Friday, January 28, 2022

Snakebird - Thoughts

is a mischievous, downright evil game. Whereas most puzzlers try their best to ease the player into their mechanics (and occasionally struggle to live up to their potential), Snakebird deems all filler as fat, trimming itself down into a lean meal of pure muscle. Within minutes you'll be in the thick of it, left to your own devices to figure out the intricate mechanics of this cruel, blocky world. A creeping frustration will mark the start of your downward tumble into insanity as you bang your head against one "impossible" puzzle after another, exacerbated cries of "HOW DO I DO THIS?" leaking from your lips. Do not let the charming art style and cute birds fool you—Snakebird is forged from raw nightmare fuel.

On its surface, Snakebird is simple—deceptively simple. Your gluttonous snakebirds have only two objectives: eat all of the fruit on a level, and then escape through the rainbow portal. For each piece of fruit a snakebird consumes it will grow by one block, allowing it to reach new areas and bridge wide chasms. While this doesn't sound too bad, remember that gravity is an omnipresent menace, requiring your snakebirds to be anchored by at least one square or face plummeting to their doom. Like I said, it's an uncomplicated premise, but the way Noumenon Games designs their stages will wring every ounce of brainpower out of your feeble little mind.

Don't believe me? Out of its 50+ levels, it's Level 2 that's your first impasse—one of the game's introductory puzzles! And the experience doesn't get easier from there, oh no; expect to be stymied frequently, even multiple times within the same stage. You'll contort your snakebirds into painful configurations in order to reach sequestered fruits... and then realize you've gotten them permanently stuck (Level 11, 42). Or you'll spend half an hour reverse engineering how to reach every piece of fruit... but fail to plan an escape route back to the rainbow portal (Level 21, 45). Should you even chance upon the rare "easy" puzzle, expect Snakebird to throw a curveball soon after, leaving you more stumped than the remains of a lumberjack's rampage (Level... well, every level).

What truly catapults Snakebird into the lunatic stratosphere are three brain-bending mechanics that get slowly introduced. The first is the ability to control multiple snakebirds, dynamically changing how you move about the world (Level 19, 26) while also tacking on more ways you to get yourself stuck (Level 17, 20). The second is some good old fashion box pushing, which will rankle you beyond belief as you struggle to transport the stubborn squares from point A to point B (Level 23, 39, *1). And third is playing with position-swapping portals, which require as much terrifying foresight as you can imagine the mechanic implies (Level 38, 44).

While the odds may be stacked against you, at least you always have the "Undo" button in your back pocket, allowing you to backtrack all the way to your very first, na├»ve move. Without it the game would be hilariously unplayable, given how often your snakebirds worm their way off of cliffs or jam themselves into a corner. The only downside is that you have to mash the backwards key in order to return to "safe" point on the longer levels, forcing you to relive all of the turns you wasted putzing about. The "Undo" button is still a much appreciated, integral mechanic—I just wish it was a rewind function with a preview instead.

If it sounds like I reviled my torturous time with Snakebird, the opposite is actually true—I greatly adore and respect the game! It may have been unexpectedly brutal but it's never cruel for the sake of it; Snakebird treats you as an adult, letting you know early on that it's going to take your time with it seriously. To use a sour but effective phrase, Snakebird is the Dark Souls of puzzlers: you either adapt to its stubborn rules or scamper away with your tail between your legs. The stages themselves are truly impressive, often containing a singular solution with very little wasted space or structural red herrings. It's an utterly phenomenal video game from a design standpoint alone—and probably the best 2D puzzler I played since The Swapper—but heed the warning I've been echoing this entire entry: Snakebird is not welcoming, soft, nor remotely pitying. Some of the latter stages are so difficult (curse that final level!) that you may find it easier (and quicker!) to chew through an ingot of pure iron.

