Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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I’ve been considering writing this post for a while now. Since the moment I first played New Super Mario Bros. 2, in fact. But, obviously, I put it off, and it’s only due to Jacob’s brilliant piece on the game that I thought I’d revisit it, dust off my ranting cap, pull on my bitching pants*, and get down to hollering vaguely at the metaphorical children on my lawn.

With a high profile release such as a Super Mario Bros. game, reviews are everywhere. That’s fine. And they vary pretty widely in opinion, which is fine too. What’s not fine, as far as I’m concerned, is the perpetually echoing criticism that it’s not different enough from New Super Mario Bros. That’s missing the point, and it’s missing it in several substantial ways.

First of all, I will concede this: you have every right to be disinterested in New Super Mario Bros. 2. Of course you do. What baffles me, though, is that anybody would expect the game to be something other than what it is…and even to hold against the game the fact that it isn’t something different.

The Super Mario Bros. series has splintered over the years into so many spinoffs and subseries that it’s literally quicker to list off the genres that Mario hasn’t made his own than to name all the ones he’s branched into. That’s where New Super Mario Bros. came in. It was a deliberate exercise in getting Mario back to his purest platforming roots. Gone were expansive 3D worlds and game-long gravity gimmicks. Mario’s primary weapon and mode of transportation were once again, at long last, one and the same: his feet.

New Super Mario Bros. was a massive success, and it still sells well to this day, in spite of the fact that at least five hardware upgrades and countless releases stand between us and its release date. The reason for that is simple: it promised a return to basics, and consumers voted en masse with their pocketbooks to say, yes, that’s exactly the kind of promise we’ve been waiting to hear.

That was in 2006. Six years ago. The fact that a sequel was released just last month doesn’t exactly scream “cash grab.” Enough time has passed since the original’s release that it’s fair to assume that fans might enjoy another set of worlds to hop, stomp and somersault through, so Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros. 2. And it’s been criticized almost universally for not being different enough from its predecessor.

This is puzzling, as New Super Mario Bros. made its intentions clear. They were intentions that millions of gamers supported, and with pleasure. To criticize any game in the New Super Mario Bros. series for not being different enough is to miss the point; if you want something “different,” there are enough Mario games to suit your needs as it is. So many, in fact, that a return to basic platforming required a whole new subseries. That’s this. “Different” is explicitly against its reason for existence.

I’m always surprised by the “not different enough” criticism of video games. Mega Man games faced that problem. Ditto Fallout and Fallout: New Vegas. But why? Is “not different enough” really a fair complaint? It’s one thing to say that you’d prefer not to play through another game so similar to the first, but that’s a matter of personal preference. To try to blame the game for that is a bit unfair, as that’s what the game has set out to do: further explore the world, characters, and game mechanics that it laid down in previous installments. If the series feels a need to evolve it certainly will — or will branch off into multiple paths of sequels — but should it be obligated to constantly do so?

Video games seem to occupy this strange place in the culture that expects them to always be changing, always evolving, always hurtling toward the future at a pace we unfairly expect to exceed our own. This isn’t the case with films; we don’t expect the sequel to a gangster movie to be a musical about time-traveling leprechauns. Ditto music; when Neil Young releases several albums in a row of raw, rusty country-rock, we don’t complain that he didn’t do a disco album, followed by speed metal, followed by Gregorian chants.

We know what Neil Young does well, and we like it when he does that. (In fact, the times he has deviated substantially from our expectations, he’s been critically raked over the coals for that transgression.) We don’t expect every song or album to sound exactly the same, but we do expect that it will fit into the scope of talent that suits him best. We want it to be Neil Young, and that’s a desire we can only have where there exists a set of expectations for something to be Neil Young.

So why do we expect video games to always be offering substantially different experiences with each installment?

Personally, I don’t want that. I’d rather know what I’m getting into ahead of time. I know I can rely on Mario to give me a fun adventure every time, and it’s that reliability that keeps him so dear to my heart. I don’t want him trying to surprise me every time, because then I can’t know what I’m getting into. Or, if he does feel the need to surprise me, I ask only that he make that clear from the start, by slapping a Sunshine or a Galaxy on the label to make me look twice, and consider this new game on its own merits and of its own potential, separate from whatever other expectations I may have.

