, the knight academy, a giant statue of Hylia, and all the villagers, who have a bunch of quests for you. These quests have you traveling to other sky islands or doing things in Skyloft at night, when most villagers are home. These quests are completely optional, but they’re fun and the rewards are pretty good. I actually did them all in this playthrough and enjoyed seeing all of the villagers’ little stories. There’s also a few more islands with NPCs in the sky, like an inn, and 3 more with minigames, which were designed around using the motion controls. The rest of them are very small rocks where you’ll find treasure chests you unlock after finding “Goddess Cubes” in the surface areas. It's not like there isn't anything to do in the sky, but there is a lot of empty space.
The surface areas around the dungeons are where this game really starts breaking down. Before you can enter any dungeon, you're forced to do quests for NPCs and go through obstacle courses, collectathons, and mini dungeons. It feels like the start of them bringing the dungeons out into the overworld, like they did in BotW, but the execution is nowhere near as good. I'm not against some questing and puzzle solving in a Zelda game, of course, but a lot of this stuff just reeks of filler content. Why am I collecting all this stuff? It comes out of nowhere, and it reminds me of Rare's N64 platformer design. A lot of this pre-dungeon stuff is very linear, nonsensical, and simply not fun. What's worse is that all 3 of these areas are reused 3 times for the same kind of pre-dungeon questing. They open up a little bit on return visits, but still. Couldn't they have come up with a few more areas? All these areas put together pale in comparison to the overworld in most other Zelda games. This game makes me wonder if something happened during the development that forced them to reuse these disjointed maps like this.
Strangely enough, considering how bad the overworld is, the dungeons are excellent. They're not Twilight Princess quality, but they are good. They're just classic Zelda dungeons designed around solving puzzles, finding keys, pulling switches, and using a few items to do whatever it is you need to do. This is where using the game's creative inventory really shines. Bowling bombs into little holes, flying the remote control beetle, grappling from wall to wall with the double hookshot, very clever stuff. It's almost cool enough to make you forget about the wonky controls. It made sense on Wii, at least.
Skyward Sword is a beautiful game, but I don’t really like the character designs. They have visible nostrils, pronounced lip colors, big anime style eyes, and jagged edges all over their bodies. It's a very strange combination. It makes characters look kind of like wooden marionettes or something. I'm really not a fan of the lips and nostrils. The environments look great, though. They are pretty low poly by today’s standards, but they have really nice looking textures, which look like they were hand painted with watercolors. The game also runs at 60 FPS, which is really nice.
There is no voice acting here, and it’s very noticeable since this is one of the most cut-scene heavy Zelda games. All we get out of villagers is weird little yells and gasps. Fi is kind of voice acted, but she just sounds like an unintelligible autotuned robot. The soundtrack is pretty great, though. It’s not really a soundtrack I think of when I think of Zelda music, but the songs kept getting stuck in my head while I was playing it. That counts for something in my book.
Oh, and I did get the Zelda and Loftwing amiibo for $5 last week. I remember this being a big controversy when the game launched because it was $25 and it added a nice new function to the game. It's definitely not worth that much, but I got my $5's worth out of it. You can scan it at pretty much anytime while on the surface areas and go right up to the sky on your Loftwing. It's a nice timesaver. You can just go to a save statue to exit dungeons and then go back to the sky, though. It's not a necessity.
What can I say? This is the worst 3D Zelda game ever made. I thought about dropping it about 10 times within the first few hours. The controls are incredibly frustrating, and I played this game on Switch, so I knew the N64 platformer-like collectathons were waiting for me ahead. The only reason I stuck with it was for the story, which is still really good. Now I feel like I’m ready for Tears of the Kingdom.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Metroid Prime Remastered Review

Developer: Retro Studios
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Price: $39.99

I remember when news first hit that Metroid Prime was going to be an FPS, people lost their minds. Nintendo is ruining Metroid! They don't know what they're doing! There's no way it can be good! The outrage was only surpassed by the fury directed at Zelda's cel-shaded graphics in The Wind Waker. The game blew critics away and shut skeptics up when it came out, though. People loved it. And if you ask a lot of Nintendo fans today, they'll probably tell you it's right up there with the best 3D Mario and Zelda games. I wouldn't go that far, but I also loved the game back then. Playing it now, though, it's easy to see its faults. It's still good, but it sure feels like a GameCube game. And if you're wondering, yes, this is exactly the same game, but with new graphics and controls.

