[GAME REVIEW] Pokémon Black 2 and White 2

Introduction

Although they didn’t move quite as many units as the preceding set of games, the Black and White versions of Pokémon were the basis of yet another success story for the juggernaut franchise. Their scenario was especially praised for its sophisticated story beats, with many considering it the spiritual successor to Shigesato Itoi’s lauded 2006 effort, Mother 3. Having sold millions of copies, that there would be a follow-up to these games was a foregone conclusion. Indeed, previous generations had a standalone version to complement the initial two games. With the versions being called Black and White, many fans anticipated that a “Grey” version was just around the corner. However, the development team felt such a choice clashed with the theme of contrasting opposites that ran throughout the original games. Therefore, in defiance of enthusiasts’ expectations, the successors to Black and White were to be direct sequels: Black 2 and White 2. With many considering the fifth generation the series’ shining moment, the idea of returning to Unova for a second adventure was highly appealing.

Feeling satisfied with how Black and White turned out, director Junichi Masuda handed the reins to Takao Unno for this project, though the former remained to help produce the games. Because these games were to heavily draw resources from the set directly preceding them, the development process went without incident. Black 2 and White 2 saw its domestic debut in June of 2012 before being released the following October in North America, Australia, and Europe. Although these games were well-received overall, the critical enthusiasm didn’t match that of their predecessors. This reflected in sales figures as well with a little under eight-million copies sold by March of 2013. Could there be something about these games not reflected by the numbers?

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[GAME REVIEW] New Super Mario Bros.

Introduction

When Nintendo launched their handheld, dual-screened DS console in 2004, it quickly became a hot commodity. To showcase the machine’s technical capabilities, one of the system’s launch titles was a remake of Super Mario 64. Its debut in 1996 permanently changed the landscape of the medium, being the first successful, fully three-dimensional platforming game. However, there was the unspoken caveat that experiences like Super Mario 64 could only ever be experienced from the comfort of one’s home. The idea of being able to bring a game that advanced on vacation was thought of as rather ludicrous in 1996, yet just eight years later, such a reality came to pass. In fact, this remake, Super Mario 64 DS, looked better in many ways than the original version. Coupled with minigames that took full advantage of the system’s signature touch screen, and the DS was able to sell by the millions.

However, by the mid-2000s, the Mario franchise had a strange relationship with Nintendo’s handheld consoles. While mainline games had sparse releases on Nintendo’s home console, only having one entry per generation starting with Super Mario World, Super Mario Land: 6 Golden Coins would be the final installment of the 1990s to feature the side-scrolling gameplay that made the series famous in the first place. While the Game Boy Advance seemed like a prime opportunity to allow the Mario series to revisit its roots, its representation was limited to remakes and spinoffs. The Super Mario Advance series in particular was solely composed of ports. Discounting a few new extra stages being offered within these ports, it seemed as though the Mario franchise had truly moved on from its pioneering installments.

This changed shortly after the launch of the DS when Nintendo announced a new project by the name of New Super Mario Bros. As its title and teaser screenshots suggested, this game was to recapture the spirit of the series’ side-scrolling installments – albeit with a three-dimensional twist, using character models from Super Mario 64 DS. The game eventually saw its initial debut overseas in North America in May of 2006 before being released ten days later domestically. It then launched in Australia and Europe the following June. Just like the title it was named after, New Super Mario Bros. quickly became one of the best-selling games of all time, moving over thirty-million copies worldwide. Critics and fans alike had nothing but praise for the game, citing it as one of the console’s highlights. Did New Super Mario Bros. successfully recapture the aspects that allowed its predecessors to remain all-time classics?

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[GAME REVIEW] Pokémon Black and White

Introduction

By the time the fourth generation of Pokémon debuted with the Diamond and Pearl versions, Game Freak’s signature franchise gained a new lease on life. Though no longer the pop cultural juggernaut it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, gaming enthusiasts stopped dismissing the series as a fad from a bygone era, accepting it as a cornerstone of the medium. With Diamond and Pearl outselling the set of games that came before, Nintendo realized the series’ popularity hadn’t waned. In response to the fans’ enthusiasm, they began work on a sequel following the release of HeartGold and SoulSilver – remakes of the second-generation titles.

The fifth-generation games were officially announced in January of 2010. A spokesperson from the Pokémon Company stated that the new set of games were to debut later in the year for the Nintendo DS. Junichi Masuda, who directed Diamond and Pearl, said that several aspects would be revamped for the next generation. In April, the company’s official website was updated with the titles of these versions: Black and White. With the naming convention for the series electing to incorporate valuable metals and gemstones, Black and White sounded incredibly plain. Nonetheless, fans were excited to see what the series now had to offer. His ultimate goal with this project was to appeal to both newcomers and those who had not played the series in quite some time.

