Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Linearity in 3D Mario Isn't a Bad Thing

I've written before about linearity in gaming and how it isn't necessarily the bad thing that many believe it to be. The gist of that article was that when done right, both linear and nonlinear games can be fun and good games. Rather than one style being "good" and the other "bad", they're more like different subgenres which can be more or less fun based on one's own personal preference. I also wrote that I believe that much of the hate directed toward so-called linear games occurs when said games break the expectations of fans and diverge from the style of previous games in the series.

The situation with 3D Mario games is much the same way. Super Mario 64 brought Mario into the 3D world in the form of an adventure-platforming game. The platforming from Mario's 2D days carried over, but now there was also an emphasis on exploring large, open levels in search of stars. In many cases, each level's multiple stars could be found in any order and through a variety of paths by utilizing Mario's new repertoire acrobatic moves. In some cases, the star would only be available when it was selected upon entering the level, causing minor changes in the stage. 

Out of all the 3D Mario games, Super Mario 64 placed the biggest focus on adventure and exploration. Since then, each game in the series has shifted the focus little by little, back towards Mario's roots of linear platforming. Super Mario Sunshine retained Super Mario 64's wide open levels, but had more objectives that required level altering changes, which resulted in most cases in a set order within each level. It also expanded upon Super Mario 64's pre-level hints by showing a short video of the goal's location, thus reducing the amount of exploration required. The Super Mario Galaxy games took Mario even further in the direction of linearity by mostly having levels that were less open and explorable, but which had clear objectives and focused platforming. Finally, Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World are the culmination of these trends, retaining no semblance of the adventure genre and focusing entirely on 3D platforming.
Not bad, just different.
But this isn't a bad thing. Yes, it differs from what fans of Super Mario 64 expect from a 3D Mario game and leaves a void of first party adventure games, but that doesn't mean that the new style of 3D Mario is "bad". In fact, this more linear 3D interpretation of Mario's 2D roots brings with it some advantages over the adventure focused games in the series. The truth is that both kinds of 3D Mario games have their pros, cons, and differences that are neither good nor bad except within one's personal preferences.

One advantage of linear level design is that the objective is clear, though this is also a matter of personal preference. What is described as "exploring" by some players could be described as "wandering around" by others. With linear levels, you know exactly where you're going and can focus on platforming at a faster pace. Also, with less possible routes, the challenge and experience in each level can be better tailored to the designer's wishes, since they know exactly where the player will be at any given point. Since most levels have only one or two objectives, there can also be a wider variety and greater number of levels. That also means that you won't spend as much time retracing your steps by exploring each level multiple times like you would in more nonlinear Mario games. Of course, linear level design also means that you won't be able to be as creative with how you get to the goal.
Super Mario 64's nonlinear design meant going through the same areas
multiple times; even more so if you didn't know where you were going.
On the other hand, multiple routes were possible.
My aim in writing this is for you, the reader, to understand that while each style of 3D Mario has its minor advantages and disadvantages, the differences are, for the most part, neither good nor bad, but simply different. It's understandable why fans of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine would be upset by the change in formula, but "3D Mario" is not a unified series. Super Mario 64 is different from Super Mario Sunshine which is different from the Galaxy games which are different from the Super Mario 3D games, and none hold any obligation to follow the patterns set by the others. It's fine to prefer one kind of 3D Mario over another - it would be strange if you didn't - but know that personal preference does not determine a game's overall quality.

I'd also like to note, now that Mario has returned to his platforming roots and Rare isn't developing N64 games any more, it sure would be nice if another franchise picked up the adventure-genre slack. Make it happen, Nintendo!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

WTCG Original: Animal Crossing: New Leaf Patterns

As in previous Animal Crossing titles, New Leaf allows you to design your own patterns for clothing, flags, displaying on the ground, and more. But you already knew that, right? 

I'm here to add my creations to the ocean of designs already loose on the internet. I'll also update this post if and when I make more designs.

My first designs are for fans of!

