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‘Nioh 2’ Closed Alpha Demonstrates a Safe Iteration

The closed alpha for Nioh 2 shows a game that has taken incremental steps forward past its predecessor, for better and worse.

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The original Nioh launched in 2017 during an interesting period for the “Soulsborne” genre in that there was very little competition outside of FromSoftware’s own titles. Despite constant comparisons to said titles, Nioh managed to differentiate itself with its technical, yet fast-paced, combat, fascinating Japanese samurai setting, and more straightforward narrative. Now Team Ninja plans to have another go with Nioh 2 and a PlayStation 4 closed alpha test just now wrapping up. So how well does this sequel stack up so far in a field of competitors far more diverse than before?

Note: Images in this article are not from the closed alpha.

Old Tools, New Tricks

Nioh 2’s alpha test consisted of three missions — two regular ones and an extra hard “twilight mission” — providing a solid five hours of gameplay. The first noticeable difference upon starting the game is the introduction of a character creator. However, we were limited to a handful of preset models for this alpha period so it’s still unclear just how in-depth this creator is nor how the lack of a named protagonist will have an effect on the game’s story, as there were no cut scenes.

Anyone who has played the original title will feel right at home with Nioh 2’s mission structure and combat as very little has changed. Light and heavy attacks can be used through three different stances: the agile but weak low stance, the all-rounder mid stance, and hard-hitting but slow high stance. Attacking uses up Ki, or stamina, and a well-timed button press at the end of a combo executes a Ki Burst, recovering a portion of the expended Ki to prevent yourself from running out and being left vulnerable. Adapting your stances on the fly and micromanaging your Ki usage remains one of the most satisfying aspects of the game.

nioh 2

Katanas, odachis, and spears were present in the alpha and functioned practically identically to the original game’s on a surface level. The one new weapon type available, the dual hatchets, could be most easily compared to the dual blades of the original game with their short reach and rapid attacks, although you can’t rush down enemies as easily with them. Instead, the hatchets could be thrown by holding the strong attack button, which was great for safely finishing off an enemy from afar or chipping off health as they approached you.

I ended up favoring the odachi and dual hatchets throughout the alpha partly for their playstyle but also because of another new mechanic — Yokai and Blessed weapons. Yokai weapons build up the Corruption status in enemies. Once afflicted with Corruption they take increased Ki and Yokai Force (more on this later) damage, part of which will be absorbed by the player. They also have a Sentience gauge that fills with attacks and “awakens” the weapon when full, increasing its attack power.

Blessed weapons, on the other hand, imbue the Purity effect on enemies which only increases Ki damage dealt. Additionally, however, Blessed weapons also allow you to recover Ki lost from blocking with a regular Ki Pulse as if attacking. This is important because blocking in the original Nioh was typically seen as worthless as it drained more Ki than it was worth rather than simply dodging out of the way. Blessed weapons make blocking far more viable.

Both the Yokai and Blessed weapons are extremely valuable and can be found in chests or as rare drops from enemies. I only ever found these variants for the odachi and hatchets, hence my favoritism toward them. I do worry that these variants may be too powerful, though, and could possibly completely invalidate regular weapons in the game and limit flexibility.

Unleashing The Power Within

Also new to Nioh 2 are your protagonist’s yokai powers: Yokai Skills and Yokai Shift. Yokai Skills are abilities obtained as drops from Yokai-type enemies — in the form of Yokai Cores — and allow you to use their abilities for yourself. For example, a single, powerful hammer strike of the Ippon-Datara or the flaming vortex of the Enenra boss, providing more options for tackling challenging situations.

You can have two Yokai Forces equipped at once and each one has an equipment cost, meaning you can’t stack two powerful ones at once as they were too expensive (at least in the alpha). Yokai Skills use a new resource called Yokai Force in battle and are recovered through normal attacks as well as the equivalent of a Ki pulse after using a skill. The rate at which Yokai Force replenishes strikes a fine balance that encourages frequent use of skills without allowing spamming of them.