Pokémon Black and White were released domestically in September of 2010. International fans wouldn’t have to wait too long, for the games were released in Europe, North America, and Australia in March of 2011. Although the series had little trouble finding an audience, it wasn’t always a critical favorite. The first-generation games were outright dismissed as mediocre efforts by domestic critics, and while subsequent sets would fare slightly better, the fans took it upon themselves to keep the franchise afloat. That all changed when Black and White became the first set of games to garner a rare perfect score from Famitsu magazine. It fared just as well internationally with many critics feeling it to have been the single greatest generation in the franchise’s history thus far. These sentiments were reflected by the enthusiasts; throughout the remainder of the decade, the games sold over fifteen-million copies. Did Black and White move the franchise forward during its second wind?

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[GAME REVIEW] Pilotwings 64

Introduction

Having been released within a month of the Super Famicom’s domestic launch, Pilotwings went on to become one of the console’s most beloved titles. Very rarely did one ever see anyone make a serious attempt at three-dimensional gameplay in 1990. Although Pilotwings lacked a true sense of depth, that the team led by producer Shigeru Miyamoto was willing to experiment allowed it to have a rightful place in history. Because it was such a widespread, mainstream success, many developers began to see 3D as the way of the future.

Strangely, despite the fact that it proved successful, it didn’t inspire any sequels immediately. Because of its simplistic gameplay, Pilotwings is thought of as an elaborate technical demonstration for the Super NES. It wasn’t that the developers weren’t interested in creating a sequel – they simply explored what Pilotwings accomplished using different properties. Whether it was using the console’s Mode 7 feature to supplement their presentation or adding action elements to the general gameplay and calling it Star Fox, the influence Pilotwings had on the medium could be felt for the duration of the console generation despite not being as prolific as Nintendo’s other successes. Therefore, with Pilotwings having demonstrated what the Super NES was capable of, it seemed only natural that Nintendo would wait until they were ready to make another strong impression to finally create a sequel.

In the mid-1990s, Nintendo was working on their newest console: the Nintendo 64. While the Super NES merely faked the perception of depth by creatively rotating and scaling scanlines, the Nintendo 64 was going to be the genuine article. With one of the most advanced graphics processers of its day, they would redefine the rules of the medium once more in the form of the launch title Super Mario 64. As Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Yoshiaki Koizumi directed its creation, Nintendo turned their attention to a company based in Addison, Texas called Paradigm Entertainment.

Founded in 1990, the company primarily focused on creating products specifically for graphics developers. This included military training simulations for pilots and ship captains. Their diverse clientele included the United States Department of Defense, NASA, Lockheed Martin Boeing, and the Walt Disney Company. With their endorsement of 3D graphics and virtual reality, Nintendo couldn’t have picked a better company to help co-develop the Nintendo 64’s iteration of Pilotwings. Led by Genyo Takeda and Makoto Wada of Nintendo, the two companies began developing the game in earnest in 1995. As Mr. Miyamoto was co-directing Super Mario 64 at the time, his role ended up being far more removed than his production work for the original Pilotwings, though he still oversaw the project from Japan.

Paradigm had developed simulators for military vehicles and aircraft, yet never created a video game. As such, the first hurdle the company had to overcome involved combating old habits. From the beginning, they had to choose between creating what amounted to an arcade game on a home console or a simulation. Rather than placing an emphasis on physics during development, they opted to create something that had a balance between realism and fun. While Paradigm worked on its graphical presentation, Nintendo was in charge of the game design. Using a naming convention that would become typical for the platform, the game was entitled Pilotwings 64. It would be one of the thirteen Nintendo 64 games showcased during the Shoshinkai event in November of 1995 – during which time, the console was dubbed the Ultra 64. The game debuted domestically alongside the retitled Nintendo 64 in June of 1996. It would launch with the console as it made its international debut the following September and March as well. Was Pilotwings 64 able to truly demonstrate the Nintendo 64’s potential?

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[GAME REVIEW] Kirby’s Adventure

Introduction

Kirby’s Dream Land was one of HAL Laboratory’s greatest successes when it launched on the Game Boy in 1992. It proceeded to sell over one-million copies over the next few years. Despite this, the game drew a fair bit of criticism. Veteran gamers in particular were critical of its short length and lack of difficulty. Even gamers of a middling skill level could blaze through the experience in the course of an afternoon. Nonetheless, its stellar commercial performance all but ensured a sequel would be made. Series creator Masahiro Sakurai found himself in the director’s chair once more, and his team was determined to expand upon the gameplay established by his inaugural title.

