Friday, September 28, 2012

3 Perspectives on the 3DS

Between starting a new job (!), buying a new place (!!), moving and wedding planning, it's been a busy couple months. I've still found time to break in my shiny new red 3DS though. I've played three games on it and they provide three different perspectives on the console. Together, they give you a pretty good idea of what the system is capable of and where it falls short.

Does classic Mario ever get old? Nintendo hopes not.

New Super Mario Bros. 2The 3DS as Your Classic Nintendo Fix
NSMB2 could more accurately be titled Super Mario Bros 3: Coin Frenzy Remix. The levels themselves are new, but aside from an increased emphasis on collecting coins and a few associated power ups, everything about this game was boosted from Super Mario Bros 3. Raccoon Tail powerups are back. The Koopa Kids are back. Those odd little abstract platforms are back. Fortunately, the Mega Mushrooms from the first New Super Mario Bros also make a comeback, but with diminished prominence. For some reason, Nintendo got the idea that what gamers really want is collecting more coins. You can get a gold coin block head that gives you extra coins as you run, a gold fire flower that gives you extra coins as you waste enemies, etc. Supposedly there is local multiplayer, but they need the game too, so in America where owning a DS is a niche choice and not a nationwide requirement, you're batting against long odds.

That said, NSMB2 offers hours of  fun.  Super Mario Bros 3 was, proverbially speaking "Fuckin' Rad" and returning to those roots was a smart move. The coin collection gimmick is weak, but with a proposed goal of one million coins, it offers players an absurd goal they can return to ad infinitum. You can hack away at it  on a plane ride, or a commute, or while just waiting for the office meeting to start. Could they have taken more risks? Yes. Should they have? I'll say yes, because I am an incredibly entitled video gamer who has been desensitized by thousands of hours of play, but the original Mario Bros. was brilliant and it still is.

So this is one perspective on the 3DS: it is a system that will give you the fine, family friendly and conceptually familiar gaming experiences you have come to expect of Nintendo.

Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight, For the greatest tragedy of them all 
Is never to feel the burning light

Kid Icarus: UprisingThe 3DS as a Tragic Mess
Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame summed up Kid Icarus: Uprising as "A shit game for twats." Frankly, that sounds a hell of more like DOTA and DOTA2 to me, but there is no denying the fact that Uprising is painfully flawed. It literally physically hurts you when you play it, like the original Mario Party did with is awful joystick rotation minigames. But unlike Mario Party, Uprising does not establish an entire new genre while doing so. It's a hybrid rail shooter slash simplisitic 3D adventure game. It has the potential to be awesome, the potential to fill the void of a truly awesome rail shooter, the likes of which has yet to be eclipsed by Star Fox 64 and Panzer Dragoon Orta, but the control scheme is so utterly asinine that it will cause your hands to cramp up. The developers were so aware of the problem that they shipped the game with a support stand, depriving this hand held console of its primary asset.

The complaints have been so pervasive that Masahiro Sakurai, father of both the Kirby and Super Smash Bros. franchises has borrowed a move from Apple's playbook and essentially said that people are playing it wrong.  Now, I totally believe that there are wrong ways to go about playing games. If you deliberately try to elbow people in the groin during a Football game (either European or American), you are playing the game wrong. But if the game's rules permit you and encourage you to engage in a specific type of behavior, and you can do it wrong, that is a problem stemming from bad game design.

As much as I want to knee Sakurai in the neck for his assertion that stylus control could ever surpass joystick control for shooting, it really isn't his fault. The control problems stem from the hardware. You see, some genius (read: Moron/Asshole) decided that the 3DS should have one analog stick, even though that shortcoming hamstrung both the original DS and the original PSP. Attention game designers: Henceforth, every dedicated gaming machine that is not a PC should come equipped with 2 joysticks. We gamers are accustomed to them and you game developers really do need them.

So Uprising and the 3DS console, much like the mythological Icarus and Daedalus,  suffer from a tragic, fatal, hubris: the idea that stylus control could compensate for the lack of dual analog sticks. Worse yet, even if you buy the Circle Pad Pro attachment that was made to address this problem, it doesn't make a bit of damn difference; it came too late in the day for the designer's to incorporate it.

It's a shame too. Because the game really has promise. The localization is quirky and weird but at times legitimately funny, the shooting works well (for those few scant minutes that your hand can put up with it), and it has a robust randomized weapon collection system. The game is also chock full of extras like sound play modes, 3D model viewers and the like.

I do like the fact that the system, and Nintendo were willing to take a risk, but the lack of dual analogs really is an inexcusable design flaw, and one that will haunt the platform until it is obsolesced.

Of the 3 games I have played on the 3DS, this one gives me the most hope.

Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance: A Promise of Things to Come
I realize the Final Fantasy/Disney Mashup has a niche audience, but this game really has left me hopeful. The last Kingdom Heart's game I played was Kingdom Hearts 2 and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The gameplay feels much more vibrant, and virile than classic turn or tactics based RPGs. I do strain against the forced Disney cheerfulness, but the premise of traveling between disparate realities, with a decidedly Square-Enix aesthetic has an undeniable draw. 

Despite my former gripes, Dream Drop Distance proves that the 3DS is capable of rendering 3D worlds in the absence of dual analog camera controls in an accessible, if archaic way. I haven't spent much time with the game, but the return of Riku and Sora as protagonists is appealing (I decided to pass on both the prequel, the two side-stories). 

Truth be told, I am not very far into the game, so I do not have much to contribute as far as the game's borderline unintelligible story has to go, but I am a fan of the Dream Eater monster-collecting element. Call it a hold-over from Pokemon, but I love games that let me collect and combine things (monsters, abilities, and to a lesser extent, equipment) in a variety of ways.

The voice acting is top notch, the graphics are clean, and the game sports cameo's from The World Ends with You characters, sustaining my vain but desperate hope that that title will one day receive the sequel it needs. I need. The world needs.

The game is so rich with systems that there is plenty of depth to be had, even if you try to button-mash your way through. A small, confused part of me wishes that I could complain about, or object to the ridiculous number of game systems that are involved with Dream Drop Distance. The rest of me realizes, this is truly the stuff that games are made out of, and as long as their is some semblance of balance and coherence, I couldn't be happier.

You may have noticed in my 3 perspectives on the game that I have not once mentioned the 3DS' 3D feature. This is no accident: said feature is best ignored. In Mario, it provides a negligible difference to the 2-dimensional platforming experience. In Kid Icarus it induces headaches in addition to hand aches. In Dream Drop Distance, it almost works, but not well enough to keep me from turning it off most of the time. To be honest, the 3D aspect of the 3DS is its weakest feature, save for the criminal lack of a second analog stick.My fingers are crossed for another Metroid-vania style game, and if such a title manifests, you can be sure to check back here for a full report. In the mean time, I am withholding judgement on the 3DS until something truly earth-shattering emerges.

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