Tag Archives: Mario

My Games of the Year – 2017

And so 2017 starts to disappear into the past like a ship sailing off towards the horizon. It has been, I think it’s fair to say, an amazing year to be a fan of video games, with arguably some of the greatest titles ever made gracing us over the last twelve months. Filled as I am with a sense of recent nostalgia, I have decided to provide a list of my top five favourite games of the last year. These are all titles that I have played and been released since the start of 2017 though please bear in mind that whilst in most cases I own all of the big games of this year, the number that I’ve actually played is much lower due to life and so forth.

So, without further rambling, and in customary reverse order…

5: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Mario Kart 8
Proof that once, just once, I was good enough at Mario Kart 8 to beat real-life Internet people.

Okay, I realise this is a little bit of a cheat because this is really just a repackaged version of the Wii U game that came out a few years ago, but still, very few titles bring the sheer sense of enjoyment with that Mario Kart evokes. MK8 is, in many ways, emblematic of the modern Nintendo of the last few years, showing that they’ve finally embraced the more hardcore fans who, let’s face it, are about the only ones who bought the Wii U (I’m including myself here), whilst also continuing to make everything utterly accessible. Mario Kart has always been great, and MK8 is the best of them so far. The Deluxe version improves on the original by adding some much-needed proper battle modes, and allowing for two power-ups to be held at once, which adds an extra level of strategy to the game. Plus, the fact that it’s on the Switch means that you can take it wherever you like, which, you know, is a good thing.

4: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda
In space, no one can see you park badly.

I really never understood the hate this got from some people. Sure, at launch some of the character faces were in equal parts ridiculous and terrifying, and, yes, there were an awful lot of Dragon Age Inquisition-esque quests that involved me just flying around to various places checking off lists of items, but ME:A was great. I’ve loved the combat in the ME games since the second instalment, and this is the best it has ever been. The story, though is does take a little while to get started, is deep and involving. So much so, in fact, that it seems such a shame that in all likelihood we’ll never get to see a straight sequel (in game form, at least), and that we will never get to return to the Andromeda galaxy and uncover more of it.

3: Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn
Look at those trees! They look just like trees!

I wasn’t expecting this to be any good. I’ve played a couple of the Killzone games that Guerrilla Games were previously known for and, whilst they were technically impressive, they left a lot to be desired i

n terms of fun. As such, whilst I knew Horizon would be pretty, I wasn’t convinced it would actually be any good. How wrong I was.

A distillation of concepts and mechanics from other titles, refined, honed and coupled with a marvellously-well-realised setting featuring a fantastic lead character, Horizon is a masterpiece. Combat is deep, exploration is fun, and the storyline compelling. It is, in short, very difficult to find anything to dislike about this. In any other year, this would probably have come top of the list, but, well…

2: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Zelda: Breath of the Wild
View from Death Mountain.

 

What is there to say about Breath of the Wild that hasn’t already been said? I’m not quite convinced that it is the best game of all time, as some have claimed, but it’s pretty damned close. A reinvention of the Zelda formula, taking it more towards the Western RPG form, Breath of the Wild is a masterclass in how to design an open-world title. Not having a great deal of patience, I wasn’t sure how I’d react to a world without markers and points of interest, but I had not reckoned on BotW‘s ability to draw you in, to make it seem as if there is something around every corner just waiting to be discovered. Sure, if you distil it down to its constituent components it seems remarkably light-weight, but the way it has been combined makes it marvellous.

I’m about 60 hours into the game and I’ve still to uncover a good quarter of the map, or complete the main quest-line. The fact that, at this point, I don’t want it to end speaks volumes. What a game.

1: Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey
It’s Mario as a pirate. What other reason do you need to play this game?

I don’t think I’ve been as excited about the release of a game as I was for Super Mario Odyssey in years. It did not disappoint. Pretty much every mainline Mario game (yes, even Sunshine) is a masterpiece, but Odyssey manages to out-do most of them. This really is something that you need to play to understand just what makes it so good. From the controls, with Mario more fun to just move around the screen than I remember in any game, to the settings, to the wry humour, this is just astonishingly good.