In order to successfully implement the myriad ideas they had for this new game, HAL Laboratory turned their attention to Nintendo’s home console. However, despite the Super Famicom, or Super NES as it was known internationally, having been released two years prior to the debut of Kirby’s Dream Land, the team decided the next game would debut on its predecessor – the Famicom. The game was named Kirby of the Stars: The Story of the Fountain of Dreams and saw its domestic release in March of 1993. It then debuted internationally in North America and Europe later in the same year retitled Kirby’s Adventure. By 1993, the fourth console generation was in full swing. It was a period of console gaming defined by the fierce rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. This did not prevent Kirby’s Adventure from becoming a bestseller. Unlike Kirby’s Dream Land, the game was a hit with critics as well. Retrospectives have since deemed it the NES’s swansong. In the midst of a battle that placed a great emphasis on presentation and technical prowess, how, exactly, did Kirby’s Adventure win over its predecessor’s detractors?

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[GAME REVIEW] Pilotwings

Introduction

With their Family Computer (Famicom), Nintendo proceeded to dominate the market throughout the entirety of the third console generation. The console proved to be such a success, it managed to revitalize the North American gaming industry after it crashed in 1983. Dubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) aboard, the console was responsible for injecting gaming into the mainstream. However, during the life of the Famicom, Nintendo gained two new rivals. First, NEC Corporation launched the PC Engine – internationally known as the TurboGrafx-16 – in 1987. Shortly thereafter in 1988, Sega launched the Mega Drive – rebranded the Genesis in North America. Although its launch titles had difficulties standing out from the competition, it was clearly a piece of technology superior to the Famicom with a graphical presentation that emulated arcade games in the latter half of the 1980s.

Masayuki Uemura, the Famicom’s designer, realized he needed to come up with something to surpass his lauded invention to ensure his company remained relevant, and thus made it so. In 1990, the Famicom’s successor, the Super Famicom, was launched. Nintendo realized it wouldn’t be enough to just continue their big-name franchises on this new platform. If consumers were under the impression the Super Famicom offered only a superior graphical presentation, they likely wouldn’t have been interested in purchasing it. They needed something to prove that the console was to offer experiences simply not possible on the aging Famicom software.

To this end, Nintendo formed a team consisting of various members of the Research and Development divisions. The team was named Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development (Nintendo EAD). Under the leadership of producer Shigeru Miyamoto, the team created three games within fifteen months of the Super Famicom’s inception. One was Super Mario World – the official sequel to the universally praised Super Mario Bros. 3. The second was F-Zero, a fast-paced racing game. The last of these games, however, would be something the medium had seen only a few times by 1990: a flight simulator. Named Pilotwings, this game was released one month after the Super Famicom’s launch. The console then proceeded to debut in North America the following year where it was renamed the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). Pilotwings was highly regarded upon release and is still considered one of the console’s premier titles in retrospectives. How was it able to grab the attention of consumers and critics alike back in 1990?

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[GAME REVIEW] Pokémon Diamond and Pearl

Introduction

Although Pokémon as a cultural phenomenon was over by the third generation’s debut in 2002, the Ruby and Sapphire versions of Game Freak’s popular franchise managed to move sixteen-million units, making them the best-selling titles on its platform. The successor to the Game Boy Color was a highly praised piece of technology for allowing players to have portable gaming experiences comparable to ones provided by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. However, just like the Game Boy Color, the Game Boy Advance wouldn’t last for long before its own successor saw the light of day.

Just before the debut of Ruby and Sapphire, the president of Nintendo at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, proposed the idea of a handheld console with two screens. The product from Mr. Yamauchi’s imagination would be announced in 2003. However, they claimed it would succeed neither the Game Boy Advance nor the Nintendo GameCube. In early 2004, the console was formally unveiled with the codename “Nintendo DS”. The acronym stood for “Developers’ System” or “Dual Screen”. The system’s specifications were highly advanced for its time, having two three-inch screens and one gigabit of semiconductor memory. The most notable aspect of this console was that the bottom screen would respond to touch commands. It wasn’t entirely unprecedented, for Tiger Electronics released a console in 1997 dubbed the Game.com. Its poor sales ensured the innovative idea died with it – or at least until Nintendo realized its potential. Mr. Yamauchi’s successor, Satoru Iwata, was enthusiastic about the DS, believing it would bring Nintendo into the forefront in terms of innovation. Released in 2004, its most notable launch title was a remake of Nintendo’s own game-changing Super Mario 64.