Metroid Prime came out on the same day as Metroid Fusion, and strangely enough, it was the one structured more like Super Metroid. After landing on Tallon IV, you're free to go wherever your items can take you. There's no locking the door behind you, artificial gating, or player funneling. You're free to revisit areas at any time, too. You'll see spots where you'll be able to use an item you don't have yet very early on, so there's definitely reasons to. There is a Navi-like (Zelda OoT) automatic hint system that marks where you should go on the map, but you can turn that off in the options if you want. When it comes to exploration, Metroid Prime feels much more like older Metroid games than Fusion, Samus Returns, and Dread.
There is a part of the game in which the hint system will not help you, though. People call it the artifact hunt. Before you can fight Ridley and Metroid Prime, you have to collect 12 Chozo artifacts hidden around the world. Your only clue as to where they are is a riddle you can scan on the Chozo statues there. You can get some of these as you play through the game, but a lot of them require late game items or abilities, so a lot of people end up having to backtrack to get them right at the very end of the game. It sounds like such a GameCube era way to pad the length of a game now. Wind Waker had something like this, too. I didn't have a problem with it, though. I enjoyed solving the riddles and exploring the world without a waypoint. I'd say this kind of exploration is what Metroid is all about, but it's really more of a Zelda thing!
It's in the combat, platforming, and level design where Metroid Prime starts feeling very different from the 2D Metroids. You see and do Metroid things in Metroid Prime, but really, it plays more like a Metroid-themed Zelda. The most obvious example of this is, of course, the combat, which copied the lock-on mechanic directly from Ocarina of Time. Combat in Metroid Prime isn't about blowing stuff up with one shot as you quickly run and jump through an area. There's some small critters you can make quick work of, but usually, combat is a whole song and dance. You lock-on, circle strafe, and try to hit enemies with fully charged beams or missiles. Sometimes you also have to switch between multiple beams and visors during a battle. It takes much longer than your usual encounter in the 2D games, and it only gets worse as the game goes on and more powerful enemies start showing up. Any trace of the fast-paced run 'n gun action from the 2D games is completely gone. The way strafing while locking on to an enemy slows down your movement (just like Link’s) doesn't help matters, either.
Unlike the 2D games, MP has very few vertical platforming areas, and the ones that are in the game are absolutely dreadful. Sure, the platforming in Metroid Prime is much better than what you’ll find in most other first person games, but it had to be toned down many levels from what it was in the 2D games to get it to a point where it’s passable as a main game mechanic. Most of the jumping you have to do in the game is very simple. It doesn’t have a lot of enemies around, doesn't require you to shoot while jumping, and it's usually kept to a minimum. When the game does throw anything resembling a platforming section from the 2D games at you, with lots of jumping and enemies all over, it feels like a gigantic difficulty spike. Samus' usual aerial abilities also had to be changed to accommodate the first person perspective. For example, the Grapple Beam feels more like a cutscene than an actual ability now. Other abilities, like the screw attack and wall jump, aren't even in the game. I feel like a lot of these compromises could have been avoided if the game was in 3rd person.
Super Metroid had the X-Ray Scope, which allowed you to see passageways and items hidden in walls, but it was mostly optional. Well, I guess someone at Retro really loved that idea because they decided to make it one of the main mechanics of MP. It's almost comical how much it's used. You use it to activate elevators, get hints on how to kill enemies and bosses, read Chozo lore, and all sorts of things. Sometimes it doesn't even make sense. Like, there's a few spots where you have to scan points of interest to open doors. Is Samus' suit interacting with the Chozo ruins through Bluetooth? What's going on there? The worst part is when you have to use the thermal visor to get through an area after the lights go out. Total darkness, my favorite video game trope! You also have to constantly switch between 2 visors during the final boss battle. It's way overused. You probably have this game to thank for stuff like Detective Vision in the Batman games.
The map is another weird thing about the game. It's not a regular 2D Metroidvania map made of a bunch of little rectangles, it's actually a very basic 3D model of the entire world. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order has the same kind of map. It's a great way to map out a 3D world full of rooms with different levels of elevation, but it's also confusing to navigate. It controls like 3D modeling software. One stick pans, the other rotates, and you zoom in and out with the shoulder buttons. It's almost like it was designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard.
One of the best things Metroid Prime Remastered does is give you a bunch of different control options to choose from. Sadly, though, button mapping isn't one of them. The GC configuration is there, a Wii-like motion controls config, a weird mix of the GC controls with motion control aiming, and we finally have dual stick controls, just like every other FPS has had since the Dual Shock came out for PS1. Both GC and Wii had controllers with 2 sticks, so I don't see why it took this long. Not surprisingly, this is by far the best way to control the game. You can freely look around with the right stick, strafe with the left, shoot and jump with the shoulder buttons, and you still have the lock-on on ZL. Yes, you still use the lock-on button, even though you can manually circle strafe and aim. If there is any aim assist at all, it's not enough to compensate for not using the lock-on. That's just how the game was designed. This isn't really an FPS, it's a 3rd person game in disguise.

