Monday, October 28, 2013

Kirby's Return to Dreamland is too good to not get played

Platform: Wii    Genre: Platforming    Release: October, 2011
The Kirby series has its share of experimental spin-off games so it seems like the main entries with platforming and enemy ability stealing sometimes get lost in the mix. Well in this case, with a title like Kirby's Return to Dreamland, there's no doubt that this game takes Kirby back to those things that made him famous in the first place. The result of that is a game that stands among Nintendo's best and gives New Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country Returns a run for their money.

Return to Dreamland takes everything the previous Kirby games did right and brings it together for great effect. It has the usual eating of enemies and copying of abilities that we've known and loved since Kirby's Adventure and Kirby's Dream Land. It's got simultaneous multiplayer like Kirby Super Star and Kirby's Dream Land 3, but better. It has a variety of attacks for each ability, also from Kirby Super Star. And it also has a variety of modes to play as well.
Each new area is a treat to look at.
The main mode of Return to Dreamland takes you through a series of seven-ish worlds (the eighth world is just bosses) with four to five levels each. They're pretty standard for what you'd expect from a Kirby game, and that's a good thing. They're well designed from a gameplay perspective, have fantastic music that's a mix of old and new, and are so visually spectacular you'll want to steal screenshots for your desktop wallpaper. New types of enemies are gradually introduced, giving you time to master each new ability as it becomes available and making each new discovery fun and exciting. Each ability controls intuitively and with the precision you'd expect from a game by HAL Laboratory, but move lists for your current ability are also listed on the pause screen in case you need them. Each level also contains three to five collectible gears which unlock challenge stages, minigames, and practice rooms for each ability. These gears are sometimes hidden in plain sight, but usually require a specific ability and some clever thinking to get to. Some levels also have segments where you get a super ability, which allows you to totally and spectacularly demolish everything in your path. In each of these segments, there is also a hidden portal to an optional, more challenging, area in which you have to outrun an ever-approaching void and defeat a miniboss for more gears. Along with the super abilities, another new addition are the items which can be carried or ridden (in case of the giant spiky boot) for various effects.
Hidden portals bring you to optional, more difficult, areas like this.
Those who have played past Kirby games may fear that this latest entry will be over too quickly like some of the previous games. Fortunately, the levels in Return to Dreamland are quite long, often taking around ten minutes each to complete. On top of that are seven challenge rooms which are cleverly designed around particular abilities and force you to race through for high scores. Then there are two minigames (also multiplayer like the main game) that are more fun than you'd expect and involve throwing ninja stars at targets and blowing up mechs. Boss Rush mode also makes a return in The Arena. But the biggest source of replayability comes with Extra Mode, a harder version of the game that is unlocked after completing the game on normal. In Extra Mode, you'll have to go through again with half health, stronger and more plentiful enemies, and harder, and entirely new, bosses with new attacks. Even experienced gamers will find this mode to be challenging at points. Extra Mode even has its own harder versions of the challenge stages too. It's not just less health and more damage, it's hard mode done right, and it's different enough to be worth playing.
This epic boss is only seen in Extra Mode.
There's too much to show in just a few screenshots; check out my full playthrough of Extra mode over here.
For yet another way to play through the game, there's simultaneous multiplayer with up to four players. Each player can play as either a different colored Kirby, Dedede, Meta Knight, or Waddle Dee, but the three non-Kirby characters are essentially just the same as one of Kirby's abilities (Hammer, Sword, and Spear). Lives are shared and fallen teammates will continue to respawn as long as you have lives to spare. However, if Player 1 dies, you have to start the room over. Having four players on-screen at a time can be chaotic, but it's still very fun and strategic cooperation is possible.

The Final Word:
You could say that Return to Dreamland is just more of the same, but it's more of the same done incredibly well. Everything great about Kirby games is brought together in this one game. I know that it came out near the end of the Wii's life and that its price has hardly dropped below $50 since its release, but Return to Dreamland is arguably the best Kirby game to date and you owe it to yourself to play it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

FTW: The 8-Bit Hymnal

Well here's a novelty. A Christian musician and assumed gamer by the name of Tyler Larson has combined the 8-bit chiptune sound of retro video game music with the recognizable and classic hymns you might (or might not) know from church. The result isn't too bad. It's no Anamanaguchi, but it's worth a listen if only for being so different. Listen or download for free on the player below.

