Scenic Routes: Super Mario 64 (Part Three)

Welcome to the third part of this exhaustive look at N64 launch game Super Mario 64. We've barreled through the first of Bowser's traps and recovered the key to the castle's basement. What should we expect to find down here? Treasure? Mysteries? The decomposed remains of the Mushroom Kingdom's many political prisoners? Well, the answer might surprise you. Or it might not, given that this game's been out for almost twenty years (yeah, I feel old too). There's actually a total of four new courses and six secret Stars, some of which are spread across two secret areas and the next Bowser Road. I'll be splitting this up evenly into two entries, because that last one kinda got a little out of hand - fortunately, we have exactly ten courses left to explore, so that divides itself rather nicely into five more updates including this one.

Anyway, enough inside baseball. We've got a poisonous maze and a whole lotta lava to make our way through.


There's MIPSy now. Look at his little wabbit nose!

The first thing that actually greets us down in the basement area is a hoppy yellow rabbit named MIPS. These rabbits are something of a recurring menace in future Mario games, most recently reappearing in Super Mario 3D World, due to their cunning and the way they tend to exhibit my physical awkwardness. I mean, uh, the players' physical awkwardness. While very quick and prone to taking sudden random turns away from the player, it's possible to predict its movement after a time, especially if it gets caught in a number of dead-ends around this area. You might think with an all-caps name like MIPS that it has some sort of cute acronym moniker, and you'd be right: His full name is Microprocessor without Interlocked Pipeline Stages. Rolls right off the tongue, don't it? Apparently, he was created back when the Nintendo 64's hardware was being tested (it's the name of the processor that the N64 uses) and was added to Super Mario 64 because the R&D programmers liked the little guy. See what I mean about the developers just tossing everything they had into the stew pot? The little guy appears once when you have 15 Stars, and again when you have 50, with a secret Star each time he's successfully caught.


Sup man. Yeah, I don't want to go in there either. It looks like a BP "incident".

There's a Toad in the Hazy Maze Cave course room, and talking to him will grant Mario a bonus Star. It's the first of three Toads that actually help you like this, though this one is around the fourth or fifth Toad you might actually encounter. I can imagine players just ignoring the little guys at this point, feeling as they do that they have a much better grasp on the game's mechanics and no longer need their hints. There's such a thing as being too smart for your own good, turns out.

Hazy Maze Cave

The Course

Did someone draw a dick on this door?

The Hazy Maze Cave portrait room doesn't so much feature a portrait than a big inky pool you're meant to jump into. This pool has the same texture as Metal Mario, and the Metal Cap secret zone just so happens to be linked to this course though it's anyone's guess whether that was meant to be a hint or not. It's also an opportunity for the graphic designers to show off some more of the N64's ripply textures; something that is subtly featured whenever Mario jumps through a portrait but is far more pronounced and persistent here. If one were the pedantic type, they might consider what purpose this room has in the castle. A big hole surrounded by walkways and a black and white tiled floor. I'm thinking "underground communal bathroom for Toad servants". Princess Peach is a goddamn tyrant, I swear.

Wait, there's a second inky hole inside the one I just went into? What is this, Inkception?

The course itself is another hodgepodge of random ideas for puzzle conceits, linked with a tenuous theme of being subterranean in nature. They might well have called it Mixed Bag Cave, except that would've presented game reviewers with a tricky problem when it came time to describing it. The titular hazy maze is, indeed, a maze of twists, turns and secret exits, but you could easily extend that descriptor to the entire course. It's essentially a bunch of linked rooms each with a different central theme; one has a rolling rock obstacle and a big "black hole" at the center, while another is an aquatic area with a large dinosaur living it (Dorrie, making his first Mario appearance). We'll go through these areas as we talk about the Stars, but suffice it to say the maze-like elements of this course don't begin and end in the poop gas labyrinth.

Where the hell is Space Mountain? "Country Bears Jamboree"? I thought that place burned down?

Neat touches? Well, there's the "you are here" maps that proliferate Hazy Maze Cave, as if the enigmatic red and blue markings have any evident purpose. Presumably placed there by the developers (yeah, I know, they were literally placed there by the developers, but I'm talking about whether some in-world entity built them or if we're supposed to simply acknowledge them as a convenience crafted for the player's sake. I don't really like to ponder "acts of God" in a Mario game) to guide wayward players, it actually explains and describes very little, providing instead a rough quartet of linked, misshapen boxes than anything resembling a landmark. There's also the matter that the stage is on several tiers, which can't accurately be represented by a 2D map. Well, they tried at least, and considering that there's one right at the beginning of the course, it wouldn't do to give too much away about what the course has to offer.

I'd like to mention the music too. It's a remix of the classic underground theme from Super Mario Bros. but with something of a salsa feel to it. The theme changes once you get to Dorrie's underground lake, becoming more ethereal in the way the underwater courses tend to sound. I really lack the words to properly describe the music in this game, but I have a lot of appreciation for how it varies depending on the circumstances. It's rare an OST gets this complex (though I hear the actual OST unfortunately emits a lot of these variable details).

The Stars

They really go for a Jurassic Park moment here, placing Dorrie on the opposite side of the island when you enter this area so he can surprise you like this.

The first Star involves taking a trip to see Dorrie, the game's passive plesiosaur (a word which the spell-check wants me to change to "applesauce"). Dorrie's an interesting creation for a number of reasons, the first being the sheer size of the thing. It moves very slowly and doesn't animate too much, presumably to get around the issues of animating such a large creature with the N64's processing power. Something I've not spoken about too much is Mario's uncanny knack for walking up sheer slopes as long as the friction isn't set too low, and so a player who didn't read the nearby sign explaining that a ground-pound will cause Dorrie to lower his head to let Mario steer him around will instead find that they can simply run up Dorrie's neck despite it being a 80 degree sharp incline. Once on Dorrie's head, Dorrie then endeavors to head towards wherever Mario is looking. He only has so much wriggle room in this regard because of the relative size of himself and the underwater loch he calls a home, so it'll often mean taking a circuitous route around the central island to get to the desired location. Fortunately, for this Star in particular, the desired location is that central island, which can be reached from any part of the lake.

Maybe they're its nipples...?

The eight red coin challenge makes an early appearance as the second Star, requiring that Mario navigate a single room to find all eight. This room is the largest in the course, however, comprising of three distinct "floors" (though there's very little actual floor to be seen) filled with moving platform puzzles. The four-directional pad that the player must use to navigate the middle of these three floors is a 3D interpretation of a similar puzzle back in Super Mario World, where Mario had to jump to change the direction of the platform he was using so that it could be weaved through obstacles and dangers. The top floor's a far more straightforward fixed path around the room, using the same yellow-and-blue checkered elevator that we saw back in Bob-Omb Battlefield. I've always wondered if the yellow dots on the front were meant to be eyes (is it alive?) or headlights (not that they illuminate anything). Maybe they're couplers and there was supposed to be a longer chain of these things? I'm not sure.

Yeah, Metal-Head Mario can move all right. Glacially.

The third is another cap-specific Star, though if you consider that this particular cap can be found in the same course it's not exactly an inconvenience. It once again depends on Metal Mario's ability to walk across the bottom of any body of water because there's an underwater switch that needs pressing. The Star hint, "Metal-Head Mario can move!" is a bit of a cheeky misnomer, as Metal Mario's pace slows to a crawl whenever he goes underwater (not to mention that it's not just his head that turns metal), but the player will need to book it in order to reach the switch in time. It's curious that despite being awesomely strong and durable while metal, there aren't any Stars that take advantage of this; they all choose instead to focus on Mario's increased density. I know that feeling. Man, highschool was rough.

Friends don't let friends inhale poop gas.

Four and five are odd because they both involve exiting the poop gas maze that gives Hazy Maze Cave its name. However, both of these exits are inconspicuous doors that are a little higher than the maze itself, so a player is likely to miss them if they're simply focusing on what's at eye-level height. Due to the confined corridors of the maze the camera gets in real close, making the eye-level camera thing more of an issue. In both cases, the player simply enters a door and follows a brief path to a waiting Star, so we have one of the first cases of a course simply repeating the same puzzle-solution. As there's little that's given away with the two hints ("Navigating the toxic maze" and "A-maze-ing emergency exit") it's entirely possible the player will find these two in the opposite intended order. The emergency exit Star is at least notable for an American Gladiators-style sequence where Mario has to climb across a cage ceiling, holding the attack button throughout in order to stay grasped on. This sort of set-piece will be far more common in the courses to come.

Let me away from this boulder!

With six, we once again have our "player might luck upon this ahead of time" Star, situated in a small nook above and after the rolling rocks of the "black hole" area. It requires some wall-jumps to reach, but the hint doesn't suggest anything besides it being beyond the rolling rocks. This room is unusually terrifying, by the way: a central abyss with an angled floor that can slide you down there if Mario happens lands the wrong way. It's also a hub to every other area, so the player might find themselves passing through it regularly despite the danger.

100-Coin Challenge: Hazy Maze Cave is one of the worst courses for this challenge, because most of the coins are spread out across the many parts of the course and that means giving it every opportunity to kill you. The hazy maze itself, for instance, has a blue coin block that provides a secondary purpose in pointing the way to the one of the secret exits, but it's hard to actually figure out where the line of coins are going in the handful of seconds it gives you. These blue coins are all necessary too, as the full course barely gets over 110 coins and that accounts for the bats and spiders who all seem to hang around bottomless pits that are happy to gobble up loose coins that fly their way. There's also a couple of eyes from Big Boo's Haunt around the elevator section and they're almost impossible to get around, being suspended as they are on narrow pillars.

Cavern of the Metal Cap

While I am liquid metal, I cannot travel back in time to hit this switch again. I cannot call myself a T-1000.

Unconventionally, this secret course can only be found in Hazy Maze Cave; in every other case, the secret areas/Stars are accessed in the castle proper. This requires that the player use Dorrie to reach a far door in the underground lake area, passing through a tunnel and into another inky pool to reach a separate part of the world. The tunnel has the green switch at the end, and adroitly demonstrates Metal Mario's secondary (or perhaps primary, given its prevalence in finding Stars) ability of walking along the bottom of bodies of water. There's a red coin secret Star here too, naturally, and most of them are found in the water. The water, I should point out, will quickly carry a non-Metal Mario through its exit and down the waterfall outside of Peach's Castle. It's a heck of a walk back, too.

Lethal Lava Land

The Course

Mama mia, does that portrait creep me out.

The only actual portrait in the basement area is an ominous land of volcanoes, lava and fireballs. Despite its fearsome look, Lethal Lava Land is actually fairly humane in as far as giving players second chances. Hitting the lava that covers around two-thirds of the surface of the level only damages Mario a little bit, tossing him high enough in the air to let players navigate him back onto safe land before he falls again. There are times when he can't easily be navigated back, taking repeated third-degree burns to his charred arse (or his "charse", as medical professionals would say), but these are fairly rare situations and only tend to occur where Mario would've otherwise fallen down a bottomless pit otherwise, such as the platforming sequences inside the volcano.

Speaking of which, this level is one of a handful to be split up into discrete areas. The "surface" is simply one rather flat interconnected maze of different flame-related puzzles surrounded by a sea of lava and a few outcroppings with coins that Mario can either leap to or use a shell/Flying Cap to reach. The shells, which I haven't really spoken about yet, are a great yet absurdly touchy means of getting around courses quickly, especially those that are fairly level topographically. The shell instantly vanishes if Mario hits any kind of wall, regardless of height, which often leads to problems more troublesome than the shell might be worth.

Cowabunga! I'm riding a shell of a creature known for its alacrity!

It takes a daring soul to even attempt to enter the volcano before the hint suggests trying so, but we find that the inside is considerably larger than the outside. It's possible the rest of the volcano was just deep underground too, of course. This area simply splits into two paths to two separate Stars, but it's notable because players might not consider how it factors into the 100-Coin Challenge. The aforementioned shell won't appear until the player as selected one of the hints for the two Stars in the volcano, mostly because the challenge of those first four Stars also includes navigating to their relevant places on the map instead of taking a shortcut over the lava.

I'm not sure when games on Nintendo platforms and elsewhere started playing Indian Carnatic music--often heavy on bass-y rhythm--in stages with lava, volcanoes or an otherwise extremely hot environment but it's been a recurring musical theme to many volcano stages created after Lethal Lava Land. The volcano course Hot Top Volcano in Diddy Kong Racing, for instance. Maybe it's just a curry joke: a foodstuff as beloved in Japan as it is in the UK and the Indian subcontinent.

The Stars

I'm going to Last Dragon this thing into the lava if it kills me.

The surface area of this course is so weird. There's very few thematic connections between its various sections, despite the ever-present threat of molten rock. The bullies are one of the few instances where the game really drives home the menace of the lava sea, as Mario must fight tooth and nail to prevent being shoved off the edge of the platform: a fate that wouldn't mean a thing in many other courses. The big bully is situated as far from the start as possible, requiring that Mario explore quite a bit of this area to reach him. In fact, depending on the route they take, they'll almost certainly pass through one of the areas for the second two Stars. Bully fights essentially amount to timing, like a great many other fights. You can attempt to hammer the punch button, but the chances are that the wily bully will run right through a gap and stun Mario enough to keep pushing him back into lava. It's a very risky strategy that an impatient player will quickly learn isn't tenable. Instead, the trick is to find the rhythm, hitting it at the moment it gets close and then continue to press the advantage in the same way they would press the advantage against a stunned Mario. In other words, Super Mario 64 is the original Dark Souls.

This isn't the same picture as the previous one. It's a different Big Bully. Trust me.

The second Star is very much the same as the first, just with more minions to slay along the way. With its rather vague hint of "bully the bullies", the player might believe they have to remove the many bullies strewn across the surface area, but really they just need to focus on the three at the far back right platform. Defeating this trio summons another big bully out of nowhere, and another, slightly easier sumo fight, ensues. It's a little unfortunate that they had to hammer home this aspect of the course with a repeated boss fight, but then it is the one occasion where "combat" in this game becomes more complex than simply jumping on a goomba, grabbing Bowser's tail or sucker-punching a Boo when his back is turned.

I love that they didn't even clip off the white artifacts from the Bowser picture they used. Hey, Photoshop is expensive.

The third Star feels like a joke on sliding block puzzles, which even at the time were sort of omnipresent and widely reviled. The sliding block puzzle is of Bowser himself, and will complete (and re-scramble) itself on its own. All the player has to do is avoid the quickly moving panels and grab eight red coins in close proximity. It's a shockingly easy take on the red coin puzzle, requiring very little moving around, though I wonder how long the developers wrestled with the idea of a 3D sliding block puzzle that eventually became this much reduced interpretation of the concept. Makes me wonder if there wasn't going to be some crazy 3D Tower of Hanoi puzzle elsewhere. (I like the small detail where, once the puzzle is complete, the 2D Bowser image spits out a handful of coins. It must use a proximity sensor, because this puzzle could potentially complete itself numerous times before Mario ever reaches it. Then again, I'm sure it won't start animating until he's nearby and within the limited draw distance for 2D animated objects.)

It's better than bad; it's good.

Fourth Star requires a rolling log instance, possibly my favorite of the 3D obstacles the developers conceived for Mario, if only conceptually. It's entirely based on physics, rare for such an early 3D game, and while there's plenty of cases of pivoting seesaws and the like the rolling logs are a little more involved. In order to get the log rolling, the player has to stand on one side of the cylinder, forcing it to go down and rotate the log in that direction. As it goes down, it drags Mario along with it, so the player has to keep a steady pace in the opposite direction to maintain the same speed as the turning log, making sure not to drop in speed, which will subsequently drop their ass in the lava, or go too fast, which will reverse the direction of the log and undo their progress. In fairness, and like many other obstacles of this sort, there was precedent in earlier 2D Mario games - I'm sure Yoshi's Island had a few rolling logs like this. It's still a neat puzzle that requires more precision than timing, especially when trying to find the "sweet spot" with the control stick.

I don't know what I appreciate more: the JellyBelly(R) brand floor textures or this absurdly elaborate crush trap purpose-built into an active volcano, as if it needed to be more dangerous.

With the next two Stars we enter the volcano and start heading up one of two separate paths. There's no clear indication from the first hint which route is the right one for which Star, but it doesn't really matter. The game tosses the player a bone here, allowing them to restart from the volcano if they should happen to fall. It's not a big help if they're trying for the 100-Coin Challenge: in order to return to the surface, they either have to manually exit the level and run back to the portrait, reset the game or grab one of the two Stars down here. One route involves a row of obstacles on solid ground, while the other involves floating up to a few mid-air traps on an elevator. It's possible to reach one Star from the other when sufficiently high up, but it's not an easy jump and the resulting fall into lava won't be pretty.

