Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars – Part Mario, Part RPG, Entirely Epic.

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The Mario RPG games – Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario, respectively – are some of the most prolific and successful franchises in Nintendo canon, responsible for many of the most memorable and well-loved characters and moments in the Mario Bros. universe. However, before the X-Nauts and Sergeant Guy, and before Koops and Fawful, there were Geno and Mallow, Frogfucius and Boomer, and there was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars on SNES.

A collaboration between Square and Nintendo, Mario RPG brought together the traditional turn-based, menu-driven combat system and leveling-up through earning experience points that Square helped familiarize us with in RPGs like Final Fantasy, with the extremely quirky, colorful world of the Mushroom Kingdom. Unlike previous Mario games that played as side-scrolling platformers with very little dialogue and a basic storyline, Mario RPG threw players into a rich, complex plot that starts as the Bowser-steals-Peach routine (which gets poked fun at by Toads who voice exasperation at the princess being captured “AGAIN”) but explodes into so much more.

In the midst of Mario’s umpteenth rescue of Peach and trouncing of Bowser – not to mention an extremely creative opening sequence that puts you immediately into battle – a giant sword comes crashing downwards into Bowser’s Keep, causing an earthquake that sends Mario flying all the way back to his humble home (aptly named “Pipe House”) and separates Mario and Peach yet again right before they’re reunited. When Mario attempts to make his way back into Bowser’s Keep, the giant sword, Exor, who exclaims that he is part of “Smithy’s Gang”, destroys the bridge allowing access into it. Thus begins Mario’s epic RPG quest to rescue Peach not from Bowser, but from an entirely new enemy.

The game’s isometric perspective and highly-animated 3D character models were state-of-the-art and visually impressive in 1996, pushing the SNES’ graphical capabilities to its utmost potential. In today’s video game industry driven by the need for photorealism and hyper-detailed worlds, Mario RPG is a breath of fresh air, despite being 18 years old, because of its whimsical mix of the fantastical lands of the Mushroom Kingdom with a dash of 3D rendering, detailed environments, vibrant colors, and an art style blending elements of realism with the stylized look of the Mario universe. Coupled with one of the best and strongest soundtracks in any Mario game to date, Mario RPG shone brightly because of the radically different audio and visuals it chose to adopt to separate itself from previous entries in the Mario Bros. series. The RPG genre works well with Mario, and the battle and menu system is extremely easy to pick and understand: in battle you can attack with whatever weapons you have equipped, with special offensive and defensive moves your party members learn upon leveling up (which require “FP” or “Flower Points” to use), or you can use various items from your inventory. One of the most enjoyable parts about Mario RPG is collecting equipment to strengthen your party members and discovering the ones that appeal most to you, like Mario’s giant Lazy Shell, Bowser’s Spiked Link, or Peach’s Frying Pan (a weapon that would become so iconic for her that it would be one of the random items she uses in her B-button smash attack in the Smash Bros. series). 

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These gameplay elements, previously unknown to the Mario Bros. franchise, felt not like clunky, tacked-on additions, but rather were wonderfully executed, creating a smooth combat system that was easy to navigate and interactive for the player; pressing the attack button at the right moment would cause extra damage against enemies while pressing it as soon as an enemy attacked you would reduce the amount of damage you took. This prevented the game from being a standard turn-based RPG that involved little more than selecting a command and calculating damage; the combat animations of each character’s attacks also kept things visually interesting. 

While Mario games are no strangers to introducing new characters, the sheer amount of personalities encountered in Mario RPG would set the stage for the types of colorful individuals that would be introduced in the later RPG games. From your first run-in with Mallow, the tadpole who doesn’t look like he’s a tadpole because (spoiler alert) he’s actually a cloud who also happens to be prince of Nimbus Land,  to being united with Geno, the spirit of the warrior from Star Road that possess the body of a doll, whose real name is a series of unpronouncable characters and who serves a “higher authority,” Mario RPG creates a true level of depth within the heroes and villains alike that populate the game. It’s also the earliest example of Mario and Bowser working together rather than fighting, as well as players being able to take control of Mario’s antagonist; though Peach was first playable in Super Mario Bros. 2, it really is pretty epic when you finally have all three characters on your team, working together to fight an evil too great for them to not put their differences aside for a greater good. While on the subject of evil, one can’t forget the outlandish and outrageous enemies that you can’t help but laugh at and despise all at once, along with the formidable and familiar: the Axem Rangers, a clear parody of the Power Rangers but a lot less competent of a team; Booster, the jilted lover with delusions of marrying Peach and whose friends have a gambling problem; Valentina, who might be the first example of a character featuring a “jiggle animation” in a Nintendo game; Jinx, the extremely skilled, extremely serious, and extremely small ninja that will probably require two tries to take down; Culex, Square’s epic-but-creepy homage to their beloved Final Fantasyseries tucked away in Monstro Town; and even Birdo, the androgynous frenemy we’ve all come to love and be very confused by.

