Category Archives: Reviews

Star Wars Battlefront Review

Star Wars Battlefront is not the best first-person shooter out there.  Let’s get that out of the way right up front.  It’s a relatively stripped-down game that doesn’t do enough to make up for its shortcomings.  From a purely mechanical standpoint, any number of other shooters on the market will provide a more satisfying experience.  Battlefront’s biggest asset, and one major advantage over other shooters, is its ability to transport you to the Star Wars universe.

And I cannot be objective about anything set in the Star Wars universe.  We should get that out of the way up front, too.  The Star Wars movies are so ingrained in my psyche, so elemental to my artistic sensibilities, that any book, movie, game, TV show, interpretive dance, etc., set in that universe gets a handful of bonus points and get-out-of-jail-free cards.  Just being in the Star Wars universe for a while is an experience I enjoy, regardless of the quality of the work that’s brought me there.  I saw The Phantom Menace six times in theaters, for example.  So my opinion of Battlefront won’t necessarily be objective, inasmuch as such a thing could actually exist.  But mine will be the opinion of a pretty passionate Star Wars fan.

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The first thing you notice about Star Wars Battlefront is how beautiful it is.  Heading into the third year of this new console generation, with developers starting to leave the last generation of hardware behind, we’re getting used to seeing breathtaking graphics in new releases, but Battlefront seems to vastly exceed our still-nascent expectations of what a current (née “next”) generation game should look like.  Not only is the game as close to photorealistic as anything we’ve ever seen on a console, but it captures the specific look of the original films.  It doesn’t feel like real life; it feels like a movie.  This effect is somewhat owing to the photogrammetry process developer DICE used to capture original props from the movies.  Those Stormtroopers look just like their cinematic counterparts because they essentially are wearing the exact same costumes.

This attention to detail extends beyond the graphics to the sound design, animations, music, and visual effects.  Ewoks scatter when you run through the Endor treetops; Tusken Raiders shout from atop Tatooine ridges; Stormtroopers are animated to move not like hyper-athletic videogame characters, but actors wearing plastic costumes; the Wilhelm Scream is everywhere.  Every effort has been made to create as authentic and immersive a Star Wars experience as possible.  And those efforts have largely succeeded.   It is still a videogame, of course.  You will still get shot in the head by a Stormtrooper named something like DeezNutz69xxx69, which kind of breaks the illusion a bit, and you will eventually settle into a familiar headspace of worrying about spawn points, power-ups, K/D ratios, and everything else that comes with playing an online shooter.  But it will also feel more like Star Wars than just about any game you’ve ever played. Continue reading Star Wars Battlefront Review

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Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Nine, Conclusion

[This is the last post in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts onetwothree,  fourfivesixseven, and eight.]

After two weeks with Super Mario Maker – the time I needed to get through the game’s nine-day content rollout and also deal with the few extra days of waiting the game threw at me, maybe to punish me for playing past my bedtime – I finally have access to the complete game.  And if the previous eight posts don’t make it clear, I love this game.  On the creation side, Nintendo has made the act of designing a level feel like a game.  The tools allow you to be really creative while keeping the interface intuitive and simple, with pop-in pop-out playtesting.  And every step of building a level is a lot of fun: throwing a bunch of random elements into a stage and then playing through it, just to see what happens; testing, tweaking, and refining your creations until they function the way you want them to; dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s, and getting to where your level finally feels complete.  All of this is fun.

On the play side, the game offers you, in effect, infinite Mario.  And because levels can be built in one of four themes, complete with their own mechanics and some unique items, it actually offers you quadruple infinite Mario, infinity times four.  The pool of community-created levels is a mixed bag, but abandoning one level and jumping into another is pretty quick and simple, and the pool is so deep that you’re bound to find some great stuff if you spend a little time looking.  The Internet is also stepping in to fill the curation void, with a lot of “The Ten Most [adjective] Levels in Super Mario Maker” lists out there.  In the first week of the game’s release, more than a million levels were uploaded, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the game limits users to ten uploads until they accumulate some stars from the community.  And the levels already range from brutally hard to auto-playing to musical to Kafka-esque exploration of Waluigi’s existential dread.  So obviously this community’s potential is huge.