The motion controls didn't fare so well, though. Like with every other Wii port, the Switch's lack of a sensor bar really hurts. Since your controller has no point of reference, you have to keep recentering your reticle every time you move your hand. It's way too finicky for me. Switch 2 needs a sensor bar built into it, like the Wii U GamePad.
The graphics have been completely remade for this game. Everything is new, as far as I can tell. New models, textures, effects, and lighting. It even runs at 60 FPS. It's one of the best looking games on Switch, weirdly enough. They really went all out with the details, too. I just love how the Tallon IV overworld looks now with all the moss, vines, puddles, and falling rain that not only splashes on Samus’ visor, it also streaks down when you move.
The music and sound effects sound the same to me. I guess they're in a higher quality here, but I can't tell the difference. I am definitely a fan of this soundtrack, though. I like the electronic take on Metroid music. It's different, but it fits the Prime series' modern Sci-Fi style.

I still like this game, but I can't place it in the masterpiece category along with Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild. There's a lot of fun to be had exploring Tallon IV, I love the dual stick controls, and the graphics look really nice, but I can't ignore all the annoying stuff this game does. I also just think this should be a 3rd person game. So many of this game's issues could be solved if you could just see what Samus is doing while you're playing. I know they won't change it, though. Not even in Metroid Prime 4.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge Review

Developer: Inti Creates
Platforms: XB, PS, Steam, NS
Price: $24.99
Version Played: Switch

Gal Guardians: Demon Purge (formerly known as Grim Guardians) is Bloodstained Curse of the Moon 3 minus Bloodstained, plus Gal Gun. I guess Inti Creates just wanted to do their own thing, with their own IP. This is still that classic Castlevania-inspired game, though. After playing Curse of the Moon 2, I thought maybe they’d get really crazy, with more dogs in mechs and trips to the moon in Compile shoot 'em up levels, but that’s not the route they took with Gal Guardians at all. Graphics and gameplaywise, this game sticks even closer to the Castlevania style than the CotM games. It’s the story and characters where they went full Inti.

