#306: The Banjo

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This blog post won’t be about actual musical banjos, though I did have to look up whether the plural of banjo was banjos or banjoes in order to write this sentence.

My very first video game system was the Nintendo 64, which my uncle got for me on my fifth birthday (I think). I remember being incredibly engrossed in Super Mario 64. I still hold a certain nostalgia for 3d Mario platformers because of that era. And there were so many games like it that came after! Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo & Kazooie are the two that spring to my mind quickly, and they’re both modeled after the genre Super Mario 64 practically invented. Banjo in particular feels nostalgic to me because I used to love that game, even though I never beat it. The music, with its classic country twang, feels right at home in this type of game. It makes sense and it fits Banjo’s aesthetic. The people behind Rare Studios really took Super Mario 64’s mold and created their own colorful, energetic game out of it. I’m not saying that Banjo-Kazooie is a fantastic game, but it’s recognizable to me the same way Mario and his games are. The game is full of magic.

So, when news dropped a couple months ago that Banjo & Kazooie were coming to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I was totally excited. Banjo was my biggest pick for Smash for a long time, and I knew it was unlikely because Rare Studios was traded over to Microsoft years ago. Microsoft is of course a rival gaming company to Nintendo, but to see them cooperate to allow this to happen shows that these video game companies are willing to put aside their (financial) differences to make great moments like this happen. I’m grateful for that, and I wish others would take their example.


#296: The Crimson Flower

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Playing through Fire Emblem: Three Houses was an emotional experience. The ending almost made me cry, and reading all the different paired experiences for each character combination gave me just the kind of cathartic feeling I was looking for at the end of the game. Certain characters traveled the world and adventured together, some became romantically involved in unlikely combinations, and other characters went solo for a bit, accomplishing their dreams in their own ways. It was inspiring and made me feel things for my team that I had worked so hard to protect throughout each and every mission. I made sure to keep all my characters fairly overleveled through the repeatable battle missions.

My friend finished the same campaign, but the majority of his cast died in the process in that fateful final battle against the archbishop in her dragon form. The only surviving members of the Black Eagle house were Linhardt, Ferdinand, Edelgard, and the professor. I feel bad for him, but at least it was the final battle and at least he made it to the end after all. I’d feel bummed if I made it that far and couldn’t beat the game after all my effort and time spent building up my team.

The music is bombastic, epic, and over-the-top in all the right ways. It draws you in and gets you invested in the story of each mission, fitting appropriately next to the atmosphere they wanted to create.

The story was engrossing, nuanced, and memorable. It’s one I’ll remember for awhile. I’m also pretty glad I happened to side with Edelgard in this conflict, considering her philosophy was pretty agreeable (besides the obviously questionable parts of it, like waging war against your former classmates to reshape society). But overall, I liked the shades of grey that the story presented and I feel that the designers did a solid job of capturing that.

#278: The Plot Twist

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What do you remember the most from the plot of the most recent piece of media you consumed? Probably the climax. It’s the pivotal moment of the story, what all the narrative has been hinging upon. A story with a middling climax leaves people feeling dissatisfied and, in worst cases, betrayed. Look at how people have reacted to the most recent Game of Thrones season. There was an uproar, almost deservedly so, over the decaying writing quality over the course of the series. Seasons 7 and 8 were seen as low points for the series, whereas the beginning and middle seasons appeared to people as hallmarks of the good old days. It’s almost a shame how the climax left so many people wanting more and expecting higher, though the story was bound to disappoint at least some section of its audience regardless.

But the point here is that people will cling to the story’s end, whatever left the most recent large impression on them. To me, a recent game that had this effect was Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I spent the majority of the story slowly understanding it, but not making too much of an effort to pay attention. When the plot twist came along near the story’s climax, I felt totally unprepared for it because I wasn’t expecting such a major, narrative-shattering moment to appear. I won’t spoil it for people who are reading this but haven’t played the game, but I recommend picking it up for yourself so you can see what I mean. It might have the same effect on you! It definitely has the potential to. The game itself is completely worth picking up, especially if you’re new to the series, as I think it’ll astonish you. A plot twist like the one coming up in this game might leave your mouth agape, waiting to be picked back up from the floor.

#267: The Strategy, Part 2

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During my last post about Fire Emblem, I mentioned the battle system and how it’s more prevalent in this game than in Persona. You can more easily enter a battle, without having to worry about going through six hours of narrative beforehand (cough, Palaces 4-5, cough).

With all this being said, Fire Emblem: Three Houses (on the Nintendo Switch) is more akin to chess than Persona. You have to think many, many turns ahead in order to save your units while also working within the game’s timer and battle conditions. You have to think ahead when instructing your students, and you need to have a plan in mind for each unit, a path or goal they’re striving for. For example, at some point in the future I want to train Edelgard to wear heavy armor, which I think would be an awesome upgrade for her. In order to get her to that place, though, I need to be careful about how I instruct her during class, what lessons I teach her, and what equipment I give her to train with. You have to think ahead, essentially, in order to do everything in this game, and it never lets up on you. If you don’t have a clear plan in mind, the game will start to challenge you more than it did previously, and you will feel a bit overwhelmed by the battles. Your units will become listless and unmotivated without proper guidance.

