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TAT Archive – Devil’s Third Review

Originally published in 2015, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

Format: Wii U

Developer: Valhalla Game Studios / Nintendo SPD

Publisher: Nintendo

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Devil’s Third is a videogame that has endured a long, protracted publishing history.

Affectionately referred to as ‘development hell’, the title was originally announced way back in 2009. Under THQ, it was announced for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC, and was the very first title by Valhalla Game Studios. Headed by Team Ninja alumni Tomonobu Itagaki, interest was definitely piqued, but turmoil soon followed. THQ went bankrupt not long after, and the game seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth.

Fast forward to E3 2014, and Nintendo shocked everyone by announcing that it had picked up Devil’s Third for exclusive release on Wii U. Much like Bayonetta 2 before it, the Kyoto-based firm relied on the title to bring some much-needed ‘mature’ content to its struggling console, and hopes were initially high that Itagaki would finally unleash his new masterpiece.

Unfortunately, once the game was unleashed in preview events, negative reactions increased with every showing. Much was said about the game’s bare visuals and lacklustre combat over the next year; so much so that Nintendo didn’t even bother to showcase the title at E3 2015. This, combined with Nintendo of America’s silence on its publishing duties – and the announcement of a free-to-play multiplayer edition on PC – has led to a healthy dose of scepticism regarding the quality of Devil’s Third.

Now, after six years of waiting, the game is finally on the shelves. Devil’s Third is here, and it’s… Well…

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Let’s start with the story. Devil’s Third casts you in the role of Ivan, a bald, tattooed Russian ex-terrorist who is serving an 850 year sentence in Guantanamo Bay (yes, really). While locked away in his underground bunker of solitary confinement, he gets a call from the US government (interrupting his bitchin’ drum solo), who informs him that his help is needed to take down his former group – the SOD. You see, these baddies somehow managed to detonate the earth’s extrasolar satellites, causing a worldwide blackout. Based on the real life ‘Kessler Syndrome’ theory, this event has caused warfare to revert back to the old days of interpersonal battlefield combat, as sophisticated missile systems have now gone the way of the dodo. On top of this, the SOD are experimenting with a deadly disease called the ‘Chimera Virus’, with effects that I won’t spoil here.

It’s certainly a detailed narrative, and I cannot fault the writers for skimping on the world-building. Indeed, there are some genuinely interesting ideas on offer, with an almost Kojima-like emphasis on constructing a multi-threaded espionage plot. Even the bosses you face look like they were ripped straight out of a Metal Gear game; each one having their own story, ability, and penchant for long-winded melodramatics.

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Devil’s Third isn’t a patch on Snake’s adventures, however. The voice acting is nothing to write home about (as expected from a Japanese title), and the sound effects are inconsistent, with chunky gunfire sitting uncomfortably alongside muffled ambient noises and forgettable music. Still, there is one level that is a particular highlight, where the music transforms into a traditional Japanese melody that is an utter pleasure to listen to. Quite why this specific moment was given such special treatment is baffling, and is emblematic of the game’s wider inconsistent quality.

Visually, Devil’s Third is a dog’s breakfast. During its difficult gestation, Valhalla Studios was forced to change engines four times – which is a crazy amount for a videogame. Finally settling on Unreal Engine 3, the final product is a disappointing mash of basic details and inconsistent framerates. Cutscenes are good enough, but when you take control, it can be hard to believe you’re playing a videogame that was released in 2015. Character models are okay, but environments are bland; both aesthetically and technically. While there are some nice moments (the aforementioned Japanese level looks quite nice, and there is one moment above a smouldering purple volcano that’s noteworthy), you’re nevertheless relegated to bland warehouses and blurry, rubble strewn battlefields for most of the short campaign. The lighting effects are particularly horrendous… In that they seem to not even be in the game. What makes all of this even more baffling is the fluctuating framerate, which seems to rise as high as 60 fps for a split second, before plummeting down to the 20s.

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The fact that we have PS3 games like Uncharted that look light years better than this game is simply inexcusable. The Wii U can certainly do better than this – just look at Mario Kart 8 or Xenoblade Chronicles X, as examples. The machine is definitely powerful enough to produce beautiful graphics, so I’m just going to lay the blame on Valhalla for poorly optimising its engine.

So, presentation-wise, Devil’s Third is underwhelming. But, how does it actually play?

Unfortunately, the game’s troubled development is clearly evident when you pick up the controller. Hailed as an action revolution by Itagaki, the final product couldn’t be further from the truth.

Essentially, Devil’s Third is a cover shooter combined with a simplistic melee system. You’ve undoubtedly seen its ilk a million times before; cover, shoot, regenerate health, and move to the next checkpoint… Rinse and repeat for eight hours, ad nauseam. Shooting is sticky, with auto-aim becoming a necessity due the insensitivity of the thumbsticks, and constantly aiming in first-person view is mandatory of accurate kills. I didn’t have as much a problem with this as many other people, but I can definitely see why it would grate over an extended period of time.

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Moving close to your foes put melee combat into the spotlight, and it’s embarrassingly one-note compared to Ninja Gaiden’s precise sword swinging. You have the standard quick and powerful attacks, as well as a block button, dodge, and throw. That’s it. Now, I can see why having an overly complicated configuration would be frustrating in a frenzied shoot ‘em up like this, but it just seems like a huge missed opportunity. Ivan can wield a wide array of weapons like swords, knives and axes, but it really makes no difference. You simply mash buttons, until a cinematic kill scene is activated. In fact, slicing enemies is so pointless, you are just better off shooting them until they’re dead. Stronger enemies will kill you within a couple of hits if you get too close, and it’s much more preferable to simply riddle them with bullets, rather than risking a frustrating death and being sent back to the last checkpoint.

Oh, and I need to mention the bats. For some inane reason, the game relishes in sending swarms of bats toward you in certain spots, and they’re far more deadly than any chaingun wielding walking tank. Why? Why indeed…

So in all, Devil’s Third is a pedestrian game. Gamers were right to be skeptical – and so was Nintendo of America, it seems. However, this isn’t all. Perhaps the game’s main selling point is its online multiplayer, which is surprisingly comprehensive and (dare I say it) fun.

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Well, almost.

First, the good bits. Yes, Devil’s Third has a multiplayer mode, and yes, it has the potential to become something very good indeed.

2018 Edit: Multiplayer died… like, six minutes after the game’s release.

When you begin, you’re required to create a new character, and partake in a bit of training. By ‘training’, the game actually means the standard multiplayer modes – you know, deathmatch, King of the Hill, that sort of stuff. There are even a couple of amusingly original modes, like collecting colourful chickens and tossing fruit into a blender. The game’s mechanics work much better here, and playing these games earn you ‘Dollen’ for you to spend on weapons, equipment and base building.

Wait, base building? Well, you see, the multiplayer’s main focus is the siege mode, which is a global conflict that is constantly fluctuating. When registering, you must choose what area of post-apocalyptic America you hail from (mandatory for Australian users), and whether you want to join a clan, create your own, or simply become a mercenary. Upon deciding on your career path (that you can change at any time), you are then free to enter the battlefield of betrayal, intelligence and the almighty Dollen.

In a clever twist, Valhalla has made politics a core theme. Clans can negotiate with each other for mutual benefits – and like the real world – can backstab each other and wage war. Each player can build a base to help defend their group (or just themselves) using a comprehensive editor, invade others, and can even spread propaganda via airborne flyers. It really is a great system that has been created here, albeit one that has been marred by some lousy choices.

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First, microtransactions. Perhaps the most rotten word in the gaming lexicon, the dreaded pay-to-win rears its ugly head, in the form of Golden Eggs. Golden Eggs are basically a second currency that can be traded for Dollen, or used for upgrades that severely unbalances the whole community. Words cannot express my anger at being swamped by god-like players online, simply because I wasn’t willing to shell out the extra bucks to a greedy developer. I already paid for the game, so why am I being punished? Just ridiculous.

Further rubbing this salt into the gaping wound is Valhalla’s announcement of a free-to-play version of Devil’s Third’s multiplayer on PC. Not only is it not cross-compatible with Wii U players, it also acts as a swift kick in the spuds to dummies like me who shilled their own ‘Dollen’ for the game in the first place.

Let me make myself perfectly clear – microtransactions do not belong in a full-priced videogame. Full stop. Period.

In conclusion, Devil’s Third is a disappointing game that hides a few nice ideas. After such a long development period, it’s a shame it ended up that way it has. Hopefully, Valhalla Game Studios will do a better job with a sequel that won’t take six years to make.

Final Score: 4 / 10

TAT Archive – Blast From The Past: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Originally published in 2016, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

Format: N64, GCN, Wii, Wii U, 3DS

Developer: Nintendo EAD

Publisher: Nintendo

Release: December 18, 1998

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There will never be another time in videogaming quite like the transition from 2D to 3D.

For years, gamers only knew the bright, colourful worlds of pixels and MIDI sounds; whether via PC, consoles or arcades. Sure, there were many rudimentary, novel attempts at 3D through vector graphics or hilariously chunky polygons that made the screen look like an impressionists’ painting – but these were niche experiences afforded only by connoisseurs.

