Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Super Mario 3DS

On Tuesday I was lucky enough to attend a Nintendo showcase primarily designed to show off forthcoming 3DS titles, the sort of high-profile games that will hopefully give the company's beleaguered new handheld the sales boost it so badly needs. I'll be writing about some of these, the likes of Starfox 64 3D and Luigi's Mansion 2, for a forthcoming D+PAD Magazine feature. One of the games that I won't be covering, but the one I probably spent most time with at the show (just edging out Nintendo's aforementioned remake of Lylat Wars) was the new Mario. The title isn't confirmed, but I'd be disappointed to see it change; Super Mario is a simple, bold and altogether appropriate declaration of intent. It seemingly strives to be a definitive Mario experience, and could be close to getting there.

Super Mario, from the thirty minutes I spent with it, appears to strike a wonderfully judged balance between Mario classicism and the more contemporary Wii adventures. Although both Galaxy games retained the spirit of the Mushroom Kingdom, whilst providing a platform upon which Nintendo's game designers could push their imaginations in some dazzling directions, there was something about their restlessness (particularly in Super Mario Galaxy 2) which was arguably at odds with the idea of a cohesive 3D playground most successfully realised back in 1996's Super Mario 64. Here, as in the earlier 2D games, successive Mario levels would be platforming-based variations within a specific world. These worlds may have become progressively richer and more diverse as hardware developed (compare, say, the levels in Super Mario Bros with those of Super Mario World, the numbers of the first game being replaced by named areas such as Chocolate Island), but their ethos remained the same.

So when Shigeru Miyamoto himself describes Super Mario as being a cross between the Marios of 64 and Galaxy, we hope this is what he means: sets of self-enclosed levels based within identifiably Mario terrain, albeit with Galaxy-esque twists. As opposed to manic deconstructions of game space anchored only by the presence of the fat plumber and his friends. But of course, either outcome (or as is more likely, something in the middle of both) will be more than okay. In our brief hands-on we experienced the return of Super Mario Bros 3's iconic raccoon suit, a level solely based on the sort of disappearing folding tiles so familiar from the Wii titles and a fine use of 3D which, in one witty moment, allowed you to go behind the brick staircase that you'd otherwise traditionally clamber up before jumping to the end of level flag's highest point. Yep, the end of level flags are back.

Here's a picture of the bespoke area in which I played Super Mario (even the normally disinterested assistant seems to be absorbed):

Out by the end of the year.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Child of Eden: Hope Archive

I'm on YouTube trying to get some help with progressing through the Hope Archive, Child Of Eden's bonus challenge level, but tellingly the only two videos I find both have the players dying in much the same area as I have been, repeatedly, over the last week. It's those grids of squares that push up at the start of Level 6. The only way to clear them is by shooting the eight randomly placed red squares on each panel's surface. Manage to clear one and there's suddenly another right behind it, the red targets at opposing ends to each other, mocking our powers of reaction and speed. If it isn't the second panel that gets me then it's usually the third. I think about using Euphoria, Child Of Eden's name for a smartbomb, but I have a feeling I'll need it for later. If I even get that far. I've only ever cleared Level 6 a handful of times (once without losing any life or Euphoria) but then as my hastily scrawled notes on Level 7 bemoan: "All okay, apart from the large yellow/blue expanding floor". The Hope Archive is, at time of writing, the insurmountable pinnacle at the centre of what is 2011's most spell-binding gaming construction. I won't even begin to tackle the entire game in this one post but the Hope Archive seems like a good place to start decoding Child Of Eden's magnificence, however difficult it may be.

Unlocked upon completing the main game, the Hope Archive is a cute nod to Child Of Eden's spiritual predecessor, the much celebrated Rez. Whereas the core Child Of Eden game largely tackles the organic, its journey across five distinct stages running what appears to be the gamut of Earth's environments, Hope is something altogether different - meaner, tougher, albeit the same game as before stripped to its core. The enemies in Hope are those of hard geometry, the passage through strictly linear, the design resting on pure abstraction - yellow blocks, red cubes, floating neon debris, those aforementioned grid surfaces, floating up to meet you like the tiled floors in some cyberkinetic nightmare. Unburdened by narrative it distills what are already mechanics fine-tuned to near-perfection into an experience which surpasses Rez in several key areas.

