Sunday, January 22, 2012

Archives: What would I want, Sky?

I think it's the pumpkins. Yeah...yeah, it's definitely the pumpkins. See, in Skyward Sword you can walk up to your village pumpkin patch, thrust your sword into one of those big green veggies, and if you hit it just right it'll stick right there on the end of your blade. I do this, like, every time I walk by the pumpkin patch. Maybe I'll fling my sword forward and turn that pumpkin into a projectile. But I'll probably just walk around with it sticking on the end of my sword. Because it's funny. What kind of kid runs around town with a sword with a pumpkin on it?

That's when I fell in love with this game: when I discovered the pumpkin-stabbing. You kids these days with your Skyrimmers and your Unchartywhatsits! I want a game with whimsicality! With 
pumpkin-stabbing, consarnit! I want a game where colossal, flying sky-whales are summoned with delicious vats of warm soup! I want a game where I go on grand quests to find toilet paper for disembodied bathroom dwellers! Where the village monster is actually a pretty cool man-bat, once you get to know him. Sure, he looks scary, but he just wants a friend.

On second thought, maybe 
that's why I fell in love with this game: because more than anything, Skyward Sword is a game about making friends.Skyloft, the game's central hub world, is a place filled with people with problems. Not the-fate-of-the-world-hanging-in-balance type problems (although Skyward Sword has those), just simple every day stuff. Relatable stuff. A man's work is suffering because he's exhausted from his baby keeping him up at night. A young boy feels self-conscious about his body image. A widow is overwhelmed with the task of cleaning her house, but her over-worked son is too stubborn to let her hire help. These characters don't look as realistic as the ones found in Skyrim or Heavy Rain, and yet they're infinitely more human; not just because their problems relate to ours, but because their cartoon-like expressiveness allows for a range of emotions that motion-capture technology simply can't...well, capture. Despite the game's lack of voice-acting, the characters are more life-like than any I've encountered this year thanks to nothing more than good writing. Because of all this, we want to help these characters cope with their problems. Some of these mini character-driven quests result in rewards. Many don't. Telling the Item Check lady that she looks nice today won't grant you a Heart Piece or an achievement trophy. Our reward is heartwarming dialogue and yes, friendship. In Skyward Sword, we do nice things because it's nice to do them. 

 The best moments in Skyward Sword are indeed the smaller ones, so it's not inappropriate that the game world itself feels, if not exactly small, then at least economic and compact. On third thought, maybe that's why I love the game: its flawless, economic design. As with Super Mario 3D, Skyward Sword showcases a tighter, more focused Nintendo: whereas most franchise games pad the lack of new ideas by simply aiming for "bigger," Nintendo seems intent on cutting the fat. 3D Land dropped any semblence of a hub world for the first time in a 3D Mario game, and didn't bother with the sprawling world maps of Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros. 3, either, which were fun to look at, but kind of mundane to traverse. Similarly, Skyward Sword cuts out the spacious, rolling hills of Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess and opts for the approach that made The Minish Cap and, hey, Metroid Prime so successful: boiling each area down to its essense, and then packing those areas with as many details, puzzles, secrets, characters and most importantly, ideas as technically feasible. Riding Epona through the vast plains of Hyrule in Twilight Princess sure looks nice, but so does an empty gift box; beyond the outer shell, there simply isn't a whole lot there. Compare that with Skyward Sword, where it's hard to walk 10 seconds without finding an enemy to fight, a puzzle to solve, or a treasure chest perched suspiciously out of reach. It's a risky move in a climate where gamers crave experiences like Skyrim--games with endless posibilities, miles upon miles of terrain to explore, thousands of choices to make. Skyward Sword does not boast these things, but boy, it sure feels like it does when you're playing it. And it manages to feel like this because it does what truly great adventure stories do: it ignites our imaginations, creating a world that feels bigger, better, more wonderous, more real than it truly is.

