The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Hat in Time and Level Design Philosophies in 3-D Platformers

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my favorite indie games from the past year and I lavished high praise on A Hat in Time by the development team Gears for Breakfast. It’s a throwback to the 3D platformers of the ‘90s and early 2000s that I loved growing up, but like all of the best nostalgic throwbacks, it’s good not just because it references the classics of a past, but because it understands what made those classics work, and consciously decides to do its own thing. Now that I’ve more or less finished the entire game, I feel like I can begin to break down some of the things that the game does especially well.

Every aspect of A Hat in Time is meticulously designed and pitch perfect. The aesthetic side of things are incredibly strong; the game is filled with beautifully-animated, cel-shaded style worlds, each with it’s own hilariously-written and quirky side characters. The entire thing is scored with a triumphant and exciting soundtrack that makes you feel ready to set out on an adventure. Protagonist Hat Girl is given a strong personality with almost no dialogue, and is one of my favorite new main characters in the past decade or so. The controls are tight and so much fun to use, which is critical to a platformer that relies on navigating spaces. Few games make simply moving around a level feel so natural and easy.

And while that all is nice, there’s one specific aspect of the design that I’d like to focus on: the construction of the worlds that serve as your digital playgrounds. A Hat in Time makes some interesting choices in how they went about building these stages that I feel like digging into a little, because I think the variety they provide are part of what keeps the game feel so exciting and new at every turn.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

My Favorite Indie Games of 2017

I’ve written a decent amount in 2017 about video games, but mostly about larger titles from bigger companies. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s also not really indicative of a lot of what I played this year, either. And that’s kind of a shame, because a lot of smaller, indie titles rely on good word-of-mouth to get attention. So maybe I’ll write a full article about one or more of these games later, but in the meantime, I wanted to run down a list of the smaller titles that I enjoyed this year. Not all of them came out this year, necessarily, but part of the joy of smaller games is finding something you missed the first time. With that in mind, consider looking into one or more of these if they sound interesting.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Music Monday: Best Music of 2017

Picking my favorite music for a year is a little weird, the more I delve into it. A lot of stuff that I “discovered” this year actually came out last year or earlier. Some of my favorite albums that came out in 2017 include songs that were released in 2016 or even 2015. When you think about it even more, there’s a very good chance that I haven’t even heard my favorite song from 2017 yet. Even if I have, I still might grow a new appreciation for something that I initially brushed off. Drawing up lists like this always involves some degree of arbitrariness.

But I still wanted to do something to mark the end of the year, so I built a list of my favorite songs from this year. I tried to stick to a full rules, though:

1) Songs should be from 2017 when possible. 2016 is okay if I wasn’t aware of the artist until this year, or if the song was released as an early single for a full album that came out in 2017, but try not to go earlier than that.

2) I decided to limit myself to 2 songs from a given artist. If they have two songs on the list, it should either be because the artist had multiple releases this year, or because I really liked the release in question. Generally speaking, I like the larger body of work of every artist here and would recommend listening to more of any of them if you like what I included here, but I didn’t want the list bloating up too much; it’s already nearly 5 hours as is.

Seeing as this list is 80 songs, I’m not going to touch on every single inclusion, but I’ll highlight a few things here and there. With that out of the way, let’s get to it:

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Best Pokémon Missing from Pokkén Tournament DX

I’ve been playing a decent amount of Pokkén Tournament DX for the Switch as of late. Fighting games aren’t always my jam, but I’ve found myself liking it a lot so far, which maybe isn’t surprising given my love for Pokémon as a series. And given that love of Pokémon, I have some opinions on the roster that was chosen for the game. Granted, the roster as it is isn’t bad or anything. At 807 total species in the series, narrowing it down to about 20 is a difficult task, and the 21* that were included in the game do as good a job as any others.

*Well, 19. Two of the characters, Pikachu Libre and Shadow Mewtwo, are variations of other Pokémon already on the roster. So they don’t really widen the total scope of species represented, even if they are unique characters in their own right.

But at the same time…since DX is a port of an earlier game, a part of me hoped it would include a couple of new choices to expand the roster into at least the mid-20s. Instead, we basically just got one new character (plus four others that were in the arcade version but not the Wii U one). It would have been nice to have seen a little more added in to this updated version*

*I didn’t really play the original version all that much, so I feel like I can’t complain too much since it’s all new to me either way. But still.

There’s still hope, of course, in the way of things like downloadable content, but there’s been no news on that front. Given all of that, I assembled a list of my thoughts on the most notable Pokémon omitted from Pokken Tournament DX’s playable roster.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Meet the Robinsons Is Two Clicks Off of Being a Disney Classic

I love Disney movies (that may have been obvious already, not sure), and I love time travel movies (may not be as obvious), so I figured it was long overdo for me to revisit what remains to this day the only film in the Disney Animated Canon to tackle time travel, 2007's Meet the Robinsons.

The movie has kind of been forgotten, which maybe isn't too surprising; it did come out at a rather low point in Disney's history, after all, on the heels of a string of failures in the first few years of the millennium.* But, it came right before the turnaround that lead to the re-invigoration of the studio, where we find it today once again something of a juggernaut, and appropriately enough, contains a lot of very strong points in what's otherwise a solid but occasionally uneven movie.

*I don't feel like getting too into the nitty-gritty of each movie, but I feel like it's pretty safe to say the only unqualified success for the studio in the early 2000s was Lilo and Stitch. And while there were some good movies in that stretch that underperformed, I don't think I'll run into too much resistance in saying that the three films immediately preceding Meet the Robinsons, namely Chicken Little, Home on the Range, and Brother Bear, are all among Disney's weakest feature films.

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.