Undertale – Masterpiece or Overrated?

Flowey the flower

Undertale. When one mentions that title, fond memories come to mind, or the thought, “That game again?” Indeed, since its release in 2015, Undertale has become something of a phenomenon in the gaming world. Created by Toby Fox, Undertale is a sprite-based RPG that has the look of an oldschool RPG like Earthbound. The game was so big on PC, it was ported to PS4 two years later. This past September, it was ported over to Nintendo Switch. The game has a very loyal fanbase, with tons of fan art and animations populating the web.

When anything becomes this popular, people will emerge saying the media in question is overrated. Many of these people have never played the game, yet will cringe when anyone mentions it by name. (It is similar to the My Little Pony phenomenon that began in 2010 and continues to this day.) These people who jump in forums to say something negative just because the title is poplar do not contribute anything.

Do not mistake me though. While there are many people who despise popular things just because they are popular, there are  those who legitimately think something is overrated. In Undertale’s case, perhaps some may say it is not as good as people claim, or it got overblown in popularity simply because it has quirky characters. That is the aim of this article: to explore Undertale and see if it is a masterpiece, or greatly exaggerated in quality. Before continuing, it is important to note that one thing cannot be denied: it is an acclaimed title. Every version of the game – PC, PS4, Switch – has a score of 92 on Metacritic. This means that many critics agree the game is well made. What we’ll be looking at is what makes Undertale an experience, and if that experience is a good one, or an overrated one.

To begin, one has to go back to the start of the game.

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After the intro and choosing a name for the ‘Fallen Human,’ you are given control of the playable character, whom we later learn is named Frisk. The child moves about on a grassy field, and then you can move Frisk into the next area. In this area, there is another grassy field with a little flower in the center of it. The flower has a face, and greets the main character.

“Howdy! I’m Flowey. Flowey the Flower!” the flower says.

I remember my thoughts as I played this opening sequence. The seemingly friendly flower notices that Frisk is new to the Underground. He explains the battle system on another screen. I notice a little heart, which Flowey explains is my SOUL, “the very culmination of your being!” Flowey then mentions that my SOUL begins weak, but can get stronger with LV. Makes sense, right? Flowey then says that LV stands for “LOVE.” Already, the game is playing with the player’s expectations when it comes to an RPG. “LV” would normally mean “level,” but not in Undertale. The next part is what really kicks the game off.

Flowey states that LOVE is shared through “friendliness pellets,” and proceeds to share some with me. I happily run into these pellets, not knowing the flower’s nefarious plan until they decrease my health to just one percent. Flowey gives a sinister smile and says,

“In this world, it’s kill or BE killed. Why would ANYONE pass up an opportunity like this?!”

At this point, I’m shocked by what’s happening. Interestingly, the dialogue changes if one had decided to avoid the so-called friendliness pellets. It is interesting to consider why someone would run into the pellets, or avoid them. Either way, Flowey surrounds me with pellets and proceeds to kill Frisk. However, he is stopped by another character, whom is called Toriel. Toriel takes Frisk to her home away from danger.

At this point, I’m glad, but am a bit unnerved when Toriel later says, “I’ve also prepared a curriculum for your education.” Wait, what? I can’t stay here lady – I gotta get back home. After requesting how to escape the RUINS, Toriel tries to convince me not to go and goes on ahead to block the exit. However, I have to push forward. Toriel says, “Prove to me you are strong enough to survive”, and thus begins the first boss battle. Because I liked Toriel, I tried to find a away to spare her, because the beauty of this game is that it offers a “Mercy”, button, where you don’t have to kill an opponent. Undertale’s tagline is, “The friendly RPG where nobody has to die.”

Sadly, I did not find a a way to spare Toriel, and ended up killing her. (It didn’t occur to me that I could reset my save file to try again, which is a concept that will be mentioned soon.) After exiting the RUINS, I see Flowey again. I remember my exact thought during this: “Not that thing again.” After Flowey taunts the player, he leaves, and Frisk leaves to the next area. This is where the title screen pops up. This is where the adventure begins.

Simply put, the opening act of Undertale is an engaging way to begin the adventure.

Frisk meets sans

The main goal of Undertale at first is to escape the Underground. However, to escape, Frisk will have to battle King Asgore. You see, as the intro sequence explains, there was a war between monsters and humans. The monsters, led by Asgore, were driven underground. Now there is a barrier, and the only way to break it is with seven human souls. Asgore has six already, so if he gets the soul of Frisk, the monsters will be able to return to the above-ground. It is an interesting dynamic, as monsters are not inherently evil. This dynamic results in a fascinating sequence at the end of the neutral run, which will be addressed soon. But first, one has to mention the characters Frisk runs into along the way.

During the journey, Frisk meets a number of diverse characters, such as the humorous, yet mysterious Sans, Sans’ corny, yet lovable brother Papyrus, the “The heroine that NEVER gives up” Undyne, among others. These characters have diverse personalities, which is thanks to the writing. I couldn’t help but smirk at Papyrus’ dialogue, or be unnerved at Metteton’s love for an entertaining show. Toby Fox is a master of creating likable, well defined characters. One is never tempted to skip the text boxes, because the player always wants to see what they will say next.

Undertale’s cast of characters is unique and diverse.

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So what’s the deal with a game where no one has to die, you might ask. This is where the true beauty lies in Undertale, and is something that makes the player ask philosophical questions. It is almost always easier to kill enemies and opponents than it is to have mercy on them. It often takes passion to look for ways to spare a character. Killing characters has an impact on the story as well, showing how much thought was put into this game. You have a choice: kill or have mercy.

