Thursday, November 29, 2018

Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! Review

Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu! is many things. It's the second remake of Pokémon Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow, which were remade on GBA as FireRed and LeafGreen, a semi-prequel to Sun and Moon, and the bridge between Pokémon Go and Game Freak’s Pokémon games. There are clear differences between Let's Go and the main RPG series, but at the same time, this game is more like the mainline games than anything else.

Like Pokémon Yellow, Pokémon Let's Go takes the story of RGB and throws in characters from the anime, like Nurse Joy, Officer Jenny, and Jessie, James, and Meowth of Team Rocket. This isn't the same Kanto the GB games took place in, though. Red and Blue are older here, but not as old as in Ultra Sun and Moon. Red and Blue have already had their adventure, and Blue even mentions having to take notes about Pokémon on paper instead of a Pokedex, so this is definitely not the same timeline. All the Giovanni, Lavender Town, and Silph Co. Stuff is still pretty much the same, though. This game is still very much Pokémon Yellow.

This game's story is really about your personal journey; though, unlike in Sun and Moon. Pokémon Let's Go gets back to basics. This game is about catching 'em all and filling the Pokedex, and beating the Elite Four and becoming a Pokémon Master. There is no Lillie hogging the spotlight. You are the main character. Well, Pikachu is the main character, but you're important too. There aren’t cutscenes in every other screen, and you aren’t constantly funneled down a path. This is still a fairly linear, simplified Dragon Quest style Pokémon game, yet it gives you much more freedom than the last few Generations of Pokémon games have. The game actually opens up quite a bit after you beat Misty in the second Gym. You still have to do key parts of the story to make progress, but you can do any Gym from the 3rd to the 7th in any order, as long as you can get to it. Pokémon Let’s Go is a breath of fresh air after playing Sun and Moon. This is the shakeup the series’ campaigns have needed for years.

The biggest difference in gameplay between Let’s Go and the main series’ is the introduction of the Pokémon Go style catching mechanic. You don’t battle wild Pokémon in Let’s Go. Instead, you go directly into a first person Pokéball throwing minigame, like in Pokémon Go. The goal of this minigame is to throw the Pokéball at the Pokémon and inside the ring on a looping shrinking animation superimposed over the Pokémon. The smaller the ring is when you hit the Pokémon with the ball, the higher your chances to catch it are. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. There seems to be a lot of randomness to the catch rate. Perfect throws do not guarantee a catch, and sometimes the worst throws get the catch instead of the perfect throws.

The biggest issue with the catching minigame is the controls. Let’s Go’s catching can’t be controlled with the touch screen, like Pokémon Go’s. You can only control Let’s Go with a single vertical Joycon while docked (no Pro Controller or split Joycon options), and you can only throw Pokéballs with motion controls while docked. You can use a combination of the analog stick and gyroscope to aim, and buttons to throw, but only while playing in handheld mode. Aiming with the gyroscope is all those bad AR 3DS games all over again. It’s very shaky, you have to move your Switch around like an idiot, and you don’t get any cursor, so there’s a lot of guesswork in aiming your throws. Aiming with the analog stick is way too sensitive, there are no analog stick sensitivity options, you still don’t get any kind of cursor, and you can’t turn off the gyro aiming, so your view is still very shaky.

Using motion controls to throw Pokéballs is probably the worst control option of all. The JoyCons simply can’t do what the Wiimotes could. The JoyCons can’t tell where the TV is, because there is no sensor bar, so it only uses its gyroscope and accelerometer. The game recenters your invisible cursor every time you click on “Get Ready” to throw a Pokéball, so you actually need to aim around the position your controller was when you clicked on that, and not necessarily aim at the Pokémon on the TV. What makes this worse is that the game never explains any of this. It just tells you to do a throwing motion, so of course people are going to aim at the TV. Even when you think you’re doing it right, these motion controls feel very inaccurate. Sometimes you throw a Pokéball in the opposite direction, you don’t throw it far enough in a certain direction, or it goes flying past the Pokémon. The whole catching mechanic is frustrating and feels like a bad Mario Party minigame.

Pokémon Let’s Go comes with other more welcome changes to the series’ formula, though. The biggest being the removal of random encounters. There are no random battles in Let’s Go at all. Not in caves, in water, or in tall grass. You can now see Pokémon running around the world, and they look pretty close to the scale they should be. Pidgeys and Zubats are pretty small and Onyxes and Scythers are huge, for example. They don’t aggro or run away from you, like in other games. They just kind of run around. There are still trainer battles and you get XP from catching Pokémon, so you’re not missing out on any XP, and you can still grind to level up Pokémon if you want to.

