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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

Dear Esther

Introduction

In the mid-2000s, a professor and lecturer from the University of Portsmouth named Dan Pinchbeck had an idea for an experimental video game. Creating mods using Valve Software’s Source engine became a favorite pastime of many PC enthusiasts at the time – Mr. Pinchbeck included. He then realized he needed someone to score the game. For this task, he turned to his wife, Jessica Curry. Ms. Curry had earned a Bachelor of Arts for English Literature and Language at the University College London in 1994; her postgraduate work saw her earn a diploma in Screen Music from the National Film and Television School. Using her experience, she was more than happy to help her husband with his project. Thus, in 2007, the couple founded their very own independent game studio they dubbed The Chinese Room – named after the famous thought experiment devised by philosopher John Searle in his work “Minds, Brains, and Programs”.

Being a research project at the university, it received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mr. Pinchbeck conceived the script, citing the works of William S. Burroughs as an inspiration. He sought to capture a poetic use of language while drafting the script, contrasting the descriptive tone typically found in the medium. The game, entitled Dear Esther, was originally released as a free mod in 2008. It was later selected for the Animation Exhibition at the Prix Ars Electronica. There, the website Mod DB selected it as one of the best mods of the year, placing it on their top 100 list. The following year, Dear Esther won the award for Best World/Story award at the IndieCade festival.

Like many successful mods, Dear Esther went on to receive a commercial release. This Landmark Edition was released in 2012 on the digital distribution platform Steam. An artist of renown within the independent circuit named Robert Briscoe had the honors of completely redeveloping Dear Esther from the ground up. As the original mod, though praised, was also criticized for baring numerous glitches and a poor level design, Mr. Pinchbeck gave Mr. Briscoe his full blessings for the redesign. As a standalone release, Dear Esther received positive reviews overall. When the original mod was created, the independent gaming scene had started gaining traction. Even now, it is considered one of the scene’s early hallmarks. How, exactly, did it capture such a profound amount of critical attention?

Continue reading

Tacoma

Introduction

The year 2013 marked the debut of Gone Home – the inaugural project of The Fullbright Company. The team, based in Portland, Oregon, was founded by one Steve Gaynor, who began his work in the industry as a tester for Sony and Perpetual Entertainment before designing stages for BioShock 2. Gone Home was a resounding critical success. The most notable piece of praise it received was from Polygon when critic Danielle Riendeau awarded it a perfect, ten-point score, calling it a “quiet triumph in storytelling”. Despite its universal critical acclaim, Gone Home struggled to find an audience outside of its proponents due to its short length and lack of gameplay.

Despite its overall mixed reception, Fullbright would use their success to fund their next project. Keeping true to their Pacific Northwest roots, they conceived a story taking place in a home in Tacoma, Washington. However, they backpedaled from this idea when they felt it to be too similar to Gone Home. While Gone Home sold itself as a slice-of-life story told within a video game, their next product would incorporate science fiction elements by being set in a space station. The team would name their game Tacoma as a nod to its original setting.

Tacoma was originally announced at The Game Awards in December of 2014, though it wouldn’t see its release until August of 2017 due to their playtesters’ feedback. Released across various platforms, Tacoma received favorable reviews. Eurogamer notably ranked it twenty-second on their list of the best games of 2017. Despite its favorable reception, Tacoma went on to sell fewer copies than Gone Home. Mr. Gaynor himself attributed its modest performance on the sheer number of games released in 2017, believing by that it was harder for indie titles to break out into the mainstream by then. Regardless of the exact reason, they realized Tacoma wasn’t the success story on the same level of Gone Home. Was it truly a step down from their thunderous debut?

Continue reading

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom

Introduction

Although Westone’s Wonder Boy series garnered a following, its association with the popular developer Sega arguably ended up being its undoing. This is because 1991 marked the debut of Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. Seen as their answer to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog’s debut game proved to be a gigantic hit. As a result, Sega began primarily focusing on their popular character. The game marked a stark paradigm shift in Sega’s output, causing many of their older franchises to fall by the wayside. This included their former mascot, Alex Kidd. Despite not having been developed by Sega themselves, Wonder Boy was afflicted as well. With Sega electing not to export what would end up being the final installment, Monster World IV, to the West, the series quickly fell into obscurity.