In the battle against Asgore, the player gets extremely close to finishing the king off. As Asgore kneels defeated, he gives his story on why he wants to free monsters. It’s emotional, and at this point, the game gives the player the choice of whether to finish him off, or have mercy. After hearing his story, how could one still be motivated to kill him? I picked the mercy option, and the king was surprised and happy. However, something else kills him, and Flowey emerges. After taunting dialogue, such as Flowey saying he’ll save over my save file so he can kill me multiple times, you battle the final boss of the neutral run, Photoshop Flowey. I want to discuss the aftermath of this fight.

After the souls revolt, Flowey is defeated. We see a picture of him battered and bruised. At this point, the game gives you the option to either kill or have mercy. I’ll tell you, I very much wanted to kill that flower. As opposed to Asgore, whom wasn’t really a bad guy, Flowey was a psychopath. He wanted to kill me at the start of the game, and he tortured and taunted me during this battle with him. I was ready to kill him, but I knew mercy was there as an option. But why would I have mercy on something that has caused me so much pain?

Here’s the thing, if you do decide to kill Flowey, he looks at you with a deranged smile and says, “I knew you had it in you!” before dying. At this point, does the player feel accomplished, or a bit melancholy? Was killing Flowey the right thing?

I decided to go the mercy route. Why? You see, Flowey’s philosophy is that “it’s kill or be killed.” By having mercy on him, I am showing that actually, there is true love and mercy in the world. It doesn’t have to be “kill or be killed.” Here’s something to think about. When first picking the mercy option on Flowey, it doesn’t end the event. You have to keep going to the mercy option. In-between, Flowey will say, “Do you really think I’ve learned anything from this? No”, “I’ll come back,” “I’ll kill you, ” “I’ll kill everyone,” “I’ll kill everyone you love.” During all this, you still have the option to stop pressing mercy, and kill him. The game challenges you as Flowey says these things; are you DETERMINED to be a merciful person? Are you DETERMINED to showcase a philosophy that is the opposite of his? As you press mercy, Flowey becomes angry and questions what the player is doing; he doesn’t understand. I think this is one of the most fascinating encounters in gaming history.

Undertale forces the player to take a stance: have mercy, or kill. Are you willing to have mercy on the worst kind of person, someone whom has wronged you? It’s much easier to finish that person off than have mercy. Are you willing to go the extra mile and take a merciful stance? Are you DETERMINED to do so?

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Undertale’s story is certainly interesting, but how about its actual gameplay? In order to be critically acclaimed, you must have good gameplay. Undertale’s gameplay is unique in that it avoids the usual RPG format. You control a heart in real-time and avoid enemy fire. It’s fun, and led to some great boss encounters. The battle against Photoshop Flowey is one of the most memorable boss fights in recent history. This is helped by the glorious soundtrack. I think it would be hard for anyone to deny that Undertale has a good soundtrack. From the fan favorite ‘Megalovania,’ to the ominous ‘Another medium,’ a major part of what makes Undertale engaging is its soundtrack. ‘Finale’ and ‘Hopes and Dreams’ are two beautiful final boss themes.

Undertale’s gameplay is fun. The boss encounters are interesting, and the soundtrack greatly enhances the experience.

 

True Final boss

Now we come to what makes Undertale a truly complete experience. After you beat the game the first time around, you can do it again to get the true ending. By going back and having mercy on everyone and completing certain things, you gain access to the true final boss and true ending, the “True Pacifist Route” as it’s called. Here you encounter Flowey again. He absorbs the souls of everyone and transforms into a dark final boss in the vein of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. This battle is a fascinating final encounter. It even says, “It’s the end.”

You see, the battle is reminiscent of the final battle in Earthbound. In Earthbound, you battle Giygas. You can’t beat him conventionally. Instead, you have to “pray.” There is no other way to beat him, except through the power of prayer. In Undertale, you can’t beat Flowey conventionally. Instead, you first have to “save” the souls of those he has consumed. Finally, you have to “save” Flowey himself. Flowey’s backstory is fascinating, and here we have Frisk appealing to Flowey. Flowey, seeing the love all these souls have for Frisk, and his own past memories with the Fallen Human, gives up and breaks the barrier. It’s bittersweet, as Flowey (real name Asriel) stays behind because he will transform into a soulless flower again. At this point, Frisk is given the choice to hug Asriel. It’s an emotional ending.

Sans

However, what happens if instead of having mercy on everyone, you decide to kill everyone in the game? This results in the “Genocide Route,” and Frisk eventually being taken over by Chara, the original Fallen Human. This is intriguing, and features an incredibly memorable battle against Sans. Here’s the really interesting thing: if you do a Genocide run before doing a True Pacifist run, you will lose the Pacifist ending. Instead of getting the happy ending, in the sequence we see red Xs on the characters faces in a portrait, and later Chara laughing at the player. This is brilliant, because it shows that there are consequences for completing a genocide route. You can’t go back and save everyone after killing them. Rather, you have to live with the fact that you decided to engage in the Genocide route, and there’s no going back.

Undertale’s True Pacifist Route is a brilliant final chapter. The game gives you the option: pacifist, or genocide. There is no middle ground here, there is only one final ending, and you have the choice of either having mercy, or killing everyone.