Let’s Go also carries over some of the improvements from the last few Gens and introduces some of its own. Pokémonamie (Pokémon Nintendogs) is in the game, but only available for Pikachu and Eevee. Clothes are back, but in a very limited fashion. They mostly look like different textures on the same default model. You can also dress Pikachu and Eevee up with different hats, shirts, glasses, and bow ties, and you can give them a variety of hairdos with different touch screen swipes. HMs are still gone, but instead of summoning a Pokémon out of thin air, like a Charizard for Fly, Pikachu learns the Secret Techniques. Only in storyline, though. The Secret Techniques don’t affect Pikachu’s moveset at all. Pikachu is not the only Pokémon you can see traveling with you. Pokémon followers are finally back, and you can even ride on some of the big ones, like Rapidash, Snorlax, and Onyx. Some have really cute riding animations, too, like Kangaskhan’s, which has Pikachu riding in its pouch, and Sorlax’s which has Pikachu and your trainer hanging on to its belly, like in My Neighbor Totoro. You can also use large water Pokémon, like Gyrados and Lapras, for surfing, and flying Pokémon, like Charizard and Dragonite, for flying. Also, the PC is available from the menu anywhere in the game. That’s right, you no longer need to go to a Pokémon center to switch Pokémon.

A lot of the mystery surrounding IVs and EVs has been simplified. You can now get a better idea of what the IVs (max stat potential) of a Pokémon will be before catching it, thanks to the Combat Power (CP) rating, which is displayed under the Pokémon’s level during an encounter. You can also get the Pokémon Box IV “Judge” feature a lot earlier than you could in Sun and Moon. EVs (1 stat point divided by 4) have been replaced with the candy system (think Rare Candy), which gives you stat points directly, like Proteins and Carbos, instead of waiting until you level up to turn every 4 EVs into 1 stat point. You get candies from catching Pokémon, sending Pokémon to Professor Oak, and winning trainer battles. I doubt EVs are gone for good, but I like the idea of removing some of the the mystery about them.

Since there is no breeding in Let’s Go, some of the customization you were able to do with it is completely gone. You can’t get egg moves, for example. The catching system allows you to do some of those things, though. You can pay an NPC to lock all Pokémon caught to a specific Nature for the rest of the day. Catching the same species of Pokémon over and over creates what the game calls Catch Combos. As your Catch Combos grow, the chance for the Pokémon of that species to have 4, 5, or 6 perfect IVs goes up, the chance for rare Pokémon to spawn goes up, and the chance for shiny Pokémon to spawn goes up as well. This has created a new subculture of shiny Pokémon hunting. After completing the Pokédex you can get the Shiny Charm, and by having it and a Catch Combo of 31+, you can get the chances of a shiny Pokémon appearing down to about 1 in 100.

There is online trading and battling in Pokémon Let’s Go, but they are much more limited than in the main games. There is no GTS. If you want to trade a Pokémon, you’re probably going to have set it up with a friend outside of the game and outside the Switch altogether, since the Switch OS doesn’t have a messaging system. The game doesn’t support any kind of real matchmaking or friend list either, so you use Pokémon icons as passwords to match up with friends. You can just use a 3 Pikachu icon password and match up with a random person using the same password, but you’re not going to know what they want to trade, unless you’re a telepath. The same password system is used for battles. There is no real matchmaking. There are singles and doubles available, and you can play with normal rules or no restrictions.

There’s also local battling and trading with 2 systems, and 1 system co-op in the campaign. Since the game can only be controlled with 1 Joycon while docked, a second player can join in at any time by giving the second Joycon a shake. The second player can run around with you, but they can’t talk to NPCs or run into Pokémon. The second player can join battles with you, though. You can team up on NPCs and make the game a lot easier than it already is. The game doesn’t scale the difficulty or punish you in any way for teaming up on NPC trainers. You can even join in in the middle of a battle. The second player can also make catching a lot easier by performing synchronized Pokéball throws. This can be used to make catching Pokémon like Mewtwo a lot easier, since synchronized throws have a higher catch rate.

For the first time, we are able to import Pokémon from Pokémon Go into the main games through the Go Park. The Go Park works very similarly to the Safari Zone in older games. In fact, it's in the same location in Fuschia City. You don't need to play Pokémon Go to enjoy Let's Go, but you can get the new mythical Pokémon, Meltan, by bringing in Pokémon from Go to Let's Go. Meltan is the first mythical Pokémon with the ability to evolve. Manaphy could breed for a Phione, but Phione could not evolve into a Manaphy. After sending any Kanto Pokémon from Go to Let's Go, you get a Mystery Box in Pokémon Go. When you use this Mystery Box, it will make Meltans spawn near you for 30 minutes. You can get maybe 5 or 6 Meltan in those 30 minutes. Why do you need all those Meltan? Because catching them gives you Meltan candies and you need to feed Meltan 400 Meltan candies to evolve it into Melmetal. The Mystery Box has a 7 day cooldown, though, so it's going to take at least a couple of months for anyone to get a Melmetal.

