Review: Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey is a Mario game in the style of Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine, meaning that it consists of a series of relatively open worlds with a variety of goals in each. While this isn’t my favorite type of Mario game, Odyssey may be the best expression of it so far.

The key gameplay innovation over its predecessors is that Mario Odyssey gives out Power Moons (the equivalent to Stars and Shines) quite generously. Instead of each world having a few large goals, they each contain dozens of small ones. While secrets would historically grant coins or extra lives, here they will almost always reveal Power Moons. This prevents the frustration of getting stuck on a particular objective (boss battles aside), and makes the game feel generally more rewarding.

The downside to having so many Power Moons is that Odyssey can feel like a collect-a-thon. In addition to the Power Moons, there are special coins to find in each world, and Mario’s usual golden coins are used as currency and a low-penalty stand-in for extra lives. The game provides you with lists and hints to find everything, but there is a whole lot to find and I’m not sure the fun needs to be stretched out that far. Still, the game comes to a perfectly acceptable conclusion even if you ignore this aspect.

Mario Odyssey introduces a new mechanic which essentially takes the place of power-ups: Mario now has a sentient cap he can throw at objects. Throw it at an enemy, and you can possess that enemy. Many enemies have special abilities, and the game makes excellent use of these to add new puzzles and interesting situations to the gameplay. Nintendo avoids grinding a fun mechanic into the ground, so there’s a ton of variety in what you can do. It’s an innovative and fun mechanic that works very well in the open-world style of Mario game.

The bottom line is, if you liked Mario 64 (and especially if you liked Sunshine), Mario Odyssey will fill you with joy. If you prefer the stage goal structure of Mario Galaxy, you’ll probably find a lot to like here as well, but this is not that game. Odyssey doesn’t focus on tightly designed gameplay (though it features plenty of it), rather favoring experimentation and exploration. Any 3D Mario fan will get something out of it, though exactly what you want from Mario will determine how much.

Review Score: B+

Review: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

If Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its name and really is the final Smash Bros., it certainly went out with a bang. Featuring every character from every previous game and then some, this is the culmination of decades of Smashing.

I am not a super technical Smash Bros. player, so I can’t comment on the niceties of balance or changes to core mechanics. What I can say about SSBU is that it preserves the fun of previous games while adding an overwhelming amount of stuff. If anything, there are too many characters, items, stages, and so on. With 74 characters at launch, 63 of which need to be unlocked, you likely won’t even see the full breadth of the game for more than a dozen hours.

When it comes to the core Smash gameplay, I don’t have much to say beyond “it’s Smash Bros., but moreso.” I will therefore focus on Adventure Mode and the spirits that go along with it. Spirits are equippable gear-like entities that correspond to characters and items from a variety of games (even beyond those represented with playable characters). They can grant a general level of power as well as specific rule-breaking abilities. You can earn many of these in Adventure mode, but also by challenging them, summoning them by consuming other spirits, and various other methods. There are enough spirits that you can mess with them forever, if you want.

The best use of spirits, though, is in Adventure Mode. You start out with just Kirby, and have to unlock all 73 other characters one by one. (Doing so unlocks them in the main game, but not vice-versa). Due to the design of the mode, some basic characters will remain locked for a ridiculously long time, which can make this mode frustrating if you have one or two specific main characters you can’t use. However, aside from the fights to unlock characters, every fight in the game is with a spirit, and this is where the cleverness of the spirit idea shines through.

Spirit fights are against normal Smash Bros. characters, but they are modified to resemble the spirit in some way. As a basic example, when you fight Dr. Wily you’ll fight 8 metal Mega Men (Mega Mans?), representing the usual 8 bosses from Mega Man games, followed by Dr. Mario filling in for Dr. Wily. Some of these only work if you squint a bit and don’t think too hard, but many of them are quite clever and work far better than they should. SSBU’s ridiculous roster size helps immensely in this regard, as some of the stand-ins for various spirits are inspired.

The problem with Adventure Mode is that it’s insanely long, taking dozens of hours to complete. If you just want an excuse to play solo Smash for weeks, that’s great, but it’s not an efficient method to unlock content and it is in serious danger of wearing out its welcome. Then again, Adventure Mode is entirely optional. You can completely ignore it and focus on normal Smash, Classic Mode, or just good old online multiplayer.