Yokai Shift, meanwhile, is Nioh 2’s replacement to Living Weapon from the first game. After filling your spirit gauge your protagonist can tap into the Yokai blood running through them to temporarily transform into one. While this is certainly a spectacle, it is functionally identical to Living Weapon with a Yokai Shift bar replacing HP and the player reverting back to a human when it’s depleted.

Attacks in this state lack the ferocity and savagery that one would expect from its menacing form, which is a bit of a shame considering that was the main selling point of Nioh 2’s reveal at E3 last year. This is something that can potentially be improved with development, but as it stands the Yokai Shift feels like little more than a nice buff, rather than instilling a sense of genuine empowerment.

Demons of The Past

The Yokai Shift isn’t the only area that could use improvement, as Nioh 2, unfortunately, retains the major weak points of its predecessor. Inventory management is still a nightmare, as well as micromanaging your equipment with the rainfalls of it that enemies drop. Some may relish in the opportunity to constantly update your equipment in order to min-max, but the sheer volume the game throws at you makes the whole process more overwhelming than it needs to be.

Enemy variety is also still lacking, especially of the Yokai type. Yoki enemies, in particular, ran rampant in all three stages when they had already become stale from the first game. Meanwhile, the half snake, half women Nure-Onna of the second mission started off as a frightening new menace, but quickly became so prominent that they became an annoyance more than anything. For a game that prides itself on giving the player the ability to adapt to battle situations on the fly, it still doesn’t give much reason to do so when normal enemies so easily fall into an expected pattern.

Nioh 2
That said, bosses still pose a significant threat with those of the second and third missions taking numerous attempts to take down. It’s just a shame you still have to break tempo to farm for health-restoring elixirs if you run out during your attempts, especially having come off of
Sekiro’s refilling healing gourd.

The Nioh 2 alpha test showed that little has changed between iterations, for better and worse. Despite the additions of Yokai abilities, combat still feels pretty much the same, which is great considering how strong of a white-knuckle experience it was to start with. All the weaknesses of the previous game have also come along for the ride, though, with seemingly little to no effort put into improve them. As it stands, Nioh 2 seems like the safest possible iteration of the series, adding just barely enough to differentiate itself from the previous game but nothing that truly elevates it up. Whether this will be enough to set it apart in a genre that will have grown in size and variety since the original game’s release is difficult to tell.

Heralding from the rustic, old town of Los Angeles, California; Matthew now resides in Boston where he diligently researches the cure for cancer. In reality, though, he just wants to play games and watch anime, and likes talking about them way too much. A Nintendo/Sony hybrid fan with a soft-spot for RPG’s, he finds little beats sinking hours into an immersive game world. You can follow more of his work at his blog and budding YouTube channel below.

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25 Years Later: ‘EarthBound’ Continues to Bring Smiles and Tears

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“I Miss You.”

Nearly unrecognized by a company, almost canceled multiple times, saved by an industry icon, a soundtrack present in children’s textbooks, a passionate fanbase, fan-translations for the unreleased entries in the west, a Super Smash Bros. presence, and a three-sixty of a legacy. EarthBound– or rather the Mother series in Japan- has by far one of the strangest yet most fascinating histories out of all of Nintendo’s most known series.

EarthBound went on to become a cult classic in Nintendo’s history and one of the most renowned games of the fourth console generation for Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Through its troubled history in both production and early reception, it still has withstood the test of time to go on as one of Nintendo’s underdog franchises created by the mastermind Japanese copywriter, director, game designer, and actor Shigesato Itoi.

What better time to look back on the games strikingly different legacies across the globe than on the day of its initial Japanese release 25 years ago today. Despite EarthBound being looked upon as one of the greatest role-playing-games today, you would be surprised over how different the game was viewed back in 1994.

Itoi’s Saving Grace

After the completion of Mother in 1989- known to players as EarthBound Beginnings outside of Japan today- Shigesato Itoi began working on a direct sequel to the surprise phenomenon for the next generation of Nintendo hardware. Rather than working with the same development team, however, Itoi decided to allow Ape Incorporated to solely work on the project; a decision that would later lead to an unforeseeable disaster spanning over the course of five years.

