It's Cute. It's Clay. It Mostly Plays OK.

Since Dan made it clear in his review that he thought the controls in this game were frustrating, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about the kind of problems you can expect to encounter if for anyone who may be on the fence. First off, you should know that I purchased this game before any reviews came out, and I’m also a huge fan of both Kirby and all things clay. I’ve also never played Kirby: Canvas Curse.

So, as the title says, for the most part I thought the game played perfectly fine. Having not played Canvas Curse or any other similar game before, I found learning how to best take advantage of the drawing mechanics really interesting. When I started playing, I had a tendency to draw lines that were too long, which would use up all my ink and produce a really crooked line. I would also try drawing lines close to where Kirby was, rather than where he would be, which wasted more ink in addition to plunking Kirby down on the ground.

As I progressed, I learned some more helpful techniques, partly through experience, and partly through the random loading screen hints. Unfortunately, since these tips only appear during loading sequences, it’s easy to play for a while without realizing a couple basic points that really help throughout the entire game. One, you can erase a line by drawing through it. And two, you can switch direction on the ground just by drawing a downward line.

I was able to play through the majority of the game without much trouble using the aforementioned techniques, but two of the game’s seven worlds have stages full of environmental hazards that will kill Kirby in one hit. These stages are also faster paced and more full of other obstacles as well. To be clear, these stages are in mid- to late-game worlds, but compared to what the worlds that came immediately before these had to offer, it’s a bit of a difficulty spike. The game’s final world actually feels like it would have been a better transition in difficulty from the early worlds to the problem ones.

And, just as there are two problem worlds, there are two problem bosses, one of which happens to be the underwater boss Dan mentioned in his review. These boss fights in particular have the same problem as the stages in that you’re expected to manage too much at one time. For said underwater boss, you have to dodge the boss while constantly compensating for the fact that Kirby is always floating upward. The experience isn’t terrible, but it certainly is tedious. As for the other troublesome boss fight, all I’ll say is that you have to use one of the game’s less implemented mechanics while also using some common mechanics in uncommon ways.

As a last note on difficulty with the controls, I don’t think I completed more than a handful of the game’s timed challenge rooms on the first try. Being challenge rooms, it certainly isn’t unreasonable to expect failure the first time around, but I seemed to fail a great deal of the rooms by only a second or two because the paths I drew weren’t quite right. But again, this is the first game of its kind I’ve played.

Despite the control issues, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse still has all the charm you could want from a Kirby game and then some. The claymation looks great throughout, and the figurines you collect throughout the game all have their own adorable flavor text. You also collect pages to a secret diary that provides some background on the story and characters through the magic of the epilepsy-inducing animations of illustrations that a child might draw, including what may be the best interpretation of King Dedede and Meta Knight yet. The game isn’t without its flaws, but if you’re a Kirby fan or someone who just wants the world to be made of clay, the $40 price tag should make this a pretty safe purchase.

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The Mundane and the Insane

It’s nighttime in Onett, a small suburb in Eagleland, a continent reminiscent of a late 1950s/early 1960s America, and a meteorite has crashed on a nearby hilltop. The sound wakes a boy named Ness, prompting him to check out the impact zone, where he is encountered by what appears to be a talking bee named Buzz Buzz, who claims to have come from 10 years in the future to warn Ness of the alien threat, Giygas. Buzz Buzz tells Ness that he must gather his friends and seek out the eight “Your Sanctuary” locations in order to save the world.

So begins Earthbound, a traditional, turn-based JRPG that I for some reason never rented when I was younger, despite having seen it several times on the shelves of my local Power Video. It was a long time before I learned anything about the game beyond the fact that it stars Ness, who remained unknown to me until I unlocked him in Super Smash Bros. Sometime after even that, I learned of Earthbound’s reputation as being well-liked, funny and profoundly bizarre. And so, with its eventual release on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, I finally decided to give it a try.

Maybe the above scenario of time travel, talking bees and places of power doesn’t sound particularly out of place in the context of video games – and world-saving quests are commonplace in pretty much every kind of fiction – but Earthbound’s reputation as being especially strange is well-deserved. While a large part of what makes Earthbound such a surreal experience are the scenarios you find yourself in as the plot progresses, I’m going to focus instead on how the mechanics that replicate the more mundane aspects of the (somewhat) real-world setting serve to make Earthbound far stranger than it could have been if it had abandoned all ties to reality.