Gal Guardians is an action platformer in the style of the Castlevania games that came before Symphony of the Night (minus Simon’s Quest), AKA the ClassicVanias. More specifically, it’s a lot like Castlevania: Bloodlines (Genesis) in terms of structure. You play through linear levels with branching paths, fight a boss at the end, and then move on to a completely separate level. This isn’t a Metroidvania, it’s much closer to Shantae: Half Genie Hero than it is to Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. Gal Guardians also gets a lot of its inspiration from Castlevania: Rondo of Blood with its level and boss design, and it still has the character switching tag mechanic from the Curse of the Moon games, which was clearly inspired by Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.
There’s a pretty huge difference in gameplay between Gal Guardians and Bloodstained CotM, though. Unlike CotM, Gal Guardians controls much more like the Metroidvanias than the ClassicVanias. Running speed is faster, you get more air control, and your attack animations generally don’t have as much delay and feel much snappier. You also don’t have to press up to go up stairs, you just jump on them. Knockback is still an option tied to the Veteran (Normal) and Legend (Hard) difficulties. Casual difficulty does not have knockback. This makes Gal Gal Guardians’ gameplay feel much faster and more modern than CotM’s, which I am perfectly fine with.
This might not be a Metroidvania, but there is quite a bit of exploration involved. Since you get new subweapons after beating every boss, you can open new paths and find hidden items on following playthroughs with them. You’re free to teleport to the beginning of any level you’ve unlocked after a boss fight, so you can do this whenever you want, but it’s in the second half of the game where you’re really encouraged to play through the more difficult paths to find quest items and upgrades with all the subweapons you've acquired. I don’t think the level design is like a Metroidvania at all, but there is more exploration in Gal Guardians than in similar games, like Mega Man X, Shantae HGH, and Cyber Shadow.
Gal Guardians has the same character switching tag mechanic as the Curse of the Moon games, but with a twist, you can revive your fallen partner. If you die, you lose a character and restart at the last checkpoint, but if you make it back to where you died with the other one, you can mash X over their body and bring them back to life at half health. I wonder if they got this idea from River City Girls. This game also has 2 player co-op and you can do this there, too. You only lose a life when you die on both characters in single player. This actually makes it kind of hard to lose a life. I’ve never actually seen the Game Over screen. Sometimes I just killed myself so I could restart at full health before a boss fight.
The 2 playable characters in the game are the demon hunting sisters, Maya and Shinobu. Don't ask me what their Gal Gun origins are because I've never played those games. Each character has their own HP bar, but share MP. They also share the Pride (special) meter, which you can use for a special double team attack when it’s full and both characters are alive. Their running and jumping feels exactly the same, so the gameplay differences are all in their weapons and abilities.
Maya is a melee character who attacks with a sword, spear, and shurikens all in the same combo. They all look like they're made of psychic energy, so I'm guessing she's a Ninja spirit medium and her weapons work like Psylocke's from X-Men. Maya does a lot of damage, but has short range, and less HP than Shinobu. She has the ability to crawl, and since her sword swings in a wide arc, she's the only one who can hit tiny annoying enemies, like spiders, with regular attacks. Her subweapons include an origami swan she can use as platforms, an umbrella that gives her slow fall and protects her from hazardous falling liquids, and a penguin that freezes enemies. Maya unlocks a Mega Man-like charge attack on the 2nd loop, which shoots out a giant shuriken and lets her jump backwards in the air, essentially giving her a double jump.
Shinobu is a gun toting maniac. Her outfit makes me think of Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia, but she plays more like Robert from CotM2, if he didn't suck. Her main weapon is a machine gun, which fires 3 round bursts. You can also hold the button down for fully automatic fire. She only gets 100 bullets; though, so you have to reload. You can reload by double tapping down on the d-pad or by simply pressing the Y button again if you're already out of ammo. Shinobu can only fire horizontally on the first loop, but unlocks the ability to shoot upwards as well in the second loop. Her bullets fly well above the ground, even while crouching, so she can't shoot little creepy crawlies on the same level as her at all. She can hit them with her subweapons, which include a rocket launcher, mines, grenades, and a grappling hook. Shinobu feels more like Mega Man than a Castlevania character, so she’s kind of weird for a game like this, but unlike Robert, she's a lot of fun to play.
Just like the Curse of the Moon games, Gal Guardians is designed to be played through multiple times. This game does things a bit differently from CotM2, though. It doesn’t split the game into multiple chapters or anything like that, it just keeps going. On the second loop, you unlock a base with NPCs to talk to, more story, new quests, a new final level, weapon upgrades, new boss phases, and new and more difficult paths in every level. The first loop is really only like a third of the game. You don't even see the credits roll after the first loop. Playing the second loop and fighting the real last boss is a must, in my opinion. That's truly where the game shines. After beating the 2nd loop, you unlock a Boss Rush mode and the Legend difficulty, which has more enemies, which respawn when the screen moves past their spawn point, just like in old NES games. There is no reviving on Legend, either. Letting even one sister die means you lose a life.
I believe I said I wanted these games to go 16-bit in one of my CotM reviews. Well, they blew right past that gen. Gal Guardians just looks like what I’d expect from a modern 2D game from Inti. The graphics clearly look like they're inspired by the GBA and DS Castlevanias, but they look much better than those games ever could on the GBA and DS' low resolution screens. All the backgrounds are intricately detailed, every level looks completely different, and your characters have a bunch of little animations that didn't even need to be in the game, just like in SOTN. This game is a beautiful gothic work of art. I did notice some screen tearing here and there, and some framerate drops while scrolling into a certain boss room, but it otherwise runs great on Switch.
The music is also really good. It's a Classical and hard rock inspired soundtrack, just like what you’d hear in Castlevania and Bloodstained. It fits the game perfectly. It's not Michuru Yamane, it's Ippo Yamada, but it's still awesome. The game has a bunch of little voice clips that play during gameplay and boss intros, but most of the dialogue is not voice acted. There is no way to turn off the girl’s voice clips that play during gameplay, so I’m sure they will get on some people’s nerves, but I was fine with them.

You're not going to see any of this if you only play the first loop, but Inti lets their perv flag fly in the 2nd and 3rd loops. I'm guessing they did it this way because this is probably where most other reviewers will stop playing and then complain about the game being too short. The second half of the game opens up a questline that has you looking for girl's gym clothes, panties, and lad mags to get a guy's pheromones up so he can tell you how to get to the true final boss. It's pretty cringy. Don't get me wrong, this is a T rated game. There's nothing here you wouldn't see in a Master Roshi scene in Dragon Ball. But frankly, it feels very out of place in a game about fighting ghosts, demons, and cryptids in haunted castles. I’m guessing it’s perfectly on brand for Gal Gun, though. This isn't a hentai game, but I think people should be aware of its perviness.
More like Pantyvania, am I right!? Well, aside from the anime perviness, this is an amazing game. It's just so much fun all the way through. I think it's even better than the Bloodstained CotM games. It’s my GOTY so far. I love the level and boss designs, it has great pacing, and just the right balance between action and exploration. The graphics look great, too! I hope they make another one of these. It's a shame they had to change the name. Grim Guardians sounded much better.