The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Super Mario Odyssey: Review and Game Design Analysis

Super Mario Odyssey is a burst of joy, in the purest form. I don’t know any better way to describe it than that.

In that vein, the closest comparison I can make to anything is the feeling of playing on a playground when you’re little, exploring each new part; there are the slides, there are the swings, there are the jungle gym, and so on, and here’s how it all fits together. Here, Nintendo has created the their own digital playground, much more intricate and detailed and interesting than the real world ones people are used to. And then, they went and did twelve more times.

The level design work in Odyssey is superb, a case study for anyone who’s interested in video games as a creative medium, with hundreds of things to pull apart. In my article on Splatoon, I alluded to my desire to see more games return to using well-constructed “hub worlds” in navigating to the levels. Mario Odyssey doesn’t do that, yet I hardly found myself missing them.

All of the care that normally went into designing those massive, connecting levels is instead here applied to each individual world, making each feel massive without actually making them large or cumbersome. The amount of things to do in each one is deceptive, and contributes to the illusion of feeling grander than it is; even the largest world could be completely be circumnavigated in less than ten minutes, but each is so densely packed with interesting challenges and exploration that it feels more massive (again, just like a little kid in a new playground).

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Splatoon 2, Its Place Among 3D Platformers, and the Legacy of Super Mario Sunshine

I’ve been playing a lot of Splatoon 2 lately and enjoying it a bunch. One thing that I’ve done so far that I didn’t get to do as much in the first game though was play the story mode; I mostly just didn’t have time then, more than anything. Naturally, I decided to correct that with the sequel, and I found something interesting within: the level design is highly reminiscent of another game I had been thinking about recently.

I’ve had Super Mario Sunshine on my mind lately. There’s no specific reason, it’s just been a handful of small things that bring it to mind on occasion. It got a lot of flak at the time of release, some of which was due to changes it made to the beloved Super Mario 64’s formula, which is to be expected with Nintendo. They’re constantly tinkering with their franchises, and won’t release something unless they feel like it brings something substantial to the series.

I liked a lot of the new stuff, and unfortunately, there hasn’t really been a game since that quite capitalized on some of the things they introduced. The water/jetpack-thing that Mario wielded was one thing in particular that I minded a lot less than everyone else. The level design was also notably different than most subsequent 3D platform games. Sunshine built on Mario 64’s system of a hub world (Delfino Island in Sunshine, Princess Peach’s Castle in 64) with extensive connected levels, which was pretty ubiquitous to the genre at the time.

Sunshine seemed to almost build an entirely connected world; unlike in earlier games like 64, where levels were simply represented by paintings, you could see the levels in Sunshine from each other, way out on the horizons of the stages. Dummied-out data even reveals a planned train connected the world even more; were it not for size-limitations, the game might have been even more interconnected. But this aspect seemed to sort of dead-end with the game.

The one aspect of the game that many people at the time seemed to really like about Sunshine at the time though was the bonus levels. These were collections of floating platforms in a space-like void, stars in the distance, where you’d be stripped of your F.L.U.D.D. waterpack (for the first run-through, at least) to focus on precise jumps and maneuvering. It’s not hard to see how this fed into the design of the follow-up game, Super Mario Galaxy. Every level in the game was collections of planets floating in space, each focusing on jumping and maneuvering without the distraction of a waterpack.

Consequently, the main hub world of Comet Observatory was scaled back to a fraction of Isle Delfino, with a fraction of the areas to explore and tasks to navigate. This was something that the follow-up, Super Mario Galaxy 2, would take to even greater extremes, leaving something that was in total not even the size of the first section of the Castle from way back in Super Mario 64, with most of the navigation of worlds done via selection screens.

And this has sort of been the state of 3D platformers since. Super Mario 3D World got an overworld sort of similar to Super Mario World from way back on the Super Nintendo (maybe it's own topic one day, given my love of Super Mario World), but nothing quite like those original hub worlds of 64 and Sunshine.

And that’s where the Splatoon series and its story mode ties in, in my mind. These games seem to be going back to the days of Super Mario Sunshine and exploring a divergent evolutionary path from the Mario series.