Check back at a later date for more of my designs and QR codes for existing designs. In the mean time, check out all these awesome patterns that other people made! (Herehere, and here)

You too can make cool designs with these handy tools.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Wii U E3 Demo Impressions

As you may know, Nintendo is making four of its Wii U E3 demos available to the public at select Best Buy stores on June 12th and 15th this year. I went to the participating Best Buy in Wyomissing, PA yesterday (June 12th), played two of the four demos, and watched the rest. Here are my impressions:

The Mario Kart 8 demo was playable with one or two players and consisted of three tracks. The first track was the generic Mario Circuit looking track, but it had some jumps and goombas along the way. The controls were set to motion controls and, while I'm not terribly experienced with using motion controls in Mario Kart, it seemed to me that there was some delay when turning. As was evidenced in the trailer, motorcycles, gliders, coins, and underwater segments make a return. Whether or not you'll be able to switch out vehicle parts as in Mario Kart 7 was not clear. Turbo boosting works as it did in Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7 in that the boost charges by leaning into a turn while drifting as opposed to mashing left and right. 

The second track was a town themed course that reminded me of Sonic Adventure 2's City Escape level. This one had a few short cuts in it too. The final track was haunted house themed, and like the other two showed off Mario Kart 8's new feature of riding on walls and ceilings. This track also had an underwater segment combined with an anti-gravity segment which made it appear as if you were driving into a wall of water. Overall, all three courses looked fantastic visually and were fun to play as well. 

The graphics looked extremely nice and I didn't notice any visual lag even when playing with two people simultaneously. Hopefully the final product will still offer four-player splitscreen multiplayer without any loss in graphical quality. Apart from the graphics and the ability to ride on walls and ceilings, Mario Kart 8 seemed to be pretty similar to every other game in the series. That certainly isn't a bad thing, but I'll look forward to seeing what online and offline modes will be available in the final product.

Super Mario 3D World had five playable levels on the demo that showed off the grassy early areas, clouds, water, and lava. This game was also playable with up to four players with the playable characters of Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Peach, each with their own unique abilities. It's also worth noting that more than one person could play as the same character. Once again, the HD graphics looked crisp, colorful, and awesome. For the most part, the stages played much like those in Super Mario 3D Land, meaning that they were linear, get-to-the-end stages that emphasize platforming over exploration. This doesn't mean that exploration is completely ignored however, as there are hidden green stars in each level and other secrets to be found.

The most immediately obvious differences from Super Mario 3D Land were the simultaneous multiplayer, the new cat powerup, and the many clear pipes. The cat powerup lets you climb walls (but not indefinitely) and pounce and scratch enemies. You can even use it to climb to the top of the flagpole at the end of the level, which seems a bit overpowered to me. The clear pipes I mentioned were similar to normal pipes, but did not act as a loading zone to the next part of the level. Instead, they contained items and enemies, and often branching paths. You won't be able to stop once you go into a clear pipe though, so you'll have to react quickly to go down the paths that avoid enemies.

While the levels generally went left to right with only a bit of depth to run around in, one level was decidedly different from this design and had the player(s) riding a dinosaur down a river while avoiding pits and enemies. As there was only one dinosaur between four players, it was a bit difficult to tell who was actually controlling the dinosaur in this level. One final note is that after each level, each player's individual score was shown, meaning that it could become a challenge to get the highest score by the end of the level if one had a mind to make it so.

Overall, even though Super Mario 3D World is about 3D platforming rather than adventure, Mario does platforming well and this game looks extremely promising.

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD
Wind Waker HD's demo's only playable sections were Outset Island and the Helmaroc King fight. I'll assume that you already know about the original Wind Waker and just give you the details about this remake. I was not able to play this or the Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze demo, but I was still able to make some observations. 

There seem to be several minor tweaks that make the game slightly less of a chore to play (not that it was particularly a chore before). For one, the wind waker always appears to be equipped to the D-Pad and the sail, cannon, and grappling hook are similarly equipped separately when sailing. This means that you won't have to switch equipped items as frequently and will have more buttons to work with. Sailing also has a "fast" button as shown in the E3 trailer and grappling to posts in the overworld seems to go faster as well. Apparently there will be other minor tweaks like this as well, but not too many of them were obvious in the demo.