100-Coin Challenge: It's not a particularly easy coin challenge with the amount of danger all around, but sweeping the level with the shell and then returning for all the coins on platforms will net a considerable number right away. If the player then enters the volcano they should find enough via the "hot-footing" route to put them over. The difficult part will be that shell sweep across the various lines of coins sitting on various rock outcroppings, so it's vital to do that part first. This course also has a Crazed Crate that, players will learn, require a plan in place before the player should pick it up. It'll jump Mario several times before a final destructive landing, leading to a useful five coins. In this case, the player needs to steer it to the "bully the bullies" platform to get the most out of it, otherwise it's more than likely to end its frantic hopping in the middle of a pool of lava: meaning zero coins and a flame-grilled Mario. The 100-Coin Challenges are usually full of considerations like these, making them a bit more substantial than a simple scavenger hunt (which isn't to say I don't enjoy those, Rare fans).

Vanish Cap Under the Moat

It is... actually kind of difficult to know what way is which in this picture. That's avant garde photography for you.

You could theoretically find this secret Star at any point after entering the basement, but I wanted to spread these out between the two courses. There's a door in the basement area that takes you to a flooded chamber that turns out to be the moat control. However, it is not a re-moat control, as once the moat has been drained it cannot be refilled again (at least as far as I'm aware). What it does open are two useful exits: one is on the side of the castle and links the moat control room to the castle exterior, making it slightly faster for people reloading the game to get to the basement, and the Vanish Cap zone which is a hole upon which the moat once sat. Unlike the first two cap areas, there's no sort of logical explanation for what this area is, and it simply involves a slanted drop followed by a bunch of elevators to the blue switch tjat activates every Vanish Cap block in the game. The Vanish Cap's primary function is to move through certain types of barriers, usually signified by being of a mesh or transparent nature. Its secondary purpose makes Mario immune and invisible to enemies, though it also means he cannot defeat them either (except you totally can, which doesn't seem fair). Besides the red coins on the initial slide, which are very missable unless the player knows where they are, this isn't a particularly rough course. If Mario falls off, he ends up a few feet away from the secret area's entrance no worse for the wear (as in, you don't lose lives in these secret areas) so either way it's not terribly frustrating. Of course, one might wonder why they have lives at all if the game doesn't really do checkpoints and no saved progress is ever lost... I believe beyond Super Mario 64 they simply become a vestigial figurehead of the Mario franchise. Get it, figurehead? Because the lives counter is Mario's hea- you know, we're probably done here for today.

Thanks for reading even more of my Mario musings, and while I'm not sorry to leave Hazy Maze Cave or Lethal Lava Land behind the next two courses are even more disliked by the general Super Mario 64 community. Much like Final Fantasy VI's unhinged villain Kefka: if there's two things I can't stand it's sand and submariners...


Scenic Routes: Super Mario 64 (Part Two)

Welcome back to this in-depth look at Nintendo's 1996 banger Super Mario 64, one of the two global launch games for the Nintendo 64 (the other being Pilotwings 64, which seems like a pretty good launch catalog to me). The last one of these got a fairly warm reception so I believe I'll be sticking with it to the very end, roughly seven parts in all being the present prediction. Fortunately, we're past the comparatively dull initial two courses that ease the player into the game (it's a pioneering format, don't forget, so there's call for some virtual limbering up) and start looking at the more thematically curious worlds that the game explores. I say that, but a lot of Super Mario 64's concepts for world design really just come straight right out of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, just creatively reimagined for the 3D setting.

We'll look at the rest of what I consider the "ground floor" courses, which is to say courses 3 through 5. It's hard to say if the upper section of the lobby is a floor unto itself or if it's just a mezzanine (I'm sounding like a realtor again...) but I'm specifically referring to every location that's available before the first Bowser Road stage ("Bowser in the Dark World") and acquiring the key to the basement. (Unless you can sequence break all that, of course, and given the vibrant speedrunning community around this game it wouldn't surprise me.) We'll also cover that Bowser Road stage, its secret Star and another secret Star on this floor.

I warned you about stairs, bro.

Before we start, though, we should talk about how many jump variations the developers chose to give Mario. To say it was unusual would be to erroneously surmise that there were extant conventions in place before Super Mario 64 regarding how 3D platformer heroes ought to act, but for whatever reason they really made sure that the player had plenty of options. For starters, there's Mario's regular jump, which tends to do the trick in most cases. Jumping again immediately after landing will cause Mario to jump slightly higher. He can do this "enhanced jump" from a standstill, which comes in use when navigating higher platforms over an abyss and you don't want the horizontal momentum to screw you over. Mario can also jump a third time in this sequence which creates a leap with the highest vertical clearance, but he needs to be running to make this happen and with the addition of the two prior jumps needs quite a bit of space to employ effectively. Also included are: a long jump, which is performed by quickly ducking and jumping while in motion and is great for clearing long gaps and getting around faster in general; the back somersault, which is a big backflip Mario does whenever he jumps while ducking and stationary; and a side somersault, which gets Mario further up than the second-level jump and only requires Mario quickly do a U-turn before jumping, a deft maneuver better suited for speedrunners and situations where there isn't much room to move around. There's the wall jump too, of course, which comes into play a handful of times while hunting Stars but is entirely dependent on having two close walls that face each other.

It feels as if the designers initially created these jump variations to respond to specific circumstances, but I wonder if it wasn't just the programmers giving Mario as many variations as possible for the sake of player choice and their own curiosity, as most of the variations aren't emphasized at all (besides the wall jump, which is name-checked by a Star hint). 2D Mario didn't really have a wide repertoire outside of the occasional fire-flower (and, later, the various suits, capes and Kuribo's Shoes), and now he suddenly has this whole suite of different leaps and hops and even a mid-air dive which barely gets the player a few extra horizontal feet if they're just short of the next ledge. I don't want to keep repeating myself, but it feels like giving Mario so many (yet not exactly superfluous) maneuvers was another carte blanche decision by the design team.

Jolly Roger Bay

The Course

Jolly Roger Bay is the first (of two and a half, technically speaking) underwater-focused courses. These things were fairly divisive at the time and continue to be so, due to the unresponsive swimming controls and stringent oxygen limit (but then The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would do a lot worse for the reputation of 3D underwater stages, as time would tell). Of course, this is no big divergence from the very first Super Mario Bros., which regularly featured underwater levels with a slightly obtuse swimming mechanic that basically amounted to hopping slowly through water. Jolly Roger Bay starts the player on the coast around the level, letting them see a few objects above the water line but giving away nothing of what lies beneath. It's natural to have a hint of mystery with a course based on sunken ships and pirate treasures after all.

What is masterful about the course's music direction is how the soundtrack layers in a dulcet synth bassline to the music as soon as Mario dives under the surface, and we're talking music that had a sufficiently serene vibe to it already. This beatific nuance subconsciously goads the player into going deeper underwater, assuaging hydrophobic fears of drowning in the process (even though, ironically, this is the first Mario game in which he can actually drown). But then, once you see Mario asphyxiate once, his hands desperately grasping for oxygen that eludes him until he finally slumps over, it's debatable just how much of a calming influence the underwater soundtrack might still hold over the player.

Mood lighting!

A few other notable things about this stage: there are only a handful of enemies, and most are the goombas you bump into after going through the underwater cave. The only other dangers are entirely immobile and predictable clams and an enormous and terrifying moray eel that won't actually bother you if you don't bother it. Rather, the game chooses to minimize the number of hostile entities that can harm you, preferring instead to let the player worry solely about Mario's oxygen supply. The sunken pirate ship, once the first Star is obtained, will permanently move to its new home on the surface where it becomes a facet to acquiring another Star. This also displaces the eel, who moves to a nearby seaweed cave. Beyond the sunken ship lies an underwater cave with air, the perfect smuggler's hideout. There's little reason to go in here, however, barring a single Star and the 100-Coin Challenge. This course also introduces the first "timed block" instance, where hitting a purple "!" switch summons some sawdust-colored blocks for a few seconds. These are essentially the P-blocks in SMB3 and World but without the coin/block interchanging feature, creating a temporary means to reach an otherwise inaccessible part of the stage. Here it's simply used to provide mild assistance, rather than a necessity bridge, but future instances will rely more heavily on the player's quick reflexes.

I also want to say, before we move onto the Stars, that the room in the castle that the Jolly Roger Bay portrait sits in might well be my favorite portrait room in the game. I love what they did with the lighting, keeping it low in the room itself and having it shine through the wall aquaria instead. For many logistical/technical reasons the rooms in the castle are unfurnished, so this felt like the closest thing to a room that might've existed in the castle before it got invaded and/or cursed by Bowser.

The Stars

Yeah I see you, buddy.

Plunder in the Sunken Ship, the first Star, is significant in the same way most of the first course Stars have been so far: its completion shifts elements of the stage around, lifting the ship and making other Stars accessible. Players need to swallow their fear by swimming straight down to the lowest point of the course where it'd be unlikely that they would be able to head back up again in time if they notice their oxygen meter in the red (just swimming to the bottom uses close to half the meter). They also need to have the presence of mind to cajole the eel out of the porthole he's settled into and swim in after he leaves, at which point it's simply a matter of opening the chests (which thankfully restore Mario's air) and letting the water drain out. The actual mechanics to this sudden shift in water pressure don't make a whole lot of sense, until you consider that the stage might well be an homage to One-Eyed Willie's ship from The Goonies, which triumphantly freed itself from its sorry state with one last booby trap at the movie's conclusion. Either way, the boat begins to float again, and the Star appears on the top of some platforms slippery with sea flora.

They don't pay me enough to take on damn kaiju.

Star two requires more teasing of the giant moray eel, which the player might already be apprehensive about doing after their first encounter. In this case, the player must convince him to leave his new domicile and then grab a Star at the end of his tail. It's more a case of some underwater gymnastics as every part of this process - from swimming just out of range of its mouth to catching the Star on its tail - is tricky. It seems as if this Star in particular wants the player to be thoroughly used to the underwater controls before they head to Dire, Dire Docks, which involves considerably more danger and player skill. Sort of like having to grab the item on the Kung Fu master's outstretched hand before he can snatch it away in order to complete one's training.

Curse you, random chance! Why can't you be a game of skill, like Mario Party 4?

The third Star involves opening a series of chests in the cave, and is annoyingly dependent on some trial and error. There are four chests, but they must be opened in a specific order or else Mario will be shocked for a small amount of damage and the puzzle will reset. Add to this various other dangers in the cave like some wandering goombas and a few collapsing stalagmites, though all of this can be quickly alleviated by returning to the pool at the entrance and using the surface healing trick. For whatever reason, this non-puzzle is repeated again (under harsher circumstances, naturally) in Dire, Dire Docks. Say what you will about this crapshoot Star, but it's another clear indication that the designers of this game were testing every idea they had to see what clicked, not entirely dissimilar to how the player is testing every box to find the one that won't send a thousand volts up their arm.

You close on me and I'll be eating Venetian-style scallops later tonight. Don't test me, mollusc.

The red coin challenge for this stage is a little unusual. In most cases the red coins are either tied together by a theme (such as them all appearing in the same maze) or are spread out with little to connect them thematically. Instead, four of the red coins can be found by diving through clams as they precariously hinge open, while the other half can all be found along the path to the pirate ship (though the one high on the spiked pillar might need a slight detour). In a sense, it's like two unrelated mini-puzzles connected together.

The fifth Star involves blasting to one of the pointy pillars, which are one of the few landmarks you can actually see from the cannon. This is another one of those Stars you might accidentally acquire before you even get the hint, provided you actually found the Pink Bob-Omb elsewhere.

For whatever reason, the moray eel is on high alert when you get the Metal Cap. Maybe he heard its up-tempo music?

The sixth is another case of needing a new Cap, in this case the Metal Cap. The Star is impossible to reach without something to weigh Mario down. Fortunately, the secret course that leads to the Metal Cap switch tells you everything you need to know about Metal Mario's lack of buoyancy in water. To be fair, this is one of the few occasions where Metal Mario comes in useful for finding Stars. Normally, it's just a way to march past everything that might harm you, which is a desirable state for entirely different reasons.

100-Coin Challenge: The only notable thing about this one, and this is true for Dire, Dire Docks as well, is that the number of coins on the level is extremely sparse. The player more or less needs to grab every single one. Fortunately, there aren't a great many that can be missed besides the blue coins from the timed blue coin block. The relative lack of foes means there's little worry about missing a bunch of coins that fly out of enemies and either fall off the course or vanish, which tends to be a recurring nuisance in these 100-Coin Challenges.

The Hidden Aquarium

Wait, where are these windows? Am I in one of the towers?

This secret Star almost feels like a crash course in deep-sea diving, especially as this bonus area has no surface with which to recover oxygen/health. Instead, there's plenty of coins everywhere, and the requisite eight red coins are all found in an easily identifiable pattern: four are mid-way up the area in the cardinal directions surrounded by rings, while the other four are in the bottom corners of the aquarium. It's an attractive little area presumably meant to test a player's swimming capabilities, though whether they expected players to find it before or after Jolly Roger Bay (the entrance to this secret zone is in Jolly Roger Bay's portrait room) is unclear. The order the player attacks them is probably not something they could account for either way.

Cool, Cool Mountain

The Course

Daily reminder that there was a G.I. Joe named "Snow Job".

The inevitable winter level (or one of them, I should say), the Super Mario 64 team clearly had some fun with their slippery snow and ice physics. Wisely, they kept must of the friction-free antics to the course's slide where it's apropos. I generally don't question the impossible space these separate areas take up, but I imagine the slide must constitute the entire core of the mountain. Due to the irreversible way slides (and gravity) work the course is vertically-oriented from the other direction this time, starting Mario at the top with most of the interesting stuff at the bottom. With the added benefit snow provides in absorbing all fall damage, the player is free to leap "off-piste" to a lower region of the mountain harmlessly, provided they don't accidentally leap off one of the sides that leads straight to oblivion.

The game gets a little cute with its "falling onto snow" animations. Most are familiar with the little animation that plays whenever Mario falls too far into the snow and ends up lodged up to his waist, as he spends a few seconds to emancipate himself from the tundra. There's a special variant for when Mario ground-pounds from too high up, where he only needs to pull his ass out of the snow. Then there's my personal favorite, which can only occur if the player does a mid-air dive and falls far enough: Mario's upper torso is what becomes trapped under the snow in this case, and his legs flail around in a panic until he manages to pull his way out. That they programmed three different animations for a simple little gag is kind of wonderful.

Mpfff! Mpf, mmmpf mpff!

The slide actually features twice while hunting Stars: the first time, the player simply needs to reach the bottom. For the second, they must race an enormous penguin that threatens to push them off the slide with its girth. The game actually boosts the width of the penguin even further if the player collects all 120 Stars, adding an extra post-game challenge. There's also a secret shortcut that takes the player directly to the end of the slide, and once again your opponent calls foul if you should happen to use it during your race. The slide's also an important part of the 100-Coin Challenge, due to the large number of coins you can pick up while sliding down.

The course has the first instances of the "spin jump" and "runaround" enemies. The former is a type of enemy with propellers on their heads, which in this case is an unusual plant-like enemy called a Spindrift (though I prefer its Japanese name "Fuwafuwa-san", or Mr. Fluffy). Leaping on this enemy sends Mario soaring with a spinning leap that slows his descent back to Earth, which will come into far better use on the other snow level. The runaround enemies cannot be hurt by conventional means, but if Mario runs around them enough times they'll simply collapse. This type of creature is far better represented in Big Boo's Haunt. There's something clever about the idea of enemies that have to be defeated by acrobatics instead of violence.

There's also one last thing: while many courses have secret teleporters, Cool, Cool Mountain is one of the few places where it's actually vital. Two ledges at the ends of broken bridges, one at the peak and one at the base, link to each other, allowing Mario to get back to the top of the course. It's otherwise (almost) impossible to head back up due to the long slide area near the summit.

The Stars

Gee, why not just put an arrow on the end of those coins.

The first and third Stars are the slide-related Stars, already discussed above. This slide is far more precarious than Princess's Secret Slide but the shortcut (indicated by a line of coins) makes the first time through a lot easier. The Big Penguin won't appreciate any shortcuts though, so that race has to be done legit. The penguin race really drives the screws in by ensuring that the penguin doesn't have an even speed throughout: instead, the penguin will slow down after his initial headstart and then speed up during the last few difficult twists before the final stretch, during which the player can inch ahead come the finish line. The goal of this erratic rubberbanding is to knock off or otherwise psyche out the player as the penguin whizzes past and then intimidate them into keeping their distance with the final few twists rather than hit them at full speed while trying to maneuver around the big penguin, which they need to do to actually win. It's deliberately designed to mess with the player's risk vs reward mindset, making them think that perhaps taking a more submissive and conservative position will prevent them from falling to their death, when the reality is that going for broke is the only way to keep up and eventually take the penguin over.

What are you gonna do, mama bird? Bat me with your flippers? (This is kinda messed up, huh.)