Sixteen years later in 2010, an independent developer in Paris, France named Game Atelier was founded. They made their passion for the medium clear from the beginning, wishing to one day create a surprising, joyful, thrilling game everyone can enjoy. One of their first games was Flying Hamster – a colorful horizontal shooter. Their effort was a success, being downloaded over one-million times across the various active platforms at the time. Game Atelier took this opportunity to set their sights higher when it came time to make a sequel. To fund the game, they looked to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Helmed by one Fabien Demeulenaere, Flying Hamster II was to provide a completely different experience from its predecessor, being an action-RPG platforming game with a shapeshifting protagonist. Parallels to the Wonder Boy series – more specifically, the Monster World installments that followed the original arcade game – were not a coincidence. Mr. Demeulenaere and his team were big fans of the series, and Flying Hamster II was to be both a loving tribute and a spiritual successor to those games with a projected release date in mid-2015. Before it could be determined if the creators reached their funding goal, the project was suddenly cancelled. The developer announced a partnership with FDG Entertainment, a company founded in 2001 that specialized in producing and publishing games for Java-compatible hardware. For the next year, no new information would be revealed.

Game Atelier then broke their silence by announcing their newest project: Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Although Westone had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated their assets in 2014, Sega only owned the names of the games. This meant that series creator Ryuichi Nishizawa was able to retain everything else. As fate would have it, Flying Hamster II caught the attention of Mr. Nishizawa, who was flattered that his work struck such a chord in Game Atelier. From there, he used his ownership of the series’ rights to transform what would have been a spiritual successor to Wonder Boy into a canonical installment. Collaborating with Mr. Nishizawa, Mr. Demeulenaere and his team finished and subsequently released their game in December of 2018. Twenty-four years had passed since the release of Monster World IV when Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom saw completion. Outside of the comic book industry, not many people can claim to have directed an official installment of one of their favorite series. Was what Mr. Demeulenaere created worthy of marching under the Wonder Boy banner?

Continue reading

Dark Souls

Introduction

In the 1990s, a man named Hidetaka Miyazaki graduated from Keio University with a degree in social science. He began working for an American company named Oracle Corporation wherein he managed accounts. However, he reconsidered his career path at age 29 when a friend recommended a game named Ico to him. Inspired by its design, Mr. Miyazaki sought a career in game design. Due to his age, few companies were willing to employ him. Fortunately, he found one promising studio in the form of FromSoftware. After being hired, he began working as a planner for the then-latest installment in their long-running Armored Core series of mech games: Last Raven. To his surprise, he soon found himself in the director’s chair, overseeing the development of Armored Core 4 and its direct sequel Armored Core: For Answer.

The seventh console generation began in 2005 following Microsoft’s launch of the Xbox 360. It was in full swing in 2006 once Nintendo and Sony released the Wii and PlayStation 3 respectively. The latter was largely criticized upon its launch due to its limited library upon launch and exorbitant price point of $599 USD. Having manufactured the console upon which FromSoftware made their debut, it seemed only fitting that the developer would provide Sony with a hot app. It was to be a fantasy role-playing game intended to be a spiritual sequel to their inaugural title King’s Field.

Mr. Miyazaki was especially interested in the project, though the rest of the company considered it a failure. Not helping matters was its negative reception at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show. Nonetheless, Mr. Miyazaki felt that, once assigned to the game’s development, he would do his best to put his own artistic spin on it. He rationalized that “if [his] ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure”. In spite of its poor initial showing, the game, entitled Demon’s Souls, began selling surprisingly well through word-of-mouth. FromSoftware soon found they had a sleeper hit on their hands. Such was the hype surrounding Demon’s Souls that it caught the attention of Western gamers – some of whom went as far as importing it. Luckily, they wouldn’t have to wait long for a chance to play it themselves because the surprising success of Demon’s Souls allowed them to easily find publishers willing to venture an overseas release. Thus, Demon’s Souls went on to become one of the PlayStation 3’s exemplary exclusive titles.

Having made such a popular game, it would seem only natural for Mr. Miyazaki and his team to rally themselves for round two. As soon as they could, they began working on a new game. However, things were not so clear-cut. Demon’s Souls was published by Sony whereas this new game would have Bandai Namco do the honors. As a direct result of this transfer, the intellectual property rights prevented FromSoftware from making a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls.

Undeterred, Mr. Miyazaki and his team retained many of the same basic ideas from Demon’s Souls to create not a sequel, but a spiritual successor. Working hard over the next two years, the game was finished and released worldwide in 2011 for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 under the name Dark Souls. While Demon’s Souls brought the company true international exposure, Dark Souls signposted to everyone that their success wasn’t an accident. Selling over two-million copies over the next two years, Mr. Miyazaki would soon be rewarded for his creativity by being promoted to the company’s president in 2014. To this day, Dark Souls is considered one of the greatest efforts of the 2010s. On the heels of a surprising sleeper hit, how was Dark Souls able to continue this momentum?