That's the really great thing, here. More than any game in the series since Wind Waker, Skyward captures the sense of excitement and wonder that made the original Zelda such a success. Maybe 
that's why I love this game. The unabashedly bright, impressionist art style isn't quite like anything you've seen in a game before, and neither are the Loftwings, your bird-like forms of transportation, nor the floating village of Skyloft for that matter. Not too long into the game, you'll meet Kikwis, hilariously shy forest-dwelling creatures that look like the unlikely result of penguin-on-pinecone conception. Another wonderful oddity in a game full of such things. Of course to get to said forest you'll have to travel, which is half the fun of the game, really. Traveling typically involves a giddy combination of flight (while you're in the sky), skydiving (to soar beneath the clouds), parachuting (to safely land on the surface) and sprinting (because running real fast is fun). Ah, that sprinting. Only Nintendo could turn something as tired as "the sprint button" into an endless source of puzzle-platforming. 
All this is to say nothing of the game's big sell (and probably why I really love the game): Motion Controls That Work. That's how cynics will word it, anyway. There are plenty of games with motion controls that work. Few, though, work in such a joyous manner. If Skyward Sword can win over those cynics and sceptics, it will leave a legacy as lasting and important as Ocarina of Time. If it doesn' It's still a brilliant game anyway. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that every one of the game's items and gadgets work 100% perfectly 100% of the time, but since when does anything in a 3D game? I can't turn on my PS3 without having to do sixteen updates to fix games that should have worked when I bought them in the first place. That's just the way things are now. What does work to a staggering degree of accuracy is the swordplay, which is pretty much the most important gameplay mechanic to grace us this generation of console gaming. This is our generation's lock-on targeting: it takes a concept that's been kicking around  for the past few years to varying degrees of mediocrity (combat with motion controls this time, instead of combat in a 3D space), and absolutely nails it. Playing this game is an epiphany. Like, "Oh, that's how motion controls should have worked for the past 5 years." Swing the Wii Remote in any of the 8 cardinal directions and Link will do the same. Before long, enemies start to anticipate your swings, and winning a battle involves literally physically outwitting your opponent. Is it 100% full-on 1:1? Not really. Is there ever a moment where the game would be better if it was? Not really. Skyward Sword's simple and flawlessly executed combat will be copied ad naseum for years to come, because it's the only game that ever got it right. Mark my words.

Hey, speaking of words, Nintendo is really mastering those, too. 25 years of utilizing text-only dialogue in your games will do that. The question of whether or not Zelda would be better off with voice acting will be asked even long after Nintendo inevitably start using it, assuming the writing continues to house this much quality. Because the dialogue is written with such life, such personality, a good chunk of the fun comes from imagining what these characters must sound like. You know, the kind of fun you have when reading a book. I imagine the Mogmas--these sheisty, burrowing, mole-like creatues--sound a lot like Bobby Moynahan's "Second-hand news guy" character on SNL, but you might not agree. We can both play the same game, a largely scripted game at that, mostly free of Mass Effect-like decision making, and yet we can have completely different experiences with it simply based on how we interpret the characters. Skyward Sword is linear, sure, but it's somehow more personal than most open world, "decision-driven" games. "Linear" has become a bad word in recent years for some reason. It typically seems to suggest a lack of player agency. Skyward Sword is linear in the sense that your objective is always marked for you and that you won't be doing any dungeons out of order; but 
how you get to that next dungeon, and with what upgrades in your inventory, and with how many heart pieces, and with what side-quests under your belt--that's where the ol' Zelda exploration comes in.


And now I'm just torn because, you know what, I love the game's optimism and sheer whimsicality, too. Twilight Princess worked pretty well as a "dark" Zelda game, but it didn't work as well as Zelda's better "dark" game, Majora's Mask, because it forgot that even in a moody, atmospheric game world, charm, humor, and catharsis beat out straight-up melodrama every time. Skyward Sword has a few dark moments and characters--Ghirahim, the game's antagonist, is creepy beyond all reason--but the moments of moodiness are rare, and used only to highlight a contrast to the largely silly atmosphere of the rest of the game. I think I knew it before, but Skyward brought it to the forefront of my mind: Games are dark these days. As Jon Irwin put it in his Kirby review, "This is the era of Gears and Warfare and Asylums." Heavy Rain wants to see how many disgusting, terrible things you'll do in order to save someone you love. Arkham City features a city full of deranged psychokillers free from the rules of society. Skyward Sword's message? The world is a fun, colorful puzzle to be solved, and we're all heroes, waiting for our moment to save the day. Isn't that nice? Isn't that the kind of game you just want to get wrapped up in on a snowy winter's day, by the warmth of the fireplace, with a few buddies at your side telling you why you suck at dungeons and that you should let them have try?