But despite these obvious pitfalls if you’re not paying attention, the game does a great job of teaching you how to avoid them. It almost makes it impossible to not advance your units, and no matter how poorly you teach, you’ll still come away with some reward, or experience, or lesson learned from it. The game is pretty forgiving, in spite of everything that makes it seem otherwise. I’d highly recommend it.

#266: The Strategy, Part 1

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Fire Emblem is a game series known for its intense strategy. When one of your units dies, it dies for good, and to get them back, you have to return to an earlier save file. The recent games in the series have offered optional difficulty settings that do away with this age old tradition, but the challenge remains for players who want a taste of the original games. The feeling stays the same in those situations, and I’m glad they included them.

Not counting the mobile game, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the first entry in the series that I’ve played, and so far, it’s been enjoyable. I like the thoughtfulness that goes into the combat, and all the small details alongside it, such as the way the music speeds up in intensity when units are fighting each other. I like the characters, although they haven’t pulled me in as much as they did in Persona 5. I hear that they get more complicated as the story goes on, but a certain element of Persona’s characters is tied closely to the setting. As in, the fact that the game takes place in the 21st century makes the characters more interesting to me. You can feel their struggles more closely, considering you’ve experienced them too, and not too long ago.

However, the games are different in many regards, and shouldn’t necessarily be compared and judged just based on how relatable their characters are. That wouldn’t be fair to either game. Fire Emblem is more gameplay-focused, I think, and less time is spent on dialogue and narrative, even though the two are heavily focused on still. Fire Emblem has more consistent gameplay moments, such as the mock battles and the battles at the end of every month. They’re weaved into the story experience moreso than in Persona 5.

#250: The Saga

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Today, I’ll be discussing one of my favorite games of all time, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. This is a classic for the Gameboy Advance, and I remember playing it so much back in the day. I never beat it as a kid, but I went back and beat it later as an adult so I guess that amounts to something. If you can’t beat it as a kid, that means it’s probably too hard.

The reason I bring this game up is because, at the con over this past weekend, Alex picked up the most recent, remastered edition of Superstar Saga for the 3DS. It’s a special game with a special place in my heart, honestly. I remember playing it on my Gameboy Advance like it was this newfangled piece of hardware. It felt so unique. Just hearing the music again brought joy and glee to my face. It’s something special when you hear a familiar song and it brings back memories all on its own. She was in the middle of the Popple battle, for example, and that has an amazing, recognizable theme that I can hear in my head as I’m even typing these words out. I’m going to the gym soon, and I might have to play it just to fill that space in my head! Usually, Alex doesn’t play with sound on, but I explained that this is an important game in which sound cues are essential to timing your attacks and defenses right. It’s not just an option to turn off or on; it’s relevant to all facets of the game’s design.

I also told her recently that there were four more additions to the series, so she got excited when that news was unveiled. There’s so much to do in this series, and it’s all so fantastic!

#225: The Expo

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Have you ever heard of E3? It stands for Electronic Entertainment Expo, and it’s an event that takes place once a year at the beginning of June and promises to hype up any video game fan from around the world. It’s known for delivering the biggest announcements, the most shocking reveals, and gameplay footage never before seen. When new games are said to be announced, they’re brought out on the floor of E3 first and foremost. That’s why people tend to gravitate towards this event so heavily; it attracts attention by nature of its grand scale and all the video game industry developers who treat it like the biggest deal in games. By being treated this way, it also becomes like that.

I always look forward to Nintendo’s presentation the most, partially because I’m a huge Nintendo fan, but also because I love how Nintendo presents their information in such a concise, clean, and clear way via the Nintendo Direct. After the Direct stream is over, they switch over to the Treehouse stream, where people from around Nintendo play the games that were unveiled or previewed during the Direct. This gives people the chance to experience the games firsthand, if they’re present at the event, or watch them for the first time, if they’re watching the streams from home. There are always some surprises in store for the Treehouse stream afterwards, so it’s usually worth watching and catching up on regardless of if you are busy.

I was most hyped about Banjo-Kazooie being added to Smash Bros Ultimate. What’s better than seeing an old character from one of your favorite games added against all odds? A Microsoft property brought into a Nintendo title for the very first time in over 20 years. It’s a miracle and a dream come true for me.

#73: Water Castle

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We’ve got to beat the water castle. We’ve got to beat that damn thing.

Let’s talk about Mario games, and their addictive multiplayer possibilities. Though I prefer other platformers over New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe, such as DK: Tropical Freeze, it’s been a worthwhile purchase and a fun addition to my collection of Nintendo Switch titles. It’s provided us with hilarious moments, goofs, and gaffs, and it’s another adventure for Alex and I to complete together. Because it offers six playable characters with different properties on their jumps and power-ups, the game allows you to choose to play at your own speed. Certain characters are easier than others, such as Toadette and Nabbit, and they help players like Alex (who aren’t experts in Nintendo platforming games) gain some familiarity with the controls without intimidating them much. The feature is smart and adds a level of accessibility to the game, similar to a carefully crafted lesson plan including ample differentiation for all players and participants. It’s similar to how Mario Kart 8 Deluxe added the rail feature, preventing karts from falling off the edges with an easy button press on the options menu. We also split the price for this game, so it feels like a group purchase, rather than me buying a game and hoping Alex likes it.

