Like many, I was skeptical about Yo-kai Watch, a series that despite being hugely popular in Japan seemed a bit too much like the Pokemon games for my taste. After beating the first Yo-kai Watch game (for 3DS) I'd have to say that the game is probably only slightly more unique than I expected. The game is definitely more than the sum of its parts, though. Although the core monster collection and evolution is pretty similar, in comparison to the Pokemon games' glacial pace of changes from iteration to iteration, Yo-kai Watch offers a distinct breath of fresh air.

There are several refreshing aspects of Yo-kai Watch. Although the first entries of both series took place in a Japan-like country, Yo-kai Watch embraces it to a much greater extent. This isn't surprising since the Yo-kai themselves are based on Japanese folklore, but the town of "Springdale" feels like a living, breathing Japanese town, complete with shrines, hot springs, and ramen restaurants. A lot of Japanese video games have seemed to take this approach (the latest Zelda game, to mention just one example), but Yo-kai Watch is a more literal representation and (to a Western audience anyway) provides an exoticism grounded in reality that is compelling.

The Yo-kai themselves are in general quirkier than Pokemon, and there's a good variety, ranging from "cool" to cute to just plain weird. Evolution is much less of an emphasis and powerful Yo-kai can be obtained instead via sheer chance via a daily in-game lottery. "Catching them all" is also emphasized less, and completists playing the game will probably quickly get soon frustrated. Recruiting Yo-kai takes a somewhat Shin Megami Tensei approach in that you have to figure out through trial and error what a Yo-kai's favorite food is in order to increase your changes of recruiting it, and even then it's going to take many tries before they'll offer to join you. Like Shin Megami Tensei the game also features Yo-kai fusion, although the number of Yo-kai you can fuse is pretty small, so, for better or worse, it's not a big emphasis within the game.

These sound like negatives, but they steer you to make the most of the Yo-kai that you do have and spend more time with them. You'll still have plenty of Yo-kai to choose from, and many Yo-kai join you through story events. The game also makes itself distinct from Pokemon by its cartoony presentation, which also isn't surprising as it launched with a cartoon TV show tie-in (plus an avalanche of toys and other merchandise).

The game is limited to several areas, but they're full of landmarks that you'll be visiting. You'll gradually memorize the maps over the course of the game, as there's a practically endless supply of NPC quests (mostly of the fetch variety) that will have you criss-crossing back and forth to accomplish. This adds to the unique feel to the game, as does the mini-game based battle mechanics. The touch-screen focused battles are pretty simplistic, mindless affairs, although later in the game things do get a little frantic.

What makes the game the most memorable, though, is the high degree of polish. The game looks fantastic and runs completely in stereoscopic 3-D, which makes Pokemon Sun and Moon's lack of stereoscopic 3-D starkly conspicuous in comparison. The story is episodic and pretty thing, but it too is a bit more interesting than the latest Pokemon games, which are generally driven by the protagonist wanting to be a Pokemon master, rather than wanting to save the world.

All in all I was pleasantly surprised with this first game in the series, and will definitely be checking out others. It looks like the sequel is pretty much the same as this game, so I may skip that one. The third game in the series was recently announced for release, so I'll keeping my eye out for that one, and the fourth game is due for Switch in the not-too-distant future as well. With the Pokemon series seeming to be nearly completely stagnant, it's great to have a viable alternative, especially one as polished as the Yo-kai series. Here's hoping it doesn't fall into the same pattern of essentially identical release after release after release.

Recruit these Yo-kai Watch links:
- Entry at yokaiwatch.wikia.com
- Entry at howlongtobeat.com
- Review at NintendoLife
- Nintendo Treehouse Live segment about the game at E3 2015

I'm a pretty big Pac-Man fan ever since the days I would spend my precious tokens on the Ms. Pac-Man machine at the local arcade. Last year I'd played and enjoyed Pac-Man Championship Edition on XBLA, and recently I've been playing the smartphone game Pac-Man 256.