that's why I love this game.

Archives: This Land is My Land

Rarely am I speechless. Most people who know me would tell you that I talk too much. I talk even (perhaps especially) when there's no one to talk to. If I'm by myself playing a game, I talk. I rant at Nathan Drake when he misses that jump. I read the dialogue boxes in Zelda out loud, giving each character a different, silly voice. I provided sarcastic commentary throughout my playthrough of Heavy Rain. I don't do this because I'm crazy, I don't think (the latter example was actually a means of keeping my sanity). I think a part of me does it because I find it entertaining. Mostly though, I suspect that I find that I do it because the games, typically, just don't have anything to say. So I do all the talking instead.

It came to my surprise then, that, save for one instance, my playthrough of Super Mario 3D Land was entirely silent. That one instance occurred a few minutes into the first level of the game—the effectiveness of stereoscopic 3D had sunk in, the brilliance of the decision to reintroduce the “run” button into a 3D Mario game was becoming increasingly evident. I said, to no one, “this game is amazing.” After that there was nothing more that needed to be said.

Which is to say, Super Mario 3D Land is an awe-inspiring game, built to surprise us, enthrall us, and entertain us in a way that only video games can. You will find no narrative in Super Mario 3D Land, only an objective: save the princess. Our motivations for carrying out our objective are not character driven or story driven, because Nintendo knows that other mediums would be able to do that better. Film has had over a hundred-year head start; literature, thousands. But Nintendo understands the language of games perhaps better than anyone, and they know how to motivate their players: with fun; excitement; peril; danger; challenge; wonder. They evoke these emotions through a superlative mastery and of both 2D and 3D level design—which have been synthesized here to the point of almost creating a new genre—and player control. Whether they play for a few minutes, or hours on end, players will feel a cathartic, almost symbiotic relationship with Mario, simply because controlling him is so tactile and satisfying. The way the Italian plumber controls surpasses anything we've seen in the 15 years since Mario 64 first introduced the concept of analogue control for a 3D platformer. Playing with Mario recalls playing with Hot Wheels cars on a smooth surface as a child: the cars seem bigger, realer and more wonderful than they really are because you feel that you're in complete control over them. For me, the kid in me at least, playing with Hot Wheels cars will always be more fun than driving a real car, because the sense of danger is purely fictional. If my Hot Wheel falls off a table, I merely have to pick it back up again. And so Nintendo gives us plenty of lives in Super Mario 3D Land, not to make the game easier, but to make it more fun. Even though I had 63 in the bank by the end of my adventure, I still couldn't help but smile whenever one of those little green mushrooms popped up. 

More importantly, Super Mario 3D Land entertains us in ways that only the 3DS can. Some people will not “get” the 3D. The effect will be described as something along the lines of “merely a visual flourish” to cynics, 3D detractors, or people that simply aren't paying attention. And you really do have to pay attention: SM3DL is so convincing in its argument for the value of stereoscopic 3D that you might not even realize it's making an argument in the first place. Its execution is so fully realized and immediately convincing that we don't even think to marvel at it, because for all its magic, it is never intrusive. From Level 1-1 the game presents us with pitch-perfect platforming and revolutionary visuals; every level after that is simply meeting expectations.

