I have a ton of unfinished second or third playthroughs of Fire Emblem games lying around, but for my next Fire Emblem endeavor I finally got around to giving the DLC of Fire Emblem: Awakening some focused attention, even though I'd played its hard mode just a few years ago. At the time of its North American release way back in February 2013 it wasn't clear if the DLC would end up being bundled and rereleased physically with the game as is common with other games, but as time has passed it's become clear that that's not Nintendo's MO and that DLC pretty much always stays as full-priced DLC. (The most notable exceptions are Hyrule Warriors, a collaboration with Koei Tecmo, whose DLC has been tacked on to its two rereleases, on 3DS and then on Switch, and also some of the games that made the leap from Wii U to Switch, such as Mario Kart 8.) Anyway, I'd dipped into the DLC before, mainly the conversation-focused "Scramble" pack of three maps, but this time around I bought and played through pretty much every map.

It's interesting going through the DLC after seeing what Intelligent Systems has done since. A lot of the DLC features characters from previous Fire Emblem games that you can recruit. Unlike the SpotPass versions of these characters who come with standard skills and old artwork, the DLC versions come with unusual skills and brand new artwork, many from famous Fire Emblem artists, which in hindsight feels like an early germ of what Fire Emblem Heroes is. Aside from the aforementioned conversation-focused DLC, the most story-heavy series of DLC is called "The Future Past" that provides a look at the ravaged future timeline that Lucina came from and focuses on the children characters. Most of the other maps have a set of one-liners where if someone from your list of characters battles against a particular enemy or next to a particular non-playable ally he or she will exchange a line with the other character. Completist that I am I plan on getting all of those bits of conversation in-game eventually, but although it's a fun little bonus they're pretty disposable and forgettable.

Dialogue-wise the "Scramble" and "The Future Past" (both packs of three maps) are definitely the highlight, but other maps provide some unique bonuses that help you with grinding for gold, experience, or supports, and there are also two unique classes (Bride and Dread Fighter) and skills that I'm looking forward to trying out on my next regular playthrough. The maps range from trivially easy to tediously relentless and drawn out, and at $53 for the entire set of 25 maps it's a pretty big investment for all but the most die-hard Fire Emblem fans. Considering how much I've spent on the smartphone game has put this DLC in perspective for me, and so even though it would be nice if it were cheaper I wasn't too put out about showing my love for the developer and the series, and I'm definitely going to be working my way through the DLC that was put out for subsequent releases as well.

It was fun to reacquaint myself with the whole Awakening cast and the DLC does provide a nice opportunity to finish off some supports that I hadn't quite completed on my regular playthrough. In looking through some of the discussion at the time of its release, it's been nice to be reminded of how successful Intelligent Systems was in rescuing the series from potential demise. The game got tons of acclaim when it was released, and it's also been entertaining to read people's reactions for whom this was their first Fire Emblem game. I actually started a grind-less run on Lunatic after playing through the DLC, and the difference between that and the Hard mode is huge. Lunatic just seems to be a fairly pointless exercise in continuously rolling the RNG and resetting, and it honestly hasn't been much fun. Not sure when I'm going to pick that up again, but the game in general has gradually crept up in my esteem after my initial lukewarm reaction to it (no doubt helped by repeated references to it in subsequent Fire Emblem releases), and I'm looking forward to adding to my 172+ hours and counting play file by finishing that playthrough and then revisiting the main game on a more palatable setting, and also replaying through the DLC in the future.

I've gotten a lot of mileage out of a good number of fitness video games, such as the DDR series, but it's been a while since Nintendo has put out one of their own. Wii Fit U was a predictable port of the massive hit Wii Fit, but I was playing that way back in 2015. Fitness Boxing (published by Nintendo outside of Japan) was released about nine months after the Switch's launch, and I actually played that quite a bit (more on that soon) before I switched gears and picked up Ring Fit Adventure. I got the game not long after its initial release and a good six months before the lockdown drove it up to astronomical prices.

Anyway, Ring Fit Adventure has a lot to set it apart from other exercise video games I've played. The ring itself is a very solid piece of equipment, and makes the game emphasize strength training, which is very different from Wii Fit's focus. Even after weeks of pretty steady effort, even short gameplay sessions are still pretty tough, although you can have a lot of freedom adjusting the difficulty and picking which exercises you want to focus on. The game divides up exercises into four categories (arms, legs, abs, and yoga), and although it doesn't quite force you to do exercises from all categories, you're strongly encouraged to since pretty soon after you start the gameplay changes so that exercises that match the color of the enemy you're facing deal more damage.

