Post #300! Super Mario Galaxy

Introduction

Originally codenamed the Revolution, the Wii was to be Nintendo’s entry in the seventh console generation. While Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 console focused on providing players with high-definition experiences, Nintendo opted to go in a different direction. Rather than appealing to the existing gaming fanbase, they sought to make their console for everyone, hence why the name sounds like the English first-person, plural pronoun “we”. One of the Wii’s touted features lied in its unique control scheme. In lieu of fashioning a classic controller, the Wii was to employ motion controls, which would be executed by a remote outfitted with an infrared sensor. Though met with a degree of skepticism within the gaming community, the Wii became the best-selling console of its generation. Despite its successful launch, many gamers were wondering why a mainline Mario installment was not among its launch titles. Even the GameCube had the spinoff Luigi’s Mansion, yet when the Wii launched, Nintendo’s mascot was nowhere to be found.

After the release and overwhelming success of Super Mario 64, Nintendo began working on a sequel. One of the first names for this hypothetical game was Super Mario 64-2. It was slated to launch on the 64DD (Dynamic Drive), a peripheral for the Nintendo 64 that would afford players new freedoms such as the ability to create their own content. However, the commercial failure of the 64DD ensured it would never leave its homeland. In response, many 64DD projects were reformatted for the Nintendo 64, saved for future consoles, or cancelled outright. Super Mario 64-2 was one of the projects to suffer the last fate. Despite this, Nintendo wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. With the impending launch of the Nintendo GameCube, they needed something with which to demonstrate its processing power. In 2000, a proposed game entitled Super Mario 128 was showcased at Nintendo Space World. The game was heavily retooled and outfitted with a tropical island theme, hence the 2002 release Super Mario Sunshine. Though stuck in the shadow of its more popular predecessor, Super Mario Sunshine was highly acclaimed in its own right, and became one of the console’s premier titles.

Though many ideas from the Super Mario 128 demonstration were excised by the time it became Super Mario Sunshine, one person continued to see potential in them. That person was none other than the demonstration’s director, Yoshiaki Koizumi. Super Mario Sunshine marked the first instance in which he found himself as the lead director, and though he was satisfied with his work, he wanted to set his sights higher for the inevitable follow-up. One part of the demonstration featured Mario moving freely around a spherical platform. This concept did not make it into Super Mario Sunshine due to it overtaxing the machine’s technical capabilities. Nonetheless, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto remained interested in the concept, and he decided to form a team who would help bring it into reality.

The year 2002 marked the founding of the Nintendo EAD Tokyo Software Development Department. The purpose of this branch was to recruit fresh, new talent from Japan’s capital and most populated city. Their inaugural game was released in 2004 under the name Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. It was among the first titles to star Donkey Kong in the lead role after the revered Rare entered a partnership with Microsoft. The game was praised for the most part, though many critics deemed it inferior to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy due to its lack of returning characters. Nonetheless, the game stood out from its competition in how characters were controlled with a set of bongos – an aspect that captured the attention of various non-gaming publications. Impressed with their work, Mr. Miyamoto asked EAD Tokyo if they wanted to make a high-profile game starring one of the company’s mainstays. This prompted one member of the staff to suggest they possessed the skills to make a new Mario title. Mr. Koizumi, taking note of the experience the staff developed creating Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, felt they could make the idea involving spherical platforms work and recruited them into this new project. In a bit of a twist, Mr. Koizumi set his attention to the Wii.

With a basic concept in mind, all Mr. Koizumi needed was a central theme, necessitating his team to draft several ideas and find ways to implement them. Co-designer Koichi Hayashida and producer Takeo Shimizu were skeptical about the idea of incorporating a spherical playing field into a 3D platforming game. The latter in particular felt a sense of danger when the plan was approved. Only when he began debugging the game did he realize how fresh the experience felt. Once the team was convinced of the concept’s viability, they quickly settled on setting the game in outer space, believing most players would see the spherical shapes as planets. As an entire region separated EAD Tokyo from Nintendo, a system was put in place so both offices could playtest the game. The development team was pressured to finish their work at or close to the Wii’s launch. However, keeping true to the ethos of Mr. Miyamoto, they deemed a polished Mario game was more important than a rushed one.

The efforts of EAD Tokyo saw their completion in November of 2007 under the name Super Mario Galaxy. It is nearly impossible to overstate just how much praise this game received upon release. Mere days afterwards, Super Mario Galaxy was considered one of the greatest games ever made. Fans declared it the first truly worthy sequel to Super Mario 64, and even those who didn’t care for the Wii were thoroughly impressed. With Super Mario 64 having one of the most profound impacts of any game in history, was Super Mario Galaxy truly able to surpass it?

