The Last of Us Part II

Upon its 2013 release, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us proved to be a tremendous hit with fans and critics alike. It proceeded to receive awards from nearly every conceivable outlet with one journalist considering it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. Emboldened by the success of this game, series creator Neil Druckman and the rest of Naughty Dog began working on a sequel in 2014. As development proceeded, Naughty Dog also provided gamers with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The former provided a sendoff to series protagonist Nathan Drake whereas the latter continued the story with two prominent female characters. Both games were well-received and cemented Naughty Dog as one of the most beloved American developers in the process. With the sequel to The Last of Us announced in 2016, fans eagerly awaited what Mr. Druckmann and his team had to offer.

Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, the development process would prove to be less than uneventful. While Mr. Druckmann had previously encountered tremendous difficulties on his path to bringing his artistic visions into reality, it was nothing compared to what was about to occur. The troubles began brewing as early as the very year they began work on the game. In March of 2014, it came to light that the creative director of the first three Uncharted installments, Amy Henning, had left Naughty Dog alongside game director Justin Richmond. One article from IGN speculated that they had been forced out of the company, citing how it coincided with Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley’s subsequent replacement of their respective positions. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra released statements, clarifying that neither of them had anything to do with the departure of Ms. Henning or Mr. Richmond.

The controversy eventually subsided, and the fans continued to await the sequel to The Last of Us. Shortly after the release of The Lost Legacy in 2017, the first trailers for this sequel surfaced. Fans were now more excited than ever – particularly after the game became slated for a release in September of 2019. However, history repeated itself – this time, in the worst way possible. Jason Schreier, writing for Kotaku, wrote a report that revealed Naughty Dog’s intensive crunch schedule wherein 12-hour workdays was the standard. Many people concluded that Naughty Dog had been exploiting their programmers’ passion, and soon enough, the company gained a bad reputation in Los Angeles County for up-and-coming programmers. With its staff unable to bear working such untenable hours, the company had a 70% turnover rate. Although several other sources claimed such a thing was not unheard of in the industry, this caused many of Naughty Dog’s fans to turn on them.

Because of these harsh working conditions, the game found itself delayed yet again – this time to 2020. Naughty Dog assured fans the game would be released by that year’s summer, but then a disaster the likes of which humankind hadn’t experienced in nearly a century occurred. In late 2019, a coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 had broken out in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. Being highly infectious and capable of causing severe damage to one’s respiratory system, everyone on the planet not employed by an essential business soon found themselves under lockdown the following March. Unemployment skyrocketed and the ensuing stock market crash was likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of the year, over one-million people had lost their lives to the virus. It would eventually be considered the single worst pandemic in recorded history since the influenza outbreak of 1918.

In response to logistical problems caused by the virus, Naughty Dog opted to delay the game once more – this time indefinitely. By this point, fans were beginning to lose patience with Naughty Dog. It would seem that the game was not to surface for quite some time. However, an undesirable development forced their hand. In April of 2020, key details of the game’s story were leaked onto the internet. Although it was initially dismissed as a hoax, the leaks were quickly confirmed as the genuine article. Under most circumstances, leaks spoiling major content would cause fans to despair. The emotion these leaks instead inspired was sheer, raw anger – directed at Mr. Druckmann himself. Due to the content of these leaks, many fans swore off buying the game entirely with some going as far as canceling their preordered copy.

A few days after these leaks occurred, Naughty Dog announced the game had gone gold. Discs could now be manufactured for a slated release date of June 19, 2020. Many fans were excited about getting their hands on the game sooner than expected, but it was clear the leaks had taken the wind out of Naughty Dog’s sails. Regardless, the game, simply titled The Last of Us Part II, quickly amassed a level of acclaim rivaling – and in some circles, surpassing – that of the original. Many of them considered it the first true masterpiece of the 2020s. Facing delays, internal problems, and a worldwide pandemic along the road to seeing the light of day, was The Last of Us Part II truly able to surpass the acclaim of the original game and truly tap into the medium’s storytelling potential?

