Thursday, December 27, 2018

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

At first glance, one might think that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is some kind of port or Champion Edition of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS, but it’s much more than that. The jump from SSB4 to Ultimate is even bigger than going from SFII The World Warrior to Super Turbo. SSBU is a game built on top of SSB4’s foundation, but it is not just that game again. SSBU feels like a true sequel that brings back every stage and character that has ever been in the series. There’s a total of 73 characters before any of the DLC. Snake is back. Pichu is back. The Ice Climbers are back. All 3 versions of Link are in. Charizard rejoins Pokemon Trainer, along with Squirtle and Ivysaur. Everyone is here!

In addition to everyone who has ever been in Smash Bros, 11 new characters join the battle. Ryu's eternal rival, Ken, joins as Ryu's Echo Fighter, the game's new term for clones. Litten's 3rd evolution, Incineroar, joins as a pro wrestling themed grappler. Dark Samus, Wolf, and Daisy are now Echo Fighters of Samus, Fox, and Peach, instead of only being represented by color swaps. The Animal Crossing mayor's assistant, Isabelle, joins the battle, and is just different enough to not be an Echo Fighter of the Animal Crossing Villager. Samus’ nemesis, Ridley, is finally in. The original DKC villain, King K. Rool is here. The Splatoon Inklings are here. Chrom is in, because you can never have enough Fire Emblem sword wielders. And finally, my most wanted 3rd party character for a while now, Simon Belmont from Castlevania is finally in, along with Richter Belmont from Rondo of Blood as his Echo Fighter.

I'm pretty happy with the roster. Simon Belmont and Ridley were the big ones missing for me, so I'm really happy they're in. There's still a few more videogame icons I'd like to see in; though, like Tails, (MMX) Zero, Ryu Hayabusa, and Alucard. That Alucard assist trophy is such a tease. Also, Waluigi. I mean, he and Toad are the only major Mario characters who are not playable in Smash yet. They play golf, tennis, race karts, and party with everyone, but they can't fight with them? What's up with that?

As far as controls and the feel of the game when compared to SSB4 goes, Ultimate is a faster, more streamlined, and offense focused game. Movement is faster. You can air dodge in any direction. Constant dodging will make your dodges slower. The amount of time you can hang onto a ledge will now get much shorter if you grab onto it again after going past the initial time limit and falling off once already. You can now do an easy short hop attack by pressing A and jump at the same time. Perfect shielding now works by letting go of shield right when you're hit instead of pressing shield when you're hit. And what's probably going to be the biggest change for most, you can now set an option to have a Final Smash meter that works just like a Super Meter in other fighting games.

On the last Smash Direct before release, Sakurai revealed the game’s big single player component, Spirits. Spirits is a set of modes in which you take on CPU challengers in themed battles. It’s basically Ultimate’s version of Events from SSB for Wii U. The Adventure mode in Spirits, World of Light, starts off with that epic cutscene in which a new evil being named Galeem appears and kills an army of Master Hands and the whole Smash Bros roster, except for Kirby, but Spirits isn’t really about ghosts or dead characters. Spirits is more about capturing the spirit of the many characters and series represented in Smash Bros. Spirits has battles themed around hundreds of characters who aren’t even on the Smash Bros roster. These fights have specific rules, stages, items, and fighter behaviours which capture the spirit of a specific character. A lot of them even have music from the series that they’re representing. For example, a green Donkey Kong who favors his dashing roll attack represents Blanka from Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros. 2’s Mouser Spirit battle has you fighting a Pikachu with lots of Bob Omb items, and Mega Man Legends characters’ Spirit battles have nothing but Pikmin rocket ship items, because we gotta get him off the Moon!