The graphics looked... good. I guess. There was nicer lighting, bloom effects (if you're into that sort of thing), better shadows, and some better textures, but overall I wasn't wowed by the graphics like I was when playing Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World. It also appeared that most or all of the original character and map models and animations remained completely unchanged from the original, meaning that while the textures look good, Link's hat still has some obvious points and edges to it. Wind Waker HD certainly looks nicer than the original, but not nice enough to merit this remake as far as I'm concerned. The original looked pretty good as it was, so unless this remake also adds some new dungeons that were cut from the first game, I don't think it will be worth buying except to those who didn't own a GameCube or to Zelda's most avid (and wealthy) fans.
Unfortunately, this is the game I saw the least of. However, what I did see looked quite promising. While the graphics didn't blow me away, the gameplay looked like the same greatness that we saw in Donkey Kong Country Returns. You could say that it's just more of the same, but that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. The levels seemed to have plenty of secrets, environments and obstacles that changed as you played, and camera angles that didn't just stick to going left and right. Like DKCR, Tropical Freeze made me wonder why the New Super Mario Bros. series hasn't been implementing any of the awesome stylistic and gameplay choices that are on display in this game.

As far as I could tell, certain actions were still mapped to motion controls (boo!), but I was unable to check for sure and there's no telling whether or not the final version will have options for that.

For me, the biggest mystery of Tropical Freeze is why Donkey and Diddy Kong were on the crashed plane at the beginning of the level. The answer to this question could take the entire Donkey Kong mythos in a whole new direction! Probably won't though.

Oh yeah, that Luigi loot they mentioned? It was a crappy quality foam Luigi hat and a Mario Kart flag. Also, at the Best Buy I went to, there was only one Wii U set up for demos, so if you plan to go on Saturday, prepare for a bit of a wait.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward - The Best "Book" You'll Play on 3DS/Vita

Platform: 3DS, Vita   Genre: Visual novel, puzzle   Release: October 23rd, 2012 (NA)
How does one write a review for a game whose main appeal is its intriguing and twisting plot without spoiling said plot? Since book reviews are a thing, I guess it's possible, so I'll do my best to explain why anyone who enjoys a good story needs to buy this game.

What is it?
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is a visual novel with puzzle segments that are reminiscent of Myst interspersed between the dialogue. It is a sequel to 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (DS) which followed the same format of storytelling combined with gameplay. While the plot of Zero Escape doesn't directly continue from that of 999, it is advisable to play 999 first as there are a few references to it.

The story is presented as text accompanied by animated characters which appear over mostly static backgrounds, a step up from 999's character portraits. Also a step up, the dialogue is voice acted, quite well I might add, in both English and Japanese. [Note: The European and Japanese versions do not have English voice acting.] The voice acting is not present in the puzzle segments of the game, but since the majority of your time will be spent in the novel portions, it isn't too big of a deal. Along with the generally solid English voice acting, the English translation is exceptionally good and does a fantastic job of taking the original dialogue and making it sound natural in English. After playing Zero Escape, you won't be able to help but notice how much other game translations fall short in comparison.

So what's this story about?
Similar to 999, Zero Escape puts you and a bunch of strangers in what's called the "Nonary Game". It's a game of life and death, trust and betrayal, in which everyone is attempting to escape through the door marked with a "9". The method of escaping differs from that in 999 in that now you'll be competing for points after each puzzle segment by playing a game based on the prisoner's dilemma. In this game, you have to choose whether to ally with or to betray the person you get matched up with. Betraying can get you out faster, but only if they ally; allying and being betrayed results in you losing points. If everyone chooses to work together, everyone can escape, but that isn't easy to do with a bunch of strangers, some of whom may even be responsible for abducting you in the first place.
Each of these choices to betray or ally splits the storyline, resulting in 24 endings which range from bad to good to best. Thankfully, you won't have to start from the beginning each time you want to see another ending; the game offers a view of the branching timeline which lets you skip to any point you wish and see how things would have played out if you had chosen differently. At first, it seems that this removes any sort of negative consequence for choosing "wrongly", but you'll find that it's a very welcome addition and an absolute necessity if you wish to see the true ending.