The most obvious change is in the central mechanics of each. Given that people complained about the mechanic of an advanced water gun strapped to Mario, Nintendo apparently decided it was worth separating out into its own game, where it could be fleshed out and played with more extensively and without disrupting the core of the Mario series. In turn, that became a game centered entirely around the mechanics of a Super Soaker-esque water gun and tank strapped to your back, albeit with the ammo changed to ink to fit in with the squid theming of the new game. And, thanks to focusing on this mechanic, the game instead veered more towards the third person shooter genre rather than the 3D platformer.

But it didn’t totally abandon those roots. The level design in story mode is heavily indebted to the same bonus stages that inspired Super Mario Galaxy, as a set of floating platforms suspended in some sort of void that need to be navigated, the main difference being that this time the challenges are a little less based on deft maneuvering and more based on the this-time-included gun mechanic.

And of course, there’s the overworld system. Both Splatoon games moved away from Super Mario Galaxy 2’s primarily-menu based navigation. Instead, there’s a central hub world of a city plaza serving as the menu for each game, with the story mode getting it’s own set of “mini-worlds” in which you navigate to different levels by finding grates to travel through, and completion of a set of levels opens up new “mini-hubs” with their own sets of levels, much like Super Mario 64’s castle with paintings for individual levels and different sections of the castle with new sets of paintings to travel to. And in the case of Splatoon 2 at least, you can see other points from where you stand; the main square is off in the distance, as are the other “mini-hubs”. It’s definitely reminiscent of Super Mario Sunshine’s set-up. It's still not quite on the level of Isle Delfino, which was set up to feel like a real place, while the hubs in Splatoon (outside of the main plaza) are still technically just floating blocks in space, but it's definitely moving back in that direction after a long time away from that design.

It’s worth noting that the Splatoon games may just be a preview of things to come for Nintendo. This fall, they’ll release Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch, and while we don’t know the exact specifics of how it will play, it looks like it might take the design of Sunshine a step further, with small worlds serving as both the individual levels of the old games and the hub worlds. So instead of one major central area with a bunch of different “spokes” coming off it, instead we may get several interconnected worlds that are both their own “hubs and spokes”, with their own missions and goals throughout.

If so, I couldn’t be more excited; it’s been a decade and a half since Super Mario Sunshine, and things like Splatoon 2 seem to indicate Nintendo is itching to return to their old ways. I can’t see what big ideas they can bring back to the 3D Platformer; I've missed seeing this genre push itself in new ways.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Music Monday: Getaway Car Playlist (Inspired by Baby Driver)

Edgar Wright might be my favorite director of all-time. Naturally, I was super excited when I found out that he had another movie coming out this summer, but even more exciting was finding out that it was going to be a musical about car chases.* Sure enough, Baby Driver lived up to all my expectations when I saw it earlier this summer.

*A lot of the initial weirdness one assumes when hearing this conversation dissipates once you remember that The Blues Brothers exists. Apparently, this is a much more natural combination than it first seems.
I wanted to write something about the movie, but I never quite got a better idea than just a page of me just cycling through all of the synonyms for “really cool” that I know. So I finally decided that maybe the best thing to do would be respond to it.

Most of the film’s soundtrack caught me off guard, in a way. For those who haven’t seen it, the main character, “Baby”, is a getaway car driver who is obsessed with music, and needs to sync up his drives with carefully-selected songs. It’s a neat conceit, and I loved it. But thinking back to the movie afterwards (as well as looking over the soundtrack), I sort of had an epiphany: my idea of songs I would use in his place was totally different.

I mean, I had never really thought too hard about what made something a good “getaway car song” before Baby Driver, but my first clue was how little of the soundtrack was something I personally would have picked. Not that any of it is bad; it’s mostly just a matter of taste and frame of reference, if anything. But outside of maybe “Radar Love”, my hypothetical list would have little overlap.

So I put more thought into it: what would my “Getaway Car” Playlist look like? After thinking it over for a while, this is the result. It’s not one of my normal playlists, in that there isn’t really a flow or an “order” to this, and I didn’t spend hours honing the song-to-song transitions; by nature, it’s supposed to be a little stop and start, something you can listen to on shuffle (because, you know, a car chase probably shouldn’t last long).

