The bombshell announcement of Metroid Dread, the next Metroid game at this past E3 reminded me that I'd never finished the previous Metroid series release, Metroid: Samus Returns, on 3DS. Samus Returns was released four years ago (yikes!) and is a remake of Samus's second adventure, Metroid II on Game Boy. I'd enjoyed the step forward that Metroid II provided to the series, but when discussing Samus Returns you really have to compare it to Metroid: Zero Mission, the GBA remake of the very first Metroid game ever. I was really impressed with Metroid: Zero Mission, which took many of the items introduced in later installments and seamlessly retrofitted them into the original.

Samus Returns goes a step further and also incorporates four completely new abilities (called "Aeion" abilities) that are based on a separate energy reserve, as well as a melee counter. I thought the melee counter was going to be finicky and annoying, but it turned out to be easy to pick up and execute, and leads to some fun animations when used against bosses. I haven't done a side by side comparison, but it feels like Samus Returns reworks the original Metroid II maps much more extensively than the original. The original Metroid II was extremely linear and there was no reason or convenient way to go back to earlier areas. Samus Returns still has you focused on eliminating the Metroids within one area at a time, but in more modern-day Metroid fashion it gives you a lot of incentive to revisit previous areas because your ability to open previously blocked off paths grows with your increased abilities and it offers plenty of warp points as well as an indication of your percentage completed for each area.

The game is co-developed by MercurySteam, who previous to this game had produced what seems to have been a well-received Castlevania game, and they're also behind the upcoming Metroid Dread. Everything runs super smoothly and the game is pretty well paced, although the boss fights are almost all crammed towards the end and each often takes a bit longer to get through than they should. Defeating Metroids can get a little repetitive despite their different forms, but this is offset by slight differences in the rooms they appear in and your growing sense of powerfulness as your equipment improves. These are minor complaints, however, and in general the game is everything you'd expect from a Metroid game in terms of the puzzle-solving, action, design, and atmosphere. The four Aeion abilities give you a bit of flexibility in how you approach the game, and apparently the Amiibo provide some nice but pretty unnecessary perks.

It seems like every other indie game is a Metroidvania these days, so I've been quite burned out on them, but Samus Returns is a case of a remake done right and was really enjoyable, so much that I've had to add it to my list of greatest games of all time. My streak of great games has continued this year, surprisingly, although I don't have anything in particular lined up for the near future, so the rest of the year will probably be a bit less noteworthy. We'll see!

Despite owning tons of games on Steam, somehow I end up playing hits that have been on Steam for years only when they arrive years later on a console such as Switch. A case in point is TowerFall, which debuted five years ago on the ill-fated Android-based console Ouya, and appeared on Steam not too long after. The Switch version came out three years ago, and I've been dipping into it occasionally when my local gaming buddy and I get together. We've been having a blast with the game, and we had finished the Dark World campaign (originally released as an expansion DLC), which features waves of enemies and some fun boss fights, but we finally were able to sit down and made our way through the other campaign, which actually preceded it and was part of the Ascension expanded version of the game.

With that history out of the way, I can say that although TowerFall was primarily designed as an arcade-y multiplayer versus experience, the co-op campaign mode is super fun and beautifully builds on the base mechanics. The game is comfortably in the vein of single, wraparound screen classics, complete with retro graphics and sound, and while the various enemies and environmental hazards aren't anything too wildly different from what we've seen before in these kinds of games, the arrow-shooting mechanics feel fresh and spot on. Everything in the game just flows and feels so smooth, and the design is top notch. Although my buddy and I failed many, many times, this is one of those games that has that addictive "just one more try" and "we'll get it the next time" hooks. To add to the replayability, both of the campaigns feature hard versions of every stage that are significantly more challenging, and they also offer the allure of a shiny gold icon if you beat them without any deaths.