It was only when the 16-bit juggernauts of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive made way for Sony’s PlayStation, Nintendo’s N64 and (to a lesser extent) Sega’s Saturn that the industry went through a quantum shift that had never been seen before.

Videogames changed before our very eyes.

We were now playing movies – or so it seemed like at the time. Our favourite franchises metamorphosised into stuff that seemed to come straight from the future; in Super Mario 64, a fully-voiced, expressive plumber ran around in huge environments, Final Fantasy VII invited us to spend 50 hours in a living, breathing cyberpunk anime world, and original experiments like NiGHTS both baffled and delighted those who dipped into Sega’s surrealist vision.

It was an unforgettable generation, and it produced many of the greatest titles of all time – but there was one that, for me, stood out above all others.

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To tell the truth – despite being a lifelong Nintendo fan (well, all of 10 years in 1998), I had never played a Zelda game before. For some reason, the series passed me by, and all that I knew of it was that you played as some sort of androgynous elf kid in green clothes – and that he was called Link, and not Zelda.

However, that all changed on one fateful day, when I saw a commercial for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I could not believe my eyes. Even at my young age, I knew that the N64 couldn’t pull-off the detailed ‘Full Motion Videos’ of the PlayStation, but seeing the lush, film-like imagery of characters like Link, Zelda and Ganondorf instantly made the game number one on my most wanted list.

The rave reviews Ocarina of Time received in my monthly games magazines further solidified my desire to get my hands on it, and when the day finally came of its release… I rented that bad boy like there was no tomorrow.

What? Buy it?! That’s a laugh – I was allowed a grand total of two games a year, so I had to make sure I was getting my (well, mum’s) money’s worth. After all, I really had no idea if I’d actually enjoy it.

And enjoy it I did… not.

Yes, I’m sad to say that my first impressions of Ocarina of Time were not entirely positive. Coming from a background of primarily action and platform titles, I was simply stumped by the puzzle aspects of the game. Though wowed by the ephemeral Kokiri Forest, it took me an inordinate amount of time to find the sword, because the muddy N64 textures made it hard for me to see the small hole that Link needed to crawl through.

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It took me two days to find it.

Frustrated, but not deterred, I rented the game again, and managed to fight my way through the Deku Tree (after figuring out how to get past those damned spider webs), and managed to complete the first dungeon. After some gripping exposition that left me slacked-jawed, I finally left the forest, and entered the world of Hyrule.

Much has been described about this moment, so I won’t repeat what’s been said a million times before. Suffice to say, I spent countless hours exploring ever nook and cranny – and though I loved it, the inability to actually progress the story always nagged at me. I simply couldn’t figure out what to do – I was told that I could sneak into Princess Zelda’s castle, but once again, the game’s texture work stumped me, as I didn’t realise that climbable vines were staring me right in the face.

Dejected, I didn’t play the game again for a long time after that. The fact that there was so much more both angered and saddened me. I would never explore Hyrule to its fullest. I would never get to see Link grow up. I would never battle Ganondorf. I would never see any of it.

The game was simply too hard.

Fast forward a year later, and I come across a discounted copy of Ocarina of Time for $36. For some reason, I was still as determined as ever to beat it, and I used my pocket money to buy it. I was going to beat it, once and for all.

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I can’t clearly remember, but I think I may have had a guide to help me through it. Either way, this time, the game finally clicked with me. I began solving puzzles. I deciphered clues. I mastered dungeons. I was actually doing it.

All the while, I was left starry-eyed. I think this was the first time I actually felt like I was the hero. That I was actually travelling a real world. Nintendo’s masterful visual and sound design no doubt played a part in this; like the way music faded in and out with the sun, or how nightbirds warbled during the silence of the dark. NPCs were in different places during day and night, giving a true sense of secret lives that held juicy details. This realism extended (in a somewhat unwelcome fashion) to spooky places like the Kakariko Graveyard or the Shadow Temple; the bowel-clenching thunder of the former, or the whispering, low hums of the latter.

However, it was these unpleasant moments that made their liberation all the more powerful, and made the sunlight hat much more of a wonderful sight. This was a game that knew the power of contrast; the designers created a feeling of appreciation within the player, by forcing them into dank, dirty areas that made the paradise of Hyrule that much more appealing. After being stuck in claustrophobic temples for hours at a time, I really felt Link’s relief at breathing the fresh air once more after defeating the boss and obtaining the latest shiny trinket.

Of course, much has been said about Zelda’s successful transition from 2D into 3D. At the time, I had no knowledge of previous games, but now that I’ve had 18 years to play the rest of them, I can see just what a monumental achievement this was. Like Super Mario 64, Ocarina was nothing short of a design miracle. You must remember, at the time, developers had very little idea regarding 3D games. They endlessly experimented, with some results more successful than others. Heck, many of them didn’t even bother making the transition, proffering instead to stick with a primarily 2D ethos, (as seen with Street Fighter or Dragon Quest VII), and even games like Final Fantasy and Resident Evil saw fit to use pre-rendered backgrounds, instead of fully polygonal worlds.

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Ocarina of Time was developed alongside Super Mario 64. Like that perennial 3D platformer, Nintendo had its work cut out for it when it came to creating a 3D world for Link. When it was finally released, it was (at the time) the biggest N64 game; weighing in at 32MB – four time the size of Mario 64. In an interview, series creator Shigeru Miamoto revealed that Ocarina was originally intended to be played from a first-person view: However, when the story eventually called for two different Links (young and adult), it was deemed necessary for the player to be able to see the character’s physical progression.

Link’s many different abilities were cleverly mapped onto the N64 controller with a minimum of fuss; the ‘A’ button allowing the elfin hero to perform a myriad of actions depending on his position. Thanks to difficulties faced during the development of Super Mario 64, Link’s actions in Ocarina were more ‘context sensitive’. Director Yoshiaki Koizumi explained in an interview:

If you tried to beat an enemy in front of you [in Mario 64], the axis weren’t aligned, so it was hard. So we started talking about decreasing the action element in The Legend of Zelda and increasing the puzzle elements.

Ocarina of Time was built around the premise of sword-fighting, as revealed by the late Satoru Iwata:

When people talk about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, they mention various things like an epic story, solving puzzles, trotting across the broad field on a horse and how cool Link is, it began with the single theme of making a Zelda game that included chanbara-style swashbuckling.

The innovative Z-targeting system was born from a visit to a local show, according to designer Toru Osawa:

They were doing a ninja show. A number of ninja were surrounding the main samurai and one lashed out with a kusarigama (sickle and chain). The samurai caught it with his left arm, the chain stretched tight, and the ninja moved in a circle around him.

This was the initial situation that provided inspiration for the targeting mechanic. However, there was still the matter of Link facing multiple enemies. Yoshiaki Koizumi himself discovered the answer through another show:

I watched very closely and it was simple. The enemies don’t all attack at once. One attacks while the others wait. When the first guy goes down, the next one steps in. [It] was a clue toward solving our problem. Z-targeting flags one particular opponent, telling the other enemies to wait… the moment you beat that one, you can switch the z-targeting.

Ocarina was also the first (non-musical) game to feature a fully interactive instrument in the form of the titular Ocarina of Time; which could be played by Link to produce magical effects such as teleportation, creating rain storms and passing time in an instant. In addition, Koji Kondo’s soundtrack cleverly changed depending on the current situation. A cacophony of trumpets as Link explores Hyrule Field would change into a frantic tune as he encounters an enemy. Wisely, Nintendo refused to incorporate FMV in order to tell Link’s story; instead they advocated the use of in-game assets to tell a smoother story.

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Looking back, Miyamoto described the freedom he and his team enjoyed when bringing Zelda to the 3D world, because they were working on something that was simply unprecedented:

It was the most primitive, the most free. That’s all there is to it…It isn’t that subsequent games lost that freedom, only that the games which were put out later simply had more things which needed to have more attention paid to them. Of course, even Ocarina had traditional elements dating from Link to the Past, for the Super Nintendo, so it wasn’t completely free. It’s just that it was the first 3D Zelda, and we were able to explore what would be most interesting abut making it in 3D without worrying about much else.

The fact that not only was the game supremely successful in both critical acclaim (it is still the highest rated game on Metacritic, nearly two decades later), but has been emulated countless time since, is proof of the indelible mark left by Nintendo – amongst its many, many other accomplishments.

Since then, the series has thrived, with every entry offering something new, whilst creating new fans. For me though, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is not only my favourite Zelda game – but my favourite game of all time – indeed, I still possess my golden, $36 cartridge, with my original save file! Still, whenever a new sequel nears, I can’t help but wonder if the N64 classic will finally be knocked off the podium – and judging from what I’ve seen of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the possibility is stronger than ever…

TAT Archive – 3DS eShop Gems

Originally published in 2016, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

Since releasing the 3DS in 2011, the stereoscopic handheld has seen and amazing retail library amass. With Nintendo’s typical pedigree and strong third party support (woah!), the console still remains the best-selling machine of the current generation. However, a long-standing criticism of the Japanese company is its seeming reluctance to create new IP in favour of relying old hands. Today, I’m here to prove that this isn’t the case. Thanks to the eShop, the firm has been able to release smaller, more experimental fare that has proven that its developers still have that knack of creating new and exciting games. So behold, the best hidden eShop gems that you need to play, straight from the House of Mario itself!