I’m pretty happy with the end result. Despite not being one of my original “themes” or ideas, I think I put my own distinct spin on the subject. A full text list can be found below as well.

Run with the Bulls-Smallpools
Sins of My Youth-Neon Trees
Stolen Time-Gemini Club
Started a War-Gemini Club
Sex-The 1975
Let’s Make a Lot of Money-Junior Prom
Dance, Dance-Fall Out Boy
Kill V. Maim-Grimes
Next to You-The Police
I Will Follow-U2
Got to Get You Into My Life-Earth, Wind, & Fire
You Dropped a Bomb on Me-The Gap Band
Mirrored Sea-Passion Pit
Something’s Bout to Change-Strange Talk
You Will Leave a Mark-A Silent Film
I Love You to Death-Five Knives
North American Scum-LCD Soundsystem
Leave the Lights On-Mainland
I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor-Arctic Monkeys
Turn It On-Franz Ferdinand
Hang Me Up to Dry-Cold War Kids
All of This-The Naked and Famous
Let It Go-Dragonette
Help Me Run Away-St. Lucia
Paddling Out-Miike Snow
Drive It Like You Stole It-Sing Street
Bounce-Calvin Harris ft. Kelis
My Type-Saint Motel
Try to Lose-Penguin Prison
Making the Most of the Night-Carly Rae Jepsen
Mr. Brightside-The Killers

Friday, August 4, 2017

What Would a Hypothetical Backyard Baseball 2017 Look Like?

I'm not going to repost the whole thing here since that seems a little redundant, but I wrote an article about one of my favorite video games growing up, Backyard Baseball. It's more the type of thing that goes over on Hot Corner Harbor, but I figured since it was a video game post, it deserved at least a mention here, so go check it out!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Music Monday: "The Beautiful Game" by RAC feat. St. Lucia

A month ago, I published my Summer 2017 Playlist, and I think it turned out pretty well, all things considered. Except for one thing: the perfect song for a Summer 2017 Playlist came out two weeks after I published that. I hate it when stuff like that happens, except we got a great song out of it, so it’s hard to be too mad about it.

RAC is the stage name of André Allen Anjos; it used to be an actual group of musicians under the full name “Remix Artist Collective”, but as far as I can tell, both of those things are in the past. Now it’s just one guy and three letters. I started listening to them/him (I’m always confused on which pronoun to use for “bands” comprised of one person) in 2014, after they/he released the album Strangers. That wound up being one of my favorite albums of the year.*

*Although, surprisingly, nothing from it has found it’s way onto one of my playlists yet. Maybe someday…

I waited for the follow-up anxiously. In 2015, RAC started releasing some new songs once a month, with the intent to have a 12-song album at the end of the year completed, but that trailed off after six songs in seven months. Finally, a full album was announced along with the debut single “This Song” featuring Rostam, which was a promising start. Three more songs would be released in the lead-up to the release of EGO last Friday. After a couple of listens, it’s probably one of my favorite releases of the year so far, but I want to focus on the third song that same out pre-release:

“The Beautiful Game” (featuring St. Lucia)

I was a little underwhelmed by the first collaboration between these two. St. Lucia and RAC are two of my favorite artists/bands*, but “Ready For It” was outshone by so many other songs from Strangers. “The Beautiful Game” works so much better, thankfully. From its opening, bouncing bass notes, it grabs your attention with an instantly distinct sound and builds anticipation for what’s coming. From there, it’s a slow layering of guitar, drums and vocals from Jean-Philip Grobler, and more guitar accents (I especially love these little whammy bar hits, which play into a larger, sort of off-kilterness of the song in contrast with how tightly it’s structured and orchestrated) into a chilled groove that feels perfect for a summer song and made me instantly regret not being able to include it on my list.

It’s no-nonsense though, jumping into the chorus around the forty-second mark. And what a chorus it is. Patti Beranek, the other vocalist of St. Luica (and Jean-Philip’s wife, which is kinda sorta significant here) jumps in, and crescendoing multi-voice choruses are always great in my book. The words are memorable, especially their delivery, with almost a pause between the syllables of the last words in the first two lines. It’s just strange enough to catch your attention and stick in your mind.

