Sonic Forces me into Disappointment…

Yes, I know that putting this game’s title before a regular sentence is a meme done to death at this point; I guess one could say that the name of this blog post is pretty forced.

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Okay, I’ll stop now…

Anyways, Sonic Forces is actually the second game featuring the famous blue blur to release this year, coming out mere months after the wildly successful Sonic Mania, a game which I, alongside many others, had highly praised. While the Sega-supervised indie team was developing the retro-inspired Mania, Sega’s own division, Sonic Team, worked on the more modern-styled Forces. The two games were announced simultaneously at Comic-Con 2016, and I was intrigued by Sega’s apparent “best of both worlds” approach to the series.

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Aside from a few of its duds, I generally enjoy the modern incarnation of Sonic. However, while I loved the likes of more recent titles such as Colors and Generations for their fun gameplay, one thing that I have felt has been missing from the series as of late is solid storytelling. Although it is debatable as to whether the games at the beginning of the “Modern Era” (around the early 2000s) have aged well overall, titles such as the Adventure duology excelled in character development and world-building. After the failure of Sonic ’06, a soft reboot of sorts occurred, as the cast of characters was greatly reduced, and the plots not only became simpler, but also stopped building upon Sonic’s established lore, so imagine my excitement when the first trailer for Forces depicted a dark, dystopian world in which the evil Dr. Eggman has, in a twist, actually won.

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However, I was slightly put off by one aspect of the initial teaser: Classic Sonic would appear as a playable character alongside his modern counterpart. This confused me, given that the ’90s icon was already getting his own game via Mania, and a crossover between the Classic and Modern iterations already occurred in 2011’s Generations. As such, I was concerned that Forces would come off as redundant. Nevertheless, I remained cautiously optimistic, seeing as I enjoyed Generations, and hoped that Sega would take cues from the Mania team when designing Classic Sonic’s stages and physics.

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In the months leading up to Sonic Forces’ release, I noticed a pattern of sorts: for every good thing revealed about the upcoming game (such as the promising premise), there would also be something disconcerting (such as Classic Sonic’s inclusion) announced. Likewise, when a third playable character in the form of a customizable avatar was confirmed, complete with species-based abilities and different gadgets to choose from, I felt this was a great way to give players some freedom in how they played through levels. However, around this time, gameplay surfaced of Green Hill Zone, a classic stage so constantly referenced and remade in the series that it has gotten downright annoying. Similarly, I was excited when learning that several heroes and villains were being brought back into the game’s supporting cast, hoping that the series would finally build upon its stagnant lore, but was simultaneously concerned by how overtly linear and easy the level design was shaping up to be.

Not surprisingly in hindsight, this mixture between good and bad announcements ultimately foreshadowed how the final product would turn out to be: mediocre. The story, while a step up from the most recent Sonic games, was only slightly so, and did next to nothing to truly develop its characters or world. In terms of gameplay, the graphics and music were great as always, and while it was admittedly satisfying to mindlessly speed my way through the game, the fact that the levels were shallow in their design to be like that felt like a step down from the more intricately-made stages of previous titles.

All in all, while not an objectively bad game, Sonic Forces is not very good either, being rather forgettable in the end. Sadly, I cannot recommend this game to anyone outside of Sonic’s core fanbase, which is disappointing considering how I was able to easily do so with the excellent Sonic Mania just three months ago.

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Satisfying Taxi

For me, one of the biggest appeals of playing video games is the feeling of being immersed in them. True, robust sounds and crisp visuals can contribute to my engrossment in a game on their own, but more importantly, it is when these two aspects interact that I almost feel a physical connection to what I am doing on-screen. Last night, my dorm neighbors and I were playing Crazy Taxi on the old Sega Dreamcast I had brought with me from home, and the rush of excitement we all felt as we were playing really got me to think about this.

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Released in 2000, Crazy Taxi just may be Sega’s most fast-paced game not starring a blue hedgehog! The main mode of the game has players select one of four different drivers before being placed in a city reminiscent of those in California. Players are free to drive around the city, stopping to pick up passengers of their choosing to take them to their requested destinations. The object of the game is to collect as much cab fare as possible within the specified time limit, and greater pay is given when driving customers around quickly and efficiently. Once time runs out, players are given a rank ranging from A to E (highest to lowest). Combined with the infamous “recklessness” of real-world, urban taxi drivers, this makes for a rather frenetic experience.

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It is such a simple concept, but similarly to today’s mobile apps, Crazy Taxi takes such straightforward gameplay and makes it incredibly addictive. As such, despite there only being one level to drive around in, I keep coming back for more. At first glance, my urge to play this game seemingly stems from the desire to beat my high score. However, upon closer scrutiny, I feel that my appreciation for the game comes from the sensory experience it brings.

