First Impressions: Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (Vita)

Ys VIII, which released in 2017, is the latest game in the very long-running Ys series from Falcom. Dating back to the mid ’80s, the Ys series of simple but fun action-RPGs. While the Ys series has never been as popular as the top series in this genre, particularly in the West, many of the Ys games are great and deserve attention, often more than they have gotten.

This game is no exception, as it is really good and addictive! Ys VIII is a great action-rpg, with a well-thought-through mixture of elements from both the classic Ys games and modern titles. I’ve been playing a lot of this game over the past few weeks, and quite enjoy it. As always in the series, Ys VIII is a very combat-heavy action-RPG. The way they keep the combat system simple, but add depth as expected from a modern game, is great. You’ll spend a lot of time in combat here and it stays fun.

Historically, you play as one character in Ys games, the red-haired hero Adol. However, in Ys VII that changed as the series moved to having three party members you could switch between. This game works like that again, as the game has three characters active at a time, and you control one while the AI control the other two. You can switch between the three active party members with the press of a button, and once you get more than three characters you can swap out the others on the pause menu anytime. It seems that only the three active ones get experience points though, unfortunately, so you will need to switch characters out to keep them levelled. There are three main types of characters, with a rock-paper-scissors-styled system determining what type of enemies each one is good at fighting, either regular enemies, flying enemies, or highly armored foes. This encourages you to switch characters while playing based on which enemy type you are fighting, which adds to the game.

Beyond that, combat is mostly centered around pressing a single attack button, but there is also a vitally important roll button used to dodge incoming attacks, and you can equip four special attacks per character as well that you access with button combinations. A meter on screen, shown as a ring around the special-attack icons, controls how much you can use your specials. Additionally, as you defeat enemies with specials you fill in the background of the specials icons with yellow. Once this is full, you can use a super special move with another button combination, which differs for each character. Again you’re fighting a lot in this game, as expected from the always-grindey Ys series, but combat is fun so it’s not too bad. The game does seem a bit easy on Normal difficulty though, so I’ve mostly been playing on Hard. Maybe it gets harder later on, I am still not too far into this fairly long game. On Hard the game is plenty challenging from the beginning, though. Dodging is critical to survival, and selecting the right character and using your skills well is important. It’s rewarding when you get past a tough boss fight in good shape. Fortunately, as always in Ys games you can save anytime. I know I said it already, but I have also been playing some Ys I for the Sega Master System recently, and this game feels like half classic Ys, and half modern action game. It’s great stuff.

Ys games have always had a plot, but Falcom mixed things up this time with an original concept for this fantasy adventure series: you are stranded on a deserted island. Ys has always been a gameplay-first, story-second series, but there are always characters to care about. This game goes farther along on that route than before. The game begins on a large oceangoing ship. Adol and his friend Dogi are working on this ship as crew members, wandering the world as he usually does. However, after not long the ship wrecks, and you wash up on a forbidding deserted island. Starting out with only Adol, you quickly add a second party member, then set up a base camp. The whole game is set on the island, and you explore it, find new survivors to add to your party or who will stay at the base camp and do something there, and collect stuff. Every so often, Adol sees dreams of a woman called Dana who lived in some long-ago civilization perhaps on the island. She becomes important much later in the game, but I haven’t gotten there yet. Along the way, there are many fully voiced cutscenes which give the characters personality in a way I don’t remember seeing in this series before. Ys VII also had a party, but this one makes you care about your party members a lot more than that game did and the party members interact much more. The deserted-island setting is also reasonably interesting, if inordinately dangerous in that way only a videogame could be. The game is definitely anime though, with anime-style character designs and constant anime-style humor and design elements. I have long found it weird to see how there is almost nothing actually European-medieval anything Japanese “medieval fantasy” games have in them… it’s kind of comical, how impossible this ship’s contents are for this ostensible world setting! Apparently this world has advanced far enough to make some guns, so there is that, but still. That ship in the beginning or most any characters’ clothing doesn’t fit the ostensible setting at all, as usual for fantasy anime. Oh well.

Returning to the gameplay though, since you are stuck on a deserted island a money system wouldn’t make sense, so there isn’t one. Instead, it’s all about collecitble monster parts, plants, and such. All purchases in the camp are done through barter with the stuff you collect, so the monster-parts-collection element of this game fits the setting well. Yes, as with many modern games this game has a crafting system, but they did a good job making it simple enough that I don’t mind it. There isn’t any complex crafting system here, you see; you just get stuff that people say they want and bring it to them, either for side quests or for getting new items in the shop and such, and then they will give you the reward. That seems simple enough, if you know where to find the things they need, but that latter part can be a challenge sometimes. Yes, finding the right items can be tricky.

Story quests, on the other hand, usually have you going to a specific point in the map, either to search for a survivor, kill monsters there, or just to explore to that point. These points are marked on your map, whether or not you have reached that place yet, which is very helpful; when you have a story quest you always know the direction you should be heading in, you just need to figure out how to get there. This can be trickier as it sounds, as areas can have multiple paths and are often gated either with obstacles you need a specific item to get past that you may not have yet, or obstacles that you can only get past with the help of a specific number of survivors. So yes, rescuing people doesn’t only add to your little town, it also allows you to unlock new areas on the map. It’s a good system.

I like exploring the world a lot. Vs VIII has a fairly large world made up of interlocking areas. The area sizes are designed for the limitations of the Vita, but each one is plenty large, allowing for a good amount of space to explore and fight in. They can have multiple floors, and in addition to a wide variety of monsters are also full of treasure chests, collection points where you get plants or minerals or such from, scenic vistas, and more, all marked on the map. On that note, graphically the game looks great for the Vita, and is probably one of the best-looking games I’ve played for the system. I’m sure it looks even better on PC and PS4, and probably the Switch too, in framerate particularly as the Vita version is 30fps and the others try for 60, but I am quite fine with 30fps and I think this game looks very nice. Some Vita games look dated compared to major-console titles, but with its great graphics and art design this game impresses. The soundtrack is fantastic too, it’s great stuff. Ys games have often had memorable soundtracks and this one is no exception. The good grpahics and music help make this already-great game even better.

So I mostly quite like this game, but though I am ‘only’ a bit over 10 hours into the game so far, there are a few issues to mention. First, this is a long game, as much as 70 hours to finish, and a lot of that time will be spent levelling or killing monsters for parts. I’m sure the grind gets old after a while, and not everybody has time to finish a game as long as this. You surely can finish it faster than that if you ignore all side content, but it is not a short game. And second, the Vita version of this game here is the original version of the game, and does not have a whole list of features that were added to all of the later ports, including the PS4, PC, and Switch releases. The additional content of the other versions includes a bonus dungeon at the end of the game for Dana to play through, more combat modes for Dana to switch to when you play as her near the end of the game, a bunch of interface and map improvements and such, and more. On the other hand, the improved versions also cost a lot more than the Vita one does — this version is easy to find for under $40, while the other three are still a full $60. So despite the cuts I got this version, and don’t regret it. I probably will also get the PC version someday as well, but Ys VIII is a great game and a nice showcase for what the Vita can do. It looks great on the OLED screen. It would make more sense to just get one of the ports and stick to that, but there is more than enough here in this version to keep gamers occupied for a long time, and so far I am quite liking what I have seen. I recommend playing Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, it is a good game worthy of attention.

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PC Platformers Game Opinion Summaries, Part 16: Digital-Download 2d games (Part 13)

Yes, I’m finally going to start this series up again.  It’s been way too long!  I probably should have a full update ready, but I don’t, so this will have to do.  For this small update, first I’ll post the new list of 2d platformers I will be covering here.  I’ve bought a bunch of them since I last posted a new article in this series back in April 2017, so before moving on to 2.5d games I need to cover these games first.

New 2d platformers I will be covering
—-
8-bit Bayonetta
Airscape – The Fall of Gravity
Alwa’s Awakening
Archibald’s Adventures
Castle in the Darkness
Cuphead
Jazz Jackrabbit 1 Collection
Kero Blaster
GunGirl 2
Miracle Fly
Mighty Switch Force! Academy!
Mighty Switch Force! Hose it Down!
Mushroom 11
Odallus The Dark Call
Pharaoh Rebirth+
Reverse x Reverse
Rosenkreuzstillette
Rosenkreuzstilette Freudenstachel
Secrets of Raetikon
Slain: Back from Hell
Sonic Mania
Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe
Tetrobot & Co.
The End is Nigh
Unmechanical

I think that’s all of them for now.  If anything is missing from this list, I will add it and note the change.

I should start from the top, but those summaries aren’t ready yet so I’m just going to post the two that are.  Yes, it’s only two games, but both are long summaries with good detail about the games.

Summaries in this update

Miracle Fly
Rosenkreuzstillette

Miracle Fly (2015, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supposedly supported (xinput only). Miracle Fly is a clever Japanese indie release with a unique idea that it executes on fairly well. This entirely mouse-controlled game is a mobile port and it shows, but unlike most such games I have covered in this list, this one is actually kind of good. This side-scrolling game with simple 2d grpahics is a flight-based puzzle/action/platformer, and as the name suggests, you can fly, though your flight is limited. There are three playable characters, all witch girls, and you can choose a character before each stage. The three are a faster red one with a spread shot, slower purple one with a laser, and middle blue one with a gun-like shot. The differences between them do matter. How movement works in this game is that your character will move towards your mouse cursor’s location if you hold the right mouse button. You move by shooting backwards from the back of your witch’s broom, which happens automatically while you hold the right button. If you press the left button, however, you will fire forwards. This is your main attack, but you do need to watch it because the recoil of each shot pushes you backwards slightly. You can also play with a gamepad, but the mouse is recommended because it is much more accurate.

Being able to move towards the point you click on sounds easy, but this is actually a pretty tough game. First, flight is limited by a meter. You have health and magic meters, and when your magic meter runs out you will drop straight down. Once on the ground it will automatically refill. Additionally Miracle Fly has a momentum system, so you need to carefully manage your movement clicks to get where you want with just the right amount of speed, so that, say, you will be able to stop just in time to make it into a narrow opening at the bottom of a vertical shaft before you fall through the one-way door at the bottom due to your momentum, while also not running out of magic; and that’s one of the easier stages, it gets much harder once walls covered with spikes everywhere get involved! Again, this game may start out easy, but it gets hard as you progress, particularly if you want to get everything in each stage. Fitting its mobile roots, within each of the games’ many levels there are three red gems to find. These allow you to unlock more levels once found, and levels are gated, requiring certain numbers of gems to unlock. There are also coins to collect, stars that give you chances to continue within a level, and single-use powerups that refill your magic or health.

Levels in Miracle Fly are small to medium in size, but are fairly well designed. The sprites are small, but characters and enemies have detail. The walls and such are pretty plain looking, though, and this game has a simple, platformer-creation-tool-like look. It works fine for the game, but the visuals are average. This is a tile-based game. You have your basic walls, spikes, several kinds of enemies which are usually easy to deal with (until they aren’t), one-way walls, and, crucially, several different kinds of switches and the things that they affect. One type of switch then allows you to move around certain types of blocks while you are standing on it. This lets you solve puzzles by dragging blocks around until you get them in the right place. Others are simple switches, which open one of several different types of colored walls once stepped on. You will often need to hit these in the correct order to get all of the gems, as you may be blocked from going back after accidentally hitting the wrong one. Because of this getting all three gems in levels often requires replay, but thankfully you won’t need to get everything in one go; instead, gems you’ve gotten count as gotten, and when you replay the stage you will only need to get the ones you previously missed. That’s nice.

Now, for the most part there are no checkpoints within the levels. This works at first, but once you reach the longer, more difficult levels having to restart every time you die gets frustrating. Fortunately, there is a continue system that uses those stars you will get along the way. If you want to continue where you died you can use two stars. After that, each subsequent continue in the level doubles the number of stars required. If you give up and quit out of the stage, though, you do not lose those stars. It’s a good system that allows you to have a chance at the harder levels while also keeping things challenging. The game autosaves after each stage you complete. Overall, Miracle Fly is a good game. Getting used to the physics can be tricky and sometimes the game is frustrating, but with responsive controls, some unique design elements, lots of levels, and plenty of challenge this game is worth a look. Also available digitally on Mac. The mobile version of the game is available on iOS, Android, and Ouya, though this PC/Mac version released a year after the mobile versions and is improved over them.

