Saturday, October 31, 2020

Super Mario Bros. 35 - Thoughts

Super Mario Bros. 35 is a fantastic game that stumbles over its own short legs. Its premise is my dream battle royale: make 35 players compete in randomly selected Super Mario Bros. levels, where defeated foes from bowser's army are sent to other players' games to hassle them. This keeps the single player experience intact while offering a competitive twist that makes the game feel tense but never mean-spirited. However—like with any multiplayer game—an optimal way to play bubbles to the surface, and boy howdy is it boring.

Super Mario Bros. 35 suffers from a fatal flaw, one I assume could be easily fixed: too many damn World 1 levels. Before each session, each player picks a course from Super Mario Bros. they want added to the play pool—and most seem to either pick 1-1 or 1-2. That, or they're added to the pool as filler levels, because their prevalence is maddening. I have over 200 clears of 1-1 and nearly half that for 1-2, meanwhile everything beyond world 5 has been played once or twice at most. While the early stages provide a nice reprieve to collect fire flowers and hidden 1-ups, this comes at the cost of your adrenaline and excitement, as it's a fairly safe, uneventful and thoughtless run (unless a squad of lakitus is being sent your way.)

The abundance of early levels vastly extends Super Mario Bros. 35's optimal play time, turning what should be a rapid-fire adventure through oldschool courses into a sloggy, amateurish affair, every World 1 stage a boring pitstop you're rarely in need of. This issue isn't so terrible as to turn me off from the game, but I'm only reminded of how invigorating the game can be when a random gauntlet of tricky stages comes at me back to back (like 3-4 -> 2-2 -> 5-3). Not only does this wake me up from the rote stupor 1-1 lulls me into, but it provides a decent challenge that's likely to knock out a few players, even when it's down to the final five left.

And getting to the final five is another source of my frustration, since this is where you'll be spending most of your time. When you first reach this threshold it's a thrilling, nerve-wracking experience that'll have you crossing your fingers over even the smallest jumps, but the excitement fades when you learn what a long road you have ahead of you. After the initial 15 or so players are culled thanks to the first two stages, Super Mario Bros. 35 becomes about keeping your timer high and collecting a lot of coins. You extend your timer in a number of different ways, most noticeably by repeated kills via stomping heads and kicking shells. The coins on the other hand feed into the game's roulette power-up system, which can provide you with an instantaneous—albeit random—goodie at the cost of twenty coins.

On paper, both of these are excellent ideas. They give you a reason to explore the level as well and not skip over enemies, instead of turning success into a speedrunning competition. But conversely, it means that speed is downright useless—as long as you're receiving a steady trickle of foes from other players, you can keep your clock fed by slowly inching forward, hopping from one noggin to the next. This, combined with the ever-present 1-1 (as well as 1-2's warp pipes to skip problematic stages,) turns the game into a resource management of sorts. As boring as the World 1 stages are, you're better off spending as much time as possible in them collecting goodies to prepare for the endgame. After about seven minutes (which is quite long in game about reflexes) the timer in the corner will rapidly tick down, making whoever stays in the game the longest the winner—and this is usually the person with the most coins.

The issue of the slow, grindy gameplay preceding the frantic endgame isn't something that has an easy fix. The best I can come up with is that there should be some kind of speed incentive, like the flag at the end adding 60 seconds to your timer instead of a measly 15. Or maybe introducing a certain amount of stages to beat in order to claim the crown. As it stands I'm too easily bored by the monotony of the early game but find myself entering the endgame at a disadvantage. That's not to say that I'm unable to eke out a win by simply playing well, but when I lose to time it feels like there was very little I could've done, especially when my reserve of coins is wasted rolling POW blocks over and over again. For what it's worth, the endgame with the red clock is at least exhilarating every time you reach it, which is a lot more than I can say about starting on 1-1 for the umpteenth time.