The upside of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is that, whatever you want from Smash Bros. is probably in here. The downside is that a ton of stuff you may not care about is in here too. That’s a good problem to have, and this love letter to Smash Bros. fans is hard to complain about. If you like the series, you’ll find something to like here.

Review Score: A−

Review: Dead Cells

Dead Cells is a procedurally-generated action platformer featuring numerous roguelike elements. It splits the difference between permanent death and a Diablo-style loot fest in a smart way that keeps it interesting and enjoyable for an extended period.

While it is often referred to as a Metroidvania, I find that characterization a bit misleading. Dead Cells certainly borrows some basic Metroidvania concepts, but the gameplay is more about action and execution. Exploration is certainly not the main concept here. The gameplay loop centers around obtaining upgrades, but these are mostly in terms of weapons and other combat abilities.

Every time you die in Dead Cells (which will happen a lot), you start over from the beginning of the game. Any equipment you had is lost, but permanent ability upgrades remain. The pool of equipment you are likely to encounter is expanded in a similar way by finding and cashing in blueprints for new gear. As a result, even though permanent death is quite real, you will make long-term progress in the game. You do have to complete levels to cash in most upgrades, though, and this is not a game where constant iterating will win you the day.

Dead Cells is at its most interesting at the start, when you are seeking out a half-dozen permanent upgrades that allow you to traverse new areas. The sequence of levels always begins and ends in the same place, but as you earn these special runes, you’ll unlock a variety of different paths to explore in the middle. Getting all of the runes can take a while, and the game can start to become a bit rote after you’ve done so. At that point, your main goal is to unlock more upgrades and get good enough to complete the game at increasing difficulty levels. The moment-to-moment gameplay is incredibly fun, but it can nonetheless get a bit monotonous after a while.

You can get as much out of Dead Cells as you want, but its lack of a definitive ending leads to it being the kind of game you don’t finish so much as eventually stop playing. It’s great while it lasts, but if you’re like me and like wrapping games in a nice bow, you’ll likely end up a little bit disappointed.

Review Score: B

Review: Beat Saber

Beat Saber is a virtual-reality rhythm game where you use a pair of light sabers to hit floating boxes in time to music as they come at you. Based on that description, you probably already know how interested you are in this concept.

Rhythm games exist at various levels of abstraction, and Beat Saber’s gameplay has very little correlation to the music aside from the beat. Your twin light sabers are different colors, and you’ll have to hit blocks corresponding to each color from certain directions as indicated by arrows on their side. The game also offers a one-saber mode (unfortunately only available at the highest difficulty) as well as a mode where the block patterns are more complicated but you can hit blocks from any direction without respect to the arrows.

If nothing else, Beat Saber delivers on the promise of a VR light saber game by avoiding all of the problems involved with such a thing. There are no objects that would block your light sabers and destroy the illusion, aside from your other saber (and touching the two blades together causes your controllers to vibrate, adding to the illusion that they exist in some sense). You also don’t need to move or go anywhere. As a result, the immersion is complete. The VR world isn’t like anything in actual reality, but it makes sense and it easily understood.

The most important part of most rhythm games is the feeling it gives you, and Beat Saber feels great to play. It’s rewarding to learn various complicated patterns and start making cuts in preparation for future ones. The game’s patterns often look far more complicated than they are in practice, which helps you reach impressive-looking levels of skill in a reasonable time. Flailing your arms around madly can even burn some calories.

My only issue with Beat Saber is it’s tiny list of songs, just over a dozen as of this writing (though they have started adding some as free DLC). The PC version may be preferable to the PS4 version due to the availability of mods and user-generated content. That said, what is here is a lot of fun to play. In addition to simply playing each song at increasing difficulty and with various modifiers, there is a campaign mode that introduces those modifiers and a range of special rules that offer unique challenges.

If you like music games and have a VR setup, you’ll probably love Beat Saber. I can’t say it’s necessarily a VR system seller, but it’s a lot of fun and avoids many common VR pitfalls. Hyper-realistic VR games have a lot of hurdles to leap, but if the future of VR is in experiences like Beat Saber, I think I’ll be pretty happy.

