Talking Video Games and Music with Jason Michael Paul

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I recently had the pleasure of being able to speak with Jason Michael Paul, the producer of the Zelda symphony, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, as well as the mind behind Dear Friends: Music From Final Fantasy and PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, through an interview I conducted for Nintendojo.com. My interview will be up on the site in the coming days, but I’m excited to be able to post it here for you all now. Without further ado, read on to get some insight into Jason’s favorite games and composers, his creative process in transforming 8-bit music into symphonic masterpieces, and more.

Nintendojo: What were your favorite video games growing up, and how did they influence your passion for music?
Jason Michael Paul: Music and games have always gone hand in hand for me. I studied piano, guitar, and percussion in my youth, but I grew up with gaming, as well. I’ve always enjoyed the music of Koji Kondo, Yasunori Mitsuda – I could go on. Songs like theirs are so intertwined with their titles, and when you hear them, you always remember those moments when you were experiencing the games. Obviously the Zelda series was (and is) a big one for me; Ocarina of Time is still one of my all-time favorites.
ND: You were at the helm of the Dear Friends: Music From Final Fantasy concert and PLAY! A Video Game Symphony. Tell us a little bit about what it was like to translate video game music from electronic sounds to fully orchestrated pieces, and the challenges you encountered.
JMP: As with any piece being arranged for an orchestra, sometimes the instruments aren’t always one-to-one, but then 8-bit music doesn’t always sound as good performed live in its original form. We try and give the pieces the full ‘Hollywood’ treatment, making sure the overall spectacle isn’t lost. Zelda in particular has a complicated score, with a variety of different songs in different styles, so there’s a lot that goes into getting it right.
ND: What about The Legend of Zelda specifically inspired you to dedicate a symphony to the series?
JMP: Beyond my own affinity for the series, it’s especially gratifying to work with Zelda thanks to its rich history that spans fans of all ages. Everyone has their own favorite Zelda (I mentioned Ocarina of Time, right?) that they feel a deep connection with, but best of all, the series is still growing today, meaning that our Symphony can also grow and evolve over time. Just this year we added songs from A Link Between Worlds, and we re-mastered our selection from Majora’s Mask in honor of the Majora’s Mask 3D release.
ND: What are the deciding factors in which songs and which games are represented in the symphonic movements of Symphony of the Goddesses?
JMP: We want to represent many games that are iconic to the franchise. It’d be nice to include every game and every track, in a perfect world! We choose our pieces to bring together a complete four-movement symphony that evokes the hero’s journey. We do make some time for extra favorites, though, just because we can. :)
ND: Do you receive input from the original composers of these songs? If so, what is it like working and collaborating together?
JMP: I work directly with Nintendo series composer Koji Kondo and Eiji Aonuma. Everything is done under the direct supervision of the original creators.
ND: What sort of changes do you have to make to the original songs in order to fit your desired flow or feel, and how do you decide to make those changes?
JMP: It’s mostly a question of getting the instruments right to match the ‘feel’ of the original songs. As I noted earlier, 8-bit music doesn’t always translate directly to the symphony. Collaborating with the original composers goes a long way towards making those choices, of course.
ND: What other video game franchise’s music, Nintendo or otherwise, would you next like to see represented symphonically (we’re excited for Pokemon: Symphonic Evolutions!)?
JMP: Do you have room for several more pages in this interview? :)
A special thank you to the Nintendojo staff for collaborating with Jason Michael Paul and for contributing some of the interview questions!
 

Impressions: Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack 2: Animal Crossing

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Almost one year after the release of Mario Kart 8 comes the game’s long-awaited second DLC pack, the Animal Crossing pack, complete with three new racers, four new vehicles, and eight new (and revamped) courses within two new cups. The Legend of Zelda DLC pack released late last year introduced a bevy of beautiful courses along with the first appearance of Link in a Mario Kart title, but somehow Nintendo managed to top themselves yet again – they seem to have a knack for doing that – with the offerings in the latest DLC pack.

I have to begin by noting how incredibly beautiful this latest set of tracks looks. Hyrule Circuit, Dragon Driftway, and Mute City stood out in The Legend of Zelda DLC pack as being especially vibrant and eye-opening visually, but it seems every course in the Animal Crossing pack is something out of a Pixar film. Everything from the lighting, to textures, to the sheer size and scope of some tracks really made an impression on me.

The Crossing Cup is one of  two new cups and features Baby Park from Double Dash!!, Cheese Land from Super Circuit, and two new tracks, Wild Woods and Animal Crossing. I was particularly excited about the return of Baby Park, but was worried that the frenzy brought on by having double the items littering the road in Double Dash!! would be missing from this iteration of the stage. The frenzy is still alive and well in Mario Kart 8, and makes for a particularly brutal race online. Cheese Land was the one stage I was the least excited about, but is surprisingly difficult, with some really sharp turns and no guard rails, along with portions of road that have raised edges, causing you to sometimes crash or falter. The challenge of this stage, along with the interesting visuals (your surroundings really are made of cheese) were a nice surprise.