The level of immersion is increased not merely through the absence of an on-screen avatar (a key difference between this game and Rez) but also with the enhanced interplay between sound and visuals. Every shot of your Tracer (Child Of Eden's second firing mode) adds the sound of a harsh drum pattern to an already busy audio track, while your main weapon offers a comparatively softer beat. So while destroying the electronic enemies you're also simultaneously constructing music, your input ensuring that each 'recording' is different to the last. In the later stages of Hope the relationship between the rushing speed of the visuals, the frantic drum and bass of the music, and your interaction with both fields, is astonishingly engineered. It's also a rare example of a game in which the entirety of the soundtrack could be said to be digetic, in that both the music and the sound effects appear to be coming from within the gameworld (another example from the top of my head would be Grand Theft Auto, and its excellent use of in-game radio stations).

Asked about the reasons why Hope has to be unlocked, as opposed to being available to play from the start, creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi said: "There should always be something for people to aspire to. And when you go through a lot of work to create a specific sort of experience, like in Child Of Eden, you want people to taste that first before you bring dessert". Hope anchors Child Of Eden to the one tradition without which all its ecological and philosophical ambitions would be rendered pointless: that of being a uniquely thrilling videogame. One day I'll get around to seeing it all.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D

The first appearance of Mercenaries, in the form in which it exists here on 3DS, came upon completing Resident Evil 4. This bonus mode suddenly appeared out of nowhere and turned what was already one of the all-time great action games into a package of incomparable value. The main game alone warranted numerous playthroughs, but it was the addictive Mercenaries mode, in which high scores were chased within time-limits, that kept Resident Evil 4 in millions of Gamecubes many years after its release in 2005. With Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D Capcom appear to be doing things slightly differently – this is the same extra mode, but like a mutated zombie limb, it’s flailing and detached from a full-bodied host. Value isn’t so forthcoming.

Much of the fondness for the 2005 version of Mercenaries, despite being an exceptional game in its own right, perhaps rests on the context of its unveiling, it being an unexpected dessert to the astounding main course that was Capcom’s revolution of its key survival horror franchise. What Mercenaries did was streamline the new gameplay mechanics that Resident Evil 4 introduced into a structure that focussed on the core of what the series had always been about: panic, tension, frantic shifts in momentum and the killing of zombies. So in a strange way Resident Evil 4 single-player was ostensibly an effective introduction to Mercenaries; the controls were second nature by the time players escaped on that jet ski at the end, and so when Mercenaries unlocked they were able to jump straight into it.

This 3DS version of Mercenaries however seems primarily interested in testing the capabilities of the hardware, at the expense of providing the player with an engaging experience. In this respect at least Capcom have succeeded. The right shoulder button handles aiming, the circle pad controls character movement, while the inventory, which includes the requisite herbs and grenades, is pushed to the touch screen – the layout works well, and soon becomes familiar. In fact, given the ease with which the familiar Resident Evil controls translate to 3DS it’s frustrating that Capcom didn’t decide to simply remake Resident Evil 4 in 3D, rather than release this half-hearted stop-gap. One issue with the 3DS’s smaller screen is that it’s sometimes difficult to get your bearings on the space, navigation around the game’s compact arenas not proving quite as easy as it did in previous versions.

The missions in Mercenaries 3D take place across five different levels, and incorporate a limited array of locations and enemies from parts four and five of the main series. These missions have varying objectives, designed along the same rigid parameters of time and score. So one mission will give you a set number of enemies to kill, while another will challenge you to get as high a score as you can within three minutes (extra time can be gained through physical attacks and breaking time bonus sculptures). Occasionally you’ll face off against a boss. Each of these missions will have an optimum strategy and route, which garners the highest score. In theory then there is enough here to keep player engagement; after all, such score-based arcade shooters thrive on replayability, but some peculiar design decisions prevent this potential being realised.

One problem is the lack of online leaderboards (or, er, leaderboards of any kind), which instantly kills any sense of competition between gamers that could have been created. At the very least such an option would have been a quick way to gauge your relative skill, and give something to aim for. This neutering of the score-attack game’s essence puts many other aspects of the game in a poorer light. These include the lack of variety in missions as well as their paucity – you’ll soon play through every one, and the pull to keep returning them to unlock extra skills and medals is a faint one. Even the much-publicised lack of a save reset is compounded by the game’s structure, as unlockables stay unlocked, meaning anybody inheriting a copy will find themselves with little but the scores of the previous owner to aim for. Capcom’s reasons for implementing such a feature are understandable, but less so when they’re part of a game so starved of substance and content.