I’ll admit that Breath of the Wild is ostensibly the better game, but Odyssey is more fun. It takes everything that was great about the previous 3D Mario games, removes some of the lesser parts, and then adds more greatness to it. One of those rare titles that makes you feel privileged to play it.

And so, there you go: my favourite games of the last twelve months. Many thanks for taking the time to read this, and my best wishes to you for a very happy new year. See you at some point in 2018!

On… Mario Maker

My recent acquistion of Mario Maker has made me realise two things: firstly, my five-year-old daughter is a sadist; secondly, Nintendo’s genius remains undiminished. A bulwark of the video games industry, Nintendo sometimes seem a little blinkered to what is happening around them. You only need to spend five minutes trying to set up your existing Nintendo Network ID on a different 3DS to realise that. What Mario Maker shows, though, is that the company still knows how to create something that is as accessible and as brilliant as anything Sony or Microsoft, or even Apple for that matter, could come up with.

My experience of level and game creators has not been a great one, I admit, probably due to my incompetence and lack of skill more than anything else. From the 8-bit days with the Shoot-‘Em Up Construction Kit and Graphic Adventure Creator through to the likes of Little Big Planet, I have been consistently unable to come up with anything halfway decent without getting bored or frustrated. Part of the problem is my own lack of foresight or ambition, but also there is a common theme with all the tools I’ve seen that they have a steep learning curve followed by a plateau when you realise the limitations of what’s possible.

Mario looking like he's cosplaying as Fix-It Felix Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph.
Mario looking like he’s cosplaying as Fix-It Felix Jr. from Wreck-It Ralph.

Mario Maker does a few things differently. For starters, it has a wonderfully simple interface that makes the best use of the Wii U’s Gamepad I’ve seen so far (though admittedly that isn’t saying much). My daughter was able to pick up the pad and start creating her own devilishly hard levels within minutes (‘Daddy, try this level with three giant flying Bowsers and a giant chasm before the flag’). From the simple drag-and-drop placement of item onto the square-paper landscape to the way you make enemies bigger by feeding them a super mushroom, it all makes sense. Though I believe it was a bit of a controversial decision, Nintendo’s choice to only provide a handful of items at first and then have others ‘delivered’ to you as the game progresses I found inspired. It gives you enough time to experiment with the basics before you start piling on the ‘extra’ things. The only downside of it is that it can be a little annoying that you can play levels made by others that are utilising tools you haven’t got access to yet.

Of course, Mario Maker is Mario Maker: the tool is designing specifically for creating 2D Mario levels and that’s it. There are some ingenious uses of it out there that have shoehorned RPG style elements and those of others titles into it, though these only really work as one-off showcases: you can’t really stretch it beyond it’s very strict remit. But whilst you might think that’s limiting, it actually makes it a better tool because it’s so focused. If you suffer a nut fixation or have been cross-bred with a squirrel, it’s far better to have a nutcracker than be given a sledgehammer.

One of my daughter's typically evil level designs, complete with bottomless pit (apologies for the rubbish lazy screengrab).
One of my daughter’s typically evil level designs, complete with bottomless pit (apologies for the rubbish lazy screengrab).

There’s nothing really bad I can say about Mario Maker. Yes, okay, it’s a shame that you can’t string a set of levels together into a world, which does make the collection of coins and extra lives seem a little superfluous, but that’s the only really feature I feel is missing. Everything else is just pretty much perfect, from the tactile interface to the way you can swap between designing and playing in an instant, Nintendo have not only managed to nail this but also to put some put some lovely shelving up around it and line it with a collection of worthy titles that wouldn’t look out of place in an Ideal Home showcase.

