Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Mario Kart Tour Closed Beta Test Impressions

I don't play a lot of mobile games, so when Nintendo announced that they were bringing Mario Kart to mobile, I really didn't know what to expect. But now that I've gotten a chance to play the Beta, I see how making a mobile Mario Kart game makes sense. Like Super Mario Run and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp before it, Mario Kart Tour takes the core of what makes MK fun on Nintendo's systems and throws out anything that doesn't work so well on a system with no controller.

This is probably to be expected from most mobile games by now, but I think it's important to mention that this game is online only. You need an Internet connection to play at all times. The challenge stages are single player, but all the races are against other people's "ghosts", and there are no time trials, or any other single player mode. There's no battle mode either. Races and challenges are the only game types. As far as lag and connection issues go, I haven't noticed any aside from some hiccups when finishing a race. Cloud saves also work great. I was able to seamlessly switch between 2 devices using the same Nintendo account and continue my game without issues.

I think the biggest hurdle in bringing Mario Kart to mobile is the controls. It has to feel like Mario Kart, but it can't be too complicated when your only control method is a touchscreen. Some things just aren't going to work very well without a controller, so they're gone. Outta here! Braking is gone, you can't slow down at all, jumping is gone, spin turns, driving in reverse, and u turns are gone, and so is driving in the wrong direction. Playing Mario Kart Tour is kind of like playing Mario Kart 8 with "Auto-accelerate" and a really strong version of "Smart Steering" on. The only time you accelerate by touching the screen is when doing a rocket start. You don't have to do anything to move forward otherwise. You do need to steer by sliding your finger left and right across the screen, but there is a lot of auto assist helping you stay on the course. You can't even go off-road unless you have some kind of speed boosting item active, like a mushroom or star, which makes it kind of hard to take shortcuts. Jump tricks for jump boosts are also automatic, but you can still do specific tricks by swiping in a specific direction right before jumping off a ramp. For example, you can swipe downwards for a backflip. There is an option for motion controlled steering, and it works well, but I've never been a fan of that stuff.

Just like in other Mario Karts, drifting is still a big part of the gameplay. Drifting works a lot like in MK8, except you don't jump into drifts. You drift by simply holding your finger down on the screen in the direction you're steering in. After about a second into a turn, you'll automatically start drifting, and the longer you hold this drift, the bigger your boost will be when you lift your finger and come out of the drift. It feels very natural and intuitive. There is an option called "Manual Drift" that automatically puts you into drift mode as soon as you start steering and enables the ultra mini-turbos (3rd tier boost with purple sparks), but it also makes it impossible to steer in the opposite direction without lifting your finger to let go of your drift. It feels awkward, but I'm guessing this will become the optimal way to play for the hardcore.

You use items by tapping on the screen, and you can shoot behind you or throw something in front of you by swiping up or down. Pretty much every item from Mario Kart 8 returns here. The blue shell, mushrooms, banana peels, Blooper ink, they're all here. You can wipe the Blooper ink away by swiping on the screen, by the way. Some of the items are now character specific, though. That's right, the character specials from Double Dash are back. Mario and Luigi have the Fire Flower, Peach and Daisy get the hearts, and Bowser has his giant spiked shell. I haven't unlocked every character, but the special items I've seen match up with Double Dash. Another new thing about items is that you can't miss an item box if someone else takes it, like in other Mario Karts. Even if someone just ran over one and there's nothing there, you still get your items. The default setting is set to automatically use items if you run into new item boxes, but you can switch that off if you want to be more strategic with your items.

The usual stats attached to characters, karts, and parts have gone completely out the window. It's not about stats anymore. Everyone plays the same. Instead of stats, drivers, karts, and gliders all give you different bonuses on specific courses, like extra item slots, more bonus points, faster crash recovery, and increased speed. For example, Luigi gets 3 item slots on DS Luigi's Mansion, while Koopa Troopa only gets 1. Each character, kart, and glider can gain XP to level up, and gets more bonuses for more courses as you level them. This system might seem like a good idea for a game in which regular MK stats wouldn't work so well, but what ends up happening is that 2 or 3 character, kart, and glider combos have a much easier time getting 5 star ranks on specific courses because of how points work (more on star ranks and points later). It's not uncommon to see more than half of the players using Daisy on 3DS Daisy Hills, for example. That means you'll struggle on some courses simply because you don't have the right character or kart. I'm not even sure if it's possible to 5 star some courses without the perfect character, glider, and kart combo. That would be fine if everyone had the same characters and karts, but they don't. You get some characters and karts as you beat races, but the majority of that stuff comes from the random loot pipe. I guess that's the point where you either grind, pay, or go play Mario Kart 8.