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Jumper Two

Introduction

Fledging independent game developer Matt Thorson made his first significant mark on the medium in February of 2004 with Jumper. Though not quite his debut effort, it was the first one he felt worth mentioning in retrospect. This minimalization of the platforming games he grew up with was highly praised in the independent circuit. Shortly after the release of Jumper, he teamed up with another Game Maker-user who went by the name Dex. The game that resulted from their collaboration, Dim, drew a lot of inspiration from Jumper while also giving its protagonist the ability to hop between dimensions in a manner reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This game also found an audience and would be referenced in later editions of the Jumper level editor. As Mr. Thorson gained more experience programming, he used what he learned to fine tune the physics in Jumper and create a sequel. This game, simply entitled Jumper Two, was released in June of 2004 – a mere four months after the release of the original. Being his third game in the span of a year, what does Jumper Two bring to the table?

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Super Mario Sunshine

Introduction

Several attempts at three-dimensional gaming had been attempted since the medium’s inception. Many games from the eighties would place players in a maze of flat, two-dimensional building blocks to create the illusion of depth. Though this was serviceable for its time, that the player character could only ever turn at 90 degree angles betrayed the strict technical limitations the developers were saddled with. In the nineties, id Software would light up the PC gaming scene when they released Wolfenstein 3D in 1992. Though not terribly different from its spiritual predecessors in how it used clever programming techniques to project the illusion of 3D, id’s effort compelled other development teams to begin seriously consider where the medium should go from there. This sentiment was punctuated with id’s release of Doom the following year.

Though many companies would try their hand at 3D gaming with varying degrees of success, it was Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Yoshiaki Koizumi of Nintendo who were the first to successfully explore this uncharted territory in the form of Super Mario 64 in 1996. The sheer amount of critical acclaim it received forever changed the face of the gaming industry. Suddenly, 3D gaming went from being considered a pie-in-the-sky scenario to the industry standard in less than a year’s time. Such was the extent of its impact that many subtle techniques from Nintendo’s groundbreaking effort are still being employed today. Becoming the Nintendo 64’s bestselling game with eleven million copies sold, a sequel seemed inevitable.

As early as January of 1997, Shigeru Miyamoto talked about a sequel to Super Mario 64, tentatively entitling it Super Mario 128. As Nintendo put the finishing touches on the Nintendo 64, they included a slot at the bottom of the console that would allow the use of peripherals. The most prominent one they were in the process of developing was the 64DD (Dynamic Drive). In a manner similar to the Famicom Disk System, the 64DD would allow the Nintendo 64 to utilize a new form of storage media. It was to feature a real-time clock for persistent game world design and afford players many new freedoms. They could rewrite data and create movies, animations, and even their own characters. Nearing the end of 1997, Super Mario 128 was renamed Super Mario 64-2. Much like how Super Mario 64 before it generated interest in the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64-2 was to be the 64DD’s premier title. However, the 64DD was a commercial failure when it launched in December of 1999, only selling 15,000 units in total. By the end of its short run in February of 2001, only ten original titles had been released for the unit. Any other proposed title for the unit was reformatted into a Nintendo 64 cartridge, ported to future consoles, or cancelled outright. Among the titles to suffer the last fate was Super Mario 64-2.

Despite this setback, Nintendo wasn’t ready to give up on a potential follow-up to Super Mario 64. During their SpaceWorld event in August of 2000, they unveiled a technology demo to showcase their then-upcoming GameCube console. The project they elected to demonstrate was a Mario game – once again under the working title Super Mario 128. Taking its proposed name literally, the GameCube’s technical capabilities were demonstrated when it rendered multiple Mario models at once, eventually reaching 128 of them.

One year later, at the following SpaceWorld event, fans learned that Super Mario 128 had undergone a complete reinterpretation. Gone was Princess Peach’s iconic castle. Instead, a tropical paradise awaited players. To reflect this change, the game was now titled Super Mario Sunshine. It was notably the first time Yoshiaki Koizumi found himself in the lead director’s chair. The first great impression he made on his superiors was when he wrote the memorable scenario for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. He worked his way up from there, and his ten-year-long apprenticeship culminated in him getting to lead in the creation of the newest Mario installment. The game saw its release in 2002. Though not as impactful as Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine was a well-respected game in its own right, having little trouble amassing critical acclaim and becoming one the console’s bestselling titles. Did Mr. Koizumi’s first shot as the lead director result in a classic experience?