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Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back

Although it managed to receive some accolades for setting out into uncharted territory, fans and critics alike would eventually dub Bubsy 3D one of the worst games ever made. Coupled with having to compete with Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 and Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot, the latter of which debuted on the same console as Bubsy 3D, the game had no chance of retaining any kind of long-term appeal. If there was any chance for the series to recover its fleeting relevance, Accolade’s dissolution in September of 2000 completely ruined it.

For the longest time, the series was looked back upon as a curious novelty from the 1990s. It thus came as a surprise when, in June of 2017, a new Bubsy game was announced. Rights to the franchise had been acquired by the Hong Kong company Billionsoft. Developing the installment would be Black Forest Games – a company based in Offenburg, Germany that had previously revived the Giana Sisters series in 2012 to a generally favorable reception.

Although nostalgia for the 1990s arguably saw its peak during the 2010s, the announcement of a new Bubsy game was met with much derision. The creators leaned into the series’ bad reputation, creating a social media account for the character for the purpose of making self-deprecating jokes at his expense. Whatever goodwill this may have generated was lost when the game debuted in October of that year. Although it wasn’t as disliked as Bubsy 3D, critical reviews were almost universally negative. Fans were only slightly more kind to the game, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with them either. How, exactly, did this game manage to invoke so much ire in the press?

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The Final Fantasy Legend

In 1987, a struggling game developer named Square released Final Fantasy. It was so named because the team wished for a name that could be shortened to FF. That way, it could be abbreviated in the Latin script and pronounced in four syllables in Japanese. It is also speculated that the name came about due to series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi being in dire straits at the time. Had the game failed, he would have quit the industry entirely and gone back to university. Mr. Sakaguchi himself later stated that these theories, despite having a ring of truth to them, were overblown and any two words beginning with the letter “F” would have worked. In either case, the game proceeded to ship 520,000 copies in Japan. When the company decided to localize the game for North American markets, the company managed to move an additional 700,000 copies. Suddenly, the company that had been struggling to find its voice could now stand tall with the artists from which they drew inspiration.

Two years after the release of Final Fantasy, Nintendo launched the Game Boy console. As it was considered a monochromatic, portable Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), units began flying off of the shelves. Square president Masafumi Miyamoto, seeing a prime opportunity to expand into another section of the market, requested his developers to turn their attention to the Game Boy. Employee Nobuyuki Hoshino came up with the central concepts for this hypothetical game while Akitoshi Kawazu was handed the reins. The success of Tetris and Super Mario Land demonstrated that there was an audience for the portable market, and Mr. Kawazu alongside Koichi Ishii sought to provide the platform with something a little more advanced: a role-playing game.

The project was completed in 1989, seeing its domestic release in December. The game was named Makai Toushi SaGa – or Warrior of the Spirit World Tower: SaGa. It was highly acclaimed by Japanese critics, and it became Square’s first game to sell over one-million copies. The following year would see Final Fantasy becoming a sleeper hit in North America, so to bank off its popularity, SaGa was renamed The Final Fantasy Legend. Although it wasn’t as acclaimed abroad as Final Fantasy, The Final Fantasy Legend did find an audience, and even today, it is considered one of the Game Boy’s hallmarks. As the first role-playing experience for a popular, portable console, how was The Final Fantasy Legend able to craft an identity distinct from that of Final Fantasy?

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Mega Man 6

Mega Man 5 continued the success of Capcom’s best-selling franchise despite having been released two years after the release of the Super Famicom (SNES). Shortly thereafter, Capcom announced a sequel, which would be developed concurrently with a highly anticipated SNES entry. The game saw its domestic release in late 1993 under the name Rockman 6: The Greatest Battle in History!!

However, as the game came out when the fourth console generation was in full swing, the Famicom (NES) began to show its age, and Capcom decided against exporting it. This was a problem, as the monthly publication Nintendo Power had held a contest for its readers to design a new set of Robot Masters. While this had been standard practice since Mega Man 2, Mega Man 6 would include two Robot Masters designed by North American fans – Daniel Vallée and Michael Leader. To have North American fans participate in the contest for a game they wouldn’t get to play was unacceptable, so Nintendo stepped in and published it abroad. The game was released in North America in 1994 simply titled Mega Man 6. Due to the NES having far less presence in Europe, fans from that region wouldn’t see an official release for another nineteen years when it debuted on the 3DS Virtual Console in 2013. Mega Man 6 would be the final game in the series to debut on the aging NES. Was the game able to end its run on its debut platform on a high note?