The game is split up into 16 cups, but these cups are not like the ones in regular Mario Kart. Each cup has 3 races and 1 challenge stage. You also only play 1 race at a time instead of playing through groups of 4, and each race is only 2 laps instead of 3 or more. This is actually kind of nice. A race only takes 2 or 3 minutes, so that makes the game much easier to pick up and play than a MK in which you have to spend 15 minutes playing through a whole cup in order to make progress. These cups aren't all new courses, though. The first 2 cups have 6 new courses, but then they start having only 1 new course per cup and using repeats for the other 2 after that.

The course selection in Mario Kart Tour is one of my favorite things about it. They're all remakes of classic courses. Eight out of 13 of them were already remade in either MKDS, MK7, or MK8, but that's okay with me, because they're all good courses. The only ones that haven't been remade already are 3DS courses from MK7. I wish we could get DLC pack with these courses for MK8. There are also reverse (not mirror) versions of the courses, but I haven't seen reverse versions for all of them yet, so I don't know if they all have a reverse version.

If you remember the Missions from Mario Kart DS, then you have a pretty good idea of what MKT's challenges are. These aren't nearly as creative, though. Challenges in Mario Kart Tour give you a preset character, kart, and glider combo, and have you racing through different versions of the regular courses trying to complete some kind of objective. One has you racing through rings as Mario on 3DS Toad Circuit, one has you racing against Mega Bowser in GBA Bowser's Castle 1, and there's one where you play as Donkey Kong on N64 Kalimari Desert while trying to run over a bunch of tiny Dry Bones. They're fun, but they don't start getting challenging until late in the game, and a lot of the challenge comes from not having the best character for the course.

The free to play game progression and gacha mechanics are where this game starts to lose me. Mario Kart Tour's progression isn't like in other Mario Karts. You can’t always move on to the next cup by getting first place in all the races and beating the challenge, you have to get enough stars to unlock the next cup first. You get stars by getting a higher ranking in each race or challenge. You can get up to 5 stars from each race and 3 stars from each challenge. Getting a higher star ranking isn’t just about getting 1st place, though. You’re given a score based on placing, item usage, the speed you play on (50cc, 100cc, 150cc, or 200cc), tricks, rocket boost, the amount of Goombas you kill, and the character, kart, and glider you use. Yeah, simply picking a better character, kart, and glider will give you a higher score. Getting enough stars to unlock a new cup isn't enough either. You still have to wait for it to be “built” before you can play it. The wait times are only a few minutes at first, but they increase as the game goes on. I’m having to wait 2 hours for new cups to become playable now. I don’t see an option to make this go faster by paying, so I don’t understand what the point of making me wait is.

Another annoying mechanic that makes you wait to play is the heart system. You use hearts to join races and challenges. In the Beta, you can have up to 5 regular hearts at a time, and you can get bonus hearts, which stack on top of your regular max hearts, when you level up a character. Of course, that happens less and less often the more you play a character. It takes 13 minutes to regenerate one heart after a race. If you run out of hearts, you can’t play any race or challenge, so you either have to wait, or spend “Green Emeralds” to refill your hearts. Green Emeralds are the in-game currency you will be able to buy with real money, of course. You can’t buy them in the Beta, though. You can also earn Green Emeralds by winning races and beating challenges for the first time and get them from the daily login bonuses. Green Emeralds can also be used to buy your way into the Coin Rush minigame, where you race on a course full of coins, and to play the pipe minigame. The pipe is a piranha plant pipe that shoots out random karts, characters, and gliders. It's a gachapon machine.

There's also an in-game shop where you can use coins to buy a rotating selection of gliders, karts, and tickets to boost the XP of characters, karts, and gliders. These are the same coins you collect while racing and go flying everywhere when you get hit, by the way.

This isn't the best Mario Kart I've ever played, but it is the best mobile game I've ever played! Okay, I don't play a lot of mobile games, but still! It's really fun! It's Mario Kart! The grindy free to play and gachapon mechanics are a huge turn off, though. What this game really makes me want to do is play more Mario Kart 8. And that's exactly what I did while MKT made me wait to play. I just wish I could get all these retro courses in MK8.

So now that Mario, Animal Crossing, and Mario Kart are on mobile, I guess Zelda is next, right? What would that be like? Spirit Tracks 2?