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Marvel’s Spider-Man

Introduction

In the 2010s, Connie Smith, Sony’s Vice President of Product Development, approached Insomniac Games, wishing to speak with CEO Ted Price. Following the release of Insomniac’s Xbox One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive, Ms. Booth had an interesting proposal, suggesting the studio work on a game based on a Marvel property. As the company had built its reputation with original properties such as Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank, Mr. Price’s response was, by his own admission, “fairly neutral”. He had never considered working with an existing property. However, while the CEO had his reservations, his development team’s attitude was another story; they were ecstatic over the prospect of working with a Marvel property.

It’s plain to see why the team would be so enthusiastic; during the 2010s, Marvel was at the height of their mainstream popularity, having myriad success stories with the cinematic universe they created. No other company attempting to create such a long-running film franchise experienced the success Marvel had. It was to the point where the average filmgoer could expect a quality release bearing the Marvel brand on an annual basis. This success had profound ramifications both inside and outside of the industry. Many other companies, including their prominent rivals, DC, would attempt to creative their own shared cinematic universes, yet they didn’t quite meet the same levels of critical admiration. Perhaps the most profound impact the Marvel Cinematic Universe had on pop culture was giving their more obscure characters a new lease on life. Though certain heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man were well-known before the universe’s inception in 2008, its success allowed comparatively obscure characters such as Black Panther and Ant-Man to become household names.

Once Insomniac accepted Ms. Smith’s proposal, Jay Ong, the head of games at Marvel decided it was time for a change. According to him, they had previously released games based on or directly tied to the release of films that adapted their properties. While this led to a significant output, it also meant developers didn’t have time to create anything impressive or memorable. It did result in Treyarch’s well-received adaptation of the film Spider-Man 2 in 2004, but fans dismissed most of these titles as shovelware, and they cemented the generally negative perception of licensed games as a result. Fortunately, Marvel was not interested in a game based on an existing film or comic book story, giving Insomniac carte blanche to choose any character they wished and develop an original plot for them. The team thought long and hard about which character to use, and they ultimately settled on Spider-Man, citing his relatability and charming everyman persona, Peter Parker. Activision had been responsible for publishing the games based off the 2000s Spider-Man trilogy, but the franchise was now truly in the hands of Insomniac and Sony.

Though the team started off excited about the project, they also found it to be a daunting experience. With the wealth of stories and versions across almost every conceivable medium, how could they possibly do such an enormously popular character justice? Art director Jacinda Chew, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity, and subsequently interviewed the Marvel staff members who were the most familiar with the character. From there, it was up to a team of writers led by Jon Paquette to create an original take on Spider-Man that still remained true to the character. Insomniac had even gone as far as receiving ideas from two comic book writers, Christos Gage and Dan Slott, the former of whom co-wrote the script. Though they drew upon many iterations of the character in order to understand what made a compelling Spider-Man story, Mr. Paquette was insistent on not drawing too much from any one version.

Development of this game, which would simply be titled Marvel’s Spider-Man, began in 2014 and took roughly four years to complete, seeing its release in September of 2018. Fans and critics alike were expecting Marvel’s Spider-Man to be, at best, a modest success. The game instead went on to become the sleeper hit of 2018, outselling the unanimously praised God of War and becoming the PlayStation 4’s killer app in the process. The game was praised for its good writing, solid combat engine, and successfully incorporating Spider-Man’s signature web-slinging abilities. Many critics called it the greatest superhero game ever made, comparing it favorably to Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City. Such was the extent of its positive reception that Jamie Fristrom, the man who programmed the web-slinging mechanics in the game based off of Spider-Man 2, had nothing but praise for Insomniac’s own take on them. Was Marvel’s Spider-Man truly the prolific company’s answer to the Batman: Arkham series?

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Nerves of Steel

Introduction

In 1993, a company named Rainmaker Software released their inaugural title: Isle of the Dead. It was released around the same time as id Software’s Doom. As both it and their previous effort, Wolfenstein 3D, codified the first-person shooter in the minds of gaming enthusiasts, Isle of the Dead was left to fall by the wayside. Computer Game Review magazine claimed it to be “the best knock-off of Wolfenstein 3D that anyone has created” – a quote proudly emblazoned on one of the boxes. Actually playing Isle of the Dead revealed it to be a less-than-satisfactory product, combining the worst aspects of early adventure games and pioneering first-person shooters. It is considered by the few who played it to be one of the worst games of the nineties.

Even with this setback, Rainmaker Software was not ready to throw in the towel. Two years after the release of Isle of the Dead, Rainmaker Software finished their sophomore effort: Nerves of Steel. Isle of the Dead fell into obscurity shortly after its release while Nerves of Steel immediately became a practical nonentity in the history books. Due to its poor commercial performance, Rainmaker Software ended up dissolving shortly thereafter. Could Nerves of Steel be considered an improvement over Isle of the Dead – for whatever that is worth? Continue reading