Earthbound makes good use of 1960s pseudo-America setting (never mind that the game says it’s set in the ’90s), as is apparent in all of the game’s trappings. Facilities typical to fantasy RPGs such as inns, churches and vendors that operate out of ramshackle, wooden stalls are replaced by hotels, hospitals and modern buildings containing bakeries, pizzerias and drugstores. Status ailments include real-world afflictions such as nausea, sunstroke, and even the common cold. When you run across the more mystical status ailments that a doctor can’t cure, you can consult a new-age spiritual healer conveniently located in every hospital lobby. When not paying medical bills, you can even visit some shady characters to purchase goods that may or may not be strictly legal – namely, bottle rockets and rayguns. And, of course, your school-aged party members get all this money by withdrawing it from ATMs. Because, yes: Ness has a bank account.

Young protagonists in JRPGs are plentiful, but your party members in Earthbound are younger than most, and the game reminds you of how young Ness is in so many ways that society in Earthbound seems more negligent than in, say, Pokemon. Any time Ness returns home from his travels, his mom will make him his favorite food and tell him to scoot off to bed, serving to completely replenish his (and the party’s) HP. This mechanic certainly isn’t unique to Earthbound, but how many games go so far as to let you pick your favorite food when you start a new file? You’ll also have to periodically have Ness call his mom so that Ness doesn’t become homesick, which completely saps him of the will to take action in battle. Then, there’s Ness’ dad, who’s only ever available to talk to on the phone, offering to save your game and depositing money into Ness’ account based on the number of enemies he has defeated.

Aside from being a neat way to establish the relationship between Ness and his parents, phones are another means of conducting business, and phone business in Earthbound is yet another peculiarity. Among your list of contacts is Ness’ little sister, Tracy, who serves as your item bank from the get-go. Eventually, she takes on a part time job with a delivery company called Escargo Express, enabling to you manage your inventory remotely by giving her a call. For a nominal fee, Tracy will send someone to either deliver or pick up your items. This transaction, however, doesn’t take place immediately; you have to wait a few seconds before a delivery person comes running on screen. The same holds true for when you’re ordering a pizza, only the wait is an actual five minutes in real-world time. But, when a large pizza is a powerful, group-healing item, isn’t it worth the wait?

Earthbound goes some strange places: some whimsical, some trippy and some unsettling. But, while things like time travel and aliens perhaps lend themselves better to strange situations than other subject matter, the lengths to which Earthbound goes to establish its own special brand of reality provide a benchmark the makes the game’s out-there moments all the more bizarre.

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Phantasy, Fantasy, Space

Duck, Duck, Goose. It’s a game that consists mostly of walking around in circle and saying one thing over and over until someone suddenly mentions a slightly more specific type of fowl, and then everyone goes nuts. Replace “saying” with “doing,” and you have a halfway decent analogy for the grinding inherent in loot-driven games. And while I can’t provide you with arbitrary number associations to prove my analogy to you in the way that most conspiracy theorists do, I can tell you that “goose” is related to “golden goose,” which is related “treasure,” which means “loot." Q.E.D.

With recent releases, we of course have one such loot-driven game in Destiny, one whose actual loot mechanics have received enough criticism to prompt Bungie to tweak things. We also have Hyrule Warriors, a spinoff of a franchise that despite not necessarily being driven by loot to the same degree as Destiny or Diablo, often leaves people wondering what appeal there is in continuing to play it if not the loot. Yet, even with there being a general consensus on the problems of each game, plenty of people continue to play and enjoy them. And, being someone who has had quite a bit of fun with both, I feel compelled to make an attempt at explaining what I think it is about these games that keeps them engaging despite their shortcomings. But first, I’m going to talk about Phantasy Star Online.

Comparisons between Destiny and PSO have been made many times already, and they’re surprisingly accurate. Both are online, loot-driven action RPGs that draw some inspiration from Star Wars. Both are heavily instanced in their cooperative aspects; and, if you’re talking about the original PSO, both have four areas you revisit over and over again in your quest to reach the level cap and obtain rare gear. A quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that PSO was received better than Destiny was back when it came out, so I don’t bring PSO up because it’s a game that I enjoyed despite some overwhelming public opinion of it as a flawed game; I bring it up because it didn’t immediately click with me.