Back to the difficulty: 3D Land struck me as an easy game for the majority of the adventure. Then I hit a certain point (world 3 I think it was) where I realized that it was becoming routine for me to lose 5 to 10 lives per level. And with this realization, I found out a little something about myself: until this point, I had always equated a platformer's challenge to the amount of frustration it caused. I lost more lives than I'd care to count on my road to Bowser's Castle, yet I never once went on a cursing rant, threw my 3DS across the room or snapped it shut in anger. There are several reasons for this. First of all, thanks to the stereoscopic 3D, the real distances between objects are now so well defined that the challenge paradigm completely shifts to pure timing and mastery of the jump mechanics. Not once did I die because I incorrectly perceived the distance between two platforms—if I died, it was because I mistimed a long-jump, or got a little greedy with my Propeller Block.

Every 3D Mario game since Super Mario Sunshine has sought to accentuate a certain aspect of platforming and build an entire game around it: for Sunshine, it was physics; for Galaxies 1 and 2, it was gravity; 3D Land takes on a significantly trickier subject—depth perception—yet executes it no less eloquently. To play Mario 3D Land with the 3D turned off is to play an average Mario game. It would be like playing Uncharted 3 on a grainy, standard definition television. HD is Uncharted's bread and butter: without its astonishingly realized and exhaustively detailed characters and environments, Uncharted is reduced to decent platforming, average shooting-mechanics, and rudimentary puzzle-solving. 3D Land holds up better than this with the 3D off, but the point remains: unless you're physically unable to view the 3D, you'd be doing yourself a disservice to turn down that slider. Unlike films, which lose color, brightness and picture clarity with 3D glasses, Super Mario 3D Land's glasses-less 3D visuals become more vibrant, more colorful, more clear the higher the 3D setting. Even more than Ocarina of Time 3D, playing 3D Land is like holding a miniature world in your hands—the smaller, more focused, more enclosed level designs often made it feel like I was gazing into an elaborate shoebox diorama. Neat.

All of this, by the way, came as a complete surprise to me. I went into the game expecting an average Mario game—which is to say, I expected a great game, but not a fantastic one. I got a fantastic one. What's more, I got one that proves beyond a doubt stereoscopic 3D is not just a visual gimmick: it is an invaluable tool, and in its best moments, a giddily clever gameplay mechanic. I said all this without even mentioning the camera: like the 2D Marios, the camera is not something that's controlled by the player, except for the occasional and brief nudge up or down; and like the 2D Mario games, you'd rarely even think to move it. In every moment, Nintendo has positioned the camera in such a way that not only are you playing at the most helpful angle, but also the most clever.

Along with Portal 2 and Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP, Super Mario 3D Land immediately plants itself as one of the most endlessly clever (there's a word I keep coming back to), lovingly designed, and artistically gorgeous games of the year. By passionately embracing their influences, these games serve as both a comprehensive history of over 25 years of game design while also paving the way for games to come. So Super Mario Land 3D is a perfect Mario game, and yet, so was Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Super Mario Galaxy 2. Coming from a company that is constantly ridiculed for being stuck in the past, I find myself in awe at Nintendo's ability to take me to exciting new places. New worlds. New lands.

In fact I think I'll go there right now.

Archives: The Beautiful, Baffling Bat

There's a great scene toward the end of Lost (a show which Arkham City cleverly references several times throughout the game) where Hurley tries to explain to his mother everything that happened in the five seasons leading up to this point. Now, Hurley is a sweet guy but he's easily flustered, and, not surprisingly to us, he stumbles through his explanation. The look on his face as he realizes just how crazy his exasperated recap sounds is priceless, and hilarious: yet we're not laughing at Hurley. We're laughing because we've been there before. When you get hooked on Lost, you get hooked on Lost, and at some point you feel the need to explain this show to someone else, not just because it becomes an obsession, but because it begs to be talked about. And if you've tried to explain the story to someone who has no attachment to the show, chances are you ended up sounding ridiculous. Just like Hurley did when explaining his island adventures to his mother in Season 5. What makes this particular scene so great though, is that immediately following Hurley's rambling confession, his mother looks at him straight in the eye and says: “I believe you. I don't understand you; but I believe you.”

Trying to explain what makes Batman: Arkham City so obsessively playable can feel a lot like that.