Rosenkreuzstillette (2007 (original Japanese doujin release), Win2000+. The English-language Steam release is from 2017.) – 1 player, saves (settings and replays to system, progress to passwords only), gamepad supported (directinput strongly recommended). Rosenkreuzstillette is a pretty good Japanese indie Mega Man clone with an all-female anime-style cast. The game has a Gothic-anime-fantasy story and visual theme which fit well together. You are Tia, one of the few mages in a troubled Gothic-style city which persecutes magic users. While out of the city, the other mages all revolt against the city, and you decide to stop them, as they go too far. The game mixes some comedy elements into the conversations though, so it’s not all darkness. The setting is original, but the core story is very much Mega Man, or Mega Man X rather. The plot is clearly inspired by the standard Mega Man X series plot, where X is the one loyal robot fighting against robot uprisings that partially are the result of bad treatment of robots. It’s fine Mega Man-inspired plot, in a different kind of world setting. I like that the protagonist is female, too. If Capcom or Inafune aren’t going to make Mega Man-like games starring female characters, then it’s great that someone else has.

As far the modes and options go, you can play the main game from the beginning, play Arcade mode which is a more linear affair, enter a password to continue a game in the main game — and yes, you can only load via passwords, so write them down after beating a boss! — and change the options. The game will save your options-menu selections, so I wish that they had put in save files for progress as well but it’s not there in the name of being a bit too much like console Mega Man games. It’s a minor issue though, and some classic PC games did use passwords too. You can also save replays of your gameplay, which is nice.

The story may be Mega Man X-inspired, but the gameplay here is classic NES-style Mega Man all the way. Like Mega Mans 4-6, Tia can shoot, charge up for a more powerful shot, jump, and slide. Your shot, jump, and such all are just like Mega Man’s, of course, just with different visuals. The controls may not quite match Mega Man’s precision but it is very close, and they are responsive and feel great, just about like how a NES Mega Man game would. You can configure the buttons, but on an xinput controller you can only move with the analog stick, so a directinput pad that either only has a d-pad or allows you to select whether the pad or analog stick is the main X-Y axis is recommended since this game is a lot better with a d-pad than an analog stick or the keyboard. I’m using my classic USB Microsoft Sidewinder Gamepad, which is still great!

The game structure is again Mega Man-like, and there are the expected eight bosses to fight before you move on to the final set of levels. The game has one Mega Man X touch at the start, though, an intro stage before you reach the main level-select screen. The levels in this game have pretty good designs that vary between copying design ideas straight out of various Mega Man games some of the time, to coming up with new ideas other times. It’s a good mix, and all eight main levels are well-designed and fun to play… well, maybe apart from the requisite stage with the Flash Man-like instant-death laser beams, those are tricky. The difficulty here is balanced much like the NES Mega Man games, so it is a challenging game, but quite doable and not THAT hard once you learn the correct order to play the levels in. There are some excessively difficult Mega Man games, perhaps most notably Mega Man X6, Mega Man & Bass, and Mega Man Zero, but the six original NES games are not on that level and this game isn’t either; this game is probably not as hard as Mega Man 9, it’s closer to the originals in challenge. That’s great, as the NES Mega Man games have incredibly well-balanced difficulty levels that are tough while almost always staying fun and engaging. I prefer that to the crushing difficulty of the hardest games in the franchise, myself. These levels are pretty good and hold up well compared to Capcom.

The enemies in those stages are almost all analogs of Mega Man enemies. So, you have enemies just like Met Hats, Sniper Joes, those guys who blow air at you, the birds which drop eggs that split into several projectiles, and more. Some enemies appear in all of the levels while others are exclusive to only one, as appropriate for their design. Some levels have Mega Man 4-like minibosses as well, while others don’t; it’s a mixture, as appropriate for a game emulating a whole series and not a single game. Perhaps some more originality in the enemy selection might have been nice, but I love Mega Man and miss the series, so this homage is pretty good despite that.

Visually, Rosenkreuzstillette is a tile-based platformer with a somewhat simple look to it. This is an indie game from Japan and it shows, though all the art here looks original and is well drawn. Now, the backstory may be a bit dark, but this is not a full-on tragedy; the plot and visual design here are a mixture of comedy and drama. Mega Man is a cartoony series, and most enemies have a cartoony look to them a bit like that from the Mega Man games. Some enemies are grimmer, particularly in the Castlevania-inspired level, but most have a lighter tone. Environments, however, are mostly ornate Gothic structures, in different palettes and looks such for each of the eight levels of course. I do think that the mixture works in this case. and while obviously a limited-budget homebrew release, the game has solid visuals.

Overall, Rosenkreuzstillette is a very good, but just as unoriginal, game. The game looks nice, plays great, and will take at least a few hours to finish, though it is not an overly long game. The game is balanced well and is one of the best Mega Man-style games I have played that is not actually part of the series. If you love or even like Mega Man like I do, you almost certainly will like this game, so get it! The game also has a sequel, which released in Japan a few years after the original. The same developer who localized this one is also working on that, and hopefully it will also see a Steam release soon, I’d really like to play it.

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My Thoughts on E3 2018 – It Was Kind of Average

First, I just noticed that none of my four yearly E3 report articles are in the Table of Contents page!  Sorry about that, this oversight has finally been corrected.  Anyway, on to the article.

The last few years, I’ve written up long summaries of my thoughts on each years’ E3 show, focusing on the press conferences and Nintendo’s show, along with some other topics.  There was a lot to say!  For this post on the 2018 E3 show held earlier this month, however, I haven’t written as much, though I do have some things to say as usual.  This E3 wasn’t as interesting as the last few, unfortunately, but some things worth mentioning did happen and I did watch quite a few hours of E3 coverage despite the overall mediocrity of the event.  So, here’s something anyway. It’s just a lot less of something than I had to say last year.

All in all, E3 2018 was a good show for seeing more gameplay details of games releasing in the next nine months or so.  From many conferences and booths on the show floor, publishers showed off lots of games releasing in the near term and those of us at home watching got a lot of information and hours of footage out of it.  That is an important thing, and E3 served its purpose in this respect.  Apparently the addition of paying non-industry visitors was significant on the show floor, but watching at home that alone didn’t seem to change much.  E3 was still E3, and it was fun to watch.

However, E3 2018 was not a good show at all for what is usually the most fun thing about E3, new game announcements of titles you had never heard of.  Indeed, this was the worst year in recent memory for this!  As a Nintendo fan, that their big surprise announcement was a Mario Party game was not thrilling; sure, it’s something, but I’ve never been much of a Mario Party fan so it does not get me excited for the second half’s Switch lineup.  But more on that later.  I will start with the beginning

Day One, Saturday: Electronic Arts

 Day one was earlier than ever, as EA had their conference midday Saturday, pushing forward from last years’ Sunday start to the show.  EA’s show this year was an okay but unexciting presentation with no major new announcements, unless you think things like a Command & Conquer mobile game and that Madden will be on PC again significant. I don’t, at all.  They spent way more time showing the mobile game than they should have; it does not look great, and surely will be ruined by microtransactions and pay-to-win anyway even if it is any good for a cellphone game.  I’m no cellphone fan to say the least though, so I won’t be playing either way.  As for EA Sports, the sports segment of this show was as short as it’s ever been, which was nice.  Yearly sports sequels don’t change too much, usually, so they probably don’t need lots of time in an E3 presentation, though they should be mentioned.

More interestingly, Unravel Two was announced, which is kind of surprising given the mediocre response the first one got, but it must have sold alright. That’s nice, I hope that the game is good.  It was released at the show and seems to be fun going by what I’ve heard, though it has some of the same drawbacks as the original.   The other EA Originals title after that, a lonely post-apocalyptic adventure game starring a semi-human female character, might be interesting, but I’m not sure.  I will definitely want to see more on that one.  The main focus of this show, however, was on Bioware’s Anthem, a big third-person sci-fi shooter multiplayer action/adventure game.  It looks like it could be pretty good and definitely has great graphics, but we’ll really need to see more of the actual game to know; it was not shown off well at all in the conference, as they started with a far too long interview segment before showing not much gameplay, but apparently people who did play it at the show say that it it does actually play well. The game is definitely going for gameplay with a Destiny or The Division style, but with jetpacks and some classic Bioware elements, and I hope it works out. Still, overall EA’s conference was not great. I usually find EA’s the least interesting conferences, though, so that’s no surprise really.

Day Two: Microsoft and Bethesda

On the second day, Sunday, there were two conferences, Microsoft and Bethesda. Microsoft had a good show, and showed a lot of games.  There are two problems with that, though.  First, none of the games showed are are exclusive to the Xbox One, though I am fine with that, as I really like their enhanced PC support.  Worse, though, excepting the handful of first-party titles, almost everything else shown is also going to be released on the PlayStation 4.  This was a good conference, but how many of the MS-exclusive titles are actually really interesting?  Microsoft also showed a LOT of games with 2019 release dates.  Seriously,  most of the MS show felt like it ended with a message saying “coming 2019 or later”, which is not great when their game lineup for the rest of this year seems to be very thin.  Nintendo may have only a few games due in the second half of this year, but Microsoft has even less.

And for one more criticism, the exclusives MS does have are mostly long-running franchise titles, including new Halo, Gears, and Forza games, and another trailer for the upcoming Crackdown title as well. They had a few second-tier new projects, but from an IP standpoint this was a pretty safe lineup. From Halo, Halo Infinite was announced but with no gameplay details.  Despite the title it’s apparently a sequel to Halo 5, though I’ve never found the series very interesting so I’m not too excited.  Gears 5 was also announced, and looks similar to the past games but with a female protagonist this time.  I doubt that that will be enough to get me to care about the ur-cover-based-shooter, another series I have never cared for.  They also announced a Gears strategy game for PC and a Gears Pop mobile game as well.  Yes, it’s a Gears x Funco Pop crossover… just what everybody wanted?  I don’t get the Funco Pop appeal really myself, but I’m sure some will find it amusing, if it isn’t horribly exploitative that is.  The PC strategy game could be good though, we’ll see.  Forza this year is Forza Horizon 4, which looks similar to the past games except it is set in the UK this time.  The Horizon series is fun, but too simmish for my tastes; I like the themes and idea of the series quite a bit, but wish the driving was less frustrating and more fun.  Ah well.  As for Crackdown 2, you seem to be playing as a character voiced by the celebrity Terry Crews, who I’ve never seen in anything other than some ads but sure, that’s amusing.  The game was delayed again, into next year, but hopefully when it finally releases it’ll be worth the wait and not the troubled and not hyped game it has been for a long time now.   Oh, and last but not least, Microsoft announced that they have a team working on a new Battletoads game.  They only showed a logo and no gameplay, and I’m expecting a smaller downloadable title and not a big-budget thing, but still that’s really cool and I definitely want to play the game.  Battletoads is a great NES game and it’d be kind of awesome to finally ee them return.

Microsoft also announced that they bought four new studios and started up one new one on top of that. They bought Ninja Theory (Hellblade, etc.) and Playground Games (Forza), along with two others, and are starting a new team in Santa Monica, California. MS needs more game studios, given how many they’ve shut down over the last few years such as Lionhead and Ensemble to name a few, but any new and exclusive game projects from these teams will surely be quite a ways off so this isn’t helpful for MS’s seriously thin exclusive game library anytime soon. They’d better hope that Sea of Thieves holds player attention long term I guess, because again Crackdown is a 2019 game now, along with most of the rest of the games Microsoft showed.