Ending

In conclusion, I have to say that Undertale is a great experience. I would call it a masterpiece – with its engrossing story, unique gameplay, diverse characters, and philosophy. The game is something of a deconstruction of the RPG genre, and comes down to a single question: What is your true DETERMINATION? If one does not experience the game the same way, that is fine. Not everyone will find Undertale to be the unique experience I consider it to be. A little while ago, I played the critically acclaimed game, Journey. Although I knew it to be well-liked, I didn’t get anything out of it. It didn’t mean anything to me. But, it meant a lot to others, and that’s what matters. Undertale is not a game that is loved by everyone, but it does mean something to a lot of people. That is something important to keep in mind.

There are many games out there, but I can say that Undertale is one that will always stick with me as particularly memorable.

 

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Kirby Star Allies Review

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Kirby doesn’t talk much, but when he does say something, it’s typically something cheerful. He is a very cheerful character, but gets serious when his planet is being attacked. He’s willing to lend a hand to any stranger that comes asking for help, never giving it a second thought. It’s all these reasons and more why Kirby is a lovable character. The pink puffball first appeared on the Game Boy in Kirby’s Dreamland. He then made the jump to color in the NES’s Kirby’s Adventure. Since then, he has appeared in numerous games, becoming a flagship Nintendo title. He makes the jump to Nintendo’s latest console, the Switch, in Kirby Star Allies.

The story in Star Allies follows a mysterious being unleashing dark energy objects called “Jamba Hearts” onto Planet Popstar. These hearts affect many of the inhabitants of the planet, including King Dedede and Meta Knight. Kirby awakens to the horror, and runs off, gathering friends along the way, to rid Popstar of the Jamba Hearts and stop the mysterious menace. The story isn’t too different than previous games in the franchise. But, one can always expect a great climax in Kirby games, and it’s no different in Star Allies. Is everything else about the game great? Star Allies is a fun platformer, bringing the Kirby elements that puts the series above the standard side-scroller. However, much like contemporary Kirby games, there are not enough innovations in Star Allies to call it an amazing game.

The Good

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The Switch is Nintendo’s best system graphically speaking, meaning Kirby gets to shine in HD glory. The levels are beautiful with outstanding detail. Highlights include Castle Dedede and Reef Resort. Accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack, I was reminded of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, which featured lovely levels complemented by a wonderful soundtrack. The level design in Star Allies is often simple, but at this point, one does not expect much challenge from this series. Kirby then has to deliver in the “simply fun to play” category, and Star Allies succeeds in this regard.

Pretty levels would not be able to make up for substandard gameplay. Star Allies has the same level of high quality gameplay as previous Kirby games. If you’ve played Kirby’s Return to Dreamland or the more recent Planet Robobot, you know what to expect. The biggest feature of this game is the ability to turn foes into friends with the push of a button. When this happens, up to three characters (controlled either by the AI or human players) can follow Kirby. It’s similar to summoning a Helper in Kirby Super Star, but in this case, the allies bring with them a power first introduced in Kirby 64: the power to combine abilities.

It is a shock that this ability has been so rarely used in the games. Then again, it might lose its uniqueness if it appeared in every game. So, these “Friend Abilities” as they are called allow Kirby to mix his copy ability with the ability of an ally. A yo-yo on fire? The sword with an icy touch? Experimenting is always fun, and the Friend Abilities are nicely integrated into finding the Picture Pieces and Big Switches. As for the individual abilities, the usual ones return, along with a few new ones, such as the fun “artist” and “spider.”

Star Allies make good use of Kirby’s friends in three scenarios. One of them is making a bridge to help a Key Dee get to a door, another turning the characters into an unstoppable wheel, and the final one is the best: the friends riding together on a “Friend Star.” These Friend Star sequences are a blast, adding a high-octane feel to the game. The Friend Star is put to especially good use in the climatic boss battle. Since we’re on the subject, Star Allies continues the tradition of having an epic climax. In the final showdown scene, the player really gets a feel of Kirby’s determination to beat the opposing force.

For a couple of more positives, the game’s implementation of extra stages is a nice feature. The final extra stage has a nice tribute to Kirby’s Dreamland. (It’s a shame it wasn’t longer.) As already touched upon, the soundtrack is strong. You’ll hear the familiar themes, but also plenty of great new ones. The final few levels have some fast-paced themes to contrast the more softer sounds. One of the greatest examples of quality music is the beautiful Reef Resort theme, which once again evokes memories of Epic Yarn. This is the strongest soundtrack in a Kirby game since Epic Yarn.

The Bad

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As it’s been made evident, Star Allies follows the Kirby formula closely, but often too closely. The game does not often feel that different from its predecessors. If this was the first ever Kirby game, it would be fantastic, revolutionary even. But the fact is that it’s not the first. Kirby has been the star of numerous platformers, so it’s near baffling that Star Allies doesn’t introduce more innovations. It is possible to keep the same formula while revolutionizing it. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey did that for their respective franchises. Super Mario Odyssey was the same fundamentally as previous Mario platformers, but Odyssey took risks and delivered things that separated it from past games. Breath of the Wild kept the core aspects that have made the Zelda series appealing, while also reinventing them. These games did not stray from their fundamental concepts. Rather, these games built upon the concepts and gave us something familiar, but also brand new.

There is something I like to call the New Super Mario Bros. 2 effect. While New Super Mario Bros. 2 was a fun game and competently made, it made no progress in gameplay design from the previous two New Super Mario Bros. installments. It was essentially almost the same game. Hal Laboratory seems content on playing it safe with Kirby. There’s no reason why Star Allies couldn’t have been the revolutionary game for Kirby. The pieces are there – the epic climax, the Friend Abilities, the Friend Star- but these things are often sandwiched with an often too familiar atmosphere of normalcy. To give credit, Star Allies is not the New Super Mario Bros. 2 of Kirby. (That would be Triple Deluxe.) But, Hal seems to be in the NSMB2 mindset, which is delivering more of the same without reinvention. There are enough unique aspects of Star Allies to keep it from being called a copy of previous games, but more innovations would have been welcome.