But the water castle. Ugh, the water castle. When this post goes up, hopefully we’ve beaten the damn thing by now. I might write another post later about this game, to provide some updates for people who care. But at the present moment, we are struggling to beat the damn water castle, because we haven’t been able to find the time to sit down and beat it together. The current plan is to finish it tonight (Thursday evening), despite all odds.

#32: The Sleepover

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In seven days, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate releases, and my friends and I already have plans to celebrate in an all-night smash bonanza. Snacks, party favors, comfy couch seats, and lots of blankets. We become depraved party animals with no regard for ourselves or the time of night, and the light of the TV mounted on the wall provides all the brightness in the room.

This is tradition for us. When new smash games release, it signifies a new generation of party experiences. Our usual party fare — board games, Overwatch, Destiny, and/or WoW — are exciting too, but the smash series brings me back to my high school memories, of late-night sleep overs spent mastering Brawl and waiting for the Adam West “Batman” series to come on TV. Most of my experience in Brawl came from Lucas, who you should never get above during a match, apparently. I also played some games as Mario and Ike, even though Ike originally was considered overpowered when the game first released. That would change once people figured out how Meta Knight worked! Brent would play Snake and Zelda, and Alex would play MK or Ike. This continued into the earliest hours of the day.

The last time this happened, when Smash 4 came out, we were all apart and weren’t frequently hanging out like we do nowadays. Hence it’s easier to organize and look forward to these plans, knowing that our schedules will allow for some flexibility to suit the game’s release. However, we still managed to play a lot of Smash 4 while it was current. I remember crushing my friend Steve’s roommate during my senior year of college, when they said he was being a jerk about winning all the time. I felt like I vindicated them through beating his characters a bunch.

I’m incredibly ready for this amazing night, and I can’t wait for it. It’s the little things that help keep you going!

#31: The Animal

I, and likely many of my millennial peers, are disillusioned by zoos. Going to the zoo feels like setting an alarm in the morning to go to the local animal prison. Groundbreaking and revelatory documentaries like “Blackwater” have shed important light on the ways wildlife are mistreated in captivity, and although the documentary focused solely on Seaworld, there are elements of it that are reflected in other places, like local zoos. The lack of entertainment, the boredom and tiredness of captivity, the stale and repetitive food, the need to please an alien race. I pity them more than anything as I walk by, as they must be so confused by everything going on every day outside their cages. Just think how confused they must be by average human behavior. Just think how confused you might be by average human behavior.

Even if the animals are mostly treated well and taken care of, I would vastly prefer going to a nature preserve rather than a zoo. Seeing authentic nature, as found on a hike or trek, just appeals to me more than a performative recreation of nature. This is all not to discredit or devalue zoos as an institution for others to enjoy; I just wanted to share my personal preferences so as to introduce a new blog topic.

A more idealistic and humanitarian utopia of animal and human interaction can be found in “Animal Crossing,” a video game series developed and published by Nintendo, appearing on all of their most recent video game consoles. Although the games have certain elements exclusive to each entry, the core formula has stayed the same: enter a new town, befriend the local animal population, curry their favor through gifts and conversation, and take part in local events and festivals such as fishing and bug-catching tournaments, holiday celebrations, and museum viewings. The animals interact just like humans, adopting unique personalities to their speech that shape their decorative and gift preferences. They also have their own houses where all their favorite, hand-selected items and furniture exist. You can find these animals wandering around the town, and sometimes they have optional requests for you to fulfill or random musings they want to share with you. Very rarely do events take place that originate from outside the town; there are no competing cultural influences, just one culture of all animals coexisting with each other. Essentially, Nintendo has gameified having neighbors and a steady, local collective.

What you might notice about this description is how sophisticated Nintendo treats the idea of animal-human community, not as a zoo with humans in complete authority, but as a coexisting world in which regular social norms apply. It is treated as a completely normal and usual thing. In the games, no one ever comments directly on the differences between species, there is no predator versus prey dichotomy, survival of the fittest does not exist, and when animals misbehave or act out, it is in a way that feels more human than anything else. The fact that animals do not need to acknowledge their differences in order to stay alive, like in movies like “Zootopia,” but instead focus silently on being consistently cordial and polite to each other, showcases deep social maturity. It is a benchmark of society’s potential for us, even if that sounds silly.

It also helps that the game moves at a slow, steady, go-with-the-flow pace, incentivizing consistent visits to your town but not without sincere cheer waiting for you when you arrive. Weeds grow on the soil and animals miss your regular visits to their houses, but there are no major consequences for taking it easy in this game. Sometimes an anxious mind needs reassurance that the world can be just as quiet, kind, and thoughtful as needed, and “Animal Crossing” specializes in providing that.