I don’t want the next Fallout game to be a real-time strategy. I don’t want Half-Life 3 to be an anime-influenced choose-your-own adventure. And I don’t want the sequel to a game I know to deviate so far from the original that it no longer fits into the world it created for itself.

It’s sometimes nice to know where you stand.

It’s sometimes nice to have expectations.

And it’s sometimes nice to come home to old friends.

That’s why they’re friends. We took the time to know them, we know what we can expect from them, and we’ve become comfortable around them.

“Not different enough” isn’t a criticism. And especially in the case of New Super Mario Bros. 2, it’s practically a compliment.

* That’s as in pants I wear while bitching, not pants that are so stylish that they could affectionately be described as “bitchin'”. Though my bitching pants are also pretty bitchin’.

Philip’s Note: Please welcome Jacob Crites to the Noiseless Chatter team. He’s going to provide some great articles to carry you through the times when I’m not posting meandering, unfocused bullshit. I hope you don’t mind.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario World. I’d say it was better, but my nostalgia won’t let me. That’s the thing when it comes to comparing and contrasting Mario games — nostalgia. The ones that mean the most to us are typically the ones that came during formative years in our lives.

Super Mario World, for example, was the first video game I ever played; not surprisingly, it’s also my favorite. Because, for a lot of us, Mario was our Mickey Mouse — Mario was the embodiment of youthful optimism and sprightliness that was missing from our cynical, assembly-line cartoons; as a result, the thought of any game being “better” than those formative, child-hood-defining games, be it Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or Super Mario 64, is ridiculous.

But take those childhood favorites off the pedestals we’ve placed them on and look at them for what they really are — brilliant, creative platformers with hearts of solid gold — and it’s plain to see that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is every bit as good, if not quite able to overtake those special corners of our heart.

Where most major franchises are striving to imitate Hollywood and take notes from the language of film, Mario’s games feel more like ballet. There is less a story here than there is the suggestion of one; our emotional attachment to the character springs not from dialogue but from the grace of movement, form and balance in association with vivid musical compositions. The music informs the movement, the movement informs the level design, and so on; each individual element crafted with what must be exhaustive meticulousness to tie into a larger whole. When combined with brightly colored, vivid stereoscopic visuals that make you feel like you’re staring at a magical shoebox diorama come to life, New Super Mario Bros. 2 becomes something quite special: a video game that knows it’s a video game, that likes the fact that it’s a video game, that joyfully uses and expands upon the language of video games. When one attempts to explain what makes pressing a series of buttons that causes a virtual Italian man to jump on fishes with bright, golden trails of coins trailing from their butts fun, one has realized how indescribably different this medium can be from any other when it rejects Hollywood and embraces its gamey-ness.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 also has fully embraced its formula, which may not be as bad a thing as you think. The game has been accused as being formulaic, which I find to be an odd thing to accuse a Mario game of being. It is the universal familiarity with the Mario formula that allows the game to play with our expectations and surprise us just when we think we’ve slipped into a groove — the surprise, this time around, being that coins actually matter. A lot.

Your unofficial goal is to collect a million of the things, and this idea alone brings with it a myriad of potential issues that Nintendo masterfully sidesteps. Namely: how do you create a game based on collecting things without it turning into a collect-a-thon? The trick, Nintendo shows us, is to make the collecting a natural extension of the platforming experience, rather than a bland, Easter-egg-hunt-like distraction.

A new fire-flower variation, for example, causes Mario to shoot a projectile that turns whatever it hits into a sparkling explosion of coins; passing through bright, golden rings will cause every enemy on the screen to leave a shiny golden trail of coins behind them. All of this could have ended up looking disastrous and chaotic, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but what elevates the game into something of a masterpiece is how gorgeously fluid and downright symmetrical Nintendo makes it all look. Seeing a sea of fish leaping out of the water in perfectly synchronized alternating patterns with shimmering strings of gold trailing behind them is was of the more astonishingly surreal sights I’ve seen in a game all year…until I got to the next level and Nintendo found an even more wonderful way to surprise me.