Wild Woods is a personal favorite of mine because I’m obsessed with Shy Guys and couldn’t believe Nintendo graced us with a second Shy Guy centric stage – it also helps that it’s one of the most beautiful and whimsical stages in the game, set in a forest replete with Shy Guy houses, Toad and his friends, streams, and lush greens, and here you start the race situated vertically using anti-grav. Animal Crossing is absolutely charming and will alternate randomly between the four seasons; the first time I played, it was summer in the village, with a bright, clear sky and buzzing cicadas, the next time was winter, with snow and Christmas lights glowing in the evening, and the third time I played the cherry blossoms were blooming in spring and the petals were fluttering by (still haven’t seen fall yet!). I especially liked the items boxes floating on red balloons on one stretch of road – no slingshot needed to collect these floating packages!

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The Bell Cup brings back Neo Bowser City from Mario Kart 7 as well as Ribbon Road from Super Circuit, and introduces Big Blue and Super Bell Subway. Neo Bowser City is one of the most graphically impressive stages in the entire game, with glowing neon set against a dark, stormy sky, heavy rain that looks photorealistic as it pours down on the asphalt, and the added detail of hydroplaning on the slick road. This is also, in my humble opinion, the toughest track yet, due not only to the aforementioned hydroplaning but to the very narrow road and an incredibly windy track with some wicked curves in places. But for all of New Bowser City’s glitz, Ribbon Road takes the cake for being the most revamped course, and for the better. Set in a child’s bedroom, the racers have been shrunk down to the size of toys on a toy racetrack, with some serious Nintendo fan service everywhere you look: Mecha Koopas wandering the raceway, Bowser Copter Jack-in-the-Boxes swaying back and forth to block your path, Wooly Yoshi plushies laying around the bedroom, and even a movie poster on the wall for “Dragon Driftway The Movie” starring “Kung Fu Lakitu” in the same pose as Kung Fu Panda, with a release date of Spring 2015. When I said that the courses for this DLC pack look nearly as good as something out of a Pixar film, this is the stage that comes to mind in particular. While not as difficult of a race as some of the other tracks, it’s a feast for the eyes.

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Big Blue is the second F-Zero track we’ve seen in the DLC packs, which makes me wonder whether or not this is a hint that a new F-Zero game is in the works. Just as in Mute City from The Legend of Zelda DLC, Big Blue is a continuous track rather than one you race three times around, floating amidst lush forest with rushing water running through parts of the track. While admittedly the F-Zero courses aren’t my favorites because I don’t find them as interesting to race on (hardly any hazards, pretty straight-forward track), again, there’s no denying how good everything looks and how detailed the road itself is. Super Bell Subway is another of my favorite tracks this time around, set in a bustling subway where you zoom through turnstiles and race alongside commuter trains in subway tunnels on the tracks. Being a daily train commuter myself, I found this stage particularly fun and adrenaline-filled, imagining the Mario Kart shenanigans taking place on my commute, and I also liked that Nintendo kept with the theme of disrupting the flow of everyday traffic and activities seen in courses like Sunshine Airport and Toad’s Turnpike.

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Villager and Isabelle are fun additions to the racing roster (Isabelle is especially adorable behind the wheel of a kart), and feel light and easy to control, whereas Dry Bowser is as heavy and tough to maneuver as you would expect, though his glowing shell and eyes are really awesome.

And what about the 200cc mode, you ask?

IT’S INSANE! I thought that perhaps Nintendo was exaggerating a bit with the mode description stating that breaking was essential, but breaking is absolutely essential. You’ll definitely find yourself flying off ledges and crashing into walls the first few times until you start utilizing your breaks in ways that perhaps you’ve never done before 200cc mode. The increase in speed is generous, and the CPU will catch up to you much faster (obviously) than in the other modes, and I also noticed them crashing into walls as well, which was a nice bit of authenticity added on Nintendo’s part to make racing the CPU not only fairer, but more comparative to racing human players. Bear in mind, however, that 200cc mode isn’t part of the DLC pack but is available by doing the latest software update, and for the mode to appear after the update you have to have unlocked Mirror Mode.

I genuinely have no complaints about the Animal Crossing DLC for Mario Kart 8 and highly recommend getting this content, as well as the first pack if you haven’t yet, to expand on your Mario Kart experience. The DLC is quality, not a poorly thrown together cash-grab, and offers courses that are even better than some of the standard courses. The visuals are outstanding and the courses are varied and feel challenging without being frustrating. Nintendo, you’ve done it again.