Hana Samurai: Art of the Sword

Developer: Grounding Inc.

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Hana Samurai: Art of the Sword is essentially Punch Out set in feudal Japan.

If that isn’t enough of a selling point, then I don’t know what is.

Oh, alrighty then. Playing as a nameless samurai, you go on a journey at the behest of an old kappa, in order to rescue Princess Cherry Blossom from the clutches of a mysterious baddie.

Across 30 levels, you explore villages and castles, fighting a wide array of enemies and earning petals to increase health, and coins to spend at the Frogs Plus Store for rice cakes and sword upgrades.

As I alluded to, battles emulate Nintendo’s boxing classic by emphasising duels and strategic movements, and these are an absolute joy to play. Pressing A attacks, L and R dodge, and B blocks, and its this simple foundation that opens up an incredibly deep combat system. Blocking too much dulls your blade, which can be sharpened using a whetstone or a village blacksmith. Evading at key moments builds up precision points, and slashing can purposely be avoided in order to build up strength in your sword. Further more, pressing X lets your swordsman wander the battlefield for secrets, but this makes him vulnerable to attacks by other enemies.

Outside of fighting, Hana Samurai is a vibrant, lovely experience. Towns are alive with activity, and minigames can be played for goodies. Visuals are beautiful – much like a painting come to life, and the whole thing is positively packed with content.

Completing the game unlocks a harder mode, enemy wave challenges can be attempted, and there’s even a ‘Rock Garden’, which gets more and more beautiful the more you use the 3DS’ pedometer.

Hana Samurai: Art of the Sword is simply an essential experience, and MyNintendo members can currently get a 30% discount, which is a deal you need to take advantage of right now.

 

BoxBoy!/BoxBoxBoy!

Developer: HAL Laboratory

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Few gaming studios hold as much pedigree as HAL Laboratory.

Founded by Hiroji Iwasaki, and producing the careers of the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata and Masahiro Sakurai, this is the studio behind games such as Kirby and Super Smash Bros. Its willingness to try quirky new ideas has not subsided after 25 years, even as it continues to produce sequels to its most popular franchises.

Enter BoxBoy!

A true gem, this is a 2D puzzle game where you control a cute little square called Qbby, who must navigate perilous stages, rescue his friends, and uncover just what happened to his boxy race.

Presented in a lovely minimalist graphical style, Qbby creates squares that can be used as platforms and weights. By holding ‘Y’, you can produce a set number of them in a connected fashion, and they then can be thrown, pushed, or even used as transport between tight spaces. Each level gives you a limited amount of squares to use, and special crowns can be collected to unlock extra points. These points are spent on stuff like new challenges, costumes (hip-hop Qbby FTW) and music.

The sequel, BoxBoxBoy! (which I covered last issue) is essentially more of the same, only this time Qbby can produce two sets of squares.

Either way, this simple gameplay system allows for some truly fiendish and addictive puzzles, and both games are extremely great value, Pick then up. Now.

2018 Edit: A third game has been released, Bye-Bye BoxBoy!

 

 

SpeedThru: Potzol’s Puzzle

Developer: Keys Factory

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According to indie developer Phil Fish, Japanese games suck.

Which is… quite curious, considering his first game (Fez) was a riff on Super Paper Mario’s 2D/3D switching, and his latest Playstation VR game – Super Hypercubewill be incredibly familiar to those who have sampled SpeedThru: Potzol’s Puzzle.

Acutely described as a “third-person on-rails Tetris,”, SpeedThru is a simple affair that has you playing Hole In The Wall (remember that horrible show?) with odd-shaped blocks as they rapidly charge toward incoming walls. You need to quickly plonk them into place so that they pass harmlessly through the spaces.

And really, that’s all there is. Coated in an Aztec flair, SpeedThru: Potzol’s Puzzle is the kind of manic time waster that’s now found on phones, but here, it definitely benefits from the accuracy of actual buttons.

It’s also one of the few 3DS games that actually benefits from the 3D effect, making it exhilarating for your eyeballs. There are 100 levels, a surprisingly fun multiplayer mode, and – yes – an actual story!

Best of all, you don’t need a $550 virtual reality peripheral to play it…

 

Pullblox/Fallblox/Fullblox

Developer: Intelligent Systems

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The Pullblox series has become the standard-bearer in quality eShop games.

Widely considered to be the best of Nintendo’s digital offerings, these puzzle games are based around pushing, pulling, and stretching blocks in an attempt to climb towers in order to save a trapped child at the very top.

The first game is simple in its introduction, with the chubby Mallo hopping his way ever upwards. It’s kinda hard to explain, but each structure is made of elongated blocks, and they can be pushed and pulled on three different planes. In order to jump on a block, it needs to be pulled out onto a further ‘plane’ than the one above it, and that block needs to be manipulated so you can jump on that one.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds, but the game soon gets head-scratchingly devious, especially once it introduces warp tunnels and blocks that instantly push out every block of the same colour.

The other titles in this series are very similar, but with their own little innovations, like introducing tumbling obstacles (Fallblox), stretching (the free-to-play Fullblox), and level creations that can be shared via QR codes.

The Pullblox games are absolutely fantastic, and can last you practically forever. Also, there’s Pullblox World on Wii U if you want even more!

 

HarmoKnight

Developer: Game Freak

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Like HAL and Intelligent Systems, Pokémon creator Game Freak has also thrown its hat into the eShop ring, with HarmoKnight.

A 2D rhythm-based platformer, HarmoKnight puts you in the shoes of Tempo, who lives on the planet of Melodia, and is a knight in training. With is bunny companion Tappy, he journeys across the land in order to eliminate the forces of Gargan and his evil, extraterrestrial Noizoids. Along the way, he meets fellow musical warriors named Lyra, Tyko and Cymbi, who become playable with their own gameplay styles.

Its a surprisingly detailed world that is crammed into such a relatively simple game, with the art and quality character design that’s very typical of the creative minds behind the Pocket Monster phenomenon.

As your character auto-runs across the wide array of levels, you must tap buttons in time to the beat, as you run into musical notes and enemies which guide you toward a maximum performance. It really is a rhythmic (ahem) experience, and the bright visuals make it a joy to play. Boss fights mix up proceedings, and these are brilliantly done. They’re basically lavish cutscenes that are mixed with quick time events and Rhythm Heaven-esque tapping.

HarmoKnight is one of the original music-based platfomers, and is long overdue for a sequel. Maybe we’ll see Tempo in the next Smash Bros? We’ll see!

 

Dillon’s Rolling Western/Dillon’s Rolling Western: The Last Ranger

Developer: Vanpool

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Dillon’s Rolling Western and its sequel, The Last Ranger, is Nintendo’s typically unique take on the tower defence genre. As you’d probably expect, the developers eschew numbers and stats in favour of a more physical, hands-on gameplay style.

Also typical is the great setting and characters. Playing as a mysterious armadillo named Dillon, you take jobs in a wild west-inspired land that’s populated by animals (think the movie Rango, and you got the idea). Along with his gyrocopter-bound, groundhog partner called Russ, the ‘Red Flash’ needs to defend a town in each level from ‘grocks’, rocky monsters that are after the precious porcine piggies called ‘scrogs’ – the ultimate resource in this untamed frontier.

You see, every stage is set over the course of three days. During sunlight, you need to run (or roll) around the area outside of each settlement, placing defensive towers and weapons at strategic locations, whilst also searching for treasure and money. Be quick though, because when the sky turns red, the grocks come out to play. As they march out of their burrows, Dillon can take them head-on, and touching each monster initiates an arena battle with a few of the blighters. Here, he can use his claws to slash and his tough hide to grind his foes, Sonic-style. However, strategy is very paramount, as fights don’t freeze time, and the other grocks are still marching.

After each day, you can rest in the town, buy upgrades, and take missions from various townsfolk (‘kill these’, ‘find that’, you know, the usual). As you play through the campaign, a story slowly unfolds about Dillon’s past, though it doesn’t exactly take centre stage.

The sequel – though not radically different – does introduce new features, like recruitable rangers (each with their own abilities), and a steam train that now needs to be protected.

The Dillon’s Rolling Western games are nice experiences, though they aren’t the best eShop offerings, with some repetitive gameplay bringing them down. Still, they’re definitely worth a go if you like some rapid-fire, high-octane stress in your life!

Steel Diver: Sub Wars

Developer: Nintendo EAD/Group. No.5/Vitei

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The original Steel Diver for 3DS was a unique – albeit bare bones – package that hid a cool arcade simulation gameplay style underneath a mediocre presentation. Arguably, the highlight of the game were the first-person periscope battles which made fantastic use of the 3D effect and gyroscope in order to simulate a real submersible conflict.

As such, Nintendo took this feature, and made it into its own game – the sequel, Steel Diver: Sub Wars. Though important in Nintendo’s history as its first free-to-play offering, it should also be remembered for the genuinely brilliant experience it was (and still is).

Though offering an array of single-player modes, the true majesty lies in the online multiplayer modes, where battles get truly intense as combatants slowly and methodically stalk each other in the briny deep.

Using the touch screen to pull levers and push buttons, simply moving your vehicle is a task in itself, but that’s part of its charm. Maneuvering through the labyrinthine levels is both tense and strangely empowering, as sonar needs to be pinged in order to find your foes. Of course, players can remain hidden by simply staying still – waiting for a pants-browning ambush.