The gameplay loop is pretty basic. You have a world map with a modicum of a story, and you travel around to different points of interest, such as regular levels, boss levels, mini-games, and shops. Your character levels up, gaining higher attack and defense stats and unlocking special skills that you select from a skill grid. Regular levels have you lightly jogging through an obstacle course and battling enemies via exercises, and boss fights are intense battles that get to be quite a marathon of exercises, although items such as drinks that boost certain types of attacks or recover hearts definitely help. Towns take the form of basic menus where talking heads make requests that encourage you to replay a level to get a bit of extra and mostly unnecessary loot, but they're worth doing as they help level up your character anyway.

The art style is colorful and fun and there's a lot of that classic Nintendo charm. The game is really designed for longevity, much more so than the Wii Fit games. After steady playing I still haven't come anywhere near unlocking all the mini-games and exercises in story mode, and apparently there are some 22 worlds and additional new game plus modes. I was getting a little bored with it, but the rhythm game mode they added in a few months ago for free drew me back in with its simple but fun gameplay and nice assortment of modern Ninty tunes.

All in all although Ring Fit Adventure doesn't make as much of an impact as Wii Fit did back in the day, it's still a fun get-off-the-couch game and one that has much more longevity. I still pick it up every once in a while, and I'm sure when the weather gets cold again I'll be spending more time with it again.

It happens that the first game I finished of 2020 was a replay of the magnificent Super Mario Bros. 3. I waxed poetic about this game and at length when I replayed it nine years ago, in 2011, and everything I said at the time amazingly still holds true after this playthrough, so I don't have a lot to add from a personal perspective. This time around I was playing it on Switch via the Nintendo Switch Online library of games, and I actually played it in its two player mode for the first time since I was a kid. The game worked pretty well online, although progress was much slower alternating turns back and forth than if I were playing it straight through on my own. I found it very difficult to get into a rhythm of a stage due to having to take a break after every death, and in the end I wasn't the one who actually beat a lot of the tougher stages, but I still enjoyed the experience as a change of pace and we were able to get through every level without overusing the original OP power-up, the P-wing.

It's also been fun to see how the context of the game has changed when comparing 2011 vs. now. At that time Super Mario 3D Land for 3DS hadn't yet been released, and that game finally saw the long overdue return of the Super Leaf and the Tanooki Suit. The release of Super Mario Maker on Wii U in 2015 saw the original Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World (as well as the New Super Mario Bros. games) get renewed attention, and one of the more memorable bursts of nostalgia from that release was the long overdue return of Kuribo's Shoe. Similarly, the inclusion of the Angry Sun, the Frog Suit, and the original SMB3 Koopalings in Super Mario Maker 2, released on Switch just last year, were similarly long awaited and welcomed with great enthusiasm.

I've fixed the outdated links from my previous post, and I've also been reading through some things people have written about this iconic game that I've had lying around. This reflection on GameSpite reminds me how innovative the two player mode was, in that you could compete against each other, such as by stealing visits to Toad Houses and the like, or work more cooperatively. The writer also discusses the fact that hunting for secrets and pursuing extra power-ups or lives is oftentimes more hazardous and difficult than just getting through to the end of the stage, which was also true in SMB2 but I agree is even more apparent in this game. The writer also compares the straighforward navigation of levels in the original Super Mario Bros. game to the focus on exploration in Super Mario 64 and says, "Mario 3 wasn't as pure in this respect as the original -- it still had a world map and tons of secrets -- but it was the last game to straddle these two approaches perfectly." I'm inclined to agree with that as well. For me SMB3 combines so many things, including huge amounts of originality, secrets, and difficulty, with everything in perfect balance.

It's interesting to see where the game falls on other people's list of Mario games. NintendoLife has an ongoing feature ranking all the Mario platforming games, and they put SMB3 at sixth (!), which is a travesty, but to each his own. When considering again where the game falls on my list of greats, it's overwhelmingly clear to me that Super Mario Bros. 3 sits firmly at the top of my list of Mario games and still deserves to sit at the top of my list of favorite video games of all time period. It's hard to imagine any game being able to have as big an impact on me as this game did when I was in elementary school, and I'm pretty confident that this is a game that's going to hold up no matter how many times I replay it.