“So you're stuck in this city, right? And it's this city where 
all the bad guys in Gotham are locked up. Because Gotham is, like, a Police State now or something. Anyway, you get captured—Bruce Wayne, that is—and apparently the main villain, Hugo Strange, totally knows that you're Batman! Oh yeah, Bruce Wayne is Batman, by the way. So it's a big deal that he knows that. Anyway he—how? I don't know, he just knows, dude. Okay listen: so at the end of the last game—oh right, there's also this game called Arkham Asylum where the Joker buffs himself up with this drug called Venom, right? Well the Joker still has the Venom stuff in his body and it's killing him and—no, dude, he's not buff anymore. I don't know, you...look, it makes sense if you play Arkham Asylum. So anyway he infects Batman with this Venom, too! So you have to like, work together in a weird way to get this cure otherwise you'll both die. And then you meet the Penguin!...actually I was never really clear on why he came into the picture...and then you meet this guy who takes you to this place with this trippy stuff that makes everything look weird, but you have to meet this guy because you're dying know, I didn't really understand that part either. So anyway...”

You get the idea. There's a lot of moving parts to this story in Arkham City, and if you're forced to take a step back from it, you realize that it doesn't all fit together as well as you think it does when you're playing it. In fact often, quite frankly, the storytelling is downright sloppy. Especially when compared to its refreshingly tight predecessor.  

For me though, these issues of sloppy storytelling—often major issues, at that—almost never crossed my mind when I was actually playing the game; somehow, Rocksteady studios has crafted a story that feels great, even if in reality it's merely good. Did I fully understand my motivation for going to the Iceberg Lounge and confronting the Penguin? Not really, come to think of it. But did it feel completely amazing when the Penguin unleashed 40 of his cohorts on me and I took them down without taking a single hit? Was I blown away by Nolan North's raspy, cackling performance as the Penguin? On that note: was I blown away when I found out that the guy playing the Penguin was not a sophisticated Brit, but Nolan North? Yes, yes and double yes.

Here is a game that feels urgent even when it isn't. I didn't do a single side mission on my way through the story (resulting in a paltry 23% completion by the time those haunting credits rolled), not because they weren't enticing, or because there weren't enough of them--trust me, there's tons--but because the scene where I wake up and the Joker is transfusing his infected blood into my body was so shocking and diabolical, that I felt that I simply must stop him at all costs. And that's the truth. Most open world games suffer from a distinct lack of motivation: Rockstar, for example, creates worlds that are so dense and fun to explore that the story missions often feel like punishing diversions. Why follow Rockstar's structure when you could beat your own path? Rocksteady, on the other hand, has created a dense world that's fun to explore—but not one that felt significantly more fun than its story. That's an incredible accomplishment.

Which is not to say the story's misgivings are entirely dismissible simply because it's fun and compelling. A question: what was all that Wonder City business about? I'd be lying if I told you I understood a single second of that mission, in hindsight. There was a really cool gate that opened in dramatic fashion, I recall, but wasn't that just a hallucination or something? Oh, and there were some robots whose memory chips I hacked...but why? I'm told some of these things can be cleared up if I go through the menu and read the backstory on these places, but is a game's story really succeeding if major plot points have to be explained via menu screens? I only recently starting reading the comics: am I really expected to buy that Thalia Al-ghul is the love of Bruce's life, and he'd do anything to save her, just because the game told me this was the case?