Li'l Penguin Lost is perhaps the one Star people remember most vividly from this stage, and possibly one of the most frustrating. It involves escorting a baby penguin from the top of the stage to its mother at the bottom. The only means to do this is by grabbing the penguin and carrying it with you; however Mario will drop the penguin whenever he gets hit or falls too far. After being dropped once, the baby penguin will actively try to avoid being picked up again, generally by moving in an opposite direction to Mario, which can often mean watching it happily waddle off the edge of the world as Mario works to recover from whatever malady caused him to drop Junior in the first place. As such, this particular Star has something of a notoriety, though it's once again the developers attempting to think outside of the box when it came to giving Mario uniquely 3D challenges. At no point in the Mario oeuvre was he ever required to babysit an ungrateful and loud baby - though, as many might recall, Mario was indeed that baby himself at one time. Maybe this Star is penance for being a little handful to all those poor Yoshis. There's quite a bit of comedy involved with this Star as well, such as the mother penguin rudely insisting that the impossibly ugly baby penguin that Mario can find nearby couldn't possibly be hers, despite the fact that the two babies are identical and this one apparently has no mother or reason to exist other than as a red herring. The other factor is how the mother penguin will really not appreciate it, angry eyes and all, if Mario picks up her infant and runs off with her, though the mother quickly gives up once Mario gets far enough away. At this point, as the Star has already been summoned by the temporarily grateful mother and can be collected whenever the player wishes, the player is now free to drop the baby penguin off the nearest cliff. It's something I can never resist doing every time I play this game anew. Don't even tell me that the little flapper doesn't deserve it.

"Hmm... nothing back here."

The fourth Star is the standard red coin rush and the player is back once again to hunting every corner of the stage. This is where the secret teleporter comes in useful, as one coin requires a massive detour down a cliff-face which thus skips a few others. The game starts getting into the habit of hiding red coins in the level geometry, tricking players with perspective shifts. For instance, there's a red coin around the bottom of the course that can't be seen unless the player shifts the camera to follow a wall to its terminal point, otherwise the coin remains just out of sight. It's a mean trick to pull on players not yet used to the camera controls (which remains one of the few mechanical aspects neither this game nor any that followed in the 3D platformer genre could completely get right).

I appreciate that if you play any other star after this, even ones you've already acquired, the snowman remains complete.

The fifth Star, Snowman Loses His Head, is another that relies on a lot of invisible triggers. Specifically, the hint asks that the player guide the rolling snowball to where a disembodied snowman head sits on a podium. It's possible the player has passed the head multiple times while hunting for other Stars, though the "body" doesn't actually show up on its plinth until this Star hint is selected. This is a combination of a race and a rolling ball trap, and the key instruction that many miss (through no fault of their own) is to guide the snowball body to its destination. This means getting ahead of it, and then taking a route to the head that the body can follow. Skipping any part of the body ball's route, such as dropping down from above or neglecting to slide up to the head's plinth, will cause the body ball to continue rolling past and off the world. It's an interesting experiment, tasking the player with creating a sort of invisible breadcrumb trail to the correct location, though I'm sure it has more to do with passing through a handful of "trigger zones" that need activating in-sequence before the Star can be acquired.

Having fun on your tiny, precarious island, asshole?

The sixth and final Star is a little on the obtuse side, because while it tells the player that "wall jumps will work", it doesn't deign to tell the player where these wall jumps must be performed. Indeed, there's been no location yet that the player will have found incidentally that would allow for a lot of wall jumps. This actually requires that the player find the Pink Bob-Omb (who is unhelpfully on a tiny island that a lift passes by), activate the cannon on the base of the mountain and once again fire across a chasm to a single tree that Mario can grab onto. Once over there, the wall jump aspect becomes more obvious, though it still requires a bit of effort to make the last wall jump as it requires a triple-jump to reach. It's possible that this is another Star the player will discover before they receive the hint, especially if they're getting desperate in their red coin search, but it's also one of those cases where most players probably felt like they were forced to look up a guide to tell them where to go next.

You don't get coins for doing this, but it doesn't hurt to be thorough.

100-Coin Challenge: The only real danger here is falling off the course. Just going down the slide will net anywhere between 50-80 coins depending on how thorough the player is, and then it's simply a matter of finding the rest outside (or warping back to the summit and going back down the slide for the remainder). Oddly, the blue coin block is both tricky to reach and only provides ten coins, so it's far less essential here than it is elsewhere. Clearly, the developers knew that they didn't have to do much to make this goal attainable. It's curious how a "difficult" course might not always mean a difficult 100-Coin Challenge, once again reaffirming my belief that these challenges were afterthoughts, albeit the sort of afterthought that still had plenty of development time to be polished to a satisfactory sheen.

Big Boo's Haunt

The Course

Oh, I see you "Teresa".

So, this place. The player has already encountered a few situations where they might feel like the solution was too obfuscated, and given the reputation Boo Houses had back in Super Mario World, they can expect a whole lot more of it here. Honestly, though, most of the Big Boo's Haunt Star hints are fairly forthright in their transparency (opaque Boo jokes withstanding). The biggest puzzle to solve is actually getting there. It requires that the player has found twelve Stars (though they don't need to have passed the first Bowser Road course) and traveled into the garden area at the back of the castle. Here, a group of Boos menacingly hover around the fountain like a bunch of delinquent teens at the mall, but it's only a fairly large one near the back that has any significance. By defeating this Boo - Boos can be killed in this game, sort of, and it requires exploiting their behavior and slow movement - the player will gain access to the course via a tiny caged model that Mario inexplicably shrinks down to enter.

Big Boo's Haunt might as well be a Resident Evil mansion. There's a few extraneous structures and creatures, as well as a cellar that expands beyond the manse's foundations, but most of the course's Stars can be found within the building itself. It's full of traps, secrets and at least one area that won't be accessible unless the player does something circuitous and nonsensical to get past it. The Stars are wisely configured in a way that the player needs to gradually learn more about the mansion to find each subsequent one, and each is on the same or higher floor than the last. The sole exception is the roulette wheel-like merry-go-round in the basement, which feels more like an Oogie Boogie reference. For whatever reason, future appearances of Boos in Mario games tend to involve casino/roulette/gambling allusions. Actually, the casino in Ni no Kuni was filled with dead people too. Is Japan making fun of elderly slot jockeys? Don't bite the hand that feeds you pachinko balls, guys.

Imagine a Mario the size of an insect: the ultimate secret weapon.

Core to reaching this stage and acquiring its first Star is learning how to fight Boos. Series veterans know that Boos are notoriously shy and will hide by turning non-corporeal when viewed directly, but will continue to stalk Mario as soon as his back is turned. The player simply needs to take advantage of the camera perspective and Mario's acrobatics to get behind the Boo without looking directly at it and then sock it. Jumping on a Boo while it's solid won't harm it, but it will be stunned for a brief moment that the player can capitalize on. The other core enemies include giant floating eyes, which are defeated in the same "runaround" way as the snowmen in the previous course, and a spider with an unusually patterned orb-like body that looks like something right out of a 3D Studio Max assets folder.

However, the centerpiece of this course is the wonderfully constructed jump scare in the first room on the left of the ground floor. All this room contains is some wood panel floors and walls, a few beams of light from outside and a piano sitting in the corner. The piano will come alive and try to eat Mario should he get close, and if the sudden movement doesn't jar players, the cacophony of noise it makes as it slams its toothy lid down and hobbles around will. There's a few other "poltergeist" items too, like flung chairs and demonic books, but the piano is what burns itself ino memory.

The Stars

Maybe so, but you guys sure have some glass jaws.

The first Star requires that the player explore the entirety of the first floor of the mansion, defeating Boos in many of its rooms. Ominously, the Boos mock Mario as he kills each one, malevolently asserting that "Ghosts... don't... DIE!". This, in addition to the general creepy atmosphere and music, is a great introduction to the course. Big Boo will make an appearance in the mansion lobby once all his minions are dealt with, and is really just a Boo that needs knocking around a few extra times. He'll speed up once he gets hit, as if to trip up players who are trying to get all three hits in quickly, but a speedy player can still jab combo the spherical specter into the hereafter.

Nothing about this strikes me as "merry".

The Merry-Go-Round Star is in the basement, and makes its presence known by changing the chilling ambient track to a jovial carnival tune, which of course is equally terrifying for different reasons. It's no coincidence that this circus area is in the sewer-like basement - the Boos all float down here, after all. Like the previous Star, Mario is once again pummeling a handful of Boos and then a singular Big Boo before a Star appears. The difference is that the carousel is constantly in motion and every now and again the wall spits out plumes of flame. It's sort of a remix of the first Star, with less hunting around and trickier combat. The best part is that you never have to go into the basement again, unless you fall down there (there aren't a whole lot of coins).

Man, those teeth B#!

Collecting the first Star makes a minute but important change to the level, raising a staircase that gives Mario access to the second floor of the mansion. These floors are more engineered towards the red coin Star, but there's one special case here where the player must solve a puzzle in a library, complete with books whizzing left and right Ghostbusters-style. It's another case of hitting things in order or getting punished by electricity, though fortunately there's only three items to worry about. Given there's only six possible permutations and eight wedges on Mario's health bar, it's not a particularly fatal game of Russian roulette.

The red coins are where things start to get interesting. All eight are found on the ground and first floor (or first and second for the Americans) and most involve tripping Boo-by traps like the shifting coffins and triggering that irascible piano (I don't know whether to make a "Cho(m)pin" or a "he'll Schu you up and Bert you out" joke here. "His Bach is worse than his bite"? I'll get back to you all on this.) It's a fun one, and relatively short given the minimal amount of ground to cover.

Big Boo's Balcony is a rare Star that presents its true challenge after the ostensibly difficult part is over. The player simply needs to a find their way to the top floor, which actually requires a tricky somersault and wall jump to reach, and then fight Big Boo on a small, enclosed balcony. This balcony is visible from the start point of the level, so it generates quite the mystery prior to this Star hint. Upon defeating the Big Boo, the Star relocates to the building's roof, which is another very tricky long jump and balancing act. The camera stays far too zoomed out, so some alternative camera control is recommended here to stay on the parts of the roof that won't slide Mario off to the distant ground.

Illuminati, I knew it was them! Even when it was the Boos, I knew it was them!

The secret room the hint for the sixth Star refers to is one hidden behind a Boo portrait on the top floor. Not only do you need the Vanish Cap to get past it, but the nearest Vanish Cap is a floor down and in the lobby. The player might need to practice with the jump needed to get them to the third floor because they won't have much time after grabbing the cap. Of course, it's equally likely that the player has yet to find this cap, and thus Big Boo's Haunt completes the trilogy of courses in the initial area with Stars that are inaccessible without the right caps (along with Bob-Omb's Battlefield and its Flying Cap Star, and Jolly Roger Bay with its Metal Cap Star). Better find those cap switches, bucko.

100-Coin Challenge: Given that every enemy in this stage (excepting the spiders) provides Mario with five coins, it doesn't take long to gather the required amount. The blue coin block on the third floor is another twenty, and the player's already familiar with where the eight red coins are. This brings up the total to a very reasonable ~125 coins.

Bowser Road 1: Bowser in the Dark World

Look at this crafty little guy!

Though they are among the most challenging areas in the game, and deliberately so, the three Bowser Road stages are my favorites because they more than anything else embody this ongoing theme of "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" approach to game design. While many set-pieces of the Bowser Road stages will appear in the game's courses, a number of elements are unique to Bowser Road and because of this it feels like a repository of every crackpot idea for a platforming sequence or puzzle that the developers had that they couldn't fit in elsewhere. Essentially a linear obstacle course to the pipe where Bowser awaits, there's also a number of red coins scattered around along the way, and a few are better hidden than they have been so far. For instance, the second red coin requires the same timed block switch as the first, but it's easy to assume that the switch is meant for that initial red coin and that red coin alone. The second requires a quick run back to the start of the area while the switch is active and is quite easy to miss as a result.

My interpretation of Mario's exclamation is "Don Quixote, Bowser!", invoking the name of Miguel de Cervantes's delusional knight to highlight his own possibly imagined heroics. You can read more about this in my published thesis.

As for the fight itself, we're all pretty familiar with the "so long-a Bowser" (or your preferred interpretation) routine. I feel like the fact that it's almost all entirely based on timing, at least when it comes down to that final throw, is a (possibly incidental) callback to Bowser's first appearances in Super Mario Bros. where the player simply had to pick their moment to run past him. The control stick gets a good work out with that spinning motion at any rate, and you need sterling camera control in addition to some evasive skills to reach the tail in the first place. A boss fight should challenge you in multiple ways, after all, though they sure don't vary it up much.

I should also note what a neat touch it is to have a Princess portrait morph into a Bowser portrait the closer you get to it (which has to have some deleterious effect to Mario's libido) until it's completely Bowser and the floor opens up beneath your feet to complete the "trap". Each of the Bowser Roads has a fun little gimmick like this.

(Also, I just said it earlier without realizing the extent of what it might mean, but how perfect is it to refer to the core stages (the fifteen stages with seven Stars) as "main courses" when there's a dessert waiting for Mario at the end?)

Anyway, I think that ought to suffice for now. When we next pick this up, we'll look at the first two basement courses (that would be the maze one and the lava one) and a few of the secrets that await Mario beneath the castle (including both of the remaining secret zones with cap switches!). See you then.


Scenic Routes: Super Mario 64 (Part One)

It's fair to say that Super Mario 64 is a monumental game for many reasons. It was Nintendo's first true bold step into 3D gaming, launched Mario into a new dimension without sacrificing an iota of the quality the core Mario series is known for and ensured that the fledgling N64 system started off in the best of circumstances. What tends to get overlooked amid the accolades for its trailblazing of numerous 3D platformer conventions is just how inventive it is when setting up goals and obstacles to overcome. I have a small theory based on my (limited) experience in the game industry as to why this is:

Y'see, at many points during a game's conception and development, the designers will get together to have a pow-wow about what they want to add to the game. Designers on big projects like these are often encouraged to be as wild with their notions as possible, because it's better to pare down a giant list of incompatible ideas (due to myriad concerns with a game's budget, the desired time frame of development or simply because it's not possible with the current tech) than to not have any innovations or distinctive features worth capitalizing on. With Super Mario 64, no-one really had any idea what the game should include other than extremely concise 3D controls (which I imagine were difficult enough to implement on their own) and maybe a big blocky goomba or twenty. Therefore, almost all the weird, off-the-top-of-their-heads notions the designers conceived would find themselves included in the game, rather than the usual handful. It's why Super Mario 64 feels so much more like a puzzle game with the way the criteria for completion could shift significantly between each Power Star, though one could argue that this was a natural evolution from Super Mario World given that game's huge number of hidden exits and secrets.

Anyway, I recently got a hankering to play through the whole thing again (I blame the Game Grumps), and it's surprising how much of its content sticks with you. It's not a particularly transparent game in most respects (barring Mario's Invisibility Cap) and the single sentence hints the player receives for each of the game's 105 Stars (the last 15 are entirely secret) aren't always enough to go on if there's some obfuscated trick to summoning the Stars in question. I want to talk more about the odd design decisions the game chose to make, how they designed certain aspects of the fifteen courses and how such a visually basic (by necessity) 3D game still makes its art direction distinctive. Really, though, I want to focus on the game and level design in particular.

(Because I'm going to get super in-depth with these courses, I'll be splitting this up into multiple parts. Today is the castle's exterior and ground floor, as well as the first two courses and a couple of secret Stars. I'll try for the last three courses of the first area and the first Bowser Road next time.)

Peach's Castle - Exterior

After a few introductory blurbs whizz past the screen for those who would be completely immobile without them (hardly one of the earliest 3D games with analog controls, but Nintendo likes to be thorough), we're introduced to the game via this entirely superfluous castle exterior area. It comes into play exactly once while hunting for Stars, as home to the Invisible Cap zone, but it's really meant to let players get their bearings in this strange new universe. The player's free to run, jump, climb trees, swim in the moat and take any number of exploratory leaps before walking across the castle's drawbridge and beginning the game proper. Mario also starts the game pointing directly at the castle's entrance, so there's no ambiguity for those who wish to jump right into the action.

The exterior is remarkably packed with details given how minimal its importance is to the rest of the game. Every course, Star and NPC is within the castle's walls, barring the above exception and a special post-game bonus later on, so there's really no reason for it to be as expansive as it is. There's not a whole lot to do either - there's a waterfall to one side where the moat begins and a small lake where the moat ends, and a curious square hole in the ground covered by an impregnable metal grate. A few mysteries are raised, like an inaccessible door under the moat's surface, but the sole purpose of this area is to show off how attractive the game looks - there are birds and butterflies everywhere, some calming ambient sounds and the impressive looking castle itself with its Peach stained glass window - and to let the player get a firm grip on the controls in a safe environment.

This butterfly transmogrified into an 1-Up Mushroom. They do that sometimes.