Microsoft also showed a whole lot of third-party games, but I won’t try to list all of them here.  Trailers for a lot of the major third-party titles from the next few years ran, as MS promised to show 50 games on screen in their presentation and delivered on that.  They had a nice indie reel, which is always great to see in the major conferences.  Sony used to care about indies but doesn’t anymore, so it’s important that somebody does.  Overall MS had a solid but predictable conference.  I do want to play a bunch of the games shown, but it’s not an amazingly inspiring lineup for me.  It was a good confernece though, sure.

As for Bethesda, I’m often a critic of theirs but despite my dislike for their business practices and many of their games, they have done some solid press conferences. Bethesda’s conference was a little different from the other 2018 briefings, however.  This year Bethesda spent some time on games that are going to release this year, most notably Fallout 76, which now has a 2018 release date, but unlike most of the other conferences, put a lot of focus on games which are still well away from release.  They showed what seems like everything they have!

My favorite part of the Bethesda game library are the games and IPs of id’s, and id’s shooter ip catalog made a strong showing at this E3.  They showed something from all four once-id shooter franchises!  New Doom (a sequel to Doom 2016 was just announced here), Wolfenstein (Young Blood, a game where you play as BJ Blazkowitz’s twin daughters in a Nazi-run 1980s Paris, apparently), Quake (Champions, an online arena shooter that has been shown previously but isn’t formally released yet), and Rage (2, a very cool looking open-world shooter with driving) all showed up in the conference. I’m not a fan of the rest of Bethesda’s lineup, but they showed a lot of games.  The Elder Scrolls had several projects announced, including more about TES Online (the Argonian swamps will be the next expansion), the announcement of a new TES mobile game, and a far-off announcement of TES VI; Fallout (76, an online-focused Fallout game releasing this year); Prey (DLC for the last one); and an announcement of the rumored, but still far-off, space-based Bethesda game Starbound all also made appearances.  They had a segment on some upcoming VR games as well.  It was a good conference but it kind of felt like Bethesda decided to toss almost all of their major IPs into this conference, regardless of how far along the projects actually are. It made for a packed show, but I wonder how many of these games we’ll see at the next E3 or two.  Also, to return to the subject from the top of this paragraph, do all four of id’s shooter franchises need projects in development at the same time? I know each is different — modern Wolf is much more story-focused; Rage is open-world and has driving; Doom presumably will be single player smaller-level focused; and Quake is a multiplayer arena shooter — but still… huh.  Showing all four of those at once kind of felt like overload.  If they release over a period of years it could be fine, though.  Overall the Bethesda conference was solid, and was one of the better ones this year.

Day Three: Sony, Ubisoft, and Square-Enix

Sony decided to try something different this year, but their weird conference style did not work out well for watchers, and it sounds like it was even worse for people in the audience.  For anyone who hasn’t watched it, Sony started start out with a segment focusing on The Last of Us 2, and held this part of the conference in a room that looks like a church from the game that appears in the gameplay clip shown at the event. Then after showing that game — it looks quite brutal and unpleasant, like the first game — they … spent 20 minutes moving the whole audience from that room into a normal theater for the rest of the presentation. During this time you had to watch a panel of talking heads talk, like a post-show show that I don’t want to watch, but have to because it’s in the middle of the show.  This is really annoying stuff and totally ruined the flow of the event and any excitement for the rest of the show, unfortunately.  Sony did show a few short trailers during this in-between segment, but for the most part this split-conference idea was really annoying to watch.

Oh, and Sony had several far-too-long musical numbers during their conference, too. And even including the twenty minute break, it was only an hour and ten minutes long. So yeah, Sony didn’t have much to show. They said going in that they were going to focus on four games, and that’s what they did: they focused on four games, all third-person action-adventure games that are probably single-player focused. Specifically, the four games are the aforementioned The Last of Us 2, Spiderman, Death Stranding, and Ghosts of Tsushima. Of the four, TLOU 2 looks like a good game but, just like the first one, is not one I probably ever would want to play due to its story, content, and gameplay.  Death Stranding’s appearance was weird and unexplained yet again.  Some scraps of what might be gameplay were shown, but what the game actually is is still very unclear.  I’ve never been a Kojima fan so I don’t care all that much, but as a fan of gaming in general I do wonder what this famous creator’s next title actually is. What they did show here of the actual gameplay, and not story, didn’t seem all that thrilling though; there are invisible monsters to avoid and you spent a lot of time walking around carrying things, or something. Spiderman looked, well, the same as every other Spiderman game made in the past fifteen years or so. I haven’t played any Spiderman games made after the ’90s, and never cared much about the character anyway, so this isn’t a draw for me at all. The game looks like a boring beat ’em up with probably a lot of QTEs and nothing of any particular interest. I have no idea why some people keep praising it so much, it did not look good.  I was actually disappointed, as Sony’s hype has been about how different this game is, but no, it looks about the same as ever for the franchise.  However, the last of the four major focal titles was by far the most interesting, for me at least.  Ghosts of Tsushima does look pretty cool, and is the game Sony showed I had the most interest in playing, unless Dreams actually ends up being good; we’ll have to see on that one.  Tsushima looks like a good action game set in medieval Japan,and has fantastic graphics that evoke its setting very well.  The sword-based combat also looks like it could be pretty good if it has some depth. I hope the gameplay lives up to the visuals.

Overall Sony’s show was disappointing for several reasons.  Some interestin games were shown, but Sony didn’t really announce anything new, apart from a few short teasers of games that may or may not release in years and may or may not amount to anything.  They focused on titles releasing soon this time.  That might be better than the shows Sony has had in the past where they focus too much on games that are years away, but it lessens the excitement; a balance is good.

Ubisoft’s conference was thankfully a lot better. I’ve thought for several years now that Ubi has the one of the best conferences every year, and that was again true. Ubisoft puts on a good show, with musical numbers that are actually entertaining, unlike Sony; good developer segments on the stage, unlike EA; and a nice variety of games and genres, again unlike Sony or very Smash-focused Nintendo. Ubisoft didn’t make any new announcements at the show other than a new Trials game, which is kind of too bad, but what they showed of their previously-known games were good.  They started by showing a new trailer for Beyond Good & Evil 2. It’s a great trailer and I highly recommend watching it, but there was zero gameplay here, and barely even a hint of what the gameplay even might be, so the game looks like it’s still a long way off. Even though I was definitely not one of the first games’ biggest fans — I was pretty critical of a lot of things about that game, though it is good — anything designer Michel Ancel makes is worth following.  BG&E2 interests me a lot and I hope it’s great. I definitely want to play it, whenever it is that the game actually releases.

As for the rest of Ubisoft’s stuff, some of their major highlights were The Division 2, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Mario & Rabbids Kingdom Battle Donkey Kong DLC — complete with a stage show musical number conducted by Grant Kirkhope! –, the new Trials game, a fourth faction which is being added to For Honor, and more. It was a solid showing in every way other than surprise announcements.  I definitely want to play the Donkey Kong DLC addon for Mario & Rabbids, it’s just about to release and sounds like it’s great.  Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks pretty good too, as I love the ancient Greek setting and think that it’s fantastic that they finally included a full female player option, for the first time in a major Assassin’s Creed game.  As usual with the series I kind of expect that my interest in the gameplay will lag far behind my interest in the setting and world, but we’ll see; I have not played Origins yet and know it mixed up the formula.  As for The Division 2, I only played a little of the first one but it seems good, though not as much for a mostly solo player like me as it would be in a group.  Still, it could be interesting.  The Trials game looks like a lot of fun too.  I’ve never gotten into the Trials games like people might think I would, but I’ll definitely play this one sometime.

Last and unfortunately least, the first conference of last Monday was a prerecorded half hour video from Square-Enix, who announced almost nothing and mostly just showed games which also appeared in other conferences, including the next Tomb Raider game, the next Just Cause game, and Kingdom Hearts 3, a game which appeared in a full three different conference videos, this one, Sony’s, and Microsoft’s.  The short length and lacking content of this video made it feel kind of irrelevant, unfortunately.  It’s not a bad little video, but what here was actually interesting and only shown here? They did announce a new game called Babylon’s Fall, but the trailer was only CG and had no gameplay details, so that’s not saying much yet. Square’s conference was pretty insubstantial.

Day Four: Nintendo

Normally I have the most to say by far about Nintendo, which makes sense because I am a Nintendo fan and play their games a lot.  This year, however, Nintendo had very little to show apart from one game, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Switch.  Yes, Nintendo decided to focus on a single game for the third year in a row. In 2016 it was Zelda, last year Mario, and this year it’s Smash… but people seem to be a lot more upset at that focus than they were the last two years, as this time there was a lot of criticism of Nintendo’s lack of games this E3. That criticism is accurate, as they had very little to show other than Smash, and there may be even fewer games shown than there were the last couple of years — they aren’t mentioning the 3DS at all for example, sadly, unlike 2017.  And yes, this is really unfortunate! The 3DS is a great system I’m still playing a lot of and needs more games.  Still, though, the single-game focus returns, so I didn’t think it felt THAT different from the last few years.  It might just be the nature of the game which is the issue, more so than the focus on a single title?  Smash is a great and very popular series, but probably doesn’t have quite the same level of universal appeal as Mario and Zelda, particularly at the detail level of Nintendo’s half-hour presentation.  I thought it was interesting, but I can see how many people were bored by the long part detailing the sometimes-minor changes made to every single character in the roster.

That said though, I’ve never loved this focus-all-on-one-game thing, so yes, once again I wish that they were showing more. In particular, what’s going on with Retro? It now has been five years since they last released a game, and still we heard nothing about whatever it is they’re making. They must be having development problems, five years of nothing is not normal. And not hearing anything about Metroid Prime 4 is also a disappointment, they should have had something to show of that here.  Yoshi also was a no-show, and Pikmin 4 as well if that is even still really in active development.  There weren’t even any new Wii U ports announced to fill in the roster!  Nintendo’s second half of 2018 Switch game release library is, so far, incredibly thin, with only Smash Ultimate, Pokemon Let’s Go, and Super Mario Party as major tentpole releases.  I’m sure all three of those games will sell very, very well, Pokemon and Smash especially, but for me this isn’t anywhere near as exciting a lineup as 2017’s was; I am not a Pokemon or Mario Party fan, and while I like Smash I don’t unreservedly love it.

Nintendo did have a few non-Smash games to show, including a DLC addon for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, that new Mario Party game that was announced during their E3 Direct and showed some gameplay of during the show, a mech combat game called Daemon x Machina that looks pretty interesting and will release in 2019, and details on the upcoming Switch Fire Emblem game, which looks like a Fire Emblem game and has been delayed to 2019, but there wasn’t a lot. And there wasn’t even been any 3DS on their E3 gameplay stream from the show floor that they call the Treehouse stream, which, again, I do think is a mistake. Oh well.  I have a Switch now, but with this library being all that’s releasing for the next six months… well, I’m kind of glad I only got the system recently, because I will have plenty of games to play as I catch up on last years’ releases and play the new DLC addons some of those games are getting this year.  People who got Switches last year will have less to do with the system.

As for Smash though, it looks pretty good. It was Nintendo’s main focus on the show floor and on the Treehouse stream, as well as in the conference, so they showed a lot of the multiplayer at the show and it’s looking great.  It seems that they’re building it on the core gameplay of the last one, Smash 4 (Wii U / 3DS), but with a lot of changes. The last game’s good, if not quite on par with Melee, so that’s fine. It’ll have every single character from all past Smash games, plus a few more, and every character has had some changes to their looks, moves, and such. The E3 Direct mentions some of the major changes for just about every character, and some sound good. Link now is the Breath of the Wild Link, for example, and bombs can be remotely detonated. I don’t like the new design for Zelda’s character model, however; they went with the Link to the Past / A Link Between Worlds Zelda this time, and I think it’s the least good Zelda design yet in a Smash game.  She’s just so bland looking compared to the great Twilight Princess design, and going from the fantastic TP Zelda design from Smash 4 to this is a huge downgrade!  I like playing as Zelda, but with this change… I don’t know, maybe I’ll play more Palutena or something, along with Sheik and Kirby.