And that’s one of the things that most excites me about this game: its potential.  With most games, good or bad, two weeks of playing for several hours a day is usually enough time to give you a pretty good impression of what the next ten or hundred or thousand hours of play will be like.  Games can always surprise you with plot twists, new settings, upgrades, and changes to the mechanics.  But few games can surprise you the way Super Mario Maker seems all but guaranteed to.  The community is already doing things I didn’t anticipate.  For almost all of us, it’s just been two weeks.  The level pool right now represents just what people have come up with off the top of their heads.  What will people come up with when they’ve had time to really digest the game and internalize its mechanics?  I can’t wait to find out.

Continue reading Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Nine, Conclusion

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Eight, 100 Marios

[This is the eighth in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts onetwothree,  fourfivesix, and seven.]

With the final day of Super Mario Maker’s content rollout just around the corner, I decided to forego level design today and spend some time playing other people’s levels.  Tomorrow – Mario willing – I will finally have access to the full toolkit, and can properly tackle the ghost house I’ve been working on.  In the meantime, there are over a million levels to explore.

Previously, whenever I’ve decided to play user-created levels, I’ve surfed through Nintendo’s three meagerly curated lists.  I’ve found some great levels this way, but I feel like I’m getting a narrow view of the community from this angle.  In particular, the list of top-ranked levels seems overstuffed with auto-playing levels.  These are novel enough, but sitting down to plow through a few dozen of these things isn’t really my idea of a good time.

Auto-playing levels come in two main varieties: the “don’t press anything” variety, and the “keep running” variety.  An example of the latter is this level (ID: 4B37-0000-0010-6C26), titled, appropriately enough, “Keep running!”:

Super Mario Maker course "Keep running!" (ID: 4B37-0000-0010-6C26)
Super Mario Maker course “Keep running!” (ID: 4B37-0000-0010-6C26)

Certainly, a lot of work went into building this level, and there is plenty of technique and creativity on display.  I’m certainly glad these self-playing courses exist, and it’s fun to play – or watch – one from time to time.  By just surfing through the featured, top-ranked, and “up & coming” levels, though, you’re certainly missing out on the full extent of what the community is doing, and perhaps also missing out on the chance to see some truly awful levels.  So, to take a deep dive into the bottomless pit that is the Super Mario Maker community, I’ve decided to take my first run at the 100 Mario Challenge.

Continue reading Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Eight, 100 Marios

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Seven, Waiting

[This is the seventh in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts onetwothree,  fourfive, and six.]

After seven days with Super Mario Maker – that is, seven days by the game’s accounting, but actually eleven – the time-gated rollout is starting to wear on me.  For one thing, the game has inexplicably decided to make me wait two days between every item drop, so what was supposed to be nine days will end up being maybe fifteen.  For another thing, the benefit of the delayed rollout is starting to wear off.  During my first few days with the game, the restricted toolkit forced me to be creative with my designs; by now, though, I’ve got enough tools that I could make a zany, overstuffed, too-many-ideas level if I wanted to.  Any austerity in my approach to level building is self-imposed.  I’m still learning the importance of restraint in level design, but from other people’s levels, not from the game’s gradual rollout of features.

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Weirdly, though, this flaw in the game’s design – or at least the flaw in its execution, in my case – reveals just how great the game is.  Every time the game informs me that I’ll be waiting more than 24 hours for the next batch of items, my brain says, “Alright then, may as well stop playing.”  But I don’t stop playing.  I cannot stop playing.  It’s just too fun.  Not only do I keep playing despite my disappointment, I keep designing.  I’m not spending nearly as much time playing other people’s levels as I’d like to, because I can’t pull myself away from the level editor.  Because I always feel like I’m just a few tweaks away from making this level truly great.