If you like this sort of thing, you might also like my pitches for 7 Bible-based games that would be totally righteous.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Should You Go Digital? Probably Not.

The big three game companies, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, have been offering the ability to purchase most major releases as digital downloads for a while now. How convenient! How cutting edge! Right? Well, not exactly.

So what's the problem?
There are currently a lot of problems with buying digitally on home consoles and handhelds.
1. You cannot resell the game if you want to.
2. If your console breaks, it's a pain to get your games back. This is particularly the case on Nintendo platforms*, though this may change in the future.
3. You can't bring your games to a friend's house or let someone borrow them.
4. The price is usually more expensive than buying a retail copy (look for sales and used games at stores besides GameStop. Duh.).
5. Each of the big three companies has shown that they are not dedicated to backward compatibility in digital gaming (or otherwise)**. Chances are that when current gen systems are "classic", or even before then, you won't be able to redownload your digital purchases, and, once again, if your console breaks all your games will go with it.
6. You don't get a nice box to display on your shelf as a badge of honor that sets you apart from pirates.
*As of now, Nintendo platforms currently tie your digital purchases to an account (that's good), but they tie your account to the console and have no system in place for transferring your account, and thus, your purchases, to a new or different console without calling customer service (that's bad). Also, virtual console games available on 3DS, Wii U, and Wii, are only playable on the console you made the purchase with.
**PS4 and XBox One are not backward compatible with PSN games from PS3 or XBox Live Arcade games from 360. Wii U is compatible with Wii virtual console games, but only inconveniently through virtual Wii and an entirely separate eShop. Upgrading your digital purchases to versions compatible with the new consoles will likely have limited availability and will cost you extra, even if you already own the game on a previous console.

But it works so well on PC! What's the difference?
PC games are primarily distributed digitally nowadays and have been for quite some time. The difference here is that their prices are typically far lower than what they would be for the console version of the same game. This makes up for the inability to resell the games somewhat. Also, most digital distributors of PC games allow you to easily install your games on multiple computers as long as you log into your account (or maybe even without logging into your account if you bought a DRM-free version). Furthermore, computers are relatively open compared with video game consoles, which means that, for the most part, you won't have to worry about your games becoming unplayable due to new hardware.

Well, holy crap, why would anyone be foolish enough to buy games digitally on a home console?
Most people are foolish, if you haven't noticed, but there are a few understandable reasons to buy digitally:
1. Socially inept gamers can buy their games safely from their house without the need to interact with store clerks. (Also, if you live far away from a game retailer, it can be convenient.)
2. Some people would prefer to deal with managing space on their hard drive or SD card and the hassle of redownloading games once their storage gets full, rather than deal with managing shelf space for the boxes of physical copies.
3. You don't have to swap out games (except when you run out of space and have to delete and redownload things).
4. If you're a shareholder of the game company in question, you can give more of your money to the greedy game company instead of supporting those greedy middle-man retailers.
5. You have so much money that you can't be troubled to look for better deals and don't mind if your games become inaccessible at some point down the line. (Or, by some stroke of luck, the digital version actually is cheaper by a large enough amount to make it worth it.) 
6. There are no physical copies available and digital is the only option.

Still not sure? Here's a helpful flowchart to help you decide.

For more life lessons you can learn from gaming check out my post, aptly titled 5 Life Lessons I Learned From Gaming.

Monday, October 14, 2013

7 Bible-Based Games That Would Be Totally Righteous

Bible-based games are nothing new. Unfortunately, in spite of their truly epic source material, every Bible game that I know of has been more akin to holy crap than the divinely inspired game from God that it should be. With that in mind, I came up with some pitches for Bible-based games that I think would be totally righteous.

David: Slayer of 10s of Thousands
(By nickhuddlestonartist)
David, along with Samson, is one of the most obvious choices for a Bible-based game because it's easy to make games based on battles and violence. Everyone knows that David killed the giant Goliath with a sling and stone, but what makes his early years such a good candidate for a game is that he continued on with being a warrior in many battles to come. This might be just another generic action game with swords and whatnot, but it would be one of the first to depict battles from this time period. It's not like it'd just be mindless action either; there's still the twist that the king you're fighting under (besides God, of course) gets jealous of your huge success and starts to come after you as well. 