Visually it looks and moves fine, albeit with the slight tendency to slow down at exceptionally busy moments, while the 3D effect is excellent. Online co-op is also a welcome feature that does provide a good excuse to play the same missions again, albeit with different partners. But ultimately Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, for all its combo streaks and rank awards and nods towards arcade addiction, can’t quite shake off the feeling that it’s a game that, like its predecessors, would have been more satisfying as a bonus mode, perhaps to the forthcoming Revelations (a brief demo for which is included here). Isolated and presented in the way it has been here, the limitations of Mercenaries are exposed.

- Originally published on D+PAD Magazine.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

2011. Progress: 50%.

Writing about videogames. What's the point? I've found myself asking this question more and more in the last few weeks, and as any frequent visitors to this blog would have noticed (yes, all two of you, etc etc), I don't as yet appear to have any great desire to go about overcoming my personal issues with what, increasingly, has come to feel like a bit of a chore. Writing about videogames - it's not quite dancing about architecture, but these days, for me, it doesn't feel far off. I think the problem is I barely have time to play videogames, let alone have the clear head space to sit at my laptop long enough to try and communicate what makes them so brilliant/maddening/relevant/pointless. No doubt this will pass. The first six months of 2011 have largely - but not entirely - disappeared in a hazy, faintly depressed, fog of noise and isolation. The only videogaming experience that jumps out at me in all this time - but then, my memory is often awful - has been the weekend in June I spent with Child Of Eden; an incredible, sensory experience, it's exactly the sort of dizzying game that would re-ignite my love for the medium if it wasn't already so buoyant. See, I LOVE videogaming, as much as I ever have. The problem isn't that I'm getting jaded and old. Nor is it that the games being released are rubbish (though they largely are). It's just that I, personally, still find myself wanting to play videogames as much as I want to write about them, but not having the desire to make the time to do either, or both. That might sound a tad like an oxymoron (and a whining self-pitying one at that), but I realise that. At least I hope I do. I think this blog entry, even more than the others throughout Moon Witch Cartridge, has been a mini-catharsis, written purely for my benefit. Halfway through the year then, is as apt a time as any to reflect. To think about all the things there is to do, like writing about videogames (instead of, well, actually going off and writing about videogames). To think about whether Child Of Eden is really my only standout videogaming highlight of the year thus far (a list of assumed highlights of the year, with the likes of L.A Noire and Portal 2, is also incidentally the same as my list of games bought that I haven't got around to playing yet). To think about what the year ahead will bring. As a reasonably flippant response to the opening question would be: what's the point to anything?.

Here then, off the top of my head, are my gaming highlights of 2011 thus far. Not in any particular order, apart from number one. I will probably regret this list, and in all likelihood this blog post, tomorrow.

1. Child Of Eden.
2. The Nintendo 3DS's StreetPass mode, and all the attendant addiction to progressing through the Quest, collecting Play Coins, finding new Pokemon..., it creates.
3. L.A. Noire's pitch-perfect poster art, especially the gorgeous large-scale ones seen across the Underground.
4. The PSN hacking debacle. Not a nice highlight of course, but notable nonetheless.
5. Nintendo's E3 conference. Rarely has a new piece of hardware been as strangely, frustratingly, introduced as the Wii U.
6. The EDGE magazine redesign. Writing about videogames may induce a little shrug, but reading about them can still be illuminating.
7. Selling a promotional Mortal Kombat t-shirt on a popular internet auction site for more money then it would cost to buy one and a half copies of the actual game.
8. Cory Arcangel's bowling videogame audio-visual installation (and delightful tribute to gaming history) at the Barbican, Beat The Champ.

9. Duke Nukem Forever reviews.
10. Adam Buxton's Song Wars entry 'Party Pom Pom', about his children playing videogames. Sample lyric:
How are you enjoying all the humiliation? / Would you like some more on your Daddy’s Playstation? / Hold up a second cos your Mummy’s coming in / Save the level and wait for the speech to begin...

I'm off to play Super Mario Galaxy 2 now. EVERYTHING IS OKAY.