Super Mario Bros. 35 is an clever competitive-platformer, but it'd be massively improved if latter levels were shuffled into the mix more often, or was quicker to reach the endgame. And hey, for all I know, this is an issue that'll fix itself as newer players drop out and the hardened vets that love running 8-1 are the only ones that remain. But like with No Man's Sky, I can only form my opinion and what the game currently is, not what it'll become some time down the road (speaking of, what reason is there to pull the game on April 1st Nintendo?) I have no plans to stop playing Super Mario Bros. 35 any time soon, but I've spent enough time with it to see that—while it's loads of fun—it's not quite the ideal Mario battle royale I had hoped for.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Heavy Barrel - Thoughts

Data East's Heavy Barrel is an aged, unflattering polaroid of the NES era. Though it's stylistically closer to Ikari Warriors than Jackal, I think drawing a comparison with the latter game will better punctuate my thoughts on this janky adventure. I wouldn't deign to call a terrible game, but it's plagued with an ugly aesthetic, baffling design choices, and periodic moments of sheer boredom. Whereas Jackal is laser-focused on its strengths as a fun experience, Heavy Barrel is muddled, its strengths diluted down into a lukewarm puddle of "eh."

I praised Jackal highly for its variety of stages that took you through colorful yet down-to-earth territories swarming with entrenched foes. Heavy Barrel on the other hand cares little for realism, preferring bright, clashing colors and large mechanical bosses. The abstract nature of the game isn't a knock against it—Rygar is fun largely due to its nonsensical enemies—but I doubt anyone would label Heavy Barrel as a "looker". Stages are bland and forgettable, merging into one another due to a lack of a cohesive theme for each level. Sure, one stage might have mine cart tracks or a blue elevator ride, but... so do other levels later in the game. You'll basically be ping-ponged between outdoor areas and techbases until you inexplicably find yourself squaring off against the final boss.

The shooting in Heavy Barrel is serviceable on paper: it provides a nice blend of enemies to put down and powerups to collect. You have a rapid fire machine gun to use against a majority of the opposition, with anything more durable (tanks, turrets) requiring explosives... provided that you can land your shots. The grenades add a hint of skill to the gameplay but they're far from a good weapon; their long arc and delayed impact can only be described as "bothersome", especially considering how little damage they do.

But for the most part, Heavy Barrel provides the player with plenty of mindless fun—so long as there are things to shoot on screen. Once you get to the aforementioned blue elevator ride, the action grinds to a halt for minutes at a time, the enemies spawned being easily countered and dodged. I'm usually undisturbed over how ubiquitous elevator sequences are in games, but only insofar as they continue to provide gameplay. Heavy Barrel's snail-like descents are just a glorified shooting gallery that might amuse you the first time through, but become very obvious ammunition (and time) sinks on replays.

One bad section that repeats itself several times isn't enough to outright ruin the game, but it's a major annoyance that stands out among Heavy Barrel's other numerous flaws; other issues blotting the game only become apparent the more time you spend playing it. Chief among these is that enemy attacks give the player little time to react, rockets fired from tanks guaranteed to decimate you should you find yourself in their crosshairs. Whereas Jackal can be beaten with vigilant thumbs, Heavy Barrel opts for shameless memorization, especially when flame grenadiers start getting thrown into the mix. That can still be fun in its own little way—it's pretty invigorating to finally make it past a difficult section unscathed—but most of the time it's vexing due to the sudden, unavoidable deaths. Plus once you're trained to start blasting spawn points, the game becomes sapped of most of its replayability.

Compounding the muck of memorization is Heavy Barrel's power-up system, which serves to highlight just how good Jackal is by keeping things simple. There are two primary weapons, three separate grenade abilities, and an elite superweapon that requires five pick-ups to activate (and you know you'll have acquired it when your character shouts so loud your speakers blow out.) It's a solid amount of diversity for a top down run 'n gun game, but in almost all situations you'll want the flame shot and flame grenades, as both of these have wide attack zones that are able to pierce enemies.

It's not a huge problem to have unbalanced weapons in your video game, but what makes it worse is when it's impossible to parse which ability you're acquiring. Spending a key to open up a power-up cache yields a single square sprite that is used for every power-up in the game, meaning that if you're hunting for more parts to your superweapon, you could unintentionally swap out your stack of 99 flame grenades for the dinky whirlwind attack. And since the weapon caches are not randomized, the winning strategy is to memorize which boxes hold the flame shot and then straight-up ignore the rest of the boxes until you die. Yes, even hilariously large superweapon is not worth the risk of turning your grenades into those silly stationary whirlwinds.

