God of War: Ghost of Sparta is a stripped down version of the early games with a surprisingly affecting story

I started playing Ghost of Sparta last Sunday, the same day I finished God of War II. This proximity initially worked against Ghost of Sparta because it is so obviously scaled down in comparison to its main console cousin. Even though I played both games on the PS3, Ghost of Sparta’s character models and environments are chunkier and less ornate than those from its big black monolith-based predecessor and there are other obvious downgrades too, like experience orbs that lack the tailing energy effects in II. Overall Ghost of Sparta feels like what it is, a handheld version of a big console experience. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it lesser. It’s the frozen yogurt to God of War II’s premium ice cream. The competently made knock off purse version of the bigger game. It’s the PG-13 sequel in a previously R rated movie franchise.

I played the game over the course of the next week, generally logging 45-minutes to an hour per night and getting through at least a couple save points in each session. Ghost of Sparta never compelled me to play it for long periods of time, but I also never had a bad time with it and never felt like I didn’t want to play it, at least for a little bit each night. That could be seen as damning with faint praise, but considering how little interest I’ve had in video games over the last year or so, it’s actually a pretty strong point in its favor. Playing Ghost of Sparta may have a relatively low ceiling (you’re never going to feel enthralled or transported to another world) but it also has a high floor because it’s always clear what to do next, you’re always advancing, and there’s enough new stuff in terms of story, visuals, and game play twists that the game doesn’t get boring. I could pick it up, clear a few rooms, solve an extremely simple ‘puzzle’, and find a save point (located every 10 minutes or so) to stop and pick up my progress the next day. Ghost of Sparta’s mobile roots may show in a bad way in how stripped down it feels, but they show in a good way in how easy it is to drop in and out of the game, designed for short sessions on the bus or in the back of a car. It’s a low investment adventure, and for someone like me who has been burned out on giant open world games, that’s a plus.

The other reason I breezed through Ghost of Sparta with so little resistance is that it’s easy. Really really easy. I don’t think I died once in combat on normal, and the only time I even came close was a boss fight in the Sparta area. Coming directly off God of War II, where I died multiple times in multiple sequences the difference was jarring. Not only are the fights simpler than God of War II’s, with fewer enemies and longer times to respond, but enemies frequently spray off healing orbs when they reach certain damage thresholds, and one of the magic attacks in the game also releases green orbs, giving Kratos the ability to self-heal to some extent. The combination of these things meant that I frequently skipped over the green health chests that are plentiful in the world. In some cases I think there were green health chests in connected areas with no enemies to fight in between, meaning there’s no real way to be damaged between them, though maybe there are enemies there on Hard mode. If I knew how easy the game was I would have played on hard, even though I am usually a ‘normal’ gamer all the way. The easiness may be a concession to hand-held mode or just because the game was released in 2010 instead of 2007 and games got easier from the 6th to 7th generations, but it was very noticeable.

Despite how easy Ghost of Sparta’s combat is, there are a few wrinkles to the combat system that I hope carry over to future God of War titles. Kratos being able to heal himself with magic is a good idea in theory and would be more useful in a harder game where he actually got damaged during the fights. The fire meter, allowing Kratos to ignite his blades and affix a fire bomb to enemies, as well as break through armor on enemies and certain objects in the environment, was a good addition, and felt less random and cheap than Rage of the Titans in God of War II. The Arms of Sparta, a shield and spear that Kratos gets halfway through the game, make for a great alternative weapon to the Blades of Athena and it’s fun to fight using actual Greek style weapons as opposed to weird fantastical artifacts like a magic gauntlet or a giant war hammer. Unfortunately these mechanics are never deeply explored, but they are fun to play around with nonetheless, and conceptually quite good.

The puzzles and traversal mechanics don’t fare as well. God of War’s traversal has always been a mediocre part of gameplay, and after 4 games I am bored of wall climbing and grapple points. While God of War II had the time freezing mechanic to at least add a fresh twist, Ghost of Sparta’s traversal stuff is just perfunctory. I died a few times from missing button presses but that felt cheap rather than challenging. Most of the puzzles were not puzzles at all, just switches to hit. Compared to God of War II’s puzzles Ghost of Sparta barely seems to be making an effort.

However, while I said before that Ghost of Sparta’s environments feel stripped down and shrunken, and they definitely do, they are at least thematically interesting. The cities of Atlantis and Sparta make for a great contrast, and for once Kratos goes through a city that’s not at war and feels lived in and alive. It fleshes out the world of God of War and makes it feel more like a place people actually live than a series of giant stone buildings waiting to be smashed apart. The volcanic area is full of reds and deep browns and very different than the green and gray colors that tend to dominate the series, and when you throw in the frozen cliffs and Death’s Domain you get a huge amount of variety in a short run time. I would kind of like a full remake with PS4 level graphics and maybe some more mechanical complexity and challenge, just because the bones of what’s there are so strong, and so clearly hampered by the handheld platform the game was built for. The designers of Ghost of Sparta did a lot with the tools they had available.

One area where Ghost of Sparta doesn’t compromise is on the story. Because of the size of UMDs there is less voice and fewer cut scenes than in the larger console games, but that works to the game’s favor, keeping it lean and propulsive. The story starts as a rehash of the first two games (with the sea monster Scylla acting as a combination of the hydra from God of War 1 and the Colossus at Rhodes from God of War II, chasing Kratos from his ship into the city of Atlantis) but soon turns deeply personal for Kratos. While Kratos is very angry, as always, during the game, we also see the respect he has from the people of Sparta and his connections there (he seems comfortable and at ease around his Sparta compatriots) and we see his mournful sadness as events unfold. While he has always had a tragic back story and always been sad about his family, his sadness here happens organically from the events of the game, and is given more time to develop. This is the first time I have cared about Kratos at all during the four of his games I’ve played, and the first time the story felt like more than an afterthought. There are also some very cool vignettes outside of the main plot. The part with King Midas is both funny and horrifying in equal measures, dealing with a madman with amazing powers and no control, and the fact that Kratos ends up sinking Atlantis basically just by being a huge angry dick is very on brand and funny. Kratos is called the Ghost of Sparta in part because of the ashes on his skin, but here we also see Sparta as a ghost for him, something ephemeral that he can see and pass through but can’t really go home to. Ghost of Sparta explores Kratos’ status as a God who was once a man in interesting ways. It’s a real improvement.

Ghost of Sparta’s stripped down size and pared back mechanics would have been a bummer if I had been looking for a full God of War experience in a portable form, but taken on its own terms as an interstitial between full console adventures it was a fun little side story. What the PSP entries lack in graphical fidelity, length, importance to the God of War continuity, gameplay complexity, and scope they make up for by being simplified brawlers that let me carve up some minotaurs and cyclopses and drop a big stone block on an annoying guy’s head so I can use his corpse as a counterweight for a gate (Kratos is not a good dude.)