But Spirits aren't just fights. Spirits are also equippable items. Whenever you beat a Spirit battle, you earn that Spirit as an item. You can also buy Spirits from in-game shops and get them as rewards in other modes. There are 2 kinds of spirits; Primary and Support Spirits. Primary Spirits are kind of like a piece of armor in an RPG, and Support Spirits are like gems you put in the sockets of that armor. You can put Support Spirits into the sockets of Primary Spirits to add more bonuses, like special move power, critical strike chance, extra air jumps, or lava floor resistance. Primary Spirits also have similar bonuses, defence and attack power stats, and you can even level them up and evolve them into more powerful Spirits. The Ivysaur Spirit evolves into Venusaur, for example. Each Primary Spirit also has an Attack, Shield, Grab, or Neutral property that works kind of like the Fire Emblem weapon triangle. They don't actually have anything to do with actual shielding or throwing during gameplay, which is kind of confusing. If you counter pick your opponent's type with a Spirit type that beats it, you get a big attack and defence boost, if you use a weaker type, you get more loot when you win the fight, and if you use a neutral type, you just use your Spirit team's unboosted stats and get the regular amount of loot. All this sounds way more complicated than it actually is. Anyone familiar with RPGs will probably get it pretty quickly. I think it's a really cool system. It's fun to plan and build teams of Spirits to take on different Spirit battles.

You also get a huge skill tree in Adventure mode. Yeah, like a big RPG character skill tree. This skill tree is not tied to any character or Spirit, so you always get its benefits. The skills you can get from the skill tree are the same kind of skills you can get from Spirits and they stack with Spirit skills as well. You get skill points to get skills in the skill tree when you win a fight, or you can buy some from the shops sometimes. I think the skill tree is kind of redundant, since it gives you the same skills that Spirits do.

Adventure mode is technically the story mode, but there really isn't much story in it. There's nothing that follows up on that epic “everyone dies, except Kirby” cutscene until very late in the game. This is very noticeable, because, like Kid Icarus Uprising, Adventure mode is like a trilogy onto itself. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. It’s the game that never ends. It's extremely long and it starts feeling pretty grindy after a few hours. I like seeing how creative they get with these fights, but it's just fight after fight, sometimes playing as characters you don't even like, without any story to pull you along. Everyone is here too, so it can take a very long time just to get to a character you want to play as, since you can't just walk over to the fight for the character you want. You have to work your way there. You can't just play as a character you unlocked in another mode either. You have to unlock a character in Adventure to use it in Adventure. I played as a Mii for about 10 hours until I unlocked Simon Belmont. You're literally unlocking characters a few fights before the final boss, too, so you won't be playing as a handful of popular characters in this mode a whole lot. Unless you decide to play the New Game +, that is.

As a casualty of all these Spirits being in the game, trophies are completely gone. In past Smash Bros games, you’d have a gallery of trophies with information about what game the trophy was from and little bits of trivia about them. Most of that is gone. The only place you'll see anything like that is in the tips section. Both the playable characters and stages have little bios or facts about their origins. I like how spirits pay tribute to all these obscure characters who’d never be in the game, like Sin & Punishment and Advance Wars characters, and indie characters, like Shovel Knight and Shantae, but it’s disappointing that we won’t have that virtual Nintendo museum in this game, because that was a really cool part of past Smash Bros games.

Spirits mode isn’t the only single player content, though. Classic mode is back and it has been injected with a lot of Spirits mode flavor. Classic mode still plays like the Arcade mode in other fighting games; you pick a character and play through 6 battles, a bonus stage, and a boss at the end. The intensity (difficulty) system from Kid Icarus Uprising and SSB4 is also back. The big difference in Ultimate’s Classic mode is that every character gets their own unique set of fights themed around them, their series, or their history. For example, Simon Belmont’s Classic mode route is called Smash-vania. All the fighters he comes across have some kind of monster or spooky theme. You fight Ridley in Luigi’s Mansion, a black Incineroar and King K Rool in Dracula’s lair, and you fight a special Dracula boss, complete with attacks from Castlevania and his 2nd form, instead of Master Hand. All while Castlevania music plays in every stage. In Ryu’s route, every fight is a stamina battle, there’s Street Fighter music, and you team up with Ken to fight Master and Crazy Hand at the end, like in a Dramatic Battle from Street Fighter Alpha. Pikachu only fights Pokemon and his final boss is Mewtwo, and Toon Link teams up with 2 other Toon Links in every fight, like in TriForce Heroes. Not every character’s route is as cool as those, but they try. There’s only so much you can do for Cloud with what Square has given them.

Classic mode is my favorite mode. You don’t have to worry about Spirits or weird rules, it doesn’t take long to play through a character’s route, and you can get all the “Spirit” of each fighter whenever you want, since these are replayable without working your way to them, like in Adventure mode. Some of these fighters also just don’t get the same amount of love in Spirits. Adventure mode has a whole area dedicated to Castlevania, but you don’t get Pac-Man fighting through videogame history in it.