Even without having spent hardly any time in the multiplayer mode, this game has continued my run of great indie games that I've played this year that have somehow made it onto my list of greatest games of all time. Developer/designer Maddy Thorson has done an amazing job on this game, and I'm reminded that I really need to go back and finish my playthrough of their follow-up game, Celeste. Looking forward to it, although I'm hoping it doesn't kick my ass too hard. ;)

I know I just blogged about my time with Picross 3D on DS, but I was curious about its follow-up on 3DS, somewhat oddly called Picross 3D Round 2, and before I knew it I was completely sucked in. Similar to how the fantastic 3DS puzzle game Pushmo had two excellent follow-ups that extended the elegant game mechanics of the first game, Crashmo and Stretchmo, Picross 3D Round 2 adds a fantastic new twist to the core Picross 3D mechanics.

The game introduces colors to puzzles, where blocks you mark as blue represent regular cubes, whereas the blocks you color orange represent shapes that are not cubical, e.g. curved or spherical. This frees the puzzles to have much more variety in their shapes, but even though you don't have any control over what shape the orange blocks take when the puzzle is complete, the real key here is that having to determine if a block should be removed, colored blue, or colored orange add a huge amount in terms of new ways you have to apply logic to solve a puzzle. Now you have to examine the labels on the rows and columns to see if they contain only orange, only blue, or both orange and blue blocks, and on top of that you have the mechanics from the previous game to contend with where if a number has a circle around it, that means that color is split into two groupings (i.e. at least one space or block of the other color in between), and if the number is in a square it means that the color is divided into three or more groups.

The game solves the issue of the previous game where you had to do every puzzle in order, and you can jump around between sets of puzzles which unlock at a regular clip based on how many puzzles you've solved and how many medals you've earned (for solving puzzles without any mistakes and within the par time). I ended up jumping into the deep end and completely skipping over the tutorials on these new mechanics and figuring out the logic that is needed on my own, which was also satisfying, but the the tutorials and the puzzles themselves give a much smoother progression in general. The game also basically triples its content because each puzzle comes in an easy, normal, and hard difficulty level. I also skipped straight to the hard difficulty, which has many rows and columns with numbers completely missing, forcing you to apply even more logic to work around the missing information. Although it took some time getting used to them, the added challenge was definitely appreciated. As with the previous game, Picross 3D Round 2 was also developed by HAL Laboratory and is stuffed with charm. The game's vibe skews older than the previous title, and it's hard for me to imagine a kid having the patience to work through these kinds of puzzles.

There are nine unlockable Amiibo puzzles that I didn't get to try out because I was playing on an original 3DS (which doesn't have an Amiibo reader built in), and as with the previous game I still find it annoying that a single accidental slip of a button or stylus can cause a mistake and cost you a medal. Replaying stages is still fun, though. Timed stages are still a pain, though, as are the puzzles where you can't make any mistakes, but it seems like you can avoid those for the most part. Also, originally I was annoyed that this was only available as a downloadable title in North America, but its addictive nature is perfect for gaming on the go and is one of the few that would be worth downloading even if a cartridge were an option.

Despite my quibbles, Picross 3D Round 2 is a superb evolution from the previous game, and its new twists on the gameplay already push it ahead. Its better progression, ability to skip puzzles, stereoscopic 3D, and multiple difficulty levels for every puzzle just add to its greatness, and even though I haven't made much of a dent in it yet, I already know it deserves a place on my list of greatest games of all time. I love a good puzzle game, and this is definitely one of the best I've played in a long while. Highly recommended.

Despite an utterly confusing announcement trailer, I was intrigued by the cross-platform online multiplayer game Knockout City. The game has a neo/futuristic 50's vibe, which is novel, and unlike a lot of games it's actually not free to play. It's nice that you don't have to worry about buying game passes regularly, and the game is also free to try. The seasonal game pass unlocks random cosmetics, which are fun and give the game a good amount of personality.