Battle with Culex, Square's homage to Final Fantasy within the game.

Battle with Culex, Square’s homage to Final Fantasy within the game.

And we can’t forget the cameos by other familiar Nintendo faces, like Link taking a snooze in the inn in Rosetown and hearing the Zelda “secret” jingle when you attempt to wake him, or Samus “resting up for Mother Brain” in the guest room of the castle of the Mushroom Kingdom, and even stumbling upon Yoshi and his friends on Yo’ster Island (though, sadly, he doesn’t join your party).

Samus snoozing in the guest room of the castle - just one of many Nintendo cameos.

Samus snoozing in the guest room of the castle – just one of many Nintendo cameos.

I had initially thought that Mario RPG was perhaps longer than it really was because the majority of my memories of it are from my elementary school days, but it is, in fact, a very long game that is worth every second you put into it. From journeying to save the Mushroom Kingdom from Smithy and his minions, to leveling up and customizing your party, to experiencing the witty writing and genuinely funny humor, the adventure avoids being the grind that a lot of RPGs end up becoming towards the latter half of the game, and by the end you’ve grown emotionally involved and truly care about everyone you’ve spent so much time with. 

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is truly a game of epic proportions with the perfect balance of Nintendo charm and Square story-telling and gameplay that would open up the doors for further exploration into the melding of Mario and the RPG genre in the years to come. Wonderfully unique characters, a deeper storyline, an entirely different genre, and superb audio and visuals would make this spinoff one of the most iconic entries in the Mario series and one of the best games in the SNES library. 

Mario Comes Out Swingin’ in Mario Golf: World Tour

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It’s been quite a while since Nintendo revisited the world of Mario Golf, with the last iteration of the series having been Mario Golf: Advance Tour on GBA, but Mario and company are back for another 18 holes in the franchise’s latest addition, Mario Golf: World Tour. This time around we find not so much of the RPG elements featured in the previous handheld installments, but rather a larger focus on mastering each of the game’s three main courses to go head-to-head against the reigning world champ himself, Mario.

As your Mii, you find yourself as a newbie player within Princess Peach’s Castle Club, becoming acclimated to the world of professional golf (or as professional as it gets in the Mushroom Kingdom). After establishing your handicap and entering a handicap tournament, you can then begin participating in the three main 18-hole courses the game starts you off with: the Forest, Seaside, and Mountain Courses, which all have their own characteristics and hazards. The Forest Course is the easiest, with gentle winds and occasional sand patches, while in the Seaside Course you must contend with high winds and water traps, and in the Mountain Course you have to prepare yourself for steep slopes and obstacles. The CPU is extremely competitive and relentless in tournaments; during the Forest Course Tournament I completed with a -9.4 but Peach still managed to beat me out for first with a score of -10, so you always have to be on your toes and make every shot count.

In order to do so, Mario Golf: World Tour actually makes you take wind conditions, club selection, shot power, and tricks played on the ball into consideration– simply timing your shots by pressing A at the right moment won’t be enough for you to take first place. Manual shots allow for adding spins to your ball, and adjusting the camera to an overhead view helps you line up your shot where you need it to go. While the camera on the fairway is excellent and invaluable, the camera when putting was extremely frustrating, focused too close behind your Mii and never really adjusting properly between the three available angles to line up your putt correctly. There were too many instances of angling your shot just right, timing your putt exactly, and still winding up at the very cusp of the hole and having your ball stop, always conveniently during a potential birdie shot. Also irritating was your Mii’s voice, particularly the female voice– every two seconds there was some outburst from my character that made me want to eliminate her voice completely, especially considering the soundtrack is very pleasant to listen to while golfing. But other than those minor annoyances, golfing feels great overall; I found myself playing for extended periods of time every gaming session, and improving my handicap after every course became addicting.