Itoi was under significant pressure from Nintendo in 1993 due to time constraints and funding for Earthbound falling through on multiple occasions over the last four years. EarthBound escaped cancellation by the skin of its teeth several times throughout development. Out of fear of a final cancellation, Itoi knew he needed help from an outside source who can help save the project. In the last resort ditch, he took a trip to HAL Laboratory seeking out the starman of the industry; a close friend, young breakthrough coder, and President of the company, Satoru Iwata.

Shigesato Itoi, Satoru Iwata, and Shigeru Miyamoto- December 2011.

Satoru Iwata meticulously analyzed the coding of the game and gave the team at Ape Inc. two options; take what they had and finish development in two years or start from scratch and finish in six months- the ladder was the only plausible option for Itoi to choose. Iwata and his colleagues at HAL mustered up tools that Ape Inc. could use to finish the game in his predicted time frame; to which they did and less than one year later, EarthBound was ready to hit store shelves and became the first entry in the Mother series to make land outside of its home turf.

A Different Past

During its initial release, EarthBound was met with mixed to favorable reception outside of Japan and did not make sales expectations with the higher-ups at Nintendo. Although certainly not a flop, the game was deemed unsuccessful by the publisher everywhere but Japan. Critics in the west often compared the game to several other RPGs released at the time- specifically Square’s acclaimed Final Fantasy III– citing that the game felt dated compared to what the hardware was capable of. Back on its home turf, the game went on to receive a mostly positive reception. EarthBound and Mother 2 were practically two separate entities in the east and west.

Even in its marketing, EarthBound was a whole different kind of weird depending on territory. Nintendo of America gave the franchise its bizarre and infamously known marketing campaign in the United States, however, in its home territory, the Mother series was advertised as a family-friendly game that was for everyone. The line “this game stinks” was heavily used in Nintendo Power Magazine along with several attached repulsive-smelling scratch and sniff cards. Meanwhile, in Japan, phrases such as “for adults, children, and even young women” were often used in live-action advertisements along with friendlier simplistic informational posters such as the one below.

Going Contemporary

Unlike the majority of other RPGs at the time that focused on the common fantasy and medieval settings, EarthBound took a major curveball and placed itself in a relatable modern American themed country called Eagleland where rather than characters wielding blades or firearms, weapons consist of baseball bats, slingshots, PSI, bottle rockets, and frying pans. Convenience stores and hospitals are used rather than your typical wandering merchants or magic users. Enemies could range to anything from cars, speed limit signs, and clocks, to vomit, tents, and robots. Even a genre staple such as the battle system remains consistently different from any other RPG. The game uses a ‘slot machine’ health and psychic points mechanic where your numbers roll down slowly as you attempt to counterattack, revive, and defend with quick thinking moves before the digits can hit zero.

The contemporary inspired atmosphere blended with fantasy elements is a setting that no other game has tried to exactly replicate. It is still one of EarthBound’s most unique aspects, however, what makes the game so memorable are the characters placed in the deranged setting. Every single entity you come across on your adventure has unique dialogue that can range from poetically charming to outrageously ridiculous. A fan favorite species that has gone on to become what can be considered the series mascots are the iconic Mr. Saturns; notably for being the face of much of the available merchandise through Itoi’s personal company in Japan, having a unique in-game text font, and appearing as an item in Super Smash Bros. series (starting with Melee on the Nintendo GameCube).

A Change In Legacy

Today EarthBound is a Nintendo cult classic. Did it fail to become part of the big leagues at the time of its release because of the puzzling advertisement campaign? Was it to out of the norm for the general public and mainstream media? We may never know the definitive answer, but today EarthBound is regarded as one of the greatest RPGs of all time and a must-play game for the Super Nintendo. In its 25 years since it first released, it certainly has managed to draw in a captivating legacy that has continually become more loved over time.

The Mother series- whether it will ever receive a new entry or not- lives on through its dedicated fans, spiritual successors, and digital re-releases. No matter where you scatter for EarthBound related content on the internet, you are bound to find some dedicated fans or even entire websites such as the widely known Starmen.net that are packed to the brim with fan content.