The core gameplay of Knockout City is surprisingly fresh and robust. At its core this is 3v3 dodgeball, but the design avoids so many issues compared to a game like, say, Fortnite, that make them either overly complex or have long stretches where nothing much happens. In Knockout City matches are timed or to a certain number of wins (e.g. 2 out of 3), whichever comes first, and instead of having to avoid bullets that you can't even really see let alone react to as in typical games of this genre, the balls in Knockout City are easy to spot when they're coming towards you. As with real-life dodgeball, there's this really unique mechanic in this game where you can catch a ball being thrown at you and then hurl it back, and this boomerang type of action really makes the game feel completely unique. There are different types of throws (straight, curved to the sides, or curved vertically) and speeds depending on long you charge your throw, and each match features a different type of special ball (e.g. bombs that explode or "moon" balls that make you jump with less gravity), along with the regular balls. Managing the balls is a big part of the strategy, and in a pinch your teammate can curl up into a ball and you can throw him/her, which has its own risks but is a fun new twist. The stages are really well designed and have fun gimmicks like a train that appears occassionally and will kill anyone it touches, and they strike a really good balance of being big enough to have a number of features, while also small enough to enable you to quickly get back to the action.

In the end after our free trial was up, my friends and I decided to buy the game and keep playing it, and we've been continuing to have fun through season 1. Even though it's a crowded field, Velan Studios has absolutely succeeded in creating a new IP that's great for newcomers and casual players, and also clearly has a lot of depth for more hardcore players. I agree with the NintendoLife review that the game at launch feels slightly light on modes, but I'm sure they have a robust long-term plan to keep players engaged and Season 2 starts later this month. Happy to have this one in rotation, and I will definitely be keeping tabs on how it develops in the future.

Last year I played through Picross DS, and as I'd expected it have very little in the way of surprises. I was really getting it out of the way with an eye on getting to its successor, Picross 3D, also for DS. I'm happy to be able to say that even though I got to it a decade after its release, Picross 3D does actually feel like a worthwhile evolution of the tried-and-true Picross formula.

The Wikipedia article on the game goes into extensive detail about its features, but basically at the core the game requires all the same kind of logic and reasoning that the 2D games do. Since the numbers are printed on a single cube on the sides, there's some shorthand (a number in a circle means the marked blocks are in two sections with one or more space between that adds up to that number, whereas a number in a square means the marked blocks are in three or more sections with one or more space between each section), but otherwise it's pretty familiar territory for Picross vets. The transition to 3D puzzles is done pretty flawlessly though. The touchscreen controls are accurate and feel great, although there's a new "slice" mechanic, where you can strip back layers of the puzzle in order to mark or remove internal blocks, that takes a bit of getting used to.

As with the other games the larger puzzles get a little more unwieldy, and it's annoying that you have to complete every single puzzle sequentially, including the seemingly endless series of tutorials, and you can't skip to the harder puzzles. This also the first Picross game made by HAL Laboratory (of Kirby fame), and the game just oozes with charm. There's a real tactile sense of chipping away the blocks to uncover the figure underneath, which is probably the closest I'll get to feeling like a sculptor, and there are little animations when you complete a puzzle. Each puzzle is categorized into "collections", and these sets get completed as your progress (although there's also this weird cubical chicken-like thing that runs you through the tutorials and is kind of creepy). The game's awards system is also kind of annoying in that you get a bonus star for completing a puzzle within the par time, and you get another star for completing it without any mistakes at all, but that's all to be expected in this kind of game and adds to the replayability. There are also "one chance only" puzzles where even one mistake makes you have to restart from the beginning, which is probably the game's worst feature, but those only pop up every once in a while.

Overall Picross 3D was a really well-executed and fun twist on the previous Picross formula. The 365+ puzzles will keep completists busy for months, and the ability to download additional official puzzles isn't really missed. Its direct sequel, Picross 3D Round 2 was only released digitally in the US on the 3DS's eShop, but it looks like it added a couple of new mechanics and I'm looking forward to seeing how the puzzles look in stereoscopic 3D.