Impressions: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

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Following in the footsteps of one of the greatest video games ever released is not only daunting, but intimidating – completing such a feat within a development time of a little over a year seems nearly impossible.  And yet Nintendo, no stranger to delivering bombshells, would take on the task of creating a title to follow up on the incredible success of 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and in 2000 released a game that shined all on its own, rather than paled in the shadow of its predecessor: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. 

After Nintendo’s 2011 remake of Ocarina of Time for Nintendo 3DS, fans began clamoring for Majora’s Mask to receive the same treatment – after denials that the remake was indeed a reality, followed by multiple hints of its impending release, we finally have The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. Eiji Aonuma has discussed that the game wouldn’t be merely a remastered port, but that there would be changes to various elements of the game, and in the time I’ve spent with it I’ve already experienced a number of these changes. So how exactly does MM3D compare to the original?

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The first thing you’re hit with is how nice MM3D looks; Majora’s Mask has a range of rich, vibrant colors and textures that Ocarina of Time does not, and co-developer Grezzo did a great job of smoothing things out, rendering environments more realistically, and bringing NPCs to life. The increase in realism really brings out the bustling life in Clock Town, and once you start branching out into Termina’s overworld, the natural environments are more lush and beautiful than they’ve ever been. Just as with the OoT remake, the controls are a natural fit coming from the N64 controller to the 3DS; I was worried that it would feel like my inventory was a bit of a tight fit, given that this game has you balancing masks and weapons and there are no c-buttons to assign items to, but the touch screen features two slots, I and II respectively, that serve as good options for items used less frequently, like a mask, compared to your bow and arrow, which I always have assigned to a button.

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Get disturbed even faster with Majora’s Mask 3D’s beautifully smooth, clear renderings of a sociopath with no pupils playing a music box in a dark corner at night, a 35-year old man wearing spandex that thinks he’s a fairy, and creepy, soulless statues of yourself in the valley of the dead.

It becomes apparent rather quickly, especially for players becoming acquainted with MM for the first time, that this game has a lot going on around you, and that things are happening even without you being directly involved. While I was busying myself with starting the Southern Swamp, I was also finding myself wanting to start the side quests and to explore the overworld. One of the first changes you’ll encounter early into the game is that the Happy Mask Salesman gives you the Bomber’s Notebook, rather than receiving it from the Bombers (a change I found odd and frankly unnecessary), and that there are many more entries in the Bomber’s Notebook than in the original version of the game. People involved in certain side quests that you get introduced to get added into the book, but if you aren’t able to help them at a certain moment in time the book records your “failure” to help, giving you incentive to go back later and attempt to complete that side quest with that person. The Bombers supply you with town gossip relating to side quests, which also get tracked in the book to look into further at a later time. Overall the Bomber’s Notebook seems to play an even larger part of the game, as it’s in constant use and information is being added to it more frequently than in the original game.

Since we’re on the subject of changes within the game, one of the most welcome additions to MM3D are new save statues called feather statues, in addition to the owl statues (some of which have been moved around) that veteran players are used to. Granted, I feel like if I was able to get through the game at 10 years old without having accommodations made for me to make things easier or more accessible, then someone playing in 2015 should be able to do the same, but I also won’t say I wasn’t taking full advantage of being able to save more frequently, and a lot more easily. Also, the two different save methods – quick save at an owl statue or go back to day 1 and lose your stash of rupees and items – have been changed and you can now save at an owl statue or save statue without having to worry about which save method to utilize. Conveniently, the bank has been moved right across from the owl statue in Clock Town, which makes for a quicker trip to save rupees. Jumping around in time has been tweaked a bit as well; when playing the Song of Double Time, you can now choose which hour you’d like to jump ahead to, rather than simply moving from day to night, and you can set personal alarms so you can keep track of events within the game (so now you can make sure you won’t be late in stealing that innocent Goron’s room at the inn, you selfish person, you). The Song of Time no longer saves your progress, as was mentioned above, but simply returns you to day 1 with no items. And of course, don’t forget that fishing is now a part of MM3D, with two fishing holes that have 10 different varieties of fish to catch.

