Sunday, July 25, 2021

Mario Kart: Super Circuit - Thoughts

I don't think Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance is a good game. I didn't like it when I first tried it out years ago, and still don't like it after recently acquiring every gold medal. My issue with the game is simple: Super Circuit feels terrible to play. And no, it's not because of the hardware it's trapped on; F-Zero: Maximum Velocity (which came out several months prior) is an excellent GBA game with silky smooth controls. Super Circuit's problem is that it loyally models itself after Super Mario Kart, meaning that you're going to be involuntarily sliding, bouncing, and crashing into walls.

Racing games are somewhat unique in that their quality is first and foremost determined by how they play. Games with awkward or poor controls can have other strengths to help mitigate that (story, visuals, growth), but how many people are willing to devote more than an hour to a racing game if it just doesn't feel good? Of course, you have to be careful differentiating between "terrible controls" and a "high bar to entry"—I wasn't a fan of Wipeout HD when I first played it—but by the time you've conquered the "normal" difficulty of a game, it's likely that you'll know where you stand. For Mario Kart: Super Circuit I tried to keep an open mind, testing out every racer and different drifting strats, but I could never get a handle on how slippery the game felt even after finishing 150cc.

If you haven't played Super Circuit, just imagine playing a Mario Kart game wherein steering always makes you feel like you're drifting. Right turns can easily morph into a wide arcs, preserving your sideways momentum as if the tarmac is frozen. Worse still, nudging left or right to course correct can send you in strange directions, making you overshoot item boxes by dumb margins. As for drifting, it would frequently send me so far off course that I never used it for 150cc, given that cornering accurately won races more reliably than trying to eke out a speed boost here and there. In Super Circuit it feels less like you're in control of a go-kart and more like you're barely in control of the entire course, sloppily rotating it around your racer like a greased turntable.

The sliding is a huge pain in the ass because it transforms most turns into an exaggerated ordeal. It's not too hard to clear 90° angles but for anything wider, you're going to have to use the brake in order to avoid veering off road, which doesn't sound too annoying—except for the fact that the AI doesn't have this problem! Nowhere is this issue more vexing than in the Extra tracks, which are all taken from the winding SNES courses. Enjoy agonizing over hairpin turns as the computer zooms past you, able to effortlessly change direction even with a mushroom active (seriously, try the Extra Star Cup and tell me the game controls "just fine.")

While most of these complaints can be levied at the original Super Mario Kart, I think hindsight should've allowed Intelligent Systems to produce a better-playing game. Even if they wanted to be loyal to the hoverboard-like controls, it baffles me that they also kept the "bump racers and lose coins, regardless of weight" aspect. This dumb, cruel system needlessly makes the AI stronger, forcing you to avoid bumping racers even as Bowser unless you want to risk spinning out early. And strangely, even though the game includes all of the old SNES tracks, it removes a lot of their unique hazards like monty moles and thwomps... despite thwomps appearing in the regular GBA tracks. I also think the modern item box system makes the tracks worse, given that if a racer ahead of you takes an item box, it can leave you powerless for an entire lap.

While I don't like Super Circuit, I'll grudgingly admit it has a couple of things going for it. The game is vibrant and pretty, containing a lot of unique backgrounds that help distract the player from the ugly pixel warping on the race course. The SNES tracks, while inferior and flawed, still add a good amount of value, effectively doubling the playable content. Lastly 150cc is a fair and challenging difficulty most of the time, where poor steering will be the cause of your loss rather than suffering a flurry of red shells or blue shells. The dreaded blue shell in particular is extremely rare, showing up about once every twenty races or so—which is fine by me.

I don't regret having grown up without Mario Kart: Super Circuit, especially since I had F-Zero: Maximum Velocity to fill my portable speed-needs. I've always been in a bit of a love-hate relationship with Mario Kart, but I can still appreciate the flavorful track design and quirky vehicles of Mario Kart Wii, 7, and 8—basically every game other than the first three. Hell, I still hold a lot of nostalgia for Mario Kart 64, despite that entry having some of the longest, most dry circuits in the series. But these games remain fun to play, no matter what gripes I have; I can't say the same for Super Mario Kart, and in turn, its hunchbacked successor Super Circuit. Most tracks feel too similar, impassable walls blend in with the floor, but worst of all, it's a chore to play. We might be living through a nostalgic gaming renaissance, but Mario Kart: Super Circuit puts forth a sobering argument as to why sprite racers will be one genre to never see a comeback.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Frogger (1997) - Thoughts

It's always interesting to return to a game that you haven't played since your childhood. Before you develop qualitative reasonings behind "good" vs "bad", games are simply games: digital challenges you're meant to overcome. Sure, some of them are harder than others, but you don't yet have a nuanced understanding to differentiate between a carefully curated difficulty and a RNG-based one. Generally, stuff you can beat is fair, and whatever you can't beat is unfair. Later on you might return to realize that what you thought was impossible or unfair is actually wisely balanced, and what you thought was fair—just because you could beat it—may be far from what you'd label as "good."