What the title also makes you appreciate – if you didn’t already – was how much sheer effort and skill goes into creating real Mario games, even those that don’t seem particularly innovative (I’m looking at you, New Super Mario Bros. Wii). The placement of objects, enemies and platforms which at first may seem haphazard in fact is a masterclass in level design; you realise that everything is in its place for a reason and because somebody has calculated through play-testing that it is exactly where it should go. Of course, odds are you won’t have the same level of skill or patience – heaven knows I haven’t – but it does give you a whole new level of appreciation for the Nintendo genius.

Mario Maker, then: brilliant.

One, twice, Super Mario Bros. 3 times a game.

Super Mario Bros. 3 NES boxart
Super Mario Bros. 3 NES boxart

Title: Super Mario Bros. 3
Format: Nintendo Entertainment System
Release date: 1991
Obtained: 1992
Place of purchase: Gift
Price: N/A
Completed?:Yes

To really understand the impact SMB3 had on me, you have to bear in mind that I was never really into music, and that games have been the dominant cultural anchor in my life. To me, playing SMB3 for the first time was akin to the experiences people had when they originally heard the Beatles, or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. I remember vividly playing it originally at a friend’s house in their bedroom; at the time I only owned a C64 and was used to relatively small games that took 30 minutes to load in from a cassette tape. In contrast, here was a game that seemed absolutely massive in scope and loaded in an instant. I wanted it so much…

That was probably in the spring of 1992 – I can’t really remember the exact time. I then saved up my pocket money for the next few months and bought myself an NES. It came complete with a copy of the original Super Mario Bros. which, though it was a great game, when you’ve played SMB3 it can’t help but seem a little… basic. SMB was actually the first Mario game I’d played, but that had been on an arcade machine in Blackpool Tower and it was only for a few minutes. The third game in the series (though, as every true gamer knows, it was really the first proper sequel to the original, since we can discount the-not-really-a-Mario-game SMB2 and the unreleased-in-the-west-and-more-of-an-expansion-pack Lost Levels) was the first one I played to death.

Mario 3 had everything: fantastic graphics; incredible gameplay; a huge, varied world. From taking to the skies for the first time as Raccoon Mario, to discovering how much easier it was swimming in the frog suit, to seeing giant goombas stomping around world four, SMB3 just made you feel like you were in the midst of an imaginative whirlwind, and you were enjoying every second of it. Compared to the other games I’d played at the time, this seemed like something from another world; a giant leap forwards in terms of professionalism and invention.

I recall getting in trouble for borrowing the game from a friend just before we were about to go on holiday, I think to Great Yarmouth or possibly Exmouth. My dad had this big hang-up about people breaking into the house and stealing things, and he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of somebody else’s property being left in our house whilst we went away. After we came back from our holidays, though, my mum and dad bought me a copy of my own (on the same day we got our first microwave as well, I believe – a rather exciting day in the Hall household!). I must’ve played it pretty non-stop for some while afterwards, and eventually completed the whole thing – in one sitting, since there was no save mode – one day in the August holidays when I’d taken my NES to my Grandma’s. I used to stay with my Grandma and Grandad on my mum’s side during the school holidays, and decided this time to take the Nintendo with me. My Grandad had never really gotten used to the fact that televisions no longer had valves in them, so there was a constant concern – shared by my Grandmother – that the TV would overheat if left on for more than a few hours at a time, and she was very worried as I was making it through worlds seven and eight. Thankfully I managed to complete it before the TV combusted.

Perhaps because of the impact it had on me and the memories connected with it, in my mind SMB3 remains the pinnacle of 2D platform gaming. The SNES’s Super Mario World may have had better graphics and a cute green dinosaur, but to me SMB3 was more fun. Nowadays it’s rightfully revered as a classic, though to youthful eyes today it must seem fun yet limited. Back in the very early ’90s, however, it was jaw-dropping, and despite its vision being dulled by the advancement of gaming, its play mechanics are as fluid and enthralling as they ever were.