Boss battles have experienced some of the biggest changes, with every boss now featuring an obvious weak spot, as well as changes to the overall fight and the methods you will have to use to take them down. I’ll preface my next sentence with a warning that if you want to see the changes yourself without me ruining it for you, stop reading now. This change caught me off guard in my battle with Odolwa; gone is the boss chamber with the elevated boardwalk, replaced with a room with a flat floor, numerous deku flowers, and a giant glowing eye on the back of Odolwa’s head. I had to figure out how to beat him, and I’m pretty sure my method was the right way to do it, but it felt like a change that didn’t need to have been made. Satoru Iwata and Aonuma explained that the original game was too “unreasonable” in that the weak points of the bosses weren’t obvious, and that many people attacked the bosses randomly rather than knowing how to take them down properly, making some of the bosses particularly tough. Again, I see this as more of Nintendo’s neurotic hand-holding to make tough games more accessible, which bothers me – if a game is hard, it’s hard, and if you have to go through some trial and error to figure stuff out, rather than having things spelled out for you with glowing weak points, consider it an opportunity to build some character. Majora’s Mask isn’t an “unreasonably” hard game, it just presents more of a challenge than Ocarina of Time, in a very welcome and innovative way, boss battles included.

Things are a bit different this time around with boss battles.

Things are a bit different this time around with boss battles.

The things I looked forward to the most with MM3D were experiencing again the dark, foreboding story, and the fascinating character development within the side quests. MM explored themes of death and regret, love, friendship and loneliness, true evil, and time in ways that OoT didn’t, often on a much darker and, sometimes, more disturbing level. It’s safe to say that Nintendo hasn’t taken a Zelda title in this direction since MM, with Twilight Princess being the most comparable but still not quite as brooding. The conclusion to the Anju/Kafei side quest alone is one of the most heartbreaking/heartwarming stories within any Zelda game, not to mention incredibly impressive in its scope, which spans the entire 3 days of the game. MM also introduced some of the most memorable and mysterious characters into Zelda canon that Nintendo has yet to re-explore (which enrages me), like the Fierce Deity, Majora, and Keaton, to name a few. And MM is the only Zelda game where you can save cows from incoming aliens in the middle of the night – “weird” is perhaps another theme we can give MM credit for exploring.

Majora’s Mask 3D is as close to a perfect remake as a developer can hope to get in breathing new life into one of their most loved, respected titles. Rather than simply porting MM to the 3DS with better graphics and tweaked play controls for the handheld, Nintendo considered what they felt could be improved in the gameplay mechanics and delivered a solid homage to the title they’ve often overlooked since the game’s release 15 years ago. While I may not totally agree with some of the changes, I don’t hate any of them, and do feel that most of them make the overall experience a little less stressful while working within the 3-day time limit. I highly suggest adding Majora’s Mask 3D to your 3DS library, especially if you’ve never played it. Then you’ll finally understand why so many Zelda fans often find themselves divided between Team Ocarina and Team Majora for who takes the crown of being the best Zelda title in the franchise.

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A Different Take on the Women-in-Gaming Controversy

The Gamergate insanity. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and Anita Sarkeesian. The issue of female representation in gaming has become a central topic within the industry lately, to the chagrin of many and the approval of many more. I myself have chosen to shy away from the debate because it’s not only incredibly frustrating for me, but I’ve often been made to feel like I was a bad guy for having strong opinions. But as of late, I’ve been inadvertently faced with a few examples of issues at the core of this debate that have finally been too much for me to ignore.

So far on this blog I’ve purposefully refrained from making any mention of the fact that I’m a woman. While many female gamers would jump on the opportunity to let their readers know they’re a “girl gamer/gamer girl” (two labels I despise and will explore later), I’ve felt it served no purpose to identify my gender when (assumedly) no one is reading my blog with concern over whether a man or woman is writing. I have three Nintendo Network IDs – three Wii U’s, three times the usernames – whose names mask my gender or would cause one to assume I’m a man. When I make video game-related posts on my personal Instagram, I refuse to use the hashtags #gamergirl or #girlgamer.

Growing up, I was the youngest of two children, my older brother being my only sibling. Naturally, we shared common interests, and I played with action figures and video games as much as I played with my Barbies and stuffed animals. The first female video game characters I remember gravitating towards were Aska from Tournament Fighters and Peach in Mario Bros. 2, but it wasn’t until we got Ocarina of Time for Christmas that I discovered the first video game protagonist I ever truly felt connected with – and his name was Link. I never grew up feeling like I had to only play (or only wanted to play) as the girl characters; I liked them, but I liked their male counterparts just as much, if not more. There was something about Link’s solitude and courage that made me feel like I could connect with feeling small and somewhat separate from the very big world around him.

As I got older, and video games became more inclusive of female characters, I began to see and appreciate more of the women protagonists I was playing as. I didn’t grow up with Metroid, so when Metroid Prime came out on the GameCube I was incredibly impressed with how tough Samus Aran is. She’s fearless but incredibly feared, and insanely strong. From her 8-bit beginnings, her gender was a non-factor until the very last moments of the game, when she unveils her pixelated head of green-but-supposed-to-be blonde hair and late-80s gamers’ minds were totally blown when they realized they just spent hours playing as a woman underneath the orange armor. She shows no emotion, no pardon, and metes out justice as swiftly as any male bounty hunter before her.