 

Yes, it's that time of year again, where I apologize for how long it's taken for me to post my look back at the previous year (in this case 2019). How did it get to be June already?? I've gotten way behind on everything, but there are definitely plenty of game reviews in the pipeline.

Looking over the games I played in 2019, it's a bit disappointing that I've been too distracted to play much really substantial, and it's telling that my most-played platforms were my Android phone and the Switch eShop. I did manage to get a few longer games in there, including a full playthrough of Fire Emblem: Three Houses (big surprise). I always enjoy revisiting old games, and although there hasn't been any break in my playing of Nintendo Badge Arcade, it was nice to come back to Fortnite and Pokemon Go after a long time away. It's also nice to be able to add two more DDR games to the list of DDR games I've played.

Anyway, as with last year there was only one game that made it to my "greatest games of all time" list, and that was The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+. The game was frustrating at times, but I had to recognize it for its huge scope. And also as with last year, the other game that continued to suck up hours on end was Fire Emblem Heroes. The game finished book 3 and is midway through book 4, and the game just keeps adding new modes and characters so that whenever I feel like I'm on the verge of getting tired of it, somehow I just keep getting hooked in. By far the game I've played the most ever, averaging at least an hour a day for three and a half years and counting...

Anyway, here's the summary of what my 2019 looked like gaming-wise (games listed in approximate descending order) with links to each game’s corresponding blog review:

HIGH
- The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ (Switch)

MEDIUM
- Dance Dance Revolution (PS)
- Pokemon Go (Android) (replay; previous 2017)
- Nintendo Badge Arcade (3DSWare) (replay; previous 2016)
- Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch)
- Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (3DSWare)
- Mario Kart Tour (Android)
- Dr. Mario World (Android)
- Tetris 99 (Switch)
- Crypt of the NecroDancer: Nintendo Switch Edition (Switch eShop)
- WarioWare Gold (3DS)
- RemiLore (Switch eShop)
- Fortnite (Season 8) (Switch) (replay; previous 2018)
- Dance Dance Revolution: Disney Channel Edition (PS2)
- Swap This! (Switch eShop)

LOW
- Marvel Contest of Champions (Android)
- Night in the Woods (Switch eShop)
- Double Dragon II: The Revenge (NES)
- Marvel Puzzle Quest (Android)
- Pokemon Masters (Android)

This past year I contributed to a few posts to A Most Agreeable Pastime, one discussing the deluge of new game releases and one highlights of E3. On my blog I also took a minute to review the Detective Pikachu movie and also took part in a Mario day online collaboration celebration to post a look back at Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix.

In terms of stats, I actually played significantly more non-Nintendo titles than usual, although I skewed strongly towards newer games. I did a pretty good job of playing games that weren't sequels, though. As for this year, as usual I'm hoping for news about a Fire Emblem remake for Switch, and although game schedules have been wrecked by the pandemic and we missed out on our usual summer Nintendo Direct, I'm still looking forward to some major game announcements before too long. We could all definitely use something to look forward to!

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! ;)

Wow, has it really been five years since I've blogged about a Mario Kart game? Looking back at my review of Mario Kart 8 on Wii U I'm struck by how harsh and critical I was, but I think it stemmed from general fatigue as I had caught up on the series by playing a different Mario Kart game every year for some eight years. In between the long gap between Mario Kart 8 and Mario Kart Tour there were two DLC packs of Mario Kart 8, both of which were included in the "Deluxe" version of it on Switch. That version also included the multiplayer battle arena mode that the Wii U version should have had, and the Inklings from Splatoon. Despite my harsh criticisms, I've played both the Wii U and Switch versions of Mario Kart 8 a decent amount over those past five years as it's a good default party game and often makes an appearance at video game events at bars and pubs.

Which brings us to Mario Kart Tour. I along with most every other Nintendo fan was worried about the quality of Nintendo's smartphone games when they were first announced, but Mario Kart Tour continues the trend of Nintendo's standard, at least in terms of the presentation and smooth gameplay: this is definitely not a throwaway cash grab. It was pretty amazing to me when I first booted it up how great the game looks: seemingly on par with the Wii U version and on a smartphone! The way the game is set up is quite different from a regular Mario Kart game. For one, there's auto acceleration and so you're just responsible for steering, using items, and drifting. You're also automatically forced to stay on the track (which was an optional handicap you could turn on in MK8) and each race is only two laps instead of three. All of these changes make the game easier to pick up and play for a few minutes at a time.