Important to note here is that Super Mario 64 has no overt tutorials as such. It simply has a few signposts that give you a rundown of context controls for whatever apparatus are in the area (like climbing trees) and then gives you a big playground to test them in before it starts throwing any enemies or tricky jumps at you. It respects your intelligence, even in spite of the fact that most of the game's mechanics were scary and new at the time.

Peach's Castle - Ground Floor Foyer

The unusual aspect with the first floor of Peach's Castle, besides Bowser's ominous and apparently telepathic warning to am-scray, is how it adopts a locking mechanism for almost all its doors that prevent the player from exploring the rooms beyond until a certain number of Stars have been found. However, after the initial three Stars, this feature is all but dropped to only include the three Bowser Road stages, which lead to the game's encounters with the King of Koopas himself and a key that will unlock a new floor of the castle to explore. Clearly the game was eager to ensure that the first Star of Bob-Omb's Battlefield (which isn't necessarily the first Star you can earn there, simply the first you have the hint for) would be the first the player claims before more of the game opens up to them. A single Star is all that is required to open the way to the second course (and the first two hidden Stars), and three for the third and fourth courses. There is the matter of the spooky fifth course, but this won't be accessible until the player has found at least twelve Stars (however, the fountain courtyard is still free to explore, sans its future ghostly inhabitants).

The sun rug is fetching enough (it really ties the castle's lobby together), but it's also a hint. Nothing in this game seems like it was designed without purpose. I especially like the World 1-1 murals across the walls, presumably to provide a nostalgic feel to the decor. Wait, why do I sound like a realtor?

There's a Toad here too, one of Peach's several servants that all appear to have been cursed along with the castle, remaining transparent until Mario acknowledges them. (Maybe the game's making some sort of cynical point about Mario's lofty status in the Mushroom Kingdom.) Most Toads just dole out advice, and given how little the game tends to tell you about some of its more obtuse elements like the 100-coin Challenges or how some course portraits operate, it's useful to seek them out. Three of them even have hidden Stars that they'll happily hand over, though you'd never know it if you deigned to ignore them all. This is what happens when you disregard the little people, Mario: you miss out. And then the bloody coups and revolutions start happening. Pretty easy to figure out who needs to be sent to the guillotine when only the rich have small enough heads to fit through the hole. Just saying.

The only other points of interest are two locked doors and the double doors to the first Bowser Road, which requires a meager eight Stars to open. Seeing how there's almost forty you can obtain before you ever need to open this door, it's clear the developers wanted to softball the first significant Star-count barrier. As for the Flying Cap zone, also accessible in the castle's lobby after ten Stars are found, we'll discuss that later along with the two hidden Stars for The Princess's Secret Slide.

Bob-Omb Battlefield

The Course

The very first course and the only one that's initially available. You begin next to two Pink Bob-Ombs, which you can quickly ascertain are allies with their benign behavior. They won't move, so you have all the time you need to move up to them and try punching them. The punch button, of course, doubles as the "talk to NPC" button, so if you hadn't figured out that they were friendly you will once they start talking to you about the course.

First off, it's important to note that there are no bottomless pits on this course. Coins are plentiful and there's a heart spinner (essentially free healing) halfway up the mountain. That isn't to say the course is entirely safe, but the designers removed a lot of what would become common causes of SIDS (Sudden Italian Death Syndrome) in later courses.

Of note is the elevator system near the bridge up to the next height level of the course. This system has no real reason to be here given that there's an easier alternative route nearby, so what it does instead is introduce a type of recurring moving platform puzzle in a situation where, once again, the player is all but guaranteed safety. The way it flips over as it reaches the apex, for instance, is an element of this design that might frustrate players in later instances (especially the Invisible Cap zone). Also of note is the chequerboard design: it's a simple texture that helps the mechanical items in the environment stand out next to the more natural browns and greens of the landscape. The few times the game attempts a more sophisticated texture (say, the barbed wire fences in the above shot, or the various other instances of animated sprites in a 3D landscape) it doesn't always look so hot, so the artists had to find some creative ways to employ basic 3D model textures that would be distinct and still congruous to the world design. I should state that, in spite of dabbling with Maya in my younger years, I'm certainly no expert on 3D CGI and graphical design, but all the same it feels like they do a lot with a little in this game in that regard. (I just remember a whole lot of chequered orbs floating over water textures from that period of my life. Or maybe that was from my time with Amiga 500 art programs.)

This marble slope seems a bit unusual, but the distinct switch in color helps its low-friction impassibility stand out against the brown earth.

The course then gives way to the mountain, providing an obstacle course as the player works their way up the spiral path. Rolling balls are a common nuisance in this and future courses, a clear means of exploiting three-dimensional space to produce a challenge. The balls are designed to be too big to leap over easily, unless the player is employing one of Mario's higher jumps, so instead players are encouraged to duck and weave around their predictable paths. An alcove in the wall presents one of (at least) two teleporters in the course. The game's teleporters are tricky to find because they require the player be stationary. This plays against the player's instinctual need to keep Mario constantly in motion; always jogging to the next goal or place of interest. Using this teleport skims a few seconds of the journey up, but it's unlikely a novice player will know about it. It almost feels more like a shortcut for speedrunners, or perhaps for those who are so fed up at getting hit by the rolling rocks that they look up a "cheat" to get past them.

The Stars

Big Bob-Omb stands preening his mustache and surveying his kingdom until you interrupt him, hinting at his supercilious character before he even speaks a word.

The Big Bob-Omb fight is important because it teaches players the first rule of each Bowser fight: find a way to get behind the opponent and grab them. Big Bob-Omb's attack is a throw that will probably not do much harm unless the player is unfortunate to be turfed off the mountain, but even in these cases there's a heart spinner nearby to revitalize oneself and try again. The Nintendo rule of three comes into play here as well, setting up most of the other boss fights in the game. Given the big guy's extremely slow gait, the challenge isn't so much the fight itself but getting there in one piece. After this, the game is convinced that the player knows enough of the basics to survive, and thus opens the second course of the game: one that has similar challenges, but is otherwise less lenient.

Doesn't seem fair, but all right.

Bob-Omb's Battlefield's second Star is a race against Koopa the Quick, a particularly large Koopa that is - like the Pink Bob-Ombs - immobile until the player gets close to them and talks to them. The race itself is interesting, because Koopa gives Mario a general idea of where to head (the top of the mountain) but then takes a course that Mario cannot possibly follow: up the sheer marble slope that serves as the terminal stop for the rolling boulders. This is a necessity due to Koopa's programming: a seesaw bridge makes it hard to path a course through, especially if the player decides to hold one side down. Instead, the player is required to take the long way around and up the mountain, but Koopa makes sure to jog a little slower when tackling this hill so that the player can keep up. If the player takes either of the teleporters (there's a second one in a bed of flowers), Koopa will angrily demand that you start over because Mario skipped over part of the course. The same is true if Mario decides to use one of the cannons as a shortcut. That the game acknowledges that Mario "cheated" is impressive enough, though it's really only looking for a few activated triggers. If players had a hard time reaching Big Bob-Omb and had to practice the route a few times, then this Star feels a lot easier because they're so used to the journey by this point. If it's a close race towards the end, then Mario has one last ace up his sleeve by jumping up the thin ledge that separates the last part of the spiral path to the summit, giving the player a much appreciated eleventh-hour advantage. While the game is sparing with its timed sequences - there aren't too many occasions where you'll need to head somewhere within a short time limit - there's enough of them to generate some novel instances.

The third Star requires that the player unlock the cannons and use them to launch Mario to a floating island that is visible at numerous points along the course, especially as the player gets higher up. This begins a recurring puzzle in half the game's courses of finding a Pink Bob-Omb on the course (often hidden away somewhere) and precision-aiming a cannon to shoot to an otherwise impossible-to-reach Star. As we see again with many recurring concepts being introduced to the player in this first course, it is almost impossible to die while getting the hang of aiming Mario's trajectory. The course doesn't have pitfalls, as stated, and Mario is immune to falling damage while he arcs through the air after the cannon fires. It might take the player a while to find the best angle, and of the four cannons in the level only two realistically have a chance of reaching the island. The second cannon, located just after the elevator, can reach the island with a sufficiently high angle. However, it's the fourth and final cannon most of the way up the mountain that gives players the best chance, as it is parallel to the island and gives the player a target to shoot for in the guise of a single tree. Unusually, the star is located inside a ? block rather than being out in the open, possibly to prevent players from trying to fire themselves directly at it. A few other stars are concealed in these ? blocks for often unknown reasons; it's especially jarring given how many of these blocks contain comparatively inessential extra lives or coins.

Seeing these jade-like crystalline rocks are a little weird, given I'm still playing Pillars of Eternity elsewhere. Maybe it's the same universe?

The fourth Star is the game's first instance of the red coin rush. Each course in the game, without exception, has an instance where Mario has to find eight red coins and then head to a Star that appears elsewhere in the course. Sometimes the red coins are spread across the entire course, as they are here, while occasionally they're all located within a single enclosed area. The red coins of Bob-Omb Battlefield are spread out in such a way that they aren't particularly well-hidden, but most will involve going out of the player's way; therefore, it's unlikely for a player to go actively searching for them while pursuing other Stars. Of course, there's nothing stopping a player from doing exactly that, though they might find that the floating island red coin is inaccessible without first activating the cannons. The first two red coins are close to the start and involve riding the elevator and exploring a patch of greenery away from the beaten path. The third is on the Chain Chomp's post, which might also act as a hint. The fourth and fifth are a little past the Chain Chomp/seesaw bridge and surround the location where the Star will eventually appear, as if to highlight it. The sixth is quite well hidden, situated under the bridge that connects the hill to the rest of the level. The seventh is midway up the hill, which you can either reach by sliding down or just by sprinting up that slope without stopping. The eighth is on the aforementioned floating island. It's a gentle introduction to running around collecting coins (something that heavily factors into the 100-Coin Challenges) and ensures that the player has explored the course thoroughly. It's never a bad idea to do that with any new course, really.

Just by firing the cannon at the right angle, you can get four of five of these rings in one swoop even without the Flying Cap. The much higher final ring makes the cap a vital component.

The fifth Star is where Bob-Omb Battlefield gently reminds the player that there's other locations to explore. At this point, the player will have found enough Stars to unlock the next three courses, and the chances are they might wish to thoroughly plumb Bob-Omb's Battlefield of its Stars until no further challenges remain. The game puts a stop to that by ensuring that the player has found the Flying Cap for its fifth Star, which involves flying through five rings (and introducing another game-wide conceit; the five "hidden activators" which simply ping a number in a 1-5 sequence once Mario passes through them) via the cannon on the floating island. It is almost impossible to aim the cannon for the further rings due to the low draw distance for animated objects like coins, so it's more or less required that the player exit the course and get far enough into the game to acquire the Flying Cap. It might annoy completionists, but no more so than a Metroid area that has a dozen power-ups closed off to an under-equipped Samus Aran.

The Chain Chomp's hitbox begins where its black mass touches the ground, so you're perfectly safe in his mouth like this.

The most striking object in the whole course is the glorious 3D Chain Chomp that munches anyone who threatens to walk past him. The player doesn't have to be an Olympiad to run past it while it chomps at thin air, but he's a huge omnipresent menace that's meant to intimidate you more than anything else. He'll factor into the course's sixth and final Star, and it's simultaneously a peaceful means to conquer an enemy and a call back to Yoshi's Island, where ground-pounds were also the solution for freeing the poor, trapped creatures. The game has a handful of wooden stakes identical to the one holding the Chain Chomp down a little further along as well as a tip that suggests you try ground-pounding them. The player is thus required to put two and two together to free the Chomp. However, because this can be done on any "variation" of the course (many courses will make minute changes to the level design depending on the Star the player highlights before starting) and because the fifth Star for this particular course is inaccessible until the player finds the Flying Cap later in the game, this is a Star that the player might well intuit the solution for ahead of time. If the player does figure it out without the course hint - the Star is clearly visible behind the Chain Chomp, so a hint of some form is already there - they'll not only realize that they can obtain Stars without needing the hint beforehand, but can do so before acquiring the previous Stars in the sequence. While this isn't always true - course changes occasionally need to happen for certain Stars to become accessible - the game feels a lot more open once this epiphany occurs.

100-Coin Challenge: I'm trying not to turn this analysis into a walkthrough, but the 100-Coin Challenge is a level design curiosity because I'm half convinced it was added as an afterthought. For one thing, a lot of stages have "blue coin blocks", which briefly summon a number of very valuable (five coins each) blue coins clearly placed there to bulk up the insufficient coin count for the stage. Second, finding a 100-Coin Challenge Star will not instantly remove Mario from the stage, so it feels like they were designed far later in the process. Bob-Omb's Battlefield is, like it is in many other respects, a very gentle introduction to this feature, with well over 100 coins to find and no pitfall perils to instantaneously undo the player's progress. Having the Flying Cap makes this particular challenge considerably easier, as there's almost half the coins the player needs in those floating rings.

Whomp's Fortress

The Course

Immediately, the game raises the stakes with a course completely surrounded by an empty void that will cause Mario to lose a life should he fall off - a characteristic common to at least half of the game's courses. It's not so much an issue here, given the amount of focus on the center of the course (which is once again vertically-oriented, like the latter half of Bob-Omb Battlefield), but still an ever-present threat. The player is once again following a linear path to the peak, but there's a lot to unpack on the way there.

First off, there's one of the course's irascible piranha plants, here depicted as a grouchy sleeper. A nearby signpost warns Mario to "walk quietly", which the player might eventually ascertain to mean gently holding the stick in one direction instead of pushing it all the way. This makes Mario far slower and stealthier, though it's rarely used anywhere else in the game besides sneaking up on sleeping piranha plants. This control feature does find its way into many other games after this, however. Even Super Mario 64's tossed off ideas are practical enough to become institutions of the genre.

The course features a lot of other favorites too, including the Thwomps, the new and far more mobile Whomps and a Bullet Bill launcher that only shows up after the first Star has been acquired. There's more elevators, traps and moving platforms but not a whole lot else to the course. In a sense, it feels smaller than Bob-Omb's Battlefield and more streamlined towards creating challenges for the player.

The Stars

An instance of what happens to the game's textures when blown up. Not attractive. Then again, this snaggletoothed rock monster was never attractive to begin with.

The first Star, similarly to Bob-Omb Battlefield, simply involves the player scaling the course to reach a boss at the top. In this instance, the player has to ground-pound the immense Whomp three times to subdue him. It's a delayed introduction to the ground-pound move, which hasn't really been emphasized yet though should be familiar to anyone who played Yoshi's Island, the previous game in the Mario series (well, depending on your interpretation as to what games are considered "core" Mario games). Whomp has a funny little rant about the literal downtrodden role of sentient rocks in the Mushroom Kingdom, which could also be construed as terrifying. I wouldn't want to consider for one moment that a cobblestone road involved the indentured servitude of a thousand tiny Thwomps.

Mario breathes in the rarefied air.

The second Star replaces the giant Whomp boss with a cylindrical tower full of moving platforms. (I doubt it was intentional, but it gave me some fond flashbacks of Nebulous/Castelian.) It's the most significant change to a course's layout yet, though not that much more of a significant challenge. The player could even fire themselves up there if they have the cannon unlocked, though it's not an easy shot.

The third Star requires the cannon, this time firing for a small enclosed area underneath a flagpole. Given the prison-like pillars that surround this enclosure, the sensible player will determine that you need to aim for one of the far pillars to stop Mario from flying right on through and out the other side to his doom. There's a few other targets the player might consider instead from this cannon vantage point (especially as the hint is vague, beyond requiring a cannon) including the caged Star and certain parts of the course which are more destructible than they appear.

Thanks for the lift, you grimacing granite grouch.

The fourth Star is another red coin scavenger hunt. The cleverest one is hidden above the second Thwomp, which requires riding the thing up to reach. The first six are otherwise all located on the path to the top, which the player will have undoubtably bumped into a few times while chasing the previous Stars. The last two require knocking down a plank of wood with Mario's fists, creating a bridge to a few floating islands. While it's not quite a physics puzzle, the player is left to suss out the secret behind this tall plank before they can move on.

The fifth Star is contained within a caged island with no top, and instructions to "drop in". A player may determine that this requires a well-aimed cannon shot: a dangerous proposition given how easy it is to shoot off the course if the angle is too low. Rather, the true solution to this puzzle is to climb the first tree in the course and wake up an owl who will helpfully fly Mario around, telling him to let go when his shadow is over his desired landing site. The Star is considerably easier to reach this way, though it's likely the owl might go completely ignored by players (and thus the cannon might be perceived as their best shot, so to speak).

This sleepy bird is a lot more cooperative than those sleepy plants were.