Samus towering over Little Mac in Smash Bros.

Samus towering over Little Mac in Smash Bros.

When Zero Suit Samus made her appearance in Metroid: Zero Mission, and in her much more frequent subsequent appearances, controversy followed. Cries of objectification and sexism have followed, claiming that Samus’ suit is too tight, too revealing, and merely eye-candy for male gamers. In Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, two of the alternate costumes for Zero Suit Samus are suits based off what she wears in the endings to Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid: Fusion, and were also designed in Smash Bros. by Samus’ female designer. Yet, the moment Masahiro Sakurai announced their inclusion into the game, again came the cries of sexism, claiming that Nintendo was trying to make Samus sexy and cheapening her character. Interestingly, if any of those same people had played either Zero MIssion or Fusion I’m curious to know how many of them came out onto forums claiming sexism back then, or how many of those critics even played either of those games and knew their canonical significance to the Metroid series. Also laughable is the fact that these suits are more akin to sportswear that female athletes wear than anything you’d see a Sports Illustrated model pouting into the camera wearing (or not wearing…). What it boils down to is that if Samus is in anything that isn’t her Power Suit, she’s instantly derided as being a sexualized version of her character simply because she’s attractive, has a nice figure, and is wearing something form-fitting. Her personality, personal history, achievements, no-nonsense demeanor, and historically gender-agnostic treatment, be damned – she’s a beautiful woman in a bodysuit, developed by men, so she’s problematical.

Samus' suits from Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid: Fusion.

Samus’ suits from Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid: Fusion.

Samus is not problematic. An attractive video game heroine is not problematic. What is are female characters that are treated as nothing but one big boob bouncing across the screen with little-to-no substance that make you a bit embarrassed to play as with other people in the room. Ivy and Taki from the Soul Calibur series, while tough women that can defend themselves against the male fighters, are cheapened by the fact that their breasts are impossibly large and distracting (how do they fight without knocking themselves out with those things?) and their outfits are next to non-existent. Ivy is pretty much fighting in lingerie and Taki’s bodysuit makes Samus’ Zero Suit look like onesie pajamas with feeties. And let’s not get into the jiggle animations – on second thought, let’s. A few moments ago, I read a ridiculous thread in the comments on an article about Samus’ alternate Smash Bros. costumes where someone was seriously chiding Nintendo for being a supposedly family-friendly company that has given all of their female characters “fake boobs” because they don’t feature a jiggle animation. Aside from the argument being almost impossible to take seriously, it’s mind-boggling that Nintendo should be criticized because they’re more focused on making a quality game than creepily focusing on how to make Samus’ lady parts move realistically. Because when a developer makes the effort to include such an animation for their female characters, it only serves to enforce the notion that the woman is merely there to be ogled; the fact that Nintendo has opted to not do that in their treatment of Samus, and their female protagonists in general, is something to be respected.

The treatment of Samus in Metroid: Other M, however, took many steps backwards from Samus’ portrayal in the Metroid Prime series before it; Samus is highly-emotional, diverts to Adam (her former superior) for final word on whether or not to take action, and constantly makes references to “the baby” when talking about the baby Metroid, in this highly maternal, affection manner. She’s, frankly, annoying and meek, and makes one wish for the Samus we’ve always known, rather than what we had to put up with in Other M. Because Samus is such a respectable, and respected, character, the cosplay that infamous cosplayer (or “cosplayer” as many cosplayers seem to refer to her) Jessica Nigri did of Zero Suit Samus was particularly offensive and served to only drag Samus’ character in the mud. Barely qualifying as even a Halloween costume, Nigri took a Playboy bunny suit, made it the same shade of blue as the Zero Suit, slapped on a poor-quality Samus emblem near one of the boobs, and somehow, this was Zero Suit Samus. Samus, the woman who is armed to the teeth even in her least-armored form, was represented as nothing more than a brainless Playboy bunny. The image left a very bad taste in my and many others’ mouths and caused a surge of criticism at the bastardization of such a respected heroine. Some argued that Nigri was being “slut-shamed” for creating a sexy version of Samus, but the argument isn’t about calling her a slut – it’s about calling her an idiot. Because it’s hard to look at that costume and take her seriously as a cosplayer or a gamer, when it mutilates everything Samus Aran stands for.