Even communicating with partners can be done via Morse code (though conventional voice chat can also be used), and the only method of offence is either missiles or mines.

As mentioned before, Steel Diver: Sub Wars is F2P, so go and give it a try. It really is an amazing experience (albeit an acquired taste), and further cements Nintendo’s reputation (along with Splatoon) in delivering unique online games.

TAT Archive – Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Review

Originally published in 2016, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

Format: Wii U

Developer: Atlus

Publisher: Nintendo

In my previous coverage of Nintendo’s E3 2016 show, I explained the absence of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE due to my preference for a full-blow review instead.

Now, a few months later, here we are. Now, I’m going to be completely honest with you, dear reader – I was very reluctant to review this game.

You see, I’m not a fan of Atlus’ games, like Persona or Shin Megami Tensei. Nor am I a rabid Fire Emblem fan, despite my love for all things Nintendo. Hell, I don’t even like anime… so, who better to review this than me?

Now, before you gnash your teeth in a rage, and furiously send me sternly worded messages, let me soothe any doubts by saying this;

I actually quite liked this game.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, it was tough going at first. When I reluctantly shoved the disc into my Wii U, my fears were seemingly justified once a cheery, helium-voiced J-pop song assaulted my ears, causing me to sink my face into my palms.

What have I gotten myself into?” I muttered silently, as neon images of a Japanophile’s dream flashed across the screen, nearly causing me to seizure as if it were particularly nasty Pokémon episode.

But first, let’s cover the story. Playing as a Tokyo student named Itsuki Aoi, you begin this zany tale by visiting your friend, Tsubasa Oribe, who is auditioning for an opportunity to become an idol (famous person, to all you Western n00bz). As shown in a brief flashback, Tsubasa is a scarred kid – five years prior, she witnessed her sister (another idol) disappear during a performance, along with everyone else in the building, leaving her the sole survivor.

After shenanigans ensue, mysterious ghosts appear, and kidnap her. Chasing after them, Itsuki finds himself in the mysterious ‘Idolosphere’, an ethereal realm where nasties roam, and everything is twisted. It’s here he meets Chrom – the very same Chrom from Fire Emblem – who is saved by Itsuki. A ‘Mirage’, Chrom has no memory of his past, nor how he got into his current predicament. As the duo are slowly assaulted by evil forces, Itsuki finds that his soul produces ‘Performa’, an energy that battles back the baddies, whilst freeing both Chrom and his pal Caeda from unwilling servitude.

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Rescuing Tsubasa, Itsuki discovers that both he and her have the power to become ‘Mirage Masters’; warriors that use the power of Chrom and Caeda (who can transform into weapons)

Phew. With me so far? Yes? Well, it gets more complicated after that. I won’t delve into too much more, but essentially, the game reveals that people can create ‘Performa’ spirit energy by engaging in the arts (acting, singing, etc). For some reason, these evil Mirages have invaded Tokyo in search for this power, and as such, Mirage Masters battle them, whilst becoming idols that are adored by the public… because the only way they can become powerful, is by building their Performa… and that’s done by… performing.

It’s suitably bonkers stuff, but honestly, I found it both endearing and interesting. Hired by a talent agency called Fortuna (which also acts as the Mirage Master headquarters), leader Maiko tells Itsuki about the power of performance, and that humanity throughout history has used it in conjunction with spiritual beliefs. Through song. Through dance. Through prose. It’s a culture that had endured throughout the ages, because it speaks to people in a way unlike anything else. This surprisingly struck a cord with me, and was the first moment that made me realise that this game isn’t as vapidly silly as it initially seemed.

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So too, did the gameplay. A turn-based RPG, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a snappy affair, with flashy battles mixed with dungeon crawling. There’s very little fat in this product; it all feels very streamlined. A constant tempo that reflect that game’s musical narrative.

Based in the Fortuna offices, you journey around Tokyo via a menu system, and each area is pretty small. Again, this isn’t a game about journeying across epic landscapes and exploring uncharted territories – it’s essentially split in two segments; dungeons, and the stuff outside dungeons.

Spread across chapters, Itsuki and his crew basically go to an area in the city. Chat a bit to the populace. Maybe buy a couple of things. And then the story event happens, and you need to enter the Idolosphere, which get harder and harder as the game progresses (naturally).

Fans of Atlus games will be familiar with this set-up, and contrary to its discouragingly minimalist design, it actually works quite well, and is well-suited to small bursts, or longer play sessions. You see, dungeons/Idolospheres aren’t meant to be done in one go. Every few floors presents a warp to the outside, and these encourage you to stock up and re-arm your party, before diving back in. This gives a satisfying sense of growth, as you get stronger and stronger with every visit.

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Of course, such gameplay requires a lot of patience, just like other JRPGs, but I was impressed with how well the developers made it constantly engaging, whether through Idolosphere gimmicks, quirky visuals, or exploiting that ‘one more go’ obsession via collectables.

Battles themselves are standard fare, but are nevertheless quite fun. Central to these are the ‘performances’, which are basically special moves. By selecting a special attack that an enemy is weak against, you can create a chain-combo with your buddies (here known as ‘Sessions’), which are incredibly satisfying to pull-off. As you progress though the campaign, you will also unlock ‘Dual Attacks’, which can be added to a pre-existing Session, Mirage ‘Duo Attacks’ and ‘Ad-lib Performances’, that enable random moves for that extra oomph. Care must be taken though, as enemies too can use these abilities, which for me created a perfect balance of challenge and strategy. I really do have to give kudos to the combat designers here.

Of course, upgrading is a big part of exploiting the full potential of an RPG, and here this is done in the ‘Bloom Palace’; a benign Idolosphere dimension located in the Fortuna building. Home to Tiki, a five-year old Mirage masquerading as a popular digital singer (of course), this is where you create new weapons and performing arts.

Labelled under ‘Carnage Unity’ and ‘Radiant Unity’, such confusing terminology belies a very simple system. During fights, your Mirages (FE characters) are your weapons, and here the game refers to them as ‘Carnages’, because why not? Killing enemies and unleashing Sessions nets you items from their non-corporeal corpses, and you can trade them in for better carnages. Radiant Unities too, are merely prettied-up buffs, that enable passive magic protections and stuff like ‘free item use once per battle’ or ‘get more money’. You know, that type of jazz.

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Outside of fighting, Atlus has provided plenty of world-building for Tokyo Mirage Sessions. In between chapters, there are intermissions, and these give the player some down time to carry out secondary quests – both from NPCs, and your own friends. Certain stretch-goals must be met in order to unlock new quests for the latter (obtain a certain ability or level), and these expectedly flesh-out the supporting cast with background stories and characterisation, Each party member has their own career they’re trying to get off the ground, and it was pretty fun trying to help them in Itsuki’s own hapless way.

On an audiovisual level, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is fantastic. The graphics are amazingly well-done, and are as close to an interactive anime as I’ve ever seen. Colours are bright, and pop off the screen, and the art design is simply superb. I’ve always heard good things about the aesthetic of Atlus games, and now I can see why. Impressive too, are the anime sequences, which combine hand-drawn characters, motion capture and 3D CGI in a blindingly-good, movie-quality effect.

In a curious move, Nintendo decided to bypass English localisation entirely in favour of Japanese speech with English subtitles. Stating that dubbing would have delayed the game’s release by a year, I’m more than happy with this decision. Personally, whenever I play or watch something set in a specific region, I always prefer to listen to the native speech – so you’ll hear no gripes from me on that front. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the acting itself is campy, with eye-rolling archetypes that had me using the mute button.

Similarly cringe-worthy were the music numbers – but I’m fully aware that’s just down to my personal taste, and no fault of the game itself. I was just thankful I had headphones on in my crowded house.

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I also have to give a special mention to the usage of the GamePad. On the second screen, there’s always a faux social media app open called ‘Topic’, which contains messages from the people you meet. When something needs to be brought to your attention, you’ll receive notifications, just like a smartphone. It’s a small touch, but I really thought it was cool, especially when characters would post misspelled, rambling messages and emoticons, just like a real messenger. That alone made the game worth it.

Overall, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE was a pleasant surprise. I entered with extreme reluctance and apathy, and emerged with a new appreciation for what Atlus fans have been loving for so long. As the Wii U slowly shrivels like a prune, I really respect Nintendo for continuously greenlighting such unique, quirky games, without seemingly giving a damn about their commercial viability or mass appeal. If you’re a JRPG fanatic, and have been on the fence about this, I’d say it’s definitely worth a try. If you’re a Fire Emblem loyalist… well, I say give it a shot. It’s nothing like the SRPG series, but it does have certain themes in common. Who knows, we may get a sequel some day…

8/10

TAT Archive – Axiom Verge Review

Originally published in 2016, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

Axiom Verge

Developer: Thomas Happ Games

Publisher: Thomas Happ Games

Format: Wii U (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PS Vita, PC, Switch

Ah, Metroidvanias.

A portmanteau between Metroid and Castlevania, games under this genre are typified by their 2D gameplay mixed with combat, puzzles and labyrinthine worlds.