I wasn’t aware of what PSO was until Nintendo Power promoted the GameCube version with episodes I and II when it came out. When I first started the game, I made a Force – the game’s magic class – and I did a little bit of fighting in the forest before I stopped and played something else. What had put me off was the combo system. You could perform up to a three-stage combo, but you had to hit the button according to a certain rhythm, and that rhythm wasn’t even tied to the attack animations. This deliberate rhythm, combined with the stiff attack animations, the long time it took for you to go from a walk to a run, and the slow movement of the enemies just didn’t seem particularly exciting.

When I revisited the game, however, I made a Hunter, the game’s melee class, and I began to appreciate the deliberate pace of the combat. Using the saber the Hunter starts with, I had to learn to not always go for a full, three-hit combo when enemies were grouped together, as I could only hit one at a time. Instead, I found that it was better to use just two hits until I had weakened an enemy enough to finish it off with three. When I eventually got a sword, which is less accurate but capable of hitting multiple enemies at a time, I had to learn to position myself far enough away from a mob of enemies so as to hit a few without leaving myself open to a hit or to being surrounded in case I missed. While the tactics I learned from using the saber and sword can be broadly applied across all the classes of weapons the game has to offer, learning the nuances of using each of the many weapon types effectively was big factor in keeping the game from getting too samey too soon.

The same joy of learning how to best use the available weapons is something both Destiny and Hyrule Warriors do as well, but the latter is actually much more similar to PSO in this regard. While Hyrule Warriors is easy enough on its normal difficulty to where it doesn’t provide much of a practical incentive for experimenting with its different characters and their unique weapons, the over-the-top attack animations are incentive enough to get a thrill out of discovering the most efficient method of cutting down enemy hordes. Sure, you could just as easily run up to the next group of enemies and use Link’s sword spin on them as you might have done to some hapless henchmen who were only just surrounding you, but then you’d be missing out on having Link backflip and send a shockwave forward to dispatch the next batch of baddies. Much like PSO, the sheer amount of unique movesets available from using different combinations of characters and weapons means that there’s plenty to play around with.

While Destiny doesn’t boast the same variety of weapons as either Hyrule Warriors or PSO, the generally wide open battlefields whose hills and other geographical features offer cover in addition to walls and boxes give you a lot of options to explore when learning the best application of each weapon. It’s also worth mentioning that while Destiny isn’t the most challenging shooter, even for someone who doesn’t dabble in the genre often, that the action is fast-paced enough to land players into near-death situations on a fairly regular basis if they haven’t already memorized every enemy pattern and spawn location or if they’re just not paying attention. I’ve been in plenty of these situations myself, and the amount of attention and quick thought required to get out of them alive often brings plenty of excitement into the monotonous mission design.

So, while getting better gear for your characters in these games is certainly a driving factor in why people continually play them, and while poorly designed systems and the lack of features that are noticeably different from the core gameplay are understandably major detractors for many people looking at them, there’s also a lot of nuance that isn’t typically mentioned. For people who enjoy the basics of what a game has to offer, even small changes to considerations such as where to stand when attacking or what weapon to use can play a large role in how long they’ll play the game.

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The Indelible Memory Dilemma

This is my reaction to a thread on NeoGAF, asking people which of their two favorite video game franchises they would save if they could only pick one. For me, the choice comes to Zelda and the Souls series. If the prompt had allowed room for an individual game, Tales of Symphonia would have been the game I would reluctantly let go in favor of any given Souls game, and maybe I wouldn’t have felt compelled to write this. In fact, I might not be writing this if the thread were as simple as I’ve mentioned. I’d save the Souls franchise because, as much as I love Zelda, I feel like I’ve had the most important experiences with those games as I possibly could already, and the Souls games just happen to be taking a route that is more immediately captivating to me.

But, upon seeing that people were sacrificing franchises that were likely to never get another game anyway, the creator of the thread decided to add a condition to the original prompt: the series you let die would never have existed. Ignoring however the game industry might have turned out if a major franchise such as Zelda had never existed, the important aspect of this stipulation is that, since the franchise never existed, you wouldn’t have any memories of it either. And with that, I realized that I just can’t let go of Zelda. More specifically, I can’t let go of when I first played Ocarina of Time.