When I played Chains of Olympus a couple years ago I said it felt disposable, and others suggested that Ghost of Sparta was the better game. I think it is the better game, with more interesting environments, bigger boss battles, and a story that moves a bit more briskly and has emotional stakes. It’s impressive what they managed to squeeze out of the PSP, but removed from the context of that limited hardware it just feels shrunken down and insubstantial, especially played right after the epic scale of God of War II. On the other hand the story serves to flesh out Kratos as a character and give a better sense of the Greek world he inhabits. Given how short it is, if you don’t mind the stripped down sensibilities of the portable format I recommend it for God of War fans. It’s short and entertaining and has a really satisfying ending that gives context to Kratos’ actions in other games.

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God of War: Ghost of Sparta is a stripped down version of the early games with a surprisingly affecting story

I started playing Ghost of Sparta last Sunday, the same day I finished God of War II. This proximity initially worked against Ghost of Sparta because it is so obviously scaled down in comparison to its main console cousin. Even though I played both games on the PS3, Ghost of Sparta’s character models and environments are chunkier and less ornate than those from its big black monolith-based predecessor and there are other obvious downgrades too, like experience orbs that lack the tailing energy effects in II. Overall Ghost of Sparta feels like what it is, a handheld version of a big console experience. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it lesser. It’s the frozen yogurt to God of War II’s premium ice cream. The competently made knock off purse version of the bigger game. It’s the PG-13 sequel in a previously R rated movie franchise.

I played the game over the course of the next week, generally logging 45-minutes to an hour per night and getting through at least a couple save points in each session. Ghost of Sparta never compelled me to play it for long periods of time, but I also never had a bad time with it and never felt like I didn’t want to play it, at least for a little bit each night. That could be seen as damning with faint praise, but considering how little interest I’ve had in video games over the last year or so, it’s actually a pretty strong point in its favor. Playing Ghost of Sparta may have a relatively low ceiling (you’re never going to feel enthralled or transported to another world) but it also has a high floor because it’s always clear what to do next, you’re always advancing, and there’s enough new stuff in terms of story, visuals, and game play twists that the game doesn’t get boring. I could pick it up, clear a few rooms, solve an extremely simple ‘puzzle’, and find a save point (located every 10 minutes or so) to stop and pick up my progress the next day. Ghost of Sparta’s mobile roots may show in a bad way in how stripped down it feels, but they show in a good way in how easy it is to drop in and out of the game, designed for short sessions on the bus or in the back of a car. It’s a low investment adventure, and for someone like me who has been burned out on giant open world games, that’s a plus.

The other reason I breezed through Ghost of Sparta with so little resistance is that it’s easy. Really really easy. I don’t think I died once in combat on normal, and the only time I even came close was a boss fight in the Sparta area. Coming directly off God of War II, where I died multiple times in multiple sequences the difference was jarring. Not only are the fights simpler than God of War II’s, with fewer enemies and longer times to respond, but enemies frequently spray off healing orbs when they reach certain damage thresholds, and one of the magic attacks in the game also releases green orbs, giving Kratos the ability to self-heal to some extent. The combination of these things meant that I frequently skipped over the green health chests that are plentiful in the world. In some cases I think there were green health chests in connected areas with no enemies to fight in between, meaning there’s no real way to be damaged between them, though maybe there are enemies there on Hard mode. If I knew how easy the game was I would have played on hard, even though I am usually a ‘normal’ gamer all the way. The easiness may be a concession to hand-held mode or just because the game was released in 2010 instead of 2007 and games got easier from the 6th to 7th generations, but it was very noticeable.

Despite how easy Ghost of Sparta’s combat is, there are a few wrinkles to the combat system that I hope carry over to future God of War titles. Kratos being able to heal himself with magic is a good idea in theory and would be more useful in a harder game where he actually got damaged during the fights. The fire meter, allowing Kratos to ignite his blades and affix a fire bomb to enemies, as well as break through armor on enemies and certain objects in the environment, was a good addition, and felt less random and cheap than Rage of the Titans in God of War II. The Arms of Sparta, a shield and spear that Kratos gets halfway through the game, make for a great alternative weapon to the Blades of Athena and it’s fun to fight using actual Greek style weapons as opposed to weird fantastical artifacts like a magic gauntlet or a giant war hammer. Unfortunately these mechanics are never deeply explored, but they are fun to play around with nonetheless, and conceptually quite good.

The puzzles and traversal mechanics don’t fare as well. God of War’s traversal has always been a mediocre part of gameplay, and after 4 games I am bored of wall climbing and grapple points. While God of War II had the time freezing mechanic to at least add a fresh twist, Ghost of Sparta’s traversal stuff is just perfunctory. I died a few times from missing button presses but that felt cheap rather than challenging. Most of the puzzles were not puzzles at all, just switches to hit. Compared to God of War II’s puzzles Ghost of Sparta barely seems to be making an effort.

However, while I said before that Ghost of Sparta’s environments feel stripped down and shrunken, and they definitely do, they are at least thematically interesting. The cities of Atlantis and Sparta make for a great contrast, and for once Kratos goes through a city that’s not at war and feels lived in and alive. It fleshes out the world of God of War and makes it feel more like a place people actually live than a series of giant stone buildings waiting to be smashed apart. The volcanic area is full of reds and deep browns and very different than the green and gray colors that tend to dominate the series, and when you throw in the frozen cliffs and Death’s Domain you get a huge amount of variety in a short run time. I would kind of like a full remake with PS4 level graphics and maybe some more mechanical complexity and challenge, just because the bones of what’s there are so strong, and so clearly hampered by the handheld platform the game was built for. The designers of Ghost of Sparta did a lot with the tools they had available.

One area where Ghost of Sparta doesn’t compromise is on the story. Because of the size of UMDs there is less voice and fewer cut scenes than in the larger console games, but that works to the game’s favor, keeping it lean and propulsive. The story starts as a rehash of the first two games (with the sea monster Scylla acting as a combination of the hydra from God of War 1 and the Colossus at Rhodes from God of War II, chasing Kratos from his ship into the city of Atlantis) but soon turns deeply personal for Kratos. While Kratos is very angry, as always, during the game, we also see the respect he has from the people of Sparta and his connections there (he seems comfortable and at ease around his Sparta compatriots) and we see his mournful sadness as events unfold. While he has always had a tragic back story and always been sad about his family, his sadness here happens organically from the events of the game, and is given more time to develop. This is the first time I have cared about Kratos at all during the four of his games I’ve played, and the first time the story felt like more than an afterthought. There are also some very cool vignettes outside of the main plot. The part with King Midas is both funny and horrifying in equal measures, dealing with a madman with amazing powers and no control, and the fact that Kratos ends up sinking Atlantis basically just by being a huge angry dick is very on brand and funny. Kratos is called the Ghost of Sparta in part because of the ashes on his skin, but here we also see Sparta as a ghost for him, something ephemeral that he can see and pass through but can’t really go home to. Ghost of Sparta explores Kratos’ status as a God who was once a man in interesting ways. It’s a real improvement.

Ghost of Sparta’s stripped down size and pared back mechanics would have been a bummer if I had been looking for a full God of War experience in a portable form, but taken on its own terms as an interstitial between full console adventures it was a fun little side story. What the PSP entries lack in graphical fidelity, length, importance to the God of War continuity, gameplay complexity, and scope they make up for by being simplified brawlers that let me carve up some minotaurs and cyclopses and drop a big stone block on an annoying guy’s head so I can use his corpse as a counterweight for a gate (Kratos is not a good dude.)