Unlocking characters in Ultimate can be a bit confusing, but it’s not as random as it might seem. You can unlock characters by playing any mode. You can also unlock characters by freeing their Spirit in Spirit mode’s Adventure, but you don’t have to do it like that. You don’t really have play Adventure mode for any reason, unless you want to see the ending cutscene. The order in which newcomers challenge you might seem random if you haven't looked at a guide, but there is an order in which you can play Classic mode to unlock specific characters. I wish it was easier to understand without a guide, since there’s 65 characters to unlock, and you probably just want to get to your main ASAP, but at least you only have to do it once.

Once you've gotten your fill of Classic and Spirits, Smash mode (AKA VS) will be your go to destination for whatever custom single and multiplayer player fights you can dream of. Every stage now has a normal, Final Destination, and Battlefield version, and you can set it so only those versions are picked with random select as well. You can do 1 on 1, team battles, free for alls, KOF style 3 on 3 and 5 on 5 matches, sudden death, and make and save multiple custom rulesets. Special Smash, which lets you play around with wacky settings, like size, speed, weight, status effects, and starting items is also back. There's also a fully customizable tournament setup mode. Everything is here. The only thing missing is a Marvel VS Capcom style tag mode.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s online multiplayer is both the best it has ever been in Smash and absolutely horrible. There are a lot more options for what kind of rules you’d like to play with in matchmaking modes, but that does not guarantee you’ll get the type of match you want. There is an option to do slower Background Matchmaking, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get what you want either. The actual fighting is very laggy for the most part. The game literally plays in slow motion most of the time and it’s very annoying to play. I have had some decent matches, but they are rare. Nintendo says that’re working on it, but I doubt it’ll ever be good enough. You can create private and public Battle Arenas (AKA lobbies) with custom rules, but I haven’t tried them out. You can also spectate random matches. Who knows who these people are, or if these matches are even live, though. You just click on Spectate and you’re in a match. They’re not super laggy either, so I’m a bit suspicious.

The graphics in this game are nice, but nothing mind blowing. It runs at 1080p and 60fps, the fighters look great, the stages look good, and that’s all it really needs to do. I think the most impressive thing about the graphics is the amount of different graphical styles from each game it recreates in all the stages. There’s a lot of games represented here and they nail the look of every one of them. Everything from the cel-shaded Wind Waker stage, to the Game & Watch stage, to the Mario Maker stage all perfectly capture the look of those games.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has the best soundtrack of the year by default. It’s not even fair to compare it to other games. The list of composers reads like a hall of fame of videogame music composers. Yuzo Koshiro, Michiru Yamane, Nobuo Uematsu, Motoi Sakuraba, Keiichi Okabe, and a bunch of others who worked on the original games from which this game takes some of its songs from. Everyone is here! There’s over 27 hours of music. An hour and a half of Zelda music, over an hour of Castlevania music, 3 hours of Super Mario music, not including Mario Kart music. It’s pretty insane. It’s not just the composers who worked on those series redoing their songs either. They all got to work on new series and in different styles. Okabe (Nier Automata) and Yamane (Castlevania) both do Zelda songs, for example. The game also has an awesome music player with every song sorted by series. It supports playlists, shuffling, repeat, auto play, and it even plays music with the screen off while undocked.

I don’t know how I could say that this isn’t the best Smash Bros ever made. Even with the crappy online, lack of trophy museum, and grindy Adventure mode, it’s the best Smash Bros ever made. I don’t think it’s going to change anyone’s mind about Smash Bros if they don’t like Smash Bros, but fans should be pretty happy with it. Also, this might be the only game we ever get with both Simon Belmont and Samus Aran in it. Making it the closest thing to my dream Metroidvania crossover we ever get.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom Review

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is an all-new game in the Wonder Boy sub-series, Monster World. It was developed by Game Atelier and FDG Entertainment in collaboration with the original series creator, Ryuchi Nishizawa. For all intents and purposes, Monster Boy is Monster World V. It is an official Wonder Boy game taking place in Monster World. And no, it's not a remake of anything, and it's not the same game that came out 2 years ago, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap.