If you have never played EarthBound, it is currently available for purchase on the Wii U and 3DS Virtual Consoles and it is also one of the twenty-two pack-in games included on the Super Nintendo Classic Mini console.

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‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 4 Review – “Faith”: A Journey Through Trump’s America

Life is Strange 2 continues its strong trajectory from the previous episode, weaving a complex and troubling tale of faith gone mad.

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Life is Strange 2 has returned for its penultimate episode, a dense and troubling exploration of faith, prejudice and family in a time and place that has never been more divided: modern America. Following the events of Life is Strange 2‘s stellar third entryEpisode 4: “Faith” sees Sean attempting to pick up the pieces of his shattered life after Daniel’s violent outburst at Merrill’s farm.

Though the story of Faith” begins in a hospital, with Sean working to recover from his injuries, the trajectory of the tale explores more settings and environments than any previous episode of the series. From wandering the highways of Nevada, to exploring a dusty motel, to sneaking into a remote church, Life is Strange 2‘s 4th entry never lacks for something new to see, or someone new to interact with.

Life is Strange 2
However, the cynical bent of the story is the new centerpiece of Episode 4. Though Life is Strange 2 has never sidestepped the controversy and division of Trump’s America, Faith” leans into these ideas with renewed fervor. Violence is committed more than once against our Mexican protagonist, and his skin color often sees him at odds with the more conservative denizens of the highways he journeys down. In a particularly telling exchange, Sean even finds himself beaten and placed on the other side of a closed compound, with a gun-toting guard glaring at him from the other side. Metaphors don’t really get much clearer than that.

This will, no doubt, lead to more calls of keeping politics out of games and other entertainment by the president’s more ardent supporters, but as other writers have pointed out, gaming has never been apolitical. Further, it would be categorically irresponsible to tell a story like this without addressing the elephant in the room. With these elements in mind, the politics of Life is Strange 2 have never been clearer than in Episode 4: “Faith”, and they account for some of the strongest storytelling fuel the series has found yet.

Life Is Strange 2, Episode 4: Faith
Politics aside, Life is Strange 2 also puts Sean at a variety of other disadvantages. His starting injuries include a lost eye that must be tended to medically throughout the episode, and the various beatings he takes throughout Episode 4 more than leave their mark. This leaves Faith as the typical darkest, and most troubling, episode of this second series, where we find our protagonist at his absolute lowest point, and must continue on with him in hopes of finding a better future. It’s a common enough trope, but one that is used to great effect here.

There are many returns of characters from previous episodes, some through letters and other communications, and others through surprising reveals and revelations. A particularly shocking character joins the story with zero preamble, and emerges as one of Life is Strange 2‘s finest editions yet. To spoil who, or how, would be criminal, but rest assured that Episode 4 is more full of surprises than any of the previous entries.

Life Is Strange 2, Episode 4: Faith
Though the main conflict that eventually reveals itself, that of Daniel being used as a messianic figure for an isolated Nevada church, feels contrived initially, the layers that are eventually revealed, and Daniel’s reason for joining the church, make a lot of sense in the overall scheme of things. Due to this strength of narrative, it really feels like all bets are off during the climax of Life is Strange 2: Episode 4, and that’s a good thing for a game so centered around the notion of interactive storytelling.

Fresh, prescient, and altogether rewarding, Life is Strange 2: Episode 4 — “Faith”, is a welcome piece of fiction in a society that has become so increasingly fragmented. It illustrates the horrors of the modern American landscape, but always remembers to remind us that there are good people out there, even when hope has never seemed so far away.

Strongly Recommended

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I Still Don’t Understand ‘Death Stranding’ (and That’s a Good Thing)

Death Stranding could create an experience unlike any game before it, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I’m certainly excited for it.

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It may only be a few months until launch, but Death Stranding remains shrouded in mystery. This first independent project from gaming auteur Hideo Kojima has been an enigma ever since it was first announced. When the world first saw Norman Reedus standing on a foggy shoreline with a weeping fetus in his arms, many questions naturally arose. Why is a celebrity actor cradling an unborn child on a beach? What kind of gameplay could we expect from this? And what does “Death Stranding” even mean, anyway?