A screenshot or Youtube video can’t do these moments justice; in fact, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a strong argument against antiquated reviewing systems that assign individual scores to Gameplay, Graphics and Sound. Because here, once again, each element relies on and informs the other, and it is only by working in tandem that the game is able to achieve such visceral pleasure.

It would have been easy, I think, with this goal of collecting one million coins, to inadvertently turn Mario into a greedy punk like his brother(?) Wario; and yet this, too, Nintendo has sidestepped. Mario isn’t tasked with collecting a million big ones to buy something, or to unlock some expensive reward; but rather because…well, collecting all those sparkly coins is kinda fun. And that’s the real accomplishment of this game: Fun.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a game full of artistry and masterful craftsmanship, but the only thing it really wants to do is entertain us. To put a smile on our face.

When I play these games, I’m reminded of classic Disney Mickey Mouse cartoons; Walt would construct these stories on big moving steamboats or massive clocks that required insanely complicated animation…and that was the point. Walt Disney understood that animation worked best when it concentrated on, well, animating — which is to say, movement. The more complicated it was, as long as it contained charming, loveable characters, the more fun it was to watch. The physical humor found in early Mickey Mouse cartoons is still second to none, and it could have only be done in that medium.

Mario has been likened to the Mickey Mouse of the video game world, and it’s a comparison he’s earned. Mario’s games come from a good place; they encompass a child-like sense of wonder that no other developer has been able to surpass, because no other developer is willing to try quite so hard to make us smile.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn’t try to redefine the medium, and it shouldn’t have to; it’s perfectly content to remind us of why it makes it so great.

Two years ago, Goodbye Galaxy Games appeared on the scene with Flipper, a destructive puzzler that reveled in its artful simplicity. Then late last year it got a sequel, Flipper 2: Flush the Goldfish. This time there was a completely different play style, artistic approach and overall more action-oriented experience. Both games were fairly well received, and without a doubt are all the more impressive because of the size of Goodbye Galaxy Games: one man. That man is Hugo Smits.

July saw the release of Hugo’s third game, Ace Mathician. It’s an educational game which — in an unusual move for the genre — wants to provide just as much game as education. With three games under his belt and no two of them alike, I wanted to take some time to speak with Hugo, and get his opinion on his design philosophy.

Along the way he also discusses his candidate for perfect game, why he feels video games are not art, the trials and tribulations of playing Commander Keen in Dutch, and why indie developers working today have it both better and worse than they’ve ever had it before.

1) Describe the moment that first attracted you to game design.

I think it was before Mortal Kombat 3 came out. I was a huge Mortal Kombat fan, all the neighbor kids would come to my house and we would play our own tournaments and stuff. So naturally we were all looking forward to Mortal Kombat 3!

In that time we didn’t have access to internet, so there wasn’t really any way to check out new things about the game. If we were lucky an older brother of my friends would buy a gaming magazine and it would have really fuzzy looking screenshots in there, probably taken from the arcade cabinets.

So there was a lot of room to fantasize, especially since the Mortal Kombat universe had so many secrets and hidden characters.

It got to the point where I would spend most of my time in class drawing awesome new Mortal Kombat characters, and coming up with cool moves for them. I think this is where the game design bug bit me.

2) You’re a self described “guy in a little dark room with some Cheetos and cold, leftover pizza.” How do you feel that limits your output as a developer?

Well, I cannot make triple A games. And that’s about it. I think one of the best skills for a game designer is to know and pick his battles. It’s important to pick something you can do really well.

For example, I did not make any games with real 3D graphics in them. Instead I try to team up with the best pixel artists in the world and come up with a really awesome 2D style.

And it goes further than just assets. If you look at Flipper it uses amazing voxel technology that I think could be really fun in a FPS game. However, I don’t think the Xbox/PS3 crowd would be interested since the voxel world would be really blocky to look at.