When I played Chains of Olympus a couple years ago I said it felt disposable, and others suggested that Ghost of Sparta was the better game. I think it is the better game, with more interesting environments, bigger boss battles, and a story that moves a bit more briskly and has emotional stakes. It’s impressive what they managed to squeeze out of the PSP, but removed from the context of that limited hardware it just feels shrunken down and insubstantial, especially played right after the epic scale of God of War II. On the other hand the story serves to flesh out Kratos as a character and give a better sense of the Greek world he inhabits. Given how short it is, if you don’t mind the stripped down sensibilities of the portable format I recommend it for God of War fans. It’s short and entertaining and has a really satisfying ending that gives context to Kratos’ actions in other games.

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God of War II in 2019 is still fun but no longer feels special.

I’ve been slowly chipping away at the God of War series since the first game was released in 2005. Back then I played through most of God of War 1 before getting frustrated and stopping. I picked it back up for PS3 and in summer 2011 I completed that game and liked it reasonably well. I did not, however feel an urge to start God of War II immediately, because that was in the thick the heady last years of the 7th generation, when there was a ton of stuff to play and enjoy. I kept picking up new games in the series on sale, always intending to get to it. After the new God of War game started to build hype in 2017 I decided to pick up the series again and I played through Chains of Olympus (again on PS3) and had a decent, if unremarkable time. I started God of War II in April 2018 and today, almost exactly a year later, I completed it. God of War II didn’t take me a year to complete because of its difficulty, which is quite reasonable, or its length, which was about 15 hours more or less. Instead it took that long because I kept picking it up, playing through a bit, and putting it back down for months, partially because I haven’t been playing many games over the last year, and partially because God of War II has aged in ways that meant I had to be in a very particular mood to enjoy it. On balance I liked the game, even in 2019, and I’m glad I played it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must play for people who are trying to experience the best the PS2 had to offer. I’ve played through a number of PS2 classics in the last 6-7 years, and I’d say that most of them (including Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Katamari Damacy) hold up better than God of War II.

You’d think that the awe and spectacle of God of War II would be the part that aged worst in our current age of Virtual Reality and super-powered console revisions like the PS4 Pro, but that wasn’t my experience. Playing the PS3 remaster, most of the textures still look sharp and gleaming in last-gen HD, and the careful camera placement means that God of War II retains its scope and grandeur. The first fight against the colossus is still pulse pounding, with the colossus’ giant arm smashing towards Kratos’ tiny vulnerable body and lots of sweeping camera movements as Kratos hurls himself at the giant. The massive environments look solidly built, with tons of memorable and atmospheric locations from a temple built over a swamp to enormous statues that drop huge chunks of stone and spray dust as they rearrange themselves after Kratos pulls a lever almost as big as he is. The sound track is strong and evocative, with a real sense of foreboding, and the still-excellent sound effects give every crunching bone and splatter of blood a sense of brutality. The character models and animation have aged, of course, but you adjust quickly, and the spigots of gore are still stomach churning as Kratos brutally eviscerates his foes, beheading and impaling his way through the adventure. Cut scenes on the P3 version are a mixed bag; a few are remastered and still look great (though obviously not at Uncharted 4 levels) but many are directly copied over from the PS2 and look cropped and low resolution. It’s fine though. Old games look old.

The combat doesn’t fare quite as well but is still pretty fun. Kratos is quick and responsive, and his sweeping attacks mean that you don’t need to carefully line up your shots, making the fixed camera angle a non-issue. Kratos has a couple new moves and some new and upgraded magic, so there are several approaches to most scenarios, and I found magic both more useful and more necessary to bail me out of tough spots than in the two prior games I played in the series. Whether you choose hit and run tactics or prefer the higher risk/higher reward combos, fighting in God of War II is mostly enjoyable, except for one major flaw I’ll get into a bit later.

Where the age really starts to show is in the other elements of gameplay. The platforming sucks, with the finnicky controls and fixed camera angles making jumps harder than they should be, and I think I died by falling into pits more frequently than any other way. The puzzles are a mixed bag, but too often rely on guesswork, or just interacting with everything in the environment or, worst of all, carefully timed platforming in conjunction with a puzzle, meaning that even when you see the solution it might take you ten times to actually execute it given the annoying controls. There are definitely a couple puzzles that are clever enough to make you smile, but mostly they boil down to easy busywork or frustration as you don’t know what you can interact with or whether you’re doing the right thing just a little too slow or something that’s ‘wrong’ and will never work no matter how flawlessly you pull it off. I used a walkthrough when I was stumped or wasn’t sure if what I was attempting was correct and I never regretted it, despite not being a walkthrough type gamer. I just don’t have half an hour to spend fiddling with obtuse design at this point.

Finally there’s the QTEs. They’re awful, and I hated grinding or mashing the buttons and sticks of my precious Dual Shock 3 (I don’t know how I’ll replace it when it breaks) just to watch the same cut scene play out with Kratos’ death after I made the mistake of watching the wrong part of the screen for the button prompt.

The other major complaint I have about God of War II is that all too often it is a game about attrition rather than challenge. Enemies have a ton of health and much of the combat often comes down to avoiding the same attacks over and over so you can poke a large bad guy a couple times and then dodge back out of range. This gets boring really fast, especially since the game loves to throw the same enemy at you over and over in long drawn-out sequences that are stressful without being fun. One of the major issues with attrition gameplay is that you can make a few mistakes early that ultimately mean you’re going to lose 10 minutes later, and then have to do the whole thing over. It’s frustrating and annoying, and one of the reasons it took me a year to finish the game. I didn’t die much, but when dying meant I had to replay a 15 minute fight scene against the same 6 cyclops and riders I just didn’t want to do it again.

The final boss is a strong example of this. He’s not particularly difficult but he takes forever to kill, with multiple repeating phases, and for some reason they decided to design the fight so that the best tactic for his most difficult phase is just to avoid him until he fires off an attack you can parry and reflect, which does good damage and refills some life and health. This choice means that the fight can take literally 20 minutes, and dying throws you back to the beginning of whatever form you’re fighting. This is topped off with a split second timing QTE that took me 8 times to get through, substantially devaluing the pay-off cut scene (though to be fair it’s not quite the end of the game.)

Finally, and this is less important to me than the gameplay issues, God of War II’s story and writing are bad. The story isn’t so much terrible as it is mostly absent. Kratos is betrayed, gets mad, gets revenge with the help of a couple allies. There are no real twists and while there’s lore it’s shallow and not very interesting. Characters tend to the two dimensional, being arrogant or angry or fearful or whatever, and almost never more than one of those things. The writing isn’t clever or emotionally affecting at any point. This game was released a week or so before the first Mass Effect, so it cannot be chalked up to being a product of its time. Considering that one of my reasons for wanting to play the whole series is to get context for the new PS4 God of War game…it’s not necessary. Kratos is who you think he is. I always assumed there was more to his character because he was so popular in the 2000s, but after playing through 3 of the titles I can say that he’s literally a maladjusted 12-year-old’s idea of a badass, all rage and tough talk with nothing behind it. I’m glad they apparently retooled it for the PS4 version and it will be interesting to see where they go with this guy.

