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June 16, 2019
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Nintendo Switch

Yoshi’s Crafted World is classic gaming joy, Nintendo-style

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In 1995, Yoshi had his moment. The character’s Super Mario World debut was so strong, Nintendo handed the dinosaur sidekick his own sequel. A surprise divergence from the Mario franchise found the character escorting a baby version of the plumber in search of his kidnapped twin.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was regarded as an instant classic for the Super Nintendo. The positive reaction was due, in part, to some bold aesthetic choices. The game featured a shaky line style, both in keeping with the playful infant motif and to further highlight that the title wasn’t just another Mario game.

Yoshi’s island has received a number of its own sequels and spinoffs over the years. This is, after all, Nintendo we’re talking about here. The company has turned riding out IP into a kind of art form. But while many of those followups were generally well-received, but none managed to capture the pure joy of the original.

2015’s Yoshi’s Wooly World came close, but ultimately failed to meet the high standards of many Mario fans. And the fact that the Wii U was ultimately a doomed console didn’t help matters much.

From a design perspective, Yoshi’s Crafted World clearly shares a lot of common DNA with that predecessor and, for that matter, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, with developer Good-Feel being a common denominator in all three.  But the Switch title is a far more fully realized and cohesive package than the Wii U title. And like Yoshi’s Island before it, it’s a joy to play.

The first time I saw gameplay footage, I’d assume the game was a bit more of an open-world adventure — the Yoshi’s Island to Super Mario Galaxy’s Super Mario World. But while the new title gives you some choices, it never lets you stray too far from the standard platformer path.

To this day, side scrollers continue to be Nintendo’s bread and butter, even as it pushes the boundaries of gaming with other titles. At its worst, that means redundancy. At its best, however, Nintendo manages to put a fresh spin on the age old genre, as is the case here.

Clever mechanics like 3D world flipping and paths that point Yoshi down roads in a third dimension keep gameplay interesting. The addition of seemingly infinite Mario 3-style cardboard costumes, coupled with the DIY crafted design language, meanwhile, make it downright joy to play.

Yoshi’s Crafted World is an all-ages title, through and through. In fact, on first playing, the game asks whether you want to play “Mellow Mode” or “Classic Mode,” reassuring you that you can switch things up at any time. Even in Classic Mode, the game does a fair bit of handholding.

But the game’s simple and slow pace is more comfort than annoyance for even older players. The title plays like a casual game, writ large with a fun through line that finds Yoshi hunting down scattered “Dream Gems,” like so many Dragon Balls. It’s never as immersive or addicting as a title like Mario Galaxy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the kind of game you can happily play in spurts and come back to, after you’re done living your life.

It’s a reminder that games can be an escape from, rather than cause of, frustration and stress. And it’s definitely the best Yoshi star vehicle in nearly 25 years.

‘Ape Out’ and ‘Baba Is You’ demonstrate the depth of simplicity

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The games we see advertised the most aren’t necessarily the best representatives for what has become an incredibly diverse medium. Yearly AAA installments and massive open worlds are all well and good, but simplicity is rarely on display — which makes two recent releases, Ape Out and Baba Is You, all the more delightful.

Both are, in a way, very simple games, but from that simplicity arises complex and enjoyable gameplay concepts that can entertain (or frustrate) for hours. It’s a refreshing reversal of games that appear complex but ultimately have very little depth.

Ape Out is certainly the more simple of the two, at least in gameplay terms. You’re an ape — a great ape. A gorilla, to be precise. And you have gotten out.

The smooth top-down action has you navigating a procedurally generated office patrolled by gun-wielding ne’er-do-wells. To prevent further ape blood from being spilled, you can either punch them — usually fatal, as you are strong — or grab them, which causes them to fire their gun. Then you can throw them into a wall. That’s pretty much it!

A few things elevate the game beyond the apparently arcade-level concepts here. First is a distinctive visual style that combines a sort of watercolor or chalky effect with starkly monochrome characters and surroundings, making gameplay elements highly distinctive and recognizable while giving a definite look to the whole world.

The controls are also smooth and largely predictable, letting you confidently move through the world without worrying whether you’ll catch on something or whether your lunge will reach a guy — if you’re not sure, it’s exciting rather than frustrating. Well-spaced checkpoints make you master an area before passing on, but don’t feel punitive, and new enemies and obstacles are introduced gradually and logically.

But the music is the most striking bit. A base beat of jazz drums accompanies each stage, growing in intensity as you progress to the next level (it can take as little as 20 or 30 seconds to do so), and every action adds a beat or cymbal crash to the mix. The responsive music makes it feel like a real soundtrack to your acts, while also spurring you on to greater ones.

As Penny Arcade pointed out, Ape Out is fun and original from the moment you pick it up. There’s no boring tutorial, problematic dialogue, poorly characterized protagonist, obscure and frequently revised gameplay elements, and no “ludonarrative dissonance.” In other words you never think “wait, would an enraged ape really do that?” (By the way, it’s definitely violent — but in an absurd comic style, not graphic and horrible.)

Baba Is You is simple in a different way. Its graphics and simple grid-based movement place it in company with The Adventures of Lolo or similar block-pushing games from the ’80s and ’90s. The complexity of this game, however, comes from a mind-bending twist along the lines of Portal and The Witness: the rules of the game are actual blocks that you move around as well.

It sounds weird, but that’s the game: In addition to rocks, water, walls and various other items, there are blocks defining the actual rules of that level with a crude, blocky logic, such as “flag is win” and “rock is push,” meaning you win if you touch the flag and rocks can be pushed.

Perhaps the flag is embedded in an inaccessible fortress of walls, though. No problem. A couple pushes mean that now “rock is win” — so just go touch a rock and the level is complete. Or perhaps if you can reach it, the rule “wall is stop” can be shifted, letting you walk right through them to the flag.