The core race mechanics are are as enjoyable as ever despite the touch controls, and in the single player mode you race against CPUs, and as with the other games in the series you can choose a difficulty level (50cc, 100cc, or 150cc). Nintendo recently added a multiplayer mode as well, which seems to work just fine the few times I've tried it out. As for the paid aspect, here is where Nintendo follows trends rather than sets them as the game unashamedly combines dreaded gacha mechanics, a staple of mobile games, and a season pass mechanic, a la Fortnite, Rocket League, and many others. First of all, the gacha mechanics are the usual "roll to have a random chance of earning a driver, kart, or glider". These are mostly cosmetic, except drivers have an item that they use in their "Frenzy" mode, which they have a small chance of activating when they collect an item box on the course. As with all gacha games the chance you'll get the specific rare driver or kart part you want is extremely low, but the game does give you a rare item after 100 failed rolls.

Drivers and specific kart parts also factor into the scoring, which is the other main new element of the game. Each track divides the drivers and kart parts into tiers, which are not necessarily tied to their rarity. Tier 1 characters will be able to collect three items on that track, Tier 2 characters get two, and Tier 3 characters get 1. There are similar benefits for Tier 1 and Tier 2 karts and gliders, and all of them basically help boost your score. Each track has five possible stars you can earn based on your score, and earning stars moves you along the season pass milestones, earning you rewards along the way. As with other games with season passes, there's one set of rewards if you're playing for free and an additional set of rewards if you're on the subscription, including a handful of subscription-exclusive drivers and karts. The game has adjusted the difficulty of earning stars and the rate of rewards for F2P players, but where they've landed seems pretty fair. I've been F2P since the beginning and have built up a healthy roster of characters and parts by only playing one race a day for the most part, and in a season I'll earn a few gacha pulls and a free driver and kart.

As with other gacha games, the game introduces season exclusive drivers such as Halloween Rosalina or Chef Mario, and if you had your heart set on one of them you'd probably have to spend a good number of clams for it. In my case I don't really care too much about specific characters, so I've been hoarding my free pulls for the occasional character that I am more interested in, such as Bus Driver Waluigi from the limited-time London event. These rare characters have cycled back into the game already, and sometimes at higher pull rates than their original appearance, so even though I still don't have him, I'll probably be able to get him eventually without ponying up any real money (which I need to  save up for Fire Emblem Heroes, haha).

Last but not least, I've been pleasantly surprised at how much variety there's been in the tracks. The game makes good use of the groundwork they laid with the randomly generated Excitebike track that was part of the Mario Kart 8 DLC. In that game the ramps would be in different places each time you raced, and in this game they take that to a much greater degree, with ramps spiralling upwards in some cases, or providing extra boosts for speed, or providing alternate routes. The upshot is that even though the base track may be the same Bowser's Castle we've seen since the SNES days, the ramps, incorporation of mirror mode (the track laid out in reverse) sometimes, and item box placements can make it feel entirely different. Each cup consists of three tracks plus a mission mode track (not seen since the DS game), and it would take consistent and focused playing to get five stars on every track in every cup during a season. Getting five stars pretty much requires having the top tier driver and kart parts for that track, so it's not that feasible for F2P players, but you can simply play through more tracks to earn more stars. A recent change makes it so that you can tackle pretty much any cup in any order rather than being forced to go through them all in order, which helps alleviate that issue (although hunting for the tracks that feature the drivers and kart parts you have as Tier 1 would take some time).

Phew! There's more I could write about the game, but I think I've hit all the main points. It took a little while to see how the game would work out in the long run, but overall I'm pretty satisfied with where it landed. Gacha mechanics and subscription services for F2P games have become a standard way for companies to earn a steady stream of income, and although it's disappointing that Nintendo has adopted this practice for their mobile games, overall it's not a huge deal to me as they've smartly kept these mechanics far from their core games on Switch. I can see Mario Kart superfans getting a good amount of enjoyment from the paid features, although I don't think I would ever cross that line myself, other than to maybe throw it a few bucks at some point to acknowledge the number of hours of fun I've had with it as a casual player. I've winnowed my play time with the game to the bare minimum, but it's a game that I would play more if I had friends who were into it and if I didn't already have a whole slate of other mobile games I had to check in on daily. Someone save me... ;)