Review Score: B+

Review: Mega Man 11

The original Mega Man series has always worked best with 8-bit graphics and a focus on core gameplay over innovative abilities. Mega Man 11 manages to break both of these trends, creating the first real departure in the series that manages to stand on its own as a good game without simply relying on a 30-year-old formula.

In terms of structure, Mega Man 11 is not trying to innovate at all. You have 8 bosses to choose from, you use each boss’s weapon to defeat another in sequence, and then you go through a few Dr. Wily stages before the game ends. Unlike the retro-style Mega Man 9 and 10, Mega Man 11 brings back the charge shot and slide, adding to them the new “gear system” to round out Mega Man’s basic abilities.

The gear system allows Mega Man to get temporary boosts of speed (slowing the game down) or firepower, and managing these boosts can get you past tough platforming puzzles or through nasty enemies. Neither is strictly necessary, but they definitely help. When low on health, you can engage both powers at once, though you’ll be offensively penalized for a short time afterwards. Enemy bosses can and will also use the double gear system, usually resulting in two distinct phases in these fights. One of the nice aspects of the double gear system is that its limited time of engagement puts less focus on waiting for a charged shot to build, allowing the basic Mega Buster to shine like it usually can’t in games where you can charge it.

The bosses here have some personality, a la Mega Man 8, but this aspect works a lot better than it did in that game. You’ll find a number of basic archetypes here, like the cold, fire, and electric bosses, but their attack patterns take advantage of both the increased graphical fidelity and the double gear system. The right weapon is usually devastating against the right boss, but several weapons have very limited usage so the battles are not always a cakewalk even when properly armed. Alternate weapons can be useful for hitting bosses more easily than the Mega Buster even when they don’t deal devastating damage, giving the game a bit more of an open feel as to boss order.

One of the highlights of Mega Man 11 is the stage design. Each stage is uniquely themed and takes full advantage of the HD graphics to present an interesting scenario. The boss weapons are not the best in the series in terms of moment-to-moment use, but the stages are designed to give them moments to shine. The ability to switch weapons with the right stick, along with having dedicated face buttons for the Rush Coil and Rush Jet, encourages experimentation and item use (not to mention speed running).

The best thing I can say about Mega Man 11 is that they finally managed to extract the fun of Mega Man out of its original 8-bit context. Sure, plenty of its spin-off series have been great outside the NES, but original Mega Man has long lacked something in its later sequels. This game feels like old Mega Man but in beautiful HD, and for the first time there’s a clear vision for how to create new Mega Man games on modern systems going forward.

Review Score: B+

Review: Mario Tennis Aces

Mario Tennis Aces represents a bit of a return to the basics for the Mario Tennis series. Eschewing both the ridiculous roster size of some of the earlier games and the more ridiculous options of the newer ones, it’s a pretty pure Mario Tennis experience that should please newcomers and series veterans.

With no current major tennis series in regular production, Mario Tennis Aces serves as the de facto multiplayer tennis game of this generation, and fortunately it (mostly) lives up to the expectations that carries. While the game is normally played with a variety of super powers and special shots, you can turn those off for a bit of simple but deep tennis action with your friends. You inexplicably can’t play a full-length tennis match (multiple sets of six games each), but aside from that Aces gets the basics down.

As usual, the characters are divided into various archetypes with their own strengths and weaknesses. The game uses all four face buttons for shots, allowing more powerful versions of three of them by double-tapping. This isn’t possible with lobs or drop shots, which share the X button (and can also be performed via combinations a la the older Mario Tennis games). Your extended set of special abilities uses the triggers and right stick as well, keeping the core controls intact for all modes. The main strategy in Mario Tennis Aces is to get into position for your shot early, to give you the most power and control. Characters are very good at keeping shots within the lines, so the main focus is on outsmarting or outworking your opponent.

While multiplayer is certainly the main draw of Mario Tennis Aces, the game does come with a few single-player modes as well. There are three surprisingly easy tournaments to complete, but the primary mode you’ll play solo is Adventure Mode. You can unlock new courts with optional hazards for use in free play mode, but other than that Adventure Mode is purely optional. New characters are unlocked via participation in online tournaments, though you automatically get the characters that were featured in previous months. Before too long, every character will be unlocked for everyone as soon as they load up the game.