Monster Boy takes place some undisclosed time after Asha and Pepelogoo's adventure in Monster World IV. One of the first characters you meet in the game is a blue Pepelogoo who is looking for a green-haired girl, and blue Pepelogoos are about as rare as shiny Po├ękmon, so you do the math. There are plenty of references to the previous games in this one, but the main story of Monster Boy doesn't have anything to do with the previous games. In Monster Boy, you play as Jin, a boy who, along with everyone else in the kingdom, has been turned into an animal by his drunk uncle, Nabu. Nabu got a hold of a special magic wand and is going on a magical drunken rampage through the kingdom. Jin tries to stop him, but gets turned into a pig in the process.

The story and dialogue in Monster Boy are not the game’s strong points, but they get the job done. All we really need is an excuse to go on an adventure. The main characters’ dialogue doesn't show much personality that sets them apart from each other, and their choice of words seems a bit too modern and real world-like for a fantasy game. Pepelogoo actually says “cool” at one point. Thankfully, there really isn't a lot of dialogue, and we don't need it either. This game is about adventure, not story.

Monster Boy's gameplay combines the main mechanics of Dragon's Trap and Wonder Boy in Monster World. It has transformations similar to Dragon's Trap and equipment-based abilities, like Wonder Boy in Monster World. There's a lot of equipment in this game, too. There are 8 armor sets in all, each including a chest piece, boots, bracelet, shield, and a weapon. Each piece of equipment has different stats and ability bonuses. For example, you can get boots that let you double jump, a shield that deflects physical projectiles, and a fire sword that shoots fireballs when you're at full health, like Link. Like in Zelda, you'll often have to use specific items to reach new areas and solve puzzles. For example, you have to use heavy boots to walk on the ocean floor early in the game. You have to bring up the inventory screen to switch equipment, but there's never an Ocarina of Time Water Temple moment. There is a second or 2 of loading when switching some gear, though, and that can get annoying. At least on the Switch version, which is the one I played.

Monster Boy is a side scrolling action adventure (Metroidvania) very similar to Wonder Boy in Monster World, but it only has 1 big hub town, like Dragon's Trap and Monster World IV. If you're not familiar with the previous games, Monster Boy is also very similar to the original Shantae trilogy, or something like a side scrolling Zelda game. Like Zelda II, but not as evil. Most of the game is spent exploring and solving puzzles in dungeons. There is a lot of platforming and combat, but I think this one is much more about exploration and puzzles than the previous games.

If you played Dragon's Trap and are worried about slippery controls, don't be. You only slide around like you're walking on ice when you actually are walking on ice in this game. Monster Boy controls more like Wario or Shantae than Dragon's Trap. You can also expect this game to be a lot less oldschool than previous games. Monster Boy has fast travel, you can buy unlimited potions, there are frequent save points, and they are very forgiving. You get to keep your gold, puzzle progress, and get your potion back, even if you die before getting to another save point. The game is challenging, but not because of archaic systems.

Your main method of exploring new areas and solving puzzles in Monster Boy is using the special abilities of your animal transformations. Including Hu-Man, there are 6 transformations in the game and you can switch between them whenever you want, unlike in Dragon's Trap. There's no belly dancing required either. You get a new transformation after beating the last boss of the first 5 dungeons after the first one, so you have to play through 2 dungeons with nothing but the Pig form. This did feel like too long to be playing with the Pig, since he’s not very good at fighting. You also don't get to play as a Hu-Man for most of the game, since Jin is turned into Pig-Man after the intro level.

Pig-Man can't use equipment, so he can't get any abilities from gear. Not even a double jump. He can; however, butt stomp, use his pig snout to sniff out hidden hints and treasure chests, and use all magic spells. Magic spells work a lot like sub-weapons in Dragon's Trap or Castlevania and they can be used to attack and solve puzzles.

Snake-Man can't use equipment either, but he can spit venom, cling to moss on walls and ceilings, and since he's a tiny snake, he can squeeze through small passageways. Snake-Man can also swallow and carry some key items around in his stomach, like how a real snake swallows its prey whole.

Frog-Man can use his tongue to swing on rings hanging around the environments, like Indiana Jones. He can also use his tongue to attack and stun enemies, and to grab some key items and carry them around in his mouth. Frog-Man is the first transformation you get that can use equipment, and you'll him for that.

Lion-Man can use equipment and has a jumping downward thrust, similar to Pig-Man’s butt stomp, which can be used break blocks underneath you. He has a Wario-like dashing shoulder bash, which can be used to break blocks, and he can also use the dashing shoulder bash to run over water.

