I've fallen a bit behind on posting, and the reason is pretty clear: I've been playing Xenoblade Chronicles. The game is massive. I've been playing the Wii version, which was released in North America in 2012 after a big fan campaign, and it was subsequently released on New Nintendo 3DS a few years ago.

I'm usually not the biggest RPG player, but I've been getting more into them recently. Maybe the slower pace is becoming more appealing in my advanced years, or maybe it's just that they provide a marked contrast to the quick and easy pick up 'n play mechanics of the majority of smartphone games. Xenoblade Chronicles is definitely the complete opposite, and is ginormous, with hours upon hours of gameplay just in the main story mode, and double or even triple that if you get into the sidequests. With RPGs I almost always have to force myself to slog through to the end, and nowadays with more limited free time I just stop when I feel like I've seen everything there is to see and can't bring myself to traipse through yet another dungeon with more random battles. This usually translates to about 20 to 30 hours into a game, and is even true for RPGs with engaging characters and high production values, like Bravely Default, which I played earlier this year.

So it came as a surprise to me that I enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles as much as I did. The game's Executive Director, Tetsuya Takahashi is clearly a kindred spirit of Masahiro Sakurai, the director of the Smash Bros. games, in that they both clearly eschew the "less is more" design philosophy and instead stuff their games with so much content that they're overflowing. Xenoblade Chronicles doesn't just have a large cast of playable characters (several with unique battle mechanics) and a huge number of locations and a lengthy story, but it has a huge number of sidequests and NPCs, enemy drops, and unique-looking weapons and armor (all of which are shown on your characters and in cut scenes). The sheer number of weapons and armor would be one thing, but having them visually change your character's appearance is no mean feat. Similarly, the huge number of sidequests would be impressive enough, but some are mutually exclusive or lead to alternate sidequests and most also have unique dialogue if you happen to have a certain member in your party at the time you take it on. Also, the large cast of NPCs is impressive, but most of them have multi-stage quests that develop their relationships with other NPCs. The relationships are tracked in the "affinity chart", which is somewhat like the Bomber's notebook from Majora's Mask but times 100. These relationships help bring the world to life, and help elevate what are otherwise fairly standard MMORPG-like quests.

I enjoyed the vastness of the game and the characters, although the story didn't particularly grab me. Many of the locales are the usual environments, e.g. plains, jungle, cave, etc., but there were enough more unique ones to keep me engaged. Being a Fire Emblem nut, I enjoyed tracking down the "heart-to-hearts", which are the game's version of support conversations between playable characters that are accessible after the pair reaches a certain level of friendship. The plot develops at a pretty good pace, so much so that I was still surprised by the game some 50 hours into it. I would be more inclined to finish the game if I weren't such a completist, as the game includes timed quests which expire after a certain point in the game. I've gotten to a point where a lot of those quests are going to become unavailable, which means I would have to stop and pour a fair amount of time into sidequests, so rather than continue I'm going to put the game on hold and move on to the sequels. Sidequests in general tend to be overly tedious as they often involve rare enemy drops (a monsterpedia would definitely have helped), or finding some NPC who you probably only talked to once. For someone who avoids consulting FAQs this is a big pain, although less OCD people will have less of a problem.

Xenoblade Chronicles does suffer visually from being on the technically limited Wii and I wasn't a huge fan of the character art style, but from what I've experienced of the follow-up on Wii U it's clear that the developers made great use of the Wii U's increased capabilities. I'd played Monolith Soft's previous RPG Baten Kaitos on GameCube and a lot of the aesthetics of Xenoblade Chronicles reminded me of that game. This isn't a bad thing, but the later Xenoblade games seem to have a more unique look to them.

Much as I enjoyed my time with Xenoblade Chronicles, it didn't quite make it to my list of greatest games of all time. It's the biggest RPGs I've ever played, and if ever a game deserved the description "epic", Xenoblade Chronicles is one. I liked it more than Breath of the Wild, a similarly vast and open adventure game, and I had more than a few moments where I was wowed, but I didn't find myself quite loving it enough to give it the gold star. I can see why it makes other people's greatest games of all time lists, though, as it's huge, has a fun battle system, and is stuffed with secrets and details and hours and hours of gameplay. Still, I've definitely become a Xenoblade fan, and I'm looking forward to delving deeper into the game's follow-up on Wii U.