Years may have passed since that initial reveal, but in my view at least, these questions still haven’t been fully answered. I simply do not understand Death Stranding. It’s confounded me like few games before it have – and yet, that may be the very best thing about it. There’s something enticing about that mystery. Death Stranding could create an experience unlike any game before it, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I’m certainly excited for it.

Between trailers, interviews, and a fairly hefty amount of gameplay footage, there’s been an increasingly constant stream of information about Death Stranding for over a year now. This is especially true at Gamescom 2019, where the game has had an extensive presence with two full trailers and a live gameplay demonstration. For most games, this extensive amount of coverage should eliminate all the biggest questions, presenting a relatively clear idea of what the final product should be. But consider the content of Death Stranding’s most recent trailers: one consists entirely of an exposition dump about the power and proper maintenance of jarred fetuses, while another opens with Norman Reedus urinating in a field to create a giant mushroom before dropping off a package for Geoff Keighley. Previous trailers show ruined cities overflowing with tar, gold-masked lion monsters, and levitating shadow creatures. If you can make heads or tails of all that, then you’re certainly cleverer than I.

With every new piece of information, I find it more difficult to wrap my head around the game. Even with the few concrete details known about it, Death Stranding continues to defy simple categorization. Although it features stealth elements, it certainly doesn’t seem like another Metal Gear; while it will have a massive open world, it doesn’t look like it will follow in the footsteps of signature modern open worlds like Horizon Zero Dawn or Breath of the Wild; and though it tells a story about reconnecting the broken cities of a post-apocalyptic United States, its mixture of stealth, politics, and the supernatural make it distinct from most other narrative-focused games out there. Each trailer introduces another wrinkle to the perplexing web of Kojima’s latest vision.

It is this very ambiguity that makes Death Stranding so enticing. With most games, it’s easy to understand them based on a quick glance at their trailer alone. This will reveal their genre, their personality, any unique gimmicks – all the usual culprits. But with Death Stranding, the more we learn about it, the more the mystery grows. At this point, it’s even difficult to pin the game into a single genre. Only the most ambitious games manage to create genres of their own, but from what we’ve seen so far, Death Stranding looks like it could be one of them. It could simply be little more than excellent marketing, but knowing that Kojima’s unbridled imagination is behind it, my hopes are high.

Death Stranding

It would make sense for Death Stranding to be so inventive given the circumstances behind its creation. For years, Kojima’s corporate overlords at Konami had stifled his creativity as they moved the company’s focus away from Kojima’s traditional titles like Metal Gear and Silent Hill towards more immediately lucrative pursuits such as mobile platforms and pachinko machines. Now that Kojima has freed himself from those restrictions and formed an independent studio of his own, his vision can run more freely than ever before. It’s to be expected that, finally presented with the opportunity to fully express his vision, he’d do so by creating something truly daring, something never seen before.

Of course, as attractive as the intrigue around Death Stranding may be, it doesn’t change that it’s difficult to really judge a game without knowing much about it at all. With so many important details remaining unspecified, there’s no telling whether Death Stranding will actually achieve its clear ambitions. If I were to view things pessimistically, I’d posit that the game’s ambiguity could be nothing more than an elaborate marketing scheme meant to mask the lackluster game beneath it. While I’m certainly much more optimistic about the game than that, I can’t deny the very real possibility that it could be the case.

But at the end of the day, I simply cannot resist the romantic allure of a game so surrounded by mystery. The core of Death Stranding may be wrapped in an inscrutable fog, but Kojima uses this layer of secrecy to invite players to experience a game that is truly new, an all-too-rare commodity in games today. Kojima hasn’t been free to express his vision so fully for years now, but at long last he has his chance. I cannot comprehend Death Stranding, and that’s exactly why I’m so excited for it.

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‘Daemon X Machina’ – Spotlighting 2019’s Least-Hyped Switch Game

Daemon X Machina made a bold first impression with its bombastic announcement at E3 2018 – and gamers promptly stopped caring about it. It’s time for that to change.