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Interactions with Mario and the gang makes the characters feel much more part of the game and less distant compared to the other handheld Mario Golf titles.

 

The Castle Club is a very engaging central hub to explore, particularly because of the adorable Shy Guys, Toads, Koopa Troopas, Goombas (who somehow have found ways to golf despite their anatomy…), Monty Moles, and Spikes meandering about and engaging in conversation with one another. Talking to them actually yields quite a bit of useful information so it’s worth listening to what they have to say, even if you’re like me and only talking to them because you want to give that Shy Guy running on a treadmill in the gym a big hug. Completing courses results in unlocking a wide array of equipment for your character, which you can equip at the store in the Castle Club; different articles of clothing provide different attributes for your character depending on what you have on. Further exploration into the Castle Club actually brings you face to face with Mario, Luigi, and friends themselves, which is a nice change to the former Mario Golf handheld entries, where they always felt detached and less a part of the story compared to your character. If you find yourself confused by all of the golf jargon thrown at you during gameplay, head downstairs and talk to the purple Toad who will explain every golf term in the game that might be tripping you up. And while you’re there, check out the quality local and online multiplayer experiences that let you choose how you want to play with your friends (or taunt them on the green, as they case may be), but be aware that there’s no Download Play, so everyone is going to have to have a copy of their own.

Single player mode allows you the chance to take a break from the seriousness of tournaments and handicaps and take part in Challenges, like hitting a ball through a series of rings or collecting star coins on the course, all while using items to do crazy shots like using a Fire Flower to burn through trees or a Bullet Bill to defy strong winds. Completing Challenges also unlocks equipment, characters, and courses, which makes the game’s DLC packs a bit less disappointing, knowing that you still have quite a lot of content to look forward by just buying the game itself to begin with, which increases this game’s replay value.

Mario Golf: World Tour is a solid mix of great controls, crisp, colorful visuals, great replay value due to its amount of unlockable content, and is ultimately just a flat out great experience. Chalk this one up as another great 3DS title you should add to your library.

Hello Kitty Kruisers – An Adorable, but Slightly Disappointing Experience

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There have been a number of Hello Kitty titles released on Nintendo consoles and handhelds since the days of the Game Boy Color, but what the series of games had been lacking was a racer. Enter Hello Kitty Kruisers for Wii U, a Mario Kart-esque racing game featuring a number of characters from the Sanrio Universe.

Hello Kitty Kruisers has three game modes: Quick Play, where you can do a single race if you’re short on time, Tournament, in which you play four races to earn the most points against your opponents, and Adventure, which asks you to complete certain tasks within a given period of time. In Adventure mode you start with a single task, such as driving through 10 goals within one minute, and once completed the next task is unlocked. Each task has a particular character and course chosen for you, and tasks are always very simple (this is, after all, aimed at a younger audience). Adventure mode seems to not only aim to acclimate the player to the game’s control mechanics, but to provide a break from competitive racing.

Tournament mode is the core of the game and both the racing and control scheme emulate the formula familiarized by Mario Kart: 4 races per tournament, and the goal is to earn as many points to wind up the winner in the end. Racing handles very smoothly and is responsive, and by driving into item spheres you can get offensive and defensive items to protect yourself and get ahead, like pies to throw at other racers or cones to drop behind you. Unfortunately, seasoned racing game fans will find this game extremely easy; it takes seconds (and no items) to find yourself in first, and there were many races were I was almost lapping the person in last. The AI isn’t particularly competitive, so I only experienced the same two items every race because I was either just about to head to the front of the pack and wound up getting pies, or I was in first and kept getting cones. The speed of racing is slow as well, sort of like playing a 50cc cup in Mario Kart compared to Mirror Mode. 

Each track provides you with a different racing experience in terms of vehicles, because you’ll either find yourself assigned to a car, boat, or plane depending on what type of track you’ll be on. There are multiple choices of each specific type of vehicle, but it’s really just a matter of visual preference – choosing a different car, boat, or plane over another doesn’t matter because the vehicle speed and handling are all the same. One thing that is pretty cute though is the ability to change your racer’s outfit just for the fun of it. You can power slide, but you don’t get a speed boost for doing it, and frankly you’re going so slow and the competition is so non-existent that there’s really no need for it anyway. I chuckled to myself when I was sliding over water in my boat and I still heard a burning rubber sound effect.