Enter Frogger, the rad 1997 reboot of the old arcade game. I'm not quite sure when I got it on PC, but I was at least 10 or 11 years old—and Frogger was tough. It wasn't tough like Doom 2 on Nightmare or the Starcraft campaign, but it was challenging enough to stump me... primarily because I didn't know how to rotate the camera. I returned a few years later and beat it, cementing Frogger as one of my favorite platformers that wasn't a 2D sidescroller. My fondness for it was such that every time I saw the cover image, my heart would soar and I would think, "Man, I should play that again." Now at over double the age I beat it at, I've returned to complete Frogger once more...

... and uh, let's just say I am ambivalent.

First off, I love how this game looks. It's bright, peppy, and always vivid, even in dark or murky areas like the caves and sewers. Every locale feels distinct, housing unique platforms and foes, though all either does is follow a predetermined loop around the stage. Still, as a big fan Super Mario Bros 3 and Mega Man, the focus on strongly-themed zones is right up my alley, and in a way Frogger might've helped shaped that. I also like how quick and snappy the green amphibian feels, allowing you to effortlessly zip past enemies if you see a gap in their pathing. For a game that looks so kid-friendly, you might be surprised at how fast you can move—and how fast you'll need to move.

That's because Frogger is ruthlessly challenging. The game takes roughly 8-10 hours to beat, though a single stage's playtime rarely runs over five minutes. With only 28 stages total that means there's about 6-8 hours that you're going to spend dying over and over and OVER. Deaths will come suddenly and without mercy; should the faintest sliver of Frogger's hitbox brush against an enemy's leg, that frog's as dead as roadkill. If there's another thing I can commend the game for, it's that the starting arcade-throwback zone is the perfect indicator of how mean-spirit the game will soon become.

A big part of Frogger's difficulty lies in the fact that the game is unabashedly oldschool, valuing your patience for trail and error far more than quick reflexes or clever thinking. Every level has five frogs you'll need to rescue strewn somewhere across it, and while you can get a handful of them without foreknowledge, expect to discover most while making a suicidal dash through the stage. You'll be hemmed in by three aspects that make the world of Frogger a menace to explore: a strict timer, asynchronous patterns, and a camera that's glued to your slimy back.

The timer is the most threatening aspect that, ironically, won't actually kill you most of the time. It can be absurdly tight on some stages, pressuring you to barrel through the level without delay—and as you can imagine, this will often send you straight into the jaws of doom. Yet while I can appreciate a game with a no-nonsense timer, the asynchronous patterns are a massive headache to deal with. Crisscrossing foes or parallel platforms fall in and out of sync as stages drag on, and neither dying nor rescuing a frog will reset them. On a decent number of levels this is somewhat manageable, but when your path narrows down to a one-way road, expect an unavoidable death to pop up most of the time.

Adding salt to this wound is the camera, which will zoom in and out whenever it pleases. Sometimes you'll be riding a single-space platform, unable to see where you're going—and Frogger isn't shy about tossing you off a cliff. Other times you'll be trekking down that dreaded one-way road, unable to observe if the crisscrossing enemies are in sync until it's too late and you're sandwiched. The stage that exemplifies this problem the most is Big Boulder Alley, a monstrous experience that took me a good two hours to finally beat, requiring a level of memorization and planning that would make Battletoads jealous. Seriously, a full day later and I still remember it clearly: go east, hop over two bugs, north, hop over one bug, east, then south, double hop two bugs, double hop two bugs, east two spaces, hop, east two spaces, hop, north, hop two bugs, north until wall. That's only half of the path to a single frog and a fraction of a second worth of delay will ruin the entire run.

The cherry on top of this devil's dessert is that there's no "retry" option when you pause the game; as you die, your muscle memory becomes useless as the entire level is out of sync. For the easier levels this doesn't pose a problem, but there's a number of difficult levels where you absolutely can't see what's coming up ahead of you (Retro Level 5, Frogger Goes Skiing, Resevoir Frogs), making it feel like you're playing blindfolded. And on top of this you're booted straight to the main menu whenever you game over, despite that the game uses a level select system that can take you right back to where you were. Why no "retry stage" options? What was the reasoning here? At times Frogger just feels plain mean-spirited for the sake of it, as if it's harkening back to the arcade days where the layman was given no quarter (or rather, gave all their quarters, ba-dum-tss)

In the I end, I still enjoyed my time with Frogger. The game is embedded so firmly in my nostalgia center that I could never hate it. But the simple premise and warm colors belie a game with an unaccommodating design, one that really needed to use the brake pedal more often. At times it's interestingly and fairly designed—the final level is a well-balanced obstacle course—but Frogger's worst offenders drag the game down considerably, reverting you back to a red-faced child about to toss their controller. On one hand I'm impressed that I managed to conquer Frogger at a young age, but on the other I can see why it fell through the cracks and was forgotten post-adolescence.


