Wow, I'm actually doing my year in review on time for once, haha. Looking back over the games I played this past year, I'm actually pretty satisfied with the variety and the number of games I've been able to cross off of my to-do list, such as classic games like Pilotwings, Crazy Taxi, and Grand Theft Auto III, and also more modern games such as Overwatch and Undertale. I also made progress on various long-running series, mixed in some replays and indie games, and started livestreaming via some very mediocre "Let's Plays". Not being able to travel during the summer due to the pandemic definitely helped on that front.

As for my highest-ranked games of the year, it's no surprise that replays of a pair of classic Nintendo platformers topped the list, but I was pleased at how much Super Mario Maker 2 added (especially in the form of free DLC), and Xenoblade Chronicles X even surpassed the original in my opinion. Rounding out that list was my revisit of the smartphone game Dr. Mario World. In truth I never stopped playing it since it released, but this year was a good opportunity to reevaluate my original opinion of it and even though it's at heart a match-3 puzzle game, in the end it did sneak its way onto my greatest games of all time list. And of course, I do have to give my annual shout-out to Fire Emblem Heroes which for the fourth year running continues to be my most-played game by far.

Anyway, here's the summary of what my 2020 looked like gaming-wise (games listed in approximate descending order) with links to each game’s corresponding blog review:

HIGH
- Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, Switch online) (replay; previous 2011)
- Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (SNES, Switch online) (replay; previous 2009)
- Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch)
- Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U)
- Dr. Mario World (Android)

MEDIUM
- Overwatch (Switch)
- Mario Bros. (NES) previous 2018)
- Puyo Puyo Tsuu (Gen)
- Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation (3DS)
- Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS) (replay; previous 2017, 2013)
- Dynasty Warriors 3 (PS2)
- Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (N64)
- Sayonara Wild Hearts (Switch eShop)
- Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (PS2)
- Fitness Boxing (Switch)
- Ring Fit Adventure (Switch)
- Fire Emblem Warriors (Switch) (replay; previous 2017)
- BTS World (Android)
- Wario: Master of Disguise (DS)
- Undertale (PC)
- Just Dance 4 (Wii U)
- Picross DS (DS)
- Dr. Mario 64 (N64)
- Baba is You (Switch eShop)
- Crazy Taxi (DC)
- Pokemon Cafe (Android)
- Pilotwings (SNES)
- Grand Theft Auto III (PS2)
- NightSky (Steam)
- Blind Men (PC)

LOW
- Pokemon Rumble U (Wii U)
- Grand Theft Auto (PS)
- Donut County (Switch eShop)
- Pokemon Rumble Rush (Android)

In terms of stats, I did play more old school games than usual, although the number of non-console games I played continues to be low since I play a lot on my phone. I think I had just one non-game post, which was on the movie The Wizard which I hadn't seen since I was a kid. Good times, haha.

Well, I think that's it for another year in review! As always, thanks as always to anyone who’s stumbled across my little patch of cyberspace and found it even mildly diverting, and welcome to another full year of video games at the Intergalactic Video Game Academy! ;)

Before I get to my recap of games I played last year, I did manage to squeeze in one more game right before the end of the year. I'd played through the original Mario Bros. game on the original NES almost three years ago, but this time around I played the Nintendo Switch Online version with a buddy in co-op mode. We used save states to play all 100 levels of Game A (the easier version), although as mentioned in my previous post there are only 12 unique stages. Co-op mode definitely makes the game more fun as you have to work to efficiently clear out all the enemies while not getting in each other's way. A "one quarter" run (i.e. no save states) is also a fun challenge since the game doesn't give you any continues and only one bonus life after a certain number of points.

I don't have much to say beyond this and what I've already said in my previous post abou it, but for fans of arcade-y games, this one absolutely holds up. The elegance of Miyamoto's original game design really shines through almost thirty years later, and the co-op mode just adds an extra layer of fun, so much so that I had to bump this up on my ranking of all the video games I've played. It doesn't reach the epic scope of the games in the Super Mario Bros. series, but this is a pure arcade experience that is still very enjoyable today.