The sixth Star is, like the sixth Star of Bob-Omb Battlefield, one that the player might find entirely incidentally. It involves blasting away a jutting piece of platform to reveal the buried Star underneath. This protuberance is directly between the cannon and the caged Star, so if the player grossly misjudged the angle of the shot, they could well hit it without realizing there was a Star there. The hint of "blast away the wall" isn't particularly helpful, so this is a Star that might stymie players for a while. I'm fairly sure that the first time I played the game, I was given a tip to use the cannon by a friend who had watched a demo of the game. The game rarely got this obtuse with its course Stars, but some of the other hidden Stars were pretty tricky to find in that (mostly) pre-internet era.

100-Coin Challenge: The challenge is a lot less lenient this time, though the blue coin block provides a handy twenty to get players started. The lion's share involves killing the various piranha plants and Whomps scattered across the tower, each worth five coins. The course isn't shy about putting rows and rings of coins everywhere either, and the relatively compact area means the player can hit their required 100 quickly and without putting themselves at risk too many times. While there's barely over a hundred coins on the course, they're all placed fairly obviously, with perhaps the exception of a ring of coins where the third star can be found.

The Princess's Secret Slide

While there's a few slides in the game, one coming up soon in the fourth course, this is the only one to be entirely secret. It involves opening a door leading to a tiny room with three Peach stained glass windows and an almost hidden note from the Princess herself, who implores Mario to save her and the Toads and to look for a secret entrance to one of the Stars she's personally hidden. The slide employs the game's momentum physics, giving players some control over the direction of Mario's slide, but not necessarily enough to make these slides a doddle.

Mario here is demonstrating the uncommon "tummy-slide" technique.

While many players find the secret Star at the end of the Princess's Secret Slide, they tend to miss the bonus Star that Mario earns from completing the slide as quickly as possible (under 21 seconds, I believe is the cutoff). It's the only secret area with two hidden Stars, and the signpost at the beginning of the slide only hints at a secret Star that can be obtained by going down the slide as fast as possible. If nothing else the Secret Slide is good practice for the two harder slides in the game, in course four and course twelve respectively.

The Flying Cap Zone

Once the player has found their tenth star, they'll discover that the lobby has a bright sunbeam pointing over the sun rug in the center of the hall. The idea is to stand on the rug and stare up at the light source, which immediately teleports the player to a secret stage. A similar idea would feature in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which the player is given the hint to fire an arrow directly at the sun at the right location, unlocking the useful fire arrows. It's another instance of the game taking a mechanism new to the format, in this case the zoomed-in camera controls that allow the player to look around, and finding a way to integrate a puzzle into it. How anyone is supposed to know to do this is one of the game's many mysteries, though I'm sure there's a hint somewhere if the player searches enough.

This and a few other hidden Stars won't kill you for falling off the world; instead the player is deposited outside the castle, as if this was all happening on the ramparts.

The Flying Cap Zone is a baptism by fire, requiring that the player use the Flying Cap (the game drops a few paragraphs of flying controls on you, which is exonerable given that you're presently in mid-air) to steer their way to the Red Switch - a giant red button that appears to be right out of Super Mario World - to activate every red Flying Cap block in the game. The Flying Cap provides a lot of freedom, though it's not so much flying as gliding: the player cannot go much higher than the height of their initial launch jump, and while they can stay level for a while they'll inexorably start falling towards the ground. However, the addition of cannons greatly expand the utility of this power-up, and many of the game's trickier Stars depend on the player's prowess while soaring through the air.

Given that there's also eight red coins floating around, it's easy enough to surmise that there's an additional secret Star here too. After at least two courses, the player should by this time be conditioned to recognize that any string of red coins will eventually lead to a star, even if the gray Star placeholder next to the switch wasn't sufficient hint.

The Bit at the End

I'm enjoying this closer look at Mario 64, coming at the game with an experienced eye, but I'm not entirely sold on this format just yet. I'd like to focus more on the smaller touches and less on each individual Star moving forward, especially as many tend to repeat themselves within new surroundings. From here on out, I might just pick on a few features per course and secret area to investigate.

I'd be happy to field criticism or suggestions in the comments below, as well as your own experiences with the game. How readily and without assistance did you discover the game's various secrets? How difficult did you find the game overall, either going for all the Stars or just acquiring enough to defeat Bowser? Did you play it recently, and if so do you feel it holds up or is incredibly dated? I'm curious what people think, because I feel there's a lot of inherent virtues to this game that no other like it (and there has been plenty like it) could quite replicate. Hopefully, I'll be able to put into clearer terms what those virtues are. At any rate, thanks for reading.


Pillars of Eternity: Third Impressions

Boy, that naming scheme is getting dumber by the iteration, ain't it? Welcome to another brief (hah) gander at Obsidian's latest joint, the Infinity Engine-inspired throwback that is Pillars of Eternity. I wanted to give myself a bit of time before jumping in with another bulletpoint list of observations and mechanics discussions so I could have at least some semblance of an air of authority about this game. This will probably be the last blog of this type on Pillars of Eternity; after this, I intend to beat the game and write up a review that will probably involve copy/pasting whole swathes of these three blogs (here's part one and part two, by the way). Uh, I mean figuratively speaking, of course.

A few things to get out of the way with first: You're probably already aware of this, but the game received a massive v1.3 patch recently that ironed a few of the more malevolent game bugs. There's still a helping of minor bugs (in fact, the patch added a couple of new ones), but game-breaking issues like that passive bonus wipe have thankfully been dealt with. It's an ideal time to get into the game, unless you still have a few demons wandering around Yharnam to keep you busy. The other is that I intend to get somewhat spoilery for the second half of this blog. I'll post another warning when I get there, but it's not really story-related: it's just a few in-depth discussions of areas you might be more inclined to explore for the first time on your own.


First, we should drop in on my party again. It's been a while, though not a whole lot has changed. For the record, my group just hit level 8.

  • Aravella the Ranger is still proving that I made the right choice with my protagonist class (though there's a pretty cool recruitable ranger too, if you wanted to grab her instead and try a different protagonist build - as I stated last time, there's no pre-generated PC for the barbarian, rogue or monk). Troutleap, her stalwart animal companion, now has a bunch of feats (the game calls them "class skills" and "talents") to make him more durable than ever, though he's still best as a distraction rather than a hard-hitter. She's rocking a really powerful hunter's bow I found recently, with a sword-and-shield combo for when enemies get too close. I haven't really been trying her Watcher powers much - they tend to be debuffs, and I usually forget which enemies are immune to what to be too mindful of them.
  • Erstma the Barbarian is a force to be reckoned with. She's peeled ahead of the other characters in terms of raw strength and health, and her frenzy means I can just let her take care of anything that makes the mistake of approaching her. She also picked up a useful skill that heavily restores her endurance, which keeps her in the fight longer. By the way, she can do both her frenzy and heal once per encounter: it's always best to check descriptions carefully for new skills because you want to be hitting those "per encounter" skills in every single battle to speed things up. "Per rest" and spells in general you need to be a little more judicious about, but just go nuts with those "per encounter" skills. I was happy to discover that the little statuettes that summon creatures, also an Infinity Engine mainstay (and, I'd like to believe, inspired by Drizzt Do'Urden's Guenhwyvar companion), are also "one per rest" items rather than items with a finite number of charges. There's one that summons a giant beetle that's saved my hide a few times.
  • Ori the Rogue is still the one I'm sending out to check for secrets, traps and enemy ambushes. I've given her a pistol, which has become something of a plus and a minus: in order to use a pistol, you need to get closer to enemies than you would for most of the other ranged weapons. It also takes a long time to reload and is slightly less accurate for some reason. However, pistols are capable of huge amounts of damage because of the way they pierce through enemy armor. Because my rogue only needs the one shot for a sneak attack, after which she runs back to the security of the group hiding nearby, she can pull that thing out and blow an enemy's head clean off with the increased sneak attack damage before booking it. She's not bad with her sabre-stiletto combo either, and if enemies get past my front line I usually switch her over to defend Aravella and Adsho and any recruitable mages I might have with me. Rogues are very much glass cannons in direct melee combat, taking and receiving a lot of damage quickly with their dirty fighting skillset and relative lack of defenses (though, I guess I could always give her heavier armor to wear).
  • Talking of whom, Adsho the Wizard now has access to fourth-level spells, but I've found a lot of her stronger attack spells require a wide berth to use effectively. Lots of AoE radii to keep track of, and a few of her new ones require a straight line of sight, so I often have to find creative ways of placing her where these spells can be effective that won't also put her at risk. The alternative is to start a fight with Ori's sneak attack and have Ori run behind the group while Adsho prepares a spell to zap the incoming enemies before she, too, joins Ori at a strategic position on the back row. It's been a pretty successful tactic so far, except when Ori doesn't quite run fast enough... (she's got super high dexterity though, which means her Reflex mitigates a lot of the spell damage. She, uh, only gets a little singed.)
  • I have two new recruitable characters right now, but I fully intend to keep cycling through them regularly because they all have quests attached to them at various parts of the world. The first of which is the Grieving Mother, who is a fascinating character. Whether she's an absurdly powerful Cipher in disguise or a Cipher that has been cursed with a veil of obscurity, every other character besides the very perceptive Watcher protagonist sees GM as an entirely (and deliberately) unremarkable peasant woman. I'm getting little bits and pieces of her backstory as the game progresses by looking through her soul whenever she lets me (she doesn't seem too bothered by it), but it's been extremely vague so far. It doesn't help that she herself is an enigmatic person who pauses every so often to voice what sound like Evanescence lyrics. I want to say GM is your typical mystery waif, but there's not a whole lot typical about her.
  • Perhaps more interesting still is her skills as a Cipher. A Cipher is essentially a psionics-user, a 2nd-Edition alternative to magic that was about as confusing as grapple mechanics and underwater fighting. In PoE, it's essentially a mage that's limited by their repertoire but greatly unlimited by the fact that they run off a regenerating "focus" mana total rather than stuck with a certain number of charges per spell level per rest. A Cipher can keep casting spells as long as they have the focus for it, and focus regenerates very quickly. Some of her more useful spells include briefly taking over enemy characters, healing a character's endurance and sapping an enemy of a random stat (strength, intelligence, etc.) and adding it to her own total. If she's lucky enough to sap 8-10 points of strength, I sometimes let her go to town with her enchanted stiletto.
  • My other present recruitable character is Pallegina, a French-accented paladin and one of the game's "godlike" - a race of disfigured humans that are born with abnormalities that were supposedly gifted to them by the Gods. I kind of love this idea, that these people are "blessed" with unfortunate facial dysmorphia that also renders them sterile. It actually reminds me of the Shibito of the Siren games and how they gradually become more monstrous and disfigured as the game continues: the game explains this as them evolving to be more like their God, which in every Siren game is always some sort of hideous Lovecraftian extradimensional being. Anyway, Pallegina has a few bird-like aspects to her head and vocal patterns, but seems normal enough if a little direct (paladins, what can you do?). She's from a different part of the world - one that sounds a lot like Orlais with its old Imperial roots, layers of political intrigue and goofy French accents - and works for a paladin order that answers directly to a counsel of "ducs", so we sort of help her complete missions for her people.
  • Her role as a paladin is fairly self-explanatory too. She's a front-line fighter first and foremost and has a few ways to help allies, whether it's through direct healing (the classic "lay on hands") or a "zealous aura" that increases the accuracy of everyone around her. She can also set her sword aflame several times per encounter, which is damn useful when fighting undead and other monsters that don't like fire too much. When I cycle through the two remaining slots with revolving characters, one of them is always a front-line fighter like her or Edér (a stock fighter and all-round southern nice guy).

Dungeon Specific

Remember the spoilers I told you about? Well here they come. I'm going to be talking about the Endless Roads of Od Nua and Raedric Hold in the next few paragraphs, so be forewarned.

The Endless Roads of Od Nua is, like the stronghold that sits atop of it, one of the most overt homages to the IE games. Specifically, it's the super-long and mostly optional dungeon that every add-on pack always includes. Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast had Durlag's Tower, Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal had Watcher's Keep (different Watcher, one assumes), Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter had that weird desert dungeon. It's a tradition, in a way, to give players who have mastered the core game some huge and unpredictable dungeon to explore. Od Nua is conveniently situated above your HQ, and you can tackle it whenever you're in the area to check in on things, rest at your own guest house or switching party members. Each floor is progressively tougher than the last and, I'm assuming, the dungeon is meant to last you the whole game, with its lowest floors suitable only for a party ready to take on the final boss.

I love this map. It shows you how every floor is connected.

There's a lot I admire about this dungeon. The first is that it attempts to tie the floors together both thematically and geographically, as you can see by the above image. Throughout the entire dungeon is a colossal statue that you see bits and pieces of as you continue to go deeper, crafted from adra (crystalline rocks that are everywhere, but are rarely over ten feet tall). There's also other features, like a sacrifical pit that passes through several floors to a drake waiting below for free food. A lot of the floors have a certain trick to them, like finding keys to open a door or agreeing to do a task for a creature before it'll open the way to the next floor. Every few floors there's a "master staircase" that the player can use to get out of the dungeon if it's getting a little too tough for their present level, and can later use to return to the floor they last reached. While the Endless Paths do appear to be optional, it's a truly intense place given its size and the deepening mystery behind its construction. It's cool that it's front and center like this too, directly under the player's HQ, rather than hidden away at a corner of the world map hours away from any conveniences.

Raedric's Hold, which is another optional location, requires a little more elaboration. It's the home of the local Lord, who by all reports has gotten a little crazy due to the plight that has affected his lands. He's going around murdering animancers, denying the opportunities he promised visitors to his land and overall being a tad despotic with his terrified populace. If you head near the road to Raedric's Hold in the Esternwood wilderness area, a young man named Kolsc walks by, asks you to take down Lord Raedric and tells you of a secret sewer entrance that just wiped out his group. Once you actually get to the Hold, however, there's many different routes to take to reach Lord Raedric, and it's a case of the game cleverly setting up multiple routes to suit the player. I'll go over a few of them below:

  • The player can choose to take the sewer entrance, as Kolsc suggested, and find a prisoner (one of Kolsc's men) who tells you about a friendly Priest of Berath in the Hold's chapel. The player can find a way to the chapel area of the Hold, conceal themselves with priest robes to avoid suspicion and find this priest to get a key that will open many of the doors in the Hold, including the one to Lord Raedric's throne room. The player can then fight Lord Raedric and his retinue of soldiers, sellswords, paladins and an Archmage and let Kolsc take over the castle (he's revealed to be Raedric's cousin and sole remaining family). Time will tell if the citizenry will benefit with this new ruler.

That's one route. It's probably the most likely one a player might take, as it requires the least amount of skill checks and combat. While there's a lot of monsters to fight in the sewers, and the Lord Raedric fight itself is quite difficult, this route isn't particularly violent. But there's plenty of other options:

  • The player can choose to take an alternative route, climbing up a vine wall that fatigues the less athletic members of the party but skips the sewers entirely. The player emerges on the battlements close to the chapel entrance, and through here can find the priest with the key. Unfortunately, he won't co-operate without the prisoner's word, so you might have to kill him or find a different way into the castle from the battlements. You end up fighting more human guards this way, but it's faster.
  • The player can choose to take the very direct route and simply march through the vast number of guards between the moat entrance and Lord Raedric's throne. Just kill everyone, sure, why not. Why even have keys and puzzles and dialogue and subtlety. This is why we can't have nice things.
  • The player can choose to empty the sewers of its undead creatures as usual, and then take down Raedric's pet animancer who made them (or convince her you're working for Raedric so she leaves you alone). If someone in the party has a high Mechanics skill they can find a secret entrance in the animancer's room that goes directly to the Lord's private chambers, which is directly next to his throne room. This route doesn't even require meeting the priest.
  • The player can even, after listening to the mad Lord Raedric talk about how killing his wife and newborn child was necessary, decide to join him and go murder Kolsc on his behalf. Hey, it's just politics. This route doesn't require killing anyone above the sewer level.
  • The player could kill all the guards in the castle, then kill Raedric, then kill Kolsc, then go upstairs and murder all the priests. There might be a few maids and other servants around to murder too. Possibly a bunny or two hopping around outside. They're probably all worth experience points, right? Or have a few coppers on them at least? Whatever lets you sleep at night, buddy.

It's impressive that the game has a depth of options for you with this situation, though it's more the mark of a good RPG than anything unique to this game's quest design in particular. The old "alternate routes depending on how you've specialized" tactic has been around in RPGs for a while, whether it's the IE games or the modern BioWare games or Deus Ex or Quest for Glory or any number of games that combine RPG stats and skills with adventure game dialogue trees and puzzle-solving. I also appreciate that PoE has options that removes dialogue options that you don't have the stats for (rather than saying "hey, if you were smarter, you could've gone for this option"), or simply not state if a dialogue option requires a skill check you're qualified for - that way, if you wanted to be a real purist, you could rely entirely on the tone of the dialogue options presented to you.