It’s worth noting that the ending is a huge cliffhanger, only slightly more acceptable than Halo 2s.

Despite all these complaints, I did enjoy God of War II, and I think the main reason is because of its hand crafted nature. God of War II has no real filler to it. It goes from fight to puzzle to platforming to fight with only minimal backtracking and no grinding. In 2019, when even the games I really like (such as last year’s Spider-Man) are full of repetitious grinding and open-world bloat, there’s a real charm to a linear adventure like this. Every environment is new, every fight has some kind of twist, whether it be someone you need to protect or an environmental hazard or just a unique combination of enemies. Certain bosses are huge and often closer to puzzles than combat challenges, while others really test your knowledge of the controls and ability to learn and exploit patterns. At a point in my life when my gaming time is limited I really appreciated always knowing the thing to do next, and that it would be something unique that I hadn’t seen before and not just another boring battle against the same street crime I’d cleared in 10 other locations. It's the same fundamental pleasure that the Uncharted games (except for parts of the last 2 games) offer, letting designers guide you through a theme park ride of a game, where there may be lulls in the action but there's no real filler.

Right now I like that direction and the fact that every time I play I’ll see something new and something interesting, so I’m going to keep chugging through the series. Hopefully the next one won’t take me another year.

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Hob is a fun little Zelda clone whose substantial technical issues harm, but don't ruin, the experience

Hob made a terrible first impression on me. The game starts with a robot guy freeing your little character from a chamber. You walk out into a verdant 3-D world presented from a mostly isometric perspective and are supposed to follow the robot out into the starting area, which is not strictly linear. I tried running around a bit to see if there was anything else to do, and found a plant that I did not yet have the right equipment to interact with. So I followed the robot through some very basic puzzles and got to a point where your character gets attacked and there’s a late set of opening credits and…the game crashed to a blue error report on my PS4. I considered abandoning it at this point, but didn’t want to give up so easily on a well-reviewed game I had been looking forward to playing. So I started it again, followed the robot through the boring sequence, again, got a little bit further this time and…the game locked up, and I had to force quit it. Fortunately, I’d hit a save point this time so I didn’t have to do the intro sequence a third time, but I was seriously annoyed and very nearly deleted the application from my PS4.

I’m glad I didn’t, because Hob is a fun and engaging game, but it is also rough around the edges. In addition to a handful of additional game crashes I experienced some significant frame rate issues in a few areas, a bug where I couldn’t hit a switch necessary to advance the game (which was fortunately resolved by quitting and restarting the program), and a recurrent bug where the wrong 3-D model would load for an enemy with a specific weakness, making it impossible to read when that enemy was actually vulnerable to having its armor removed. It’s the buggiest console game I’ve played in a very long time, and it’s a testament to how good the core of the game is that I kept playing to the end despite those issues.

Hob looks like Zelda and plays like Zelda. It's Zelda, you guys. They made Zelda. That's not a bad thing though.
Hob looks like Zelda and plays like Zelda. It's Zelda, you guys. They made Zelda. That's not a bad thing though.

That core is…top down Zelda. It’s Zelda. Hob is a Zelda clone. From the pre-release news and the handful of reviews I read I thought it was more like an adventure game Journey/Abzu game but with a little combat and a few puzzles, but it’s not. It’s a (mostly) isometric perspective game where you fight enemies with a sword and shield, solve puzzles, and do some platforming and traversal (which is often made harder by the isometric perspective.) The balance is tilted heavily away from combat and towards puzzle solving and traversal, with the traversal providing the most challenge. Most of the puzzles amount to just flipping every switch you find until a new area opens up or an old area re-arranges itself and you can advance. There are a few clever puzzles requiring some thought or timing, but it’s probably no more than 10 across the game, and none are overly difficult.

Unlike Zelda Hob can be a pretty bloody game. Larger enemies, like the guy on the top left, spew blood as they die.
Unlike Zelda Hob can be a pretty bloody game. Larger enemies, like the guy on the top left, spew blood as they die.

The combat, for its part, is stripped down and simple, mostly rewarding hit and run tactics where you dash up to an enemy, smack them a few times, and run away before they retaliate. There are a few wrinkles involving stripping armor by using a charged punch attack with your robot arm or by grappling glowing weak points, but they don’t add very much and there are probably 15-20 enemy types across the whole game, including variations of a base type. There are also no bosses before the end of the game, though there are a few puzzle-focused dungeons (which also do have combat against basic enemies.) The major challenge in Hob, then, is figuring out how to use the traversal mechanics to reach the particular switch you need to flip to advance through the area, which makes for a fairly laid-back experience. This is aided by generous respawn points that are usually only 20-30 seconds away from where you died, and don’t reset the world state, so dead enemies (mostly) stay dead and flipped switches stay flipped, minimizing frustration.

Hob’s traversal mechanics are simple but functional. You can walk, run, jump, climb ladders and then later do a short warp dash and a grapple. The controls are decent, though they can be finnicky (especially when trying to get from a grapple point up on to a ledge.) You can also pull switches and rotate levers, but it’s very basic stuff. The biggest challenge can be the camera, which often makes for odd perspectives on jumps and sometimes loses track of the character behind foreground objects, leading to unnecessary fall deaths.

If you can get at the creature inside this egg-bubble thing and kill it, you can clear away the slime and evil tentacles.
If you can get at the creature inside this egg-bubble thing and kill it, you can clear away the slime and evil tentacles.

Hob also features treasure chests to discover, with either 10 units of glowing green upgrade currency, or an upgrade schematic. There are also sword upgrade pieces, heart and energy meter upgrade pieces, and secret lore rooms (that present their information through glowing images, rather than words.) These secrets are often well hidden, though many times paths I thought would lead to an upgrade chest were actually the only way to proceed. The game also enjoys teasing you by showing you upgrade items that you won’t be able to get until you clear all the pink slime from the area, or raise or lower platforms. The upgrade systems are stripped down from what you might find in something like Breath of the Wild, but your character ends up with quite a few additional abilities and heart points by the end.

If Hob’s gameplay is just above-average, then, the story is basically non-existent. The pre-release materials made a big deal out of the game lacking dialog, which is not strictly true; in fact the intro robot chatters at you quite a bit, it’s just not in a real language. Hob has a few cut scenes and NPCs, but no real storytelling. You’re on an adventure rebuilding and purifying the land, and that’s pretty much it.

Hob combines steampunk-like technical designs with organic areas, for a cool world that is idyllic at times, but also mechanical and alien.
Hob combines steampunk-like technical designs with organic areas, for a cool world that is idyllic at times, but also mechanical and alien.