Over the last decade or so, the meteoric rise of indie gaming has caused the hybrid genre to blossom, with cult titles like Knytt Underground and Ori and the Blind Forest sating the hunger caused by the seemingly disinterested Nintendo and Konami.

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And, I must admit, I’m also one of those who suffered from a grumbling belly.

With the first Metroid in years being a squad-based shooter, and Castlevania looking more and more like a dried-up vampire husk (yay for Bloodstained), I searched high and low for my non-linear, side-scrolling fix. Whilst I’ve played many fine titles coming from a multitude of talented developers, I can now safely say that I’ve found the bet of the best. A Metroidvania game that rivals even the classics in terms of art, story and pure playability.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Axiom Verge.

Prior to playing this game, I had heard many good things about it. Even more impressive was the fact that it was developed over a period of five years by a single man, called Tom Happ.

Though originally released a year ago for PC, the game’s arrival on consoles finally spurred me to download it, and see what the fuss was all about. Now that I’ve played through it, I can say with full confidence; Axiom Verge is one of the best videogames I’ve played in years.

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Playing as a scientist named Trace, you awaken in a mysterious world known as Sudra, after a lab explosion. Getting his bearings, Trace comes into contact with a mysterious being known as Elsenova, a giant robot head who is one of the last remaining vestiges of the Rusalki race. She claims that Sudra was devastated by a man called Athetos, who was able to access an interdimensional anomaly called the Breach, and cause chaos by overlapping multiple universes.

Immediately, the story gripped me, and I really must give Mr. Happ all the praise in the world. It’s fantastically written, with many awesome twists and surprises, as well as a gripping focus on the science of dimensions, thanks to journals that can be discovered. Admittedly, much of it may be too complicated for some, but as someone fascinated by the subject, I simply adored it.

Gameplay is similarly high quality. Immediately starting off, the tributes to Metroid are apparent, with a similar map layout, and even a familiar way of accruing the starter items. In truth, I didn’t know what to make of it at first, with a cynical side of me slamming Happ for simply copying and pasting Nintendo’s layout.

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Fortunately, it is just what it is; a tribute. After the first few rooms, Axiom Verge begins to show its hand, with weapons and items that are decidedly un-Metroid. Trace starts the game with a standard gun, but soon finds a multitude of different projectile types that really accommodate multiple play styles. Additionally, Trace soon finds himself a drill for opening up new areas, a harmoniser that can solidify or erase ‘glitched’ platforms and walls, a portable mini drone, and even the ability to phase through thin walls.

In all, the game offers a total of 60 weapons and upgrades, and it never seemed overwhelming or confusing. The way the game simultaneously creates a drastically different arsenal from other titles, whilst taking full advantage of said arsenal, is perhaps Axiom Verge’s greatest achievement. The way it makes everything a smooth and cohesive experience is truly a marvel, and had me playing for hours at a time in sheer addiction. This also trickles down to small details, like how weapons don’t suffer from limited ammo, or how the game auto saves (at least, in normal mode) every time you find an item or simply die. It’s all so painless, it baffles me how one man can do everything right, when so many triple-A studios can get it so wrong.

Graphically, it’s a stunner. The clean 2D visuals emphasises the wonderful art in all its dark, gooey glory. The world of Sudra is split into different regions, with each one offering a unique visual palette. Reds, greens and greys create a truly wondrous planet that is both beautiful and decaying at the same time, with blood being a particularly dominant theme. Trace’s Rusalki allies are haunting in their ancient presence, and graphical glitches such as flickering create a sensation that this is a game that is barely holding on to its very reality.

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Sound is also lovingly crafted. The MIDI tunes evoke memories of cyber thrillers like Snatcher, and I particularly liked the small touch of low health triggering a Zelda-esque beeping that thumps in time to the music, before slowly fading. Yes, Axiom Verge fixes a problem Nintendo couldn’t solve in 30 years… I think it deserves high marks just for that!

To sum up, Axiom Verge simply deserves every ounce of praise it has received. It’s a videogame that reminds me why I love videogames in the first place, and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last time we’ve heard from Tom Happ!

10/10

TAT Archive – The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

Originally published in 2015, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

Format: 3DS

Developer: Nintendo EAD/Grezzo

Publisher: Nintendo

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Now, dear readers, I’m going to ask you a question.

When I say ‘The Legend of Zelda’, what pops in your head?

Vast landscapes ripe for exploring at your leisure? An epic narrative? That fiendish King of Thieves, Ganondorf?

Okay, so what if I told you that there was a Zelda game that had none of those things? That those lush backdrops were replaced with grim levels that must be combed under a stressful time limit? That the storyline is in fact one of melancholy and personal demons? That the mighty Gerudo leader is nowhere to be found?

Balls and poppycock!” I hear you shout in disbelief, as you watch Eiji Aonuma play through Zelda Wii U for the umpteenth time, “Such a Zelda game would be a blasphemous affront to the three goddesses themselves!”

Well, guess what? Such a game does exist! And it has done so for 15 years!

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Infamously developed in under a year, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was the N64 sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and was released in 2000 to critical acclaim. Since then, the game has garnered a cult following, thanks to its radical (and some would even say postmodern) take on the Zelda formula. Now, in 2015, we have finally been blessed with the remake of perhaps one of the greatest games of all time.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D is Grezzo’s second remastering after its sterling work on Ocarina of Time 3D in 2011, and as expected, it pulls it off with aplomb.

Set directly after the events of its predecessor, Majora’s Mask begins with Link and his trusty steed Epona as they wander through the spooky Lost Woods in search of a ‘friend’ (who this is, is never explicitly stated, though most theories suggest Navi). After a bit, they are accosted by a mask-wearing Skull Kid and his two fairy friends, who steal Epona and the Ocarina of Time. Giving chase, Link is eventually transformed into a Deku Scrub, and is forced to join forces with the fairy Tatl, who is separated from her mischievous pals.

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Eventually, they meet the creepy Happy Mask Salesman, who promptly informs them that Skull Kid is in possession of Majora’s Mask – a world-destroying artefact that is wreaking havoc on the world of Termina. Chief among these troubles is a gurning moon that is hurtling toward the planet – and that it will hit in three days.

However, Mr. Salesman reveals that he can turn Link back to normal and set things right; all he has to do is retrieve the Ocarina from Skull Kid.

What follows is essentially an extended tutorial, and it does a superb job of teaching the player the mechanics of the game. Most notable of these is the 72-hour cycle, which gives every NPC in Clock Town their own schedule which they stick rigidly to. This was the main reason why the N64 original needed an Expansion Pack to run, and it’s easy to see why; every person does their own thing. During the day, they are up to their usual business, whilst at night, they’re usually indoors or fast asleep. By the time the final day rolls around, most of them have fled the town in terror, which really gives the game a creepy vibe (more on this in a bit).

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In order to keep track of them all, you are given the ‘Bomber’s Notebook’ early on, which charts everyone’s activities throughout the three days. This was an integral tool in the original – and it is improved greatly in this remake. The old version was occasionally obtuse, and it was easy to miss vital events; with this one though, you now have access to a full calendar, as well as an alarm and the capability to see when certain folks are available. Make no mistake, this notebook is virtually essential to getting everything out of this game (unless you use a guide, you big cheat, you).

After you encounter Skull Kid after the first three-day cycle, you finally gain access to the meat of Majora’s Mask.

Reverting back to the first day, you turn back into a human, and regain the Ocarina of Time. It’s here where you learn the Song of Time, which can slow time, speed it up, and even allow you to skip to a certain hour (which is new to this version). On top of that, your Deku powers are transferred to a mask – which serves as an introduction to this game’s other big feature: the masks.

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Ahhh…The masks. After being told you must retrieve Majora’s Mask in order to save Termina, Link must journey across the land and reawaken the four giants of the four lands, who can help to hold the moon at bay when it finally comes crashing down. In order to accomplish this, you need to get items. All the Zelda staples are here; rupees, heart pieces, magic, special tools…

And masks. Yes, in this game, Link does his best Jim Carrey impression by gaining new abilities thanks to the wide array of colourful (and occasionally disturbing) face wear. The three big ‘uns are the Deku, Goron and Zora masks; each of which can transform Link into their namesakes. The Deku mask enables him to shoot bubbles and fly with special Deku Flowers, the Goron mask lets him roll at high velocity and carry powder kegs, and the fishy Zora one can make our little elf swim through water like a torpedo (though this has been slowed a bit in this 3D version). There’s also a super-secret fourth transformation – and it’s so secret that Nintendo saw fit to plaster it all over the game’s promotional material. Thanks, fellas!

Along with these, there are a load of ‘lesser’ masks that are nevertheless equally invaluable. These are mostly gained from completing quests, and you’ll want to get every single one if you want to get your mitts on that super-secret final mask. Some of them only act as glorified keys, whilst others give you handy abilities like super speed (Bunny Hood), fairy attracter (Great Fairy’s Mask) and the ability to sniff out potion ingredients (Mask of Scents). Obtaining them all is a serious task, and it undoubtedly takes up a large percentage of the game’s play time.

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So, essentially, the two big ‘hooks’ of Majora’s Mask 3D are the three-day cycle and the masks – but that’s not to say that’s all there is to the game.