To mark the start of the second verse, we get a slightly-detuned piano, another unusual accent that catches your attention. Then we get the vocals, with Jean-Philip and Patti trading off on “It’s too fast/It’s too slow”, which I really like for reasons that I can’t fully articulate other than it’s a really cute symmetry between a married couple (of course, in the opening verse, we get the line “But symmetry looks good on you”, which makes this feel like a tie-in). The interplay of their vocals is great; “Ready For It” in comparison feels really disconnected. “The Beautiful Game” in contrast feels like something sung between the couple of a rom-com, and just makes you feel really happy as a result.

More layering of synths happens throughout the second verse as it builds up to that fantastic chorus again. It leads into a bridge of “oohs”, a shimmery synth riff, and a riff from the super-tight marimba-sounding synth that came in during the back half of in verse two, which again gets at the sort of contrast I mentioned between sounding “wobbly” and incredibly balanced.

And then, we get the spacey, slowed-down bridge that offers a nice break, and just as inevitably leads into the song’s big finish. Everything gets brought in for the finally; a new synth sound, vocal samples, all the previous stuff, en route to a final repeat of the full chorus. And then there’s the final chorus repeat that starts stripping parts out of the dense orchestration until it’s mostly just the two vocalists, drums, bass, and a few accent parts. And then, the song slowly works into a fade-out, shedding parts as it works into an airy sound, then a new guitar riff that transitions into the next song on the album (which I found out on Friday is the also-fantastic “Johnny Cash” featuring Scavenger Hunt, but maybe that’s a story for another day).

Something about “The Beautiful Game” feels cinematic in it’s grand lusciousness and contrasts. Add in the chemistry between the vocalists and you can easily conjure up an entire visual scene. That and the feelings it brings up, combined with the relaxed groove at the center, makes it feel like a perfect song for a summer day, the perfect compliment of good feelings to go with any variety of summery activities.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Some Thoughts on Protagonists and Antagonists, via Cars 3

This is just going to be a short piece, but it’s something that bugged me while I was watching a movie, so I might as well put into words why I didn’t think it worked. It never hurts to think things through and try and learn from them.

I saw Cars 3 over the weekend, as part of my Pixar completionist streak, and was pleasantly surprised. In all honesty, I enjoyed Cars*, but don’t really remember anything about Cars 2, so my expectations going in were pretty tempered. Add in a pre-release campaign that seemed…unclear at best, and I think it’s fair to say that this was the least excited I had been for a new Pixar movies in a while.

*I don’t know if I’d put it all that high among Pixar’s in-studio rankings, but that’s as much a reflection on their strong track record as the movie itself.

In the end, the movie turned out mostly good. It will definitely stick in my brain longer than Cars 2 did, so at the very worst, so it has that going for it. However, there were just some minor complaints I had, most of which are tied to some of the thematic things going on. This will contain some light plot spoilers as a result.

Basically, it all boils down to this: the villains of the movie just don’t work. This isn’t the end-all, be-all, of course. The personal growth arcs of the main mostly work… except that they insist on using these “villains” as the end demonstration of that growth, which sort of undermines the arcs a little, in my opinion.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Summer Playlist 2017

June 7th marks the third anniversary of Out of Left Field, and I struggled to think of something that would mark the occasion as well as my Hot Corner Harbor seventh anniversary post the other day. In the end, I decided to instead go back to a feature that I’ve critically underutilized so far, playlists. I love sharing music, after all. The amazingly nice weather recently had me thinking about summer songs again, so I decided why not try and build off of last year’s post and do a new Summer Playlist for 2017.

It’s not going to be exactly, the same of course. I made sure to stick to stuff not on either of my earlier playlists* (even though I was really tempted to feature “Weekend” by Neon Trees again, it’s really perfect for this, and Scavenger Hunt got crowded out partly because of two features on last year’s list). And it wound up being a little less thematically laser-focused, meaning a larger list with sometime more abstract connections to the summer theme. Some of them feel more like “good songs to listen to during summer” rather than “summer songs”, but I can’t really explain in words what that difference is exactly, other than it’s an instinctual feeling. Just know that it occurred to me during my brainstorming and bugged me a little.

*Or upcoming playlists, in a few cases; I have several more in the works, maybe I’ll eventually get around to posting them.

 A few blurbs on the songs now: