Month: December 2020

Super Mario All-Stars: Aesthetics Be Damned!

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the third essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

We often praise Super Mario Bros. for its gameplay and forget about the power of its graphics. Take another gander at level 1-1. The pixel art, while not crude, is loud. There’s a roughness and hardness to the world. The ground seems impenetrable. The clouds look like they’d stop airplanes. Without this overall aesthetic of solidness, I doubt players would feel as empowered and elated when they shatter brick blocks. The abstract appeal of becoming a large Mario is to impose one’s physicality on ostensibly unshakeable matter. As you run through 1-1, the flat aspect of the visual style bolsters the everyman’s surreal fantasy. A fully grown Mario rivals the size of clouds and small hills.

The color palette in 1-1 is limited but effective. The unvarying blue is pleasing, welcoming. Along with the greens, the blueness provides a lively contrast to the drab mustard brown of the blocks beneath and above Mario. In other words, there is hope and fun to be had within the unbending, dull status quo.

Without the picture that 1-1 paints, level 1-2 would have far less visual and emotional significance. As a juxtaposition to 1-1’s vision of an exciting dream, 1-2 functions as a wake-up call to danger. The black abyss. The blocks and Goombas drained of their original colors. The coins, pipes, and Mario himself may retain their brightness, but in general the inviting hues of the previous stage become a distant memory in mere seconds.

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If the first two levels of Super Mario Bros. demonstrate how sights inform feelings, then those same levels in the Super Mario Bros. remake from Super Mario All-Stars demonstrate how the game industry tries to anticipate and exceed consumer expectations. For the consumer’s sake, a remake shouldn’t change too much, particularly when it comes to holy gameplay, but the product should look new and exude contemporary logic. Let’s imagine for a moment what a consumer, as a consultant to Nintendo, might have said about the visuals of the first two levels of the original Super Mario Bros.:

There’s nothing going on in the backgrounds.

The ground looks like building blocks.

The color scheme is too simple.

It looks like Mario is as big as clouds.

There’s not much detail.

Everything looks hard as a rock.

In the Super Mario All-Stars remake of the NES classic, a type of order has been applied to the stages. In level 1-1, there are humongous, pillowy clouds — with patronizing smiley faces, no less — and towering hills in the background, so Mario can never look too big when compared to the features of the landscape. In the foreground, Mario and his enemies clearly travel on top of grass, and in case that’s not convincing enough, you can also observe brown soil. Every once in a while, Mario will pass by a patch of tall grass blowing in the wind. The original 1-1 resembles a dream, but the remade 1-1 resembles a bonafide environment that can impress boardroom fellows and unthinking spectators.

With level 1-2, the remake doubles down on its rejection of emotional potential in favor of more rational visual presentation. The pitch-black darkness is gone. Instead, the background recalls the aspects of a mine: a wall of rocks, wooden beams, clumps of vegetation, and lanterns. While the blocks and Goombas have a bluish-gray hue as in the original Super Mario Bros., the increased visibility of the stage provides a newfound comfort that lessens the sense that Mario has entered a very dark place. Because one can see as many details in 1-2 as one could see in 1-1, the contrast between the stages is severely compromised. As a result, the transition to 1-2 in Super Mario All-Stars registers as natural and normal and explainable. The uplifting tone of 1-1 is dampened, as opposed to being stamped out.

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The most egregious aesthetic misstep in Super Mario All-Stars comes in World 8 of the Super Mario Bros. 3 remake. The original World 8, appropriately named Dark Land, is one of the most intimidating settings in video game history. Both the world map and the levels within Dark Land utilize black to an astounding degree, as if a shadow-spreading virus has infected everything. At one point in the segmented map, the player can only see Mario thanks to a spotlight. No Mario experience is as dread-inducing.

Super Mario All-Stars revises this unforgettable location. Call it Not-So-Dark Land. As with level 1-2 of the Super Mario Bros. remake, the darkness of World 8 is watered down. The evidence begins with the initial world map screen. In the original Super Mario Bros. 3, pitch blackness hangs around the fires that light up the paths that Mario must traverse. In the remake, the only black that can be seen is outside of the very frame of the map!

The remake’s failure is more obvious in World 8’s introductory level. In the original Super Mario Bros. 3, this level’s absence of light is so perpetual that you can’t distinguish the outlines of black objects like Bob-ombs and cannons unless an explosion occurs. In the Super Mario Bros. remake, a shadowy haze hangs over the top of the stage, but otherwise, you can see quite well. Check out the grass. Check out the soil. Check out the dormant volcanoes. No fear, no mystery, no inconvenience. The Bob-ombs have been made purple, for crying out loud.

From there, the remake’s World 8 interpretation, if you can even call it that, gets worse. Most levels are quite visible, raising the question of why Nintendo continues to bother with the Dark Land moniker. Due to an out-of-place background and heavy usage of the color green, a later stage looks like a jungle from a different world. In another head-scratching example, the remake retains most of the darkness in one level but destroys a strong element of dissimilarity by replacing white sand with yellow sand.

There is no credible artistic reason for these changes. Only two conclusions make sense to me. First, the makers of Super Mario All-Stars were deathly afraid of contrast. Second, the makers of Super Mario All-Stars wanted to make World 8 more approachable and digestible. Either explanation points to a lack of courage, if not a lack of appreciation for an all-time great platformer.

The Best Video Games of 2030

by Jed Pressgrove

While all the other game critics scrambled to play as many 2020 titles as they could for their usual lists, I decided to do something a little different this year — namely, time travel. I won’t bore you with the technical details of this endeavor, as I know all of you are thinking the same thing: “Really???? What about the games in the pipeline?!” Below are my picks for the greatest video games of 2030. I have seen the future, and it is good.

  1. Hellfight: Like a Rogue – If there’s one thing that Hellfight: Like a Rogue teaches us, it’s that there can be truth in advertising. This blistering release from independent developer Big Colossus Studios is a roguelike in which you fight your way through Hell. Of course, you will die many, many times, but that’s more than OK. Here, death acts as an informant to the player, unveiling the intricacies of enemy attack patterns, the wanted and unwanted effects of power-ups, and the tricks to avoiding devilish traps like spikes and bomb radiuses. More than anything, to advance through the lair of Satan, you will need to learn how to dash a bunch of times. As if the tantalizing action of Hellfire: Like a Rogue weren’t enough, Big Colossus throws in a cast of lovable demons who talk to the hero, Lucipher, after he messes up and gets killed. The character development and storytelling point to a universal truth: we’re all just big kids in a dark playground, flipping the middle finger to our dads and running over to mommy for wise words and protection.

  2. Final Fantasy VII Remake Remake – According to the Wikipedia of 2030, although Final Fantasy VII Remake was the most innovative remake of the greatest RPG ever, it left players wanting more after its last act. Square Enix initially flirted with the concept of remaking the remake, leaving audiences breathless across the world, but the creative team behind the project dissolved to everyone’s collective disappointment. But then, in 2029, it was announced that the first of 10 parts of Final Fantasy VII Remake Remake would be coming in 2030. I managed to get my hands on it, and boy, are you in for a treat in 10 years. Remember how Final Fantasy VII Remake translated the first five hours of Final Fantasy VII into 30 to 50 hours of content? Well, Final Fantasy VII Remake Remake turns the first five hours of Final Fantasy VII Remake into an 80-hour epic of moral ambiguity and carefully outlined traditional sidequests. The additional time with the characters reveals their innermost thoughts, as in the segment where Cloud, troubled by what could be called television static, follows Sephiroth through a labyrinthine alleyway for 10 hours, only to learn later that he actually walked three feet away from Barrett and the rest of the gang during a sort of brainfart that lasted a mere two seconds. And yes, while Barrett is a cartoonish stereotype as he was in Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VII Remake, this time around we can definitely see how much he really, really loves his daughter and really, really hates corporate power. So it all balances out.

  3. Animal Crossing: High on Life – On a sociopolitical level, 2030 was dreadful and frightening to behold on multiple fronts. As such, it’s nice that Nintendo cranked out this latest Animal Crossing sequel that, unlike previous entries, allows the player to engage in human-animal marriages. In a terrible year like 2030, this is what the doctor ordered. Similar to its predecessors, Animal Crossing: High on Life lets people get away from current events and turn their brains off in the late hours of the night and tend to their precious hamlets full of characters that look like toys that we used to play with when we were 2.5 years old. There was another neat thing that I noticed about playing Animal Crossing in 2030: you never knew when an affable Democratic politician in the U.S. would namedrop High on Life on social media. Despite the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor in 2030 seemed as wide as the distance between Pluto and the sun, all of this made me feel warm and bubbly inside.