Although the Nintendo DS wasn’t created with the intent to succeed the Game Boy Advance, this scenario is precisely what came to pass. With many franchises such as Tetris and Super Mario Bros. gaining original entries on this system, it was only a matter of time before fans of Pokémon began speculating on the next generation. The year 2004 saw the debut of Pokémon Dash – a racing game that exclusively used the touch screen. Much like Yoshi’s Touch and Go, Pokémon Dash received fairly negative reviews. Critics believed developer Ambrella relied entirely on the touch screen to ferry an otherwise entry-level experience.

Even so, fans wouldn’t have to wait long before an official announcement was made. In 2004, the development of the fourth set of mainline games, Diamond and Pearl, was made known to the public. They would be the first set of games not developed by series co-creator Satoshi Tajiri with Junichi Masuda instead helming the project alone. With the tough experiences of developing Ruby and Sapphire still fresh in his mind, Mr. Masuda was nonetheless determined to create the ultimate version of Pokémon. Diamond and Pearl were initially slated for a 2005 release, but the team needed more time to implement the new ideas they had. As such, their domestic release was delayed until September of 2006. They reached the West in 2007 and Korea in 2008, marking the series’ official debut in the latter region.

Both games fared well critically with many people praising the new ideas Ms. Masuda and his team brought to the table. Even better, by the time of its release, the series had begun to make a comeback. The children who played Red and Blue in the late 1990s were either in high school or moving on to college, allowing them to wax nostalgia about the series without fear of ridicule. Because of these factors, it is no coincidence that Diamond and Pearl ended up selling eighteen-million copies – two-million more than their predecessors. Were Diamond and Pearl emblematic of the series’ resurgence in popularity?

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Kirby’s Dream Land

Introduction

The year 1980 marked the founding of a game developer known as HAL Laboratories. Headquartered in Chiyoda, Tokyo, one of the first things the company created was a peripheral that allowed computers to display graphics when they were otherwise incapable of doing so. From there, they developed what a part-time worker named Satoru Iwata admitted at the time was slew of rip-off of Namco’s famous arcade games such as Rally X and Galaxian. As copyright laws surrounding software was not clear in that era, they did not ask for Namco’s permission, though they did eventually obtain a license from them. In 1982, Mr. Iwata graduated from college and joined the company as a full-time employee. Following that, the company developed original games for the MSX and Commodore VIC-20 before focusing their attention to Nintendo’s Famicom console.

As the 1980s drew to a close, Nintendo had just launched their Game Boy console and a young man by the name of Masahiro Sakurai joined HAL Laboratories. Nintendo’s portable console proved to be such a hit, that demand often exceeded supply and Mr. Sakurai was in the processes of developing a game for it. Naturally, in order to design a game, he needed to create a character for it. At the age of nineteen, he drew a blob-like character as a placeholder sprite until he could come up with a different model. However, as time went on, he preferred it over any of the other proposed designs he came up with.

During the development of this game, Mr. Sakurai’s team called the character Popopo before ultimately deciding on Kirby. In later years, Mr. Sakurai himself remained unsure as to how they decided on that name. Given that Mr. Sakurai gave Kirby the ability to inhale and spit out objects at enemies, fans speculate he may have been named after the Kirby Company, which famously manufactured vacuum cleaners. Another theory is he was named after John Kirby, the attorney from Latham & Watkins LLP who defended Nintendo against Universal Studios’ infamous copyright infringement lawsuit they filed in 1981. Universal alleged that Nintendo’s popular arcade game Donkey Kong was an unauthorized allusion to the classic film King Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong, has gone on record saying this is the reason why Kirby made a list of potential names for the character, though he wasn’t named after the attorney.

Whatever the case may be, Kirby’s debut game was released in 1992 for the Game Boy. The game was originally titled Twinkle Popopo, but Mr. Sakurai’s team changed it to Kirby of the Stars to reflect the character’s new name. For its Western release a few months later, the game’s title was changed to Kirby’s Dream Land. The game proved fairly popular, selling a little over one-million copies. Critics were fairly receptive to the game, believing it provided a unique take on the platformer genre. With Kirby going on to become the mascot of HAL Laboratories, how does his first adventure hold up?

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Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire

Introduction

When the Game Boy Color was released in 1998, Nintendo’s competitors seemed to lack any kind of recourse. Companies such as Sega and Atari released portable consoles that featured color, yet Nintendo’s monochrome Game Boy had dominated the handheld market. When color was implemented for Nintendo’s Game Boy line, one of the few advantages their competitors had dissipated instantly. In fact, with the Sega Game Gear having been discontinued in 1997, the Game Boy Color’s sole competition upon release was provided by its direct predecessor. SNK and Bandai attempted to enter the market with the Neo Geo Pocket and the Wonderswan Color respectively, but neither console came close to dethroning the Game Boy Color.