This brings us around to the “gamer girl/girl gamer” argument I referenced way up there. More often than not, when scrolling through the aforementioned hashtags on Instagram, you’ll find the same tired schtick of selfies by women with cleavage, full makeup, and a headset on claiming they’re a “real gamer” because they don’t just play Call of Duty or Halo. Being a gamer is a way of gaining more followers and attention, and usually goes hand-in-hand with calling themselves a gamer girl or girl gamer. I personally hate these phrases – I’m well aware of the fact that women are the minority within the industry, but I have no desire to separate myself further by letting everyone know I’m a girl that likes games. Great! Do guys now have to label themselves as “guy gamers/gamer guys” so we all know the gender of who’s playing who? Being a girl is inconsequential in this situation and has no bearing on the fact that you’re gaming, and the title “gamer girl” is rapidly being inundated with negative connotations because of the photos and imagery often attached to it.

The slut-shaming argument often comes up when deriding the stereotypical “gamer girl,” with women often jumping to their defense, claiming that it’s the woman’s prerogative to show herself off, and that she shouldn’t be taken any less seriously than a male gamer, nor should she be demonized for how she presents herself. But then we’re met with a conundrum: if the gamer girl can present herself as something to be ogled, what place then do the criticisms of female representation within games have if apparently there’s nothing wrong with a sexy woman in gaming? If “SexyCaliGurl90″ is supposed to be taken seriously as a gamer, why should Cammy from Street Fighter or Quiet from Metal Gear be criticized for being objectified and dressed improbably for battle and for war? The crux of the issue comes down to the fact that, again, the industry is dominated by men, games are predominantly developed by men, and women have a problem with a man creating these characters for the sake of being lusted after. But the problem is that presenting yourself like a medium-rare steak on a platter isn’t empowerment. It’s not furthering respect for women. Playing into a male fantasy strips you of your independence, even if it helps you sleep better at night by telling yourself that because you’re objectifying yourself, everything is ok. Just as long as a man isn’t objectifying you. It’s nonsensical at best.

But I must clarify before moving on that not all female gamers present themselves this way. We are clearly discussing a faction within the female gaming community and shouldn’t be confused with lumping all female gamers together.

The double-standard in gaming is also a topic of frustration: why is a revealing costume or a nice body on a female character problematic, but the muscular, handsome, shirtless male protagonist not an issue? In the most recent issue of Game Informer, a poorly-written paragraph slammed Capcom for its poor treatment of Jill throughout her history in Resident Evil, claiming she’s gone from a uniformed cop, to mini-skirt wearing, to a brainwashed, captive “vixen” with a “mind-controlling device attached to her cleavage” in Resident Evil 5. The author 1.) Apparently didn’t actually play RE5 because they would’ve known that Jill spends 95% of the game cloaked and masked and her gender/identity is unknown, and when she is revealed her suit is zipped up to her neck, and when the mind-controller device is removed she’s revealing what you can barely call “cleavage,” 2.) Conveniently fails to mention Excella’s giant, barely covered gazongas and the fact that she doesn’t further women in gaming at all, 3.) The fact that Jill appears as a uniformed cop in the mansion DLC for RE5, 4.) and totally ignored Jill’s appearance in Resident Evil: Revelations, where nothing about her is offensive and she’s totally covered up. But what bothered me was the fact that Chris Redfield, as muscled, huge, and alpha-male as it gets, isn’t criticized for being sexualized in the Warrior outfit DLC, which features him shirtless with some bondage/Mad Max-looking leather-strap-and-spiked-shoulder-pad getup. In the new Smash Bros. for 3DS, one of Shulk’s alternate costumes features him shirtless; Captain Falcon wears the world’s tightest bodysuit, accentuating every giant muscle; Raiden has to flee and fight naked in Metal Gear Solid 2, covering himself with his hands – and yet, males in gaming are never criticized for having improbable physiques, being sexualized and featured half-naked (or totally naked), or being cast as the alpha-male.

Jill as she appears in Resident Evil: Revelations

Jill as she appears in Resident Evil: Revelations

This double-standard is found in our media; does anyone remember the Tide commercial, with the guys who are twins, both well-built, wearing the same black tee, but one was washed in Tide and the other in another detergent? The men are standing on the sidewalk and women are encouraged to feel them up to feel the difference Tide makes, and the women are openly smiling and laughing as they feel the men, rather than the shirt. Can you imagine if the men were replaced with women, and the women were being groped by men on the street? Heads would explode and women’s rights activists would be protesting outside Tide HQ for the removal of the ad. What if every male actor that’s been on a talk show and ogled and pawed at by the female panel and asked to remove their shirts were replaced with actresses that were being lusted after by a male panel? The same strange acceptance of females ogling men and men being objectified stands within the gaming industry as well. To pretend it doesn’t exist, to pretend that men aren’t the victims of being hyper-sexualized and presented as perfect male specimens, is untrue. And if anyone disagrees, I invite you to play any God of War game, as Kratos runs around looking like Arnold in his bodybuilding prime, engaging in sex minigames with some of the most shallow representations of women in gaming, ever.