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Castlevania Anniversary Collection Review

“It was not by my hand that I am once again given flesh. I was called here by humans who wish to pay me tribute.” Castlevania fans, like me, have been asking for this for a long time. I honestly didn't think it would happen any time soon only a few months ago. Not with Iga gone and Konami focusing on gyms and pachinko machines. Yet here it is, a Castlevania collection by the masters of retro releases, M2. They're the ones behind Sega Ages, a few Virtual Console emulators, and the upcoming Sega Genesis Mini. This collection includes Castlevania 1-4, Castlevania: The Adventure and Belmont's Revenge for Game Boy, the first ever re-release of Castlevania: Bloodlines, and an English version of the previously Japan only Castlevania parody spin-off, Kid Dracula. It also includes a small ebook featuring an interview with Michiru Yamane, design documents, and concept art. I played it on Switch for this review, but it's also available on Steam, PS4, and XBO for $19.99.

I think the most important thing to consider when looking at these retro game collections is whether or not the games run well. Options and art galleries are nice, but stuff like input lag and accuracy is much more important to me. I played these versions back to back with the 3DS VC and NES/SNES Classic versions, and I was pretty impressed. These games feel just as responsive and run just as accurately as on Nintendo's emulators, flickering and slowdown included. The biggest difference I noticed was a brighter and slightly warmer color palette on the NES games in the Anniversary Collection. If you are worried about performance after some of those Mega Man collections, don’t be. These are great versions of these games.

Your options are as empty as your soul! Sadly, this collection is lacking in terms of options and features. You only get 1 save state per game, there is no button remapping outside of the in-game options in Super Castlevania IV and Bloodlines, there's only 2 border frames for all the games, there is no rewind, no CPU overclocking, and the display options leave a lot to be desired. There is a Save Replay feature, which is pretty cool, though. It allows you to save a video of your current game starting from the last save state you made or from when you booted the game up. That means you don't have to hit record before you start playing, you just hit Save Replay after you've done something you want a video of. You'll still need a capture device to get the video off the system, though. This is nice for speedrunners and people making walkthrough videos.

There are some annoying issues with the display options for the NES and SNES games. The “Pixel Perfect” aspect ratio option in Castlevania 1-3, Kid Dracula, and Super Castlevania IV makes things wider than the 4:3 aspect ratio instead of narrower (8:7) when docked. The Pixel Perfect option is displayed correctly when undocked, though. Bloodlines always looks how it should in every setting. It should look wider in Pixel Perfect than in Original because that’s how Genesis games were made.

Besides Original and Pixel Perfect display options, we also have 4:3 Scanlines, Pixel Perfect Scanlines, 16:9, and 16:9 Scanlines. 16:9 stretches the image both vertically and horizontally to fill the entire screen, and 16:9 Scanlines does the same, but with scanlines. 4:3 Scanlines gives you a 4:3 aspect ratio scaled unevenly to fill the screen vertically with scanlines while docked and undocked. Pixel Perfect Scanlines is too wide on the NES games and Super Castlevania while docked, just like regular Pixel Perfect, and stays evenly scaled for whatever reason.

Another weird thing is that game automatically scales from 1080p to 720p when switching to handheld from docked, but it will not scale to 720p while docked, even if you manually switch to 720p in the system settings. A 240p image scaled to 3 times its original size fits evenly into 720p (like on the NES and SNES Classics), so it would cover a little more of the screen than a 240p image scaled to 4 times its original size in 1080p, like it is in this collection.

The 2 Game Boy games have completely different display options. While docked, “Original” gives you a Super Game Boy black & white palette with an unevenly scaled image that fills the screen vertically. “Pixel Perfect” gives you the same black & white color palette with an image evenly scaled to 6 times its original size. The “Dot Matrix” option gives you a 6x scaled image with the original Game Boy green color palette and a filter that emulates the look of the original Game Boy's dot matrix screen. It's cool for a bit, but it makes everything look like it has giant pixels that don’t connect to each other.