And it’s that rebuilding and purification of the land that provides Hob’s true strength, which is, quite literally, worldbuilding. While in most Zelda type games you get access to new areas by gaining new abilities or opening doors or paths, Hob does both of those things but adds a good deal of terraforming into the mix. In Hob you don’t just open doorways you purify entire areas of this creeping pink ooze that blocks off your path and damages you. Even cooler, you raise, lower, and rotate the landscape itself to create new paths and connections, and recontextualize old areas into new ways. The world map in Hob doesn’t just get filled in, it gets fundamentally altered, and it’s really satisfying to see not just your character change but the entire play area change with it. There’s a point in the game where you raise an area with a big lake in it and come face to face with a giant predatory fish staring out at you from the cross section of the world as it shoots up and then crashes down into place. That fish will then proceed to hunt you as you swim through that lake, and you have to activate noise-producing platforms to drive it away so you can move through the area. That kind of spectacle and alien worldbuilding provides the greatest joy in Hob and kept me playing until the end of the game. The terraforming, along with gates you can open and ladders you can pop out, also creates lots of convenient shortcuts and new openings, making areas that might take you an hour to get through the first time much easier to traverse when you need to backtrack to do something else or hunt for additional items and secrets.

If the art design and aesthetic world building in Hob are great, the graphics are just so-so. The game has a pleasant cell-shaded style, but many of the textures are low definition and, at least on PS4, the game often has a low frame rate and jittery camera. Sound fares a little better, and the game uses music much like Breath of the Wild, with a few pleasantly haunting tunes alternating punctuating the in-game soundscape. Hob’s simple geometry and clean look isn’t a bad thing, but at many points it looks like an upscaled PS2 game rather than anything cutting edge.

Hob features lots of appealing vistas, often of areas that you'll be able to explore after you alter the landscape by hitting the right switches.
Hob features lots of appealing vistas, often of areas that you'll be able to explore after you alter the landscape by hitting the right switches.

Hob represents the final game made by Runic Games, the studio that developed Torchlight 1 and 2, before it was shuttered. Given that the studio was made famous by its Diablo clones, it’s not surprising that it decided to branch out and clone another famous action RPG series. While Hob is not as successful as Torchlight it’s definitely a respectable effort, and I’m a little surprised that it didn’t make a bigger splash despite coming from an established studio and getting (deservedly) good reviews. The game takes about 10-12 hours to complete and for $20 (or less on sale) it’s well worth it. It’s too bad that Runic shut down before they had an opportunity to make a sequel (or spiritual sequel more likely given how the game ends.) I think that with a little more polish and maybe a move to a free-control 3-D camera, a sequel to Hob could have been a truly special game and not just a good game with some truly special parts. Alas that isn’t going to happen, but the game they made is a game worth playing, so if you’re in the mood for some top-down Zelda style action, minus the bosses and with a streamlined item/upgrade system, Hob is worth a try. Just do your best not to get eaten by that giant fish.

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Nintendo should embrace the series terrible names and call the next game New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe 2

I want to start by saying that I like the New Super Mario Bros. series. I've only played New Super Mario Bros. 2 and now New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, but I enjoyed 2 and I've played a couple worlds of U and had fun with that as well. So I have nothing against this series, and when they make the next game I'll probably buy that too. But I want that game to be called New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe 2, because all the names in this series are dumb and I want them to lean in as much as possible.

New Super Mario Bros.: The series started off on the DS 13 years ago on the DS, with a name that kind of sort of made sense. After the Mario games had moved to 3D and gotten more complicated and away from pure platforming with games like Super Mario Bros. Sunshine, they wanted to get back to basics and start fresh. They wanted to make an old school experience that harkened back to the origins of the series. Or rather close to the origins because this is actually based on Super Mario Bros. 3, not the original, so already it's confusing. Naturally they called this older style game...New Super Mario Bros. I get it, it's a new start to the old series, I'll kind of give them a pass.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii: It's 2009 and this is already a bad name. The game is not actually a Wii version of the DS original, instead it's a...new...game in the New series, but on the Wii instead of the DS. It was 2009, however, and Nintendo was naming all kinds of games "Franchise X Wii" so this was more a Wii problem than a NSMB problem. Still a bad name.

New Super Mario Bros. 2: Okay, now they're just trolling. This is the third game in the NSMB series, but it's labeled NSMB2. Is it, then a new version of Super Mario Bros. 2, throwing back to the famed re-skin of Doki Doki Panic? No. It's not. It's the second in the NSMB series, presumably because the Wii version was a spin-off? We're already off the rails.

New Super Mario Bros. U: Another non-numbered sequel! It's another spin off like NSMBW? Who knows. Again Nintendo called a lot of stuff "U" during the Wii U era, and again it was stupid, and especially stupid here. Note that this "New" series is now 9 years old.

New Super Luigi U: There was never an old Super Luigi. This is based on NSMB U and replacing the Mario Bros. with Luigi so there is...A...logic to it, but we're already so far off the rails we're in total nonsense land. This should have just been Super Luigi U.

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe: And now we arrive at the natural conclusion of a series of horrible naming decisions. This is a port of a 5 year old game in a 13 year old series with New in the title. It's got the "U" title but it's on the Switch. It's called Deluxe even though it's really just a port with a couple characters added and a couple small features removed. Nothing about this title is accurate except that the Super Mario Bros. are in the game.

So they can't stop now. They've got the worst titled series that's been ported to the West, now it's time to double down. There's no natural title for the next game in the series. They can't call it NSMB 3 both because it would be the 5th game and because it would be on Switch, where they've already put a non-numbered sequel. They can't call it New Super Mario Bros. Switch because that already exists. They could call it New New Super Mario Bros. but that would be a crime.

The ONLY way to title this game is as a sequel to New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe 2. That's the name.

I look forward to playing it.

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Toby: the Secret Mine is a competent game that mostly made me realize what a masterpiece Limbo is

Toby: the Secret Mine is a game created with a very clear idea of what it wants to be. What it wants to be is Limbo. It isn’t. But in its failure to reach that height it shows what made Limbo so very special.

I bought Limbo for 360 when it first came out but never played it. I got a free upgrade when it was ported to Xbox One in 2014, and then played it in July 2016 in preparation for Inside, which I finished the next week. I thought Limbo held up incredibly well in 2016, and Inside was one of my favorite games of that year, so I am definitely in the target audience for this kind of puzzle platformer. I didn’t hear any buzz about Toby when it was released in 2015 but I decided to try it out because it was cheap, short, and seemed like something I might enjoy.

I only paid $3 for it and at 2 hours it was definitely short. As for enjoyable…well…

Does this remind you of anything? Toby is not afraid to show its inspiration clearly.
Does this remind you of anything? Toby is not afraid to show its inspiration clearly.

Toby is not a terrible game. You play a short little imp-like creature who has the ability to walk pretty slowly, jump, activate switches, hold keys, and push/break certain objects in the environment. With that simple tool set you have to get from left to right across 21 levels of puzzle platforming. There a few different environments in the game, including a snow area and a desert area, but each has the same basic elements of otherworldly machinery, deadly pits, collapsing platforms, dangerous creatures, and traps that can kill in a single hit. Toby can also find 26 of his captured “friends” in cages, though those are the only collectibles. When you die you respawn quickly at a checkpoint, which are generous enough that the game is rarely frustrating.

Unlike Limbo, Toby can be a very colorful game, if only in the background.
Unlike Limbo, Toby can be a very colorful game, if only in the background.