Instead I went for the Nintendo DS. The target audience there was more interested in innovative concepts rather than graphics, so it fitted really well there.

On the whole business side of things, it means I don’t have the financial means to make a perfect game. And lately I don’t really know if that’s a good or bad thing. Personally I don’t like smooth games; I like them a bit raw around the edges. Just like a lot of old 8-bit games.

3) How would you say operating as a one-man team benefits you as a developer?

I always hate it when people say games are “art,” because I see them as entertainment and I think art is stupid. But I do believe a creator can leave a stamp on a game, something you cannot really see as player but which you will experience. Because I’m mostly working on this myself, I get to put a really big personal stamp on the games.

I think this is also why I get away with non-polished games. Because people feel the love and hard work shine through the cracks. A good example of a personal stamp is the bonus level in Flipper 2. It has the Hungarian March as background music. My girlfriend is originally from Hungary and we visit the country every two months or so. That’s a typical thing you won’t see anytime soon in a triple A title.

4) What would you say are the most important aspects of your game design philsophy?

Make something innovative and unique. My games are not perfect, but they are enjoyable. If you can make a gamer have fun and let him experience something new, all the little faults don’t seem to matter.

5) You’ve spoken out before about a game’s length being used unfairly as a measure of its quality. Are there any other aspects of a game that you feel receive an undue amount of weight when determining that game’s worth?

The price is also one of those things. I always wonder what gamers use to determine the worth of a certain game. And maybe that goes hand in hand with the game’s length. If the game lets you do boring stuff for 15 hours, is that worth 30 bucks? is that really better than four hours of fun?

I know so many DS games that have something like this. After you complete a level, “OMG! Evil dude took over the world, everything is dark and stuff…go find the crystal.”

And then they let you play the exact same level you just played, but now they changed the lighting and everything is a bit more grim and the level is mirrored.

It’s just there because publishers want an 8-hour game that fits on a small cartridge. So the developer doesn’t have space/money/time to add extra content so they reuse old content. And ultimately they do this because the gamer wants 8 hours of gameplay for his 30 bucks.

More is not equal to better. Imagine if this would happen with movies. They have to be six hours long, so they stretch out the dialogue from a three hour movie. That would be really tedious.

And the same thing goes for games. Most players don’t reach the end of a game. I wonder how many quit because it was too hard, and how many quit because they are bored.

6) Where do you think this obsession with game length comes from? And do you feel it’s a destructive expectation on behalf of the consumer?

Well, I just think that consumers in general think more is better. In the end I think they steal from themselves, because this means developers have to spend time on those “extra” levels instead of purely focusing on the part that is really fun, and lose their chance to make it even more fun.

7) Given infinite financial resources and free reign over any licenses you could choose, what would be your dream project?

Crash Bandicoot…totally! The first three games where amazing. I like them even better than Mario 64 (please forgive me!). I don’t know, for some weird reason I can never plan my jumps correctly in 3D Mario games. It’s even worse in the Galaxy games when you’re upside-down.

Crash handles this perfectly with its linear straight path. Because of that they can have a steeper camera angle which makes jumping easier — after all, you don’t need to be able to see into the distance very far, since it’s so clear which way to go. They are also able to create better graphics because they know exactly where the camera will be looking at on object. (For example, in Mario 64 you can walk around a rock, seeing it from all sides. In Crash you can see only the front. So they can spend more polygons on the front and only a few on the back making the rock appear nicer).

Imagine the above and put it on a 3DS. It would fit so perfectly with the 3D screen since the levels run into the depth. It would be awesome!

9) Name one game that you would say has perfect (or as near to perfect as possible) design. Explain why.

Mortal Kombat 2.

I probably get flamed for this by Street Fighter fans. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Mortal Kombat isn’t perfectly balanced. But it was really a lot of fun. And one of the things that I think is genius is all of the hidden stuff.

It made the game so much bigger than it really is. Seeing new characters hiding behind trees in the background, not knowing how to unlock them or fight them until finally somebody in the neighborhood figures it out.