I'm probably overly-harsh on Heavy Barrel due to Jackal still being fresh on my mind. To be fair to Data East, I think the key mechanic for opening weapon caches is really clever: you're allowed to hold up to four keys in reserve, creating tension between saving keys for opening boxes after you die or blowing your key reserve in anticipation of finding more superweapon parts. I also feel that manually destroying the trapezoidal gates at the end of each level—while repetitive—provides a small, satisfying pat on the back. But Heavy Barrel is not an experience I'd recommend to anyone other than the biggest NES nerds whom have already been conditioned to view the warning of "memorization required" as a selling point. Heavy Barrel may be plenty playable, but its problem at the end of the day is that you have to twist yourself into knots to call what's playable "fun."

Friday, October 23, 2020

Jackal - Thoughts

Konami's Jackal is an unaged, heartwarming polaroid of the NES era. It is exemplary of the good games of its time, although inventive it is not—you probably won't find the game listed on too many "hidden gems" lists. But what Jackal offers is Konami's trademark forte: action. And not just action, but fairly tight, difficult, reaction-based action that has you skirting around bullets like an insta-death slalom. Don't let its age fool you—this old war jeep's got plenty of kick once you start it up.

Jackal is short, punchy, and straight to the point. The plot is paper thin: bad guys got our guys, so free them by blowing up everything. When you destroy a detention center, you can rescue POWs and drop them off at a helipad for points (used for 1-ups) and a weapon upgrade. In terms of unique mechanics, the liberation system is really the only thing Jackal has going for it. There aren't other weapons to acquire, vehicles to use, or even on-foot sections to change up the gameplay. To vanquish the enemy forces you're left with only your machine gun and a stack of explosive ordnance.

Yet it's all Jackal needs to be an exciting, action-packed experience. The simplicity also belies a number of interesting gameplay quirks. Firstly, explosive ordnance is lobbed in whatever direction you're facing, while your machine gun is stuck firing solely northward. Since explosives are both 1) unlimited and 2) upgraded when you rescue friendlies, they'll be your primary mode for dispatching foes, relegating the machine gun to situational backup. You can also squash enemy soldiers under the wheels of your four ton vehicle, but it's almost always easier (and safer) to just toss the stuff that goes BOOM.

It may seem boring that Jackal is dominated by a single weapon, but variety isn't the name of the game here—it's precision. Enemy shots are tiny but frequent, denying land you're trying to maneuver through or blocking a vulnerable angle of attack. You can mindlessly throw your grenades about in a hail of desperation, but learning to make quick, accurate shots is going to save you in the long run. Each upgrade also adds another layer to your attack, at first turning the grenades into speedy rockets, then granting a horizontal blast to the explosion, and finally a vertical blast. These come at the cost of being able to arc grenades over enemy walls (a brilliant tradeoff), but the upgrades grant you a new angle of attack, introducing trigonometric planning to your warfare (eg "Aha! If I shoot to the northwest, the blast will expand below the point of impact and destroy the turret!")

Jackal's emphasis on precise shots, bullet dodging, and a fixed order of upgrades all merge together into a challenge that's heavy on execution and light on memorization. Memorization can definitely help (like knowing where specific POW camps are located), but it isn't the silver bullet one might think it is. If you're quick to respond to enemy shots you'll likely get to the final level on your first try—and if not that, the end of the game. But if you happen to Game Over your first time (like me), Jackal takes a paltry thirty minutes to finish, meaning it's no hassle getting back to where you last died.

What helps to keep the experience invigorating for re-runs are Jackal's colorful stages. Konami has always been great at giving their levels a distinct flavor, and—despite the unimaginative setting—it's no different here. You'll tread through jungles, harbors, swamps, and mountain ranges, facing a variety of foes that are unique to each stage, like the medusa statues in level 2 and the train in level 4. Likewise the bosses you'll face in Jackal are satisfying, even though half of them are obviously glorified turrets. The ludicrous final boss deserves a special mention for being a phenomenal closer to a truly phenomenal game.