Toby: the Secret Mine has a decent look to it (even if that look is ‘heavily inspired’ by Limbo) with a mostly black and white playfield set in front of some intricate and colorful backgrounds. The sound and music are fine, if mostly ambient in style and not particularly memorable. The control is stiff in the same way Limbo’s is, and the storytelling is sparse and environmental, but the game mostly functions (I got caught on ledges and such fairly frequently) and while the first half of the game is very easy the back half has some challenging sequences that require careful observation of the environment and skillful timing. The problem is that despite its overall competence, Toby doesn’t have the spark of creativity that made Limbo such a joy. Limbo was a twisted version of our world, with recognizable elements including buildings and language jumbled up to create this foreboding area to trek through. It coupled that with shocking violence towards a child, and some really clever and intuitive environmental puzzles and challenges, to create a nearly perfect game that accomplished everything it set out to do efficiently and with no filler. As good an experience as it is it’s even more impressive as an efficient act of game design, packing dozens of memorable moments into a very short running time.

On occasion the game will pause to give you a simple puzzle to solve.
On occasion the game will pause to give you a simple puzzle to solve.

Toby is a series of box and switch puzzles with some okay music and stark visuals that never seem to cohere into a world that feels substantial. It’s full of cheap deaths and memorization sequences and areas where what you have to do is both obvious and not very difficult, but requires some patience. Memorization and forced patience are two of my least favorite things in games, and if Toby was a little longer, or the checkpoints a little less forgiving, I likely would have given up well before the end.

But Limbo required memorization and patience, and was also full of cheap deaths, and I loved it. So what, exactly, is missing here? I’d say two main things. The first is the careful visual polish of Limbo. Toby’s world is not as carefully constructed as Limbo’s. It has no particular internal logic, there’s nothing really going on in the game's environments other than your character passing through them, and it just feels like a game rather than a real and haunting place. Toby also lacks Limbo’s varied death animations. When Toby dies his eyes go out and he slumps over, but he is never decapitated or drowned or crushed or any of that. While it may seem sadistic to say those animations were part of what made Limbo great, they offered more than just the entertainment factor of seeing a small kid graphically dismembered. They also connected you with your character. In a game with no gameplay cost to dying, having to see the little guy suffer gave you incentive to survive beyond just advancing in the game. You felt good when you guided him safely past a few difficult hazards and bad when you mistimed a jump and he got cut in half. Because Toby just slumps over there’s not the same feeling of investment, making the game less emotionally affecting.

Toby has some interesting environments but the gameplay still boils down to platforms, switches, and boxes.
Toby has some interesting environments but the gameplay still boils down to platforms, switches, and boxes.

In addition, Toby’s level design is much less interesting than Limbo’s. While there’s some verticality to some of the levels most of them are just horizontal left to right affairs. Toby also has many fewer mechanics than Limbo did. There are some switches and platforms that you can cause to sway, as well as a couple vehicle type segments, but the vast majority of the game just involves avoiding basic hazards and there’s nothing as inventive as Limbo’s autorunner brain worm, or complex water puzzles. Toby is also fond of false walls that you can walk through, and breakable floors you have to stomp on, neither of which receive much visual signposting (though there’s a special sound effect when you walk across a breakable floor) and both of which are more annoying than interesting as mechanics. There was one segment with an arrow trap that triggers when you walk through a bream of light and I probably spent fifteen minutes trying to position myself to avoid being hit by any of the arrows (I think I succeeded a few times but the game kills you anyway.) The actual way to get past that part is to backtrack and stomp through a breakable floor to a secret underground passage (I did figure this out eventually). Then later there are similar arrow traps that you CAN survive through careful positioning. This kind of annoying inconsistency and visually unclear gameplay shows how Toby doesn’t rise to Limbo’s level as a game, not just an audiovisual experience.

Toby has to avoid a few enemies in the world, who usually have some red in their design. The enemies just patrol back and forth and do not react at all to Toby's presence.
Toby has to avoid a few enemies in the world, who usually have some red in their design. The enemies just patrol back and forth and do not react at all to Toby's presence.

It took me about 2 hours to get through Toby and despite my complaints I didn’t hate it by the end. The last level is an unfair pseudo boss fight where it’s easy to die to random chance, after which you’re offered a meaningless choice to see two endings. It’s telling that even after I’d beaten it once and knew exactly what to do it took me over 10 minutes to do it again to get the other ending, but it’s also telling that I actually did want to see that other ending (and get its attached achievement.) Toby is definitely an example of less is more. 4 hours of an uninspired Limbo clone would have been too much, but 2 hours was mildly entertaining. On the other hand, Toby only cost me $3 on sale, while it’s $15 right now on PSN and $10 on Steam, which is the same price as Limbo (on sale for $2 on PSN as of this writing, and definitely a steal at that price.)

If you can get Toby for $3 and have an affinity for puzzle platformers, it’s probably worth picking up. 2 hours is not a major investment, and the game is competently made. But its real value lies in showing how much polish matters in game production, and just how good Limbo really is.

Toby is not an ugly or even bad game, just an unoriginal one.
Toby is not an ugly or even bad game, just an unoriginal one.

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Xevious 3D/G+ is the most unexpected game I keep coming back to

I don't mean it's the rarest or least highly regarded, but rather the most difficult to explain.

Xevious 3D/G+ is a PlayStation 1 remake of an arcade classic. I picked it up off PSN about 3 years ago and I have played it every few months since then. What makes it weird is that while I had a PlayStation in the 90s I never had, or even knew about, this game. I also have no specific nostalgia for Xevious, the classic arcade shooter that it's a remake of, and while I like Shmups OK it's not like I'm a fiend for that genre. I don't even think Xevious 3D/G+ is a particularly good Shmup. Gamespot gave it a 6/10 when it was released and that seems about right to me. I have access to all the current systems and plenty of games so why do I return to this not particularly special and largely forgotten game 20 years after its release?

Well the answer is nostalgia, but not nostalgia for the game per se. Rather it's nostalgia for the PlayStation era as a whole. I had a PlayStation in high school and one of the things I loved about it was how much weird and quirky software there was. I rented and bought lots of random and long-forgotten games like One and The Unholy War, and I played even more on the many, many demo discs I picked up along with magazines. Jersey Devil, N20: Nitrous Oxide, Trap Gunner, Pong the Next Level, the PlayStation was full of random little games made by relatively small developers that didn't have a lot of polish or name recognition but had heart and were usually interesting if nothing else. N64s expensive cartridge costs meant that games had to be relatively mass market to justify their print runs, and Saturn was not popular enough in the US to get all the quirky stuff, but PlayStation's huge install base and cheap CD format meant that lots of these games were released for the system stateside.

Xevious 3D/G+ reminds me of my time discovering those games, and how much fun it was to boot up a demo or bargain bin PS1 disc and just see what the game was like. It is a VERY PlayStation 1 game, with lots of flat-shaded polygons and super PS1 specific menus, and so even though I could spend my time playing a better shooter like Ikaruga or Radiant Silvergun, or one of the PlayStation games I actually enjoyed during the era (mostly huge mainstream hits like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, and Tekken 2) they don't capture the spirit of the era like Xevious 3D/G+ does for me. Every time I boot the game up I feel like I'm back in my bedroom at 16 years old, discovering some new weird gem on an Official PlayStation Demo Disc, and that feeling keeps me coming back.

