Category Archives: Nintendo

Grandia: An upbeat adventure for these bleak times

As what has been a rather shitty status quo continues to get worse, I didn’t feel like the big new releases in Doom Eternal or the Resident Evil 3 remake were the appropriate antidotes. Instead, I’ve been relying on a little glimmer of light that’s been occupying my Switch since “social distancing” entered the vernacular: Grandia HD Collection.

The End of the World
The End of the World… or is it? No, of course not.

The first game’s relentlessly optimistic adventure makes it perfect for these bleak times. It was something of a throwback even at release, with its Saturday morning cartoon storyline and colourful, sprite-based characters bucking the trend of dark and gritty post-FFVII RPGs. There are no brooding antagonists and tortured antiheroes – the main character is a young boy, the son of an adventurer and a pirate because why not, intent on making his name as a first-class adventurer by exploring uncharted continents and discovering ancient civilisations with his friends. There’s a militaristic empire on the party’s heels, of course, but it wouldn’t be a Saturday morning cartoon without its Cobra.

Justin doesn’t have a brooding bone in his body. His optimism is infectious.

It’s a perfectly upbeat change of pace. Not overly challenging, with no esoteric systems to potentially snooker you later on. And it has what remains my favourite RPG battle system ever designed – a perfect mix of turn-based, active time and the spatial awareness of real-time combat that seems simple and yet, once mastered, rewards flawless victories with this soaring, gloriously of-its-time riff. I’ve spent most of my time with the game with a smile on my face. It’s a proper warm blanket of a game.

A little too anime for my tastes, but we forgive it.

The HD collection also contains Grandia II, which is still a great game with Dreamcast era 3D graphics that upscale better than Grandia’s sprites – my one complaint about the first game’s remaster is the smeared filtering job on the sprites, which is bearable on the Switch’s screen but looks worse the bigger your display gets. But the sequel comes with a touch of post-FFVII brooding that I can’t bring myself to like as much. Think of it as a nice freebie, with the first game as the real reason to buy this collection.

Best of 2017

It’s been a while since I played enough games to populate a top ten, so let’s follow last year and stick with the top three.

2017 was arguably the best year for games in a while, with a number of early contenders that would likely have made the list, had I played them. Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey have ensured me a good time whenever I buy a Switch, getting me more excited about Nintendo games than I’ve been since the N64. Surprise critical successes like Nioh and Nier Automata intrigued. Resident Evil VII proved the series’ versatility with another complete overhaul that went over well. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Origins confounded my expectations by doing the over-designed open-world thing well. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is also likely to grab me just as firmly as its predecessor.

The above would almost be enough to populate an impressive top ten on their own, but alas, I didn’t play them. Oh well.

There are, though, a couple of honourable mentions for games that I did play but didn’t make the top three. First is the 3DS Dragon Quest VIII remake, which did a good job of transferring a rather immense PS2 game to the handheld with surprisingly few compromises, and saw me through a couple of long flights. Then there’s Monument Valley 2, an excellent sequel to one of my favourite phone-based Escher-like mind-benders. Both are firm recommendations for anyone with time to kill and a handheld gaming system on their person.

3) Sonic Mania

A remarkable revival for a series that I don’t think has been worth writing about since the Dreamcast, and arguably not truly great since Sonic 3. Sonic Mania reminds me of something like Shovel Knight, in that it echoes a familiar classic gaming staple without being completely beholden to it – it’s how you remember the Mega Drive games looking, even if it’s technically far beyond what that hardware was capable of. I had a wonderful time playing it, feeling transported back to those early 90s stolen moments on my brother’s Mega Drive.

It’s easy to make fun of Sonic’s true believers, but maybe, after seeing how completely Christian Whitehead blew away expectations, the fans were right all along.

And maybe, if Sega had done something like this on the Saturn, things would be different now…

2) Metroid: Samus Returns

I’m slightly baffled by the fact that, after such a long, notable absence for Metroid in the N64 era – there were eight years between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime – it’s now been even longer since the last proper one. How many best game ever contenders does Samus have to star in to guarantee herself a regular appearance outside Smash Bros?