Before Ocarina, I had a Super Nintendo and a game collection that consisted mostly of platformers like Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country and Kirby’s Dreamland 3. I owned and rented games from other genres, but at that age, I only really understood jumping and other simple forms of action. When I got an N64, I was still pretty much oblivious to other types of gameplay. Then, I happened to hear about Ocarina of Time from one of my babysitter’s kids. I wasn’t even aware of what Zelda was at that point, but I looked up to this guy because he was older and better at games than I was, and the fact that he was excited about Zelda was enough to get me excited too.

Having played nothing like it before, as soon as I got Ocarina of Time, I got stuck in the Kokiri Forest because I didn’t notice or know how to enter the Hole of Z, leaving me to wander around with the Deku Shield, which I had somehow acquired on my own, and wonder when I would get the boomerang that was in the instruction booklet, because boomerangs were, and are, incredibly cool.

Anyway, I didn’t start making progress until I got the strategy guide. I remember using the guide for a lot of the game, perhaps even step-by-step for areas I hadn’t even tried exploring on my own yet. But my young brain hadn’t yet formed that notion of how to properly appreciate a game. And that it hadn’t didn’t matter, because as I read my way through the Great Deku Tree’s puzzles, I couldn’t help but be impressed by what puzzle-solving meant in this game.

Puzzles weren’t about achieving a high score through planning and speed; they were about looking all around and finding creative uses for what you had. Even in situations where the end result of a puzzle was clear, or where there was a particularly simple solution, finding out how things worked and thinking about why they worked that way created a sense of discovery and wonder. By requiring such a level of interaction with the environment, I felt like I was developing a relationship with the world beyond what I felt from discovering secret areas in games like Donkey Kong Country.

What Ocarina had shown me about the relationship between player and environment alone would have made it one of the most impactful games on me, but it also introduced story and characters and atmosphere to me in ways that I hadn’t encountered in games before it. Even when I was still stuck in the beginning, I was already attached to Ocarina’s version of Link, the only boy in the forest without a fairy companion and target of the bully Mido. I was fascinated by how there were other characters I could talk to, all just going about their business: like that guy who could never pick up that one rock, or the girl on top of the shop’s awning, who teaches you to talk with Z. I was charmed by the little motes of light that floated around the forest. And, on top of all that, there was that lighthearted and playful music that made even just running around a wondrous experience.

There are plenty of games that have accomplished some or even most of what I love about Ocarina of Time, games that would have probably been made regardless of whether or not Zelda ever existed, but that’s not the point. The point is that Ocarina of Time has informed so much of what I’ve liked in games and other media that I’ve consumed since, that the thought of it, let alone the rest of the Zelda franchise, being wiped from existence is tantamount to the thought of having been born a different person. I might be oblivious to what I was missing out on, being someone else, and for all practical purposes, that somebody else might not even be that different from who I am now; but even acknowledging all that, I’m not willing to let go of my memories of the game that opened my eyes to so many things.

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Variety is the Spice of Death

Some time back in elementary school, my dad brought home a DVD version of the lighthearted quick time event and snuff film that is Dragon’s Lair II. Thanks in part to my relative inexperience with games at that point, but mostly thanks to the fact that a remote control is a lousy way to play a game, I only ever made it to the second world before getting frustrated from dying over and over again. However, despite my decision to not actually play any more of the game, the fact that each failure cued an elaborate animation of Dirk the Daring’s dorky demise was fascinating enough that I watched the whole death reel. Unlike in other games I had played by that point, death in Dragon’s Lair II wasn’t just a penalty for your mistakes; it was a morbid merit badge.

It was at some other point in elementary school that I was again introduced to a game that had a multitude of ways to die, albeit not so comical: Shadowgate 64. I had rented the game from a Power Video because it was featured in Nintendo Power, and that’s just how I did things. Plus, the cover art of a staff with an eyeball on it looked cool. I didn’t know what to expect going in, and I couldn’t have told you that it was an adventure game once I did play it, even though I had played point-and-clicks such as Pajama Sam by that point. All I knew was that I hadn’t played anything exactly like it before, and that there were an awful lot of ways to die for a game without combat.