Anyway, I've talked enough about this game, its mechanics and its strengths for the time being. I daren't talk any more about it without A) finishing it first or B) going into further spoiler territory and revealing more mid- and late-game elements that would be better discovered first-hand than described and/or explained. Be sure to keep an eye out for that review and I'll catch you all later.

(Though, if you like, feel free to ask any questions about the game that wasn't covered by this or the two previous blogs, keeping in mind that I'm not at the end just yet. I swear I keep remembering extra stuff to talk about after one of these goes up, which I of course then forget about when it comes time to write the next.)


Wiki Project: Super '94 Q1

Welcome to another episode of Wiki Project, where I break down all my recent work with the Giant Bomb Wiki. This particular one I'm on right now, where I'm trying to fix up all 489 pages for games released for the Super Nintendo in 1994, is a bit on the Herculean side. While the round-up I did last year for the Super Nintendo's 1993 output was well-received, it's going to be hard to jam all these '94 games into a single blog. For one thing, it would probably end up being around 20,000 words, and getting folk to read that much about a bunch of anime mahjong games from over a decade ago is a big ask. Too big, by any rational perspective.

Instead, we're going to go at this quarterly report style, as if I wasn't worried that these retro round-ups weren't exciting enough without layering business speak over it. Suffice it to say though, as one of the Super Nintendo's peak years, a lot of excellent and curious games would hit the platform in 1994 as everyone had settled into a comfortable groove with what the system could do. The Super Nintendo, it would be fair to say, was easily the market leader at this time, handily beating out the relatively tired Sega Genesis and the multitude of expensive and underwhelming CD-based consoles that were desparately trying to convince us that discs, not cartridges, were the future. Oh, how we laughed. And then the PlayStation came out. (In late 1994, in fact, alongside the Sega Saturn.)

Well, until then, the Super Nintendo still ruled the roost. Nintendo fans were getting hyped over early pictures of the "Ultra 64", officially announced to the public in the Spring of this year, but most were content to see what all the various first-, second- and third-party developers that Nintendo had wrangled were producing for the SNES in its senior year. 489 goddamn games, turned out.

(A little bit on how I'm presenting this particular Wiki Project. Even within this three month time frame, we're looking at almost a hundred releases, and the recent table-based TurboGrafx rundowns almost killed me. A lot of the Super Famicom games out at this time were dull horse-racing, mahjong, shogi (that's chess but not!) and Pachi-Slots (which are just straight up slots, no pachinko involved), and the SNES saw just as much awfulness in the form of poorly conceived licensed games, so with that in mind I've decided to only highlight the ten "most interesting" games for each month with a few honorable mentions.)


Always an inauspicious start to any gaming calendar, as well as the traditional start to most calendars in general, January saw a relatively sparse twenty-one new releases. Doesn't sound bad, but it was the second lowest monthly total of the year and less than a third of what would come our way in December. (Decembers be crazy, y'all.)

Brain Lord: During the 16-bit era Enix was a publisher working with many different RPG developers, the most prominent of which included: Chunsoft, with whom Enix worked closely for many of the games in their flagship Dragon Quest franchise and the lesser but still outrageously popular Mystery Dungeon series; Quintet, which put out a lot of very memorable SNES RPGs in the guise of ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma; and Produce, who are perhaps the least well-known and most underappreciated of Enix's frequent partners, maybe better known instead for their collaborations with Hudson developing Super Bomberman games. I've yet to complete a SNES Produce/Enix RPG myself, despite a few attempts to get into one. It's not that their games are bad, necessarily, just kind of obscure, dark in tone and/or mechanically abstruse (which I kinda figure are all big positives now in this post-Souls JRPG world). Produce's three big SNES JRPGs were The 7th Saga, Brain Lord and the Japan-exclusive Mystic Ark, none of which had much in common besides multiple protagonists (one of them, Remeer, appears in all three games), open-world elements and a high level of difficulty. Brain Lord's probably the most accessible gateway of those three, even in spite of its ridiculous name. It's more of an Alundra (or, indeed, Terranigma) take on an action RPG, in the sense that it's just The Legend of Zelda with a few RPG trappings stuck on top. Lots of puzzle dungeons, some nice art design and an unusual game all round.

Fire Emblem Monshou no Nazo: Intelligent Systems's Fire Emblem needs no introduction, seeing how Awakening blew everyone away relatively recently. Monshou no Nazo, or Mystery of the Emblem, is still firmly in Fire Emblem's hazy, Japan-exclusive past. It's the archetypal Fire Emblem experience however, continuing (and building on the blueprint of) Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi's adventures of Marth the future Hero-King with all new graphics, new units and a whole second chapter to expand the game's length. I'm not really a Fire Emblem guy, but this seems like the franchise's "A Link to the Past": a big, brash Super Nintendo debut for that series that has everything a fan of the original could want in a sequel.

Lester the Unlikely: Lester's unfortunately a bit notorious for its unusual take on representing a character's dramatic arc through game mechanics. Lester begins as a fraidy cat nerd and learns to find his courage and convinction as the game progresses, meeting the love of his life and the nebulous forces of evil that are threatening the island he washes up on. Unfortunately, this means a lot of the early game involves him running away from Galapagos Turtles in sheer panic, despite the fact that they're some of the least threatening creatures on the planet. It doesn't help that the game controls awkwardly in its attempts to out-Mechner games like Flashback and Prince of Persia with its fancy rotoscoped acrobatics, both of which had recently seen SNES conversions around this time. One of those cases where the devs had some neat ideas but couldn't quite capitalize on them, which to me is infinitely preferable to the many SNES cookie-cutter licensed platformers that shot for the lowest point target on the figurative skeeball table and still missed.
Lethal Enforcers: Perhaps best known for the giant pink revolver peripheral (the Justifier!), the Super Nintendo Lethal Enforcers was a fairly faithful recreation of Konami's digitized-actors-in-shades light-gun game from the Arcades. I recall it being infamous for its high price tag to relatively brisk (if you could survive long enough) length. Glad we still don't have arguments about game length vs. dollar value these days...
Majin Tensei: I'm actually showcasing two Shin Megami Tensei games in this Wiki Project (entirely by accident), and Majin's the first of what would become a strategy-focused spin-off series separate from the core's standard first-person dungeon-crawling. It's a lot like Fire Emblem, in fact, with units on grids facing off in detailed little animations that show the exchange of damage. You've still got all the demon summoning/recruiting goodness of the core series as well. Weird that I decided to publish this blog after more details emerged on that Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem crossover, huh?
Ninja Warriors: Not quite the original Taito Arcade brawler, 1987's The Ninja Warriors, but rather an enhanced remake for the Super Nintendo that added a third character (Kamaitachi, the scythe-wielding endoskeleton) and made the gameplay a little closer to Final Fight than the original's Rush'n Attack. I mention this one both for its great soundtrack (though there's sadly no Daddy Mulk, as far as I can tell) and how most of this wiki page's resources had to be carefully extricated from the core The Ninja Warriors page. Still, an easy to mistake for an editor to make, especially as the US version of this game was just called "Ninja Warriors".
Pop'n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventure: The TwinBee games, like the Hebereke games (which we'll get to a little later), were deemed too cute for American audiences. At least, I can only assume that's what happened, as both the excellent shoot 'em up Pop'n TwinBee and this unusual platformer spin-off both skipped the Land of the Free. Rainbow Bell Adventure has a lot of great ideas though, carrying over TwinBee's colored bell power-ups (they now enhance things like jump height and melee attack length) and Super Mario World-style secret exits. The European version unfortunately cut out these secret exits for an entirely linear chain of stages and most of the story as well, so American TwinBee superfans (all three of them) shouldn't feel too burned by losing out on that version.

Skyblazer: Skyblazer is one of those forgotten SNES gems that sadly didn't get the exposure it deserved, in part due to its obscure developer (Ukiyotei, which wouldn't do much else besides SNK grunt work). It's a fantastic game, however; a mix between Mega Man X, Strider and Sparkster. As Sky, the protagonist, gets further into the game he'll gain more abilities, not only increasing his firepower but his traversal abilities as well. Towards the end, you're shooting around like a comet, flinging past platforming sequences and taking down weird boss after weird boss. It has also some Super Mario World branching paths and secrets too, and both looks and sounds fantastic for a 1994 game.

World Class Rugby 2: Kokunai Gekitou Hen '93: As well as showcasing the big name favorites and diamonds in the rough, I'm going to be dropping into bizarre curios that perplexed me after discovering them. This game, for instance, is a Japan-exclusive sequel to a UK-developed rugby game. Apparently Japanese players couldn't get enough of England's particular interpretation of handegg and went to on to commission a sequel from the same developer. Either that, or some contract developers modified the original to have more anime in it. As someone who finds rugby odd enough despite living a handful of miles from several prominent rugby towns, it's extra bizarre to find a Japan-exclusive game based on the sport. Like seeing an anime reboot of Thomas the Tank Engine (outside of all those Attack on Tank Engine YouTube parodies at least).
Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension: It's funny, but Jeff's been making murmurs of once again trying to break into Amiga gaming despite being put off numerous times. He's created a thread to ask for recommendations, and once again everyone is bringing up action games that really don't do the Amiga any favors, most of which have Arcade or Mega Drive alternatives which would be far more preferable. Zool's one of those games: a fairly standard but decent enough platformer that really does better on a console like the Super Nintendo than the Amiga, which suffers with its one-button joystick. Zool's not too exciting on the SNES, where it's less of a big fish in a small pond and has to contend with comparisons to Super Mario World and Super Castlevania IV, but... well, I guess as an Atari ST kid, I have a certain amount of nostalgic reverence to that sneaky green alien from the Nth dimension.

Honorary Mentions: Hey, are you a bored secretary from the mid-90s and like playing Windows Solitaire? How about a version with multiple Solitaire variations, that was inexplicably full of half-naked animes in the Japanese version? Super Solitaire might be what you're looking for. The developers of Bastard!! Ankoku no Hakaishin weren't sure what to do with the license for Bastard!!, the medieval fantasy brother of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, so they turned it into a DBZ fighter game. Super Pinball: Behind the Mask is some pinball-ass pinball, but with a dark gothy motif because the 90s. Prepare to feel the unbearable anguish of the flipper bonus zones!


The releases start to pick up in February with a respectable total of twenty-eight new games, but it was the Sega Genesis that was drawing the most attention this month with the premiere of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Unfortunately, the SNES didn't see anything that major this month, but we have a collection of interesting titles nonetheless.

A.S.P. Air Strike Patrol: This is a nostalgia pick for me. Very nakedly a Japan-produced (the devs, Opus, actually went on to create the Half-Minute Hero games) attempt to recreate the isometric chopper shenanigans of EA's excellent Strike series of open-world(ish) mission-based military games, ASP (or Desert Fighter) had players configure a jet and pilot loadout and go on "sorties" into mission areas to take down assigned targets. It uses Strike's mix of air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry, looking for places to refuel, repair damage and restock ammo whenever one of those respective meters got too low, and frequently pausing to check the map to see if you were going the right way. It's not a bad clone, honestly, and the fact that you'll take regular sorties to different areas per mission means it has a lot of variety, even if most of the missions tend to involve flying over bases blowing parts of it up to reach a necessary destruction percentage. The one thing I do remember about the late-game is when you discover that the despotic leader of the fictitious Middle Eastern nation of Zarak is being helped by goddamn space invaders, and you have to blow up their mothership in the final mission with your F-16s Independence Day-style. Man, did that game get stupid.

Cyborg 009: A Japan-only platformer and one that didn't seem to be received too well, Cyborg 009 is based on an old 70s anime by legendary manga artist and TV writer Shotaro Ishinomori whose works, oddly enough, include a manga adaptation of A Link to the Past created for Nintendo Power. The game's curious because it allows for multiple protagonists - you switch them on the fly, sort of like Portrait of Ruin's two protagonists. You can only take two other characters with you, however, and there are eight characters in all each with their own special abilities. It mostly boiled down to the player's style when it came to deciding who to bring along: some characters are good for being sneaky and avoiding confrontation, while others are entirely offense-based. Pity its ideas didn't coalesce into something more satisfying, as it sounded like a neat attempt at a Mega Man/Lost Vikings hybrid.

Itadaki Street 2: Neon Sign wa Bara Iro ni: While this is the second official Itadaki Street game, it helped to establish more of the quirks that made Itadaki Street stand out above other Monopoly clones. Multiple players attempt to out-commerce each other as they walk over various boards buying properties and spending cash on improvements, though they can also choose to gamble and procure money by other means. Enix's involvement would eventually lead to a lot of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy cameos further down the line, but for the occasional Slime-shaped board there wasn't too much of that yet. Still, this is really the game that began the whole Itadaki Street streak, so to speak, and we all remember what happened when the Bomb Crew tried their hand at Fortune Street, Itadaki's Wii incarnation.

Olivia's Mystery: I really didn't know what to make of this game. It feels budget-y as hell, and of course is entirely in Japanese, but the gameplay uses a format which I've heard referenced as "motion puzzles" in the past. In order to continue the game's story, the player must piece together scenes via jigsaw pieces that are constantly animating. If that's not enough of a distraction, there are several fake pieces that won't fit in the puzzle despite displaying part of the same picture. The animations are often as much a help as a hindrance, however, such as scenes where there's clearly rain falling down from the sky which helps determine which pieces need turning around.
Super Alfred Chicken: Talking of Amiga games slumming it on consoles, while there's games like Zool that are helped immeasurably with a 16-bit controller rather than a one-button joystick, there's also games like Alfred Chicken which, unfortunately, are perhaps beyond saving. Alfred's an especially quirky game of the sort Jeff would immediately recognize as European (just watch the site's Putty Squad QL for this perceptiveness in action). It's also fairly obtuse and not particularly fun either. Clearly someone thought highly enough of it to release it to the Super Nintendo though.
Super Troll Islands: While this game initially looks like a risible attempt to market those hideous Scandinavian Troll dolls with the wild hair in as many 90s multimedia formats as possible, there's actually some creativity here. The game uses a City Connection/Q*Bert-style painting gimmick in which the player must canvas the entire stage with their feet in order to entirely restore its lost color. This means eluding enemies and finding the quickest route to take, and the platforming is workmanlike enough to not get in the way. I dunno if I'd spend too long playing a game based on Troll dolls, but at least it opted for an interesting premise.
Uchuu Race: Astro Go! Go!: It's a bizarre anime take on F-Zero, and that's usually sufficient to get me to sit up and notice. It's limited to one-player and five characters to choose from, including a skeleton named Bari who drives the Barivehicle. The courses are kind of nuts, throwing all sorts of jumps and speed arrows and one-way currents and other obstacles in your path. Unlike F-Zero, leaping to your doom isn't the end of the race, and the player is helpfully carried back onto the track with a robotic Lakitu ersatz. We were going to get a version of this ourselves, with the terrible name of Freeway Flyboys, but someone pulled the plug on the idea. Probably for the best.

Uncharted Waters 2: New Horizons: Uncharted Waters is an impressive game for a multitude of reasons, but the buccaneer simulator was jam-packed with different open-ended ways to play the game and different stories to follow. New Horizons appears to be more of what people liked in the first game, with various protagonists that each have a different goal in mind, from becoming a successful merchant kingpin to a Spanish-sinking privateer to a heavily in debt treasure hunter to murder-solving lady pirate to being the first cartographer to chart the known world. It seems insanely dense for a SNES game, but then that's Koei and their many various strategy franchises for you.

Wolfenstein 3D: The Claw of Eisenfaust: Before SNES Doom there was SNES Wolfenstein 3D. The console obviously suffers a little trying to keep all those fancy 3D effects in check, but fortunately Wolfenstein 3D is a far more primitive dry run to what would become a very compromised (but still surprisingly spooky) version of Doom. Of course, you mention Wolfenstein 3D and the Super Nintendo to a lot of folk and the first thing that comes to mind is that ridiculous Super Noah's Ark 3D unlicensed game.
X-Kaliber 2097: One of quite a number of cyberpunk sci-fi action games that tap into that era of 1990s gothic cool that so greatly amuses anyone who vainly tries to analyze the once-massive appeal of Spawn or The Crow in this day and age. I really have no idea what we were thinking back then, sorry. X-Kaliber 2097 was mostly known for being difficult as hell, if at all, but these days it has the dubious honor of being the original source of underground RPGMaker hit Barkley's Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden's sprite for its Zauber master Balthios.

Honorable Mentions: Top Management II follows its forebear into the cutthroat world of business executives and spreadsheets in a game presumably for the 40+ aged. Winter Olympics: Lillehammer '94 brings the thrills of the Winter Olympics to consoles everywhere as the first official video game version of the chilly weeks-long event. Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics is actually the third Joe & Mac game, but who's counting? Presumably not a bunch of cavemen, given that humanity was still a few millennia away from inventing mathematics. They're happier throwing axes at pteradons.