Continue reading Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Seven, Waiting

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Six, Curation

[This is the sixth in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts onetwothree,  four, and five.]

Today was another day more about playing than creating.  The Super Mario World theme unlocked today, along with a handful of items, and I immediately jumped into the level editor to play with them.  As sometimes happens, though, I hit a bit of a roadblock.  So instead of grinding away, looking for a solution to the problem I’d created, I decided to peruse the community levels in search of some inspiration.

After more than a week with this game, one thing is becoming apparent: a lot of the best levels are those that stick to a particular theme.  One of the levels I played today was called “P-Switch Challenge Run,” (ID: F98C-0000-0053-DC4B), and it involved a series of puzzles revolving around getting from one P-switch to the next before the bricks you were running on transformed back into coins and you plummeted to your profitable death.  In other words, the level’s creator took a single concept – building the game world out of coins-turned-blocks – and explored it for as much puzzle variety as possible.

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The temptation in designing a Super Mario level is to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, and there is a certain amount of charm to these madcap designs, especially in these early days, when there’s still a bit of novelty to sticking everything you possibly can in question blocks.  But creating truly enjoyable, Nintendo-caliber levels requires a bit more thought.  As does finding such levels to play.

Continue reading Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Six, Curation

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Five, Frustration

[This is the fifth in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts onetwothree, and four.]

My fifth day with Super Mario Maker was noteworthy for three things, two good and one bad.  First, the Super Mario Bros. 3 theme unlocked today, which is one of my favorite Super Mario aesthetics.  Once I get a firmer grasp on the tools, I imagine I’ll do most of my level designing in the Mario 3 and Super Mario World themes.

My first impulse was to reskin some of my old levels in the new theme, but I quickly realized that this won’t always work.  Though the mechanics are mostly the same across all Mario games, the few differences – spin jumps, the ability to carry shells, wall jumping, etc. – have a pretty big impact, especially when you’re trying to build puzzles with a single solution.  Your choice of theme isn’t just a matter of aesthetics, but is actually a critical design decision.

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In the day’s second major development, I put in some serious work on a level I started the other day, discovering – and fixing – some flaws, and fleshing out the level into something that feels really complete and pretty challenging, with a couple of secrets thrown in for good measure.  It’s really satisfying to feel your level come together in a matter of an hour or two, and it’s a testament to this game’s intuitive design that you can so easily and quickly ramp up the degree of polish on your level.  I’m certainly not the world’s best level designer, but Super Mario Maker does a great job of making everyone feel like they can create something truly special.  The top 1% of level designers will certainly shine in the online community, but the game’s design tools don’t feel like they’re intended only for those people.  Anyone who enjoys playing Super Mario games can also enjoy designing them.

And finally, the game didn’t register my play session until just after midnight – the second or third time this has happened to me.  So, at this point I’ve had Super Mario Maker for seven days, and have played it every day, but I only have five days’ worth of content.  Of course, I suppose this is my fault for waiting until after 11:00 some nights to boot up the game, and I could always futz with the Wii U’s system clock to cheat my way to Day Nine.  But still, it’s frustrating that I’m not only having to wait through Nintendo’s nine-day rollout plan – which I’ve kind of gotten on board with – but am also being penalized for when I play the game.  Ostensibly, five minutes a day in the level editor is enough to unlock the next day’s delivery of goodies, but I sometimes wait thirty or forty minutes for that message.  I wish the game could recognize that I’ve spent several hours in the level editor – well over the thirty-five minutes required of me to earn seven daily content deliveries.  In a week that’s been full of joy, and a wholly unprecedented kind of gaming joy at that, this has been a rare source of frustration.