Objectification of women in gaming is real. From every image of every woman depicted in the art of the Grand Theft Auto series, to Jill’s nonsensical mini skirt outfit to slay zombies, to every female fighter in Mortal Kombat, it’s rife within the industry. But let’s not pretend that strides haven’t been made in the right direction. Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of Lara Croft took a character that was all boob to someone who is not only beautiful but formidable; Zelda’s transformation into Sheik (whose depiction was so masculine in Ocarina of Time Nintendo had to recently affirm she’s female) showed that she wasn’t a helpless princess who always needed to be saved, but a fierce warrior who took care of herself in Link’s absence; and in that vein, every female Zelda character recently featured in Hyrule Warriors, whose cast is mainly female; Amaterasu in Okami may have been represented as a wolf, but she was a goddess that commanded respect and incredible power; Bayonetta’s simultaneous feistiness and fierceness; Chun-Li’s incredible fighting ability without having to be nearly naked to compete – the list is longer than it’s given credit for.

The video game industry has a long way to go before true equality among male and female representation in games is reached. But realizing that not every female character that’s physically attractive is sexist or misogynistic is key here, as is understanding that such equality can’t be reached when we as female gamers have to contend with the stereotype of being the stacked, headset-wearing “gamer girl” borne from the poor misrepresentation by a select group of female gamers. Not every heroine needs to be a Victoria’s Secret model in a loincloth, and not every hero is Conan with a never-ending supply of ammo. But let’s not pretend that that’s what the industry currently is, either – so let’s stop the finger-pointing and work to create characters everyone will want to play as, and everyone can respect.

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Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS – Taking Names Has Gone Portable

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The Smash Bros. experience has always been a matter of making sure you had enough controllers for all of your friends, that no one got in the way of the TV while the fight was on, and perhaps having to pass the controllers around to give everyone a shot at playing if there were more than four people wanting to play at a time. Enter 2014 and the latest iteration of the Smash Bros. franchise, Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. Exiting the gate before the Wii U version of the game, the series’ first handheld title has been of particular interest to Smash fans, particularly long-time players that wondered how the franchise would fare in portable form. And so lies the question: does Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS live up to the very high expectations it’s been held against, and does it work on the 3DS?

Yes, and yes, are the short answers. Very much so.

Surprisingly, there is no learning curve going from the console to the handheld. The first thing I did when I fired up my copy was to start a four-player free-for-all against level 9 CPUs with my main, Link, and the moment the match began I was playing as though I’d owned the game for months. The circle pad and a-b-x-y buttons, coupled with the shoulder buttons, feel exactly like playing with a controller and as natural as playing with a GameCube controller (though I’m not sure how you c-stick users are faring!). There are a number of new items that feel right at home in the rotation of Smash Bros. item madness, including, but not limited to:

-Blue Shell: Just as in Mario Kart, the Blue Shell zones in on players and hovers ominously before smashing downwards with destructive force.

-Hocotate Ship: Captain Olimar’s ship is a throwable item this time around, and will shoot upwards and disappear into the sky before crash-landing onto the stage.

-Beetle: Link’s trusty item from Skyward Sword is just as crafty here; when thrown at an opponent, it will grab them and carry them off-screen, hopefully netting you a K.O. before they can escape.

-Galaga Bug: Remember when you’d lose a perfectly good ship in Galaga to those bugs that would absorb it in their tractor beams? The same concept applies here, as the Galaga Bug will spin around lazily and attempt to absorb opponents with its beam and take them off into the darkness of space… where no one will hear them scream…

The roster of characters boasts nearly 50 fighters this time around, and for the most part everyone is either a returning veteran or an impressive, fun addition to the choice of playable fighters. However, people who have been playing since Melee will notice that the franchise-staples, the Ice Climbers, are absent from the 3DS version of this Smash Bros.; Masahiro Sakurai claims that it took too much power to have Nana and Popo on the screen at once, so they were ultimately dropped from the game, but that the Wii U version managed to have them up and fighting at one point during development. This of course leads to the question of whether or not they will be in the roster of the Wii U version; given the fact that they were capable of fighting just fine together on the GameCube, let alone the Wii, I’m not really understanding why this should be an issue on the 3DS and Wii U. Plus, Duck Hunt, one of the new fighters introduced this time, is both the Duck Hunt dog and duck fighting together. On screen. At the same time. Just like the Ice Climbers. Also missing from the fray was Brawl’s beloved newcomer, Snake – it remains to be seen whether he and the Ice Climbers will either be put into the Wii U version at the last minute or be made DLC after the game’s release. One can only hope, but for now they’re absent from the 3DS version.