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Tournaments end anticlimactically, just sending you right back to the menu to choose another race. Unlockables are treated the same – I wasn’t even aware that I had been unlocking characters and vehicles until I went back to Tournament Mode from Adventure Mode and saw Tuxedo Sam and a handful of new cars and boats were now playable. Quick Play is pretty self-explanatory, as it just lets you choose a single race from each tournament to play at a time as opposed to having to play through all four races. The game can either be played with the gamepad, Wii remote, or classic controller, but disappointingly there is no online multiplayer. It would be nice because it would perhaps offer a more challenging and enjoyable experience for older fans of Hello Kitty and her friends (like myself), but local couch co-op for up to four players is an option. 

The graphics really aren’t horrible. Yes, they’re not the caliber of a first-party Nintendo title, but before I put the game in I had actually prepared myself for the worst, and was expecting blocky, fuzzy, and all around bland visuals. Instead, everything is bubble-gum sweet and bright, and the racers and surroundings are at least rendered smoothly. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but I wasn’t sitting there scoffing at what I was seeing. To grade this against racers like Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing, or whatever big name racing franchise you want to throw out there, would be unfair because it not only isn’t looking to compete against them, it’s not even meant for the same audience. This is a good racer for young kids, and I was actually really happy with the $20 price tag (and if you’d prefer, you can buy it from the eShop). 

For what it is, Hello Kitty Kruisers is not the worst game I’ve ever played, by far, it’s just not all that it could be. Overly simplistic races and a lack of depth in terms of racing and unlocking content affect what could be an actually decent racer for Wii U. If you enjoy the Sanrio universe or you have kids in your life that would enjoy a simple, easy racing experience, the small price tag at least isn’t a deterrent to picking it up.

A Look Back at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES)

I have very vivid memories of particular games on SNES from my childhood, and it wasn’t until a number of years went by that I came to understand that many of the games in the video game collection I share with my brother are either extremely obscure or somewhat rare. Since my brother was a huge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan, my aunt got us a copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters for our SNES, simply because it had to do with TMNT and she thought he’d like it. Little did she realize that down the line I would wind up playing it more than he did.

At its core, Tournament Fighters sought to take advantage of the fighting game boom popularized by the Street Fighter franchise in the early 1990s, and it becomes clear once you start playing that the game was heavily influenced by the style of that particular franchise. The story mode of the game centers around Splinter and April being kidnapped by Karai, who seeks to resurrect Shredder, and you can choose either Leonardo, Michelanglo, Donatello, or Raphael to fight through each stage. I’ll freely admit that the difficulty in this game is pretty high – you can lower the difficulty if you have to, but just getting through the first stage without dying and having to restart at least once doesn’t happen very often for me. In typical retro gaming fashion, this game is tough and expects you to be at your best if you want to get through it. There’s also a one-on-one versus mode and a spectator mode in case you’d rather sit and watch the CPU go at each other.

I was always much more drawn to Tournament Mode in the game, which is an arcade mode where you get to choose your character from a wide roster of players and you have to beat everyone else at their respective stages to get to the final stage. Aside from the four turtles, you can choose between Shredder, a handful of characters from the Archie Comics line of TMNT books – namely Wingnut, War, and Armaggon – and Chrome Dome from the animated series. However, the character I always play as is Aska, the female ninja who was an original character created for the game. Of the four turtles, Donatello is hands down the most fun to use, as well as the most effective. His bo staff has the best reach and his move set feels the smoothest, as opposed to the other turtles who have either short reach or who simply don’t feel as effective in battle. Each character has their own unique set of moves, including a super special that can be used once the player’s energy meter is filled in battle; using it as a finishing move drops your bonus points to zero at the end of the match, so it comes with a cost.

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Leonardo versus Aska in the Noh Stage.