After completing some of the mainline Nintendo series, I've been chipping away at some of the sub-series. I'd really enjoyed the five Wario Land games (which debuted on the original Game Boy), but then the series sort of meandered. It took me a fair amount of effort to get through the Treasure-developed 3D platformer Wario World on GameCube, and it took me a similar amount of effort to get through the DS release Wario: Master of Disguise.

Wario: Master of Disguise took me a lot of starting and stopping to get into it, but once I got to the fourth or so stage (out of ten) I was able to play it to the end. The game was released almost 14 years ago now, and a little over two years after the original DS released. The novelty of the touchscreen controls were wearing off even at the time of its release, and now, as with many of those DS games, they feel superfluous and cumbersome in general. It seems like many people really hated having to draw symbols on the screen to change costumes, but I thought that was more fun than annoying, and eventually I was able to get my scribbles to be recognized more or less consistently. The bigger annoyance that people complain about and that I agree with is that every time you open a treasure chest you have to complete a little mini game. It may be that the developers were trying to shoehorn in some of the feel of the popular WarioWare series, but the mini games here are repetitive and pretty boring and really slow down the action. There's a fixed set of types of mini games, each with their own variations, and they get progressively more difficult as the game goes on. You're given a random one every time you have to open a chest but you get unlimited tries, so if there's one type you're particularly bad at it's easy enough to retry until you get one that you can manage. The mini games aren't that hard and I did find myself getting better at them as the game went on, but in general this is a design decision I would have done well without.

As for the rest of the game, unlike the actual Wario Land games which were developed in-house by Nintendo, this one was developed by a now-defunct company called Suzak Inc. In this game the company really plays up the "gross humor" aspects of Wario's character, but that was a direction that Nintendo had been moving in for a while, which is kind of a shame. (I haven't plotted an exact trajectory, but I feel like this was the furthest they took the character in this direction and have since pulled it back a lot.) Otherwise the developers did a pretty good job of matching the art style and tone of this game as the other games that had featured Wario in the lead. There's a lot of dialogue and a few new characters are introduced, but the plot is pretty flimsy and I didn't pay much attention to it. The level design starts off being pretty humdrum, but as you gain more costumes (i.e. abilities), there's more variety in the gameplay and more complexity in each stage's maps. Most of the costumes are pretty standard types we've seen in many other games before (e.g. Dragon Wario breathes fire), but there are some fun and unique ones thrown in there as well. The most memorable is probably "Arty Wario" who can draw blocks, warp doors, hearts to replenish his own health, and even poo emojis.

Overall it took me a long time to get into the game, but in the end I had a more positive impression of it than it seems most reviewers had. Some of the stages are actually quite well designed and fun, and new costumes and abilities unlock at a regular pace. There a lot of treasures that I missed on my playthrough, which the game records (along with enemy data) in a catalog featuring some very entertaining flavor text. The game also records how long it took you to get through each stage to further encourage replays, and beating the game unlocks extra stages based on the stages in the main game for you to speed run through. You can also replay all the mini games in all their variations and at all their difficulty levels, although by the time you get through a playthrough, replaying the mini games is definitely going to be one of the last things you'll want to do.

I'm glad I can finally cross this one off my list. Now I really only have one more Wario game to tackle, a return to the Wario Land series, called Wario Land: Shake It!, which appeared on Wii. I'm looking forward to finally spending time with that one, and hopefully I won't run into any roadblocks there.

It's been great having old NES and SNES games available via Nintendo Switch Online, and the online multiplayer is a robust feature that my friends and I have been really enjoying. One friend of mine in particular and I ended up tackling the SNES classic Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, more specifically, a 100% completion run. I first played the game a whopping 10 AND A HALF YEARS AGO (!!!!!!). (Wow, I feel old.)

It's nice to have that blog entry and remind myself what my reactions to the game were at that time, and I'm happy to say that my enjoyment and admiration for the game have only increased. At that time, I'd said, "item collection does expand a platformer’s gameplay a lot, and the levels are definitely designed well enough that finding all the items isn’t mindless and dull, but finding 45 items in every level was a bit overkill for me." I should have pointed out that the hardest part isn't even just finding all those items in every level, but doing them all on a single run through the level and being careful not to take too much damage since one of the requirements is to have 30 stars at the end, and they decrease if you get hit.