Visually, Smash Ultimate has a very cartoony style, more than I remember past Smash games looking. It looks nice, but a little different from how it looked before. The gameplay is mostly the same however, though just like with the changes to the characters there are some balance changes, such as to dashing.  I have one major question about this game, though: they showed nothing of the single player side to the game, and as a result I wonder about what content the game will have outside of local or online multiplayer.  Will there be a substantial single player mode, or not?  The series has gone back and forth on this, and it is always nice when they have one.  I hope there is something.  Regardless, I am, of course, not the biggest Smash fan — they’re good games, but I’ve never loved them enough to play huge amounts of the games, Melee sort of excepted — but the game does look good and I’m sure I’ll get it eventually. Smash is very popular and should be enough for a good holiday season this year, but it’d have been better to have a bit more than they seem to have… though Microsoft doesn’t seem to have much either, almost everything major they showed was for next year. It’s kind of a weird year, it seems.

Conclusion

In the end, the gaming press, and most gamers, decided that Microsoft won this E3 because Sony kind of disappointed, particularly in their presentation, and Nintendo didn’t show enough games for core audiences who don’t care about Smash. That consensus makes sense, though MS’s very Gears/Forza/Halo-focused show didn’t exactly hugely excite me, for sure. I’m not sure who was best, really.  My default answer is usually Nintendo, as I did like some things about their show such as potentially Daemon x Machina and I’m sure Smash Ultimate will be great, but while good it was one of the weaker Nintendo shows in some time.  Microsoft, Ubisoft, and Bethesda’s were also good, while Sony, Electronic Arts, and Square-Enix brought up the rear.  Ubisoft’s was probably the best show, so maybe they were best?

But really, the story of this E3 was that it was not great.  I know I have almost entirely focused on the pre-show media briefings, aka “press conferences”, in this article, but it sounds like it was little different on the show floor, as everyone focused on games they’re releasing this year or early next year.  E3 2018 was one of the worst I can remember for surprise new game announcements, which has always been one of my favorite things about  the event.  It was a fine show for seeing more gameplay details about previously known titles, though. And that’s okay, it’s always great to see more about upcoming games.

On a more positive front, one thing that came out of this E3 was press about how representation of female characters in the games shown was probably better than ever. Though the vast majority of games shown still had male-only protagonists, some major titles like The Last of Us 2 and of course Tomb Raider have female protagonists, and lots of games have gender choice as well, such as the new Battlefield game.  That’s great!  Even Nintendo’s show was less sexist than usual, since Smash does not have the built-in sexism of the Mario and Zelda franchises, you aren’t rescuing a girl every time, or ever.  By this point I have sadly very low expectations from Nintendo on this issue, but maybe someday they will get with the picture.

For me though, overall this was an underwhelming E3.  As an overall event, while I did once again watch a lot of hours of E3 stuff this year and had plenty of fun doing so, mostly from the press conferences, Nintendo’s Treehouse stream, and Giant Bomb’s late-night shows, I didn’t come out of the show having any one game I saw and feel like I absolutely must get.  There were good-looking games that I’m sure will be fun, but there wasn’t a show-stoppingly-awesome announcement or game shown.  Ah well.  You can’t always have that, but we will surely be playing a lot of good games over the next year.  Gaming is in pretty good shape these days, if the industry doesn’t collapse because of financial concerns or such.

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The Nintendo Switch and Modern Console UIs: Why is it Hard to Find and Play Your Games?

In this article I’d like to discuss several important elements of console system menu design which are done … oddly to say the least … on many modern systems. The Switch may be in the title, but everyone is guilty here in different ways! I have two main points.

These two points are, essentially, one good and one bad thing about the Switch UI, with lots of comparisons to how other consoles do things. Before i start though, I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the Switch OS on a lot of fronts, including its lack of visual customization, lack of cloud saves, limited options in the shop (though Nintendo did just slightly improve on this), and more, but for the Switch or any other console, those things, while important, are secondary. These are, after all, gaming consoles, things which exist to allow us to play videogames. So, the top issue, of primary importance, is simple: How hard is it in any given console’s operating system to actually find and run the games that you own and have installed on the system and/or own a physical copy of? And why does every modern system make this a lot harder than it should be, though each in very different ways?

First: Is the Game Playable Right Now?

On the last generation of consoles, including the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, DSi, Wii, and usch, each system had a menu system for digital titles only, but ran physical games from the disc or cart. As a result, their OSes clearly delineate your digital game library from the game currently in the system, which they also easily let you play. Two more current systems, the 3DS and Wii U, still work that way. The rest of the current generation of systems, however, work differently, and the way they do so cause some really annoying problems in every case. The rest of the modern, current-generation consoles, including the Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and Playstation Vita, have a menu system which list every game you have played on the system, digital or physical, in the system menu’s games list.

This is an important change because all consoles which list all games you have played on the system on your system menu also require any game you own a physical disc or cartridge copy of to be in the system in order to play the game. Even though the PS4 and Xbox One fully install all games to their hard drives, for DRM reasons you need to put the disc in to play any game you didn’t buy digitally. This makes sense and is a good thing, since it still allows for used game sales. I really like that even on these systems I can still buy used games.

However, the Xbox One and Vita all have a critical flaw in their interface design: they do a terrible job of telling you which games you own physically and which are digital. On the Vita, there are no hints at all about which games are which. All games you’ve put into your system have an icon, as do all digital downloads, and those icons all look the same. You’ll just need to remember which are which. On the Xbox One, there is an icon on the home screen with a disc logo on it, which shows you what’s in your disc drive right now. When you put a new disc game in it’ll automatically appear and let you launch that game. However, it’s just an icon in the recently-used-things section of the home screen, so if you just leave a disc in while playing a bunch of digital games, that icon will be pushed off the list. At this point you’ll need to go to the full games list to find the game… but this screen has absolutely no indicators whatsoever of whether games are physical or digital. That is, it won’t tell you until you try to launch a game you own on disc, when an error message will pop up prompting you to put in the disc. Yes, Microsoft doesn’t want you to know which games games you need to put a disc in for, and which you own digitally and can directly play! This is just insane stuff, and I have no idea how not one, but TWO current consoles all completely mess up this very basic element of user-interface design. All I can do on my Xbox One and Vita is just memorize which games I own a physical copy of and which I don’t, so I know which ones I’ll need to get a disc out for and which I don’t. This is possible of course, but it’s an annoying and perplexing thing for console hardware manufacturers to force on their userbase. Microsoft has done a great job with backwards compatibility, including the ability to play even backwards compatible original Xbox games on your Xbox One with the original disc, but in this important way they’re behind.

What is the point of this, to encourage digital purchases over physical? That seems like a fair guess, because there is no good reason to annoy and inconvenience your users like this when it’s an issue that would be so, so easy to fix, but regardless of the reason this is a problem that it’s kind of crazy to see has never been fixed…

It is different on the Playstation 4 and the Nintendo Switch, however. Both have nice, clear little icons next to each games’ name in the system menu for games which you own physically and thus will need to put into the system in order to play. It’s great! Any game you own on cart/disc has a little icon next to it, which is empty for the games not currently in the system, and filled in for the game that’s in your system right now. It’s a great touch which all consoles should have. With the Switch there’s never any confusion about which games I can play. Its OS has another major problem, however…

Second: How Do I Find the Game I Want to Play?

In the past, console games all were on physical media. Every game was on its own cartridge, card, or disc, and you put the game in the console in order to play it; it was simple, on a console-UI front. However, thanks to the advent of digital downloads things are very different now, and console operating systems need to be able to allow the user to sift through a potentially very large game library. Most modern consoles deal with this by allowing the user to search and sort their game libraries, in order to either display games the way you want, or at least to be able to find the kind of game you are looking for in the potentially-long list. Some consoles do a better job of this than others, but from the Xbox 360 and on, every console had sorting and/or search functions.

Nintendo, on the Wii, DSi, 3DS, and Wii U, allow you to fully customize how the games appear, as each has an icon which you can drag around the screen to put them where you want for easy finding of the games you want to play more often. The 3DS and Wii U additionally allow you to make folders, in order to further categorize your collection. Neither system had folders when they first launched, but their addition was welcome. These interfaces have some issues, particularly on the Wii where the decision that all games on external storage, that is an SD card, must be copied into the system memory is a crippling flaw for anyone with a larger collection, but this issue is fortunately fixed on Nintendo’s other modern consoles, or rather, it was. The 3DS and Wii U game-selection UIs are fantastic, among the best ever in my opinion. With nice icons for each game, nice-looking OSes, easy customization, and more, they are very good menu systems that get you to your games quickly and allow you to organize things just how you want. Nintendo should have stuck with something along these lines, but sadly they did not. I will I’ll get to the unfortunate, absolute disaster that is the Switch’s UI later.

Microsoft, in contrast, does not allow you to directly move your game list around, but does give some nice sorting tools. I particularly like the Xbox 360’s, which has a great option to hide game demos, an option sorely missed on all the rest of the consoles here. I really wish the Xbox One, PS3, and Switch had that option, it is needed! The 360 also allows you to sort either in alphabetical order or by how recently you have played a game, and both ways are useful. The system displays only about five games at a time, in a long horizontal list, but it switches through batches of five quickly. The 360 has the easiest to use single-wide list I have seen in a console. I’d still rather be able to customize it by having folders and such, but this works. The multiple sorting options and move-five-games-at-a-time features are key.

The Xbox One changes interfaces from the 360, and while still functional and sometimes good, most of the changes are for the worse. First, I have often found it difficult to figure out which game is the one in the drive, if I’ve forgotten, as the main menu doesn’t necessarily show the icon for the game in the system right now and, as point one above says, the OS doesn’t tell you which games even need the disc inserted until you try to run them. All other systems with physical media have a clear location in the OS where it shows what’s in your console’s disc drive or cart port, but not this one for some weird reason. I know MS wants people to buy digital copies of things and not physical, but come on! Once you do get into the list of games though things improve, as it is displayed in a nice, quick-to-navigate grid, but there are still some limitations. You can still sort your games list, thankfully. The Xbox One isn’t quite as good as the 360 in this respect, as the hide-demos option is gone, but you can still sort alphabetically or by most recently played, and it also has options to display games only installed on one specific hard drive and more, which can be nice depending on how you have your games organized. It also shows a lot of icons on screen, in horizontal rows. It’s not the best, but is a solid interface and finding games isn’t too hard.  And to address one of the system’s bigger issues, Microsoft is apparently working on folder support for the Xbox One.  It’s a needed addition and I hope that they add this soon.  Just being able to separate disc-required games from digital games alone would be great, if they won’t add a disc icon!

On the positive side though, on both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, Microsoft also has very good search tools which allow you to use voice commands (if you have a Kinect attached to your console) or text search, better if you have a keypad addon for your gamepad, to directly search for games and such. I don’t use this a lot, but it is a good option to include that I’m sure some make use of. Having a search box in their console OS is something that only Microsoft does, I believe, and it is actually useful.

Sony has tried several interfaces, but the PS3’s is, as I have said before, pretty bad. The PS3, and also the PSP which uses nearly the same interface, but all games installed on your console one massive vertically-scrolling single-wide list, and there are essentially no good sorting or search tools available. The only sorting options are to list in order of the last time you used each game, newest to oldest; by platform, separated for PS1, PS2, PS Minis, and PS3 (or PSP games, as the case may be) games, with unsortable listed-by-last-use lists within each category; or in a single folder which again is sorted by use only. You cannot create your own folders, sadly. As a result, the alternatives to the main list are mostly useless, so basically you just need to scroll down a massive list of games, or mixed demos and games in my case, hoping to eventually find the one you’re looking for. You can’t even sort alphabetically instead of by use, or quickly move through the list! It’s a huge pain. The PS3/PSP user interface is terrible and barely works if you have more than a few digital games. No, I do not want to scroll 100 items down a slowly-scrolling list in order to find the one I want! You can’t even scroll very quickly, a group of games at a time, like you can on MS’s consoles, either. The absence of customizable sorting options, user-creatable folders, and a better design than a single list are sorely missed.