Mario Tennis Aces gets the job done, with that job being serving up some good Mario Tennis fun in HD. Tennis has always translated very well to video game format, and doubles Mario Tennis is hard to beat as a four-player diversion. Aces does lack a bit in the extracurricular activities, which may be a bonus if you’re just here for the multiplayer. The core gameplay that makes Mario Tennis so good is intact, though, and that’s what really matters.

Review Score: B

Review: The Messenger

The Messenger is a retro-style platformer that looks and feels a lot like Ninja Gaiden, but has a whole lot more going on than a basic stage-by-stage action game. It is a wonderful synthesis of tried-and-true techniques and some cool new platforming ideas.

Like so many modern retro-style games, The Messenger can be described largely as an amalgamation of various NES games. However, a few things set it apart. First and foremost, while most such games blend their influences, The Messenger is very nearly split into two entire games. The first is an action platformer in the style of Ninja Gaiden, while the second is an open-world adventure more in the style of Symphony of the Night-style Castlevania games.

As with many good platformers, you gain various new movement and attack abilities during the game. The first ability you get is the most original, and serves as the core piece of gameplay that sets The Messenger apart right away: you can air jump every time you attack anything in mid-air. This applies not only to enemies and projectiles, but also objects, many of which are placed for this specific purpose. You will face many rooms where the challenge is to navigate a room without hitting the floor, or perhaps without having a floor at all.

The Messenger is a tightly-made experience that doesn’t get bogged down in dozens of upgrades and abilities. Your action set is fairly limited, and aside from upgrades purchasable with the plentiful in-game currency, you’ll earn all your major abilities during a normal playthrough. There are 45 “Power Seals” to find that will unlock an extra ability, but this isn’t a typical Metroidvania in the sense of having an ever-expanding arsenal. Instead, the game itself expands, opening up levels you played through previously with new passages and mechanics.

The world map is not a sprawling maze, but rather a series of interconnected caverns. Navigation is somewhat reminiscent of Castlevania II in that way, but various shortcuts are introduced later on to make it easy to get around. The exploration part of the game is less about traversing entirely new ground than it is about finding nooks and crannies that were previously hidden or inaccessible.

I don’t want to spoil any major plot points, so suffice it to say that the game introduces a lot of fun mechanics that keep the gameplay fresh despite technically retreading a lot of old ground. The writing is fun and very self-aware, though if you’re not into that kind of humor it could be a little grating. The graphic style is attractive and smooth, and the fact that you play as a ninja basically guarantees the game plays stylishly.

If you like retro-style platformers and are not looking for a game that will take up weeks of your time, give The Messenger a shot. There’s a lot of great platforming and some very cool ideas on display here, and the game is consistently fun to play. It’s a satisfying experience, and one that will keep you guessing as well.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Mario’s Picross

Mario’s Picross is the sometimes-forgotten introduction to Nintendo’s Picross series, a puzzle game consisting of grid-based puzzles called nonograms. It wouldn’t get a sequel in the US until Picross DS, twelve years later.

The idea of Picross is to fill in pixels in a grid, which in Mario’s Picross ranges in size from 5×5 to 15×15 pixels in size. Each row and column has a series of numbers which indicate the size and number of separate consecutive sequences of filled-in pixels in that row or column. Using these hints as well as filling in boxes either as definitely filled or definitely empty, the user works through the puzzle until it is solved.

Mario’s Picross offers three sets of 64 puzzles, ordered by generally increasing difficulty. You have 30 minutes to complete each puzzle, though a cumulative two minute penalty (2 minutes for the first, then 4, then 6, etc.) is applied to the timer each time you incorrectly fill in a pixel. This can actually be useful, giving you definite confirmation of whether a guess is correct. There is no such penalty or warning for incorrectly non-filled pixels, though. You must fill in the puzzle completely before the timer runs out to mark each puzzle complete.

In addition to the general nonogram hints, Mario’s Picross also offers special hints for each stage, which fill in a random row or column completely. Every puzzle can be completed without these hints, though they can be quite helpful. Even if you fail a puzzle, you can start it over with a new timer and use the knowledge gained during the first playthrough to finish it more quickly. With all of these systems combined, anyone can finish the puzzle list regardless of skill. Not that you’d probably want to if nonograms aren’t your thing.