Jackal isn't perfect, but I'm not sure any of its foibles warrant a lengthy discussion. Its greatest offense is a flaw that run 'n gun fans are all too familiar with: certain sections are exceptionally brutal without weapon upgrades. But roughly 90% of Jackal is both fair and fun, testing the player's reflexes across a treasure trove of solid levels. I only played it for the very first time a few days ago, and yet I can't help but feel charmed by its simplistic, humble design. Pop this one into your NES if you haven't and thank me later.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Curse of Issyos - Thoughts

How Locomalito's Curse of Issyos is both 1) not on Steam and 2) free to download baffles me. It's a Castlevania tribute set in Greek mythology, swapping bats and mermen out for harpies and... well, mermen. The experience lasts a little under an hour on a successful playthrough, and puts up a decent challenge without going overboard on the difficulty (I think it's roughly as hard as Super Castlevania IV). Curse of Issyos isn't as universally approachable as Shovel Knight is, but for fans of NES platformers, the minotaur-slaying adventure is an absolute must-play.

One of the important things to understand about Curse of Issyos is that it doesn't try to do anything ambitious—it's just a really polished game. There are health upgrades to pick up and two different weapons to try out... and that's about all you get for customization. The writing, sprite work, and music aren't super memorable, but they're of a professional quality and serve the game well. The real draw of Curse is its stellar level design, introducing new enemies and hazards with every stage. The levels aren't complex but they're littered with smart (ie dangerous) obstacles, like bouncing rocks in Stage IV and the cycling spirits in the underworld. Personally I find that for old-school platformers, refinement trumps novelty—and Curse of Issyos demonstrates why.

Foes share traits with Castlevania's bestiary but it never feels like Locomalito is copying from Konami's template. The bosses are especially impressive, avoiding the repetitive & easy patterns of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon in favor of simple & randomized attacks. It's likely you'll have to die to a couple to get a proper feel for their attack patterns, but Curse of Issyos rarely throws the player any unfair curveballs; as long as you persevere, victory will be yours in the end.

Althouuuugh that statement comes with a dirty little asterisk. My only real gripe with Curse of Issyos is that reaching its true ending requires a lot of flawless playing, thanks to a notably cruel design decision: you don't get healed after boss fights. I don't think it's a monumental task to beat the game without using continues, but one poor boss encounter can quickly throw a wrench into that plan, especially if you happen to lose your spear. Throw in a couple convoluted tasks required to reach said ending, and I recommend that most people just play the game without worrying about a replay.

I think it speaks to the high quality of Curse of Issyos that despite finding the true ending path annoying, I didn't really mind playing through the game four times to achieve it. Locomalito knows his chops: the controls are solid, the enemies are dangerous, and there's enough randomization that that you can't get through it based on memory alone. Curse of Issyos is an exemplary model of why I love old-school platformers, and it's made me very eager to try out Maldita Castilla EX.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Metroid Super Zero Mission - Thoughts

Metroid Super Zero Mission is a hack of staggering ambition. Crafting a unique rom hack out of Super Metroid's mold is difficult enough, but to throw Metroid: Zero Mission's blueprint in there as well—a game which itself is a reinterpretation of the original Metroid—is a mind-boggling task. The original Zero Mission acts as a sort-of interquel between the two Metroid titles, so I wasn't sure what Super Zero Mission was going to bring to the table. Plus most Super Metroid rom hacks are already "remixes" of the base game (aptly deemed "halfhacks"), and those are typically so lazily cobbled together that I prefer a hack that's wildly new and fresh (like Super Metroid Phazon). But SBniconico's take on the formula blew me away; Super Zero Mission is not only a stunning game in its own right, but its old school design is so meticulous that it becomes downright terrifying at times.

I would be hard-pressed to say that Metroid Super Zero Mission feels like a proper Nintendo title. It's as refined as Another Metroid 2 Remake, but AM2R frequently exhibits a soft, careful touch, so as not to drive off newcomers. Super Zero Mission, by comparison, is very much a game made by a Super Metroid expert for Super Metroid experts. It could theoretically be beaten by someone that has casually finished Super Metroid, but it would be an arduous and frequently punishing endeavor, requiring tight maneuvers like the midair horizontal shinespark. God only knows what is demanded of the player in the hard mode of the hack!