The simple, cute graphics let you focus on the seemingly limited, yet actually maddeningly diverse, ways of combining and shifting the blocks of the level. “Eureka!” moments are elusive things, as the creator seems to have a knack for predicting how you might think and putting roadblocks in the way of obvious solutions. But there is that amazing feeling that you’re a genius when you come back to an “impossible” level and see it with new eyes, solving it in a handful of seconds. That’s the complexity of simplicity — a single breakthrough that takes half an hour to arrive at.

I won’t lie, though: Baba Is You is hard. It’s hard as hell. In the forums are puzzle fiends shame-facedly admitting they can’t beat the 6th level, or facepalming after a hint is offered. It’s easy to develop a mental block and never get past it — but fortunately the game is fairly open, letting you take on the first few puzzles of various themed areas of the map rather than making you clear one before moving on to the next. This isn’t a game you’ll be done with in an afternoon.

Both Baba Is You and Ape Out cost less than $20 (on PC and Switch right now), in the sweet spot between the shovelware under $10 and “full” retail games twice the cost. Both are unique and created with obvious care and attention to detail. And neither ever requires more than two or three minutes of your time — though you can, as I did last night, lose hours just as easily as you would in a AAA title. This is simple done right.

Nintendo makes the old new again with Mario, Zelda, Tetris titles for Switch

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The afternoon brought an eventful series of announcements from Nintendo in one of its Direct video promos, and 2019 is looking to be a banner year for the Switch. Here’s everything the company announced, from Super Mario Maker 2 to the unexpected remake of Game Boy classic Link’s Awakening.

The stream cold opened with a look at the new Mario Maker, which would honestly be enough announcement for one day. But boy did they have more up their sleeves.

First the actually new stuff:

Shown last but likely to garner the bulk of the internet’s response is the remake of Link’s Awakening, which came out more than a quarter of a century ago on Game Boy. I admit to never finishing this, but I loved the feel of it, so I’m dying to play this new tilt-shifted, perspective-switching 3D version.

Platinum has an intriguing new game called Astral Chain, in which you appear to control two fighters at the same time in some crazy-looking robot(?)-on-robot action. Talent from The Wonderful 101, Bayonetta and Nier: Automata ensure this will be worth keeping an eye on.

The recent trend of battle royale and perhaps the best game ever made, Tetris, combine in Tetris 99, where 100 people simultaneously and competitively drop blocks. It looks bonkers, and it’s free on Switch starting right now.

And on the JRPG tip:

Fire Emblem: Three Houses got a long spot that introduced the main characters, whom you’ll no doubt ally with and/or be betrayed by. Romance is in the air! And arrows.

From the back-to-basics studio that put out I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear comes Oninaki, an action RPG that looks like a good well-crafted bit of fun, if not particularly original.

Dragon Quest 11 S — an enhanced version of the original hit — and DQ Builders 2 are on their way to Switch later this year, in Fall and July respectively.

Rune Factory 4 Special is another enhanced, remastered classic in a series that I adore (though I wish they’d remaster Frontier). It was also announced that RF5 is in development, so thank God for that.

Final Fantasy VII is coming at the end of March, and Final Fantasy IX is available now. I’m ashamed to say I never played the latter but this is a great opportunity to.

Sidescrollers new and old:

BOXBOY! + BOXGIRL! is a new entry in a well-like puzzle platformer series that introduces some new characters and multiplayer. Coming in April.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night got a teaser, but we’ve heard a lot about this Castlevania spiritual sequel already. Just come out!

Yoshi’s Crafted World comes out March 29, but there’s a demo available today.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker gets an update adding multiplayer to its intricate levels, and soon, a paid pack for new ones. I might wait for a combined version but this should be fun.

Miscellaneous but still interesting:

The new Marvel Ultimate Alliance is coming this summer and I can’t wait. The second one was a blast but it came out way too long ago. A good co-op brawler is a natural fit for the Switch, plus being a superhero is fun.

Daemon X Machina, the striking-looking mech combat game, is getting a demo ahead of the summer release. They’re going to incorporate changes and advice from players so if you want to help shape the game, get to it.

Disney Tsum Tsum Festival… I don’t know what this is. But it looks wild.

Deltarune! It’s the sequel-ish to the beloved Undertale, and you can get the first chapter on Switch now. Play Undertale first, or you won’t get the dog jokes.

There were a few more little items here and there, but that’s the gist. Boy am I glad I have a Switch!

You can watch the full Direct here.

Nintendo announces Super Mario Maker 2 for Switch, so goodbye forever

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Nintendo has ruined my life, and all our lives, by announcing Super Mario Maker 2, the sequel to the level-constructing game on Wii U that produced thousands of devious levels for those who think the “real” games aren’t hard enough. Gamers have been asking for this basically since the Switch was first rumored.

Mario Maker 2 looks like it’s been updated in a number of helpful ways apart from being on a console that will actually be supported long-term. The interface needed some sprucing up for the lower precision players, who will have to use their fingers instead of a stylus on the touchscreen.

No doubt this will be a huge draw for Nintendo’s Switch Online service, which will likely not only allow you to share your levels and try those of others, but — if Nintendo listened to its player base — compete with ghosts and other multiplayer features. Here’s hoping we can build whole worlds, but let’s not get greedy. But we definitely have slopes now!

Honestly, I could play NES and SNES-era Mario games forever on repeat, and the re-releases of other Marios on Switch has made the newer ones even more accessible. Probably between those and Mario Maker I’ll never leave the house again.

Details are truly scant for now except that the game will come out in June of this year, just in time for summer to arrive — and be shut out with blackout curtains so glare doesn’t get on my greasy Switch. I’ll update this post if any new information becomes available.

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