Indeed, this is the major shortcoming of Arkham City: it often assumes far too much knowledge of the source material. Deep knowledge. If you're a newcomer to the Batman comic universe, perhaps introduced to the comics by the wonderfully-handled reboot of the series this past September, you'll probably understand the relationship between Batman and Dick Grayson/Nightwing/Robin. But will you have intimate knowledge of the significance of R'as Al-ghul and the Lazarus Pit? Probably not, and that's a shame, because it's of massive importance to the story, and little explanation is given beyond, yes, menu screens. 
This is a somewhat shocking problem, given that the game's predecessor, Arkham Asylum, was so great at familiarizing players with this potentially-intimidating universe with a 65 year history. When Arkham City does borrow storytelling devices from its prequel, it's often for the wrong reasons. The Lazarus Pit and Mad Hatter sequences, where Batman is forced to follow R'as Al-Ghul or The Mad Hatter down the figurative Rabbit Hole, are obviously trying to replicate the abstract, creepy mind-trips of Arkham Asylum's Scarecrow sections. But the Scarecrow sections were used not "just" to creep us out, but to teach newcomers to the Batman universe about Bruce Wayne's haunted past firsthand. Players might not have known going into the game that Bruce's parents were murdered when he was a kid, but they walked out of the game not only knowing that major piece of backstory, but understanding the effects it had on the character psychologically. In Arkham City, we learn nothing from the "trippy" sequences. They are merely spectacle.

And yet Arkham City is a shoo-in for critics and gamers' Game of the Year shortlists. As well it should be. I've said all this without even speaking of the gameplay, which features, by a wide stretch, both the best combat and stealth of this generation thus far. I didn't even mention Mark Hamill's stunning performance as the Joker. I didn't even talk about that ending. My goodness, that ending. I'm not sure if it was a good one, but I'm still thinking about it. Heck, the creditsfollowing the ending--they gave me more chills than any Rated T superhero game probably has the right to do. Batman Arkham City is a great game with, glaring storytelling problems and all, an undeniably compelling narrative. I know, I know.You might not understand me. But you've got to believe me.

Archives: Mylo Xyloto: Coldplay's Finest, Critics' Worst

It is a testament to the cynicism of the music scene that Coldplay has become one of the most hated bands of the decade. Not by the lowly fans of course—what do they know about “real” music anyway?—but by critics. Bloggers. Columnists with “refined” musical taste. And if they're not being hated or being called “the most insufferable band of the decade,” they're at the very least being ignored. Joe Tagnari in 2005 wrote for Pitchfork: “It may be pointless to hate them, but...they've almost certainly become the easiest band on the planet to be completely indifferent to.”

Mylo Xyloto, the band's latest album, will likely sway few of the band's detractors. Most critics will give the latest Coldplay album a listen or two, write it off as a collection of pop songs will a lot of "WHOOA-OOH-OH!" choruses, give it a 6/10 if they're in a good mood, and get on with their lives. And this is a very sad thing indeed, because Coldplay 
is a band that demands our attention, and Mylo Xyloto is an album that deserves more than just a couple casual listens. Once an artist has been around for over a decade and released 50 million albums, they're no longer an ignorable fad. They are no longer "that band that did 'Yellow'". They are an institution.

Disclaimer: I say this not as a drooling Coldplay fanboy, but merely as someone completely baffled with the "meh" attitude toward their latest release; it is, by all accounts, (and of course in my very humble opinion) their strongest album to date. Parachutes is pretty, but songs like High Speed and We Never Change are what got the band their “Radiohead lite” monicker in the first place. A Rush of Blood to the Head is great, but its inclusion of weak tracks like A Whisper and Warning Sign are strange considering the strength of the era's b-sides. And X&Y is...well we'll get to that later. If Viva la Vida was an attempt to fully realize the band's more artistic inclinations, their desires to make something that constituted "serious listening," Mylo Xyloto attempts to realize the other side of the band's collective persona: the side that wants to write massive, huggable, stadium-ready anthems with choruses that beg to be screamed by thousands at the top of their lungs. And if an album's success is attributed to how well the band behind it accomplishes their goal then Mylo Xyloto is a triumph.

After listening to this record almost exclusively for about a week now, a few things surprise me: the foremost being, 
I've been listening to this record almost almost exclusively for over a week? Why aren't I more excited about popping in that new M83 album, or revisiting the criminally under-rated Era Extrana? The answer, of course, is that this album is surprisingly addicting for what upon first listen appears to be nothing more than a collection of pop songs. More surprising, though, is how well these pop songs benefit from the album format. As a single Paradise is decent, but as the-song-that-comes-after-Hurts Like Heaven, it's a haunting, almost revelatory track. Taken on its own U.F.O. seems like nothing more than a pretty bone thrown at the Parachutes/Rush of Blood fans who have become disillusioned with the band's more colorful, enthusiastic new image; but on the album, it's a stunning and unexpected lead-in to the shockingly-not-terrible Princess of China, with features echoing synths, hip hop beats and Rihanna.