Check out these epic Xenoblade Chronicles links:
- The wiki (xenoblade.wikia.com) is a fantastic resource, although, of course, be wary of spoilers
- Official trailer
- Entry on Wikipedia
- Review at NintendoLife
- Nice set of live performances of the game's music posted at the time of the New 3DS version's release
- A great-looking artbook for the game was released in Japan, and a video of someone flipping through it can be found here.
- The game was released in a special edition that also included a 20-page promotional art book, some scans of which can be found on Siliconera here.

Apparently it's been three years since I played through Pushmo World on Wii U, and I've been itching to check out the final installment in the series (thus far, anyway), called Stretchmo, on 3DS. Stretchmo (aka Fullbox) is ostensibly "free to play", but in reality it's even more limited than Mario Run; the free part is basically just a tutorial on the basic mechanics. The game is sold in pieces, but basically three of the four areas have the same gameplay, just varying levels of difficulty. The fourth is a little different as it features enemies that move around the stage, giving the game a little bit more of a platformer feel, although the emphasis is still on puzzle solving as opposed to platforming dexterity. Buying any of the four areas unlocks the workshop where you can create your own stages or scan in QR codes of other people's creations, and completing every stage in all four areas unlocks an extra 50 stages.

The core Stretchmo gameplay is a logical extension to the core Pushmo gameplay, and so is an easy recommendation for fans of any of the other games in the series. The Stretchmo gimmick is that you can pull blocks out in all four directions instead of just forward, and although that sounds like it could make things complicated, it actually works extremely well. The task of climbing to the top of each stage makes for a clear goal, and although at the highest levels of difficulty you have to view the stage from all four sides, the difficulty curve is extremely smooth. In the main mode you can skip a stage if you get stuck, whereas in the other modes you're presented with ten stages at a time and you only need to complete five of them to unlock the next batch.

The music and aesthetics are all basically the same as the previous games, but they're still charming so no complaints there. There is some significant slowdown in the larger stages, but otherwise everything controls just fine. I ended up playing all of the first area and dipped into the other parts of the game, and overall I found this to be a great continuation of the series. The gameplay is every bit as satisfying as the other games in the series, and it probably edges out Crashmo in terms of its easy to understand yet deviously mind-bending puzzles. It's hard to imagine where the series would go from here, and I would hope that this game forms the end of a trilogy (albeit a fantastic one) and that Intelligent Systems branches out more for any future games featuring Mallo and friends. In the meantime I'll definitely be returning to this game and its predecessors when I get that craving for more pushing and pulling blocks action.

Stretch your mind with these Stretchmo links:
- Awesome fan-created levels based on Super Mario 64 levels
- eShop trailer
- Review at NintendoLife

Just a quick post since I'm in the midst of a really long game. I'm not a big fan of podcasts in general, but I came across the Power Pros podcast not too long ago and I've become a regular listener. The podcast is Nintendo-centric and is the brain child of Chris "The Hoff" Hoffman, a former Nintendo Power editor, and Chris Slate, a former Nintendo Power editor-in-chief. Along with news and game impressions, in each episode the hosts also discuss a "big topic", such as all-time favorite Zelda games. I ended up liking the podcast so much that (perennially OCD list-maker that I am) I started the Power Pros Podcast Wiki a few week ago. The wiki aims to provide a timeline summary of each episode, and I've been keeping up with the latest episodes as well as going back to the old episodes starting from the beginning. I've been able to do a few episodes a week, although there are some 131 episodes in total so it will take me a while to catch up completely. It's been fun though, and I'm looking forward to continuing this ongoing side project. Feel free to check out both the podcast and the wiki. Enjoy!

Another day another Dance Dance Revolution game. The most recent game I'd played was Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party 2 on Wii, so rather than go into Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party 3 I picked up Dance Dance Revolution X. Hottest Party 2 and DDR X were actually released on the same day in North America (9/16/2008), but the two games do feel distinct. The Hottest Party games have the Wii motion controls for arm movements and a Bratz-like aesthetic that I generally disliked. DDR X was released to mark the 10th anniversary of the series and has the more-familiar characters and aesthetics (and EyeToy support, which I didn't bother with).