While the friends are fun (and adorable) to have around, there are a couple of drawbacks. For one thing, you might find sometimes that they destroy an enemy you were planning to absorb. They also make already easy boss fights easier. Since we’re on the subject, the game reuses bosses too often. (You’ll be seeing Mr. Frosty more than once.) One more negative is the length. Kirby games are not typically that long, but one expects more from a $60 game. The story mode in Star Allies is about five hours, which is not terrible, but still on the shorter side. You can go back and collect the Picture Pieces and find the Big Switches, but since these are incredibly easy to find (players hoping for a challenging scavenger hunt will be disappointed), chances are you’ll find most of them on your first playthrough without losing much time. The game does feature some bonus sub-game modes, with perhaps the most notable being a boss rush called ‘The Ultimate Choice.’ So, there is some after-game content, but the main story mode needed to be a little longer.

The Verdict

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Kirby Star Allies is not the revolutionary Kirby game as Mario Odyssey was to the Mario series. But, Star Allies is still a lot of fun. The levels are nicely designed, and accompanied by a stellar soundtrack. The power to combine abilities makes a triumphant return, which enhances the already solid gameplay experience. While the main story mode is almost always not that difficult (you’ll probably never see the game over screen, and have collected over 100 lives by the end), there is some challenge to be found in the climax. Plus, game difficulty is not the sole indicator of quality. Epic Yarn was even easier, and that game is a masterpiece. What Star Allies unfortunately lacks is innovation. There are some great, innovative aspects, but the game needed more. Also, one can beat the story relatively quickly, making the $60 price questionable. (Breath of the Wild and Odyssey are at least double the length.) But overall, I had a good time playing Star Allies. It goes down as one of the more memorable Kirby experiences in recent years.

8/10

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Sonic Forces Review

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Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the biggest names in the video game industry. Back in the 90s when SEGA still made consoles, the Blue Blur was a rival to Super Mario. It’s unfortunate that quite a few of his later games were mediocre. Secret Rings, Unleashed, and more recently Boom, all helped to sour the name of Sonic when it came to quality platforming. This year looked to reverse the trend. Sonic Mania, a throwback to classic Sonic side-scrolling, released to positive reviews. Of course, the time was right for a new 3D installment as well. Sonic Forces released this past week and is the first “big” game in awhile. It brought back familiar faces and was to feature a grand storyline. Combine that with fast-paced 3D and 2D gameplay, and we have what should be a platformer resurgence for the franchise. Sadly, the concept of Forces is better than the actual product. It’s a fun game, but lacks in some key areas.

The story begins when Sonic is called in to stop Dr. Eggman once again. The hero races through Green Hill and arrives in the city. Unfortunately, Eggman seems to have recruited Chaos, Zavok, Metal Sonic and Shadow. There’s also a new villain called Infinite working alongside the doctor. Sonic is defeated, and fast forward 6 months, Dr. Eggman has taken over the world. The resistance, led by Knuckles, has to somehow win the day. Though with Sonic seemingly gone, this could get hard.

Let’s discuss the story, arguably one of the game’s primary selling points. The concept of Dr. Eggman finally winning and taking over sounds awesome. The opening scene is filled with tension as Sonic is struck by his old enemies, and also a new powerful villain that Tails says is even faster. After this, the screen goes black with the text, “With Sonic defeated, Eggman’s army quickly took over. Within months, all but a few isolated areas in the world were under their control.” …What? Instead of telling me that happened, show me. The game is incredibly short, only a little over three hours long. This is due in part to the story taking shortcuts. According to the dialogue, Sonic was captured and tortured for months. Once again, don’t tell me, show me. Later in the game, Infinite traps Sonic and the Avatar in “Null Space.” Some time should have been spent in there, but the two heroes escape a few seconds later!

As one can see, the story seems to rush itself for no reason. Back in the early 2000s, the Sonic games had excellent, well-paced stories. Adventure 2 still stands above the rest when it comes to quality storytelling with actual emotion. Forces often lacks that emotional punch (Sonic was tortured for months, but when we find him, he has no bruises and gives no indication that he endured hardship) and has rushed pacing. Also, Sonic’s old enemies returning ended up being a massive disappointment – almost false advertising even. The story is still fun, but it’s a shame to think about what could have been. Infinite gets quality dialogue and is an interesting character. His last scene was anti-climatic sadly; he should have come back and be the true final boss.

The gameplay is another primary reason why one would pick up this game. The main Sonic gameplay uses a refined engine from Sonic Unleashed. This is sometimes a good thing, and a bad thing. It’s fun to blast through levels, but I can’t say there’s quality level design at work here when it comes to the main Sonic’s gameplay. The problem isn’t really in the levels themselves: the problem is the length. Just about every level you can beat in under two minutes. So, it’s hard to enjoy a level because it’s over incredibly quick. Ironically, the boost mechanic ends up almost being a negative, because it speeds up already short levels. (You can almost blast through Mystic Jungle completely with boost.) Why were the levels so short? It’s baffling.

Classic Sonic returns for retro gameplay. Again, the levels are too short. It’s a shame, because there is some quality design here. Iron Fortress late in the game was genuinely challenging, and even featured a nice auto-scrolling section. Just when I’m really enjoying the platforming, the level ends. This could have been better if each level had a second act, but that isn’t the case. There is a third type of gameplay, and that’s the “Avatar’s.” For some reason, Sonic Team thought fans would want to create their own character. To be fair, the Avatar’s gameplay isn’t bad. Personally, I would have rather been playing as Sonic but the Avatar’s levels were solid. (They are also sadly short as well.) The ability to customize Avatar’s weapon is a nice feature.