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)

When Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was released in November of 2016, the sales figures fell short of publisher Activision’s expectations. The critical scores, while leaning positive, were ultimately mixed. By this point in history, various developers handled the Call of Duty franchise in a three-year development cycle. Infinity Ward, the developer credited with having created in the series in the first place, was behind Infinite Warfare, putting them in a bad way. One year later, Sledgehammer Games found success in bringing the series back to its World War II roots in the form of Call of Duty: WWII. Infinity Ward wound up following suit.

Taking inspiration from contemporary acclaimed works such as Homeland, American Sniper, and Sicario, campaign gameplay director Jacob Minkoff wanted the medium to explore taboo subjects. These sentiments were echoed by studio art director Joel Emslie, who promised his game’s narrative would be “much more grown-up [and] mature”. While Infinite Warfare cast the series into the future and WWII set its sights to the past, this new game would take place in the modern day. As a callback to the game that established the series as one of the most profitable in the history of the medium, it was named Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Although it didn’t quite achieve the overwhelming praise as the original Modern Warfare, the 2019 reboot was released to fairly high acclaim. Does this game truly advance the medium as Mr. Minkoff or Mr. Emslie intended?

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Mega Man 5

Introduction

Even one year into the lifespan of the Super Famicom – known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) abroad – Mega Man 4 became a bestselling game for Nintendo’s aging Famicom (NES) console. The game Capcom executives originally saw little potential in had a presence on the console only Nintendo’s own characters could rival, and it wasn’t going to stop there. Continuing the momentum from the previous games, artist Keiji Inafune helmed a new project that would see the creation of the series’ fifth installment. Having established a formula by this point, development proceeded uneventfully.

The game was released domestically in December of 1992 for the Famicom under the name Rockman 5: Blues’s Trap!? – Blues being the Japanese name for the character Western players knew as Proto Man. It surfaced in the United States shortly afterwards before being released in Europe months later. In those regions, Capcom’s American branch once again excised the subtitle, renaming it Mega Man 5. With four predecessors boasting highly similar gameplay, does Mega Man 5 bring anything meaningful to the table?

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New Super Mario Bros. U

Introduction

Bringing the familiar, side-scrolling gameplay back to the console scene after a nineteen-year sabbatical, New Super Mario Bros. Wii proved a tremendous hit upon its 2009 release. The new, four-player gameplay was especially well-received, finally allowing series creator Shigeru Miyamoto to implement an idea he had conceived as early as the 1980s. In response to this development, Nintendo was inspired to make sequels. The first of which was New Super Mario Bros. 2. Released in 2012 for the 3DS, it sold itself as a sequel to the original New Super Mario Bros. It was a commercial success, though detractors accused Nintendo of resting their laurels due to the sheer amount of recycled assets.

However, another sequel was being developed at the same time for the Wii’s successor: the Wii U. It didn’t exactly start out this way; the game had the tentative title New Super Mario Bros. Mii, which would allow players to use custom-made avatars in addition to the famous plumber. It was featured at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) of 2011 in a series of technical demonstrations showcasing the Wii U’s capabilities. After its warm reception, Mr. Miyamoto announced that the game would be released as a launch title alongside the Wii U under the name New Super Mario Bros. U. And so, later in the same year as the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2, the Wii U was launched. New Super Mario Bros. U was well-received, with many critics believing it to a step in the right direction compared to its direct predecessor. As the fourth entry in the New Super Mario Bros. subseries, does New Super Mario Bros. U successfully recapture the essence of the franchise’s pioneering side-scrolling installments?