God Simulator 2014

(Spore creature creation from source)
The Old Testament wasn't just a bunch of fighting, it's also got Creation, and what's more beautiful than that? Once again, this idea isn't anything super groundbreaking. There have already been games like Spore and From Dust which allow you to create, destroy, and protect, but of course God Simulator 2014 would bring the genre back with a biblical perspective. It would have your usual bit of world creation and creature design, but in this case, 95% of your sentient creations will hate you 97% of the time. It'll be up to you to decide whether to wipe them out for their disobedience in some spectacular way or whether to try to work with what you've got and turn them back to the path of righteousness.

Paul's Résumé Builder

"as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger..." - (Paul) 2 Corinthians 6:4-5

It's not like Paul wants to brag, as he repeatedly reassures the Corinthian church, it's just that all the false teachers leave him no choice. Instead of the usual résumé, Paul certifies himself by showing off all the hardships he's been through while sharing the gospel - stuff that's so crazy, only God could've helped him through it. Well, for this game, you'll be playing as Paul as he makes his grand missionary tours around the Roman Empire. And you better believe that there's going to be hardships. Jews will throw you out of town and stone you, 50% of your boating excursions will end in shipwreck, you'll be arrested, and you'll thank God for every minute of it. For every disaster you avoid, you'll get an achievement that you can show off on your profile. It's kind of like a game of chicken where you have to preach as much about Jesus as you can without getting killed.

Israel RTS

(Empire Earth II via GamingBolt)
After Moses got the Egyptian Pharaoh to let his people go, they followed God's guidance through the desert and, eventually, to the land they were going to conquer and settle in. Even though they were relatively small in number compared to some of the armies they were going up against, they still managed to win because God was on their side. ...well, that is, as long as they were on God's side. Their success kinda depended on their faith, which wasn't always strong enough to last more than a few minutes. That's why in this game, you won't just be commanding your Israelite troops around like in any old RTS, you'll also have to strengthen their faith to ensure success and keep them well fed on manna and quail.

Trial by Zombies

"Moses said to Aaron, "Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!"" - Numbers 16:26

Speaking of Israel wandering around in the desert and losing faith, there was that one time when they were thinking about overthrowing their leaders, Moses and Aaron, and God got freaking pissed and was all, "I just picked those guys, now I'mma kill you." This killing was in the form of a fast-spreading plague. Now, the Bible doesn't go into detail about what kind of plague this was, but I'm just gonna have to assume it was a zombie virus. So anyway, after much pleading, Aaron and Moses get God to meet them half way with the condition that Aaron must atone for the sins of the people by running out into the crowd with a censer (that's some dangly incense thing) to stop the plague. Once again, I'm going to use some artistic license here and suggest that "atoning" looked something like "beating zombies over the head with a flail-like censer". I don't think that's too much of a stretch really, and it'd definitely be an interesting game.

Biblical Allegory RPG

Here's a game I'd really like to play. Even if you aren't a Christian, you've gotta admit that the overarching story of the Bible would make a really good fantasy RPG storyline. The way I'm thinking of this though, it wouldn't be so obvious that the game was an adaptation of the Bible until you got pretty far in. I don't exactly know how it'd all work, but I think it'd be a pretty cool twist to find out that the guy you kill was actually the allegorical equivalent of God who was trying to help you all along. Imagine the shock when you realize that this person could've avoided this death, but didn't in order to save humanity. In the end, it'd kind of be like you were the bad guy all along and didn't realize it until it was too late. Luckily, that Jesus guy you killed comes back somehow and forgives you anyway because he's the ultimate good guy.