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Sonic Adventure 2 still features the best platforming of all the 3D Sonic games, and that came out over 15 years ago. The gameplay was fast, but not too fast where you’re zooming through the entire stage. The stages were of great length and memorable. (We all still remember City Escape and Metal Harbor.) You won’t be remembering many, if any, stages in Forces because they’re over before they get really good. Also, the gameplay mechanics didn’t seem very tight at times. Classic Sonic and Avatar in his/her 2D sections seemed loose, thus making some simple jumps seem almost risky.

One consistently strong aspect of the game is the soundtrack. From the heroic ‘Fist Bump’ to the villainous theme of Infinite, the music is one of the best in the franchise. That’s another reason why it’s too bad the levels are short: the music ends along with them. I wanted to keep listening to the amazing ‘Guardian Rock’ and ‘Aqua Road’ songs. The boss battles are solid. The Death Crab battle is well done and intense. It was lazy, however, for the big Infinite battle to be a re-skin of the earlier fight with Metal Sonic.

Overall, Sonic Forces is a missed opportunity for something truly great. I had fun playing through it – the gameplay and music is a pleasure. Some of the levels have thematic quality (the Death Egg robots in the background of Ghost Town is one such example) and surprisingly the Avatar’s gameplay is interesting. Sadly, the levels are too short to enjoy. The game is probably the shortest Sonic 3D game, clocking in at a little over 3 hours, which is criminally short. Even the story is disappointing. There’s some great cutscenes, but too much untapped potential and often lack of emotion to be invested if you don’t care about the characters. One can mock Sonic 06’s romance, but the plot there was engaging and well paced. Forces comes off as a rushed gameplay experience.

6/10

Super Mario Odyssey Review

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Super Mario. Those two words mean a lot of things for many people. For some, it references the nostalgic days of playing Super Mario Bros. on the NES in the 80s. For others, it’s about modern installments such as going through the new arrivals list in Super Mario Maker. And then for the rest, it’s a constant reminder of what quality platforming looks like. Super Mario Bros. was not the first video game, but it set the standard of what a quality platforming adventure is all about. In fact, Mario has been in the business of setting standards in the video game industry. First with Super Mario Bros., then with Super Mario 64 which defined 3D platforming going forward. This year marks a special time for Nintendo. The company released its latest console, the Switch, in March. Just as with any Nintendo home console, a new main Mario game was announced. That game was Super Mario Odyssey.

When Mario was jumping over barrels in 8-bit form while Mayor Pauline sang the now iconic ‘Jump Up, Superstar!’ at New Donk City, it was at that moment I knew that Super Mario Odyssey was a revolution. Not only was it a revolution, it was a celebration of what has made Super Mario the face of video gaming as a whole. It takes the concept of previous platformers, specifically Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64, and delivers an exciting experience for the current generation. As you walk up the stairs of the dark Ruined Kingdom, and later rush into the wedding hall for the final showdown, you know that Odyssey will go down as a legend.

“In the skies above Peach’s castle…” the text says as you start a new game. We’re then shown as exciting  sequence of Mario doing battle with Bowser atop the latter’s airship as Princess Peach hangs in the balance. Bowser in his new wedding tuxedo manages to hit Mario with his top hat, and the hero falls a great distance. Mario’s hat is shredded by the airship’s propeller, and soon we meet Cappy. The opening isn’t quite as thematic as the intro to the first Super Mario Galaxy, but it still nicely sets up the story. So, Mario meets a little ghost whom can transform into different hats and “possess” other characters. It turns out that Bowser also kidnapped Cappy’s sister, so he and Mario have a common goal: stop Bowser’s wedding with Peach. Cap Kingdom serves as a great tutorial area as the player gets to know Mario’s controls (anyone who has played Super Mario 64 will feel right at home) and how Cappy works. Let’s discuss Cappy for a bit.

Some part of me was worried that the game would rely too much on Cappy’s “capture” ability. This ability was heavily featured in marketing. It looked fun, but at the same time, if the game relied too much on the gimmick, some of the quality platforming could be lost. This is not the case. Cappy is used to enhance the experience and provide unique ways to go through the levels. From Mario becoming a frog in Cap Kingdom, to becoming a Banzai Bill to break through stone blocks, Cappy is smartly utilized. I haven’t mentioned how thrilling it is to become a Tyrannosaurus Rex or to swim through the water as a Cheep Cheep. Cappy is also utilized greatly in the boss fights, such as possessing a Gushen to blast water at Mollusque-Lanceur, and having Madame Broode’s golden Chain Chomp ram into her. Also, there’s almost nothing as satisfying as reigning down blows on Bowser with the Koopa King’s own hat.

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The boss battles are well designed and a lot of fun. Who can forget taking control of Knucklotec’s fist and then ramming it into his face? How about using a tank to blast away the MechaWiggler that’s wreaking havoc in the Metro Kingdom? I’ll never forget those, but perhaps the most epic was the fight against the Lord of Lightning atop the Ruined Kingdom. This was an example of showing how realistic graphics can exist in a Mario game. The Broodal fights are simplistic, but fun. Typically, the boss battles aren’t too difficult. This is understandable because the Mario series has been known for being accessible for all ages. Whereas a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild might attract older players, the Mario series attracts audiences of all ages. The boss fights, while not too difficult, are unique and provide a memorable experience. The final Bowser battle provides some good challenge and patterns to memorize.