An enhanced remake of the second game, coming a mere 13 years after the enhanced remake of the first game (the pattern continues!) will have to do. MercurySteam – a strange choice of developer for this one, it must be said – put out a beautiful game, with understated stereoscopic effects adding much-needed visual flair to the most neglected game in the series, left to languish for too long in monochrome. While I’ll admit that the melee counterattack system hurts the pacing, discouraging fast traversal and otherwise turning many enemies into annoying bullet sponges, that Metroid magic was there, reminding me why Super Metroid remains my favourite game ever made.

I’d dearly love an entirely new instalment in this style, but if that’s not on the cards, the obvious next step is a similar remake of Super Metroid, which would make me fucking ecstatic. See you in 2030, then!

1) Persona 5

It was a safe bet to make the list after the last two games clicked so solidly with me, and here it is. I loved this game. The slick presentation and the music deserve mention, of course. The juxtaposition of carefree leisure time with really quite dark undercurrents was brave and amused me, too. But my most heartfelt praise goes to Atlus for demoting the random dungeon-crawling to a side quest in favour of properly designed, non-random dungeons, fixing my single biggest criticism of Personas 3 and 4.

Part of me misses the small town Japan feeling of Persona 4, which itself evoked the small town Japan feeling of Shenmue, but at the same time, this game’s setting in the middle of Tokyo has earned it a special place in my heart. My time with it bookended last year’s trip to Japan, meaning I visited many of the places I’d been spending time at in the game, lending a special weight of nostalgia to the memories of Persona 5. As the J-pop beats of Ouendan defined my holiday in 2005, then, so this will do for one of the best times of my life.

Thoughts on E3 2015

Gone may be the days when I’d spend the entirety of E3 week online, downloading 640×480 videos to burn to CD-R and watching press conferences regardless of the hour, but this year’s left me feeling more positive than most recent ones. Even when the last couple carried the sweet nectar of new hardware to freshen up some tired console lineups, it all seemed strangely uninspired.

Sure, Nintendo stayed true to form and disappointed. But that doesn’t get me down since I got fed up with ploughing that tract long ago now. It’s the regular disappointments, to varying extents, that I’ve suffered from being variously in the Sony and Microsoft camps over the last three years that have got me down. I’m struggling to remember a year when one or the other didn’t stumble since the immortal E3 2006, and having both on top form? You’re back into a time when even Nintendo was worth watching there. Circa 2004, maybe.

Microsoft thankfully grew out of the Kinect years and realised that you can only headline so many press conferences with Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty. It has the feeling of a platform holder that knows what it’s doing again, like it did when people like Peter Moore and Ed Fries were in charge. Great games and, it must be said, a much more impressive 2015 line-up than Sony. That means the Xbox One actually has a 2015 line-up.

Sony, though. The Last Guardian, the Final Fantasy VII remake and, seriously, Shenmue III? All they needed was a surprise Half-Life 3 announcement and we’d be out of long-running development sagas to make fun of. Sony dazzled, and it certainly made for better theatre, but it felt like a distraction from the mediocre PS4 release calendar for the rest of the year.

I guess that makes Microsoft’s conference the cute girl next door to Sony’s international supermodel. The better option, albeit with less razzmatazz, but man, that girl has Shenmue III…

Returning to the Resident Evil remake

I know I’ve complained about the preponderance of recent remasters, which makes my current enthusiasm for this, the 2015 remaster of the 2002 remake of 1996’s Resident Evil, as well as the long-awaited Majora’s Mask 3D, seem odd. I’ll defend my position, though, since neither of those games has been seen on shelves in more than a decade and at least two console generations – they’re retro, in other words. I’ll be less enthusiastic about a 1080p remaster of Resident Evil 6, should that arrive, believe me.

Resident Evil HD: The mansion lobby

This is a game that I always respected and wanted to like, but timid little 2002-vintage me never made it much beyond the appearance of Crimson Heads. A couple of hours, in other words. A humiliating admission for such an ardent horror fan, but sadly not an isolated one in my gaming back catalogue, which is a who’s who of abandoned horror classics. But while the years might have blunted the absolute dread I felt when playing this to the point where it didn’t really give me The Fear at all, like when I played through the original Silent Hill, though, time has left the solid mechanics alone. It’s a phenomenally well-designed game.