Mega Man, one of the most sought-after additions to the roster of fighters, is very fun to use and utilizes classic Mega Man attacks and weaponry that are sure to please fans of the series, but particularly of the classic games. Little Mac, one of the most controversial additions due to his extreme speed and strength, is another great fighter who will almost certainly face the same fate of Meta Knight and get banned from tournament play because of people claiming he’s “broken” or “unfair.” Greninja fights in a fashion similar to Sheik and handles with tight controls and lightning speed, while Charizard has freed itself from the Pokemon Trainer and fights solo this time around. But then there are additions that, frankly, left me scratching my head or just weren’t the most enjoyable characters to use; the Wii Fit Trainer isn’t the worst character in the world but feels like a space that could’ve been filled by a more appropriate fighter that meshed better, while Lucina feels too similar to Marth to be a worthwhile addition. And again, while Duck Hunt was certainly a nice surprise, not to mention unique and creative, I would’ve preferred to have the development team try to work the Ice Climbers into the roster if they could have the dual-avatar team of Duck Hunt work on-screen simultaneously.

Gerudo Valley is one of the best new stages in this iteration of Smash Bros. - here, Samus and Kirby seem to have discovered the carpenters' tent.

Gerudo Valley is one of the best new stages in this iteration of Smash Bros. – here, Samus and Kirby seem to have discovered the carpenters’ tent.

There are way more color choices for each character in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS than in previous entries, and for a lot of the characters they’re particularly impressive. Samus’ armor can be changed to the color schemes of some of her most iconic suits, like the Light, Dark, and Gravity suits; Link can don tunics (and facial details) that make him appear to be Dark Link, the Fierce Deity, and in his normal clothes from Skyward Sword; Bowser Jr. can don skins to make him appear as the other Koopalings; and the Villager can sport a female skin in case anyone doesn’t want to be the male Animal Crossing avatar. But what the heck, Sonic? Why are you just a bunch of variations of the color blue? A great opportunity was lost in not giving him skins of at least Shadow and Knuckles. A very strange decision, and I’m not sure if it was Sega’s or Nintendo’s.

The stages, however, were a big sticking point for me in this entry to the Smash Bros. series. Some are great, like Gerudo Valley (my personal favorite), where the bridge linking the two sides of the gorge will give way and Koume and Kotake show up, throwing fire and ice at the fighters. Fighting at the base of the Prism Tower and having the fight move into the sky is also really cool, as is the Boxing Ring, where you can jump high above the other fighters using the ropes of the ring to land on top of the lights and send them crashing onto your opponents. And staying on top of Link’s Spirit Train while not falling onto the rails below is both fun and challenging. But most of the stages are, frankly, too lackluster to be memorable, or have already been seen in previous Smash Bros. games. One can’t help but long for Shadow Moses Island, Halberd, Eldin Bridge, or any of the other fantastic stages from Brawl in comparison to what feel like somewhat uninspired locations for the 3DS version of Smash. It was one of the biggest disappointments for me.

Single-player modes are fantastic, bringing back Classic and All-Star modes, as well as the Home Run Derby and Multi-Man Smash. New modes, like Smash Run, give you a few minutes to go around beating up countless minions from various Nintendo franchises (as well as Mega Man and Namco enemies) in order to level up your character as much as possible before thrusting you into a timed battle with 3 CPU players. Player customization is a new feature to Smash Bros., encouraging you to level up particular stats of your fighter rather than just choosing your main and having to adjust to the speed, strength, and weight class inherent to that character. Miis are customizable in this game as well, and you can choose from three different classes of fighter to apply to your Mii – Brawler, Gunner, and Swordfighter – but I’m totally uninterested and just stick to blasting them offscreen in Multi Man Smash. Trophy Rush is a favorite mode of mine, where you pay coins that you earn through fighting and playing through the various modes to destroy falling debris on a flat stage until you fill up a meter and showers of coins and trophies rain upon you to collect. You can also buy trophies that are available in the shop and are constantly rotating out.

Online play is leaps and bounds more enjoyable and smoother than the online experience we were subjected to in Brawl, with few instances of lag or choppiness. Hopefully the Wii U version accomplishes what the Wii could not and gives us a proper online, console Smash Bros. experience, if the 3DS could do it.

Toon Link is either wary or duly unimpressed with Pikachu, who just seems fascinated by comparison.

Toon Link is either wary or duly unimpressed with Pikachu, who just seems fascinated by comparison.

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS has proven that Smash Bros. can go portable and still provide a quality fighting experience on-the-go. While not perfect, and lacking in some respects, it easily holds its own against the previous console entries to the series and has found itself as the only 3DS game I’ve been playing since its release – it hasn’t been removed from the cartridge port yet. Between the single-player modes, multiplayer smash, and online play, you’ll be busy for a quite a long time. What will you do when Super Smash Bros. for Wii U comes out?! Let the planning begin.

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.