In typical Konami fashion, from the start menu you can input a series of button presses and d-pad pushes to unlock both the Rat King and Karai to use in Tournament Mode, as well as their stages and other features to customize gameplay, such as increasing the game’s speed. In an homage to games like Street Fighter, from which a lot of Tournament Fighter’s elements are influenced, there’s a bonus round where you smash and destroy as many safes as possible to increase the amount of cash you take home at the end of the tournament – though if you end up losing to an opponent during the tournament, all of that cash is lost and you have to start back at zero. The final fight with Karai is ridiculously hard, and I’ll freely admit that I usually end up spamming Aska’s hip attack over and over until the clock runs out and I win with the menial amount of damage I’ve caused. Nearly 20 years of playing this game hasn’t made that fight any easier for me. 

One of the most memorable things about Tournament Fighters for me is the music. This game has a great soundtrack that ranges from the frantic, intense theme in the art museum against Chrome Dome, to War’s tribal influenced music in the ruins, to the traditional Japanese inspired music in Aska’s Noh stage (my personal favorite), there’s a wide range of songs in the game’s soundtrack that keep the tone of the game fast-paced and really get you into that fighting game zone while you’re playing. The stages are visually interesting and some have semi-destructible environments; while the graphical limitations of SNES keep movements of characters in the backgrounds to nothing more than fist pumping or tapping of feet, the rich colors and creative arenas keep the game interesting throughout. Interestingly, menial changes were made when localizing the game from Japan to the United States, such as removing the destructible walls in Rat King’s Studio 6 stage or changing some of the characters’ voices. Most notably, Aska’s thong leotard that she wears in the Japanese version was deemed too risque for American audiences and consequently was changed to a bikini bottom in her sprite animations for the game’s US release. 

Tournament Fighters may not have revolutionized anything in the fighting game genre, nor is it considered on par with franchises like Street Fighter or Tekken, but it deserves recognition for being a genuinely great game. From the music, to the stages, to the challenging battles, this is one game in my SNES library I’m happy to have, and frankly I have more fun with this game than I do with a lot of the contemporary fighting games that have come out recently on other consoles. If you’re ever lucky enough to run across a copy of Tournament Fighters, pick it up and add it to your retro gaming collection.

Click here to take a listen to one of the best songs in the game, Noh Stage – Aska’s Stage.

Yoshi’s New Island: A Mixed Bag of Ups and Downs

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Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island on SNES is one of my favorite games of all time, particularly because everything from the hand-drawn art style, to the tight controls, to the iconic music and enemies make it an amazing gaming experience. So when I heard that Yoshi’s New Island would be coming to 3DS I was crossing my fingers for an equally memorable experience – unfortunately I ran into a mixed bag of positives and negatives with the latest installment of the franchise.

Yoshi’s New Island takes the basic premise and control scheme of its predecessor and applies it to this new game successfully: explore six worlds while keeping Baby Mario safe on Yoshi’s back, and utilize egg throwing as your main form of offense. Lobbing eggs, ground pounding, and swallowing enemies all felt responsive and smooth, but the very first thing that irked me while playing was Yoshi’s flutter jump; as opposed to feeling light and airy and shooting Yoshi in a nice arc before coming down, the jump felt heavy and slow. It took patience to get used to the timing needed to get the jump to work in your favor as opposed to causing you to miss landing on ledges or not reaching the height needed to clear enemies (which happened to me quite a bit when playing for the first time).

Moving deeper into the game, you encounter some of the new features Yoshi’s New Island brings to the mix, though not all of them make for a greater experience overall. The giant eggs are quite fun, and utilized in two ways: above ground, Yoshi uses them to smash blocks and barricades to earn coins, 1-ups, and flowers, while underwater giant metal eggs cause you to sink so you can destroy deterrents and gather goodies down below. These don’t show up in every level and appear just often enough that they didn’t feel like a gimmick, but weren’t annoyingly required to progress through levels constantly. Yoshi’s transformations in particular levels all take advantage of the 3DS’s gyroscope to move Yoshi through the level while pressing any button to use the functions of his transformation, though some of them felt tacked on and uninspired. While Jackhammer Yoshi made smashing rocks fun and Submarine Yoshi fires missiles at enemies, Minecart, Hot-Air, Bobsled, and Helicopter Yoshi all only required you to tilt the 3DS in the direction you wanted to move. That was it. You only get to use these transformations for a few seconds, once in a random level, which was disappointing and a bit of a letdown.