Aside from filling out the Pokédex, battling, and shiny hunting there really isn't a ton of post-game content. There is a little bit of story involving Blue, Green, and Mewtwo, but it’s not much. You can battle the Elite Four and some other trainers again for money and battle Master Trainers for titles, and that’s about it. Master Trainers are trainers that specialize in a single Pokémon. For example, the Charizard Master Trainer battles with a single level 75 Charizard. These are super tough, no items allowed, single mirror Pokémon battles, which will require you to train specific Pokémon with candies and the right moves. When you beat them, you get titles that show up in multiplayer battles, like “Charizard Master”. There’s a Master Trainer battle for every Pokémon except legendaries (which only require you to level them to 100), and they’re all level 65-80 Pokémon, so if you want the title of say, “Bulbasaur Master”, you’re going to have to raise an awesome Bulbasaur without evolving it.

Pokémon Let’s Go definitely nails the style of a Pokémon game, but it is in no way technically impressive. Pokémon Let's Go looks like an HD version of the 3DS games. More specifically, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. It's a 3D game made with polygons, but it has that very square look to the environments, like the old 2D games. The resolution and lighting have gotten huge upgrades over the 3DS games, but the textures still don't have much detail, and most of the Pokémon look like they're using the exact same models used in the 3DS games. Only Eevee and Pikachu look like they’ve had any work done on them. Both Pikachu and Eevee’s faces have a lot more polygons, which allow them to have more facial animations. The game performs pretty well while docked, but there are a few areas where the framerate slows down quite a bit in handheld. Particularly in areas with lots of tall grass and in heavily forested areas, like in Viridian Forest. This is an RPG, so framerate isn’t that important, but the slowdown in Let’s Go affects everything in the game. It’s not just the graphics that slow down. The menus and music also slow down. You’re literally playing the game in slow motion sometimes. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen during battles or while catching, just outdoors.

The UI in Let’s Go feels like a massive downgrade from Sun and Moon. Heck, it’s a downgrade from the last 4 or 5 Generations. There is no touchscreen support for the menus, even in handheld mode, so you have to navigate to and click on everything, and there’s a lot of clicking. There are no shortcuts or hotkeys, and pretty much everything requires you to go through a couple of menus to get to it, because everything is under a menu icon and then inside a “bag” after that icon. There is no preview window in the Pokémon Box, the icons for shiny Pokémon don’t use their special colors, and there’s no way to look at their markings without viewing their full summary, so sending multiple Pokémon to Professor Oak is levels of clumsiness only surpassed by Pokémon games going back to the GBA days. Yes, it’s that bad.

The soundtrack in Let’s Go is a real treat for longtime fans. All the classic tunes have been re-recorded with live instruments and sound amazing. This is by far the best Pokémon music has ever sounded in a game outside of Super Smash Bros. The only characters who have any voice acting in the game are Pikachu and Eevee, but they sound great. Pikachu has a wide range of emotions and delivers every Pika with real passion. Truly a masterful performance by Pikachu. The rest of the monsters have the same cries they do in the 3DS games. They sound like higher quality versions of the same sounds they have been making since the GB games. I don’t expect them to bring in masters of the craft for everyone, like they did for Pikachu, but redoing these sounds is long overdue.

I had a lot of fun with this game. It’s not just a nice trip down memory lane. Even with the crappy catching, it’s the best version of the Gen 1 games. It’s kind of hard to mess up a remake of one of the best and most influential RPGs of all time. Pokémon Let's Go feels like Breath of the Wild compared to the handholdy, cutscene-filled slog that Sun and Moon were. Obviously, this isn’t the game for people who want to make this the only game they play until the next Pokémon comes out, but I think even the hardcore fans will have a lot of fun with this game.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap Review

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is the prequel to the Four Swords games on GBA and GC. It was first released on the GBA in November 2004 in Japan and in January 2005 in North America, a couple of months after the North American launch of the Nintendo DS. The Minish Cap was the last Zelda game developed by Capcom, who also made the 2 Oracle games for Game Boy Color. It was directed by Hidemaro Fujibayashi, who also directed the Oracle games and later went on to work at Nintendo and direct Phantom Hourglass, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild.

The Minish Cap carries the spirit of the GBC Oracle games. Like the Oracle games, Minish Cap is packed with references to other Zelda games. The way some enemy sprites are drawn is straight out of Zelda 1, man locations are direct callbacks to A Link to the Past, and many characters from Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker show up throughout the game. Even the style of the graphics looks like a combination of Wind Waker's and A Link to the Past's styles. Fujibayashi brings a level of reverence for the series that only a long-time fan can.