Completing every puzzle earns you access to Time Trial mode, a series of randomly chosen puzzles with no hints, no penalties or warnings, and no time limit. This is the ultimate challenge of the game, though if you play without hints it won’t be a significant departure from previous puzzles.

Whether you want to play Mario’s Picross comes down entirely to whether you enjoy Picross puzzles. If they are your thing, this game offers over a hundred puzzles to go through. It’s available on the 3DS Virtual Console and is worth a look if you’ve played the DS and later Picross games and just want some more Picross action.

Review Score: B

Retro Review: Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter

The expansion to Icewind Dale adds a new, separate area of the game, as well as a number of much-needed convenience features. It is a bit on the short side, but the developers made up for that by releasing free extra content called Trials of the Luremaster to beef up the running time.

Perhaps Heart of Winter’s greatest contribution to Icewind Dale is adding a number of interface features that originated in Baldur’s Gate II, particularly the hotkey to highlight items, doors, and chests on the screen. It also added various containers, up to and including bags of holding in the Trials of the Luremaster. These new features apply to the original game, as does the increased experience cap and a number of new spells and even new abilities.

While Heart of Winter improves Icewind Dale’s gameplay in many ways, the structure of its actual content is a bit odd. You can teleport off to the new areas any time after reaching level 9, though the battles are balanced more for an endgame party from the original game. You can export characters who’ve finished Icewind Dale into Heart of Winter, which even adds a few potential bits of dialogue, but doing so will cost you your money and containers. Finishing both plotlines together in one playthrough makes the most sense gameplay wise, but doing them separately makes more sense plotwise.

The Trials of the Luremaster suffer from a similar conundrum, as it is challenging content contained within Heart of Winter that is nonetheless entirely separate. You could re-export characters a second time to complete it, but that seems pretty extreme. Fortunately the content is difficult but not impossible to complete during the course of Heart of Winter. As a downloadable mini expansion, Trials of the Luremaster is somewhat light on plot but features a sprawling dungeon with plenty of puzzles and enemies to fight.

The only real flaw in Heart of Winter is that it’s short, and its three dungeon areas can each get repetitive. The first of these is a particular issue, as it contains three types of undead that are all quite annoying to fight in combination. But the plot is pretty good, the loot is great, and it contains a few brief but intriguing sidequests in the hub town.

Overall, Heart of Winter is a must-have if you’re playing Icewind Dale, unless you are extremely hardcore and scoff in the face of convenience features. It makes an already good game better, and allows you to get into the higher levels where AD&D starts to get a bit crazy (but in a fun way). It’s not perfect, but it’s worth your attention.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Icewind Dale

Following on the heels of the original Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale uses the same Infinity Engine as that game but changes up the style to a more traditional D&D dungeon crawl.

It is difficult to define Icewind Dale except in terms of how it differs from Baldur’s Gate. Both use most of the same AD&D rules, but here the focus is on combat and delving labyrinthine dungeons rather than exploring an area of the world. The plot is interesting but not intricate, and the game follows a linear path that opens up each new area in turn.

One of the biggest differences in Icewind Dale is that you create your entire party of up to six members at the start, rather than creating a single character and recruiting NPCs. This gives you the ability to finely craft a team, and you will need to do so in order to survive the challenges the game presents. No class is truly required, but it is well worth crafting a well-balanced party.

The nature of combat here tends to include large groups of creatures, with less of a focus on single bosses or mages with a variety of protections. Those do exist, but Icewind Dale’s dungeons are more a test of endurance than a test of how well you can exploit the system. The game avoids some of the pitfalls of low-level AD&D by giving you quest experience early and often. Levels are gained at a fairly rapid, satisfying pace, and the game satisfies the desire to gain in power. By the end, your party becomes quite formidable.

There is no one aspect of Icewind Dale that sets it apart, but the game is enjoyable throughout. It avoids any major lulls by keeping the plot moving forward, and the difficulty curve is well-constructed. If a fight is particularly difficult for your party, a change in tactics or the use of consumable items will often make a large difference.

In the end, Icewind Dale succeeds because it never tries to be more than it can be. They took a good AD&D engine and made a good AD&D dungeon crawl with it. If you like the Infinity Engine, you’ll have a good time with Icewind Dale.

Review Score: A−