Praise Band

(Rock Band via TheAuthorityInc)
I don't care what you say, I refuse to believe that rhythm games are dead, and I'm pretty sure Praise Band would be a hit among Christian gamers. If you still have your instrument-themed peripherals from Rock Band and Guitar Hero, you can use them for this game as well. Praise Band would essentially be the same kind of thing as Rock Band, but with praise and worship and other well-known Christian songs to play and sing along with. You could play and sing in a variety of virtual churches and other venues. Maybe there'd even be a mode that would allow the game to be used in lieu of those power point presentations with lyrics that many churches use for worshp. And of course, Praise Band would give you plenty of options, which means that if you want to repeat the chorus only 46 times instead of the usual 50, you totally can.

Did I miss anything obvious or less than obvious? Let me know in the comments! Also check out my pitches for games based on each of the characters from Firefly / Serenity!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Ico - It's like one long Zelda dungeon

Ico used to be a fairly unknown game. It was going to be a PS1 game, then ended up on PS2 (in 2001), and was remastered with HD textures for PS3 (in 2011). When it first came out, it didn't fit in with the games that were popular at the time. It was pretty mellow and not all that long. It had fighting, but it wasn't the focus. It had a story, but only a few cutscenes in the whole game. Its audio was almost exclusively ambient sounds and the quest's only location is in and around one big castle. It was kind of a middle ground between modern "art games" and traditional games.

Anyway, it was quite good and became something of a cult classic. I recently played through it for the first time, thanks to the HD version on PS3 and figured I'd write about it, just in case some of you haven't heard of this gem or have passed it up until now.
Many of Ico's vistas do a lot with a little to create some truly beautiful scenes.
Essentially what we've got here is one long Zelda dungeon which you progress through by using just a few simple gameplay mechanics. Those mechanics are: climbing and swinging on stuff, pushing stuff, guiding your companion, Yorda, around, lighting things with sticks, and cutting things with swords. None of this is terribly complicated, but it's still rewarding to progress through to the next area, if only to see what breathtaking view awaits you. This simplicity of gameplay also allows a level of immersion that is unencumbered by any semblance of HUD or text-based tutorial. The conditions for a game over are similarly simple: either you fall off a cliff or Yorda gets captured.
Yorda's in no hurry, but if you are, you can drag her around by the hand.
Preventing Yorda's capture is the other focus of the game, but that's not to say that this is like one of those escort missions that everyone hates. You'll find Yorda early on in the game and will need to lead her around the castle in order to open certain doors. You can also call to her at any time and she'll come to you if she's able. Sometimes getting yourself across an obstacle is easy enough, but the real puzzle is getting Yorda across too. Also, periodically, shadows will appear that will attempt to take her away. You can beat them back with your sword or stick or just try to run past them. The combat here is unfortunately rather simplistic and repetitive, but luckily there isn't all that much of it in the game. These shadows only appear at scripted points, so it's not like you'll be constantly needing to worry about whether your companion is being attacked (and if she is while offscreen, you'll be notified).

The game in its entirety isn't too long, and shouldn't take you more than five hours to beat on your first time through. Even though it's short, it seems to be just the right length for what it is. Although it has very few cutscenes, it manages to build to a rather exciting and emotional climax and ending. Like with the horse in Shadow of the Colossus, you're likely to develop a sense of attachment to Yorda after your few hours of escaping the castle together. Ico HD also offers an incentive to play through a second time, with a New Game + mode and trophies. In New Game +, you'll be able to see what was being said during certain cutscenes that were in a different language, have a second player control Yorda, and get a slightly different ending.

(Check out my girlfriend and I playing through the entirety of Ico in New Game+)

For a PS1 game turned PS2 game turned PS3 game, Ico stands the test of time fairly well. The updated graphics look good enough, though certainly not outstanding by any means. As far as gameplay is concerned, I thought that fighting would have been better had it contained a bit more variety of attacks and enemy AI. Also, jumping and climbing on chains was something of an all-or-nothing affair, with jumps either sending you flying or having no lateral distance at all, and movement up and down chains not stopping until long after you released the joystick. Apart from those minor gripes, I can still confidently recommend this game to anyone who has yet to play it. It may have been hard to come by for PS2, but now that there's the HD remastered version available, you have no excuse for not playing it.

(If you like mellow, offbeat games, you might also be interested in Boku no Natsuyasumi 3, a Japan-exclusive PS3 game in which you enjoy your summer vacation on your uncle's farm in rural Hokkaido.)
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