While on the subject of letdowns, the soundtrack for this game was probably the most upsetting thing I encountered during my playthrough. Yoshi’s New Island has essentially two tracks: the main theme of the game mixed into multiple, varying versions of the main theme (but nonetheless THE SAME SONG OVER AND OVER), and the theme played inside of boss castles. It got to the point where I was playing the game with the volume off because hearing one song throughout six worlds was driving me nuts. It wouldn’t have been a problem had it been Koji Kondo’s vastly superior and wonderful soundtrack from Yoshi’s Island, but instead I had to listen to kazoos and music that mistakenly tries to paint this game as a kid’s game.

Yoshi’s New Island is certainly not child’s play in terms of difficulty, as it gets tougher as you get through each world. I found myself saying things that would never be written into the script of any Nintendo game as I was killed by tricky puzzles or one nasty enemy just waiting to time their attack with me getting near it. At times I was extremely frustrated when Baby Mario would get stuck either at the top of the screen or off to the left with no way for me to reach him, and I’d watch him get carried away; it’s one thing to simply run out of time because you’re fighting enemies and can’t get back to Baby Mario, it’s another to lose him because of wonky programming that doesn’t give you a chance to save him even when you try. Even more frustrating was the odd placement of checkpoints within levels – sometimes you’d get one right in the middle of the level (where it should be), other times you’d find yourself trucking through, dying, and starting way back at the beginning when you should have encountered a checkpoint long before.

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The hand-drawn art style in Yoshi’s New Island is easy on the eyes.

There were two things that made getting through levels particularly enjoyable for me, namely the lovely visuals and some of the most hilarious enemies that were often a combination of adorable and chuckle inducing. In terms of art, worlds were either rendered in watercolor, crayon, or chalk pastel visuals, sometimes invoking Japanese inspired artistic techniques in backgrounds that I really appreciated. My favorite part of Yoshi’s New Island, however, were the Shy Guys. Shy Guys are simultaneously ridiculous and huggable, with Stilt Guys blocking your path on stilts wearing matching shoes, Tribal Guys doing dances that involved wiggling their tushes at you, or Shy Guys carrying doors away from Yoshi and falling into chasms with them still in their hands, to name a few. In World 5 I encountered some sort of little fighter wearing karate robes who seriously used a hadouken and threw a ball of lighting at me. I laughed. Boss battles were fun, albeit a bit short, and mid-world battles with the blundering Kamek made you think and kept you on your toes.

Yoshi’s New Island suffers from a few issues, mainly the lackluster soundtrack and some new features feeling flat and shallow, but at its core this is a fun title that takes the classic platforming formula from the SNES title before it and brings it to 3DS. A pleasing art style, fun enemy encounters, and solid controls make Yoshi’s New Island a good, but not great, experience that’s worth your time overall.

Pokemon Origins – Not the Pokemon You Grew Up With

I’m not one of the many impatient Pokemon fans that have already watched the Japanese episodes of Pokemon Origins and have finished the series, but when I heard about this mini series that was going to be based on the Red and Blue Gameboy games, my elementary school self did a leap for joy on the inside.

The Pokemon anime holds a special place in my heart; every day after school I’d come home, turn to our local channel 44, grab my Pikachu stuffed animal, and watch the latest episode. As I got older, it moved to channel 20 and I’d wake up at the crack of dawn every Saturday to catch it. To be quite honest, the only reason I stopped watching it was because the original voice actors (except for Pikachu’s, of course) got replaced with people that sounded like they were doing poor imitations of what I was used to hearing for years – and yes, I was that attached and loyal to the original cast that when they left, I left too. It just wasn’t the same experience.

It’s been quite a number of years since I parted ways with the Pokemon anime, and as every batch of Pokemon that have come out have gotten, frankly, stranger, I’ve found myself missing the Pokemon from Kanto and Johto more and more. So hearing that Origins would be making a return to the roots of the series, I was thrilled to take a trip back to the Pokemon I grew up with and that any other game has yet to top.