If the critics seem to have one thing right, it's that Chris Martin's lyrics are often far too simplistic for their own good. Or are they? With Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, Martin proved he could write genuinely great lyrics if he set his mind to it. Which means that he 
chose to include lines like “Don't wanna see another generation drop/I'd rather be a comma than a full stop,” when he could have written something far less silly. Which means that, hey, maybe he wanted these lyrics to be silly. After all, that “generation drop” lyric occurs in the album's silliest song (which includes lines like: A WA-WA-WA-WA-WA-A-TER-FALL!”), and after all, Chris Martin is a pretty silly guy—and one that's not afraid to take a few jabs at his larger-than-life persona (see: Extras, The Colbert Report). I've seen a lot of people posting comments on music forums along the lines of “Does Chris really expect us to take these lyrics seriously?” I think the answer is: no.

This silliness is important, and it's what sets the album apart from the band's 
other stadium-centric album, X&Y. The problem with X&Y wasn't that the songs weren't catchy—it was that they often lacked sincerity, and the band simply wasn't (and still isn't) good enough at creating “dark” music to get away with such a constantly morose record. Mylo Xyloto doesn't have a dark track on it, and as a result it comes across as a much better reflection of who the people in this band actually are: funny, upbeat, relentlessly enthusiastic, occasionally awkward, but mostly, charming.

Coldplay are no longer Mope Rock. Heck, they're no longer 
rock. They're a pop band now, and they're probably the best in the world. 

Archives: Mario in the Uncanny Valley

It's funny how the presence of a pig can totally shatter one's perception of the universe.

...Okay maybe I should back up. I've been playing (for the first time, mind you) Super Mario Land 2, an old Gameboy title which was released on the 3DS eShop a couple days ago, and, much like the first Super Mario Land, there's something I find just ever so slightly off about it. Maybe even moreso than its predecessor.

The first Mario Land game (which is also on the eShop) actually finds a lot of its unique appeal in its ever-so-slightly-off-yness. It plays with our expectations and uses them against us, often to its own advantage--Koopa shells turn into bombs when stomped instead of becoming a useful projectile; the game doesn't offer the usual brief pause when you acquire a power-up; the angle of your fireball doesn't quite match up with that of the NES games. These little touches are kind of clever in that they add subtle, yet nonetheless game-changing tweaks to the established Mario formula that force us to actually learn new skills, or at least ignore ones that worked the last time around. It uses its nostalgia as a weapon, which is a pretty interesting concept.

Super Mario Land 2, however, just feels wrong. Despite the ocassional koopa and goomba (and of course, the fact that you play as Mario) at no point did I ever really feel like I was playing a Mario game. Which is rather confounding when you think about it, since this sequel is generally praised as being a vast improvement over its predecessor.

To the game's credit, it does make some minor improvements. The physics are more akin to those found in Mario's more famous adventures, for example; the visuals are much more crisp and it's nice that the game takes more than 30 minutes to beat. And yet I found myself sincerely struggling to find a single thing I genuinely 
liked about the experience.

Maybe it's because my mind wouldn't let me.

When we play a game like Heavy Rain, we often get the Uncanny Valley effect--the faces on display look just unrealistic enough that it actually causes revulsion. It's the tiny details that cause the problem. Maybe the lips don't quiver enough, or the cheek muscles don't quite synch up with the mouth muscles when the character is talking, or the eyes blink too infrequently. Whatever it may be, these little abnormalities stick out to us, make us squint in discomfort and make it difficult for us to empathize with the character on display.

Playing Super Mario Land 2 feels kind of like that. The little abnormalities conflict with my mind's pre-existing criterion for what makes a Mario game "feel" like a Mario game, and as a result, I can't quite accept it.