Snakebird is a brilliant puzzler but I was nevertheless relieved to finally be done with it. This goddamn game has haunted me for far too long—I've been trying to beat it since 2016! Well, not actively—more like once a year until I get overwhelmed—but its presence has weighed heavy on my prideful mind, holding me back from exploring games like Baba is You, Recursion, and Magnibox. "How are you going to bridge this gap?" It would jeer when I ran out of all feasible options, "Which snakebird should eat the fruit? How do you wriggle out of this spot? How are you going to move this box across the entire level?" Snakebird is deceptive and malicious, but like any good villain it's also exceedingly smart—so smart that I can think of few games as downright sinister as it. So congratulations Noumenon Games; I can only hope you're using those dastardly brains of yours nowadays for good and not ill—because lord help us if you aren't.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Super Mario Bros. 2 (US) - Thoughts

When it comes to Super Mario Bros. 2, opinions are usually split in one of two directions: either it's the black sheep of the series, or it's one of the most innovative titles in the 2D franchise. For me, I've always drifted towards the former—the Mario series is rooted in momentum based platforming, so why include all this turnip tossing? Doki Doki Panic's fingerprints were too large, too extraneous; the once-pristine waters of platforming had been muddied by root vegetables, key escorts, and dimensional doorways. As a sequel, Super Mario Bros. 2 may not have strayed as far as Link's Adventure, but it was similarly fated to live in the shadow of its younger siblings. Charitably, Super Mario Bros. 2 was an ambitious anomaly. Critically, it was a bizarre offshoot.

However, that kind of puritanical thinking is woefully outdated, especially given the smorgasbord of entries found across the (nearly) forty-year-old franchise. Super Mario Bros. 2 is actually more of a "loyal platformer" than Donkey Kong '94, Yoshi's IslandSuper Mario RPG, or even Super Mario Sunshine—hell, it's more like Super Mario Bros. than the arcade progenitor is! The eccentricity that made Super Mario Bros. 2 an outlier ironically works to its advantage, giving it a more colorful, charming, and memorable identity than that of its Japanese counterpart—or even the entirety of the New series! Super Mario Bros. 2 may not be the ideal sequel that 3 ended up being, but nor is it a mediocre outlier as I once narrowly thought in my youth.

It's simply a good game, all things considered.

As an adolescent, what I disliked the most about Super Mario Bros. 2 is that you no longer defeat enemies by stomping on their heads. This creates a noticeable change in rhythm, where the accuracy of your throw now takes priority over the momentum of your jump. The game feels less speedy, less urgent—and the lack of a time limit means you can scrounge for mushrooms or farm hearts at your leisure. While I no longer defensively correlate "different" with "bad", I still feel that Doki Doki Panic's framework makes for a poor Mario game.

That's not to discount everything Super Mario Bros. 2 brings to the table, however. Besides the vegetable pitching, there's distinct themes to each world, plenty of secrets to scavenge for, the aforementioned key caretaking, and a versatile bestiary that's sprinkled throughout the adventure. No longer must you wade through repetitive castles and topple marginally different psuedo-Bowsers—Super Mario Bros. 2 boasts a wide variety of bosses that require different approaches, an achievement the series wouldn't top until Yoshi's Island. Even the multitudinous Birdo duels are always exciting, thanks in no small part to the alterations made to her arena each fight.

But by far the best thing Super Mario Bros. 2 brings to the table—which the franchise foolishly leaves behind—is its quad of playable characters. I didn't find much value in the choice as a kid (Luigi was the only one I played), but bouncing between the protagonists really livens up the gameplay. They're a well-rounded cast that's distinct from one another without requiring that you learn a completely new playstyle. Plus you can tailor your choice on a per stage basis, effectively nullifying tricky sections. Can't quite jump on the fish in 5-1? Zoom across with the Princess! Want to easily reach the secret mushroom in 2-3? Jump sky-high with Luigi! Need to dispatch a boss quickly? Switch to Toad! Unsure what's ahead of you? Well-rounded Mario to the rescue! My only complaint is that I wish you could change characters after losing a life—something the All-Stars version wisely remedies.

Despite the vast number of changes Super Mario Bros. 2 introduces, one thing it maintains is its predecessor's knack for exploration. You won't be jumping down pipes and headbutting blocks for goodies however—instead you'll peek into jars and slip through doorways into the ephemeral Sub-space. There's not much to talk about with the former—most of the jars are copy-pasted bore-fests—but the door-conjuring potion is an excellent addition, letting you manually choose where to explore. Sniffing out mushrooms is an entertaining diversion, as even when you fail to unearth one, you can still harvest the nearby coins.

... Except the coins kind of suck this time around. In Super Mario Bros. they're the promise of a reward, scattered throughout stages to incentivize jumping while simultaneously building towards a 1-up. In Super Mario Bros. 2, they're the chance of a reward, easily farmed in Sub-space for the sole purpose of feeding them to a capricious slot machine. And unless you're rolling cherries, expect to walk away empty handed most of the time. I concede that gambling is a more... exciting alternative to fractionally collecting 1-ups, but I prefer the dependability of the old system—especially when you're in dire need of an extra guy.