The game is co-developed by Hipster Whale, who created the successful Frogger clone Crossy Road. I spent a bit of time with Crossy Road to see if it offered anything more than being a Frogger clone with retro graphics, and it doesn't at all, which is a pity. But that makes Pac-Man 256 all the more enjoyable, because Pac-Man 256 combines the Pac-Man games with Crossy Road and adds in new elements that serve to make it a fun experience.

Like every Pac-Man game, in Pac-Man 256 the main goal is to eat dots and defeat ghosts. Pac-Man 256 ramps up the action by incorporating auto-scrolling which forces you not to linger in an area for long, and also by giving a big bonus if you're able to eat 256 dots in a single unbroken chain. This turns out to be pretty challenging, as easier routes through the maze will invariably have a gap in them that will break your chain, as will backtracking to collect fruit (which gives you an often sizable bonus multiplier) or a power-up. The power-ups make the game feel like more than just another Pac-Man game, and there's a good variety, even though many are similar. You can use in-game coins to level up the power-ups, which make them last longer and earn you more points for defeating ghosts while they're active.

The game was and still is free to play, but it was initially released with more restrictions. Currently the game is much less restrictive and you can play as many times as you want. You can spend real money to buy coins which you can use to level up power-ups or change the skin of the game or continue once if you lose a life. As with most free-to-play games, you can earn coins at a slow pace for free by collecting the ones lying around on stages or completing simple missions such as "eat a certain number of cherries". There are some ads in the game, but they're not that intrusive. The game is played with swipe gestures on a touchscreen, which I usually dislike, but the controls are precise enough for the casual pace of the game. The fact that the variety of ghosts behave in clearly recognizable ways helps make the game more fun as well.

Pac-Man 256 has gotten high acclaim, and it's well-deserved. The gameplay is well thought out and a unique twist on the classic formula, and the visual design is great (the sound design is also particularly noteworthy). It's definitely more satisfying to clear a single Pac-Man board as in the classics than to "endlessly munch" as in this game, but Pac-Man 256 is still a game that I'll be coming back to in the future in order to finish unlocking the remaining power-ups, earning coins to level them up, and chasing my next high score.

I've been super slow about playing through the Bit.Trip series. I'd had mixed feelings when playing Bit.Trip Runner, but I'd played a little of Bit.Trip Beat in co-op mode not too long ago and was reminded that I needed to get back into it.

Although the game debuted on WiiWare, Wii's downloadable service, Bit.Trip Beat is way more enjoyable in its appearances on subsequent compilations. As before, I played it on the Wii compilation, which adds additional difficulty modes (easy and hard) for every game, as well as challenges and unlockable art, etc. The games were designed to be quite difficult, and even the easy modes aren't a total pushover.

If you're not already aware, Bit.Trip Beat is often described as a combination of Pong and a rhythm game, but as with Bit.Trip Runner the musical aspect of the game is more a feature that will help you with the gameplay, rather than something you have to be really conscious of. Beats come in the form of bits that travel from right to left, and you control your paddle on the left by holding the Wii Remote horizontally and rotating it on its long axis. The control scheme works extremely well and is a large part of what makes the game so enjoyable, and the Wiimote is sensitive enough to keep up with the game even when things get hectic.

The game starts off with you having to keep track of just one bit at a time, but pretty soon you'll be fending off waves of bits, many moving in unique patterns. Some of the bits' patterns seem a little unfairly complex. This and the game's high difficulty wouldn't be an issue, if the stages themselves weren't so long. Each stage is about fifteen minutes long, and it's incredibly frustrating to have to play through the majority of the stage over and over again only to get tripped up by something near the end of the stage. In fact, in this retrospective feature at NintendoLife the developers even admit that they "wish that we’d come up with some sort of checkpoint system".

The game's retro visuals and chiptune soundtrack go perfect together, although as with Runner, when things get busy on screen the background can get really distracting. The way Beat progresses is also pretty satisfying. Instead of having a set number of misses, you have two meters. One keeps track of the beats you hit, and one keeps track of your misses. If your hit meter fills up you go into "Mega" mode, where a multiplier increases your score. If your miss meter fills up you go into "Nether" mode, in which your two meters are reset and if your misses outnumber your hits then you get a game over. It's a little annoying that when you're in Mega mode your misses meter doesn't reset every time you fill up the hits meter, but otherwise it's a nice mechanic and a good way to reward good players with a multiplier while not overly punishing for mistakes, i.e. not requiring perfection.