March 1994 will be an exciting month for the Super Nintendo as we'll shortly find out, but it's also one of the busiest for the system. Forty-nine releases overall, which means March had as many releases as January and February put together. I'm not sure why this is a big month for releases; maybe it's an "end of the fiscal year" thing?

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder: Westwood's Dungeon Master-inspired RPG series finally makes its SNES debut, joining other venerable PC RPGs such as Ultima, Wizardry and, well, Dungeon Master itself. It's an alright adaptation, one that has compatibility with the SNES Mouse to ensure that people aren't scrambling to the attack buttons whenever a gnoll shows up, but kind of pokey and underwhelming compared to its computer incarnation. Curiously enough, Capcom both developed and published this SNES port. CRPGs really don't seem like their wheelhouse.
Idea no Hi: Translated as "The Day of the Idea", this bizarre RPG features a young boy with psychic powers joining up with other oddball characters to discover what mysterious forces are threatening to destroy their eccentric, USA-inspired world. Nope, it's not EarthBound, but it's certainly just as strange and has a lot of gameplay similarities all the same. The surreal aspect is in part due to the involvement of satirical manga artist Koji Aihara, who both designed the characters and wrote the game's story. He also worked with the same developers, Office Koukan, to create the equally unsettling Maka Maka in 1992. Remember when they let any old nutcase develop an RPG?
Liberty or Death: Another dense Koei strategy game. Best known for developing Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga's Ambition, Koei's "Historical Simulation Series" would try its hand at many different historical settings during its heyday, not least of which is this take on the American War of Independence. Fight the tyrannical King of England as Washington's blue coats, creating a Republic built on the principles of liberty and justice, or fight on the obviously correct side instead and silence a bunch of uppity Yanks so they can go back to paying through the nose for teabags. Easy enough choice if you ask me.
Mega Man Soccer: Remember that exciting Super Nintendo release this month that I mentioned? Well, Mega Man Soccer isn't it, but it's certainly an interesting take on the Blue Bomber that I'm not sure was thought through all the way. For one thing, it doesn't really make sense that there would suddenly be eleven Mega Men running around. If it was that easy, surely Dr. Light would've taken over the world by now? Still, this appears to be the one soccer game even soccer-haters like most of the US seem to tolerate, if perhaps only for its novelty value.

NBA Jam: NBA Jam became an institution in due time, deconstructing the respectable and long-lived sport of basketball to its base constituents of jams and slams. The game had 90s attitude out of the ears, literally setting basketballs on fire when a player was doing well enough, and helping to usher in an age when basketball was the coolest thing going in the world of sports. Boomshakalaka indeed.
Saturday Night Slam Masters: Capcom hadn't really dabbled in pro wrestling much, though it couldn't help but note that it created more than its fair share of incredible pro-wrestler characters in various other violence-based games they were known for. Saturday Night Slam Masters, also known by its Japanese name Muscle Bomber: The Body Explosion (perhaps the one title that can top "Saturday Night Slam Masters"), feels more like a standard fighting game than a wrestling game with the requisite grapples, holds and pins, but it sure does nail that 90s pro wrasslin' aesthetic. Its "made for primetime TV" visual style invites you to pull up a chair, then get off the chair so you can fold it up and hit someone over the head with it until either it or the other wrestler breaks in half.
Shin Megami Tensei II: More Megami Tensei, Shin Megami Tensei II is the second game in the core series to be released for the Super Famicom, and continues to refine the formula of fighting, recruiting and evolving various demons in order to join the forces of Law or Chaos or neither in determining the fate of the world. It introduced a few concepts that would become widespread in the series and its spin-offs, such as how certain spells could be passed onto the "child" of two fused demons. Unusually for a game in which you can literally kill the Judeo-Christian God with Lucifer on your side, the game never saw a US release. Odd, that.
Sugoi Hebereke: Most of the Hebereke games, featuring a drunken penguin in a beanie cap (Hebereke means "drunk" or "unreliable lout"), are of the Puyo Puyo puzzle variety. At least that was the case for Hebereke's Popoon and Hebereke's Popoitto, two of the three Hebereke games to see a European release (the US saw neither hide nor hair of this elusive soused bird until the Virtual Console era). Sugoi Hebereke, which loosely translates to Amazing Reprobate, is a four-player arena fighter and one of the earliest of its kind. SunSoft would go on to develop more games with this format, many of which would turn out way more interesting than this Bomberman-meets-Final Fight free-for-all. Still, though, why would all these adorable, vaguely Sanrio-esque mascot characters suddenly decide to throw down like this? Alcohol? Probably the alcohol.

Super Metroid: So I've beaten around the bush long enough, here. My bad for deciding to alphabetize these lists. Yes, the big release this month was Super Metroid, possibly the greatest Super Nintendo game of all time (coincidentally enough, one of the few games that might challenge that title is coming up next month). Super Metroid's base of a huge, open world filled with secrets and upgrades and immense bosses and a moody, incredible soundtrack and amazing visuals to buoy the player throughout their journey is something to behold, and games are still iterating on its formula to this very day (Axiom Verge literally came out a couple of days ago, as of this writing). Nintendo were still happy to prove that they were untouchable as game developers from time to time.
Young Merlin: I've got kind of a weird history with this game. It's far too abstruse for my liking, contains the hardest minecart sequences this side of a Donkey Kong Country game and is filled with bizarre little touches that would go on to confound a younger me for many years. It sounds and looks pretty good for a Super Nintendo game, yet it also simultaneously has this distinctively janky quality (maybe it's the animations? Something felt a little off) that I would also go on to notice in ICOM's lackluster TurboGrafx output. Westwood Studios, creators of some of the greatest PC gaming franchises ever produced (Eye of the Beholder! Legend of Kyrandia! Lands of Lore! Command & Conquer, for Kane's sake!), developed this odd little Zelda-inspired action-adventure game presumably as a way to take a break from their headier PC work. What a mystery this game was, and continues to be.

Honorable Mentions: March also saw the first of the Star Trek: TNG games with Star Trek: The Next Generation: Future's Past, an adaptation of the Genesis game Echoes from the Past. Ever wanted to see hyperintelligent Starfleet officers lower themselves to solving lever puzzles in top-down dungeons? Here you go. Talking of sudden losses of dignity, Chester Cheetah: Wild Wild Quest is the second game to feature the Cheetos mascot with a lithe feline form that somehow never accurately reflects the vast amount of corn snacks he puts away. KeroKeroKeroppi no Bouken Nikki: Nemureru Mori no Keroleen is a word salad title for a game starring Sanrio's frog character Keroppi, who must find his frognapped girlfriend in this kindergartener's first RPG. Super Robot Taisen EX is the third game in Banpresto's immense mecha crossover franchise (best known to us as Super Robot Wars), as well as the series' first of many spin-offs, which began a gaiden continuity that would finally be resolved in a game released last year. Last and probably least, we have the SNES adaptation of the Laserdisc QTE game Space Ace, which didn't quite do as well as its fantasy equivalent Dragon Lair despite having a sexier heroine. I guess magical dragons and evil wizards make for more impressive villains than some blue guy named Borf. (Repeat: We are all out of Borf license plates.)

The Bit at the End

Well, hopefully that didn't go on too long. I want to keep highlighting the weird stuff I find because this is largely the reason I do all this wiki work at all. It occasionally feels like archaeology, except instead of finding a shard of an ancient Etruscan urn, I'm finding a 16-bit golf game where I'm controlling Spike McFang of Twisted Tales fame, or stacking preservatives as a raccoon from the 1977 anime adaptation of a 1963 children's novel, or a Reversi board game adaptation featuring anime cats as pieces.

I want to share these games as I find them, and so I find myself displaying what I've found in what presumably comes off as self-aggrandizing "look how I chose to spend twenty hours of my finite lifespan this month" wiki navel-gazing. It's really all about the weird and wonderful world of games however, and how little our otherwise video-game-savvy collective knows of the madness that goes on when a successful console like the Super Nintendo gets perhaps a bit too popular for its own good.

Anyway, I hope you'll stick with me for future updates to this Wiki Project, as I continue to research Super Nintendo/Super Famicom games and update the Wiki with what I've uncovered. Until then, I'll see you next mission.


Pillars of Eternity: Second Impressions

I should've thought a little harder about a title for this series that would allow for multiple parts. Oh well. We're back again to discuss more of Pillars of Eternity, side-stepping deeper plot and side-quest spoilers for the sake of the game's mechanics. Specifically, how it tries to be as close to an Infinity Engine game as possible for nostalgia's sake while also making a necessary departure from the copyrighted AD&D rules that governed same. The pleasures of discovering this game have thus been twofold: getting to pontificate about a style of CRPG that meant a lot to me as a younger man, and exploring the ins and outs of an entirely new RPG system. Deep mechanics and a focus on player versatility are why I'm so attached to the RPG genre, after all.


Won't be too much more this time, though I did pick up a fifth party member:

  • Aravella the Ranger has been soldiering on. She's kept to the back and now has a nifty modal ability (which is just what the game calls active skills you can turn on or off) in which she'll fire arrows at a slower rate but with much higher accuracy. I'll be going into why accuracy is so important a little later, but suffice it to say once I figured out how it works I saw the merits to any buff that can raise your to-hit capability.
  • Erstma the Barbarian's learned a few modal abilities too. Most of them tend to involve sacrificing defense for increased attack, naturally enough for a barbarian, so I've been careful to ensure that Aravella's wolf always leads the charge so that enemies will focus on it instead of Erstma. I'm thinking of getting her something that drains Endurance to keep her in the fight longer, though I could just as easily find a Cleric type for the group for the same purpose. She has HP for days, so it's no big deal if she takes a few knocks. If anything, people are getting fatigued (which is a permanent condition that lowers accuracy and Endurance until the party rests, which is essentially the game saying "yo, you better rest now") long before anyone gets too far into the red health-wise.
  • Ori the Rogue's becoming one of my best tools for combat, specifically initiating combat. Her sneak attack seems to proc often enough whenever the enemy's occupied by someone else, but it's a guaranteed sneak attack (if not necessary a guaranteed hit) if she's in scouting mode (i.e. stealth and search mode) before launching an attack. She can then run from the now irate enemies into the ambush I've set up a little further away. Of course, there are times when she can't quite escape quickly enough, so maybe I've gotta rethink this surprise attack plan. (I believe she can do even more damage if she gets to within a couple of meters, a backstab in other words, but then she really will have no way to run back to the others in time. I'd better make sure the target dies in that one hit if Ori's going to stay standing.)
  • Adsho the Wizard's pretty much what I expected from a mage. Her four spell slots per level don't actually refer to how often she can cast magic: rather, she has a certain number of "charges" per level. That means if she has three charges for level one spells, she can cast any three of those four spells in any amount, even the same one three times. It's actually the spell system introduced in the original Final Fantasy, oddly enough, which Square also conceived as a way to distance Final Fantasy from the D&D systems of the games that inspired it, like Wizardry. Additional grimoires not only give you more loadouts to play with, but they also tend to come with spells written in them that the Wizard can learn. It costs money, and gets pricey if the spell's a higher level, but it's an elegant way to handle spell acquisition. I can just haul around these books with half a dozen new spells in it and learn them whenever I have the spare cash, and the books remain useful thereafter.
  • My new character is an Aumaua Chanter named Kana Rua I found loitering outside the dilapidated keep of Caed Nua (and, oh boy, a lot more on that place later). He's my first pre-gen PC as a result, and for an enormous guy with jagged teeth (the Aumaua are sort of like large sharkpeople with Hawaiian names, which I'm totally on board with) he's something of a bookish nerd. He wants a book or a tablet of some kind from the basement of the Caed Nua dungeon, and given that I'm heading that way I'm happy to have him around for the time being. Someone asked last time how involved the pre-gen PCs get with the story, and Kana Rua often seems happy to interject whenever I'm talking to someone. (But, like, not in as rude a way as I'm making it sound. Regular BioWare type party interaction stuff.) There's a little pop-up on the character's portrait whenever they want to talk to you, usually when you learn something that relates to a quest they want you to do but mostly after any big story moment, so you can get their impressions and thoughts on what just transpired. I'm hoping to find another PC like Kana to take up the sixth slot in my party, and it's going to have to be another tank-class. I have four range-attackers now! That's not a good balance.
  • Chanters, it turns out, are like Bards but slightly different. While Bards are known for being versatile fighter/rogue/mage hybrids in D&D, which are they are here as well, they're usually limited to either singing in combat, which buffs everyone in earshot, or participating in a more active role with swords and spells. Chanters can do both simultaneously, which is convenient, but the way their chants work means they need a little time to warm up. As a Chanter performs, parties receive temporary buffs for single lines of lyrics that come and go as the song progesses, but the Chanter earns an extra "Phrase" each time one of these lines is complete. Once they reach a certain number of Phrases, they can use the rhythm they've got going to cash those Phrases in for a stronger, spell-like Invocation. Some of these Invocations seem to be pretty useful, ranging from stronger buffs to creature summons and evocation magic, and they're all unique to the Chanter. Funnily enough, the thing that immediately came to mind once going through Kana Rua's "spell list" is that Chanters sound like what would happen if you turned the "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" guy in Star Trek: The Next Generation into an RPG class. Each Phrase and Invocation has a name like "Blessed Was Wengridh, Quickest of His Tribe" or "At the Sight of their Comrades, their Hearts Grew Bold", each of which has their own unique effect. These guys are definitely fun, and I recommend leaving a slot open for Kana Rua once you reach Caed Nua (it's a story quest location and the thing between you and the rest of the world map, so you literally can't miss it).

General Mechanics

All right, I didn't cover much of the general stuff last time because I was too busy gushing over my party of nondescript hirelings, so I'll get a little deeper into some of the stuff I mentioned last time now that I understand it better, as well as a few new rules I've started to get used to.

  • I'll start with the world, first of all, since I didn't really talk about much of Obsidian's worldbuilding here. One of the hardest challenges Pillars of Eternity had to overcome, I imagine, was creating a new fantasy world from scratch; something that takes most fantasy and sci-fi authors many years to do. (I should say that most authors only create the geography necessary for the story they want to tell in order to avoid getting too bogged down in unnecessary and irrelevant lore, but even so it took decades for places like Middle-earth, the Discworld and Westeros and its neighboring lands to properly coalesce.) Eora, the world of Pillars of Eternity, and specifically the Dyrwood area that the game takes place in, appears to be largely based on Welsh/Irish Gaelic/Celtic mythology. Lots of standing stones, nature gods, indigenous hut-dwelling peoples (i.e. the modern day Welsh (sorry for that)) and a larger plot concerning blights and the unbalancing of the natural order of things. I've obviously not pried too deep here, nor do I want to for this feature, but it feels both novel and familiar, sort of like Mass Effect's universe. I guess what I'm probably trying to say is that they invented just enough new stuff about their world to not come off as too derivative, so hats off to 'em.
  • I mentioned accuracy earlier, so here goes: D&D judges the accuracy of one's attacks with a D20 roll (as in, a die that has twenty sides. For some reason I remember those being called icosahedrons. Man, the trivia you pick up, huh?). If the D20 roll is high enough to overcome the opponent's armor class, after applying all of the attacker's bonuses they are due, then the attack counts as a hit and the player rolls for damage, a figure that is again based on their weapons and stat bonuses. PoE is a little different: if a character rolls for an attack the resulting number can be anywhere from 0 to over 100. If you roll under 15, you miss. If you roll 16-50 you "graze" the opponent, doing minimal damage but applying any bonuses you have to your attack, like additional fire damage or a knockback effect. Grazes tend to be very small amounts of damage though, usually less than half of what would've normally been incurred. Rolling a 51-100 results in a hit, doing full damage on top of any special effects. Anything over 100 is a critical attack, doing even more damage. Accuracy is reduced by shields and, I believe, heavier armor types. Armor also serves to slow recovery time down for attacks and abilities the heavier it is, but also boosts damage reduction in turn. Fairly straightforward, but I saw myself doing lots of Graze attacks before I figured out what was going on. Turns out if you want powerful "DPS" type attackers, you have to make them relatively unarmored. It's a tough trade-off to make, so it seems prudent to go back to that MMO school of thought of considering tanks and DPS attackers separately when putting together a party. (At least it makes the game a little more accessible to those who grew up with World of Warcraft instead of Baldur's Gate.)
  • Damage Reduction. There's multiple types, and in this sense the game is folding elemental and magic resistance into armor class. Any piece of armor has a DR value attached to it, reducing damage by that amount after every attack. Many magic items will give you bonus DR to various specific damage types: for instance, the first blacksmith merchant in the game has a belt that boosts both slash and pierce damage reduction, which are two of the three physical types of damage along with crushing. Again, it's a pretty elegant system and far more straightforward than good ol' THAC0: The more armor you wear, the higher your DR, and it's very easy to comprehend that number as "the number of damage points you ignore after every hit". It just feels a little unusual to see DR used this way, because any ability or item that gives you damage reduction in regular D&D tends to be a rare and coveted thing.
  • Crafting! Like learning spells, any character can improve their weapon anywhere by spending a bit of money and some resources. The stronger the upgrade, the more expensive the process and the more rare the ingredients. Unlike what I erroneously stated last time, gems are NOT vendor trash and are actually one third of the components needed for upgrading: every upgrade demands one type of gem, one type of plant (these grow everywhere, so just keep Tab pressed if you've moving around outdoors to spot them easier) and one type of monster spoil. @karkarov was kind enough to inform me that it's never a smart idea to sell anything that appears in the "ingredients" tab of the inventory, and the player should opt instead to sell equipment they don't intend to use as well as notes and other books they find in order to raise any needed funds. I'm usually pretty smart about not selling ingredients, but I guess I was thrown off by how similar these gemstones are to the gemstones of the Infinity Engine games: those things really are useless, unless it's a diamond or something else super rare. I don't know if crafting on the whole is something I'll visit too often: I'm finding a lot of weapons with the "Fine" modifier (which raises accuracy and damage) just lying around in dungeons, so maybe I won't need to craft magical stuff too often. I'll be holding onto all these ingredients regardless though, 'cause you never know...
  • I'll just copy/paste this one from the comments of the last update): Something I forgot to note this time but really impressed me about the game after reading a tooltip about it is that on higher difficulties (except for the hardest, "Path of the Damned"), the enemies don't get any stronger but the placement of them changes. So it's sort of like Doom's philosophy behind its difficulty levels: a room becomes harder on a higher difficulty because it has more imps and maybe an undead sergeant in it, but they don't hit any harder or act any differently than they already did. Not only does that mean less worrying about invisible dice rolls you already can't trust, but if you were to replay the game on a higher setting it'd feel completely different. At least as far as fighting through its encounters goes, anyway. (I'm on Normal difficulty for the record, since I felt bad for easy-streeting MGS 3 last time. Higher difficulties in RPGs usually means playing more tactically and resetting a lot to be adequately prepared, which'll just add another ten hours onto what will no doubt be an already long playthrough.)
  • For the final part of this update, I'm going to enthuse about this stronghold feature. The aforementioned Caed Nua becomes the player's stronghold once the story mission there is complete. Each upgrade takes a considerable amount of funds and a number of days to complete, but will eventually provide all the amenities of a town like the Gilded Vale, as well as a whole bunch of resources to draw from and more quests and adventures to take part in. I absolutely adore bases of operations like these in games, as evinced by this list I wrote a while back about games that do this sort of "upgradeable homestead" feature. I guess I'm more than a bit of a homebody, so I always like to have roots in a big sprawling RPG like this, even if it's just a moldy old keep that needed a few less undead monstrosities roaming around it before it could get any cozier. Y'know, your standard fixer-upper. I'm looking forward to spending all my cash renovating this place, dropping by occasionally to see how my recruited characters are doing and finding out what else there is to be done.