Every month or so we would discover something new and the game felt like it had endless possibilities. Especially if you included all the fake stories that surfaced.

I really like that in games. I have a big capacity for fantasy and I can really lose myself in a game universe.

10) Name one game that you feel could have been far better, if its own design hadn’t worked against it. Explain why.

Duke Nukem Forever. This one might seem easy, but I don’t mean it in that way. I love Duke Nukem, and I loved the old skool vibe of Forever. I even loved the graphics and sound. What made me not enjoy it was the fact that gameplay was stuck between oldskool and new.

I don’t know if they just picked the wrong parts from each generation or that the mix in general doesn’t work. But it made the game annoying.

For example, there are so many unique cool weapons, but you could only hold two. I would have preferred it more like Duke 3D, where you could just carry all the weapons at once.

If they would have just done a remake of Duke 3D instead I would still be playing it right now, and probably still be playing it for the next 10 years.

11) Apart from game design, what are some of your other hobbies?

I like to play games. I have an old SNES in my office. But lately I’m really enjoying the PS Vita!

Not really a hobby but…my girlfriend tends to force me to take long walks with her in the forest.

12) The name of your company refers to the old Commander Keen PC games. Would you consider that to have been the golden age of PC gaming?

I played a lot of PC games all through the 90s. Commander Keen did influence me in a huge way, mainly because I didn’t own any consoles (thanks parents!) so couldn’t really experience Mario on the NES.

But I think the golden age was more the later part of the 90s. In the early 90s they were mainly playing catch up with the consoles (Keen released a few years later than Mario) and games never really looked as good as on the console (I’m looking at you Castlevania for MS-DOS!). While after the first 3D graphics cards hit the scene it was the other way around.

I also never bought games in that time. I didn’t even know you had to! My older cousin would show up with new floppies and that’s how I got games. It didn’t even occur to me that you could buy them!

So I wouldn’t call it a golden age from a technology or financial point of view. But boy do I remember all the hours playing Golden Axe, Ninja Turtles, Keen, Secret Agent (and all other Apogee games), Mortal Kombat 1, Street Fighter 2, Prince of Persia and all the other games! They are still definitely in my heart.

13) Do you feel indie developers have it easier now than they would have had it 20 years ago?

It’s just really different I think. Both answers can apply.

No; there is no way that an indie can make and compete with a triple A console game. Something that was easily possible 20 years ago.

Yes; 20 years ago there was no internet, and learning to program (in other languages than BASIC) was really difficult. It was harder to get in touch with people from the game development scene.

14) What do you like about working with Nintendo’s DSiWare service. Presumably it’s been a positive experience if you keep coming back.

Well, I grew up with Nintendo handhelds and I love them. So making games for them is really cool. I would have liked it more to make retail/boxed games, but that’s only because I love game boxes! The DSiWare service is really nice in providing unique game ideas a platform and audience that cannot be reach trough retail (well you could, but a publisher has to take a big gamble on it which they don’t like to make).

15) What do you think Nintendo could improve about its download services?

Hmm…I think the eShop made a lot of things better. What I would like to see, but what we probably won’t see, is to be able to browse on my PC for games and buy them from my web browser.

Right now I can just click “buy now” for an iPhone game and it will open up a window for iTunes and that’s it.

The PC screen is bigger so it’s just easier to browse and check out info about a game.

But, again, I think the eShop is doing a really fantastic job. And I don’t really know how they can make it better on the machine itself.

16) What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?

I’ll let you know when he makes some chiptunes.

17) Provide some words of advice for young people who may be interested in pursuing a future in game design.

First off, don’t go to school and follow one of those lame “game development” courses. They are total bullshit, all of them. I always get in a lot of trouble saying this (multiple schools actually called me!) but it’s the truth.

Instead follow a normal computer or programming education, or drop out (like I did) and just spend every minute on game development. Because if you cannot (or you realize you don’t want to) get a job in the game industry, you can always work at a regular IT company.

Here’s the catch: to be successful you need to love it so much, that this is going to be the only thing you are going to do. Period. It’s not a job where you just do your work for 40 hours and that’s it. It will become your life.