The PS Vita abandoned that bad old interface in favor of one much more like the Wii or a cellphone’s, as there are now icons for each game, in pages which display about a dozen games or folders each. You can make folders and put icons in them, and move icons around the screen just like on the Nintendo interfaces it resembles. This interface works great and is the best interface of any of these Sony consoles, except for that annoying bit I mention in issue one above about how it doesn’t say which games require you to put the cartridge in. Like the Xbox One it doesn’t highlight what game is currently inserted into the system either, you just have to remember. But that is a separate point here.

As for the PS4, I’ve never used it myself, but from what I see it seems to have a horizontal list of recently-used stuff, and a separate page with all of your games. It looks much more like the PS3 interface than the Vita’s, though, unfortunately, but it is at least a lot better looking than the PS3/PSP’s. The horizontal list of recently-used stuff allows you to create folders here for quick access to games, and the library has a three-wide grid and actual good sorting functions finally, for the first time on a Sony console — you can sort by name forwards or back, install date, or recently used. That’s good, and that folder support allows for at least some custom organization support, but other things about the PS4 OS still look clumsy and slow, like Sony OSes always seem to be. The PS4 also has voice support if you have a PS4 camera, like the X1. Features-wise this is pretty decent stuff, but I’d need to use it for a while to know how I think it compares to the X1 OS, which has issues but mostly works fairly well.

So, how does the newest console, Nintendo’s Switch, handle things?

With one of the worst interfaces of the last couple of console generations, that’s how. Seriously, how did Nintendo mess things up this horribly? It all starts off so well, with those great icons I mention in point one, showing if games are actually playable right now or not! That’s great… but the list they are a part of is the worst. Very much like the PS4 but without any sorting or folder support, the Switch’s game list is in two parts, a horizontal scrolling list of the ten or so games you have played the most recently, and a list, which you have to scroll all the way over to the end to access, of all of your games. This list is a grid of maybe five wide by however many deep as you have games. It’s easy to scroll through, but has NO customization or sorting functions WHATSOEVER, which is unbelievably awful! Instead, it has only one sorting method: by most-recently-played. It will sort from what you have used the most recently, at the top, to the things you’ve used the longest ago or never, at the bottom. I can’t even begin to understand why Nintendo decided to remove the great, fully customizeable interfaces of the Wii, DSi, 3DS, and Wii U in favor of this stripped-down debacle, but this is almost PS3 levels of bad, maybe better because the list is quicker to scroll through, but maybe worse because there are even fewer sorting options — literally zero other than the default. What the heck, how did this happen?

So, here are one very good and one very bad thing about the Switch’s OS UI. I really hope that at some point Nintendo adds options to the Switch game library list, because they are desperately badly needed. Nintendo should be commended for showing users which games you own physically and what game is in the system right now, though.

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Currently, There are Fewer Reasons than Ever to Own Consoles

When comparing the value of computers to consoles, I have always liked both, but overall like the PC a bit more.  Computers are more versatile and have a larger game library, covering more price points, have more variety of control options than modern consoles do, and have better graphics if you have a good enough PC, too.  However, there have always been very good reasons to own consoles, most notably that a lot of games only released on consoles.  In the past, hundreds and hundreds of games only released on consoles.  From the beginning of the console business until the last decade, most console games didn’t release on the PC.  So, if you want to legally play the many fantastic console games from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, or ’00s, you need consoles.

This article has a few main parts.  First is a list of the reasons there still are to buy a console, with counterpoints to each one.  Second is a section on the decline of console-exclusive games.

Reasons to Buy a Console Instead of a PC

There are only a few reasons today to buy a current-generation videogame console.  Some are better than others.

  1.     If you want access to Sony or Nintendo’s first-party game libraries you need to own their console.  As I said will explain below, how much this matters will vary from person to person.  Games are why we buy consoles, so access to exclusives is still a good reason to get a platform.  However, there are fewer exclusives now than there ever have been before.
  2.     If you want a portable system which plays top-quality games, you want a portable console such as the Nintendo Switch.  Portable PCs exist, but the Switch, 3DS, Vita, or older handheld consoles are specifically designed for it and are better for that.  Portability is a good reason to have a (portable) console; cellphone or tablet gaming is fine for some kinds of games, but I’d rather play something with better controls and larger-scale design than you get there.
  3.      If you have very limited money, consoles are cheaper than PCs.  While a good PC can last quite a while if you don’t mind not always running games at very high graphical settings — I used my last computer for a full decade, with only a few upgrades during that time, and it was still running games fairly well at the end — they are pretty expensive, too much so for some.  Consoles cost a lot less.  I’d still say, though, that saving up for a PC would overall be a better investment today than buying a console; sure, you will spend more, but you get more.  PC game prices are often lower than console prices, too.  This price disparity used to be higher, but it is still true.  And you don’t need to pay a yearly fee to play games online on PC, while all console manufacturers have those fees now.
  4.      4K.  Now, a lot of televisions can display images at the high resolution usually called 4K.  However, while there are 4K computer monitors, they are still not quite as prevalent as 4K TVs are, for whatever reason.  I don’t own any 4K screens yet myself, but I’m sure I will.  The issue is, streaming from PC to a television, to get rid of the old “comfy couch” argument in favor of consoles, works great… at 1080p resolutions, which is the Steam Link’s limit for example.  See my post about the Steam Link for more on that great little device.  However, while 4K streaming is possible, it isn’t as simple as just hooking up a Steam Link is.  If you want easy 4K gaming, even though consoles are less powerful, depending on your setup, it may be a LOT easier to just use a console for that as opposed to getting a powerful PC then figuring out how to output 4K from that to your TV.  This will be particularly true if the computer is a desktop that is not in the same room as your TV, which is the case for me.  Laptops would be much easier to just move around and hook up to something, with the correct cable, but they are also more expensive and less powerful.  This point is a solvable problem, but it’s not simple for the consumer, not yet at least.

So, there are good reasons to own current consoles.  I own many consoles myself, now including several still-supported ones, the New 3DS, Switch, Xbox One, and, if it still counts, Vita.  And I don’t regret those purchases.  But my point here is that compared to the past, consoles’ advantages are dramatically reduced from where they were.  PCs are still very expensive, but they last a lot longer then they used to; the days of needing a new machine every other year, as it was in the ’90s, are gone.  There’s some good value for your money now.  Additionally, using consoles is more complex than it used to be, and PCs are easier, so the old “comfy couch” argument — that it’s easy to just toss a game in a console and play it, while on PC you need to install the game, update it, maybe troubleshoot something, and such — doesn’t hold up as well as it used to because consoles are a lot more like PCs now, Sony and Microsoft’s especially.  Playing computer games on your TV instead of computer monitor is easier than it ever has been before, as well.  Streaming from your PC to your television is possible, and it’s very easy at 1080p thanks to the Steam Link.  And most games are available on PC these days, too.  Of these four points, portability is probably the strongest one.  I am no fan of cellphones to say the least, so I would still say that portability remains a strong argument for getting a console.

Now, however, I would like to expand on the issue of console-exclusive games.  I think it needs additional explanation more so than the others.

The Decline of Console-Exclusive Games

Today,  while it is still true that consoles get exclusive games, it is less true than it ever has been before.  Now, this ties in to a long post I did some years ago about the downfall of ’90s computer gaming; I never posted it here but essentially, in the ’00s most PC game developers started moving over to consoles for several reasons, including seeking larger audiences at a time when revenues weren’t enough just on the PC for the growing size of game budgets.  As before this most top Western developers had worked on computer games, this had a huge impact on the industry.  I said in that post that the effect of that was a major blow to computer gaming, particularly in the short term as developer talent fled the platform and games got simpler to attract console audiences, but that’s not the point here.  At first, many of the games those studios made only released on consoles, like the console games before them had.  Some also had PC ports, but many did not, either because Microsoft wanted to sell Xboxes or because PC sales weren’t as good.

However, that has changed in more recent years.  The PC marketplace is healthier than it was when I wrote that article eight or so years ago.  Kickstarter has its flaws, but it has made classic-styled PC games possible in a way that would never have happened otherwise.  PC game sales are good, too, and while Valve’s Steam is dominant there are other places to buy digital PC games.  Developers have finally noticed the sales they were missing out on by not releasing PC versions of their games!  Today, more games than ever are getting PC ports.  PCs have always gotten the occasional port of top console games, but today almost everything except for first-party Sony and Nintendo games release on the PC.  Microsoft now releases all of their first-party games on both Xbox and PC, giving up on their old efforts to sell Xboxes by not releasing games on the PC even though they also own that platform.  I am happy that they did this, but it has reduced the value of the Xbox.  Yes, I bought one anyway and don’t regret it, but I don’t use it as much as I did my 360.  Even most Japanese third-party games are being released on the PC these days, something which has never been true before!  The top PC digital marketplace, Steam, has its issues, but for now at least most games release there and publishers all know that they need to make PC versions of almost all of their games. As far as the games go, these are the best times to be a PC gamer in the last fifteen years, or more.

So, the number one reason to buy consoles, the exclusive games, is much less of a reason than it ever has been before.  Now, if you care about Sony and Nintendo’s first-party libraries, there is still a good argument to buy their console for those games.  I love Nintendo’s games, so Nintendo consoles are a great value for me because they make some of the best games ever.  Sony consoles are much less valuable, though, since I don’t care about most of Sony’s games.  I don’t have a PS4 and don’t regret it.  The PS4’s list of exclusive games is dramatically more a list of games published by Sony than any previous Sony console, after all, and as I said I just don’t usually care much about Sony’s games.  For people who do like Sony games, though, having a PS4 makes sense for that.

Conclusion

So, I bought an Xbox One last year, and as I said I don’t regret it.  When paired with Xbox Live Gold and, if you add Microsoft’s second, newer subscription, Xbox Games Pass, the Xbox One gives you access to a large library of games for an affordable price.  It’s got ease of use too.  But every time I walk into a game store and look at its software library, I see a lot of games which are better on PC, and almost nothing I can only play on console.  Microsoft has kind of given up on that, in favor of having everything being on both, betting that the ease-of-use and subscription-service reasons will draw people in anyway.  It’s enough to maybe justify getting one, but only if you already have a large back library of Games with Gold titles you want to keep playing, probably; otherwise, just sticking to the PC is probably the better bet.  Things are similar with Sony, except with a much larger first-party exclusive library.  Again though as they have lost almost all of their third party exclusives, the PlayStation’s value lies very heavily on your thoughts on Sony’s first-party software.  As I mostly don’t care for it I have rarely wanted a PS4 very much at all.

Nintendo, however… with the Switch and 3DS, Nintendo still has a great value proposition on multiple fronts, including both their portability and their large libraries of exclusive games you cannot play on PC.  PC plus Nintendo covers almost everything, these days, and that is most of what I play, when I’m not playing classic consoles games of course.  Nintendo has few third-party exclusives too, but they haven’t had many in a long time so that is not much of a change.

Overall, I can understand why people buy consoles.  I have them, and so do millions of others.  And there are reasons to get them.  But on the whole, today, the PC is the best value it’s ever been from both a game library and lastability standpoint, and that looks unlikely to change anytime in the near future.  And with the Steam Link I can play console-styled PC games on my television, too, taking away that advantage of consoles as well!  Both consoles and computers have their place and I still like both a lot, but the PC’s advantage is undeniable.

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More Thoughts on They Are Billions

Since my last post over a month ago, also about this game, I have played a little bit of many games, as usual. However, the game I’ve played the most by far is, still, this game, They Are Billions for the PC. As a result I have a bit more to say about it, so here it is. I am working on some other things for the site, but first I wanted to write about this game again. Please note, this is a criticism of the game, but there is also plenty I like about it! I wouldn’t still be playing it otherwise, after all. But there are some things I wish it improved on, one particularly that I need to expand on.

