Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Super Mario Odyssey - Thoughts

Ya know, it was about time Super Mario 64 got another sequel. After the initial foray beyond flatland, the 3D Mario titles have found themselves torn in two directions: do they toss you into large, sandboxy playgrounds, or more linear, meticulously crafted environments? From Galaxy onwards, Mario has always answered with the latter, where mostly every stage is designed for going from point A to point B, and straying off the beaten path is occasionally rewarded with small goodies. But now in Super Mario Odyssey, the beaten path is the main course! So let your penchant for goofing off take hold, because Odyssey is one hell of an enjoyable (and relaxing) collectathon.

I have to give props first to the programmers that tweaked the way Mario moves and jumps in Odyssey. Like with UI, the controls of a game are supposed to be so second nature that the player isn't supposed to think about them most of the time—a designer needs them to be unobtrusive so as not to distract from the more prominent aspects like art and story. But sometimes the smaller touches can be so profound that they deserve recognition, like in the buttery smooth response of Mario's turning, flipping, and diving. If there was one word to describe how it feels to pilot the stout Italian plumber, it'd be comfortable.

This is important to note because you're going to spend a lot of the game wandering around. A good portion of the levels in Odyssey are fairly open and require a lot of snooping and scrounging to find every moon, which means you'll spend minutes on end jogging from one corner to the other, all while wrangling the camera to spot secrets. It can feel tiresome at times—the first post-game kingdom is a dull snoozefest—but since Mario remains fun to pilot it takes the edge off of the tediousness. Plus looking for where to go next only becomes a problem when you're a good chunk of the way through the experience; from the start to the credits, Super Mario Odyssey is jam-packed full of awesome visuals and nifty ideas.

The level of imagination present in each of Odyssey's exotic kingdoms is downright intoxicating. It's hard not to act like some slack-jawed tourist at times, panning the camera around to catch every detail, whether it be reading all the billboards in the Metro Kingdom or doing inventory of all the food present in the Luncheon Kingdom. The art style between worlds aggressively clashes, but this is done purposefully: Odyssey's message is one of unity and of appreciating cultural differences. I'm usually very pro-art cohesion, but this game is just so wacky and amiable that it doesn't bother me to see Mario interacting with gardening robots, dapper men, and poncho-clad chibi skeletons, all within hopping distance of one another. Plus Odyssey remembers to never take itself too seriously—the dialogue, outfits, and quests are all quietly charming, routinely eking small grins the player.

Perhaps the only aspect I take umbrage with is the game's difficulty. About 95% of Odyssey is a cakewalk—moons are fairly easy to get your hands on when you know where they are, and the majority of the "linear platforming level" zones barely do anything to jeopardize your life. It's only at the veeeery end that Super Mario Odyssey ratchets up the intensity to 11, which can feel somewhat out of place in relation to how carefree the rest of the game is. I would've preferred a lot more "highly tricky but not punishing if you lose" challenges sprinkled throughout the adventure. Odyssey has so many low-effort moons that I needed something more to tantalize my masochism.

But the sundry of easily snag-able moons are part of the appeal of the game. Super Mario Odyssey rewards you for being curious as well as aimless, ensuring that you'll walk away from each play session with scores of moons bursting from your pockets. It might feel a bit condescending at times, sure ("you got a moon for looking under the bed!"), but it's a great game to unwind to, letting you play however you see fit. Think you'll get something for stacking nearby goombas? You're right! What about going fishing in the sand? That too! How about jumping down this suspicious-looking hole that's probably a pit? Well, more often than not it is a pit, but sometimes it's not!!! For some, Odyssey's moons felt like artificial validation, but for me they were a neat checklist to kick back and complete, bit by bit.

The big gimmick of Odyssey—invading another creature's body with your soul & mustache—is thankfully one that doesn't dominate the gameplay. I really like that each world has its own particular enemy to inhabit, but the game is at its most pleasant when you're steering Mario around the obstacle course-like nature of the geography. That said, a lot of the transformations are clever and wholly different from one another; my favorites were the uproot, tropical wiggler, and pokio, all for their unique traversal mechanics. The body invasion animation lasts like a third of a second too, which makes alternating between Mario and your target a breeze. Before I played the game I was dreading the use of Odyssey's manipulative Mariohood mechanic, but I walk away humbled and impressed; as arrogant as this sounds, Nintendo rarely disappoints.