  4. Sprinkler Repairman – It was good to see that indie devs could still throw a decent curveball a decade from now. In the delightful and socially conscious Sprinkler Repairman, you help middle- and upper-class households maintain the lifeblood of their lawns. The intuitive (read: very easy) puzzler gameplay is a blast for all ages, but more significantly, as you visit neighborhood after neighborhood, you observe how segregated the world is. Most of the families in Sprinkler Repairman live by families with similar characteristics. When the protagonist utters his final line, “Man, we are separated,” you can’t help but feel a tinge of regret, despite how fun and solvable the majority of the game is.

  5. Life As We Know It Is Over Part 2 – Based on the articles that I came across in 2030, Life As We Know It Is Over revolutionized storytelling in gaming in 2026. How? From what I could tell, the game had a nihilistic and apocalyptic plot, characters who put the T in Tragedy, and enemies that were a cross between zombies, vampires, and federal legislators. This material overwhelmed many a gamer, leading them to discover feelings that they never knew they had. Thus, Life As We Know It Is Over Part 2 was created as an attempt to top the emotional roller coaster ride that was Life As We Know It Is Over. Now, I can’t say whether this sequel was indeed better than the original, but I was moved by a scene in which Casey, a 20-something skateboarder-turned-revolutionary, compared the bloodsucking zombified vampire things to the American government of the early 21st century, right before putting a bullet in the brain of Jacob, a 40-something turncoat who, interestingly, was the protagonist for the first 15 hours of the game. My only question after seeing the closing credits of Life As We Know It Is Over Part 2 was whether the story was over or whether Life As We Know It Is Over Part 3 would peek its head around the corner in 2035.

  6. Smash Bros. vs. Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat vs. Tekken vs. Virtua Fighter vs. Samurai Shodown vs. Dead or Alive vs. Primal Rage vs. UFC Legends – This unbelievable gem has almost everything a fighting game fan could want. I say almost because right before I had to come back to 2020, I learned that Smash Bros. vs. Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat vs. Tekken vs. Virtua Fighter vs. Samurai Shodown vs. Dead or Alive vs. Primal Rage vs. UFC Legends would have a second season featuring new characters like Shigeru Miyamoto, Kind Akuma, Mike Tyson, and Raiden As Played by Christopher Lambert. Damn!

  7. Ori and the Lost Sack of Opioids – This delightful sequel takes the platforming genre to new heights, marrying in-depth exploration to passionate commentary on the anomie of humankind. The guardian spirit Ori finds itself traversing a bureaucratic modern world where everyone is looking for a way out through government-approved pharmaceuticals. As Ori backtracks through medical facilities, local pharmacies, wild college parties, and the human body itself, the player is able to grasp the logistical, political, and psychological complexities of the opioid crisis. A Metroidvania for the times.

  8. Gun Nut 2.0 – Ever wonder what it’s like to have to clean a 9mm Glock after you shoot a lot of stuff? Gun Nut 2.0 takes its 2027 predecessor’s basic VR premise to fascinating extremes. At one point, you have to visit store after store in a desperate search for bullets of a certain caliber, asking employees what day and time they think they’ll receive their next ammo shipment. In a groundbreaking twist, Gun Nut 2.0 even has built-in features to relieve cognitive dissonance for left-wing players who are against guns in real life but love to imagine themselves blowing crap (and people) away.

  9. Assassin’s Creed: The Great Depression – If you love history, you already know Assassin’s Creed is a gift from the gods. With a fidelity that recalls unforgettable literary classics like The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road, Assassin’s Creed: The Great Depression highlights how cool it is to plop one’s self into a different place and time and slit throats like a bad MF. You can also freely enter Tour Mode and watch how people survived in the Dust Bowl. Attention to detail = empathy.

  10. Madden NFL 30 – This one deserves special mention for the “Life of a Player” mode alone, where every life decision can impact whether a particular player will enter and remain in the NFL. You start off as a soon-to-be draft pick who, among other things, must consider the potential consequences of broadcasting himself hitting a water bong on TikTok. If a team drafts you, the possibilities are endless. You can play your position well to land a big contract, only to stop putting forth any effort on the field after you get paid. You can throw your teammates under the bus after a reporter asks you what happened in an embarrassing loss. You can spend your free time being a role model, traveling to schools across the country to inform kids about the dangers of peer pressure and egotism. Madden NFL 30 captures everything that is inspiring and disappointing about big-name athletes, while also being incredibly dull as a football game in video game form.