Despite the smaller landmass that Ocarina’s Hyrule (and only four main dungeons), Termina is still absolutely jam-packed with content. Some may accuse the requirement of replaying days over and over as a cheap and lazy design decision; but really, such a move makes Majora’s Mask utterly unlike anything else out there. This is very much a game that was born from (somewhat ironically) time constraints – a game that is a result of Eiji Aonuma’s and Yoshiaki Koizumi’s auteur spirit as interpreted by a tight schedule. It truly is fascinating to see such a unique title birthed from a 12 month time limit and the cheeky reusing of assets.

All of this really gives Majora’s Mask an unnerving vibe; one that permeates the entire campaign. Constantly, you are under the impression that something isn’t quite right, and that every single character knows something that you are completely oblivious to. Whether it’d be the cryptic dialogue, the interpretive meanings or simply the goofy expressions on a character’s face, this is a game that relishes in its oddness. The fact that this is a Zelda game just makes it all the more remarkable.

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That’s not to say the game is an unwelcoming, Dark Souls-esque trip to Frustration Town (population: you). Despite being harder than usual, this is still very much a well-designed Zelda game. It’s even slicker on 3DS too; the save system is more forgiving (with the Owl Statues now acting as permanent saves), the Gossip Stone hint system returns, the touchscreen makes selecting items less painful, a boss has been redesigned, and Grezzo have even seen fit to add a relaxing fishing pond (well, until you come across the pond’s local beast)!

So in all, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D is an outstanding reimagining. Really though, did you expect anything else? The original was a cult classic, and now Nintendo’s stereoscopic handheld has yet another feather in its incredibly fluffy cap.

A masterpiece.

9.5 out of 10

TAT Archive – Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Originally published in 2015, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Format: 3DS

Developer: Level-5/Capcom

Publisher: Nintendo

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In the magical land of videogames, crossovers are a dime a dozen.

But when they do happen, they generally provide a riotous good time – usually in the form of fisticuffs. Marvel vs. Capcom, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Street Fighter X Tekken and Super Smash Bros are among the most notable of these intertextual interminglings. But, aside from the biffo, more relaxed fare has also presented itself – like in the Mario & Sonic Olympic series.

It’s in this latter type of game we are blessed with Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Don’t be fooled by the title – this is very much a gentlemen’s game!

Rocketing to fame during the DS days, both Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright have won the hearts of millions of gamers with their cerebral gameplay that emphasised brains over brawn – the former with logic, and the latter with contradictions.

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A joint collaboration between Level-5 and Capcom, and with a script written by Ace Attorney scribe Shu Takumi, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is the ultimate fan service for both fans of the top-hatted archaeologist, and the spikey haired purveyor of justice.

Opening with a lavishly animated cutscene, the game begins with a night time car chase through a London park, as a man and a woman are being pursued by terrifying airborne creatures. After they crash, the man (‘Carmine Accidenti’) informs the woman (‘Espella Cantabella’) to find his old mentor – Professor Hershel Layton.

Upon arriving at the good professor’s office, Espella is kidnapped by the ‘witches’ that seem hell-bent on getting their claws on her and the mysterious book she wields – the Historia Labyrinthia. This tome supposedly chronicles the past, present, and future of a town called Labyrinthia – and not only that, but Layton and his apprentice Luke find themselves written within the story!

To veterans of the Layton series, the gameplay will be very familiar. Presented like a point and click adventure, players must poke and prod the screen in order to find puzzles that must be solved. These are simple logic brain twisters that are only vaguely linked to the plot; and upon solving them, you are awarded with ‘picarats’ (points, basically). The more times you ‘fail’ a puzzle, the less picarats you get. Simple!

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On the other side of this narrative coin are Phoenix Wright and his plucky assistant Maya Fey. A more energetic and comedic duo, they find themselves on an exchange trip to London in order to observe the British justice system. Of course, things go awry when Phoenix is suddenly forced to defend Espella Cantabella – who was found on a freighter whilst in the middle of an attempted murder (or so it seems…).

Phoenix Wright’s gameplay segments are markedly different to Layton’s more relaxed fare. Taking place in a courtroom, it’s up to the hapless lawyer to defend his clients from a guilty verdict – and this is done by examining evidence, questioning witnesses, and pointing out contradictions. Much like previous games in the series, these scenes are very funny and well-written, with wacky cross-examinations that are incredibly satisfying to untangle. There’s nothing quite like seeing an eyewitness squirm under the conviction of your theory!

Eventually, Layton, Luke, Phoenix and Maya all find themselves transported to the medieval town of Labyrinthia – where magic and superstition rule. It is here where the two stars meet, and where they find themselves embroiled in a highly elaborate plot involving witch trials, magical murders, and terrifying bakers (don’t ask).

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It’s here where the real meat of the game is found, and where Takumi’s script really shines. I found it a particularly inspired decision to set the game in such a superstitious setting, as it throws the conventions of Layton and Wright’s logic right out the window. Throughout the game’s 20 hours story, the duo struggle to find a footing in this fanatical world, where magic is a real thing. Of course, Layton himself believes there is more to Labyrinthia than meets the eye – and it is his calm assurance that has him act as the de-facto leader of the group of heroes. Still, Wright himself gets his time to shine – and thanks to a twist in the story mid-game, he finds himself undertaking a heavy responsibility as the supporting rock for Luke and Maya.

It’s all very well-done, and the game had me gripped until its ridiculous conclusion (whether that is a compliment or an insult, is for you to find out). Truly, Layton vs. Wright has some of the best characterisation I’ve ever seen in a game – and I found it akin to reading a good book. Sure, some will complain that there isn’t enough ‘game’ to this, but I still had a lot of fun, nonetheless. I especially liked how both Layton and Phoenix thoroughly explore each other’s roles; trust me, you’ll squeal in delight when Layton shouts ‘objection!’ in a witch’s court, or when Wright and Maya clumsily try and solve their first puzzle.

I should warn though, that there is a lot of chatter in this title; so if you’re the type of gamer to shoot first and ask questions later, well… They why are you reading this in the first place? What, you expect Layton to suddenly wield a shotgun? Get outta here!

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Visually, the game is very pleasant to look at. The background artwork is very detailed and pleasing to the eye as it makes subtle use of the 3D effects. What’s particularly impressive are the characters themselves, with bold colours and exaggerated movements making the whole thing look like a manga come to life. Anyone who has played the Ace Attorney games will tell you that the ridiculous mannerisms and crazy characters are one of the main selling points of those titles, and Layton vs. Wright continues this trend in fine fashion. The sound design too, is an auditory delight, with the gentle music of the Layton segments perfectly complimenting the more bombastic SFX of Wright’s courtroom exploits. There are even a couple of fully orchestrated pieces – with the final score being particularly stunning.

Overall, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an essential game for fans of both series – and for newcomers alike. No prior knowledge of both franchises is needed to enjoy this game, so it also serves as a fine introduction to non-fans. Prepare your pointing finger, and dive in!

7 out of 10

TAT Archive – Hyrule Warriors Review

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

Hyrule Warriors

Format: Wii U

Developer: Omega Force/Team Ninja

Publisher: Nintendo

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During an episode of Nintendo Direct in 2013, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata announced the existence of a strange new game for the Wii U; a game that was seemingly created from a toxic concoction of chalk and cheese. Taking the elegant circle of The Legend of Zelda and cramming it into the square-shaped hole of Dynasty Warriors, the end result was Hyrule Warriors.

Essentially, Hyrule Warriors is a reskinned Dynasty Warriors, with Japanese generals being replaced by screaming elf people. For those unfamiliar with Koei Tecmo’s seminal mass-murdering series, the basic concept is one of base-taking, and slashing every poor thing that moves. In hindsight, such visceral gameplay lends itself well to the swords n’ sorcery universe of Zelda.

Instead of a wide open world, Hyrule Warriors is split into traditional levels, with two (or sometimes three) opposing armies vying for prime, blood-soaked real estate by fighting over key bases and outposts. This is done by… Well, mashing the attack buttons.

It’s an inelegant way of describing it, but this is (quite frankly) an inelegant game.

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First, some exposition. For those concerned about Hyrule Warriors being the ‘Other M’ of the Zelda franchise, don’t fret; this is very much a non-canon game. Which is just as well, as the plot is suitably bonkers. It all begins when a nasty witch named Cia (along with her generals Wizzro and Volga) invades the land of Hyrule, before plunging it into darkness. After a failed attempt at defending her kingdom, Princess Zelda and her cohorts (including Impa, Lana, and some dude named Link) track the villainess down; before said villainess opens a rift in time and space.

It’s this convenient plot device that allows characters and settings from past Zelda games to intermingle, whilst providing an adequate amount of fan-service for Zelda nerds like myself. Yes, during the six or so hours of the main campaign, you’ll come across familiar (and playable) faces such as Sheik, Midna, Darunia, Fi and even a certain big baddie who hails from the sun-blasted Gerudo Desert. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of Zelda history – albeit a smorgasbord that is perhaps a little to lean for my own liking.

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It’s no Smash Bros, that’s for sure. I personally would’ve liked more characters (though DLC is helping to alleviate matters, with the three main baddies now playable), but my biggest gripe is with the variety (or lack thereof) of levels. Truly, the locations on offer range from visually appealing (Skyloft) to downright ugly (uh, pretty much everything else) – and there is very little to do within them, aside from partaking in the mindless Dynasty Warriors fare.