There's also 3 options that use the default Super Game Boy color palette, which is 2 shades of orange with black outlines and purple shadows on a light orange background; Color Filter, Color Filter (Pixel Perfect), and Scanlines. Color Filter and Color Filter (Pixel Perfect) are just like Original and Pixel Perfect, but with the SGB color palette, and “Scanlines” is the same as Color Filter, but with scanlines. I guess it makes sense to put scanlines on a Super Game Boy game since you played it on a TV, but I would have rather had another SGB color palette there instead. The only difference between playing docked and undocked is that all display options are scaled evenly to 5x and fill the screen vertically while undocked because the GB's vertical resolution of 144p x 5 = 720p, which is the same as the Switch's screen. That means you have 2 options that do exactly the same thing as 2 other options in handheld. I wish they would have used better color palettes. The orange SGB color palette is okay, but I wish they would have used the palette from the GBC/SGB enhanced versions of the games they released in the Konami GB Collections, or even GB green without the dot matrix screen effect.

The border frame options in this collection are just pathetic. There are only 2 borders and the option to turn them off and play with black borders, which is what I did because these borders are lame. There's one with a thick red oil painting texture and one with a thick brown oil painting texture on one side and the original Castlevania artwork that was used on the cover on the other side. The original artwork with Simon Belmont in front of the castle is awesome, but the oil painting texture is not so cool that it should cover a whole side of the screen or be its own border. I could have made better borders with some boxart and 20 minutes in Photoshop.

This collection did not have button mapping when I originally wrote this review, but it has been patched in now. (See the 6/18/19 Patch Update section below)
The lack of button mapping is not a big deal to me, but I know some people prefer the Y + B configuration for NES and GB over B + A or X + A. All the NES and GB games use the same button configuration; B and X are whip, and A and Y are jump. It's exactly the same as when using a 4 face button controller on the NES Classic. You can't whip with Y and jump with B, like on the SNES games, but I think X + A is fine, too. But then again, I don't have a problem with B + A either. Bloodlines and Super Castlevania have in-game button configuration options, so there shouldn't be too many issues there. Bloodlines maps the 3 button Genesis controller's buttons as A to Y, B to B and X, and C to A, so you can play with 3 buttons in a sort of arc or in the more SNES-like way.

Having only 1 save state is a real bummer. The NES and SNES Classics give you 4 save state slots per game. Wii U and 3DS Virtual Consoles gave you 1 save state and a suspend feature, so you could switch games and come back to the same spot later without even making a save state, essentially giving you 2 save states. If you switch games in this collection, you lose your progress unless you made a save state. Thankfully, all the old codes and passwords work here, even the Bloodlines infinite continues trick that requires you to reset the system, so getting back to a specific level isn't a problem in 6 out of the 8 games. Nobody actually wants to play Castlevania: The Adventure; though, so this is really only a problem with Castlevania 1.

The book is pretty small and half of it is filler, but it does have some interesting stuff in it. It has old design documents for all the games in English, and interviews with Adi Shankar, executive producer of the animated series on Netflix, and Michiru Yamane, composer on Bloodlines, SotN, and many other Castlevanias. It also has the 1 page manuals made for the collection, a chronology of the games in the collection, a Belmont family tree, and some weird articles about knockback, stairs, and why the holy water is the best weapon in Castlevania 1. The design docs are the best part. Did you know that Simon Belmont was originally called Peter Dante? No relation.

This book is kind of hard to navigate, though. I don't like how the zoom controls are so sensitive. It feels like it zooms in preset amounts because it does so really fast and doesn't let you make small adjustments. It also doesn't have any touchscreen support at all, which would have been nice. Just give me a PDF I can put on my tablet or something.

6/18/19 Patch Update
With this patch, Konami has added the Japanese versions of every game included, except Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and button mapping to all the games, except Castlevania: Bloodlines, to this collection. I’m guessing the lack of Japanese Simon’s Quest is due to the fact that the game was originally released on the Famicom Disk System and Konami not being able to emulate the game without infringing on Nintendo’s FDS BIOS copyrights. The Japanese version of Castlevania I they’ve added is also not the 1986 Famicom Disk System original, and is instead the 1993 Famicom cartridge re-release version. So we still don’t have versions of Castlevania I and II with save files, and all we’re really getting with these Japanese versions are uncensored and unedited versions of some of the games, button mapping for all but 1 of the games, and Castlevania III’s real soundtrack. They still have not fixed the Pixel Perfect display option while docked for the NES and SNES games.

What is a Castlevania Anniversary Collection? A miserable little pile of ROMs! But enough talk… Have at you! This collection is lacking in options, and some of the options that are there are buggy, but 6 out of the 8 games are good, and the emulation is on par with Nintendo's own. It's only $20, too. Finally having a re-release of Bloodlines and an official English version of Kid Dracula is worth that at least. I question the inclusion of the GB games over Chronicles, Rebirth, and Rondo of Blood, but I guess those will be in the second collection.