As with previous Mario games, the worlds in Super Mario Odyessey are incredible. Whereas Sunshine and Galaxy are limited by theme, Odyssey holds no limitations. We have the standard grassland in the form of Cascade Kingdom, the frosty Snow Kingdom, the food-themed Luncheon Kingdom, the New York City-inspired Metro Kingdom, among other fantastic worlds. These worlds are a nice size. They are not too big where players feel like they’ll never get all the moons. (None of the worlds are as annoyingly daunting as Hazy Maze Cave from Super Mario 64.) A fantastic soundtrack accompanies the kingdoms. From the soft Lake Kingdom theme to the intense Lost Kingdom theme, the music is a treat. And of course, ‘Jump Up, Superstar!’ is an absolute masterpiece. As a whole, the soundtrack might not be as strong as the Mario Galaxies’, but it’s still fantastic.

Finally, Odyssey is full of special surprises. I had a blast going through the short 8-bit sequences, which are an incredible throwback to Super Mario Bros., reminding the player when Super Mario began. I already mentioned the incredible sequence with 8-bit Mario jumping over barrels and eventually defeating DK as a homage to Mario’s first ever appearance in the arcade game, Donkey Kong. There is also this atmosphere of grand gameplay never before seen in the franchise. No one will forget when Mario turned into Lord of the Rings as the player faced a dragon at the Ruined Kingdom. Maybe even more epic was the Moon Kingdom, doing an even better job at putting Mario in space than the Galaxies. (The ominous wedding bells were excellent.)

It’s here in the Moon Kingdom when the game features a Metroid-like escape climax. As the characters break through blocks to escape as the beautiful song ‘Honeylune Ridge: Escape’ plays, it’s at this moment when the player realizes this might not just be the greatest Mario game, it might be the greatest game ever made. That’s why the final scene is a letdown. To really finalize the epic experience, the game should have had Mario tie the knot with Peach. The game plays around with that idea, but then it doesn’t happen. It’s a shame and insulting to over 30 years of the characters’ relationship. After such an epic climax, it’s too bad the game ended on a comedic note.

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Overall, Super Mario Odyssey should be remembered as one of the greatest games of this generation. The kingdom designs are diverse and engaging. You will not want to put down the controller. Cappy is the new F.L.U.D.D., and he’s just as smartly utilized as the water hose. There’s so much else to love about this game. It’s inviting and enthralling, not to mention epic. The callbacks to older games is an awesome touch for players who have grown up with the series. Aspects, like the hats/outfits and 8-bit sequences, enhance the experience. The soundtrack is a treat, and features two well done lyrical songs. Replay value is high, because there are over 800 Power Moons to collect. The game ended on a disappointing note, but the worlds, level design and just about everything works together so perfectly that I can’t hold back the perfect score. Super Mario Odyssey joins The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as one of the finest games Nintendo has ever made.

10/10

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Review

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The Mario franchise is no stranger to different genres. Platforming is what the series is known for, but there have been many different types of games. There have been sports, RPGs, and even a dancing game on one occasion. Despite all this however, I don’t think many expected Mario to feature in an XCOM-style adventure. That’s the case with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. This game was a surprise when it was first announced. Not only is it the hero’s first foray with this kind of battle style, it’s also Mario’s first new game on Nintendo’s latest console, the Switch. Kingdom Battle delivers something special. It’s a unique, fun and sometimes quite challenging game that brings the heavily strategy-based XCOM gameplay into the colorful worlds of Mario and the Rabbids.

The story begins with the Rabbids warping into a human girl’s home. It’s a shame the story never went back there because she being a Mario fan was quite meta. Anyways, the Rabbids eventually warp to the Mushroom Kingdom. Because of one Rabbid’s fiddling of a helmet capable of merging, the Kingdom is now out of whack. Now Mario, the Rabbids and a few other Mushroom heroes go through four worlds to fix the Kingdom. The story is fun and engages the viewer from the start. Of course, part of that enjoyment is going to hinge on the Rabbids. Kids will probably like them, but for older players they can become jarring. Thankfully, the Rabbids never become overbearing. (I’m still wondering why we didn’t get Mario + Rayman instead.)

As fun as the story is, the gameplay is the primary winner here. Chances are if you’ve never played XCOM before, Kingdom Battle might look complex. Kingdom Battle’s gameplay however is quickly understood. By the end of World 1, the player is confident to press on. What makes this style of gameplay truly great is the amount of strategy it requires of the player. Players must make decisions on which weapons to use, which special abilities to implement, (should I heal my guys or make their weapons stronger?) which skills to upgrade, and how to use the environment to their advantage. One example is a battle that featured a Chain Chomp stage hazard. Eventually I figured out that I should use the Chain Chomp to my advantage. Another example of careful strategic planning is a battle that features an environment that circles around. The enemies featured here are mostly powerful Smashers, which do a large amount of damage. They however do not move very far; so players have to carefully maneuver and then attack them.

As one can see, there’s quality strategic play at work in this game. Sadly, quite a few battles are on the easier side. It’s understandable that Kingdom Battle works as an accessible point into the XCOM world, but more battles could have been given a slightly harder push. With that said, the game does feature quite a few genuine challenges that forces players to carefully evaluate their losses and come up with new strategies. When it’s hard, Kingdom Battle is a masterpiece when it comes to strategic play. The final boss heals himself twice, and makes the player ask the questions, “Should I concentrate on the minions and then focus on the boss, or focus all firepower on the boss? Can I do both?” The boss battles are diverse, from Rabbid Kong’s shockwaves to having to turn off the spotlight on Phantom of the Bwahpera.