Although the Game Boy Color sold very well, rumors had been spreading that Nintendo was in the process of creating a successor as early as the Nintendo Space World trade show in August of 1999. These rumors turned out to be entirely correct. Nintendo was attempting to create an improved version of the Game Boy Color codenamed the Advanced Game Boy (AGB) along with a brand-new 32-bit system slated for a release the following year. Renamed the Game Boy Advance, the system was officially announced in September of 1999. Nintendo initially aimed for a 2000 release, though it wouldn’t make its debut until 2001. Like its two predecessors, the Game Boy Advance was a commercial success with fans and journalists alike praising its significant technical leap from the Game Boy Color.

Within the short lifespan of the Game Boy Color, Game Freak had released Pokémon Gold and Silver. It wasn’t easy for Satoshi Tajiri and his team to follow up a set of games as monumental as Pokémon Red and Blue, but with the second generation, they proved they were more than up for the task. Featuring many novel concepts such as a real-time clock and the ability to pass down moves through breeding, Pokémon Gold and Silver would prove to be the Game Boy Color’s premier role-playing experience. Given the immense popularity of these games, it was only natural for them to create a third set, and the Game Boy Advance would seem to be the ideal platform upon which Game Freak’s flagship series could make a triumphant debut in the sixth console generation.

Unfortunately, this proved easier said than done. The Game Boy Advance was a large technological leap from the Game Boy Color. As Game Freak had been accustomed to developing games on simplistic hardware, they encountered problems almost immediately. Even the fact that the screen was slightly larger meant they had to develop with a different aspect ratio. On top of that, they had far more colors and sound channels to work with. Though the newfound freedom intrigued the team, accomplishing certain tasks became much more difficult and the entire process became highly resource-intensive.

They also had to deal with a factor they couldn’t possibly control: what their audience felt of the series. When Pokémon Red and Blue debuted internationally in the late nineties, it became a true worldwide phenomenon. Sometime after the release of Pokémon Gold and Silver, however, the novelty died down. Fans had dismissed these games’ popularity as a fad, declaring it dead. Junichi Masuda, the man who co-directed the franchise’s third-generation entries alongside creator Satoshi Tajiri, would describe the adverse atmosphere in an interview, believing there was an immense pressure to prove dissenters wrong. Combined with their unfamiliarity with the new hardware, these games proved to be the most difficult to develop out of any generation in the series thus far. Such was the extent of the stress Mr. Masuda felt creating these games that he found himself hospitalized at one point as a result of severe stomach issues. Despite these setbacks, he and his team persevered and saw the project through to the end. The night before games were released, the co-director had a dream in which it was a complete failure.

Deviating from the color themes of the preceding generations, the third set of mainline games were dubbed Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. They saw their domestic release in November of 2002 before debuting aboard in 2003. How these games were received isn’t exactly straightforward. On one hand, Mr. Masuda’s fears were ultimately misplaced, for Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire moved sixteen-million units between the two versions, making them the greatest selling Game Boy Advance titles. Interestingly, the third most successful title on that console was Pokémon Emerald – an updated version of these two games in a similar vein to Pokémon Yellow and Pokémon Crystal. There’s no questioning that, from a financial standpoint, these games were complete successes. However, the fans themselves were divided on these games for various reasons. While fans accepted the changes Gold and Silver brought to the table, they weren’t as unanimously receptive of Ruby and Sapphire. What is it about these games that inspired such mixed feelings?

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Pokémon Stadium 2

Introduction

With the international success of Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, Game Freak’s bestselling franchise had presence on both the handheld and console markets. The latter game was especially novel for its time, having introduced the Transfer Pak. With it, players could insert their own copies of Pokémon Red, Blue, or Yellow into these devices and have the creatures they raised battle it out in 3D. Naturally, Nintendo EAD was compelled to make a sequel following the release of the mainline series’ second-generation games: Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver. This sequel was showcased at the Nintendo Space World festival in 2000. It was originally going to be entitled Pokémon Stadium 3 domestically before being changed to Pokémon Stadium Gold/Silver, seeing a release in December of that year. Western fans wouldn’t have to wait too much longer for the game to be released internationally, seeing the light of day in March of 2001 in North America and October of the same year in Europe. As only the second of the two games in the series left their native homeland, it was dubbed Pokémon Stadium 2 abroad. Does this game successfully keep up with the core series’ evolution?

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