My buddy and I alternated levels, and even though I usually like to complete things and search for secrets on my own, in this case it was fun to divide up the labor and be another set of eyes to offer suggestions of where to look for some of the trickier to find items. We only had to consult a FAQ once, although I have to admit we quickly decided to rely on save states. It took us quite an extended amount of calendar time to find the time to get together to work our way through the whole game, and I shudder to think how much longer it would have taken us to 100% it without save states. I also have to give him a big shout out for managing all the saving and reloading since we were using his save file.

There aren't a ton of games I've completed 100%, and that achievement seems to get more and more difficult as video games have gotten more technically advanced. For a regular playthrough, Super Mario World 2 is without a doubt a masterpiece, not just as a 2D platformer, but as a timeless video game experience period. For a 100% playthrough, I'm little bit more conflicted, though. The game has some pretty obnoxious moments (for example, Shy Guys who hold red coins who fly away only seconds after you spot them), and some of the requirements to reach 100%, such as having to beat every boss without getting hit once, seem more sadistic than fair. I can't say for sure that I would have stuck with it and gotten it done without having a buddy to share in the pain and take on half of the stages, but I'm glad that I've had the experience. At some point I'll have to do a solo 100% playthrough, maybe on the GBA version. I wasn't too surprised at how much I'd forgotten about the game (basically all of it) in the more than ten years that had elapsed since I'd first played it, so maybe I'll be ready to replay Super Mario World 2 again in another ten years from now! ;)

 

Life in the pandemic has had one notable bright spot for me, which was coming across the Korean boy band BTS via their first English language single and becoming a fan. I'm not ashamed to admit that the group's carefully manufactured pop music, slick choreography and dance moves, and endearing personalities have won me over and their videos and music, of which there seems to be an endless supply, have helped while away some otherwise dull hours stuck at home.

Pretty soon after I started getting into them, the group released their second smartphone video game, so of course I had to check out their first one, released about a year and half ago and entitled BTS World. As I've come to expect from the band, the game isn't just a quick cash grab. It definitely has all the trapping of a mobile game, including a stamina system and a core gacha system (where you spend gems to roll for character cards ranging from 1 to 5 stars in value), but the story mode is extensive.

In the story mode you travel back in time and take on the role of the burgeoning group's manager, and although it's easy to blow through the early chapters, it doesn't take too long to get into the real gameplay loop. The chapters have stages that alternate between a bit of story and a part where you select cards to fulfill a minimum score in some combination of the four color-coded attribute categories (passion, heart, mind, and something green, I forget what it stands for, but it doesn't really matter). Each card you get from a gacha roll has some maximum upgradeable value of all four categories, so there is some minor strategy involved in choosing which of your cards to level up and upgrade, and you can also take on "agency" training to try to cover some of your gaps in your roster of cards. Padding out the experience are an in-game mobile phone where you have cute interactions where the group members "text you" or "call you" (complete with audio recordings) and respond to your social media posts or make their own posts, and you can also earn, roll for, or buy using real currency clothes to dress the band members up in. It's surprising how much game-specific content the group has recorded and photographed, including quite a lot of fully acted video sequences, and it really does enhance the experience. On top of all of this, for die-hard fans who have already played through all of the main story mode, there are additional side stories for each character that limit you to only using the cards of that specific character, and you also have to have levelled up your relationship with that character high enough.

It doesn't take much time to run through the daily missions every day, and after a few months of logging in every day I've built up a decent range of cards without too much effort, although I still don't have that many 5* (the highest rarity). I haven't dropped a dime (or a won) on the game, and I don't really plan to, but I haven't hit a brick wall yet in terms of making progress. There are regular special events that involve new cards and outfits, but I haven't really paid much attention to them. I don't feel any need to "collect 'em all" when it comes to all the cards, so I'm pretty safe from any potential dangers of spending too much real money on the game. At this point it's definitely going to take me a long time to get through the rest of the story mode at the snail's pace that I'm going, but I'm not really in any rush. Overall this is a solid mobile title for fans of the band, although it's not going to set the rest of the world on fire in terms of any gaming innovations.