Aside from differences in the presentation, DDR X has a lengthy story mode, a first for the series. Each of the characters has a series of missions that are presented as ten episodes (usually), each with two difficulty levels. The harder difficulty level can get to be quite challenging, e.g. if you make more than four mistakes you lose, and you have to pass two of three song options, but the easier difficulty level is always the more straightforward "play to the end of this song" type of challenge (although as the story mode progresses this could still prove to be challenging to DDR n00bs). At the beginning only a few characters' stories are unlocked, and completing one character's story usually unlocks one of two of the others'. Sometimes you won't be able to continue with one character's story until you complete part of another character's, which seems fairly pointless but helps break things up. Playing through each of the characters' stories would take more than half an hour, so with fourteen characters there's plenty of gameplay just in this mode. Granted, the gameplay is just your standard tried-and-true DDR, but the framework helps keep your interest. Beating all of a character's normal episodes unlocks an alternate costume for that character, and completing all of her/his advanced episodes unlocks another alternate costume. The stories are about as nonsensical as you'd expect (similar to the Pokemon games, basically every conversation or conflict ends with "let's dance!"), but it's fun to get more of the story and personality behind the characters, many of whom have been part of the franchise for a long time.

Because the game was for the 10th anniversary of the series, the game leans much more heavily on DDR tracks from previous games in the series rather than covers of licensed tracks like the DDR Hottest Party games. I found myself wishing it were a little more balanced, but I recognized a lot of the songs so I didn't mind too much. I can tell I'm becoming more of a DDR vet because I've also spent time trying to make amateur repairs to my wonky dance pads. It turns out that by cutting open the pad and making good use of tape and some packing foam I was able to get my dance pad into pretty decent shape, although I'm still dreaming of the day that I can afford getting an actual metal arcade controller, haha.

Dance Dance Revolution X turns out to be a solid entry in the series, and thanks to the story mode it ends up ranking high on my favorites overall. The game got middling reviews when it was released for not innovating, but, really, pretty much all the DDR games are the same, so that didn't really bother me, haha.

Look back at 10 years of dancing with these Dance Dance Revolution X links:
- Entry on Wikipedia
- Check out this post on GameFAQs if you were also wondering how to unlock the secret folders in the info section of the game
- The entry on dancedancerevolutionddr.wikia.com has link to additional info about the characters, including their previous appearances in the series

The last Yoshi game I'd played was Yoshi's New Island on 3DS, which I felt wasn't a bad game but felt very much like a "by the numbers" affair. I'd enjoyed how Kirby's Epic Yarn on Wii provided a distinct change from the usual Kirby formula, so I was optimistic about Yoshi's Woolly World for Wii U.

Although the two games share similar aesthetics, Woolly World definitely feels like a Yoshi game. All of his (its?) moves are back, including eating enemies, creating eggs (in this game, yarn balls), flutter jumping, and ground pounding, as well as transformations. The design takes the 2-D yarn aesthetic of Epic Yarn and expands it to 3-D, and it's pretty amazing. Everything looks cute, cuddly, and super realistic, as if it could actually be made in real life. The gameplay is as tight as you'd expect from a Nintendo platformer (although it was developed by Good-Feel), and although it looks super cute, some parts are definitely pretty challenging.

I've gotten less into platformers as time has gone on, and Woolly World had a few things going against it. One is that the stages are all quite long, taking something like 15 minutes to beat without even trying to collect everything. This isn't out of the ordinary for a Yoshi game, but it took a certain amount of willpower for me to finish it since my usual MO is to barrel through a game. This game is so dense and slow that I couldn't really play more than a few levels at a time. There was a good amount of variety and enough new (or reworked) gameplay elements to keep me interested enough to the end, but the game is definitely lengthier than the average 2-D Mario game. I guess a lot of people would see that as a good thing, but I guess I prefer shorter levels and a shorter total length to match. As with the other Yoshi games collecting every thing in every level will double the length of your playthrough, at least.

Woolly World is definitely a polished platformer and a solid experience, and although it doesn't rank among my favorite platformers, I would actually rank it near the top of the Yoshi games. I agree with this NintendoLife reviewer who said that the series has never really lived up to the promise of the first game, which is a classic. Woolly World is the first game that actually feels like a next step in the series. The upcoming Yoshi game for Switch looks like it's just more of the same as Woolly World, but if it's as polished as this game then it should still be well worth playing.

Knit together these Yoshi's Woolly World links:
- Nintendo put out a bunch of videos for the game. Here's the E3 2015 trailer, and here's the Nintendo Minute episode.
- Nintendo Minute also highlighted a great level from Woolly World in their video on favorite winter levels
- Entry on mariowiki.com
- I couldn't resist getting one of the awesome Yarn Yoshi amiibo (I went for the blue one). It's so cuddly!