Not many people realize this. Most people don’t want this.

I mean, most young kids think of the cool things they are going to do…like. “hey I’m going to make the next Call of Duty and all my friends are going to love it!.” But the truth is more about the things you’re not going to do.

You’re not going swimming with your friends. Instead you will sit in a dark room, coding. You will not go out with this cute girl on Saturday night. Instead you will be sitting in a dark room, coding.

I cannot remember the last time I actually had a weekend.

Not many people like to give up their entire live to make video games.

However, when you finish a game…it’s really the best feeling in the world. I’m always very happy and proud to see others play my games or talk about them.

The best tip anybody could give is this: just start! You can download all kinds of programs that will let you make games (there’s even a BASIC compiler for DSiWare called Petit Computer, so you can even make DS games). Just work on it in your free time.

In the best case you will get addicted to it, just like me! In the worst case you will stop after a few weeks but you at least learned something new about math/computers, and that’s always handy!

You can’t lose!

18) You’ve just traveled back in time 20 years. Provide some words of advice to your younger self.

ARGH! FOR GODSAKE! SAVE MEANS ‘OPSLAAN’ AND LOAD MEANS ‘LADEN’ IN DUTCH. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO PLAY THROUGH COMMANDER KEEN LIKE MARIO…YOU CAN SAVE!!

Just a few weeks ago, I wanted to play Keen 4 again. And I found out it had a save/load option… As a kid I didn’t know what it was or did. I thought you needed to play through the game in one sitting like Mario on the NES.

I can still feel the “plop” in my head and the blood rushing away from my fingers trying to fight every nerve in my body not to smash the computer into a million little pieces every time I saw the game over screen…

Aah…the memories!

19) You’ve said that as much as you like to develop interesting and unique titles, you keep getting asked to create clones of already popular games. Is there much of a temptation to do so, in order to create some quick income?

No, but I’m forced by Nintendo. One of the reasons I’m not making any new Nintendo handheld games anymore is because they aren’t open and transparent. They don’t show or share any numbers, so every time I do a project it is an all-or-nothing bet.

If I bet on the wrong horse, I have to worry how to pay the rent, and thus I will work on some DS retail games of Bejeweled clones.

Sales figures would help a lot. How many games can you sell on average? Does it matter in sales figures if a game is localized? Do 200 point games sell more than 500 point games?

I mean, take the top 20 for example. That doesn’t tell you anything! Let’s say you have a 500 point game on spot 3, and a 200 point game on spot 2. What does this tell you? That the 200 point game sold more! But how much more?

It could be twice as much as the 500 point game, or maybe three times as much.

This is critical to determine if something will be better for profit. Because two times 200 points is 400 points so that’s still below 500 points. You need to sell at least three times more copies to make more profit than a 500 point game! Argh!

20) Is there any particular aspect of your previous games that you feel has been unfairly criticized or misinterpreted by the majority (or a large number) of reviewers?

Not really. Maybe the length of Flipper 2. A lot of people thought the game was short because the story mode was short. Yet the story mode only served as a long tutorial. The real meat was in the random castle mode (300+ levels).

Most reviews I’m actually really happy with.

BONUS: Say anything to our readers that you would like to say that hasn’t been covered above.

Some people think because I don’t want to develop for the Nintendo 3DS, it means I don’t like the system. But that’s not true at all. I think it’s a great system. But unfortunately it’s too much work for a single person like me, to make a complete game that utilize all the features.

I have some cool ideas for 3DS games, and If I ever get the a good team and budget I would love to develop them!

Also, there are some complaints in the above interview, but overall I really enjoy and love my work! A big part of why it is so great is because of all the people that play and supported my games! Thanks so much for that! I also try to read everything you guys write about my games (even criticism).

So feel free to email me! Thanks!

Our appreciation to Hugo for taking the time out of his busy day of sitting in a dark room, coding. Be sure to check out his games; they’re a lot of fun.