Episode I introduces Red as the protagonist, the original trainer from Red Version, and his rival Blue. It’s hard to not compare Origins to the Kanto episodes of Pokemon, but I will say that Ash, for all of his bumbling along in the first episode (and frankly, throughout the entire series) seemed more competent on the outset of his journey than Red. Red is eager, enthusiastic, but absolutely oblivious when it comes to Pokemon; Blue, as much of an overconfident douchebag as Gary was and just as good of, if not a better, trainer, lets Red choose his Pokemon first when they get to Professor Oak’s lab. Red goes with Charmander, saying that his dad named him Red in the hope that he would have the fiery spirit of a fire Pokemon, so Gary chooses Squirtle, already understanding the advantage of types and feeling that any Pokemon he chooses he can raise to be stronger than Red’s.

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Red is completely clueless compared to Blue at the outset of their journeys.

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In my humble opinion, the best PokeDex in the entire Pokemon franchise.

Red is likable as a protagonist, albeit whiny at times, and has a realistic lack of knowledge once he begins on his journey. While Blue is focused on being the best trainer in the region, Red is more concerned with simply completing the Pokedex, in comparison to Ash, who dreams of becoming a Pokemon Master from the get-go and defeating the Elite Four. Red doesn’t even learn about badges until after his first battle with Blue; I won’t get into too much detail (don’t want to ruin it before you see it!), but I will say that battling in this series is represented much, much more realistically than in the original anime, and the Pokemon don’t say their own names, but instead make the more animalistic cries that they make in the games, though not digitized of course. And when I say it’s more realistic, that goes hand in hand with being more brutal than the original series; when Blue’s Squirtle uses Bite on Red’s Charmander, you actually see Squirtle chomp into Charmander’s face and won’t let go as they struggle. Definitely not the Pokemon we grew up with.

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Battles are depicted more realistically in Origins than in the original anime.

Red doesn’t understand the concept of type match-ups and continues to use Charmander in battle even when it’s at a distinct disadvantage; he spams Ember over and over, not taking the hint that it’s not always working, nor is Charmander ever hitting its target, until he learns the hard way in his early battles. A familiar face appears to give him some advice (again, not here to spoil too much) and train him in the knowledge he lacks, helping to build a stronger bond between Red and all of his Pokemon, and to help Red and Charmander become more in-sync in battles.

Players of the original games will be happy to see locales and Pokemon from the Red and Blue games, like Viridian City, Pallet Town, and the Pokemon we all tried our hand at the first time we set out to capture one in the wild, like Pidgey, Rattata, Caterpie, Metapod, and a handful of others that threw me right back to my childhood, and back to when I would think ruefully to myself while playing, “Another [insert one of the aforementioned Pokemon here]?!”

Quite frankly, I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen from the first episode of Pokemon Origins. It’s got the same charms and allure to attract the current generation of Pokefans that are growing up with the ongoing anime now, as well as the nostalgia and trips down memory lane that fans that grew up with the original 150 (or should I say, 151?) have been missing for a long time now. With great art, more realistic portrayals of battles, and references to things used in the games that weren’t discussed in the original anime (like TMs – which are contained on floppy drives, for that real sense of being thrown back into the 90s), I’ll be tuning in for every episode and reveling in the Pokemon of my generation. Even if it makes me a little choked up at times.

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The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker HD – Simply Stunning

When the HD remake of The Windwaker was announced some months ago, the few teaser screenshots we were given were enough to get me excited from the start – not only was it clear that the HD was going to breathe new life into the already charming cel-shaded environments, but this would give those of us that loved the game on the Gamecube the chance to revisit it without having to pull out the Wii (or the Gamecube, if your Wii isn’t backwards compatible) now that our WiiU’s were hooked up and waiting for the next big thing with the name “Zelda” in the title to put into them.

Now that my Ganondorf statue from my Limited Edition set is on display and I’ve spent time with my copy of the game, I can say with confidence that this is, simply put, one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, on any console to date. And yes graphics snobs, I’m looking at you – Windwaker absolutely holds its own against any of the most graphically advanced current-gen titles on the PS3 or XBOX 360. What I can’t stop marveling at are the lighting effects that accurately depict the feel of, for example, early morning or late afternoon, or the sombre, moody interior of a dimly lit temple. It’s amazing how, despite the cel-shaded look of the game, the HD touches in lighting and shadow can somehow manage to give the game a realistic feel; from individual blades of grass, to the distant shadow of Link on the ground or the water below him as he climbs a tall ladder, the subtle additions of realism create a gorgeous look without compromising the whimsy of the original look on the Gamecube.