But where Silent Hill, being (a) a PS1 game and (b) doing in real-time what Resident Evil resorted to pre-rendered backdrops to accomplish, looks really rough now, the Resident Evil remake (REmake hereafter) still looks incredible. It’s genuinely one of the most beautiful games ever made, even on a GameCube, and quick polish for a new generation of systems has only enhanced it. Some FMV and dark backgrounds that can look somewhat over-compressed aside, the game looks almost flawless. A handful of rooms are apparently now rendered in real-time, and it’s absolutely seamless – meaning we had a game on the GC that could stand up alongside games from two generations on. Amazing.

Resident Evil HD: Jill Valentine

I’m continually blown away by the details in the visual and story design of this game. The Spencer Mansion, ridiculous as its gems, metal objects and death masks may be, is an iconic location, brimming with memorable rooms and scares. Lisa Trevor and her family add a harrowing subplot that’s significantly more disturbing than any number of exploding heads. It has fun in playing with your expectations, so that you can imagine the designers smiling as famous moments like the dogs through the window are subverted, or when the aforementioned Crimson Heads turn cleared rooms into dangerous ammo sinks. The voice acting still has B-movie charm without being impossible to take seriously like the original, while those touching up the script and removing some of the more egregious howlers had the good sense to leave alone some of the best writing.

As much as I love RE2 and 4, REmake is my favourite in the series. It’s pure survival horror, which, brilliant as it is, Resident Evil 4 isn’t. It’s also tight, creepy and self-contained, which the bigger and crazier RE2 isn’t. It’s also a lesson for newer games in how to do a lot without a huge abundance of content, supporting two stories, multiple endings and a series of enjoyable unlocks in a game that can comfortably be finished in five hours.

Best of 2014

Last year I complained about what a disappointment 2012 had been and in the last few weeks I bemoaned 2014 too, thus proving that video games are the opposite of Star Trek movies in that you should only bother with the odd-numbered ones. Except Into Darkness. That was shite.

I filled a couple of gaps in this year’s experiences since I wrote that post, with at least one of them certain to make the list as I write this, ahead of finalising my top five – alas, I couldn’t come up with ten without severely scraping the barrel. That made the line-up mildly less tragic than it was looking a few weeks ago, but it doesn’t change the fact that early 2015 looks like handily thrashing the entirety of this time round the sun.

Would a disappointment like Destiny have a chance in a year that will bring us Persona 5, The Witcher III, Batman: Arkham Knight, Bloodborne, Uncharted 4, Metal Gear Solid V, No Man’s Sky, Street Fighter V, Majora’s Mask 3D and a new Ace Attorney? No chance. But it’s still 2014, so let’s give it a send-off and pretend it never happened.

As usual, for your reference…

2014: Everything was Remasters

Everything was remastersI’m planning out my annual Game of the Year list for 2014 and I have a serious problem: I’m fairly sure I haven’t even played ten new games this year. I still don’t have a Wii U, meaning I’ve so far missed out on a couple of gems there – Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2 would almost certainly make the list – and I’m aware of a couple of candidates that I haven’t touched on the big consoles – The Evil Within, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shadows of Mordor, Far Cry 4 – but it’s still a disappointing crop.

That lot, coupled with the ones I actually have played, would still only take me up to a dozen or so, which is well down on years when putting together a top ten was a challenge for good reasons and left me with enough worthy games to fill an impressive honourable mentions list. Now, though, I’m either dropping it to a top five or just going with a handful of favourites to be hailed as one.

One trend is clear, though. My one remaining preorder for the year is Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD, which joins Final Fantasy X HD, Grand Theft Auto V for the PS4 and Metro Redux on my shelf. And I’ve been quite selective with those four, skipping Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, The Last of Us Remastered, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and no doubt some lesser examples that are slipping my mind. Just today, Dark Souls II was announced for the PS4 and Xbox One. Not the superior previous games in the series, and coming in the face of the series creator’s eagerly awaited next project. Just Dark Souls II. Again.

I know this isn’t necessarily a zero sum game where we’re getting remasters instead of new games, but such a barren 12 months really makes it feel that way.

I felt positive about this new generation after a generally disappointing and far too long one, but it’s been marred by technical issues and this blight. Thank god we have the scintillating first half of 2015 to make up for it.