Likewise, stars and hearts are useful powerups that have been rendered unfortunately unreliable. With no way to track when the next one will appear, you either have to make an educated guess or hope one will pop up when you need it. Similar to the slot machine, this isn't a massive foible; I just prefer openly predictable systems to (seemingly) random ones. In fact, there's not really anything I'd categorically claim as "bad" in Super Mario Bros. 2—the game just makes a lot of strange decisions is all. The level design is occasionally strange as well: 6-2 is so short that it feels unfinished, one path in 7-2 is notably harder than the other, and the precision required for 5-1 could make the Lost Levels blush.

Note that the worlds in Super Mario Bros. 2 still blow the first game out of the water. Whereas I had to rummage to find notable stages in Super Mario Bros., its successor won't leave you wanting. There's climbing sections, bomb puzzles, sandy excavations, magic carpet rides, ice rink races, and more platforming than you can shake a carrot at. While I find the base gameplay of the original more entertaining moment-to-moment—controlling classic Mario is like wrangling a wild beast—Super Mario Bros. 2 offers a hell of a lot more to the player on their first playthrough. Subsequent playthroughs are... less compelling, even with alternating characters, but not every game needs to endure a dozen replays to be considered worthwhile.

One of the few upsides of growing older is learning to appreciate the things you've previously dismissed. Although Super Mario Bros. 2 remains one of my least favorite Super Mario games, it's a lot better than I previously thought. I've learned to accept the change in gears, appreciating how it trades the frantic momentum of the first for a more relaxed, varied, and lob-heavy playstyle. Plus its four playable characters give it a depth that I can only hope the 2D series embraces again some day. I may not always be in the mood to return to Super Mario Bros. 2, but whenever I do, I never have a bad time.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Hollow Knight - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

In spite of its gloomy demeanor, Hollow Knight is a blindingly brilliant game. Name any aspect—music, visuals, gameplay, ambiance, boss fights—and Hollow Knight not only delivers on that front but does so with an enviable finesse. It's a carefully crafted experience that's breathtakingly massive, lasting longer than most Metroidvanias without ever slowing down or losing its grip on your curiosity. In spite of its monstrous size, Hollow Knight develops slowly, maturing from an exploration-focused platformer into a behemoth of buttery-smooth combat. What I appreciate most however, is that it rarely holds your hand—instead, it shoves you off of a steep cliff, hurtling into the dark unknown.

At first, it can be hard to acknowledge what makes Hollow Knight so damn special. Its intro is dusty and modest, calmly welcoming you to its kingdom and preventing you from getting lost or diving too deep. Within the first few hours you might feel that the color palette is lacking, that enemies are devoid of flavor, and that your moveset is disappointingly simple. Even after your first few bosses, you may remain vaguely unimpressed, skeptical how this little bug of a game could even challenge the gods of the metroidvania genre.

But gradually as you plumb its depths, Hollow Knight will start to click. You'll emerge onto the rain-soaked streets of the City of Tears, amazed at the game's quiet melancholy. You'll delve into the unnerving Deepnest, aghast at the size of the maze before you. And once you fell the Broken Vessel (or best the first arena challenge), you'll begin to understand how truly invigorating the combat feels. Time and time again, Hollow Knight will surprise you in miniscule ways, frequently eliciting an unexpected "wow that's cool!" or gasp of "oh I see!" Whereas some games suffer a death by one thousand cuts, Hollow Knight epitomizes the inverse, soaring high off one thousand plaudits.

Of these accolades, one of the most refreshing is how the game handles customization. Along with your standard energy & hp upgrades, you can uncover charms hidden throughout the Hollownest—ability-changing modifiers that range from minimal to revolutionary. You can only have a handful equipped however, with impactful charms taking up more space than simpler ones. At first this system appears unremarkable (one of the first charms you get is just a compass) but by the end you'll have a wealth of options. Should you make a magic build? Focus on melee? Defense? Minion spam? What about a glass cannon that can't heal? Charms allow for a variety of playstyles, and my favorite thing is that you'll always wish you had space for just one more.