As mentioned previously, Nintendo Life has a shelf in the 3DS eShop, starting today and continuing on until next Thursday. If you go here you can see which staff member chose which five games. But I wanted to write a short post about why I chose to spotlight those games…and also provide the five more recommendations I would have made, had space allowed.

VVVVVV (3DSWare)
Unquestionably one of my favorite games, period. I played this when it was fairly new for the PC, and was instantly won over by its affectionate visual tribute to the Commodore 64. Sharp writing, brilliant stage design and a perfectly utilized gravity-flipping gimmick were just icing on the cake. I almost mentioned the game’s stellar soundtrack in that sentence as well, but…no, the soundtrack deserves a sentence all to itself. It’s genuinely, impossibly, beautifully perfect music, and as silly as it might sound, the game is worth playing just for that. Even if you end up despising it — which I truly doubt you, or anyone, would — the soundtrack guarantees that the experience simply can’t be a waste of your time. To speak at all of the game’s plot is to detract from the unfolding wonder and surprise of the VVVVVV experience, so let’s just say it’s great and leave it there. When I found out it was coming to the 3DS I couldn’t wait, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a stellar port of an unforgettable game.

Bird Mania 3D (3DSWare)
I’ll be honest here: I expected to hate this one. The developer never impressed me in the past, and so when they released this deliberately simple and warily inexpensive score attack game, I thought it was going to be a complete phone in. Instead it became one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had on the 3DS. Bird Mania 3D is fast-paced, satisfyingly challenging, and urgently addictive. You’re ostensibly guiding a left-behind little bird to Africa, so that he can reconnect with the rest of his flock, but since it’s an endless game you’ll never achieve that goal. The bird is fated to perish…all you can do is collect stars and balloons along the way, racking up as many points as you can before his inevitable crash. It sounds dark, and I suppose it is, but it’s hugely entertaining, and infinitely replayable. More like this, please.

Antipole (DSiWare)
I picked this one up because it sounded a lot like VVVVVV. Aside from the fact that it’s another gravity-manipulation game, it wasn’t. And even the gravity manipulation is handled — and experienced — completely differently. As such, this turned out to be happy accident; I bought it hoping it would be one thing, and got something even better. Antipole finds you flipping, floating and dodging through a hellish machinescape full of killed robots, death traps, and precision-demanding obstacle courses. That’s good enough — and it’s great fun just trying to make it to the end — but a more difficult mode, isolated challenge stages and copious achievements make this an even richer experience than it would have been. DSiWare without question had more than its share of garbage cluttering up the service, but this is one worth digging down to find.

Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge (Game Boy)
This is one of the few games I had for the Game Boy, and, surprisingly enough, it was the only Mega Man game I owned. (Apart from the unmentionable PC disasters.) While I loved Mega Man as a kid, for some reason I never had the games. I simply rented them all so many times that I could have paid for them 10 times over. And that’s why I have such a fondness for this one: it was mine. It’s a flawed little game with some annoying physics and an all-too-short adventure on offer, but I have a personal attachment that’s stronger than I have for most games. And, to be fair, it’s great for what it is. The stages are all reinvented for the Game Boy, meaning there’s surprisingly little overlap with the NES original. The music has also been rearranged to account for the different sound chip, making it sound just as great as — and in some cases better than — the source material. It’s a minor entry in the Blue (or, erm, Grey) Bomber’s catalogue, but brilliant all the same.

Avenging Spirit (Game Boy)
Another(!) great surprise, Avenging Spirit is yet another platformer that tasks you with rescuing your girlfriend. Only this time, you’re already dead. Yes, you’re killed by mobsters before the game even begins, so it’s up to you to possess the living, using their abilities, weapons and strengths to wreak your revenge upon the villains who did you in. It’s a delightfully dark concept for such a cartoony game, and seeing the bodies you possess fall lifeless to the ground when you leave them never gets less chilling. It’s extremely challenging (noticing a pattern here?) toward the end of the game, but that just gives you greater incentive to push through and find new things. There’s one unlockable body you can get if you find all three keys, but the game’s main replay value comes simply from playing through the levels again and again, using different abilities every time, and having it feel like you’re playing a completely different game. Avenging Spirit is absolutely an experience worth having.