Pandemonium, a game that I also got off PSN and also did not own (but was aware of) during the PlayStation's initial run has much the same effect. I don't even like the game; it has stiff controls and weirdly long levels for a platformer, but I play it for many of the same reasons.

This is one of the reasons I've been so disappointed with the discontinuation of the Virtual Console and the fact that Sony shows no interest in bringing PS1 (or even, it seems, more PS2) games to the PS4. These old games remind me of a different time in my life, a different version of myself, and I loved having them easily accessible for purchase. Of course I could just emulate them on a Raspberry Pi or something, but I don't like the idea of piracy and there's something satisfying about browsing even an online story and selecting something to play, then forking over a few bucks for a copy. It reminds me of going to my old game store as a teen with a month's allowance in my pocket to pick out a new game to try. It's part of the experience.

But it seems like it's an experience that most people don't care about, so I will content myself with the games I picked up during the Seventh Generation, when it really seemed like gaming had discovered an answer to the age old question of preservation and official emulation was taken seriously. And I picked up a PlayStation Classic, even though it's bad, so I can play Intelligent Qube (A game I only had the demo for as a kid but played a lot of nonetheless) and so that maybe Sony will make another one with slightly more daring choices. And I'll hold out out hope that some day someone will try again to wrangle all these old games and put them online, or that the PolyMega will pan out and I will be able to hook it up to my current TV and buy old games off Ebay or whatever to satisfy my urge.

Until then I'll keep coming back to Xevious 3D/G+. It may be the weirdest game I frequently play but it gives me a feeling I can't get elsewhere. And that's worth the $6 I paid and a whole lot more.

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I have been disappointed by the Nintendo Switch in 2018, which is turning out to be more handheld than console

Nintendo Switch in 2017 was one of my favorite console years ever. Breath of the Wild is possibly my favorite game of all time, and Mario Odyssey was a tremendous achievement, the crowning jewel in gaming's most storied franchise. I had a great time with Fast RMX, played a host of great Neo Geo ports, and loved the hell out of both Kingdom Battle and Mario Kart 8. There were some misses in there (I didn't like Arms, and Splatoon 2 didn't capture me), but overall I loved my Switch in 2017 and hoped the system would only get better in 2018.

It didn't.

Nintendo's output in 2018 has fallen into basically two camps: Wii U ports and disappointments. There's nothing wrong with bringing the likes of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze to the Switch, of course, since those were good games that were stuck on a system nobody bought. But it's hard to get excited about 4 year old games, even if they are Bayonetta 2 and Hyrule Warriors. Nintendo didn't sell me a Wii U in 2014 with that lineup (2014 was clearly the best year for the Wii U) and reheating it for 2018 doesn't make me any more excited.

Meanwhile Nintendo's fresh offerings have been anemic. Kirby: Star Allies was a mediocre game by any standards, not just Nintendo's. Mario Tennis: Aces is fine but hardly an exciting title, and it's worth noting that Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash was a bare bones title that showed that Nintendo was already moving on from Wii U in 2015. Super Mario Party is apparently just okay, though it has no appeal for me.

Of course Super Smash Bros. Ultimate looms over everything as possible redemption, but it's just one game and while I'll play it, it's not something I'm personally excited for, even though I know millions will be. One great game does not a great year make, though, and the Wii U had Smash too.

There are, of course, a lot of ports on the Switch, and people will say that's what makes it worth buying. It is able to run console quality games in a handheld format, which is a wonderful selling point. It has Dark Souls and Wolfenstein II, and Doom. And it has replaced the PS VIta as the best place to play indies, which run flawlessly and can be played on TV or handheld mode without missing a beat. But while those are admirable traits for a handheld they're not what you need in a console, which is what Nintendo sold this thing as. They said it was a console that you could play handheld but it's really a handheld that plugs into a TV.

Meanwhile I wonder what Nintendo's development teams are actually up to. Maybe they're about to unleash a torrent of great software in 2019 and 2020 that will take the Switch to heights that Nintendo hasn't enjoyed since the SNES. It doesn't feel like it though. The only major releases I'm aware of coming internally are Metroid Prime 4 and a new Pokemon, and those are not even internal Nintendo projects. Yoshi's Crafted World looks cool, but after Kirby I'm not dying for another 2-D platformer. Maybe they're all working on Smash, which looks like it's going to be a truly massive game. Either way, you'd think consolidating development onto one platform would mean a larger number of games for that platform and we're just not seeing it. Instead we're getting the Wii U trickle without the smaller 3DS style titles. It's the same old Nintendo song of a few big releases a year supported by some other stuff. The big new release for January 2019 is a full price port of New Super Mario Bros. Wii U. Not even a new game in that series. Not even Super Mario 3-D World.

Meanwhile with no Virtual console and a $20 online service that provides access to a few NES games, most of which are either games that have been released a thousand times before or aren't fun to play in 2018, Nintendo isn't even leveraging its past to prop up an anemic present. There are already rumors of a new, more powerful, Switch hitting in 2019, but I don't want to buy a new system, I want games for the system I already bought.

Despite a mediocre year I still like the Switch as a platform. It's cool to have a high-powered handheld, and the system has a lot of versatility in the ways it can be played. Not every year can be a high watermark like 2017, and every system has down years, but the Switch is about to enter its prime and I hope Nintendo has more up its sleeve than it currently appears to me. The Switch still has a lot of potential, let's see if it can regain its momentum.

51 Comments

I love Nintendo Switch Online NES games and I'm mad about it

Last week Nintendo finally rolled out the Nintendo Switch Online feature. I immediately bought a year subscription and downloaded the NES games. I've been waiting since Nintendo Swtch was released to be able to play some classic games on this handheld/console hybrid, which is the perfect platform for them. After I paid for my subscription I opened up the app and took a few old favorites for a spin. Super Mario Bros. is maybe the ur-classic for me; when I think of "video game" it is the first game that comes to mind and I spent many an hour in my early youth playing it along with Duck Hunt and Gyromite. Gradius is arguably my favorite game on the NES, with one of my all time favorite soundtracks. The same is, of course, true for the Legend of Zelda. Both have songs that transport me back in time over 30 years to weekend afternoons in an overstuffed chair with that uncomfortable little gray controller in my hands, transported to totally different worlds while my mom urged me to play outside (nice try, mom!) Of course I've had an NES classic for a while so I could play all three of these games whenever I wanted with a near perfect replica of that old controller on my big screen TV, but what I couldn't do was take them with me to work. Now I can and the low-res NES graphics look fantastic on the Switch's screen. I spent 15 minutes on my lunch break getting nowhere in Ghosts 'N Goblins and loving every frustrating second.

If we're honest the experience of having these games on Switch is even better than I thought it would be.

And it's not enough.