Images obtained from:,

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Monster Hunter - Thoughts

In preparation of Monster Hunter Rise's release, I thought it was a good idea to slowly chip away at the granddaddy of the series: Monster Hunter on the PS2. And with no uncertainty do these next words come: don't play this game. You might flinch at that statement, thinking the worst the game has to offer is that it's outdated or visually unappealing, but it goes so much deeper than that. The first Monster Hunter was an online game meant to be played with friends, where rote hunts and boring load times were counterbalanced by idle banter. Without that, you are left with a raw, brutish solo experience that I'd be surprised if anyone—even diehard fans of the series—can stick with past the opening hours.

And it's not that Monster Hunter is too difficult or awkward to play—it's that it has a soul-crushing grind for gear.

There are two aspects that Monster Hunter can laud over its successors, the first being its originality. Monster Hunter established almost all of the series' staples, whether it's the core gameplay, resource gathering, item crafting, weapon trees, armor trees, enemies, setting, story structure—you name it. Even the weird way the game separates online and offline quests traces its roots to this humble title, with the exception that you can't even enter the hub without a network adapter installed (which is no big loss since the servers are dead anyway.) Monster Hunter is kind of like Pokemon in that the first entry laid the foundation for every other title going forward, even though many of its designs nowadays could be considered tedious and punishingly draconic.

The only other thing Monster Hunter excels at is that it makes you work hard for your victories. There's no expedition hunts, no lock on, no palico buddies, no farm—not even a goddamn canteen to stuff your face at at. All you get are two expensive stores with pitiful stocks and a box with two pages of inventory. Every potion you consume needs to be manually crafted from ingredients found out in the wild, the nodes often blending in with their surroundings (good luck spotting mushrooms.) Combat can't be won by roll spamming or button mashing (er, analog mashing, as attacks are mapped to the right stick of all things) since your character's movements are as slow as molasses in the dead of winter. Plus monsters not only hit hard but have some crazy hitboxes attached to their body, dishing out near-instantaneous hip checks and tail spins that'll wreck you if you're anywhere near them. I used to think folks online were joking about Yian Kut-Ku being their first roadblock, but hoo boy, that fight against him in the jungle biome can really test your patience (as well as vision—why are there so many damn trees?!)

The neat thing about this is that you're forced to engage with all of Monster Hunter's systems on a conscious level. Unlike modern Monster Hunter titles where you can luck into a new piece of equipment after a single hunt, here you'll be spending a lot of time grinding out low rank gear in order to survive. Ingredients are no longer something that you'll mindless gather either; you'll beeline out of your way during hunts to visit honey, mushroom, and ore deposits, possibly restarting the hunt if the hauls are poor. And monsters being no joke makes preparing before a hunt paramount, as every second Plesioth spends in the water inches you that much closer to the dreaded time-out. There's no other game in the series that forces you to be as "ready" as the original Monster Hunter—but this compliment is tainted with a poisonous consequence...

... That you have to do a lot of mindless grinding.

Before I begin, let me just say that I have nearly 1000 cumulative hours spread across four (now five!) games in the series, and it's become one of my all-time favorites. Therefore my frustration with Monster Hunter on the PS2 likely doesn't come from a disdain for the franchise, nor confusion as to why its mechanics work the way they do. I've endured the egg deliveries, I've withstood the Khezu roar-spam, and I no longer groan at being paralyzed by vespoids while mining. I appreciate the series for its eccentricity and stubbornness, and sympathize with fans that gripe about how the modern games have been streamlined, such as with the removal of paintballs or allowing you to switch gear mid-hunt. As Monster Hunter has becoming more accommodating, it's chiseled down its barrier to entry, losing some of the grit and workmanship that was required to get into it—two aspects that could make even mundane hunts rewarding.

But the first Monster Hunter game is terrible. I could go on about the pathetic monster roster, the lack of quest variety, how imprecise it feels to attack with the right analog stick, and how vexing Velocipreys are (JUST LET ME CARVE), but what broke my back was the process of making gear. You start the game with a sword & shield and no armor, which makes finding new gear a top priority. But the economy in Monster Hunter is brutal: you receive about 300-800 zenny per quest, yet armor costs anywhere from 1500-3000 per part. Plus every piece of equipment requires you to mine for ore, but iron pickaxes cost 160 zenny and can snap after a single use, so you'll be digging through your box often for monster parts to sell. But that's not the worst part, oh no—it's the damn machalite ore.