Likewise, I adore the mapping system, although I understand the criticism against it. Hollow Knight treats mapping as a privilege, not a right—in order to receive even a bare-bones outline of the zone you're in, you have to sniff out the hiding spot of a particular vendor. While he's never too far off the beaten path, this adds to Hollow Knight's labyrinthine nature; you're better off memorizing room layouts as well as optimal routes, even with the map secured in your back pocket. I can see how this can be frustrating to the less-directionally inclined, but I absolutely adored etching this world onto my brain. Most of the rooms have at least one aspect that helps make them memorable (enemy, background, tricky section) and the pin system wisely reminds you which spots to return to in the future.

Capturing the magic of the world map best, in my opinion, is a late-game side mission where you have to run from one end of the Hollownest to the other—without taking damage. What's great is that the path isn't immediately obvious; there are several dozen rooms between you and your objective, and only by recalling what's in them can you plot the safest route. Should you risk fighting tougher foes for a shorter journey? Is the northern section of Queen's Gardens safer than the southern section? Are there any charms that can help you? It's an arduous journey that will reveal how much you know about the game's world, and it's one (among a myriad) of reasons why I enjoyed my playthrough so much.

Combat is another one of Hollow Knight's strong suits, and it's the aspect that evolves the most over the course of your journey. Like with the exploration, it's nothing remarkable at the start—all you're really doing is smacking foes with a single blade strike. But by end you'll feel like a subterranean samurai, dispatching foes with an awesome speed and grace. Seamlessly, you'll learn to blend spellcasting with charged techniques, figuring out how to dash in as well as dancing atop an enemy's head. Yet Hollow Knight's staggering bestiary will keep you humble—especially when it comes to the bosses. Anyone that has faced NKG and lived to tell the tale knows that this game has some of the hardest, frantic, white-knuckled boss battles the metroidvania genre has ever seen. Even though there's a few stinkers, the majority of them provide a delectable dance you'll be yearning to savor again.

Lastly, a cool ability unique to Hollow Knight is the Dream Nail: an ethereal blade that can peer into the mind of creatures both living and dead. Gameplay-wise it does very little—it physically lets you access a couple more boss fights and new areas—but it deepens the already-rich atmosphere of the world, enticing you to Dream Nail enemies and bosses just to see what they're thinking. Plus later on, it gets the ability to create custom checkpoints, which is a skill so useful that it practically feels essential for every large-scale metroidvania going forward.

For all of Hollow Knight's many, many achievements (I didn't even touch on how utterly majestic and passionate the soundtrack is) perhaps the biggest knock against it's clearly a child of the Souls school. There are plenty of parallels you can draw between the two: healing that leaves you vulnerable, corpse runs, a dying civilization, light vs dark, the final battle with a tragic figure, etc. Likewise, the Knight's agile abilities are reminiscent of Super Metroid, with Mantis Claw echoing Samus's infinite wall jump and the Crystal Heart working as a horizontal-only shinespark. Of course, Dark Souls and Metroid don't have a perpetual patent on these systems; I'm merely pointing out that Hollow Knight owes much to its spiritual forebearers.

If that sounds like a weak criticism to you—honestly, that's because it is. Hollow Knight brings enough personality and new concepts to the table that I think it's pretty easy to overlook its soulsian tropes. The detailed setting alone keeps the game from feeling like an uninspired knock-off; I can firmly remember more about the Hollownest than Metroid Dread's ZDR. Hollow Knight also features an extensive and lore-filled postgame centered around increasingly-difficult boss gauntlets, which I'm frankly not sure I'll ever beat (besting NKG was enough excitement for me.) Still, it's cool to see how Team Cherry has supported the title post-launch, and that they're as passionate about the game as its most ardent fans are.

I don't believe any piece of media is "perfect", but Hollow Knight is one of the blessed few to come shockingly close. It's an experience that you can't help but think back to, ruminating on all the cool things about it and the different ways it surprised you. You'll discover bizarre secrets, witness character deaths, rescue a maiden, get robbed, uncover a zone below the lowest point on the map, and much more; Hollow Knight is teeming with events humbly waiting to be stumbled upon. It's an experience that's centered around discovery, offering a seemingly dead world you'll realize is burdened by loss, regret, and broken dreams. Throw in a solid amount of customization and some of the fiercest boss battles ever made, and it's hard not to overstate the appeal of the game. Ultimately however, how much you end up getting out of Hollow Knight depends on how deeply you want to dig—and the greater the effort, the greater the spoils.