I really wasn't sure what to make of Ninjala when it released more than six months ago. I was a little turned off by how much is borrowed Splatoon's neon aesthetic, and there are so many free to play games that it took me a while before I sat down and gave it a deeper look. What finally enticed me to do so was the free "jala" (the game currency you buy with real money) the game gave out for milestones like 5 million downloads, and they also have "matsuri" (i.e. festival) events where you can earn a ton of tier points for completing missions. I started playing more seriously over the winter break and I have to say I'm very glad I did. The game hooked me in so much that I ended up happy to spend a few bucks of real money to get the premium paid pass for last season and this season to unlock the various par for the course cute emotes and costumes.

The game has a few things in common with Splatoon even beyond its sense of style and the way it divides clothes into "brands" and also how it lets you tweak your abilities with shinobi cards (like skill slots on gear in Splatoon). Like Splatoon the game is an arena fighter and like Splatoon there are variations of weapons that provide different abilities and special attacks. Also like in Splatoon you can focus on two objectives during the game, both of which help your team. In this case you can defeat stationary drones in order to increase the maximum level of your "gum meter" (which is necessary to increase your weapon strength), and defeat other players. In Ninjala this ability to help your team even if you're not going after KOs is nice, but that won't get you too far. You can play solo vs seven other players or teams of 4v4, and although I find the team mode to be less pressure and thus much more satisfying, the two modes require different approaches and both are enjoyable.

As for the core gameplay, there's a satisfying variety of weapons such as the standard equivalent of sword and hammer types, but also many that are more unique, like a skateboard that has unique movement controls when you ride it and also powers up the more you jump around, and a yo-yo that you can leave spinning in place that you can teleport back to in order to attack. There's a nice variety in specials attacks and ultimate attacks, and pretty much all of them are easy and fun to use. The game controls are super smooth, and a key sign of a great game is when it's fun to just run around and navigate the space. You can blow bubbles at any time and rocket yourself in any direction as a faster mode of travel, and the game also has a really satisfying mechanic of letting you transform into random environmental objects such as trash cans in order to regain health and also catch your opponents off guard. The character design is cartoony and kiddy-looking but inviting, and there's a good variety in the stages as well (with Japanese, French, and London/British aesthetics so far). There aren't really any limited time special modes (I think there's been only one since I started playing), but there really doesn't need to be because the core gameplay is so fun. Playing with friends in a private room or open team battles is simple to set up and fun, but playing with strangers is pretty much equally fun as well.

There were some complaints I was a little concerned about that I'd heard a little about before I played the game. One was that weapon skins are single use. This turned out to not be a big deal at all for me. For one, upgrading to the paid pass automatically gives you infinite uses for the weapon skins. Also, the skins are really just palette swaps. All the weapons are available from the beginning, and earning these palette swaps seems to me to just be a little extra to encourage you to experiment with different weapons when you're first starting off. The other issue I was worried about was the core battle mechanics, which has you parrying and basically randomly choosing between three options. The choices aren't actually completely random because different weapons gain super armor if you successfully parry, but then the problem is if your opponent knows that you're more likely to choose that option. I ended up not minding this too much because it gives the game a more party feel, and over the course of a match you're more or less likely to win as many of these encounters as lose them. This also encourages you to be more strategic about avoiding getting into these clashes in the first place, either by being sneaky and picking off opponents who are already at low health, or making better use of your specials and ultimates.

In case you couldn't tell, I've grown to really like Ninjala, and I have to say it's easily my favorite free to play game on Switch right now, by a good margin. It's so polished that it really feels like it could have been a first-party Nintendo release, which is high praise indeed. I'm really hoping the game continues to build up its audience, and I'm definitely planning on jumping back into it whenever the next matsuri event happens. I've also already gotten my nephew into it, and I've gotten some other friends to try it out as well, so it looks like it may end up working its way into my online game night rotations as well. I'm really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this game, and I can see myself appreciating the game even more the more I play it and try out even more of the weapons. What are you waiting for? See you online! ;)

I almost forgot that one of the video game related things I did over the winter break was that I finally got around to watching the three animated Pikmin short films. The films were originally announced around the same time that Pikmin 3 was released on Wii U back in 2013, and it took something like a year before they actually debuted. The three films were released on both Wii U and 3DS for $5 a pop, which seemed a bit steep to me at the time. It was only a few months ago that Nintendo released them all on YouTube.

It's always fun to see Nintendo IP come to life in other forms of media, and it's still quite a rarity when it happens. The three films are 2 minutes, 8 minutes, and almost 13 minutes, and their uniqueness and quality increase with their length. The first one is quite short and is more of a gag than a film. The second is mostly a lot of slaptick-y type of humor that we've seen in many a cartoon, but incorporating the Pikmin does keep it feeling more fresh than it would otherwise. The third one feels the most complete and is definitely the most worthwhile of the bunch. It doesn't have much in the way of plot, but it's much more ambitious in terms of its scope, and there's lot of action and scores of Pikmin running around.

Overall this was a fun way to spend a half hour in the Pikmin universe. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed Pikmin 3 when I played it back in 2016, and although Pikmin 3 Deluxe came out on Switch recently (the same time the films were put on YouTube), I'm still looking forward to when its inevitable sequel is released.

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.