While Super Zero Mission is unarguably tricky, it never becomes insurmountable or cruel—not once did I need to revert to save states or backtrack to find e-tanks and missiles. But Super Zero Mission relentlessly tests your dexterity, observation skills, and memory of the older games. Even the bosses have undergone meaningful changes, their room layout altered and health buffed. There are two noticeable difficulty spikes in the game (Pirate Ship & Chozodia), but as long as you keep your wits about you and press on, you won't be stymied beyond a couple of painful deaths. I'd personally label the game "beatable" in the same way that I would tell anyone that Dark Souls or Contra is "beatable"; those unable to rise to Super Zero Mission's expectations will find it unfair, confusing, and ultimately frustrating.

Though the game is nowhere near impossible to finish, 100%ing it is a different matter. A couple power-ups are tucked away in such mystifying, nonsensical spots that finding out how to access them is akin to reverse-engineering a programming puzzle. For instance, speed booster blocks will taunt the player in a location far from flat land, and there's a constant use of foreground tiles that hide tiny morphball-sized paths. The presence of these ultra-hard power-ups don't ruin the game—I was definitely comfortable with my arsenal by the end—but it will be extremely vexing to completionists. Don't be surprised if Super Zero Mission reveals just how little of Super Metroid you truly understand.

Besides the maddening items that will linger just out of reach, the design of Metroid Super Zero Mission is also... pretty maddening. But it's a good kind of maddening, something that turns level designers green with envy. One of the biggest examples of this is that SBniconico has made hack super speedrun-friendly. This manifests itself in minor ways while you're playing; occasionally you'll stumble across a crumble-block cul-de-sac that tips you off to the presence of a shortcut. The concept is ripped directly from Zero Mission's speedrun-friendly layout, and like that game you're not likely to utilize any sequence breaks until you read about how you're supposed to access them.

What makes this feat more impressive than Zero Mission's is that the hack is massive, littered with plentiful opportunities for the player to get themselves into an area they're not prepared for. Yet SBniconico's design is so precise that it's not likely to happen, even when you think you've stumbled upon a secret path. In fact, Super Zero Mission depends on you sniffing out obscure tunnels in order to progress normally, especially towards the end when the game explodes into a maze of optional paths. This keeps you feeling like an intrepid explorer while hiding the fact that you're barely scratching the surface of the game's mysteries.

You would think that dull rooms and getting lost would be an inevitable byproduct of a hack of this size, but Super Zero Mission is almost always on point. Every room serves some kind of purpose and acquiring a power-up has you organically funneled towards your next destination. Even vets of Super Metroid will find themselves surprised by some of the twists and turns here; Tourian in particular is an awe-inspiring section that kept me on edge. If I had to describe Super Zero Mission in one word, it'd probably be "brilliant"—but it's a niche brilliancy, one that works due to the Metroid framework, cleverly juggling the known with the unknown.

Metroid Super Zero Mission's excellence is undeniable. Every area has been properly changed and feels perfectly tuned, incorporating an adroit blend of the base game with Zero Mission's philosophy—while still managing to exhibit SBniconico's unique, personal flavor. It's a great game!... but it's not for everyone. For Metroid experts, Super Zero Mission is a satisfying (and occasionally challenging) meal. For regular fans however, I fear it'll be an arduous climb that'll either make you hungry for more or turn you off of romhacking forever. I wouldn't stop anyone from trying the game out—it is great after all—I just wouldn't be surprised if their takeaway is that it's "too much."

Thursday, September 10, 2020

XCOM 2 - Thoughts

My first playthrough of XCOM 2 did... not go well. Having completed the previous game on Normal Ironman mode (where character deaths are permanent), I thought I was more than properly equipped for the sequel when it came out in 2016. But when several members of my A-Team bit the big one during a risky mission, I knew I was on a death spiral to annihilation. Rather than push on with my last living sniper and her squad of wide-eyed rookies, I hung up my hat and didn't return until four years later. Which is a huge shame because only now do I understand that XCOM 2 is a fantastic, well-balanced experience.

My failure in 2016 didn't make me dislike XCOM 2, but my perception of the game had always been warped due to being bullied into a corner. Since I've been making a conscious effort to wrap-up any half-played games in 2020, I was determined to liberate humanity from its xeno-dystopia with a brand new playthrough—Ironman mode still intact. I wasn't sure how to avoid making the same mistakes this time around, but that wouldn't matter because my second shot at saving Earth was a resounding success. My A-Team was so implacable that had the final mission thrown twice as many enemies at me, it would've been no sweat to come out on top. Finally, it was the aliens cowering in a corner, not I!