Galaga ’88: When an Arcade Masterpiece Should Be Left Alone

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the second essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

Galaga is the perfect pop game sequel. Though a fixed vertical shooter like its predecessor Galaxian, Galaga is a more exhilarating, dynamic affair. Single shots are a thing of the past. Enemies zip onto the screen in graceful sychronization as opposed to automatically being in rows. Bonus stages emphasize accuracy and provide a suitable break from the game’s kill-or-be-killed paradigm. The aesthetic of the main ship evokes the offensively minded X-Wing from Star Wars rather than the more passive Enterprise spacecraft from Star Trek. Most importantly, players can double their firepower by allowing a ship to be taken hostage and then freeing it. With all of these changes, director Shigeru Yokoyama produced one of the most beloved games of any era and made Galaxian a forgettable footnote in the history of shooters.

Galaga ’88 wants to be a superior version of the 1981 masterpiece. The title says it all. The reference to 1988 is not just technical acknowledgement of the approximate time of the release. The citation of the year is a way of telling us that the game is for people of a modern age with more sophisticated demands. As consumers, we go to a car dealership with the expectation that we will see the latest year’s offerings on the lot. Newer is sexier. Look at how the sports video game market persists.

Galaga ’88 must live up to the braggadocious implications of its title, to its suggestion that the mega pop hit Galaga has been reincarnated in a superior body. (Some might claim that Galaga ’88 is only a sequel, but this idea overlooks Gaplus, the 1984 follow-up to Galaga that didn’t reuse its immediate ancestor’s title.) The souped-up presentation of Galaga ’88 reveals the desperation of a development team attempting to top a lean mean classic. Now the player’s ship takes off from a futuristic platform, as if we need that continuity in a gallery shooter. Now the ship has to go into warp drive for the next stage to begin, as if a simple change of levels isn’t enough. Now imagery in the background changes, as if the modest space setting of Galaga wasn’t convincing. Now the bonus stages are referred to as “Galactic Dancing,” which is just about the corniest term one could use for such a thing, and become nauseatingly precious when the musical compositions by Hiroyuki Kawada add contrived levity to the proceedings.

Galaga ’88 is an attention whore that, despite all of its cute little bells and whistles, has never gotten the attention that Galaga has received over the decades. Perhaps that’s because greater simplicity reigns supreme in the arcade, but Galaga ’88’s new gameplay ideas also lack inspiration and creativity. As in Galaga, you can fuse together two ships for more bullets, but the dual ship in Galaga ’88 can be transformed into a triple ship. Although this concept might seem cool on the surface, Gaplus already had a tractor-beam trick that could triple one’s firepower and then some by adding enemies alongside the main ship. The other problem is that Galaga ’88 makes the triple-ship process overly simple: two ships can be selected, with the loss of one life, before the beginning of the first stage. This means the triple ship can be achieved quickly, and the increased bullet coverage turns the first few stages into a mindless shooting spree.

Another wrinkle in Galaga ’88 is the inclusion of scrolling stages. Let me repeat that with more truth. Another wrinkle in Galaga ’88 is the inclusion of utterly uninteresting scrolling stages. The enemies and obstacles in these segments don’t get my blood pumping at all, as their patterns and positioning pose little danger compared to the threats in Xevious, which preceded Galaga ’88 by a few years. The absence of a provocative power-up system, as in 1985’s Twinbee or 1989’s Blazing Lazers, also does no favors for the action here. Most egregiously, scrolling stages don’t fit the fixed-shooter formula of relegating the player to movement along a single horizontal plane. When you combine movement restrictions with perfunctory enemy encounters, you wind up with padding and zero emotional resonance. In this pitiful context, the entire point of having scrolling stages with a ship — to create an illusion of flight and momentum — is lost.

Even if Galaga ’88 is viewed uncritically, it still resembles an awkward, behind-the-times missing link between the fixed shooter and modern vertical shooter. There are bosses, but they move, spray bullets, and spawn minions in primitive and embarrassing fashion. There are branching paths, a la Darius and Star Fox, but they amount to a negligible sense of adventure. Consider this thought experiment: if Galaga ’88 had been the original Galaga in 1981, it would seem far ahead of the curve, born from the unusual whims of a mad game designer. Galaga ’88 wants us to imagine what could have been. As romantic as that proposition may seem, it requires us to disregard the history of video games so as not to notice that we’re looking at a bunch of wallpaper.