So, yes, I’m still playing this stupid game. I’m not really sure if it is actually fun, and still can’t beat anything, but I’m hooked… it’s addictive, for good or bad. There are things about the game I really like, to be clear. It’s really good in a lot of ways! But it’s also very frustrating. One way it’s frustrating is that most games end with you losing because a random zombie got through somewhere and once that happens it’s pretty much over, the zombies will infect your houses and you’ve almost certainly lost.

Even worse, though, is the final wave. So, They Are Billions starts out hard. The game starts out tough, and gets even harder as you go along. In particular, that day 60 wave is very hard, and more often than not wipes me out, when I get that far. But if I actually do manage to survive day 60… well, the next couple of waves are pretty easy. If you get past day 60, you’re almost guaranteed to make it to the final wave, pretty much, unless you badly mess something else. Until the second-to-last wave, waves attack from one point on the map. By this time you should have the potential attack points defended decently, and in those few times I get past wave 60 it’s not hard to survive to the end.

However, the final wave is different, very different. Again, the final wave attacks from all directions. The zombies attack from almost every point they can, so you need every single potential attack point defended STRONGLY if you want even the slightest chance of surviving. I haven’t survived yet, again. Usually I manage to stop the zombies on some fronts, but they blow through on others. It’s crazy hard.

The problem is that you need a massive amount of defenses to survive the final wave. The difference between every other wave and the final wave cannot be understated, because it’s orders of magnitude harder due to how many directions you need to defend from at the same time. I have a problem with this because games of They Are Billions last fairly long if you don’t lose early, so in games where I survive I have to wait a LONG time before I finally, at long last, learn where I didn’t have enough defenses and will lose because of. It’s a bit like SNK Boss Syndrome, named for all those fighting games where most of the game is pretty easy, except for the final boss which is crazy hard and will kill you a hundred times after you probably didn’t die even once up to that point. Sure, this game is harder than that along the way, but it’s still on that scale! The gulf between the kind of base you need to survive any other wave and the massive fortress you need to have any chance at the last one is obnoxious and, honestly, is kind of bad design in my opinion.

I mean, this is a base-building / defense focused game. Why is focusing on defense a guaranteed-loss strategy? Because it is. You’ll need a very large, aggressively expanded base to survive the end, and I never expand fast enough because I do not like playing strategy games that way. You can get TO the final wave just fine, with some luck, with the way I like to play RTSes… but then I lose for sure because of the stupid-huge difficulty spike right at the end. It’s frustrating and not fun at all, and really SHOULD get me to stop playing the game, because come on, this isn’t good.

This isn’t just about this game, either. I have long believed that great games scale their difficulty well, and don’t have sudden massive spikes in challenge. This is one of the reasons why my favorite fighting game is The Last Blade 2; yes, it is an SNK game, but it entirely avoids SNK Boss Syndrome, and instead has a nice, smooth difficulty curve though each playthrough of the single player game. It’s a fantastic game for a lot of reasons beyond that, but this helps too. They Are Billions does the opposite of that and it holds the game back a lot, particularly when you consider that getting to the final wave can take hours, depending on the game length you choose. That’s a long, long time to wait to know how unprepared you are. There is a definite audience for the kind of play this game requires, but that isn’t what I want.

I hope that as they continue to work on it they adjust the final wave at some point, at least optionally, because it needs it. Either the final wave should be easier or the earlier waves should be even harder, pretty much. There should be no insane spike at the end; it should just be a summation of everything you have seen in the game so far, not a totally different insane challenge you have no hope of surviving without some very specific strategies. I like that the game is challenging, that is part of the appeal. It’s just that it should be more balanced in how it applies that challenge.

Apart from that, the most frustrating thing about the game is how easy it is to randomly lose because one zombie snuck through somewhere, but that’s just the way the game works, so I can accept that, as awful as it is sometimes. But the final wave is different, and I do think that you should be able to beat a map with the same strategies that got you to the last wave. Having very hard final waves makes plenty of sense for the higher difficulties, but why is it this hard in ALL difficulties? Ah well…

Despite all that They Are Billions is, I guess, a good game, and it’s well worth trying, but it has issues. Not least, I badly wish that they would fix the still unforgivably horrendous pathfinding… focus on that, above adding new features! You can get used to it with practice, but it’d be nice if the game just worked without that. What you need to do to have a chance at final waves is probably my biggest complaint, though, so that gets a deserved focus here.

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First Impressions: They Are Billions (PC)

They Are Billions is an RTS/building simulation game in early access on Steam.  It was released in early access in December 2017, but I got the game about a week and a half ago.  I have been very hooked since, and already have over 30 hours played.  The game has issues, and I can see why there is a bunch of controversy in the games’ Steam forum, but overall it’s a great and really addictive game.  I’ve been playing it a lot and mostly really like the game, so I thought I should write up my thoughts.

In short, They Are Billions is a base-building-focused strategy game that runs in pausable real time.  I’ll discuss the base building first, since it is the main focus here.  As in building sims like The Settlers, Tropico, or to a lesser extent Caesar, the core of this game is building up a large base and dealing with the nested requirements therein. Unlike a standard RTS such as Starcraft or Command & Conquer, but like those aforementioned titles, here resources do not run out, the challenge is getting all of the ones you need to cover the costs of everything you are building.  The game has many resources and statistics to consider, and all buildings require not only a build cost, but also an upkeep cost in several resources. So, you need to keep scaling up every element of your base in order to expand and go up the tech tree, which requires a lot of space and planning. Fortunately you can pause at any time, and that is key for base-building purposes! I don’t love management sims like The Settlers as much as I do traditional RTSes, as learning and managing this kind of games’ complex, nested trees of building and resource dependency are not my favorite thing, but this game balances it well: it has more than enough depth to be hard to master, but is not as complex as some in the field, thankfully.  There are “only” five resources, for example.

In each game you start out with a town center, four ranger units, and a soldier unit. You always start in the center of the map, and explore out from there to see what your environs look like, while also starting to build your base. The five main resources are gold, wood, stone, iron, and oil. These resources each start out with a cap, for 2000 for gold and 50 for the others, that you can increase by building Warehouse buildings.  Each warehouse increases the maximums by 2000 for gold and 50 for each other resource.  Oil is only used lategame, but you’ll need the others earlier.  In order to get those resources you will need to cut or mine them from points on the map where they are available.   You need to expand your base to do this, but you can only build within a fairly close energy range, like a mid ’90s RTS or such.  So, you need to build Tesla Towers to expand your energy range.  Also like in a traditional RTS there are some buildings which build military units, and others which research new technologies.  There aren’t as many unit types as you might expect in this genre, though, but I’ll get into that later.

Building a base in They Are Billions is not as simple as just building buildings and then forgetting about them as you might in a standard RTS, however.  In addition to resources, you also need to manage four other important numbers: your current population size, the number of available workers you have, and the amounts of available food and power that are free.  Everything you build in this game has a maintenance cost, so for building, the most important thing to know is what is available for stuff you haven’t built yet, not what is tied up maintaining things.  That is what these numbers quantify for you.  At the beginning of the game, the only resource you are getting is gold, which generates from your population, ie, from taxes presumably. You’ll need to build those sawmills and quarries and such to get the other resources, as I said, as well as several different types of buildings to get food, mills for power, and more.  Again, as in The Settlers and such mineral deposits do not run out, but nor will this complex tree of nested dependencies ever not keep costing you money.  Residential buildings make you money, but everything else, including defense towers, quarries, farms, and such, all cost money and resources.

If you’re out of available workers, food, or power,  you are in trouble and cannot build anything until you solve that problem.   You can suspend quarries in order to free up a few workers, if that’s your problem, but cannot do this for other kinds of buildings that use workers such as food production buildings, warehouses, or what have you.  So, be careful with what you build and watch those numbers, and try to not let them get low.  So, this game is all about continual expansion, and to expand your base you need to build more of everything — more farms or fishing shacks for food, more power plants or mills for power, more quarries and sawmills for wood, stone, and metal, more warehouses, markets, and such to reduce costs and increase income and resource maximums, and more.  Every one of these elements requires the others to function, so you need to scale everything up proportionately.  A lot of these buildings are large, too, so I can definitely see that planning out your base ahead of time is a very good idea if you want to do well.  I’m not any good at this yet, though; maps are so broken up by forests, lakes, and such that it’s hard to fit everything in neatly.

A good player would quickly and steadily expand their base, never letting themself get to a point where you’re completely out of free food, workers, or power, since in such a case you’re frozen and have to disable or destroy a building in order to get your base moving again (unless it’s workers and you solve it by letting some troops get killed, but that’s not a great solution obviously.) I’m far from a good player, as is usual in this kind of game once I get a good base set up I like to sit in it and not keep expanding like you should to really do great at this game, which works for a while but does not lead to victory;  if you don’t expand enough you will die, as you’ll run out of something and solving that problem mid-game is very difficult.  If you have low gold income for example, you can’t just solve that easily, you need to have planned better early on.  Even so, I really like They Are Billions, base-building is a lot of fun!

Building your base is the main focus of the game, but you do also control combat units. You don’t need to manage peasants or such, once you build a building they do their thing automatically, but the army does need to be controlled. You only have five or six types of units you can build, so far at least in the games’ development, but it’s a decent variety and the several types of towers add to your ability to defend your base as well.  Each unit is quite different and has a place.  Still, compared to other RTSes your combat options are limited.

Additionally, the unit-control element of this game still needs work — the pathfinding is REALLY terrible, and trying to target a specific enemy may or may not work, which can be a big problem. U nit pathfinding is HORRIBLE and your troops will run straight into corners instead of going around them from the start, first. Also, figuring out exactly where you can and can’t get through with troops is not clear and is a big trial-and-error issue. Can I, or the zombies, get through that gap, or can’t I? You’ll pretty much just need to move a unit to the point to see if they start moving the right way or way off in the opposite direction. During battle, trying to give movement orders is finicky because of this, as it’s way too easy to accidentally send troops the wrong way, maybe dooming the whole colony as a result. It also can be quite hard to get your troops to attack one specific zombie in a group, if you need to do that to save a building. Buildings can only take a relatively few hits before they become infected and spit out a bunch of new zombies themselves, so this can be a huge issue. I really hope that they refine the games’ pathfinding and unit control systems before the final release. You really need to micromanage units. At least you can pause, but really, the combat side of the game has issues.

Making things worse, apart from the final wave which hits you from every direction, you’ll never know exactly where enemy waves will hit your base. Now, during the 100 days of each default-length game, at certain preset points waves of zombies attack you from a random direction, north, south, east, or west. The number and types of zombies scale up in each wave, and they’re pretty much the same in every game, so you know what you will be facing every time; the problem is trying to survive it. Zombies start from a point along one of the four sides of the map, and then take the most direct path from there to your command center. But unless you have explored the whole map and figured out that pathing, which is unlikely until deep into the game because units move somewhat slowly and clearing out zombie groups takes quite a while, figuring out where they will attack can be an exercise in frustration. I’ve lost games more than a few times because I reinforced the wrong wall before a wave, or sent my troops to the wrong place, because it can be nearly impossible to guess this correctly and you need troops in position to have any chance at stopping most of the waves! I really wish the game would give a much better indicator of where zombie waves were going to go, it’s kind of unfair as it is.

So far They Are Billions has only two modes, survival and a once-a-week scored survival challenge mode.  In survival mode you control a human colony, and try to survive the zombies in that area. Maps here are randomly generated, though you do aways start in the center. This survival mode is not endless, however — if you manage to survive 100 days, you win. Over the course of those 100 days waves of zombies attack you. Additionally, the map is full of zombies you can go out and try to kill, or deal with when they get close to your base. You will need to kill some in order to expand, or to reduce the number of zombies that will get attached to waves or attack you during a wave. It’s a simple formula, but it works very well and leads to great tension as you try to get a base that will be able to withstand the next wave.   This is a very, very hard game, but you can adjust the difficulty in the regular survival mode in several ways, including by changing the length of the game, number of regular zombies on the map, and more.  It’s great that the game has these options!  The game defaults to a fairly high setting, but it does feel best balanced there; longer games at easier settings can get dull, as you wait a long time for the game to finally get tougher… when you may well get, after several hours, absolutely crushed on the final wave if you weren’t prepared enough.  It is easier, but the default difficulty is probably more fun.   In addition to the survival mode, the developers say that they are working on a campaign mode, but so far no information has been released about what it will look like, so it’s too early to say anything about that.