Boss fights are underwhelming, but I suppose it's just as well that they're easy since the stages themselves are so difficult. The main complaint of the game at the time was that there are only three levels, but with three difficulty levels and several follow-up games with similar mechanics it's less of an issue nowadays. I enjoyed playing this game and the core idea is pretty brilliant. The levels feel too long and get a bit repetitive which prevents me giving the game top marks, but it was a gem on WiiWare for good reason and it still holds up today.

One of my favorite racing games of all time is F-Zero GX for GameCube, and although I've dipped into its predecessor, F-Zero X, for N64 several times, it was hard to regress from the perfection that was F-Zero GX.

I finally sat down and played through the three main cups (Jack, Queen, and King) and tried out the three main different difficulty levels (Novice, Standard, and Expert). I was relieved to see that the game is much more like F-Zero GX than the original SNES F-Zero game. F-Zero X introduces a whole batch of new drivers, vehicles, locales, music, and modes, and although the graphics are indeed pretty bare, the game runs completely smoothly and does provide a great sense of speed. So it's an improvement on the SNES game in every way, except for the fact that each cup is six tracks instead of five (although each race is three laps rather than five as in the original).

The game also introduces the ability to boost continuously from lap two on at the expense of your shields, and the ability to attack rivals. In this game attacks are more awkward to execute than the GameCube game (requiring multiple button presses instead of one), but they're still fun to do. The AI is much better in this game than in the original, and rival racers don't relentlessly attack you. There's a satisfying trade-off between boosting and having enough shield to survive bumping into the track barriers and other drivers, and there's a lot of nice variety in the tracks. The tracks with sections without barriers can get to be fairly frustrating on higher difficulty levels, though.

Basically the game feels like exactly what it is: a fun and enjoyable precursor to F-Zero GX that is inevitably overshadowed by that game's greatness. I've never been that into racing games, and as I've gotten older I've gotten even less inclined to play them as much as you need to in order to fully memorize all the tracks, but I enjoyed my time with F-Zero X and wouldn't mind picking it up again at some point.

The Dr. Mario series is another one of those Nintendo series that I continue to chip away because I'm a completist rather than because I'm a fan. I like puzzle games in general, but the core gameplay in Dr. Mario is a bit too finicky for me, due to the relatively high difficulty in setting up long combos. I enjoyed the Wii U entry, Dr. Luigi, which introduced new ideas for the first time in the series' history. The latest entry, Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure, for 3DS, adds power-ups for the first time.

The power-ups, which are activated by filling up a meter, are pretty standard fare for puzzle games and include bombs, items that clear a single row or column, and items that trip up your opponent. Aside from the power-ups, the gameplay is identical to Dr. Luigi, and you can play with the regular Dr. Mario pills (two pieces joined together) or the Dr. Luigi pills (four pieces joined together). There's a brief mission mode with 50 stages that basically serves as a sort of extended tutorial, and you can play the Dr. Mario or Dr. Luigi modes in classic mode (where each level requires you to clear a preset number of viruses), or endless mode (viruses are continuously added from the bottom of the level). There's also a vs. CPU option for each mode, although high scores aren't recorded in that case. Lastly, the game includes the "Virus Buster" mode as well, which is the touchscreen version of Dr. Mario that first debuted in the Brain Age series.

As seems to be more often the case than not with Nintendo series, Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure evolves the series in baby steps and isn't a particularly compelling game, especially if you've been playing every entry up to this point. The game feels very basic, and the user interface in particular seems extremely plain and a definite drop from the presentation of Dr. Luigi. Long-time Dr. Mario developer Arika has created another serviceable but forgettable entry in the series, and this entry gives every indication that Nintendo is content to let this series mosey along with an entry released on every platform but with minimal development effort, which is a pity.

Don't phone in these Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure links:
- Apparently Virus Buster is the only mode in the game that has levels that go over 20
- Review at NintendoLife
- Entry at Wikipedia
- Entry at mariowiki.com