Not only is the sheer sense of speed complimented by upbeat music (tunes which were likely popular seventeen years ago), but the auditory impact of the sound effects in general works with the game’s frantic nature incredibly well; the racket of horns honking, cars crashing, as well as pedestrians screaming as they narrowly avoid my terrible driving, all constitute an experience which I can only describe as “rollercoaster-esque”, and I love it! In my opinion, the most satisfying of these sounds comes from driving past other vehicles at high speeds without collision, in which a “cha-ching” plays, indicating that the passenger is paying me extra tips for my (somewhat) good driving.

Last night, I took notice that every satisfying “cha-ching” I received made me feel giddy inside, and that I kept wanting more. As my dollar score continued to rise quicker and quicker, I felt my heartbeat speed up, and therefore, I became increasingly pumped up. It soon became clear that I was not the only one who was now excitable once I managed to obtain an “A” rank, one of my neighbors cheered so loudly that all of Brumbaugh Hall could hear! I will always remember that as a fun night, especially as a reminder as to why I love video games.

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It isn’t Even Out Yet, but Super Mario Odyssey is Awesome!

In my previous blogpost, I frequently compared Banjo-Kazooie with a childhood favorite of mine, Super Mario 64. Quite honestly, while the former does many things better than the latter, such as (in my opinion) more creative level themes and superior music, I will always have an undying nostalgic appreciation for Mario 64. Aside from it still being an objectively fantastic game, the Italian plumber’s famous N64 outing holds a special place in my heart for just how it shaped my tastes in gaming. If my memory serves me correctly, Super Mario 64 was the first “3D” game I played, and the amount of freedom given to the player to roam its worlds absolutely blew my mind at the time!

Image result for Super Mario 64A trend that I, and many other Mario fans, have noticed is that following 64, the 3D titles have been becoming progressively more linear, meaning that the newer games are more focused on getting from Point A to B in each level, rather than exploring each world and finding secrets and collectibles. Additionally, recent Mario games have been increasingly reliant on “cliche” level themes (grass, desert, snow, lava, etc.), making them feel a bit too similar for my liking. That being said, I still thoroughly enjoyed the more streamlined entries, and was impressed by how effectively Nintendo had been able to “milk” the same tropes over the course of several years. However, I was concerned that Mario would begin to falter if this kept up, but these fears were laid to rest this past January, when Nintendo released the following trailer during their presentation for their then-upcoming system, the Switch.

Similarly to the reveal of Sonic Mania, I went into absolute “nerd-out mode”. I thought to myself, “The game looks so detailed, crisp, and smooth! The level themes are new and inspired! Look at Mario’s cool new cap abilities! Who are all those new characters?! Why does Mario’s cap now have EYES?!” The icing on the cake for me, however, was when the game’s producer confirmed that Super Mario Odyssey would be emphasizing open-ended exploration akin to 64. Seeing as the more linear titles did so well critically and commercially, I honestly did not expect Nintendo to do a complete one-eighty like this, but nevertheless, I was overjoyed, and felt as if there was no way the game could be any better; that was until a second trailer was released in June, at the E3 gaming convention.

“So that’s why Mario’s cap is like that now”, I said to myself after seeing this new trailer. To me, Mario’s ability to “possess” other beings by a mere toss of his hat was a stroke of pure genius, as it completely changes the dynamic of the game, allowing the player to traverse the already expansive-looking worlds in new, original ways. That is when it hit me: Odyssey is not merely bringing back Mario 64‘s design philosophies as a means to cheaply bank on nostalgia, but is instead building upon it in a meaningful way, allowing the game to have an identity of its own!

True, the game does not come out for a few more weeks, and I have yet to play it, but given the Mario’s track record of high quality, withstanding even when the series plays it safe, I am confident that I, as well as anyone my age who grew up with the likes of 64, will get a real kick out of Odyssey; just make sure not to leave me without a copy on launch day, as they will fly off the shelves!

Banjo-Kazooie: The Best Childhood Game You & I Never Played

As fans of particular genres, whether they be action movies, mystery novels, or in my case, mascot platforming games, chances are that despite our perceived expertise in our areas of interest, there will always be a film, book, or video game in our niche that we have not experienced. For me, this was Banjo-Kazooie: a whimsical 3D platformer released for the Nintendo 64, featuring “collect-a-thon” gameplay in the vein of Super Mario 64, a childhood favorite of mine. I knew that this game was up my alley, and had heard high praises sung for Banjo for quite some time, but did not get the chance to play it until about six months ago. Needless to say, given the title of this post, I had an absolute blast!

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The game, as its name shows, has the player control a bear named Banjo, who’s moveset is augmented by his bird companion, Kazooie; if the former jumps, the latter can flap her wings to pull off a double jump, for example. The duo travel through nine large, open levels ranging from a pirates’ cove to a Christmas-themed winter wonderland. The worlds the two explore are filled with collectibles, each containing ten jigsaw pieces (or “Jiggies”) used to unlock new levels, as well as one-hundred musical notes, which are needed to open pathways to said levels. Secondary trinkets and additional moves can also be obtained throughout the adventure.