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To switch things up, the gameplay sometimes features “get to the goal” battles. Instead of fighting enemies, the objective is to get to the appointed yellow area. These were a nice change of pace. It especially gets interesting when you have to escort a non-fighter, such as Toad, to the goal without that character being depleted of his/her health.  While battles are the primary part of the game, you will spend a good amount of time exploring the maps. Here Mario and friends go from level to level often looking for secret areas that can yield artwork, new weapons, and other nifty things. You will also solve puzzles of varying difficulty. They are not a bad way to keep that strategic thinking going between battles.

The soundtrack is wonderfully orchestrated. From the tension-filled ‘Into the Pit’ to the epic ‘Bowser Returns,’ the music in this game is well done. It’s a shame there weren’t many Mario remixes, but since this is a crossover game, it makes sense the soundtrack wouldn’t be 100% focused on delivering Mario-specific themes. There are four worlds to trek through. That sounds like a small number, but each world has nine main sections, and they usually are not short. There are many collectibles to find for completionists. As for multiplayer, there are co-op challenges. That’s fine, but it’s shocking that there isn’t a versus mode. How fun would it be to challenge a sibling or friend whom has come over for some strategic play? Ubisoft made a mistake not implementing a competitive mode.

Overall, Mario + Rabbids is an unexpectedly great crossover. The amount of depth to the gameplay is amazing. Many battles you’ll think up different strategies as you see how far an enemy can move. You’ll use the environment to your advantage (while the computers do the same). The characters have diverse weapons and abilities. I personally liked Rabbid Peach’s heal ability and had her on my team. Maybe you will like Rabbid Yoshi’s Gatling gun-type weapon. There are other things to consider, such as skill points, further adding to the depth. More battles with higher difficultly would have been welcome however, and a lack of competitive multiplayer is almost a crime. Despite those things, Kingdom Battle is definitely worth a look, whether or not you’re familiar with XCOM. If you’re not familiar, this game will give you an appreciation for it.

8.5/10

Sonic Mania Review

Sonic Mania

In recent years, Sonic as a franchise has been out of its prime. The last main game was Sonic Lost World, which wasn’t that great. To makes things worse, SEGA then released a new version of the series called Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, which was critically panned. Things started to look up last year in July when two new Sonic titles were announced. One of those titles was Sonic Mania. Similar to the underrated Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Mania was going to bring Sonic back to his Genesis roots. Mania took it one step further than Sonic 4, using the retro art style and sprites. The game saw release this year, and it ended up being a nice nostalgic trip reminding players why they fell in love with the franchise in the first place.

Mania has an impressive 13 zones. Eight of those are remastered while five are new. First, it was an interesting idea to remake old zones and even remix the themes. It’s nice to hop right back into Green Hill Zone and Flying Battery Zone. Stardust Speedway is iconic, but like in Sonic CD, it’s still a little uneven. Oil Ocean was intense, as it forces Sonic to watch out for the smoggy atmosphere that takes over the screen. So, it’s fun seeing some of the old zones back. At the same time however, it would have been great to see more original zones. In a new game, there should have been more original zones. Generations already had the idea of bringing back older zones. But, this isn’t a make it or break it deal as the old zones are still fun to play through, and the new ones are well made. Mirage Saloon Zone is a highlight.

Like the Genesis games, Mania puts an emphasis on speed. The player will be blasting through at many parts, but there’s also careful platforming. Getting squished is easy if one isn’t careful. The last zone, (not counting the secret final zone) Titanic Monarch, has plenty of platforming, forcing the player to slow down and carefully navigate the area. It’s a tough balance the Sonic games have to maintain, because on one hand the player wants to zoom through as the fastest video game character alive. On the other hand, just blasting through would make the game easy and quick. Mania nicely balances sonic-speed gameplay and platforming.

Boss battles in the Sonic series have been more on the challenging side. (Who could forget the Death Egg Robot at the end of Sonic the Hedgehog 2?) It’s the same with Mania; each boss is well designed and provides a quality challenge. One highlight is the encounter with Metal Sonic at the end of Stardust Speedway. It’s fast paced and intense, especially if you’re not able to hold on to your rings. Another highlight is Heavy Magician at the end of Mirage Saloon, where it impersonates classic Sonic characters Fang, Bean, and Bark. Oh, one can’t forget playing a round of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine against Eggman himself at the end of Chemical Plant Zone. Multiplayer is a nice feature, and Mania also has a competition mode, which is always welcome. The soundtrack is fantastic, from the remastered themes to the original ones.

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Overall, Sonic Mania does a stellar job bringing back the original Sonic style of gameplay. It looks and plays like a Genesis title. It’s evident from the start that the developers care a great deal about the franchise. Though there’s too many old zones in comparison to new ones, they are almost all a blast to run through. Acquiring the Chaos Emeralds is a hard endeavor, so those wanting to get the true ending are in for a genuine challenge. If you’ve been absent from the series for awhile or just want some classic Sonic, Mania is worth the purchase. Sonic is finally back with a title worthy of his 25th anniversary, which looks to continue later this year with Sonic Forces.

8.5/10

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

Zelda Breath of the Wild

When one hears the name “Zelda,” one thinks of a princess, adventure, and dungeons. There’s also another word, and that’s “quality.” Since its inception in 1986, The Legend of Zelda has cemented itself as one of the greatest in the adventure platformer genre. Every main 3D console game has received critical acclaim, from Ocarina of Time to Skyward Sword. The small console ones have too been well liked. The latest game, Breath of the Wild, had been highly anticipated since its unveiling. It looked to be the first game in a long time to shake up the core gameplay. Sure, every game has its unique gimmick, but Breath of the Wild looked to overhaul a lot of key things. It’s one of the most ambitious games Nintendo has ever produced, and one of the company’s finest.