Continue reading

Pokémon X and Y

Introduction

Around the time director Junichi Masuda and his team were putting the finishing touches on Pokémon Black and White, they had already begun drafting ideas for the succeeding set of games. Mr. Masuda wanted the themes of the sixth generation to revolve around beauty, bonds, and evolution. Evolution had always played a key role in the series, being a power many of the title creatures possessed, though it would be more accurate to describe the process as a metamorphosis. Bonds had also been a running theme throughout the series with narratives emphasizing the teamwork between Pokémon and humans in their universe. This just left beauty as the sole theme the series hadn’t covered at length. It was therefore fitting that Mr. Masuda would base the setting of these games off of France – a country known for its beauty. To this end, he brought a team with his to France to study the countryside and architecture.

As they worked on the games, the DS’s successor, the 3DS, was about to be released. The console, which would be released in 2011 worldwide, boasted the same dual-screen gameplay of its predecessor in addition to a litany of new upgrades. This included built-in motion sensors, a larger screen, and true to its name, a true three-dimensional presentation. Although it didn’t initially sell as many units as its popular predecessor, it eventually gained momentum following the release of several high-profile, acclaimed games such as Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. It would also be the console that finally allowed Intelligent Systems’ Fire Emblem series to get mainstream acclaim in the West when Fire Emblem Awakening was localized in 2013.

The Pokémon franchise had always been on handheld devices, so it was only natural for fans to eagerly await a new generation to debut on the 3DS. In defiance of the series’ naming conventions, which involved colors or gemstones, the team decided these new games would be called X and Y. These letters were chosen in order to represent different forms of thinking, bringing to mind an x-axis and a y-axis. It was also a subtle allusion to the simultaneous, worldwide release of the games in 2013. Mr. Masuda’s team even attempted to make the names of the Pokémon the same in every country whenever possible, though Mr. Masuda found this task exceptionally difficult.

The anticipation for these games was such that Brazilian stores attempted to sell them prior to their official release date. This prompted Nintendo to issue a warning stating they would penalize them if they continued to do that. However, the United Kingdom ended up following suit when a store in Bournemouth started selling the games on the eve of their release date. This created a domino effect, prompting other retailers across the nation began selling the games early as well. Like the preceding sets of games, X and Y were well-received critically. Commercially, they beat the records set by Black and White by selling four-million copies worldwide during the opening weekend. Being on the 3DS, X and Y would be the first games in the main series to leave spritework behind in favor of three-dimensional models for their characters. After this, there was no going back. Were X and Y able to successfully translate the series’ iconic gameplay into three dimensions?

Continue reading

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Introduction

Call of Duty: Ghosts proved to be a success when it was released in 2013. However, particularly bad word-of-mouth ensured it was met with a poor fan response. Independent critics disliked it for the campaign’s litany of unfortunate implications whereas fans were unimpressed with its multiplayer capabilities – or lack thereof. Despite selling over nineteen-million copies, Call of Duty: Ghosts was considered by its creators to be a failure, thwarting any immediate attempts at creating a sequel. In order for the series to win back its wary fans, the creators realized they needed to shift gears.

Sledgehammer Games had co-developed the third and final entry in the Modern Warfare trilogy with Infinity Ward after much of the latter company’s key personnel was fired for what Activision CEO Bobby Kotick considered acts of insubordination. However, even before then, Sledgehammer had been working on an installment of their own entitled Call of Duty: Fog of War. Announced before the release of Modern Warfare 3, this game was to be set during the events of the Vietnam War. It would defy the series’ conventions by being an action-adventure game presented from a third-person perspective. The plans for this game were put on hold when Sledgehammer dedicated all of their efforts to seeing Modern Warfare 3 to completion.

Fog of War was then silently canceled when Sledgehammer began working on an entirely different project upon completing Modern Warfare 3. According to its director, Michael Condrey, the game’s engine had been built from scratch. On top of that, the game was to boast an advanced facial animation system using the same technology James Cameron sought to employ in his then-upcoming film Avatar 2. Even with a technological advancement other developers could only dream of possessing, Sledgehammer wasn’t done. In an attempt to capture the Hollywood sensibilities the AAA industry had been pursuing for some time, they recruited actor Kevin Spacey to portray a central character. With these enhancements, it seemed only natural that they would entitle the game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. All of the steps Activision and Sledgehammer took in order to get people talking about their game paid off when it received fairly positive reviews upon its 2014 release. Many critics called it the breath of fresh air the series desperately needed after the annual releases rendered it stale. With no shortage of hype surrounding this installment, was Advanced Warfare able to maintain the Call of Duty franchise’s relevance going into the eighth console generation?

Continue reading