Super Mario Odyssey serves as an amazing introduction to the core principles of a Mario title: namely jumping, exploring, and having fun. The gentle difficulty curve of the game isn't to my liking, but I still respect the hell out of it, and every time I sat down to play I found myself enthused to scour yet another land for moons. From the colorful worlds you'll visit to the outlandish outfits you'll don (the wedding dress and pirate garb are smokin' on Mario), the sojourn to Odyssey's quirky universe is one that's well worth it. You'll see a lot of gnarly sights, long jump headfirst into a lot of walls, and find your heart warmed by the good vibes emanating from this lovely, lovely game.

Title screen obtained from:

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) - Thoughts

[preamble begins]

The undying fervor for the Sonic franchise is perhaps gaming's greatest enigma. Rare few properties receive the same unbreakable support that the blue hedgehog is showered with, a fact which becomes considerably more perplexing when you account for the series' poor track record. It's a franchise with a prolific resume wherein every title feels like a second chance, and every step forward finds itself countered by a baffling step backwards. Sonic's legacy is one of clarifications and conjunctions—it's difficult to talk about its games without needing to address a bevy of complaints, all of which will be defended by someone somewhere. It almost prides itself on how often it can let down its fans, a bullish sentiment which suffers no consequences because the goodwill garnered by the kinda fun titles will always outweigh the sloppy, unrefined, and often painful design of its numerous lesser entries.

The Sonic franchise is a Lovecraftian abomination for kids—it is one that is simultaneously steeped in boundless optimism and multifaceted madness. To that end, I'd argue that its most ardent fans aren't merely just supporters of the series, but thralls of nostalgia to the community and culture that surrounds it. The blood sacrifices from their wallets keep its decrepit blue heart beating while the world looks on in awe, wondering why their own beloved 90s anthropomorphic icon died—and yet Sonic somehow continues to shuffle on. But none should yearn for Sonic's fate, for he is eternally doomed to wander a limbo of ambivalent feelings, perilous platforming, and troubled fanart.

As you may have guessed, my relationship with the Sonic series is one that's been dominated by disappointment. I want to clarify beforehand that I actually liked a lot of the games growing up, and always held a special sort of reverence for the speedy scamp. Despite being a Nintendo-consoles-only kid, there was a magical quality to the Sega Genesis that always made me savor the brief occasions I got to play it at a BJs kiosk or friend's house. I was envious of Genesis owners, having to make do with PC ports that frequently crashed (Sonic CD) or were downright subpar entries (Sonic 3D Blast). But my prayers were answered in 2002 thanks to the Sonic Mega Collection for Gamecube, which allowed me to finally sit down and play through the series' revered roots for the first time at my own pace. So know that my disdain doesn't stem from a fanboy vendetta or aversion to gloved mammals—it's the unyielding death spiral of quality that continues to vex me.

[preamble ends]

There's no hyperbole in claiming that the 3.5 Sonic platformers on Genesis remain the best in the series. After all, this was when Sonic was at his most focused and formative, exposing a number of young minds to the inchoate concept of speedrunning. Yet the first entry in the series is the roughest of the 16-bit era, as evidenced by its lack of spin dash, slower levels, and punishing stage design. I think it's undeniable that there's a noteworthy blueprint here that would Sega would later mold into greatness, but Sonic's stunning debut was... a tad messy.

What's interesting about Sonic the Hedgehog—and is also a trait that will almost entirely define Sonic CD—is the focus on pure platforming. Nowadays we rightfully correlate Sonic with speed, but the hedgehog's inception was a decidedly more cautious outing, where "going fast" was only viable roughly a third of the time. True, it's possible to zoom through the stages when you know what's ahead of you, but compared to what the series would eventually become, it's hard to deny that Sonic the Hedgehog is... pretty obnoxious. The sweet satisfaction that comes from blazing across the horizon can only be found in Green Hill Zone, meaning a considerable portion of Sonic's first adventure is designed to impede your momentum as much as possible.