While the games I've mentioned so far are stone cold classics and the selection includes a few more (Super Mario Bros. 3 is amazing; Excitebike is still good fun; River City Ransom is a no-longer hidden gem because everyone knows how great it is) there's also some absolute trash in there. Find me a person who wants to play NES Baseball or Ice Hockey or the gimped version of Donkey Kong that's missing one of its four boards and I'll find you someone operating on pure nostalgia. The Yoshi game is bad. Pro Wrestling is bad. There are a lot of bad games out of a vast library full of really great games, and while some were selected to show off the online two player capability, that doesn't make them less bad as games.

In addition, 20 NES games is a tiny amount. The NES Classic came with 30, and they were better. Would you like to swap out Hockey and Baseball for Metroid and Castlevania? Who wouldn't?

We're getting 3 new games a month, and that's cool, but we're also a year and a half into the Switch's lifespan. This offering is what you give people at launch to mess around with, not after the system is already a mature platform and nobody's scrambling to get a new platform off the ground.

In addition, I want more than NES. I'm sure SNES will be added after a time, and maybe even N64 too (Gamecube seems doubtful) but it will be 2 years from now and a drip feed of games again. Nintendo got things so right with the Wii Virtual Console and has just backslid heavily since then, to the point where there's no way the selection of classic games will even catch up to the Wii U's sad offerings.

The Switch is the ideal platform for playing these classics. It's insane that this is the way they've chosen to present them. I'm not saying Virtual Console was the way to do it, but this isn't either. Especially 18 months after launch. And we're never going to get TurboGrafx 16 games or other platforms. It's like walking into a brand new luxury restaurant with impeccable fixtures and perfect service only to find out that all they serve is warmed over gruel.

As someone who loves classic gaming, dislikes piracy, and has plenty of money to spend on classic games in a convenient format on a console I already own this is just the worst way they could be presented. Will I enjoy playing Double Dragon while I'm waiting for the train in the coming months? I will. But I'll also spend that time lamenting what could have been, if Nintendo cared a little more about doing right by their fans and their legacy.

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Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle gives me what I want (and have not been getting) from the Switch.

Nintendo Switch has been a bit of an odd console for me in its first 6 months of release. Because of its hybrid nature it's less powerful than its larger, older, competition, meaning that it never had the new console graphics 'wow' factor that most new systems have during their honeymoon period. On the other hand it launched with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is one of my favorite games of all time, so it also didn't suffer from "crappy launch library" syndrome, like most consoles do, at least not until I finished that beast of a game, along with a few other impressive Wii U holdover games like Fast RMX.

Once I finished those games, though, the system settled into the familiar Nintendo pattern of releasing one interesting Nintendo game every month or so, with a bunch of other "stuff" to fill in the calendar, most of which is on the lower quality side of the spectrum when compared to the indie offerings on something like the Playstation 4. There are definitely some decent independent games on the Switch platform, but they don't tend to be of the polish, scope, or depth of something like Abzu or Nex Machina, or Enter the Gungeon (unless they're ports of older games like Binding of Isaac, which I already had my fill of awhile ago.)

That leaves those aforementioned Nintendo games, and while everything released for the Switch has been of reasonably high quality, those games have been, in my opinion, odd fits with the 'gimmick' of the Switch. That's because most of them have been multi-player, and even online, focused.

The Switch's 'thing' is being a console-handheld hybrid. You can play it on a TV and it will look reasonably good, or you can take it with you as a handheld where it is reasonably portable. It's not ideal for either (a little underpowered in TV mode and a little bit too bulky for a handheld) but it's adequate. The thing is...multiplayer is not what I want from a handled, especially a handheld that doesn't fit into a pocket. I get that kids have been playing system link multiplayer since Gameboy was released, and Pokemon trading is twenty years old now, and I also get that handhelds have had internet multiplayer since the DS and that huge hits like Monster Hunter and Mario Kart have been staples of those consoles. But I'm not a kid with a bunch of friends to play games with on the playground, and even if I was I don't know that I would bring this $300 kind of fragile/bulky system with me (or that my parents would have let me.) It also has not been my experience that internet connections are great in handheld scenarios. I'm sure it's fine in a hotel room or whatever, but my handheld gaming (when it occurs) is done on public transportation or during my lunch break at work. There's no consistent Internet on the subway and Internet at work is supposed to be used for job-related functions, so what I want is a game I can play in short bursts in a distracting environment and still enjoy.

Zelda didn't do that for me because my enjoyment of that game was getting lost in that world. Squinting at the screen under harsh lighting in the subway was not a good way to experience that. Mario Kart 8 is decent on the go, but has very little single player content. I can race a little bit and maybe unlock a car part but there's no campaign or progression. Arms and Splatoon 2 are online focused games (or at least couch competitive for Arms) and I get nothing out of playing them alone.

That meant that when it came to the mobile gaming aspect of the Switch I was either playing a kind of simple indie game or I was just messing around in Mario Kart sort of aimlessly. Neither were ideal. While I started packing the Switch with me every day to work after I first got it, 6 months in it was living under my TV, with the mobile feature largely theoretical. It felt like yet another gimmick that Nintendo built into its console and didn't know how to take advantage of, like motion control (outside of a few specific games) or the Wii U gamepad, which was a dumb idea poorly executed.

Then along came Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Not only is this a big single player experience that I'm really digging, but it's perfectly designed for mobile play. The game is broken up into relatively short battles, perfect to crank through while on the bus or in between eating a sandwich and getting back into work. The turn-based nature means that it is not super demanding in terms of timing or dexterity, which can be an issue when sitting in a lurching vehicle or just using the smaller, more cramped, controls of a handheld system.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle also may be a Ubisoft game, but it has Nintendo fingerprints all over it. It's not just the kid-friendly cartoon aesthetic, the Grant Kirkhope music (Literally sounds like it came right out of Banjo Kazooie only at a higher fidelity, which is far from a criticism) or the pared down design focused on exploration and combat, without the massive sprawling skill trees (there is one but it's small and contained) or busywork open worlds of most Ubisoft experiences. It's also the level of polish (though I've heard there are bugs I haven't experienced any, but independent of that the world and designs are meticulous) and the spirit of fun and adventure that pervades the game. Ubisoft, as a company, has a tendency towards the Grimdark and the hyperviolent, and while I don't have an issue with brutal violence in video games I feel like the scales have tipped too far in that direction. Kingdom Battle shows that the spirit of fun and whimsy lives on in the house that Rayman built, and that the Tom Clancy dark men doing dark deeds aesthetic is only one of the tools in their box. Also there are no towers to climb or audio logs to collect. Yay.

Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is exactly what I want out of my Switch. Bright, colorful, fun, accessible, and well designed for mobile play. Who knew that it would take an Italian studio working for a French gaming giant to make the Nintendo game I've been waiting for? I hope that the Switch continues to get games like this, including a sequel, and that more of this stuff is ported over from the Wii U and other places. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker would be a perfect fit for on the go fun, as would Super Mario 3D World and Yoshi's Woolly World. Heck I'd love to see versions of the Mario Galaxy games and even something like Zack and Wiki given a fresh coat of paint and ported over.

The Switch is a great video game system waiting for a library that plays to its strengths. Kingdom Battle is a strong entry in that library, and hopefully a sign of things to come.

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