Even if I describe the basic concept of the story, I can't really do it justice. What you know at the beginning of the game is hardly anything compared to all the mysteries and twists that you'll find out along the way to the end. Every character has a story and each clue toward finding out who is responsible for abducting you all and what their motives might be brings up more questions and surprises. By the end, I can assure you that almost all of your questions will be answered, although it leads to a sequel which is in the works. Still, even with a tie-in to a sequel, Zero Escape's ending is fairly conclusive and not at all unsatisfying.
And... puzzles?
Oh yeah, there are some puzzles. Each puzzle segment has you using various objects and clues you find around the room to solve things. In the 3DS version, the touch screen is used to examine objects and interact with the various challenges. The puzzles vary in difficulty, but are usually just challenging enough to be satisfying without resorting to being unfair. Each puzzle segment also has a second, secret solution which unlocks supplementary notes on various details relating to the plot which are often interesting or amusing. If the puzzles prove too difficult, you can switch to easy mode at any time (hard is the default) and the characters will give you hints. The game keeps track of which puzzles you've solved on hard though, so you'll want to stick to hard mode if you want bragging rights (not that anyone can stop you from going to GameFAQs).
Even the instruction text can be clever. (Source)
The puzzles do feel a little tacked on to the story at first, as if to force it into the gaming medium, but they offer a nice break in the action and, like everything else, are explained by the plot.

3DS or Vita?
I have only played the 3DS version, but there were a few glitches worth noting. For one, there were a few instances where the game lagged, particularly when interacting with puzzles. The times when the game lagged weren't especially complicated from a processing perspective, so it's strange that this would occur. There were even occasions during my 30+ hours of playing where the game froze entirely, which could have been devastating if I hadn't saved recently. Worse than that is the saving bug, which seems to occur in particular rooms after not having saved for a long time and results in the corruption of the save file. If this happens, you'll be forced to start over from the very beginning. It's a nasty glitch, so for that reason alone, I'd recommend going with the Vita version if at all possible. Otherwise, be sure to take precautions to avoid the glitch in the 3DS version.

The final word:
If you enjoy good stories, particularly suspenseful scifi ones, you need to play 999 and Zero Escape. It has a better story than most books I've read and the abilities offered by being playable on 3DS and Vita to make decisions, interact with the puzzles, and to see and hear the characters, make it clear that what they call "games" can and do offer an effective mode of storytelling in ways that would be impossible in other mediums.

You might also like:
Video Games Are Better Than Books

Thursday, June 6, 2013

FTW: Convert images to QR codes for Animal Crossing: New Leaf

In past iterations of Animal Crossing, quality custom designs were a hot commodity. You could use them for shirts, hats, flags, wallpaper, and more, but making them well required meticulously coloring each pixel. Furthermore, sharing patterns required that you connect with the friend and give them the pattern. Thankfully, New Leaf now allows you to share patterns by QR code. Even better, by reverse engineering the code, there's already been an iOS app made that can convert images to Animal Crossing designs and can generate a corresponding QR code so that all you have to do is scan it. 

The app is free, so check it out: QR MyDesign Assistant for Animal Crossing 3DS by Bochen Technology co. Ltd.

If you know of any other programs for PC or online that do the same thing, let me know! And feel free to leave any QR codes you've generated using this app in the comments. Here are the ones that I've made.

Update: An online app for making designs that's in Japanese. (Doesn't do QR codes.) (Link)
Update: Another one similar to the Japanese web-based app above, but in English. (Link) Dead link
Update: An Android version. (Link)
Update: An English downloadable version for PC is now available and in development. (Download (v.0.4 7/9/13), On Reddit)
Update: Another web-based app, but this one can generate QR codes. (Link)
Update: A web-based app that was submitted in the comments. Thanks, Jason W.! (Link)
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