The amount of speed bumps Sonic the Hedgehog uses weren't really apparently to me until I replayed through it recently—and there's a lot. Marble Zone is littered with slow block riding sections, Spring Yard has slow lift riding sections, Star Light utilizes nettlesome enemies like Orbinauts and Bombs, and Scrap Brain Zone is chock-full of collapsing bridges and overhead hazards. And this isn't even touching the molasses-like mess of Labyrinth Zone, where the notorious oxygen timer is a lesser threat compared to wading past spike traps while your acceleration is hamstrung. To safely reach the credits  (or nab the chaos emeralds) you have to constantly play the game at a snail's pace, tapping the right button in one second bursts just to make sure you can spot an upcoming enemy or obstacle. Often when it looks like you can go fast, it's a trap: rolling into a ball along the lower path at the start of Star Light Zone Act 1 will see your dumb ass launched directly into a pit.

This isn't to say that constant hazards are an atrocious design choice—it's just that they don't play to Sonic's strengths. I think there's a time and place for momentum-based platforming challenges (I kind of like Labyrinth Zone in a masochistic way) but Sonic the Hedgehog struggles to strike a comfortable balance between blasting your way through a level and cautiously hopping across a gap. Green Hill Zone comes across as a fluke given how smooth, fun, and friendly it plays compared to the rest of the game; the verdant introduction shows you that this newfangled Sonic is a unique, fast-paced, momentum-based platformer. Yet if you jump ahead to the latter half of the game, suddenly every act is doing all it can to rob you of rings if you dare sprint ahead. It's strange—not only do the physics feel more sluggish and heavy than Super Mario Bros., but I'd also contest that it's harder to play Sonic the Hedgehog at full-speed than it is for the NES platformer.

Brushing aside the unfortunate speed struggles, the rest of the game is alright. The colorful visuals and hip music are its best assets and would continue to be the only two features that remained (mostly) consistent across most of the series. The bonus stage is uh... wonky and awkward, but the Sonic games rarely have good bonus stages anyway—and at least this one isn't too frustrating. I like the idea of requiring the player to be holding 50 rings to access it, but I'm less keen on how 'continues' are gated behind the bonus stage. 1-up/Continue systems can make or break platformers depending on how they're doled out, and had Sonic's system been a little more lenient, perhaps I could more easily forgive it for the numerous rude surprises it keeps stored in its sleeve.

Thankfully, countering the Continue drought is the hilariously generous ring system—which is kinda crazy to consider that it's still around. I've never been a fan of the ring system myself: it's both too punishing and too lenient. Losing all of your rings for taking a single hit when you're hoping to get to the special stages or gather 1-Ups can be disheartening, while on the flip-side it's fairly easy to scoop up at least one ring afterwards. This also makes boss fights oscillate wildly in difficulty, since attacks on the sides of the screen are way more dangerous than those in the center. Sonic the Hedgehog at least tries to account for this fact by either letting you only hit Robotnik at the edges, or denying the player space to retrieve the bouncing hoops. And in the case of Labyrinth Zone, Robotnik simply lets the underwater controls be your worst enemy.

Kind of like the franchise itself, I have a lot of conflicting feelings for Sonic the Hedgehog. There are times where I find myself thinking "oh man this is kinda neat"—like with the occasional alternate routes through the slower zones (Scrap Brain Act 3 is definitely creative)—but then I find myself ducking for ten seconds while Orbinaut's tortoiselike projectiles pass by, wondering, "Was Sonic doomed to mediocrity from the very beginning?" The answer, of course, is no: there's a lot of novel ideas present in Sonic that hadn't been done until the blue blur rocketed onto the scene, and unlike the majority of other Sonic games down the line, the first entry is a must-play for people seeking to understand what's critical to Sonic's nature. It might be kind of clunky in retrospect, but Sonic nevertheless owes his legacy to his... fascinating Genesis debut.