Dragon-Man can use equipment, breathe fire, and fly, like Hawk-Man in Dragon's Trap. He can either shoot fireballs by tapping the A button or breathe fire, like a flamethrower, by holding down the button. Dragon-Man can fly without any limits, but only when you have the Dragon Talisman. Without it, both flying and fire breathing use a stamina meter, which regenerates similarly to the stamina meter in some recent Zelda games.

In Hu-Man form, Jin can use equipment and magic, and he gets a warp dash (blink) when you get the Human Talisman. Jin gets a jumping downwards thrust, like the Lion’s, and an upwards slash unique to him. Like in Dragon’s Trap, you don’t get to use human form for most of the game, but there is plenty of opportunity to use him in the late game. Although, since the Dragon can fly around unhindered near the end, I didn’t use Jin a whole lot if it wasn’t required.

Monster Boy’s dungeons are similar to the ones in Wonder Boy in Monster World and Monster World IV, but much bigger and more about using your abilities for platforming and solving puzzles than they are about combat. They also have you running all over the place a lot more than dungeons in previous games. This isn’t one of those games in which you only use your latest ability to get through the latest dungeon either. You always have to keep all your transformation’s abilities in mind. I really liked the dungeons. Few Metroidvanias get dungeons so right.

My favorite dungeon is the Haunted Manor. It reminds me of Luigi's Mansion and has very Castlevaniaish music from Michiru Yamane. It has lots of environmental puzzles that have you rolling spiked balls around to break big stone blocks, possessing furniture like a ghost, routing electricity around with the help of Pepelogoo, and even doing a very Shantae-like race against an NPC.

Monster Boy has some of the best graphics of any modern day Metroidvania. Jin and all his transformations have a clean and simple, anime style to them, and they’ve all been animated by hand. Their heads are a bit smaller than characters in the old games, but they fit in pretty well with past heroes. Some of the NPCs look like they were drawn in a different style, and don’t look as good as the main characters, but that’s probably because the game went through a few different iterations of character designs and graphical styles. The backgrounds are all beautiful hand-painted scenes with tons of detail and really nice lighting. Every area looks completely different and fits in perfectly with the dungeon connected to it. For example, a moonlit cemetery full of bare trees, wrought iron gates, and gravestones leads to the Haunted Manor, and a lush jungle full of tropical plants and trees, waterfalls, stone snake heads, and Aztec inspired pyramids leads to The Lost Temples.

I have a big problem with the text and UI in this game. It’s just too small. I can’t read the text, look at the map, or see the tiny icons on magic chests from where I normally sit. I went through half the game before I noticed the icons on the magic chests. I’m sure it would look fine if I was sitting 2 feet away from a computer monitor, but I usually play around 12ft away from a TV. I had to either play this in handheld mode or pull up a chair closer to the TV to play this.

I’m usually not impressed by HD rumble in Switch games, because few games do anything special with it, but I really like how it's used in Monster Boy. This game uses HD rumble to make you feel the environment. You can feel the sewage bubbling in the sewers and the earth rumbling inside the volcano. What makes this even cooler is that it’s stereo HD rumble. If something happens on the left side of the screen, you feel it on the left side of the controller. You can feel Lion-Man running from one side of the screen to the other on your controller, for example. It just goes to show you how much thought was put into this game.

Monster Boy’s soundtrack is really something special. It’s definitely one of the best I’ve heard all year. Some of the best Japanese videogame music composers worked on it, including Yuzo Koshiro of Streets of Rage fame, Michiru Yamane, who worked on Castlevania SOTN and Aria of Sorrow, and Motoi sakuraba, who worked on Kid Icarus: Uprising, and many Tales of and Mario Tennis games. It has lots of new versions of classic Wonder Boy songs remixed in rock, ska, soul, and even disco. Fans of the old games are in for a treat. I especially loved Michiru Yamane’s original songs, which sound like they’re straight out of Castlevania.

I’m not saying this game is perfect, but this is one of the best modern day Metroidvanias I’ve played in recent years. It’s a huge 15+ hour game, and it’s fun all the way through. I never felt like I was doing filler content to pad the game out or doing something that wasn’t fun. It was challenging, but not too frustrating, the bosses were original and off-the wall, and the way it references every Wonder Boy game felt right and made sense within this world. I think every fan of Metroidvanias should go out of their way to play this.