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Super Monkey Ball 2

Introduction

Even after the Dreamcast was discontinued in 2001, few predicted that Sega would, in the very same year, proceed to have one of their games ported to a Nintendo console. Such a reality came to pass when the GameCube launched. The console’s debut signified the true end of an era when Super Monkey Ball, a port of Sega’s arcade game Monkey Ball, was among its launch titles. To the surprise of creator Toshihiro Nagoshi and Amusement Vision, Super Monkey Ball became a sleeper hit amongst the Nintendo GameCube’s launch titles in North America. If Sega porting a game for a Nintendo console only for it to become a tremendous hit was a sign of the changing times, what happened shortly thereafter drove the point home even more.

Sonic and Mario had clashed numerous times throughout the fourth and fifth console generation. Halfway through the 1990s, the rivalry between the two characters became the stuff of legends. And just like that, the final mainline release in Sega’s long-running Sonic the Hedgehog series to debut on one of their consoles, Sonic Adventure 2, found itself ported to the Nintendo GameCube as though nothing happened. For those who had grown up with Nintendo consoles, this port, named Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, was likely their first exposure to Mario’s most famous rival alongside Sonic Advance, which was released the very same day for the Game Boy Advance. The gaming landscape had permanently changed, and even those not very versed in the medium knew it.

With Super Monkey Ball being one of the GameCube’s most popular launch titles, it was only natural that Mr. Nagoshi and Amusement Vision would be inspired to create a sequel. Taking their simple concept out for another spin, Mr. Nagoshi and his team created Super Monkey Ball 2, releasing it in 2002. To appeal to the series’ newfound fanbase abroad, it was first released in North America in August of that year before debuting domestically the following November. Like its predecessor, the game was well-received, garnering dedicated fans who continue to praise it to this day. As one of Sega’s first games specifically created for another company’s console, did Super Monkey Ball 2 successfully continue its creator’s momentum?

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New Super Mario Bros. 2

Introduction

Nintendo’s successor to the Game Boy Advance, the DS, proved to be a tremendous hit when it launched in 2004. It revolutionized the medium by introducing touch controls. Nintendo’s effort was not without precedent, but they were arguably the first to implement them competently. By the end of its lifespan, the DS sold more than 150-million units worldwide. Even with Sony, which had dominated the console market after launching their PlayStation product line, Nintendo continued to rule the handheld scene. As the decade came to a close, people began to speculate as to how Nintendo could follow up the DS. The press wouldn’t have to wait long before Nintendo officially announced their newest handheld system: the 3DS. This console would be capable of displaying stereoscopic three-dimensional effects without the need for special glasses or any other accessory.

Naturally, as Nintendo had created some of the longest-running, beloved franchises in the medium’s history, fans eagerly anticipated new entries to debut on the console. The release of Super Mario 64 in 1996 caused a minor divide among fans. While highly regarded, certain fans longed for Nintendo to create another side-scrolling installment. For those who wanted the series to revisit its roots had their wishes granted in the form of New Super Mario Bros., which was released on the DS. Those who hoped for these kinds of games to return to consoles were similarly delighted in 2009 when New Super Mario Bros. Wii was released for the eponymous console.

With the release of the 3DS, both factions were pleased when Shigeru Miyamoto revealed two Mario games in development for the 3DS. One, taking advantage of the new technology, would be in three dimensions while the other was to retain the sidescrolling gameplay of the New Super Mario Bros. subseries. The former saw its release in 2011 – the same year as the 3DS’s launch – under the name Super Mario 3D Land. Shortly thereafter, the president of Nintendo at the time, Satoru Iwata, formally announced this sidescrolling installment’s name: New Super Mario Bros. 2. The game was released worldwide in the summer of 2012 whereupon it became the first retail 3DS title to make itself available as a digital download. The game was fairly well-received, though it didn’t seem to generate as much enthusiasm as its two predecessors. As the third game in the subseries, does New Super Mario Bros. 2 bring anything new to the table?