This garbage mineral is found only in area 5 of the starting zone, despite there being ore deposits in areas 6 and 11. Worse yet is that the node has roughly a 10-15% chance to drop machalite when mined, and nodes can not only exhaust after a single use but also stay depleted for the entire hunt! And even worse is that there's no ore gathering quests, meaning the quickest and most efficient way to farm machalite is to start a Velocidrome quest, run to area 5, pray for a single drop, and then hunt the Velocidrome! I must've run through this hunt a hundred or so times; I acquired over 100,000 zenny from selling nothing other than Velocidrome scales and fangs—but I still didn't have all the ore I needed!

To upgrade my hammer to its final level, I had to mine a whopping 85 machalite ore, of which I reckon I had a 50/50 chance of obtaining 1 per Velocidrome hunt. Considering that the hunt takes roughly five minutes, this totals to 10 hours of grinding, which checks out: I reached the Rathalos by hour 27 of my playthrough, and managed to best him around around hour 36. Luckily I used audiobooks to numb my sorrow, but I can't express how absolutely dull this entire process was. I wasn't playing Monster Hunter anymore—I was struggling with a fickle one-armed bandit that paid out with 6 machalite ore only once and 0 machalite dozens and dozens of times.

And I know what you're thinking: "Why did you need the best hammer to beat Rathalos? Why not get better armor? Or mine in a different locale? Or just play better?" Alas, I seriously tried all three avenues. The best armor I could get with fire resist was the Yian Kut-Ku set—which I made. While the desert and jungle settings had machalite nodes (only one each AFAIK), the former required farming piscine livers (nooo thank you) and the latter had you gathering 10 mushrooms in vespoid-infested areas. Lastly, I gave the Rathalos about three admirable attempts, all of which took over thirty minutes and ended in crushing defeat. After besting him I think I could've done it with the penultimate hammer upgrade, but knowing I had a goddamn Plesioth ahead of me, I figured it was better to do my grinding now rather than later. And thank god I did because that Plesioth hunt was absurdly dull, repetitive, and long—timing out there would've put me in a straight jacket.

What really rubs me the wrong way is that Monster Hunter didn't need to be like this. It could've had a mineral gathering quest, or let the player go on expeditions, or allow nodes to replenish, or add a Rathian (or Basarios) hunt before the Rathalos hunt so you could craft better armor—all of which future titles would do! Even something simple like giving the player invulnerability frames while they're on the ground can make a huge difference in a fight, as the game loves to combo you to death in a corner and there's nothing you can do about it (getting up is automatically done for you!) I know a lot of this is me looking backwards and struggling to see what the first Monster Hunter did right instead of wrong, but what it did wrong is in the meat of its gameplay, present at every moment you're in control. It's baffling to me that the game managed to take off in Japan considering how janky, agitating, and obstinate the first entry is. Was the online that good? Was the concept that novel that it helped folks overlook how shamelessly repetitive the game is?

And god, there are so many other parts of Monster Hunter that grate on me. Why are quests randomly unavailable? Why does the cooking minigame have such tight timing?  Why make all the starting weapons so expensive? Why do I have to personally bring my materials to the blacksmith for crafting when they know how much of a material I have? Why end the village questline on a Monoblos hunt instead of one of the three elder dragons? Why is the egg delivery the only quest with a thirty minute time limit? Why make the fish wyverns spend 90% of their time not on land? Why make bullfangos? Why infinitely spawn monsters in some zones but not others? Why do some quests get hot/cold drinks in the supply box but not others? And why the hell doesn't the game let you know that you can't capture an enraged monster? Oh don't worry—you can still put them to sleep inside of the goddamn trap, but as long as they're enraged the hunt doesn't complete! I failed to capture a Rathalos twice due to this, wracking my brain as his sleeping muzzle poked partway out of the pitfall trap, mocking me. I only found out that it's impossible to capture enraged monsters from reading youtube comments in broken english, which is where my tolerance for the game had truly reached its end.

I was excited to sit down and play the original Monster Hunter, to discover where the series had started and learn how much it had grown. Plus it would give me some fun bragging rights—lots of people may have played through Freedom, but how many reached the credits of the original PS2 game? Unfortunately, there's no bragging rights to be found here; pouring hours into the game will only yield what I'd honestly describe as a miserable experience. I could only recommend Monster Hunter to veterans of the series that not only have an unshakable love for it, but also find old bad games to be better than new good games. The progenitor of the Monster Hunter franchise may boast a promising premise, but it lacks quantity as well as quality, doling out 1 minute of fun for every 10 minutes of suffering. 

And it's only mediocre fun, at that.

Images obtained from:,,