I never made it far in the game because I didn’t have a controller pack to save with, and I would always reach a starry-ceilinged room in some tower, get stuck, and inevitably kill myself with an item called Forest Nectar no matter how I tried to use it. I didn’t fare well on the save files of other people who had rented the game and managed to accomplish more, either. But my inability to progress in this game that was all puzzles and no combat and plentiful deaths didn’t keep it from occupying a part of my brain reserved for only the warmest and fuzziest of nostalgia.

And only recently we got a remake of the original Shadowgate, and I finally had a convenient method of seeing what made it so special to its fans as opposed to the sequel for the Nintendo 64, which I later heard wasn’t received all that well. Now, having played through the remake’s three difficulty levels, I realize that what I like best about this Shadowgate is what impressed me so much in Shadowgate 64 and Dragon’s Lair II and the Souls games: the sense of fragility and disempowerment that makes every moment and every decision matter. And, for me, the variety of deaths is what drives that helplessness home.

In the Shadowgate remake, you play as Jair, some hapless knight whose physical prowess makes even Dirk the Daring look good. As such, the only way young Jair can hope to overcome the trials he has been tasked with facing at the legendary living Castle of Shadowgate is by using his wits and whatever he can find that isn’t magically attached to the floor. Whereas death in Dragon’s Lair II results from the failure to respond quickly and accurately to a prompt, death in Shadowgate usually results from the failure to scour the environment for clues about potential dangers, or perhaps just because you decide to Use a lit torch on Thyself a few times in a row.

You explore Shadowgate using a series of commands that you would find in text-based adventure games, only they’re mapped to buttons at the top of the screen. Your most-used commands will be Look, Use and Go, and puzzles will often require you to use the Look command on everything you can click to fill the dialog box at the bottom of the screen with narrative text that just might include cryptic hints in the form of riddles or keywords. Except for Look, commands will add to your turn counter, and in most situations, the deaths you have to worry about are directly related to your turn counter. The most common scenarios involve making the right decision within a turn or two of encountering a monster. If you fail to use the proper action or proper item, or perhaps even just do things out of sequence, you’ll experience just how easy it is for everything to kill Jair.

It is the less immediate deaths in Shadowgate, however, that have the potential to be both the most frustrating aspects of the game and the most important to its replayability. Each of the torches you use to navigate the castle has a limited number of turns before it burns out, leaving Jair to promptly connect his skull with the hardest object in the room should he not have any further torches. There is also an overall turn limit for beating the game, which I never ran up against. The timed death that is the source of the frustration I mentioned is a curse young Jair has inflicted on him by a banshee early on in the game. If you don’t find a cure roughly 600 turns after being cursed, you die.

When you’re still getting used to the game, it’s easy to run up your turn counter and prevent yourself from being able to find a cure in time. So, it’s a good idea to create multiple saves and be prepared to load from an earlier point once you know how to more efficiently solve certain puzzles. Assuming you don’t start the game on Master difficulty, whose puzzles’ solutions have the most steps involved, the banshee’s curse becomes a constant and compelling reminder to carefully consider your every move through the castle as opposed to the vague promise of death that gets pushed to the back of your mind when trying to solve the game’s major puzzles for the first time.

Other than the banshee’s curse, the game’s logic behind why certain items are useful in certain situations and not others can occasionally be frustrating. But, for the most part, as long as you’re as thorough and attentive as possible, there’s no solution in the game that just comes completely out of the blue or requires an extensive amount of trial and error. And, even if you don’t pick up on the most helpful clues for certain puzzles, there are often other hints to help you.

Shadowgate isn’t for everybody. Plenty of people will find its hints too vague and its interface too involved. But it also isn’t a game that can only be appreciated by fans of the original or of the adventure game genre, or even by a guy who has an odd amount of nostalgia for the franchise, given that he had barely even played part of a possibly ill-regarded sequel. Shadowgate puts you in control of an unlikely hero and leaves success to your own powers of observation and abstract thinking, not to any amazing abilities possessed by the character. And, for those who appreciate the sense of peril and empowerment that comes from having that much agency over the fate of a particularly vulnerable protagonist, Shadowgate is an experience that is far more fascinating than frustrating.

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