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Monkey Ball

Introduction

In 1989, a man named Toshihiro Nagoshi graduated from Tokyo Zokei University, earning a degree in film production. Shortly thereafter, he joined Sega, a game developer that recently made a name for itself in the arcade scene and the budding console market when they released the Mega Drive – renamed the Genesis in North America. When the developer conceived its mascot in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog, whose debut game launched in 1991, they suddenly became a force capable of challenging Nintendo. Mr. Nagoshi was first assigned to the company’s second arcade department (AM2). Under the wing of Yu Suzuki, he was a CG designer for the 1992 arcade hit Virtua Racing – one of the first games of its kind to utilize three-dimensional polygons. He then used this knowledge to direct, produce, and design a game of his own in 1998: Daytona USA 2.

In 2000, Sega had separated their nine research and development departments from the parent company. They were established as semi-autonomous subsidiaries with a president acting as a studio head. Mr. Nagoshi found himself in charge of one of them; the subsidiary’s name was Amusement Vision. Their first two projects saw the creation of Planet Harriers and SlashOut. The former was a 3D rail shooter and the latter a fantasy-themed beat ‘em up. Their first console project saw them revamp the original Daytona USA alongside Genki for the Sega Dreamcast – the successor of the Sega Saturn.

Despite this success, Mr. Nagoshi felt he was bad at actually playing games. Therefore, his next project would be one that new players could instantly understand and play. Specifically, he wanted to make a game involving rolling a sphere through a maze. This was to provide a contrast to the increasingly complex titles dominating Japanese arcades at the time. Although they quickly conceived a physics engine, he felt the idea of guiding plain spheres to be visually unappealing. Worse, without any distinguishing features, it would be difficult for the player to gauge their avatar’s movements. Therefore, Mr. Nagoshi decided to place monkey characters inside the spheres, using concept art from designer Mika Kojima. The game, entitled Monkey Ball, debuted at the 2001 Amusement Operator Union trade show before formally hitting arcades in June of that year.

Despite its arcade design sensibilities, Monkey Ball provided gameplay that would make for an ideal console port. However, there was just one problem with such a proposition. Although it was well-received and is thought of as a great console for its time, the Dreamcast’s run ended up being short-lived. Isao Okawa had replaced Shoichiro Irimajiri as Sega’s president in 2000. Unlike his predecessor, he had advised Sega to leave the console business to focus entirely on software. Combined with a lack of third-party support, the enormous success of Sony’s PlayStation 2 console, and Sega’s damaged reputation as a result of previous failed attempts to launch new hardware such as the Sega 32X and the Sega Saturn, March of 2001 marked the end of an era when the Dreamcast was discontinued. With Sega officially having left the console race, they were now a “platform-agnostic” third-party publisher. Mr. Nagoshi still intended to create a console port for Monkey Ball, and the parent company had chosen the ideal platform for its debut.

The creation of Sonic the Hedgehog sparked the medium’s first true console rivalry between the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the Sega Genesis. Due to their fairly high price points, most kids would only own one of these consoles. This meant you were either a Nintendo kid or a Sega kid. In schools, it wasn’t unheard of for gangs to form based on which console they owned. All of that came to an abrupt and shocking end in 2001 when, in the very same year as the Dreamcast’s discontinuation, a game published by Sega would be among the Nintendo GameCube’s launch titles.

Unlike Sony’s PlayStation 2 or Microsoft’s inaugural console, the Xbox, the Nintendo GameCube sought to draw in a younger audience, meaning that Monkey Ball would fit right in. Mr. Nagoshi even commented that the Amusement Vision staff felt more comfortable with the GameCube hardware than they did Sega’s own. He also joked that Nintendo was the only console manufacturer his staff members didn’t hate.

Sega assured fans that the port would be created in time for the GameCube’s launch. A little over a month later, the team modified their game to run on the GameCube’s hardware. They spent additional time to conceive bonus features, enhance the graphics, and even introduce a fourth character. As promised, this port, named Super Monkey Ball, was released alongside the Nintendo GameCube itself in 2001. The game proved to be a commercial success, though to Mr. Nagoshi’s surprise, it fared better in the United States than it did domestically. There, it became one of Sega’s bestselling titles in 2002. Many journalists even went as far as considering it the highlight of the GameCube’s launch titles. As the very first game Sega ever published for a Nintendo console, were they able to begin their new life as a third-party developer on the right foot?

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