Despite the disparity between my two playthroughs, I wouldn't deign to label the game as "swingy" or "poorly balanced". The honest truth is that I simply played wiser in the second playthrough, less content to leave the survival of my squad hinging on a single RNG shot. Two tough missions kept me the game from feeling like a walk in the park (both of which had rooftop-perched units falling several stories down), and even in retrospect I wouldn't call XCOM 2 an "easy" experience. What you'll be ever-aware of while playing is that even when a mission is going well, you're usually one mind-control, critical hit, or accidental pod reveal from the operation devolving into a bloody, casualty-infested brawl.

One of the things that makes XCOM 2 the superior experience compared to its predecessor XCOM is that enemies aren't so gung-ho on slaughtering your units. Sure, they want your forces splattered across the battlefield as much as you want that for theirs, but ADVENT is more keen on using buffs and disables to win this time around. There will still be plenty of fire fights (especially when your units get flanked) but expect priorities to change in battle as your units are marked, bound, and suppressed. This plays up the strategic aspect of the game and makes it feel considerably less like a series of die-rolling face-offs. Sometimes a fight will inevitably boil down to making that (seemingly unlucky) 70% shot, but I appreciated how much more flexibility XCOM 2 offered, thanks to enemies like the Shieldbearer, Archon, and Codex manipulating unit placement on the battlefield.

Even though it boasts a meaty playtime, what helps to keep XCOM 2 a smooth, fast-paced experience is its repeated use of timers. From extraction missions to ADVENT retaliations, XCOM 2 cares more about you being bold than being safe. As much as I adored the vanilla version of the previous game, its gradual overwatch crawl is its most glaring flaw, transforming otherwise tense missions into endurance marathons. Thankfully, you can't get away with that tactic here. If anything, a couple of the timers are probably a bit over-tuned, since on more than one occasion my squad escaped without a single turn to spare. But having to make tough decisions with the clock always on your mind trumps playing it safe and losing units only when complacency sets in.

Probably the only thing I like more about the previous XCOM is its premise, and even that comes with a subjective caveat. I'm generally more into "command an elite army to stop an invading alien force" than "establish resistance networks to slow down your oppressor's operation", but I still appreciate how ambitious Firaxis was about shaking things up. After all, XCOM is a beat-for-beat reimagining of UFO Defense, and no matter how much I gel with that theme I have to admit that XCOM 2 is the bolder of the two modern titles, carving a truly unique space out for itself. While it may stand on the shoulders of a giant, that itself is standing on the shoulders of an older giant, it doesn't negate the fact that XCOM 2 is arguably the pinnacle of the series. It's the most board-gamey and tactically balanced of the franchise, almost always offering you (and your foes) a fair fighting chance.

While I'm not upset that my initial failure kept me away from XCOM 2 for so long, I am very glad I returned to finish the fight. My first squad had been precious to me, but the struggles of Smokey, Paladin, Hat Trick, and Earth's MVP Sarah "Lockdown" Becker was one for the ages. We were a finely tuned alien-disposal unit that blew up robots and headshot officers from across the damn world with 110% accuracy. And while Classic Ironman sounds like a headache to play for vanilla XCOM, I'm more than willing to jump into Commander Ironman for XCOM 2, excited to face a stronger adversary. Where a Terror from the Deep clone would've sufficed, Firaxis went above and beyond for XCOM 2, crafting what is probably my favorite strategy game released in the last twenty years.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Terraria - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

With Re-Logic having finished their last major update for Terraria, my brother and I figured it was time to jump back in. We had previously gotten about halfway through it several years ago, but this time we were in it for the long haul, determined to start fresh with mediumcore characters and really sink our teeth into this cute, 2D Minecraftian adventure. It took a while—a lengthy 44 hours to be exact—but our journey was fun and thrilling, containing some really wild ups and downs. The critical thing I did not expect (and really should've in retrospect) was that the Terraria wiki would be an essential contributor in our victory over the game.