Ultimately, though, this is a minor gripe.  Within another week I’ll have everything unlocked, and the game will still feel fresh and exciting.  And really, this flaw in the game’s design just underscores what a great game it is.  When I’m playing Mario Maker on, say, Tuesday night, and midnight rolls around and then a notification pops up telling me I’ll have to wait until Thursday to unlock the next batch of design tools, I immediately get a sinking feeling.  Part of me wants to turn the game off right then and there, and just wait until Thursday to play again, as if anything I do between now and then will be pointless.  And then I blink and it’s two in the morning, and I’m still plugging away in the level editor, fighting through yawns to further refine my latest creation, and having a great time all the while.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Four, Precision

[This is the fourth in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts one, two, and three.]

The fourth day of Super Mario Maker is an important one for budding level designers.  It’s the day you gain the ability to trace Mario’s route, radically increasing the amount of precision you can build into your levels.  When you jump from playtesting to editing, you now have the option to view a trail of ghost Marios, highlighting your route through the last few seconds of gameplay.  This makes it much easier to place that block exactly where you’d land if you took a running jump from the edge of that last cliff, for example.  You’ve had a few days to play around with placing blocks and enemies willy-nilly around your levels; now you can place them exactly where they need to be to achieve your desired results.

As the levels people have already created amply demonstrate, this is where truly bonkers level design becomes possible – or at least a lot less difficult.  If, in the course of playtesting or just messing around, you pull off a series of tricky jumps, you can pop into the level editor and throw in some power-ups to reward players who can match your platforming prowess, or insert obstacles that will force them to.  Many of the best Mario levels give you a puzzle and then subtly guide you towards its solution, leaving you with a sense of accomplishment for both discovering and then successfully navigating the tricky route to the finish line.  Now that you can actually see that route onscreen, you can much more easily build a level around it.

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This feature also lets you do a bit more playtesting.  One of the first things I did in the editor today was to create a section in my level where the easiest way through a series of obstacles is to simply hold right on the D-pad and let Mario bounce from music block to music block until the automated path drops him onto a moving platform.  Seeing Mario’s route onscreen let me do two things: first, it made it easy for me to bring fireballs and other obstacles right to the edge of Mario’s path, creating the illusion of danger; second, it let me quickly see what would happen if players did the “wrong” thing, and add traps, safety nets, or visual cues as I deemed appropriate.

There’s also a great Easter egg in this batch of tools.  When you shake the music note block, it transforms into an alternate version of itself that makes a slightly different sound when you jump on it: a single note whose pitch corresponds to the block’s placement in the board.  In other words: the tools to start building musical levels.  Steer Mario into a series of carefully placed musical blocks with precise timing – or drop enemies onto them – and you can build a level that plays a song.  Now, even with a pretty solid musical background, I doubt I could personally put together much more than a few seconds of simple melody or a few chords for Mario to run past.  But I don’t doubt that someone out there will put together some mind-blowing musical levels.

And that’s one of my favorite things about Super Mario Maker.  As much as I get excited by every new item that’s made available, and am eager to build levels for my friends and family to try, I’m far more excited by the prospect of what other people will do.  Whenever a new design option becomes available, I start to drool imagining what that top 1% of Mario Maker users will cook up.  There’s already a wealth of great stuff out there, but as more and more people unlock the full slate of tools and work through the game’s learning curve, the bounty is just going to get richer and richer and richer.  Soon, it may be time to make a variation on Rule 34: if you can imagine it, someone will do it in Mario Maker.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Three, Obsession

[This is the third in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts one and two.]

Videogames hold special appeal for obsessive types.  Modern games offer seemingly interminable lists of objectives: maps overstuffed with destinations to check out, laundry lists of miscellaneous challenges, characters to level up, stats to optimize, and however many goddamn flags and feathers they can scatter throughout an Assassin’s Creed game.  And then there are Xbox Achievements and PlayStation Trophies to collect, if you want to feel like you’ve well and truly finished a game.  And there’s “Through the Fire and Flames” on Expert.