When talking about some of the core concepts about Breath of the Wild, Director Eiji Aonuma in an interview with The Verge, stated that “…from the very start of Breath of the Wild, we wanted to, and set out to, create a world that wasn’t only vast, but where everything was connected. So you really could freely explore the world, without these barriers or gaps imposed.” These comments sum up what makes Breath of the Wild unique among Zelda titles: the vast open world. It takes Termina Field from Majora’s Mask to another level. It is such a great concept: if you see something in the distance, you can actually run to it and climb it; it’s not just decoration for the background. One can spend hours running around the map. In fact, it’s possible to not even explore the whole thing if the player is just set on following the core narrative. Nintendo succeeded in delivering a world that encourages players to check every inch of.

The Zelda series is known for its epic storylines, and Breath of the Wild continues in like manner. Hyrule was ravaged by “Calamity Ganon” 100 years ago, and Link has finally awakened from his slumber. Now Link has to take back the four Divine Beasts, eventually battling Ganon and freeing Princess Zelda from her burden of sealing the villain at Hyrule Castle. It’s a similar storyline, but also different and engages the player from beginning to end. It really feels like you’re part of something big as you hear the backstory from Impa early in the game.

After talking to Impa, the core part of the game begins: going to different areas and freeing the Divine Beasts from Ganon’s control. It’s smart how Nintendo did this; each area is placed far away from each other on the map. This forces the player to explore Hyrule. So, if players for some reason had no intention of exploring, they would still get much sightseeing.

As for knowing where to go, there are yellow indicators pointing Link to his destination. This was welcome, because sometimes in Zelda it can get a bit confusing where to go next. Breath of the Wild is more straightforward than Ocarina of Time. However, it’s not linear like a Crash Bandicoot level. Instead, Breath of the Wild almost perfectly balances having the player figure out what to do and being straightforward. Yes, there is an indicator on the map of where to go. But it’s up to the player to maneuver around obstacles and plan how to traverse tall mountains. The only part I was confused about was getting to Goron City. Link would soon heat up upon entry without the right clothes. I would be burning up looking for the shop at the city, where I would purchase the right attire to actually be able to live in the area. That worked, but it didn’t feel like that’s what the game wanted the player to do. Or maybe it was. Either way, getting to the different areas tested the player’s ability to plan on the go.

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The dungeons are of shorter length than the average Zelda dungeon. This is a good thing, because it can take awhile, almost 40 minutes even, to get to the next area. If the dungeons were super long as well, that would have been too much. The dungeons instead are just the perfect length. The length also doesn’t affect the level of brainstorming players must do in order to complete the dungeons. Zelda games are known for its dungeons and forcing players to consider how to use the tools at their disposal. Each dungeon in Breath of the Wild makes the player think, and every time a breakthrough would occur, it was a truly happy moment.

There’s a boss at the end of every main dungeon. Breath of the Wild isn’t the easiest game out there, and the bosses are evident of that. They are genuinely challenging. (One won’t forget facing Waterblight Ganon.) Arrows are a key aspect in facing these bosses, and that’s another thing making this Zelda game unique among other entries. Link can find arrows out in the open (of course, he can also purchase them) and also weapons. These weapons, from a woodcutter’s axe to tree branch, eventually break. It would be a shame to have everything break or run out in the middle of a boss battle; that’s why players want to stock up and carefully use different weapons throughout the game. This adds another layer of strategy as players trek through the 30 hour story.

As for Link himself, he plays similarly to previous incarnations. The biggest difference is that he can now jump. It’s a little strange to see him jump after all these years. (Then again, he’s always been able to jump in Super Smash Bros.) Another change is that Link has unlimited access to bombs, and can even stop some things from moving. These are nicely implemented for puzzles and boss fights. On the giant map there are many mini-dungeons called Shrines, which also serve as checkpoints Link can warp to. These are great because running back and fourth across the map would grow tiresome. Entering and completing these mini-dungeons are optional, but doing so will eventually give Link more stamina and hearts. Those things are important, so they’re a good incentive for players to complete the Shrines. Another new feature is cooking food. There’s a lot of food in the open to replenish hearts, and cooking adds special benefits. It’s an interesting feature that, once again, adds a layer of strategy.

The final boss battle is epic and provides a satisfying finale. The award to greatest Ganon boss fight still belongs to Twilight Princess, but Breath of the Wild’s was well done as well. (The final Light Arrow shot won’t soon be forgotten.) Actually getting to Ganon is one of the most well done parts of the game. Getting to the top of a ravaged Hyrule Castle with some of the classic Zelda theme playing was intense. Unfortunately, acquiring the Master Sword is optional. Characters make mention of it, but it’s a side quest. It should have been a main quest because completing the game without it just doesn’t feel right.

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Overall, Breath of the Wild lives up to its grand presentation. The open world is one of the best, encouraging players to run around and see what they can find. The story is enthralling and full of memorable characters. The soundtrack is also great. There are many variations on the Zelda formula, but they never feel out of place or different just to be different. That’s because there’s a level of quality and class to the gameplay and story, as one would expect from a Zelda title. Link’s mission to take back Hyrule from Ganon is epic. Breath of the Wild makes the case for game of the year. Though, with Super Mario Odyssey coming out in October, Breath of the Wild is going to have big competition.

10/10