The story of The Minish Cap takes place in the “Force Era” of Hyrule, a period of time in between Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time. It tells the origin stories of Vaati and the Four Sword. It also introduces the Minish people, AKA the Picori. The Minish are tiny mousy-like gnome people about the size of mice or maybe insects. The game is very inconsistent when it comes to depicting their size. The Picori made the Picori Blade (Four Sword) and gifted the “Light Force” to the Hylians. The Light Force refers to Zelda’s magical power passed down through her bloodline. In the game's intro, Vaati petrifies Zelda and breaks the Picori Blade into pieces, so Link seeks the help of the Picori to reforge the blade and save Zelda and Hyrule from Vaati.

There was a point before the release of Skyward Sword when Minish Cap was the earliest game in the Zelda timeline and it seemed super important. Now that there's a new first game in the timeline that ties more closely into the rest of the series; though, Minish Cap feels like a non-canonical story. Still, Minish Cap has some great moments, like the intro, which shows Link and Zelda going to a festival together. We don't usually get a lot of interaction between Link and Zelda, and it was very surprising to see them going on this little date. We also see some interesting things referencing past Links and kings of Hyrule, which I would love to know more about. The focus of the series has shifted a lot since then; though, so I doubt they will ever revisit the Force Era.

Even though Minish Cap is part of the Four Swords trilogy, the multi Link mechanic is not the main mechanic in the game. There are some multi Link puzzles, but they are mostly in the latter half of the game. The main mechanic of the game is shrinking with the help of the Minish Cap, Ezlo. There are different platforms around the world which Link can stand on and shrink down to Minish size or grow back to normal. These platforms are usually tree stumps or flipped over pots. Link can do lots of things in Minish size that he can't in regular size, like use lily pads as rafts, talk to animals, go through tiny holes in walls, and climb up small vines. Of course, being so small also has its downsides. Link can’t walk across tall grass, puddles become rivers, and he is unable to use any items while in Minish size. The shrinking mechanic is new and different, but it never becomes very challenging, since it's pretty obvious when you need to shrink or grow to do something, because there's always a shrinking platform nearby.

Aside from the shrinking mechanic, Minish Cap plays like a sequel to the Oracle games. It's a traditional 2D Zelda with a lot of emphasis on overworld exploration, talking to NPCs, and making your way to the dungeons. It's a bit like Skyward Sword in that there's a lot of stuff to do before you can get to the next dungeon. There's usually some kind of quest chain that involves doing things for NPCs, matching Kinstones with them to open paths, or getting an item to get through the path to the dungeon. The NPC quests and Kinstone matching remind me a lot of the trading chains in the GB Zeldas. These in between dungeon segments are what stick out to me the most about The Minish Cap. Running around Hyrule and Hyrule Town and doing quests is a lot fun. The Minish Cap overworld is jam packed with secrets in every area. It reminds me of Link's Awakening's overworld in that way.

Kinstones are half pieces of medallion-like stones you can find all over the world. You match your half with an NPC’s half to open paths in the overworld, spawn chests, and summon golden enemies that drop a lot of rupees. Matching Kinstones is a big part of overworld exploration and side quests, and becomes increasingly important to main quest progression as the game goes on.

The dungeons in Minish Cap are good, but not amazing. They try to do new things, and they always make you use your newest items in clever ways, but none of them felt especially challenging. I felt like the paths to the dungeons kind of overshadowed the dungeons themselves, because they required more critical thinking from me. There's also only 5 dungeons in the game. Which isn't a lot when compared to most Zelda games. That's less than half of LttP's. I reached the final dungeon feeling like the game skipped the middle of the game or something. It really could have used a few more.

I really like the bosses, though. They always made me use my newest items and some even required me to use the shrinking mechanic. Most of these bosses looked very familiar, but their mechanics always felt fresh. I especially liked the final battle against Vaati, which is a multiphase fight that requires you to use a lot of the items and the shrinking mechanic. And yes, there is a phase in which you have to volley balls of magic back at Vaati, but even that wasn't exactly like the Aghnim fight in LttP.

Minish Cap's graphics are basically WW meets LttP. It's Wind Waker's art style from A Link to the Past's overhead perspective. The graphics are more detailed, more colorful, and more cartoon-like than LttP's. Link and Ezlo also have very cute animations for when they talk, wake up in the morning, and use the cap's magic. This is definitely the best looking 2D pixel art Zelda game.

Most of the soundtrack in Minish Cap is made up of tunes from other Zelda games. There's a lot of stuff from LttP, WW, and Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. There are a few original tunes, but they're not quite as good as the classics. The Hyrule Town music is really good, though. It sounds like it's trying to evoke Zelda II with some of the notes, too, which I appreciate.

Minish Cap is by far the best thing to come out of the Four Swords trilogy. It's like the 3rd Oracles game we never got. It's not quite on the level of LttP, LBW, or Link's Awakening, but it's a really good Zelda game. I just wish it had more dungeons.