I suppose you could finish Terraria with nothing more than experimental mindset and some elbow grease, but hardmode will undoubtedly test that theory. For those that don't know, after descending into a literal hell to slay a fleshy monstrosity, new monsters, items, and features are added to the world to bring this once-explored land back to life—lovingly called "hardmode". I'm fairly certain I stopped here the last time I played because I definitely would've remembered the ass-whooping Terraria handed me had I tried to continue. Resilient enemies prowled the landscape, safe houses were frequently invaded, and the number of corpse runs I undertook had more than quadrupled.

Terraria does a decent job at directing you where to go by suggesting what your next achievement should be, but its mostly a breadcrumb of bosses to kill rather than gear to acquire. And once in hardmode you'll find your gear woefully underleveled, especially if you try to tackle one of the nasty mechanical bosses that can assault your base at night. Looking up how to spawn better ore, what enemies drop what components, and how to acquire wings and/or mounts are the first steps toward surviving—and the game does an abysmal job at telling you this. Hell, I'm not even sure if it tells you how to properly build a house that villagers can live in, let alone what triggers NPCs to finally sell pylons (which are the best way to travel across the overworld for like 90% of the game).

I sympathize a bit with Re-Logic on this issue; nearly every crafting-oriented game becomes so bloated with information and options that it's irresponsible to add a text box simply suggesting, "Player should make X armor and Y weapon". But this diminishes your sense of discovery since you're forced to stumble across most of the secrets on a wiki, instead of experiencing them yourself within the game's world. If you stubbornly refuse to do outside research, you'll find yourself staring slack-jawed at your inventory, oblivious that "soul of light" can be crafted into a boss-summoning totem at an anvil made from mythril, the second ore generated from every triplicate of altars destroyed. For the record, the first NPC that arrives does share a crafting list when you show him an item, but good luck learning where how to locate the other reagents (ah yes, to get an avenger emblem I have to farm an earlier boss I previously had zero reason to fight! Of course!)

There are definitely worse aspects in Terraria than having to do some wiki siftinglike its occasionally abysmal drop rate and the unwieldy UI that gets exponentially more cumbersome with mediumcore deaths. But at no point are any these bad enough to dissuade you from further playing. One of the coolest things that Terraria possesses that other games like Minecraft don't is an urge to evolve. You'll start the game deceptively humble, happy to craft an iron sword to replace your old copper one. But by the end your final state will be practically unrecognizable from how you started, a whirlwind of rockets and magic and spears and yo-yos flinging from your fingertips. Terraria explodes outwards in options as you progress through it, showering you in items that are as cool as they are delightfully stupid. The lack of self-seriousness gives the game a lot of charm, reminiscent of media melting pots that middle-schoolers often brew together. So what if you have orcs, martians, pirates, pixies, and disembodied lovecraftian eyes existing alongside one another? They're all cool! Bring on the pirate jacket and eyeball helmet!

I never really minded hardmode's dramatic ramp in difficulty, mainly because the sense of getting stronger is so well done in Terraria. Every play session starts and ends with you ruminating on your next objective. Slowly you'll work from point A to B to C, crafting a new armor set, grabbing extra health crystals, and discovering new equipment that makes you audibly "ooooh!" Blood moon events that once left you shaking in your boots become minor nuisances, and when the final boss falls you'll feel practically immortal, able to fending off literal armies while basking in lava. If anything, the game will probably get a little too crazy by the end, transforming into a nonsensical shmup that's tremendously hard to parse. But you don't come to Terraria for its finely-tuned combat—you play it to learn its secrets and then slowly conquer it, biome by biome, boss by boss.

Similar to Destiny 2, another obfuscated game I adore, your experience will be significantly smoother playing with someone that knows what they're doing. When you're first stepping out into the unknown forests of Terraria's wilds, it can be a truly captivating journey—until you run into a wall and have no idea how to proceed. But check out the wiki and stick with it, because Terraria is about the ascension from a simple lumberjack to a gaudy deity capable of summoning unicorns, dragons, and UFOs to their aid, armed with Excalibur in one hand and a gun that shoots bees in the other. It's ludicrous, but reaching that level of absurdity is absurdly fun.

(Also there's a ton of mods and they look pretty cool.)