And five more I would gladly add to that list…

Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! (DSiWare)
There’s not much on offer here that you won’t find in the other Mario vs. Donkey Kong games, but the fact that it’s downloadable — and therefore always on your system — is recommendation enough for this puzzler. You need to manipulate obstacles so that the mindless mini-Marios can march safely through the exit, all in pursuit of the big dumb ape who stole your toys. It’s great in short bursts, and absolutely worth having on the go. It’s also — say it with me! — really, really hard. I can safely say that the number of Mario games I enjoy far outsteps the number that I don’t, regardless of the ever-shifting genre. His presence usually means a purchase is a safe bet, and that’s as true here as it ever was.

Sword of Hope II (Game Boy)
The story is almost gleefully naive, but the adventure — not to mention atmosphere — is fantastic. Sword of Hope II confusingly made it to the 3DS Virtual Console before its predecessor did, but I’m not complaining. It’s a classically-styled RPG with turn-based battles and massive amounts of weapons, items and spells. You guide the good Prince Theo along with several companions through a kingdom threatened by an unrelenting evil. So, yeah, the plot is nothing of note, but the experience of playing through it is fantastic. It’s a step back in history…no, not to medieval times, but to a time when video games were just meant to be fun…and that’s a trip I’m willing to take any time.

Kirby’s Dream Land (Game Boy)
Another of my original Game Boy games. I’ve always — always — adored this one. The first trip through the game is brilliant, light, sunny fun. The second trip is shockingly challenging. And beyond that you can configure the game so that it demands perfection and turns everything into a one hit kill. Funnily enough, Kirby’s never been more difficult than in this original adventure, which is so often wrongfully derided as being kiddy, or too easy. If this is kiddy, then I don’t want to grow up. (Also…I don’t want to grow up.) Kirby’s been in more great games than I can even count, but there’s an effortless beauty to his original outing, and, for better or worse, this is how I’ll always remember him.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (Game Boy)
The Metroid series has tried a lot of things over the years. From loose, unguided exploration to first-person shooting to linear battlefests (to, uh, pinball…) just about every game offers a unique experience. Its singular Game Boy outing, however, manages to stand apart even from that disparate group. It’s not survival you’re after here…it’s xenocide. Samus is tasked with hunting down and exterminating, one by one, every remaining Metroid in existence, and that gives this game an impressively dismal feel. You worm your way through caverns and tunnels, slaughtering tiny aliens as you go, and watching the Metroid population diminish. It’s not exactly the case that Samus becomes a cold blooded killer in this one, but the experience is, by definition, guided by bloodlust, and that’s not a common theme for a game developed in-house by Nintendo. It’d be worth playing for its novelty alone…the fact that it just so happens to be a fantastic gaming experience as well makes this unmissable.

Mr. Driller: Drill Till You Drop (DSiWare)
Mr. Driller — an offshoot of the classic Dig Dug series, though rightfully classic in itself — is simple: you drill. Fast. It’s a sort of reverse Tetris that relies on destruction and speed rather than organization and wise consideration. The longer you take, the more your oxygen diminishes…but the faster you drill, the more likely you are to cause a cave-in that ends your game outright. This version features more levels than I’ll ever be able to finish, but that’s okay; Mr. Driller isn’t about succeeding, or even surviving. It’s about reflex, and immediate decision making, as well as constantly dealing with the fallout (pun intended) of your past decisions. It’s a slight experience by design, but it’s limitlessly satifying.

I’m in Your 3DS eShop

July 26th, 2012 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta | personal | video games - (1 Comments)

…provided you live in America.

Log in and check it out! I’m second from the right, as if you couldn’t tell from the fact that I’m ABSOLUTELY INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MY MII. It will be up until a week from today, so soak it in while you can.

You can read more about it here for now, and I’ll update later on with some commentary on what I picked, why, and maybe some additional recommendations as well.

But for now…

…I’m in the ****ing Nintendo eShop!

Photo by Ron “The Bod” DelVillano

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