Another issue with the game is that luck plays a significant factor. First, the layout of the map is always random, and where those zombies, resources, and potential choke points are will determine a lot in every game. Second, zombie waves attack from random directions as I said, and which way they come from often will decide if you can stop them or not, not only for those times that I defend the wrong wall, but simply — do they come at a point you have well defended, or your weakest wall? You’ll never know for sure and this can get very frustrating, as you lose games you were doing well because of random factors like that. Additionally, at four points in each game you get a choice between two people for mayor of your colony. These are essentially random bonuses, as each mayor gives you a thing. Some give you a free military unit or two, some resources, some walls or a building, some a specific tech-tree advance; you never know, and some are MUCH better than others. Being given a great mayor bonus can be a huge boost to a game, such as the time that midgame I was offered a mech unit, which is fantastic and the best unit in the game; I was doing well, but wasn’t even CLOSE to that in the tech tree, so it helped me immensely! In fact, to date that game is the one I got the farthest in. That was fun, but it’s not repeatable. These random elements do keep you coming back, as you hope for better luck the next time, but I’d rather have it be about skill and not luck.

As for the other issues with the game, looking at the Steam forums it’s clear that many people are frustrated by the slow pace of game updates, which makes sense; it’s been in early access for months now, and few of the major issues are any different, and that single player campaign is still not in the game either. I’m fine with it taking a while to do it right, myself, but fixing up the interface and improving on quality-of-life issues like pathing, that sometimes the game doesn’t recognize mouse clicks, and such should get priority. I’m sure it’s hard, but the game needs it. Still though, I’m loving this game, the mixture of RTS and bilding simulation works really well and both elements, exploring around with troops to kill zombies and building up a base, are great fun. I still haven’t beaten the first map, but I’m sure I will eventually… because this is a great and really addictive game. I hope the developers keep working on it and add a lot more to the game. It’s fantastic as it is, but it can get even better.

But really, They Are Billion’s biggest problem is repetition.  By design, this is a very repetitive game.  You always play as humans, fighting zombies that surround you.  You’ll never fight other humans, there is only one race to play as, and games all follow the same outline.  Outside of the random factor of the map and where zombie waves come from, every game plays pretty similarly, as you build your base going on the same tech tree, expand, wait for waves that roughly attack at the same times every game (though, again, from random directions), and such. This is a great game and so far I’m not bored of it, but They Are Billions doesn’t have the variety you might expect from a great RTS.

Still, overall so far I love this game and am hooked to it. I’ve been playing it some almost every day, though I don’t know how long I will continue to play it for.  Due to the repetition I doubt that this is a game I’ll be playing all year, like I have with other RTSes in the past, but despite its problems, 30 hours in I would say that They Are Billions is a really good, addictive game that is one of the most original and best-executed ideas in the RTS genre in a while.  It has a ways to go, but the promise here is great.

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Small WiiWare/VC List Update & Wii Online Shop Shuts Down In Hours!

As the WiiWare shop is in its final hours — the ability to add money will be shut down 4PM EST tomorrow —  I made a small update to the list here: http://www.blackfalcongames.net/?p=364 .  First, I corrected one price I got wrong; Liight is 500 points, not 800.  Also, I mentioned that arcade Space Harrier has motion controls added, but not that arcade Super Hang-On also has similar motion controls added.  That oversight has been corrected.

Anyone wanting to add money to the Wii shop has this one final chance.

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Review – The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA) – A Very Good Zelda Game

Yes, it’s an actual real update!  I’m glad to have written a review again.

  • Title: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (US/EU), Zelda no Densetsu: Fushigi no Boushi (Japan)
  • Developer: Flagship
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Platform: Game Boy Advance
  • Released: November 2004 (Japan / Europe), January 2005 (US)
  • Genre: Action-Adventure

Introduction

The Legend of Zelda series is one of my favorites in gaming, but there are some Zelda games I’ve never gotten around to finishing. Until recently, this game was one of those, as I’d started it but stopped early on, but while watching the 2018 Olympics I played through the rest of this game and decided to review it along the way. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is an overhead action-adventure game for the GBA which released somewhat late in the system’s short life, after the Nintendo DS had already released. This game was the second, or sort of third, game that resulted from a partnership between Capcom and Nintendo to develop some Zelda games at Flagship, a Capcom/Nintendo joint-run studio that Capcom merged into its main company a few years after this game release.  Flagship’s first Zelda games were The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, two paired Game Boy Color games that released in mid 2001. I like those games a lot, so I was interested to see what Flagship would do next with Zelda.  Then they worked on the Four Swords part of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past / Four Swords for the GBA.  That multiplayer-only linear-levels topdown multiplayer action game has some good ideas, but its link-cables-required, local multiplayer-only nature is a big problem which made it very hard to play then, ever mind now.  Several years later, Flagship finally released a second main-series Zelda game, but while it did okay, it didn’t make quite the impression that Nintendo was hoping. The game sold well and got good reviews, but has since been somewhat forgotten. Even at the time reactions were somewhat mixed, though. Indeed, looking back at some old posts I made online back in 2004-05 about this game, I went from initial interest, to not even buying the game until at least five years after its release, and not finishing it until, well, this month. And I was far from the only person who overlooked or passed on this game at the time. Playing it now, though, it’s good! The Minish Cap has issues, but I do think that I, and many other people, under-rated this game.

Story and Controls

The Minish Cap is a traditional overhead 2d-style Zelda game. As with the Oracles games, the controls, interface, and world design of Minish Cap take heavy inspiration from Link’s Awakening, which, in my opinion, is a very good thing even if none of those elements quite match LA’s greatness. The story is as familiar as the gameplay. Unfortunately though, it has none of LA’s genius. You play as Link, and need to save Hyrule from evil Vaati. Your partner character this time is a sentient hat, which talks and can change your size. The terrible-as-usual sexist story has you saving Zelda, who has been turned to stone in what would prove to be the first of two consecutive times in handheld Zelda games. Just because this kind of really bad, sexist storytelling is common doesn’t make it okay, though. This game has plenty of amusing writing in it, but the core story is, yet again, unforgivably awful. All three (two?) Flagship Zelda games have extremely basic “rescue the princess” storylines, which is too bad when they clearly are able to write some decent and often amusing stuff for the many side characters that populate these games. The only “unique” thing in the plot is that the main villain here is Vaati, from the Four Swords games, and not Ganon. This is Vaati’s only appearance in a traditional Zelda game, and it is kind of interesting to see him in a regular Zelda game.

The controls are inspired by Link’s Awakening’s, with a few additions for the GBA’s two additional shoulder buttons. As in that game, you can assign any of your items to the A and B buttons, so once again your sword and shield are not locked to buttons like they are in other Zelda games, you just assign them like any of your other items. The other items include some returning favorites and some new ones. My favorite new item is the air-blast item, which the game uses quite often to good effect. The R button is standardized, though, as it is used for a roll move, and also for grabbing and pulling things. Jumping requires an item you get deep into the game, but rolling is a default move locked to a button? It is a little odd to have this one function locked to a button, and it might have been nice for R to be customizable too. Still, it works this way and the roll is a good move. The L button’s usage is not as successful, however. This button is locked to a function too: this trades Kinstones with the person or object in front of you, if you can do so. I will get into what Kinstones are soon, but in short they are items you collect and trade with characters, in return for unlocking things in the world. I’m not a big fan of this element of the game, and it is a significant part of it. Kinstone trading is a big part of this game, but it’d have been great to have another button for general use, and to put this function somewhere else. For the controls overall though, I have some issues with the functions on both shoulder buttons, but otherwise Minish Cap controls great. As always in Nintendo-published Zelda games the controls are very responsive, and Link moves around and items all work just as they should. I really like how you can assign the A and B buttons freely, as well.

Oh, there is also one other way you interact with the world in this game. As fitting for a game with Four Sword’s villain in it, The Minish Cap has a Four Sword component. This game is single player only, but when you stand on certain floor tiles and hold down the sword button until it fully charges, keep the button held down, and move onto other tiles, you will create clones. You start with only one Link, but as you proceed you will eventually get up to four. It’s kind of annoying that you need to hold down the attack button for so long before you are able to split, but the game makes good use of dividing yourself in many puzzles through the game, both simple and quite tricky.

General Gameplay

In the gameplay, The Minish Cap, again, is a traditonal 2d Zelda game, but with some more modern updates. I won’t describe this in full detail, as most readers are probably familiar with Zelda gameplay. In short though, this means that you explore a sizable world, including a large town full of many people in the center, and various zones surrounding that town. You wander around the world collecting stuff, fighting enemies, talking to people, and solving puzzles. At certain points you’ll go into dungeons in this world, and in dungeons, and sometimes outside of them, you will get new items to add to your inventory. These items include some old ones and some new. You then use your items, and swordfighting skills, to figure out the way forward and kill the monsters barring your way. Combat is central to the game, and again, it’s great! The enemies are varied, and you will need not only your sword and shield but also many items in order to effectively fight all of them. It’s a familiar formula, and The Minish Cap executes on it very well. Flagship’s experience and skill with the franchise shows through in many ways, from the puzzles, to the new items, to the fun dungeons, and more.

The issue of originality is worth discussing, though. Flagship’s Zelda games are very good, but they do not have the same spark of originality that you see in most of Nintendo’s Zelda games. They execute on the standard Zelda formula very well, and have a few new ideas in terms of items and the world, but for the most part this game and the Oracles titles stick to formula. I appreciate innovation, and Nintendo has done some fascinating things as the Zelda seres has evolved. However, traditional 2d and Ocarina of Time-inspired 3d Zelda are some of my favorite kinds of games, so while this is an issue worth mentioning and I have criticized Flagship for this before, I also think that their games are great, because the classic Zelda formula is one of gaming’s best! And on that note, this game keeps the standard Zelda item-collection system, of getting them in dungeons as mentioned, and does not mess with that as Nintendo’s more recent titles have. I, at least, prefer things as Minish Cap does them. I’d rather progressively get items permanently as I go through a game, then have to rent them as you see in A Link Between Worlds, or just be given them all at the start as you see in Breath of the Wild. This game isn’t necesarily better than those are, it has some faults for sure. I’m just saying that in terms of game design for Zelda games, I think the standard item-collection formula is great, and I’ve never been one of those wanting the series to drastically change.

The World of the Minish

And this game does have one significant unique gameplay element to it, beyond a few unique items of course. Now, having two worlds has been a common feature in most Zelda games since A Link to the Past, but The Minish Cap takes a unique take on it, as instead of travelling through time, as previously mentioned you can shrink and see the world from the ant-sized proportions of the tiny, and eponymous, Minish! As in Oracle of Seasons you can only switch sizes at certain, predetermined points here, and this is important for many puzzles in the game, and you will spend most of your time full-sized, but still the size-change mechanic works well and adds to the game. Figuring out how to progress through the world in small form makes for some fun puzzles as you try to figure out how to reach some Minish areas and find out what is there.

However, in addition to playing as a couple of pixels on the regular map, sometimes the game zooms in and you play as regular-sized Link in a tiny world. Unfortunately I have issues with this element of the game, as it badly lacks variety. On the better side, there is one Minish town, near one Minish-scale dungeon that isn’t very different from the other ones, early in the game. There are also some caves to find where you fight bugs and such. However, the rest of the Minish areas come from two often-repeated formulas. First, there are single-room Minish houses, which have a Minish or two in them to talk to. These are usually pointless except for Kinstone fusion, though a few have actual useful hints. And second, there are entirely straight scrolling paths. The visuals here are kind of nice, as you see giant grass leaves and such, but in gameplay terms they are incredibly basic: you either go straight up and down, or straight left and right. None of these have a single bend, which is pretty weird, and most are short and present minimal challenge and have few obstacles in them. I like the size-change concept, and it’s great to have some areas where you see the world from a tiny perspective, but why are these areas so incredibly simplistic?