In terms of gameplay, there are quite a number of changes to discuss. One of the biggest complaints about Windwaker was about how long it took to sail between islands (until you got the ability to warp to certain places on the Great Sea), so in order to combat that you now have the option to purchase the Swift Sail in the Windfall Auction, which doubles your sailing speed and will always have the wind at your back instead of constantly having to change the wind’s direction manually. Believe me, the increase in sailing speed is very notable. Certain items, like the Tingle Tuner and Tingle Bombs, are no longer present in this version of the game, as they’ve been replaced with Tingle Bottles, which you can use to send messages and Pictographs to other players via Miiverse by throwing them into the Great Sea and leaving them for players to find. This makes, for example, completing Lenzo’s statue collection much easier because players can share hard-to-take Pictographs across Miiverse instead of having to do the hard work of taking those photos yourself (though I have mixed feelings about that, which I’ll get to further in this review).

Speaking of Pictographs, the PictoBox can now take up to 12 shots before you have to clear its memory to make room for more, and Nintendo, in a tongue-in-cheek homage to today’s social media obsessed culture, has included the ability for Link to take selfies with it. It’s actually incredibly hilarious, especially considering you can change Link’s facial expression, which, coupled with some creativity, can produce some gems.

In terms of the main quest, the biggest change is that five of the treasure charts in the quest to collect the Triforce of Courage have been replaced by the Triforce shards themselves, greatly cutting down on the time it takes to complete that part of the story. There are many, many changes that this HD version of Windwaker has experienced, but before moving on it’s worth noting that:

- You can actually remove the HUD from the screen, leaving only your heart and magic meters visible

-The Windwaker is permanently assigned to a position on the D-Pad

-You can now move in first-person view including when using the bow, hookshot, boomerang, and grappling hook

-Gyroscope controls are available (and you can turn them off if you please)

-The Deku Leaf now shows you where you’ll land when you drop from the sky

-You can swap items in your inventory using the GamePad instead of having to go into the pause menu

And there’s a plethora of other changes to catalog.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really like some of these changes and improvements to gameplay – and some of them, I don’t. Nintendo has been on a kick of making Zelda titles more “accessible” to a wider audience, which in turn has resulted in the dumbing down of certain things that I appreciate in the Zelda series, namely, the assumption that you’re intelligent enough to handle a challenging game without whining that it’s challenging. We saw this mentality manifest itself in the two Zelda games on the DS, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, respectively, with the touch screen controls that came across as more gimmicky than intuitive (though I still enjoyed the DS titles for what they were). So the sailing in the Gamecube version took a while, and you had to collect treasure charts to find the Triforce shards, and Lenzo was a taskmaster when it came to getting all the Pictographs to complete his statue collection, and you actually had to use a little brainpower to figure out the trajectory of where your bomb is going to land versus what angle you have your cannon at (because now the trajectory is displayed for you) or where you’re going to land when you cancel out the Deku Leaf… isn’t that part of why we play Zelda? For the challenge?

While some of these changes are more menial than others and, frankly, quite helpful, I can’t help but be a little frustrated when people complain about aspects of a game that didn’t prevent them from saying a game was great in the past, but that they want made easier for them now. Zelda is also known for having a rich, lengthy story, and I don’t want anyone messing with something that’s going to shorten my quest experience when I already have to wait years between Zelda titles anyway. That being said, the change in the Triforce shard quest was simply a matter of people not wanting to feel like they were on a fetch quest and wanting to get on with the story faster. This wasn’t a part of the quest that ever bothered me, but evidently enough people complained that Nintendo shortened it for the HD remake.

Small gripes aside, this version of Windwaker has developed the definitive Windwaker experience. From the glorious HD upgrade, to the improvements in gameplay, to the additions of new features that are thoughtful and not merely thrown in to say something different was done, Nintendo certainly hit it out of the park this time and exceeded my expectations.

Whether you fondly remember popping the game into your Gamecube or this is your first foray into the Great Sea, pick up Windwaker and make it part of your Wii U library.

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The expressiveness of Toon Link makes these selfies all the more hilarious.

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Sailing with the Swift Sail.

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Beautiful HD touches even found their way to the game’s original art.

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One of the first teaser images we were given of the HD upgrade to the visuals.