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Now, I am aware that many prefer a more straightforward, level-to-level approach to their games, so Banjo-Kazooie‘s emphasis on thoroughly scouring each area to collect every item might be a turn-off to some. However, I personally feel that Banjo’s levels are not as expansive as they initially come off to be; although I was slightly overwhelmed whenever I arrived in a new world, but in due time, was able to intuitively traverse it. Additionally, I would argue that the game is not much more sprawling than the rather similar Mario 64, a classic that many people my age played as children, with the “Power Stars” in that game being analogous to the Jiggies in Banjo as gold coins are to musical notes. Heck, it is even possible that some players would consider the admittedly tighter controls of the bear-bird twosome easier to manage than their Italian counterpart’s more slippery handling.

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Pretty dang similar if you ask me!

If readers decide to indeed heed my advice on Banjo-Kazooie, I truly hope that they enjoy the similarly blissful experience I had. From the moment of booting it up on my old N64, I knew I was in for something special when a fun, quirky opening cinematic featuring the titular characters playing their namesake instruments was shown. To me, being left to explore such open worlds and collecting each and every item in the game felt incredibly rewarding, and I even found myself dancing along with Banjo and Kazooie each time they collected a Jiggy. In addition to the great levels and game mechanics, the game just has a great “feel-good” atmosphere to it in general, especially in terms of the soundtrack, which contains some of the most “hummable” music from a video game, a solid example being shown below.

Discovering a new great work in one’s favorite genre of film, literature, or gaming is a very gratifying experience, as is the case with me and Banjo-Kazooie. This game made me feel the same sense of wonder I had as a child when first playing similar titles, and not only do I recommend this game to platforming fans, but I also recommend readers try out new things in general both within and outside their interest ranges.

P.S. You don’t need a Nintendo 64 to play Banjo-Kazooie! It is available as a digital download on Xbox 360 for $14.99, and as part of the “Rare Replay” compilation for Xbox One!

 

 

I’ll Admit it: I’m a Sonic Maniac!

“By the mania, for the mania”; these were the words Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka used to describe the recently released Sonic Mania, a full-blown throwback to the Blue Blur’s games of the early 1990s that was officially published by Sega, but developed by an indie team composed of lifelong Sonic aficionados with a history of creating fangames. In other words, this game was made specifically with people like me in mind, for I am a “Sonic Maniac” myself.

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Sonic Mania has received critical acclaim since launching, with many praising the game as one of, if not the series’ absolute best. I consider myself among those who agree with this consensus, and as such, will be focused more on my personal experiences surrounding the game (and series in general) as opposed to a straight-up review.

I have been a Sonic fan since kindergarten, when I played some of the earlier 3D titles (the Adventure duology, Sonic Heroes, etc.) on my GameCube, and was instantly enamored by the slick, fast gameplay, as well as the ever-expanding world and cast of characters surrounding the franchise. I eventually gained access to the 2D-era games of the ’90s as well via a compilation known as the Sonic Mega Collection, where I fell in love with the “holy grail” that is the original trilogy.

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I have since kept up with the hedgehog’s outings, and while I do enjoy many of the more modern titles, I will acknowledge Sonic’s occasional misstep, the worst of which I feel was 2014’s Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, which made me legitimately concerned for the series’ future, assuming there was one, as no news on an upcoming installment was released in a long time.

That all changed at Comic-Con 2016, when Sonic Mania was announced to great fanfare. I vividly remember watching the reveal trailer (see below) in absolute amazement; not only did it hearken back to the original set of games, graphics and all, but it was being developed by the same people who made near-perfect ports of the first two games for iOS! Call me overly sentimental, but I may have shed a tear of joy as I saw the beautifully-animated Sonic pose at the end of the trailer.

Waiting for this game to come out was absolutely grueling, so imagine my frustration when the release dated was delayed from this spring to just three weeks ago. All was forgiven, however, once the game turned out to be well worth the hype. From the pinball-esque physics to the godly soundtrack, Mania hit all the right notes, and then some; even my biggest concern regarding the game, that it was confirmed to rely primarily on “remixes” of older levels, was averted, and I ended up looking forward to seeing how the development team shook up each of my childhood favorites. I had a wide, dumb grin on my face the entire time I was playing, and it truly felt like I got to be a kid one last time before moving off to college.

If someone my age is looking for a game to broaden their horizons past the stereotypical shooter and sports genres, Sonic Mania is definitely a good place to start, being a fairly straightforward side-scroller. Despite a newcomer not being able to understand the many obscure references slipped into the game (all of which I squealed with elation at), it is still a very fun time in its own right, and a great way to “convert” them into a Sonic fan.