Well, for people who can’t bear to leave that one unexplored location on the map, Super Mario Maker is a glorious, maddening rabbit hole.

Mario Maker is not a game you can finish, obviously.  For people with self-control, it’s an ideal game to fill just about any amount of time you choose.  You can turn it on for about a minute or so to check out the latest auto-playing level, or you can dive in for hours.  For some of us, though, it’s pretty much always going to be the latter, even when it’s supposed to be the former.

Take yesterday, for example.  I didn’t get a chance to play Mario Maker until around midnight, so I figured I’d only jump in for a few minutes to check out the latest items added to my toolkit – the underwater theme and appropriate items, by the way – and mess around with them for a few minutes until I unlocked the next day’s batch of items.  Fast forward three hours, and I’m still tweaking my latest creation.

Mario Maker employs a carrot-and-stick method to keep you engaged with its level editor.  The carrot is the thirty years of memories you have with Super Mario games and the perfection of their level design; the stick is the fact that you can’t achieve that perfection, both because your toolkit is limited and because you’re not that great at level design.  Chasing that balance between fun and frustration, trying to differentiate challenge from difficulty, will keep you at work for hours.  Maybe if you make that pipe one unit taller and make the platform two blocks wide instead of one, or, no, keep the pipe how it is and make the platform two blocks wide, but move it one unit to the right and put a koopa on it, no, a goomba, or what if you make the jump easier but put a spike top on it…

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This loop of creation and revision, chasing some hypothetical ideal, is central to countless games, “games,” creativity suites, and, you know, human existence.  But what Super Mario Maker does so successfully is game-ify this loop.  Every time you place a block or an enemy, you’re going to jump into play mode to test this latest section out, so even when you’re creating levels – as opposed to playing other people’s – you’ll still be doing a lot of playing, in tiny, tiny bites.  And when you create and then execute a challenging bit of platforming, the experience is twice as rewarding, because you succeed at both level design and gameplay.  You can spend just as much time chasing perfection in a game like Mario Paint, but at the end your only reward is seeing what you’ve made.  Creation is, of course, a satisfying reward, but when you’re sitting in front of a television with a controller in your hand, nothing is quite as rewarding as gameplay, and Mario Maker gives you that.  You get the satisfaction of creating a level, and then you get the satisfaction of playing that level, and then you get the satisfaction of improving the level, and then you get the satisfaction of playing that improved level, ad infinitum.

Which brings me to the highlight of my third day with Super Mario Maker.  (And a bit of a spoiler, if that matters.)  At one point while working on a level, I shook a block to see if it would transform.  It didn’t, but a bunch of tiny insects started flying around my level.  When I poked at one with the stylus, it took me into the flyswatter game from Mario Paint.  Just because.  For all the depth this game offers both as a level editor and a platformer, these little touches – like the way Mario cowers when the eraser gets near him – are what really send it over the top.  It’s not just attention to detail; it’s attention to a certain type of detail that only a diehard Nintendo fan would appreciate.  In recent years, Nintendo has sometimes seemed indifferent to the fact that a lot of “core gamers” are also Nintendo fans, and vice versa.  Super Mario Maker, though, seems aimed directly at the intersection in that Venn diagram.  And, as someone who lives squarely in that intersection, it’s nice to feel appreciated.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Two, Exploration

[Unlocking all of Super Mario Maker’s content requires playing the game for nine days, so I am keeping a diary of my first nine days with the game.  Day one’s entry can be found here.]

The second day of Super Mario Maker is behind me, and I still love this game.  A brief survey of what I did in the game today illuminates just how many ways there are to enjoy it.  To begin, I played my level again, and the novelty of enjoying your own creation is still there.  It’s like a battle of the wits between two versions of yourself.  “Take that, Yesterday Dan!”  “Curse you, Yesterday Dan!  How could you do that to me?”