Speaking of which, that's my cue to leave you all for a while to go do more adventuring, with my solemn promise to return someday and keep you all updated. There's not a whole lot of the game's base mechanics that I've yet to cover here, so maybe I'll work on some "advanced tips" just as soon as I'm qualified enough to do so. Catch you later.


Pillars of Eternity: First Impressions

I've been profoundly fortunate to be afforded an early (release time is early for me, anyway) peek at Obsidian Entertainment's recent turn-based RPG throwback Pillars of Eternity. I want to do a lot of coverage of this game, but not in any sort of spoiler-filled exhaustive way. Instead, I'll be doing something akin to those Lightning Returns observations I wrote closer to the start of this year, only I'll be eschewing the story rundown and will instead focus almost entirely on mechanics, features and my own party of characters, going over experiences in lesser, non-story missions and talking about any interesting discoveries about the game as I go. I'll be skipping by most of the plot stuff except for when it pertains to some unique in-game mechanic, and focusing more on how Obsidian has attempted to recreate a late 90s Infinity Engine game for the modern market. It's a curious coincidence that I jump into this game so soon after Might and Magic X, itself a very deliberate and loving recreation of a specific older format of CRPG.

This will just be a loose list of observations as of right now. As I'm not talking about the plot, there'll be no sort of continuity to be concerned about from blog to blog. I'll also state that I'm barely a few hours into the game so far, and so I've still got a lot yet to discover. If folks in the comments want to keep discussions away from later game stuff or quests, I'd appreciate it. Absolutely talk about the parties you've created or other early game mechanics you've encountered, though. I haven't messed around with classes unique to this game like the Chanter or Cipher, for example, so feel free to tell me what those guys are like.


I'll start with my party composition, since that's probably going to be the most interesting part for anyone already deep into this game. The game takes its first (of many) leafs from the IE games with an option to either create party PCs with no discernible personalities or relevance to the plot, or choose to pick up pre-generated PCs standing around in the world who are far more likely to interject in conversations and have their own backstories and related quests to follow. I remember Baldur's Gate being mostly of the "hire guys you find in the world" bent, but I also recall that there was a way to create characters and import them into your game if desired. Icewind Dale, conversely, was all about creating an entire six-person party from scratch. Pillars seems happy to be a bridge between the two, dropping the "create another PC" mode in-game as a "recruit hireling" function you can find in taverns alongside renting rooms and buying food items with temporary buffs.

The main character you create is the only one to have any relevance to the plot, tied up as they are in the game's familiar "chosen one" plot. I'll get into the specifics of their unique abilities a little later, but suffice it to say there's a lot of mileage in the eldritch powers you suddenly find yourselves with.

  • My protagonist, Aravella, is an Elven Ranger. Pretty basic stuff, and it was the same class I rolled with in Baldur's Gate 2 largely due to the fact that the protagonist's death marked the immediate end of the game. Therefore, I figured it was better to have a ranged class, and one that--unlike a mage--still has enough HP to be on the survivable side. To be frank, I never do well with magic-users in general despite them being objectively the most interesting class to play as due to their resourcefulness. I'm one of those players who never uses any consumables and just hangs onto it all in case they become necessary later, and not casting any spells tends to become an extension of that. (There's an aspect about spellcasting in this game that greatly helps in this regard. I only discovered it a few hours into the game, and it's something else I'll talk about a little later.)
  • Rangers start with an animal companion, and I selected a wolf named Troutleap (shout out to the McElroys). The role of the animal companion from a purely combat perspective is as an effective tank-slash-diversionary tactic, as Rangers are fairly weak in melee, so the animal runs ahead and keeps an enemy busy while the Ranger peppers it with arrows. These animal companions don't hit particularly hard, but their damage reduction (DR being a much more prevalent aspect of combat in PoE than normal D&D, in which it is a fairly rare occurrence) is high and they don't ever seem to lose health when defeated. The unfortunate side-effect is that if the animal gets downed, the Ranger suffers a severe stat drop because of their spiritual, familiar-esque connection with their beastly bud.
  • Rangers don't seem to have too much in the way of nature abilities beyond the animal companion, unlike their D&D equivalent. Rather, they're ranged combat experts. Aravella serves an important role as one of my chief damage-dealers, though she needs a bit of distance from the enemy to be effective at it. She has a sword-and-shield combo as her secondary weapon set - each character appears to have two slots for weapon loadouts, but I've noticed that there's space for three or four on the character sheet, presumably unlocked at higher levels for the more martial classes.
  • My second character, once I found enough cash to hire her (created characters cost 250CP per character level, which is a fair sum early on), is the Barbarian Erstma and another front-line fighter that can join my wolf in keeping enemies busy while the Ranger fires crit after crit. I probably should've gone with something a little more tank-like given her role, but I opted for a Barbarian because of their damage output. Again, more a philosophy of "offense is the best defense" that'll no doubt come back to bite me in the ass, probably literally. She has a few abilities that enhances her combat, but being level 1 in that tough post-tutorial dungeon didn't do her any favors. I got pretty familiar with the Endurance system as a result.
  • Endurance, to digress for a moment into core game mechanics stuff, is like a small portion of one's total health that is used in combat. While it's lower than a character's total pool of HP, it replenishes quickly, and fully regenerates after a successful battle. Heavy endurance loss carries over to the character's health, which doesn't regenerate and can only be refilled through rest (or, possibly, some higher level healing items/spells). Resting's not something you can do easily in the field, due to a limitation placed on camping supplies, so it's prudent to get back to civilization regularly to restock and rest at inns. Most healing items I've found recover endurance, making them useful only in mid-combat. It's a curious idea that bridges the gap between D&D's strict HP rules and a less stringent video game RPG like Xenoblade Chronicles that heals you fully after every encounter because it recognizes that the constant micromanagement of health and healing resources just detracts from the fun. The game's difficulty settings are a bevvy of these types of micromanagement decisions that scale from "convenient" to "hardcore", such as allowing the player to access their stash anywhere - the stash is effectively bottomless, from what I can tell, eliminating any problems with encumbrance or having to constantly leave dungeons to find merchants to sell vendor trash and make more room. I can certainly appreciate a boon like that.
  • Third character I made was a Rogue to help me find secrets and traps, a pale elf (sort of Drow-ish, but ivory instead of ebony) which I named Ori. Rogues are actually a type of martial class in this game, because PoE doesn't really do thief skills like D&D. Rather, being stealthy and being good with traps are simply two of several general "skill" categories that any character can excel in, bonuses to which are largely dictated by their backstories/temperament. For instance, a character with an aristocratic background receives a huge bonus to "Lore" during character creation; a skill necessary for casting spells from scrolls, and possibly identifying magic objects (I haven't gotten far enough to find any powerful artifacts just yet). Rogues don't get any extra skill points or anything to that effect either; their class is more engineered for backstabs and dirty fighting. Still, though, I needed a character with a high Mechanics skill (which governs how good you are with traps and locks and also helps you find secrets) and Ori does the job just fine.
  • Another mechanics segue now: the player can, at any time outside of combat, switch to a stealth mode that affects the entire party. They all try to be as stealthy as their Stealth stat allows, though I do the usual IE thing of having my best stealth character go off on their own to scout ahead for me. It's very much like the prior IE games in this regard: the character moves slower, is slightly opaque and will only trigger combat if they get close enough to enemies to get spotted. The game does a visibility meter thing here by slowly filling in a yellow circle beneath the character's feet: once full, the enemies know the character is there and will give chase. Likewise, you get a sense while in towns whether or not someone can see you, which is important if you're planning to raid their house of their valuables. It's been a while since I last played an IE game that wasn't Planescape: Torment (which was far less focused on this sort of thing), but I remember the detection meter being a party thing, so having individual detection meters is far more helpful in determining who has been spotted by whom (or what).
  • The fourth PC (and probably final, since I want to leave room for a few pre-generated PCs) is an ocean-folk human Wizard named Adsho. While I didn't want to make my main character a mage, I'm certainly not opposed to having one in the party, because they tend to be the most powerful characters at higher levels and a lot of fun besides. The thing I mentioned earlier about magic is that once a magic-user character is sufficiently high level it sounds like certain low-level spells become "so many casts per encounter" affairs rather than "so many casts per rest". If I can be assured that I'll always have a few spells to rely on in every fight, even if I've exhausted all my high level spells in previous fights and haven't had a chance to rest and recover them, then makes me far happier about tossing a few of those high level spells around instead of hanging onto them for emergencies. Of course, my level 2 Wizard has yet to reach that point of spell mastery, but she's got a handful of decent level 1 spells that seem oddly familiar. Old favorites like Grease, Shield, Mirror Image, Magic Missile and Burning Hands were all spells I relied on quite a bit in Baldur's Gate 1 and Icewind Dale, and they all have their equivalents in this game. The game severely limits the number of spells per level you can cast per spellbook (called grimoires in PoE), but doesn't seem to limit your number of spellbooks: if you wanted a spell loadout filled entirely with fire spells, maybe in case you're heading through a chilly cave or a crypt full of fire-vulnerable undead, I'm sure you could put together a grimoire for that very purpose.
  • Anyway, most of my characters are hovering around level 2 or 3 right now, so they haven't unlocked too many of their class abilities or have too many other qualities that can distinguish them and their role in combat, so I can't get too deep into how powerful these classes are just yet. I'll keep you updated on how my party's doing in future episodes in this blog series.

General Mechanics

I've covered a few of the game's mechanics while discussing my characters, but here's a handful more and then we'll close this down for today:

  • I was happy to see the return of the Tab button. Implemented in, I think, the add-on pack for the original Baldur's Gate, the Tab key became one of the most vital tools in any Infinity Engine game: they highlight everything in the vicinity that can be used, such as containers (which are often hard to spot as they blend into the background so well), switches, places of interest and other hotspots. Containers/switches appear blue if they've not been accessed, and gray once they have. There's also a purple color filter which indicates that they're secrets that a character with a high Mechanics skill has just spotted. I'm practically resting my elbow on the Tab key whenever I'm playing an IE game, so for me it's an integral part of the experience.
  • While I'm on the subject, they really nailed the Infinity Engine look here. Other similarities include: green circles under friendly characters, red under enemies and other hostiles; that movement cursor that looks like four Trivial Pursuit wedges; "You must gather your party before venturing forth."; trying to leave an area by one of the four cardinal directions you haven't already tried occasionally reveals a new location on the world map; a character's fatigue icon looks like a closed Neverwinter eye; the game bothered to create a couple dozen different gemstone types you might find, even though they all seem to be vendor trash of varying values; options to pause the game whenever you spot a bad guy, whenever a character has low health, whenever a character hits an enemy with an ineffective weapon, whenever a character falls or whenever a trap is detected; and last but definitely not least, combat works almost identically, with real-time combat that appears to be people standing around and swinging every so often that is actually governed by the speed of the character's attack. You can even see the damage rolls and the effects of special attacks if you hover over them in the text feedback window until you get the pop-up. It absolutely feels like an Infinity Engine game that uses a ruleset similar (but not identical) to D&D 2nd Edition and a whole bunch of appreciated (and optional, for purists) modern convenience additions on top, and if you're an old-school Baldur's Gate/Icewind Dale fan with a hankering for more of the same, it seems to be exactly what you'd hope.
  • More on that note: There's a dungeon in the first town that's way too tough for a level 2 Ranger and her dog. Even after hiring the Barbarian and Rogue, some of the encounters with groups of tough shadows and spiders down there can get a little tricky. But knowing IE as I do, I revisited my system of hitting enemies with surprise attacks, kiting them back to doorways and letting my front-line fighters block their path, which had the benefit of funneling the enemies one at a time into my slaughter jamboree, excepting the odd occasion when the ghosts remembered they could teleport and went straight after my ranged guys. I ended up killing a lot of tough enemies this way, since many of the rooms had multiple foes and a handy doorway to stymie them in. Cheap? Nah, it was old times, old crimes. Great to be back.
  • Here's the one point I'll get vaguely spoiler-y, though keep in mind this is still super early on in the game. The player character, due to an incident during the intro, becomes a "Watcher": a person in touch with the world of the dead, and can see spirits and other lost souls when wandering around. Yep, pretty much The Dead Zone (or The Frighteners, depending on what you're into I guess). This has some effect on story missions, allowing you to see how a victim died and learning more about the quest and the NPCs involved as a result, but it also comes into effect with the many otherwise pointless NPCs that are present everywhere. I can only assume by the incongruent names of these characters that they were Kickstarter donors who got the chance to add an NPC to the game. They don't have dialogue, but you can tap into their past lives by communing with their spirits, each of which read like little short stories. It's reminiscent of Kaim's Memories in Lost Odyssey, actually. They're fun enough to read if you enjoy the game's writing (which is sterling, but then this is Obsidian we're talking about), but kind of immersion-breaking all the same. Still, you gotta appease the guys paying the bills. (Talking of which, I hope this observations blog is to the liking of the generous soul who gifted this game to me. There's more to come, I assure you.)
  • This observation doesn't have any bearing on gameplay or really anything vital, but I can't help but notice during the game's background tavern chatter that there's someone with a very West Coast US accent saying "A perfect ten, pretty nice!" every few minutes. It feels almost as if the sound engineers recorded about three minutes of Obsidian Entertainment's cafeteria at lunch time and looped it, and the pragmatism of that foley work just makes me smile. In fairness, the chatter's one of several sound channels active whenever you're in a tavern, and usually obscured by the tavern's jaunty bard music and various other ambient sound effects layered on top. For some reason, though, it all cuts out except for the chatter whenever you're in the tavern's PC character creator, which I've evidently spent some time in if the above text is any indication. It's largely indistinct murmurs, so it's weird when you pick out certain phrases like that. I swear I heard someone talk about "all the best bits" too. That chatter would be a fun question to ask the developers about in an interview, especially if you wanted to look like a crazy OCD person who was focusing on the wrong thing.

Anyway, I'll update a little later, possibly once I have a few more levels under my belt and what might be an upgradeable stronghold to my name. I loved the De'Arnise stronghold in BG2, so I'm hoping it's more of that. Catch you all then.