While the size-change idea was new for a Zelda game, the idea of having two worlds fits to formula. Flagship did try some original things in The Minish Cap, though, both good and bad. On the positive side, the game has some pretty interesting new items to get which the game makes good use of, particularly perhaps the wind-shooting item. For anyone who hasn’t played the game I don’t want to spoil them all, but it’s great that Flagship did not just reuse old items but came up with some good new ideas. Neutrally, the game has collectables — those Kinstones — that actually change the state of the world, And somewhat more questionably, Flagship made a 2d Zelda game with a difficulty level much closer to The Wind Waker than its 2d forbears. On that last note, probably the most common complaints about The Minish Cap are that the game is short, easy, and has a small world. These criticisms are largely accurate, as the game has only six dungeons, is the easiest 2d Zelda game ever made by a good margin, and will not take many hours to finish. Even so, I found the game quite fun while it lasted, playing it this time around at least.

The Overworld

The overworld is a major component of every Zelda game, and this one is no exception. The scale of that world is a definite issue I want to discuss, however. At first, The Minish Cap’s world seems to be shockingly small. You go up just a couple of areas at the start, and you’ve already explored a good chunk of the map! However, while the world feels small, it is not as limited in scope as it may appear. The side areas add some decent size to the game, and the map screen makes things look smaller than they are due to its dual-layer design — there is a single-screen map of all the areas, from which you can enter to view detailed maps of every section of the game. It’s a great, and very detailed, map screen which is incredibly useful throughout the game.

Still, you can get across this world quickly. Why is that, though? Estimating going by the map, I think that the world here is about 16 by 16 screens, so it’s not as small as it seems. There are probably two major reasons for this. First, the game spreads things out, with large buildings and fields that take up lots of space. And second, this game is, again, a lot easier than other 2d Zelda games. Where it’s easy to die a hundred times in the 2d Zelda games before this one, this time dying even ten times in the whole game is unlikely if you’re a moderately skilled gamer. I did die sometimes, and more often than I did through most of The Wind Waker, but this is probably the second-easiest Zelda game after that one. As a result of both of these factors, while there are surely a lot more tiles in this overworld than there are in Link’s Awakening, or even the Oracles games, it probably won’t take as long to explore through. Even so, as in those games this overworld is segmented. As you explore you will see many points where you will need to return later with an item you don’t have yet in order to proceed that way. As you get items you will unlock new areas, shortcuts to get to areas of the map more quickly, and more. All Zelda games do this in some way, but the style here is very reminiscent of LA and the Oracles games, and it’s fun and satisfying to reach new areas and unlock those quicker paths.

That aforementioned more spread-out feel to it that makes this world feel smaller than it is, though. I think that The Minish Cap’s world is in a middle ground between Link to the Past’s very ‘open’-feeling world and Link’s Awakening’s very closed and segmented one. Personally I much prefer the more segemented style of Link’s Awakening over the more open style of A Link to the Past, but I’d imagine fans of either one won’t prefer this over those. I like that the world is more broken up than LttP’s boring grid-of-squares world is, though. However, in my opinion the Kinstone element holds this world back, as I will get to.

So this is definitely not one of the best of the Zelda overworlds, but even so, it is a good one. The central town is large and there is a lot to do in it, first. There are people to talk to, puzzles to solve, some minigames to play, and more. I had fun exploring this version of Hyrule, and the size of the world is just about right for this somewhat short game. Of the side areas, the mountain may have been the most fun to explore, as it has a good balance between exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat. After that, finding out how to reach all of the tiny Minish-world areas in the central town was also a highlight. The world in the sky is interesting as well. Some areas aren’t as well utilized though, such as a graveyard that is oddly large for how little time you spend there. Floating around and finding new areas is fun in that classic Zelda way; there’s nothing like a Zelda game for having some of the best exploration gameplay around!

Kinstones the Overworld’s Collection Quests

I do need to discuss those Kinstones, though. Starting a bit into the game, you will start to collect items called Kinstones. You get piles of these things, and can trade them with people and, in some cases, objects, scattered around the world by pressing L when you are standing next to someone who has a Kinstone thought bubble appear by them when you’re nearby. Each character you can trade with has one half of a kinstone, and you need to match that with one of your own. There are eight or so generic kinstone types you will collect to trade with most characters, plus about ten special one-time-use ones you will use for game-critical puzzles. In total there are about 100 kinstone matches in this game, if you want to find them all. You can only trade with each character once, as once you match kinstones with someone, something will happen in the world. The plot-critical ones open up key paths you will need to go through after matching kinstones.

The other, regular Kinstone matches give you some kind of item reward, but you’ll have to go and get it. Rewards vary from a treasure chest appearing somewhere, to ground appearing that allows you access to a previously inacessible cave, to a small lake draining giving you access to a treasure-filled cave, and more. Helpfully, after matching kinstones the point where this change has appeared is marked on the map, so you won’t forget which kinstone unlocks you haven’t gotten yet. There are no map markers for characters you haven’t matched kinstones with yet, unfortunately, so you’ll just need to wander around a lot or use a guide if you want to completely fill out the map and find all of them. I won’t be trying to do that, though, as a lot of these rewards are not too useful. Sometimes you will get good stuff like shortcuts or heart containers, but other times you get … a kinstone. For your kinstone and time. Great. Rupee rewards lose their value past the mid-game as well, as once you’ve bought the more expensive items there is really nothing else to do with the things. Also, I don’t like the idea of a Zelda game with this amount of fetch-quest backtracking in it, if you want to actually have a complete world map — after all, as since every kinstone match puts something new on the map, even if you’ve explored everything, you need to find all of the things to see the “real” map. That’s a very grindey game element to tack on to this game. On the one hand it’s good that there is something here to keep you playing, as the short and mostly easy main game won’t keep you playing for more than ten-something hours. Trying to find all the kinstones will take a lot longer than that, unless you look up their locations online. However, adding lots of fetch quest grinding to your game isn’t the best way to add replay value to a game, and I just don’t like a Zelda game where so much of the world is hidden unless I do a LOT of fetch quests! Even if most of that stuff isn’t important, I want to know what it is… but don’t really want to spend the time wandering around to find every match. Bah.

Oh, on a final side note in this section, in addition to kinstones, The Minish Cap has one other somewhat grindey collection element. As you play you will get shells. These can be spent at a shop that unlocks in town later in the game which essentially is a gatcha machine. That is, you spend shells, and get a random figurine reward as a result. The more shells you spend, the more likely it is that you get a new figure and not one you have already. There are 120 figures to collect, so while it’s easy to get a bunch of them, collecting them all will be a frustrating, and entirely random, task. It’s easy to get shells, but going through those text boxes at the gatcha shop takes a tediously long amount of time; collecting these figures is a big time-waster even if you have lots of shells, and the more you get the less often you get new ones. Fortunately I don’t care much about collecting all of these things, but people who want them all might be frustrated here. Of all the collection things in Zelda games this is one of the least fun to get.

The Dungeons

In addition to the overworld, the other major component of a Zelda game are the dungeons. There are only six dungeons, but they’re all fun to explore. As in the overworld, dungeons have a mixture of old and new puzzle and combat elements, as the new and old items are both used. Each dungeon heavily uses the item you get in that dungeon, but many items are used in multiple dungeons, which is nice; in some Zelda games you only use an item in its dungeon and then almost never after, but while some items here are like that more are widely used. As for the dungeon designs, they are linear, and don’t match up to the best Zelda dungeons but do have plenty of good moments in them. Jumping around in the sky dungeon’s a fun challenge, for example. Combat scenarios such as facing off against the games’ heavily armored knights is also pretty fun, once you figure out how to fight them. And more.

However, As with everything about The Minish Cap, the dungeons here are relatively few and mostly won’t put up the kind of fight you might expect from a 2d Zelda game. This game is quite fun while it lasts, but it is the easiest 2d Zelda game and that is quite noticeable here. The lack of challenge comes from multiple fronts. You don’t take a lot of damage when you’re hit, it’s easy to get a lot of hearts in this game, and most enemies are much less threatening than they are in earlier 2d Zelda games. However, I did have fun most of the time, and the game does present a challenge sometimes. I did die once in a while, and this game is not nearly as kind as 3d Zelda games from The Wind Waker or beyond when you do, as you get sent back to the beginning of the dungeon. Dungeons do have one, or usually two, warp points in them, so you aren’t stuck redoing dungeons all the way from the beginning every time you die as A Link to the Past annoyingly requires, though, so it’s balanced fairly well. I think the punishment for dying here is just about right. Also, some enemies hit harder, and in dungeons hearts are not always plentiful; there are always certain points that always drop hearts, but you may not be near those areas when you need them, so there are moments of tension. You can get some healing items, but this is limited by the number of bottle items you have collected. I only got two of the possible four that are hidden away in the game, so the final boss fight particularly was nicely challenging due to limited health and enemies which hit somewhat hard.

Even so, with only about six dungeons, four for four elements and a few others at key moments, this game has fewer dungeons than other 2d Zelda games do. Several 3d Zelda games from this era also have six or fewer dungeons, including both Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker, but it’s just as unfortunate here as it is in The Wind Waker. It doesn’t feel like the game is unfinished as The Wind Waker kind of does, though, particularly with its ‘there should be a dungeon here’ moment; The Minish Cap just feels like it was designed to be a short game, with optional collection elements padding it out for people who want to spend more time with it. That works, and the results are pretty good, but a bit more substance might have been nice. Still, I like what dungeons this game has.

Graphics and Sound

The Minish Cap is, for the most part, a good-looking game. The regular-scale world has a pretty standard cartoony Zelda look. The game has a strong cartoony art style, with a light color palette that fits the GBA’s screen well. Remember, with an original GBA dark palettes can be very hard to see so the lighter palette is appreciated. This games’ look is definitely not my favorite Zelda artstyle, not even close, but it’s a fine looking game with that Zelda style to it. I’ve always had one complaint about The MInish Cap’s visuals, though, and it’s that some of the Minish-scale stuff looks … off, somehow, to me. The giant leaves and such look much more realistic than the rest of the graphics, and the contrast doesn’t work for me. This has always bothered me about The Minish Cap.

Aurally, The Minish Cap has a good soundtrack, but a lot of the tracks are classic Zelda songs reused again. It’s a great soundtrack of course, but is far from original. The limited audio capabilitites of the GBA hold it back as well.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I may have complained about this game a lot in this review, but I really do think that The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap is a very good to great game. It may have a lot of little issues, from graphical weirdness to seriously lacking challenge and length, the somewhat small-feeling world, and the annoying collection-quest elements, but it also has fantastic gameplay, just about perfect play control, a solid mix of old and new puzzle and action elements, fun dungeons, a mostly good look, and more. The good and bad are both significant here, but overall the strengths much outweigh the downsides of this game. I think I will give it an A- score, which is good, but not quite on par with the best Zelda games. That is probably about the right place for it. Any classic Zelda fan who hasn’t played The Minish Cap absolutely should! It’s a very fun, ten-ish hour experience you will probably enjoy. If you don’t like Zelda this one won’t change your mind on that, but for most The Minish Cap is well worth a try. Know about its downsides, but don’t let them stop you from playing it.

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Small article update

In the WiiWare / Wii VC Recommendations List (http://www.blackfalcongames.net/?p=364) I fixed a few minor text issues and, more importantly, added comments about what I think about most of the titles I have for WiiWare.  It’s a small but, I think, nice addition to this list.

Let this also serve as a reminder that there are only a few months left to add points to buy WiiWare games with to your Wii accounts, and some of those games are pretty good, so buy them while you can!

Posted in Modern Games, Nintendo Wii, Updates | Tagged | Leave a comment