2017 Edit: Post release, Hyrule Warriors has been bolstered by a substantial amount of DLC. Along with Cia, Volga and Wizzro, players willing to shell out extra cash received new characters such as Twili Midna, Tingle, Young Link, Medli, Marin, Ravio and Yuga. There was also a ton of new costumes, maps for Adventure Mode, weapons, challenges, and even a ‘Ganon’s Fury’ boss mode that allowed you to play as the titular pig beast (as well as a giant Cucco!). On top of all this, a 3DS port called Hyrule Warriors: Legends, was released with all of this content.

Honestly, the games graphics are a mixed bag overall. In one sense, it’s incredibly impressive seeing so many enemies being thwacked with nary a hitch in framerate – on more than one occasion, I found myself uttering “damn” in complete reverence. However, this loveliness is counterbalanced by the drab art style seen in the aforementioned levels, as well as the generic ‘anime-ness’ of original characters such as Cia and Lana (and believe me, you will get sick of their screeching and moaning).

Additionally, the game offers local multiplayer in the form of split-screen (one player takes the TV, the other the Game Pad) – which is a genuine selling point for people like me, who can easily find a partner to partake in mass violence (ahem). It’s a shame more Wii U games don’t support this feature, as it is a genuinely awesome experience – one that unfortunately comes with a noticeable downgrade in visual fidelity. Still, that fact that the Wii U can simultaneously stream two separate images never fails to impress.

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Aside from the main campaign, players can engage in the Adventure Mode – a massive… er, mode, that takes the entire map of the first Legend of Zelda game, and separates it into a grid. Within each square of this grid, there is a special challenge that must be beaten, and each successful mission helps open up the map a little more. Additionally, extras such as weapons and even new characters can be unlocked, and combatants can be levelled-up – which gives the game a nice staying power for obsessive completionists.

A bazaar allows characters to be imbued with upgrades like badges (made from items acquired in levels), special potions that increase the likelihood of rare weapon drops, and a smithy which upgrades pre-existing tools of mass destruction. On top of that, golden skulltulas can be hunted in levels, and each successful acquisition will help in unlocking hidden galleries. Not to mention, character galleries enable full 3D viewing, and a music player enables full 3D… erm, listening. Yeah.

So, there’s a lot of stuff in Hyrule Warriors that will keep you busy for a while – and future DLC promises to help bolster the game’s already-plentiful content. Unfortunately, all the content in the world can’t stop my overall feelings of disappointment I have toward the game – and as a massive Zelda fan, that is painful for me to admit.

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You see, aside from the fan service, there is very little that separates Hyrule Warriors from the bazillion other Dynasty Warriors games. Gameplay is woefully one-note, and small design quirks only add fuel to the frustration-fire; it’s that way missions take way too long to complete for a game that asks you to replay them constantly. The way allies are constantly screaming for help as they’re seemingly unable to fend themselves. The way there is no ‘restart’ option for missions. The way it takes forever to grow characters, so that they’re better prepared for harder (and very frustrating) missions.

It’s an innumerable amount of little things that ground my gears, and really highlighted the outdated, Japanese-style of development that seems to pervade Koei Tecmo’s halls – a style that is utterly absent from Nintendo’s own titles. It’s a harsh criticism, sure, but one that originates from the feelings of fatigue I felt as I spent many hours going through the game with a fine-tooth comb – and those feelings were usually accompanied with a desire to play something else.

All in all, Hyrule Warriors is an unusual release for Nintendo. A game that represents the Kyoto-firm’s newfound willingness to hand its valuable IP to third parties – and allowing them to twist and stretch them in new ways, much like a piece of multi-million dollar play dough.

Unfortunately, Zelda’s intermingling with Dynasty Warriors isn’t the major success I hoped it would be; it’s a game that – while comprehensive – far outstays its welcome, due to its refusal to offer more variety to its core gameplay. Still, if you can find it on discount, then I suggest giving it a spin.

6 out of 10

TAT Archive – CounterSpy Review

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

CounterSpy

Format: PS4, PS3, PS Vita

Developer: Dynamighty

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

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Since its release in 2012, it’s safe to say PlayStation Vita hasn’t had the smoothest of rides.

Whether due to Nintendo’s popular 3DS – or the even more dominant smartphone market – Sony’s powerful handheld just hasn’t been able to gain a firm foothold within the competitive videogames market.

Still, ask anyone who has gone out and actually purchased a Vita will tell you, its failures aren’t due to a lack of great games. Indeed, with titles such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Killzone Mercenary, Tearaway, Gravity Rush and a gamut of fantastic indie titles, the sleek little console has gained a loyal following of fans who relish the quirky library that harkens back to the glorious, Japan-centric days of Sega’s Saturn and Dreamcast hardware.

In this writer’s opinion, one of the most promising new games to come to camp Vita is Dynamighty’s CounterSpy, a peculiar espionage title that harkens back to the days of Splinter Cell on Game Boy Advance – though unlike that game, I’m sure Dynamighty’s effort will be played by more than three people. Ahem.

Set during the paranoid times of the Cold War, CounterSpy places you in the silent shoes of ‘Agent’, a shadowy operative who works for the super-secret organisation known as C.O.U.N.T.E.R. Caught in the middle of a conflict between the ‘Imperialists’ (America) and the ‘Socialists’ (U.S.S.R), Agent must foil the ultimate plan that both nations have – to blow up the moon.

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Possibly just as much a social commentary as it is a tongue-in-cheek concept; CounterSpy is nevertheless a game that does not take itself too seriously – with witty writing that permeates the game’s randomly-generated levels, and bizarre Cold War factoids that litter the loading screens.

Wait… did I just say randomly-generated levels?

Yes, indeed I did! You see, CounterSpy’s stages are set in either the Imperialist or Socialist strongholds. The reason for this is that a balance must be maintained throughout the title’s six hour campaign, thanks to the ‘DEFCON’ level. Each side begins with a DEFCON level of five, and it is in Agent’s best interest that they don’t raise to the maximum level of zero. If that happens, then a mad dash begins to the end of the level – lest nuclear annihilation occurs (and even worse, a game over! Gasp!). DEFCON is raised by basically making mistakes, like getting spotted by soldiers or getting killed in action. However, Agent can help alleviate political tensions by capturing officers in the field, completing levels, and equipping a special upgrade.

As I alluded to earlier, CounterSpy emulates Sam Fisher’s GBA exploits by taking place primarily on a 2D side-scrolling view, with the occasional 3D shooting section. This odd gameplay works surprisingly well; as it gives the whole thing a nice, arcade feel. Despite being a stealth game, I felt capable of speed-running through the latter hours of the game – dispatching foes like some sort of badass ghost. This is because the mechanics are very easy to learn, and as such provide a smooth and satisfying experience that neatly accommodates the score-chasing aspect of the package.

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All this results is a surprisingly addictive title – and those who wish for even more challenge can rise through the online leaderboards, and perform special, no-kill runs that really test Agent’s metal on the field.

Unfortunately, there are some issues I had with the game. Because of the random aspect of the levels, the layouts can get very repetitive, with only two themes throughout the entire game (desert or snow). Additionally, this system can result in poor cover and enemy placement. Too often I had no choice but to blindly walk through a door, only to be greeted by the unpleasant gaze of an enemy or gun camera. Also, I found the load times to be far too long for a game this simple.

Graphically, the game is very appealing. I loved the stylised 007-style aesthetic, as well as the simple polygonal art-style that effectively hides the limitations of the Vita, whilst ensuring a smooth experience all round. In terms of sound though, it’s a mixed bag. The soundtrack is suitably smooth and jazzy, but the SFX leaves a lot to be desired (apparently all American soldiers are name ‘Johnny’).

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Yet overall, I still enjoyed this game while it lasted. CounterSpy is a quality title; though a little lean considering the high price. If it was at least half the cost then I’d highly suggest diving into this espionage world.

6 out of 10

TAT Archive – Nintendo Shows Its Feminine Side

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine.

With all the talk of the increasing presence of women within the world of videogames, there has recently been a strong scrutinising over the role of Nintendo’s treatment of the fairer sex. In the past, the granddaddy of the industry has been accused of being somewhat conservative regarding the progression of females within gaming (not to mention the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community). It has been seen in some circles that the Kyoto firm has stuck too close to its traditional Japanese ideals, and that it has failed to evolve with the times. In this piece, I will argue that Nintendo is in fact one of the most progressive gaming companies out there, and that criticisms levelled towards its perceived ignorance toward social changes is quite unfounded.

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For 125 years, Nintendo has been a progressive company.

From the firm’s ‘innovate or die’ mantra of the Yamauchi family to Gunpei Yokoi’s ‘lateral thinking of withered technology’, the Hanafuda-cum-videogame peddler has redefined both hardware and software time and time again.

So why the accusations of being ‘behind the times’?

Well, some of it has to do with its stance on online gaming. Others meanwhile, deride the Big-N’s de-emphasis on powerful console specs. Others still shake their heads in dismay over Iwata’s relationship with 3rd parties. However, those are discussions for another time. The particular point of consternation I want to chat about is (you guessed it) the issue of gender equality; both in Nintendo’s titles, and as an overarching theme throughout the corporation’s culture.