Then I showed my level to my wife, herself a huge Mario fan, and experienced what will probably be the most enduring joy Super Mario Maker has to offer: the joy of sharing.  Sure, you can upload your levels and accumulate stars and comments from strangers.  But handing someone a controller and sitting next to them while they play something you created is a pretty special experience.  And Mario Maker makes this experience incredibly easy, both in terms of the intuitive, accessible level-creation tools and the fact that Mario games are so relatable.  Just about everyone has played a Mario game at some point.  And if you’re handing the controller to someone who somehow hasn’t ever played a Mario game, you can try to invent a level they’d enjoy.  You can put yourself in Shigeru Miyamoto’s shoes circa 1985 and grapple with the challenge of introducing these game mechanics to an unfamiliar audience.  The Mario – or Nintendo, or videogame – proselytizer now has tools to try to convert friends and family.

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After watching my wife’s glee at discovering the mushroom that turned her Mario into Toon Link, I jumped into the level editor to tweak my creation a bit.  Between watching my wife play the level, my own playthroughs, and stats from online plays, I decided I needed to slightly nerf a tricky jump in the middle of the level.  Plus, it being day two, I had a handful of new items I could drop into my creations.  This might not be a universal experience, but for me, going back into a level I previously considered finished and tweaking it, obsessing over every little change, hemming and hawing over the placement of a fire flower, is a lot of fun.  It feels, somehow, like leveling and upgrading your RPG character.

Continue reading Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Two, Exploration

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day One, Discovery

Today was the day I didn’t know I’d always been waiting for: the day I got to make my own Super Mario levels.  With the release of Super Mario Maker, Nintendo has turned untold thousands of its most dedicated fans into game designers.  And, more importantly, they’ve created a piece of fan service of the highest order.  Super Mario Maker is about creating levels, and it’s about playing other people’s levels, but, more than that, it’s about sharing the joy of Nintendo – the joy that Nintendo’s designers must feel when they get to play in this universe.

As with just about any video game, most of Mario Maker’s content isn’t available right off the bat.  Instead of unlocking that content by accumulating XP or working through a linear storyline, though, you unlock everything by waiting, essentially.  After a brief tutorial, the game begins with a pretty limited toolset: a few enemies, a few types of bricks, mushrooms, pipes, and a few other items.  After a few minutes playing around in the level editor, you’ll get a notification that more items will be made available tomorrow.  After nine days of this, you will have unlocked all of the tools, barring any secrets.  Play for ten minutes a day or ten hours, it’s still going to take you nine days to fill your toolbox.   So, instead of writing a typical review, I’m going to keep a diary of my first nine days with the game.  Today was my first day.

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As soon as you open the box, you can see that this is a game designed to please the biggest Mario fans.  It comes bundled with an art book filled with screenshots and miscellaneous, endearingly weird Mario-themed art.  The book is intended to inspire you – as if thirty years of Super Mario memories weren’t inspiration enough – but it’s such a nice touch, such an unnecessarily generous pack-in, that it makes you fall in love with the game before you even pop it into your Wii U.  And when you do pop it in, the charm offensive continues from the opening moments.  This is, for example, the only game I can recall where it’s possible to die in the title screen.

But on to the meat of the game: the level creation.  When I first read about Nintendo’s nine-day trickle of content, it smacked of overbearing hand-holding, an unnecessarily paternalistic approach to a progression system.  I assumed that I’d probably boot the game up for ten minutes each day during that first week, just long enough to unlock some more bits, and not really dive into the game in earnest until I had a decent toolset.  But now, having played with the day-one feature set, I think Nintendo has really hit the nail on the head with this weird approach.  Obviously, the point here is to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by all the tools at your disposal, and to teach you the level-design mechanics one step at a time.  But any progression system would have accomplished this.  Nintendo’s time-gate does something else, too: it forces you to be creative.

Continue reading Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day One, Discovery