For one thing, the Mario we've come to know lives in a world of its own mythology and rules. Sure, the Mushroom Kingdom has mushrooms and turtles, but they don't act like our mushrooms and turtles. In the Mushroom Kingdom, they're not only anthropomorphic, but they have a surface area the same exact width of our feet so that we may easily stomp upon them and use them to our advantage. Enemies are slight variations of real-world creatures, objects and simple shapes.

The story of the The Three Little Pigs has no place in the Mario universe. Pigs have no place in the Mario universe, especially not pigs that look like every other cartoon Bob Clampet-esque pig you've ever seen. Witches have no place in the Mario universe. That's what we have Magikoopas for. 25 years worth of Mario games have taught me that the only humanoid characters in the Mario universe are Mario, Luigi and Peach. Everyone knows this. My brain instinctively rejects anything contrary, just as it is subconsciously irritated by the vast array of ugly enemies that are either slightly too big or slightly too small for my little feet to jump on comfortably. And why is this Goomba bigger than this Koopa? Shouldn't it be the other way around? And why is this ant-creature so bulgy-eyed and well drawn, whereas the koopa looks flat and pixely? And what's this deranged fish-cow hybrid thing that swims around in pools of floating jello? Why does it exist, if not to repulse my established understanding of what a Mario enemy is supposed to look like?

“But Jacob,” you say, “this game is charming 
because of its differences.” Well, fictitious person of my own devising, I must sincerely disagree. Mario has had “black-sheep” outings prior to and since Super Mario Land 2 and I've enjoyed all of them. Super Mario Bros. 2, for example, or Super Mario Sunshine. What makes these games successful is that their differences are made known within the opening minutes or even seconds of play. As soon as you encounter your first enemy in Super Mario Bros. 2, it's obvious that the ol' “jump-on-the-enemy's-head” trick just doesn't work, just as Super Mario Sunshine makes it clear that you're going to need to use the wonders of jet-propulsion if you're going to clear that first gap in Bianca Hills. 
Super Mario Land 2's differences do not fundamentally alter gameplay. They change it aesthetically just enough to make it feel wrong. It does not feel like a singular artistic vision; the enemies and worlds all look like they were drawn by different artists for different games, and then mish-mashed together with a few Mario tropes. Not long after Super Mario Land 2 was released we would have a term for these Mario Games That Don't Feel Like Mario Games: “Wario Games.”


One time someone said something about one life ending and another beginning. Or something. I don't know who. I wasn't there. But there's one thing I do know: my old blog, 3-Up Moon, is officially dead. I think it died from a lack of anyone caring it existed. That can happen, you know; that's what happened to [snarky pop culture reference]. Also, it died because I did something stupid. But let's blame the lack of readership.

Anyway, now I've got a new blog, and it's got a cool "indie" name, too. I really want that glasses crowd. Not the nerd-glasses crowd; the hipster kind of glasses that the cool people who work at Starbucks wear while they're listening to Deerhunter. You know, like the big ones that Spongebob wears when he goes jellyfishing? Those glasses.

 But after I get all those sentient pairs of glasses to read my blog, hopefully maybe some people will, too. Maybe even the people reading it would be wearing glasses! That'd be pretty harmonious and meaningful don't you think?

Throughout the month I'll be reposting the stuff from my old blog (Why shouldn't I? It's not like you read them the first time around) along with new stuff. Expect more mildly thoughtful, rambling posts that have little to do with sequences or breaking; posts that are hopefully a whole lot less snarky than this post. This one's pretty snarky isn't it? I mean, I actually like Deerhunter. That wasn't a fair jab. Also, expect more unfair jabs.

If you enjoy what you read here, you could even tell your friends about it. Even if you don't like it; perhaps especially if you don't like it. Talking with friends about sucky blogs while adjusting your jellyfishing glasses? That's gotta be worth like 8000 indie creds!

Well that got off topic. But that sort of thing happens at the Sequence Breaker Blog.