Being a multi-billion dollar company run primarily by elder Japanese gentlemen, a cynic would point out that this fact alone would disqualify Nintendo as a forward-thinking, multicultural institution in the vein of younger, hipper companies like Valve or even Microsoft – and honestly, this may have been true once upon a time. After all, the Nintendo of the 1980s and ‘90s was a different beast compared to today’s whimsical fun-lovers; the late Hiroshi Yamauchi was well-known for his ruthless business tactics. However, the Nintendo of today is one that has been humbled by the failure of the Virtual Boy and the underwhelming performance of the Gamecube, as well as the radical changing of the gaming marketplace. The 2014 Nintendo is one of humility and a willingness to engage in silly buggers.

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It’s a fundamental change in attitude that is prevalent in the entertaining Nintendo Direct videos, and the engaging Treehouse videos that dominated this year’s E3. This is a Nintendo where Satoru Iwata engages in an epic brawl with Reggie Fils-Aime, whilst Bill Trinnen awkwardly explains Tomodachi Life, and Masahiro Sakurai trolls his Smash Bros fans. It reflects the mindset of a company that is no longer run by stuffy suits (despite the protestations of whiney shareholders and analysts).

So what does this have to do with the state of females within the industry? Well, in this aspect, its Nintendo’s willingness to change its internal corporate structure that signifies a greater importance placed on non-Japanese/non-male designers. In terms of those ever-lovable ‘Gaijin’, the most famous examples are Texas-based Retro Studios and the Canadian Next Level Games. Even within Nintendo’s own development houses, foreigners such as British born James Turner have created exciting new games like the eShop title HarmoKnight.

But what about the girls? Perhaps the most prominent female designer in Nintendo today is Aya Kyogoku, who is a director of the highly popular Animal Crossing series. In recent years, she has become increasingly prolific within the gaming media when promoting the franchise – particularly in regards to the 3DS’ New Leaf. During an interview at the Game Developer’s Conference a few years ago, Kyogoku revealed her beginnings at her illustrious employer, by stating that:

When I first started [at Nintendo], it wasn’t uncommon to be the only woman on the entire team.”

However, according to Animal Crossing co-director Katsuya Eguchi, by the time New Leaf had completed development, nearly half of the game’s staff was female. Additionally, it was imperative that this diversity amongst the development crew would be reflected in the final product:

We wanted to make sure that the content allowed all the players to express their individuality, that it is was something men and women of all ages would enjoy. So in order to view the project from a variety of perspectives, we made sure the team was made up of people from various backgrounds and life experiences. My experience has been that when you bring people in with a variety of interests beyond just games, that opens you up for the possibility of discovering new ways of playing and new experiences to provide to our users… possibilities for exploration beyond just ‘I want to make games.’”

Kyogoku added:

Having worked on this team where there were almost equal numbers of men and women made me realize that [diversity] can open you up to hearing a greater variety of ideas and sharing a greater diversity of ideas. Only after having working on a project like this, with a team like this one, was I able to realize this… In my years at Nintendo, I have come to discover that when there are women in a variety of roles on the project, you get a wider [range] of ideas.”

Not only that, the audience of the game itself proved to be particularly revelatory, as revealed by Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata:

In the first three weeks of Animal Crossing sales, by the end of November, the largest group was 19- to 24-year-old women. I’ve never seen something like this before.”

Additionally, when the game was bought with a 3DS console, 56% of buyers were women, which left Iwata “speechless.”

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On a wider spectrum, a recent report on Nintendo’s internal Kyoto restructuring revealed that 40 to 50% of the entire company’s graphic artists are women; which is a pretty astounding statistic for a company often lambasted for being ‘behind the times’.

Similarly, a recent update for the new Smash Bros by Masahiro Sakurai displayed an alternative costume for Zero Suit Samus; which he stressed was designed by a female member of the development staff. Sure, this quick note by the Melee Maestro could have been interpreted as a man eager to avoid any angry Miiverse comments accusing him of sexism – but the truth is, Nintendo has been surprisingly vocal about the importance of women within the last 12 months or so.

With the flak the company received over the Tomodachi Life same-sex fiasco – and the accusations of a lack of racial diversity in Mario Kart 8 (really) – one could assume that Nintendo has been on a desperate crusade for good PR. Still, according to Nintendo of Canada spokesman Matt Ryan:

In case you haven’t noticed, [it] is kind of a theme for us; the more recent prominence of female characters. Having female characters playing a role that we haven’t seen often in the past, outside of Samus. And that leads us right back to Hyrule Warriors, seeing Zelda kick some serious ass is pretty impressive. It’s not something that we’ve necessarily seen before from Nintendo. Female Nintendo protagonists are finally stepping into the forefront in their role in the game. Whether it’s all the female heroes in Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta, the female characters in Super Smash Bros, or Samus in Metroid. Even Splatoon!”

The man’s not wrong. First, we have Bayonetta – a franchise that was bought back for a sequel thanks to Nintendo’s phoenix down-esque check book. As you may remember, the original Bayonetta was critically acclaimed for its intense action gameplay – but also due to the Bayonetta character herself. She was a shining example of a female character; an impressively designed protagonist that wasn’t degrading – but empowering. With Bayonetta 2 on the horizon, Nintendo has chosen to give her a second chance at stardom – to show the games industry that there is ample room for female icons that are not named ‘Lara Croft’.

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Then there is Hyrule Warriors, the Zelda/Dynasty Warriors that has gained lot of buzz because of its female roster that seemingly outnumbers the guys. Princess Zelda, Impa, Lana, Agitha, Midna, Princess Ruto… It usually takes an iffy game like Dead or Alive to see such a major focus on the female form. In an interview, producer Yosuke Hayashi stated:

I personally like strong, fighting women, and we’re happy to say there will be other characters like that, other strong female characters in the game.”

He emphasises the strong design of Zelda herself, and how her regal status means more than just being kidnap-fodder. This is a Zelda who can ‘kick some serious ass’; a Zelda who is a fearsome leader of armies and an able-bodies swordswoman.

Another game mentioned by Ryan – and perhaps the biggest of the lot – is Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS. This is a game that speaks just as much about Nintendo’s legacy of great women in its games as much as it does about its diverse character roster. In truth, Nintendo has always been at the forefront of female progression within videogaming – most notably due to Samus Aran, the protagonist of the revered Metroid series. Detractors like to point out the ‘submissive’ role played by Princess Peach in the Mario games; but in truth, the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom has always been a diverse character. She’s been Mario’s equal in the franchise’s innumerable amount of spin-off titles, shared the starring role in mainline games such as Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario 3D World, had her own game in the form of Super Princess Peach, and has shown her wiliness in the Paper Mario titles. Likewise, Rosalina has become a very popular personality since her debut in 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy, where players were treated to her surprisingly sad backstory. Aside from Mario, Zelda and Metroid, the Smash Bros roster reveals just how rich Nintendo’s history is in terms of strong female characters. Wii Fit Trainer, Lucina, Palutena, Robin, Animal Crossing Villager, Sheik… And with possibly more to come, it’s evident that Nintendo’s past output has been very female friendly.

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Indeed, Nintendo’s games have always been popular with women – protagonists like Mario and Link are very non-threatening to those who possess double X chromosomes, because they have never been overtly masculine. In fact, it could be seen that Nintendo’s most popular characters are somewhat asexual in nature, due to the firm’s focus on gameplay above all else. Developers such as Shigeru Miyamoto have always viewed their characters as avatars that act as a direct link toward their players – regardless of gender, race or religion. In fact, Link himself was named as such for that very reason!

This ‘everyone included’ philosophy has also extended toward Nintendo’s hardware itself. The Wii and DS consoles helped to shatter the walls between the ‘hardcore’ and the ‘casual’, and helped to make the gaming culture a less inclusive place long before the advent of smartphones. These two consoles made gaming a much more open place for females, with games like Wii Sports, Nintendogs, Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and Professor Layton all proving that videogames could be more than testosterone-drenched gore-fests; that there was a wider audience besides 18-34 males and (dare I say it) awkward shut-ins. Nintendo provided a platform which was fully embraced by Apple and its revolutionary iPhone – a device that has made virtually everyone a gamer. And this trend has continued today, as Shigeru Miyamoto stated during the company’s most recent shareholder meeting:

Every year a number of companies exhibit at E3 and Nintendo is compared with other companies, most likely with Sony and Microsoft. This year, the majority of what the other developers exhibited was bloody shooter software that was mainly set in violent surroundings or, in a different sense, realistic and cool worlds. Because so many software developers are competing in that category, it seemed like most of the titles at the show were of that kind. In such circumstances, Nintendo looked very unique and was able to receive such positive reactions as “Nintendo had a variety of different software” and “the company is offering games we can feel safe with.” From this aspect of differentiation with the other companies, we had a great E3 show this year.

In summation, it is clear that Nintendo has made the industry a better place for female gamers – and it continues to do so with a swath of new titles that avoid the industry-wide trend of slapping a gun to a muscle-bound white guy, before letting him loose on a hapless horde of zombies. Whether reflected via its corporate culture, or through its products, Nintendo has shown that the games industry can be a very fertile one for females; both designer and consumer alike.