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Daemon x Machina

Daemon X Machina made a bold first impression with its bombastic announcement at E3 2018 – and gamers promptly stopped caring about it. It’s time for that to change.

From the very beginning, Daemon X Machina has struggled for attention.  It’s certainly not for lack of trying; after all, Nintendo has worked tirelessly to help promote this Switch-exclusive mech action game from Marvelous, even going so far as to position it as the first announcement of its big E3 Direct last year. Despite these efforts, though, Daemon X Machina has often been lost in the shuffle of other Switch exclusives. When there’s constantly talks of a new Animal Crossing, Zelda, or Smash Bros., an original IP like Daemon X Machina easily gets left out of the conversation. However, there’s no denying that it has some incredible potential, making it a game that’s certainly worth checking out amidst the crowded release schedule for the rest of the year. Now is the time to spotlight that ahead of its launch on September 13.

A good mech game doesn’t need to do much – it must simply provide the player with massive robot suits, near-excessive over-the-top action, and a story to help the game make at least a little sense. Daemon X Machina looks set to deliver in all three of those departments. It will feature a huge amount of flexibility to create the perfect mech, thanks to hundreds of interchangeable weapons and body parts, many of which can be scavenged from fallen enemies. With gargantuan destructible environments and hordes of robotic foes to take down, the combat looks to be as extravagant as some of the best action games of recent years. That’s not to mention the main plot, which focuses on the aftermath of the moon exploding. Yes, it does sound like ridiculous anime-inspired fodder, but a game about giant roots blowing each other out of the sky doesn’t need a plot that adheres to realism. It need only set up a somewhat-reasonable backdrop for intense mechanized combat, and in that regard, it’s looking like a recipe for success.

Daemon X Machina

All these features are great on their own, but what makes them truly exciting is the pedigree behind them. Daemon X Machina is being developed by a dream team of developers who have worked extensively on some of the most iconic mech games ever made. For instance, the team includes Kenichiro Tsukuda and Shoji Kawamori, who respectively produced and designed the mechs for the legendary Armored Core series. This team aims to take the classic formula that made Armored Core and other classics so special and put it back in the spotlight with Daemon X Machina. However, that doesn’t mean that it will be merely derivative. It already displays a distinct personality of its own thanks to its ambitious gameplay concepts (again, exploding moon) and its distinctive cell-shaded visuals. Its striking color palette of bold reds, blacks, and whites shouldn’t be surprising, considering that its art is directed by none other than Yusuke Kozaki, who has worked on such stylish titles as the No More Heroes series.

If it achieves its potential, Daemon X Machina could be a godsend for its genre. While it would be unfair to call the mech action genre “dead,” it is certainly quite niche. This would be the first time in years that a giant robot action game has had the full support of a major company like Nintendo behind it. And while Nintendo has already supported this genre in the past, this will be the first time that it’s done so on a hit console like the Switch, which automatically gives it a wide and passionate audience. Even with its inherent niche status, Daemon X Machina is already in a better position than many similar games before it thanks to its publisher and platform. If it does well, it could inspire Nintendo and other companies to promote similar games, leading to a needed revival of the genre’s popularity.

But this leads to one of the simultaneously best and worst aspects of Daemon x Machina: its demo. Marvelous released an early demo on the Switch eShop back in February with the intention of drumming up interest in the game and getting player feedback. To put it plainly, it wasn’t very good. The action felt unsatisfying with a lack of any feeling of real impact with each blow; it was difficult to aim at enemies due to imprecise targeting systems, poor visibility, and an absence of gyro controls; and worst of all, its performance was horrendous. It was stuck at a mere thirty frames per second, which is already less than ideal for such a fast-paced action game. But it didn’t even manage to hit that target consistently, leading to a choppy and unsatisfying experience. One need only take a quick look through Digital Foundry’s breakdown to understand the demo’s many issues.

Daemon X Machina

“Marvelous did something incredible here: they listened to their fans.”

However, the demo has turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. Shortly after the demo’s release, Marvelous distributed a survey to many players and requested their feedback. A few months later, Nintendo released a new trailer showing how the feedback had been integrated into the game. The full list of changes reads like a wish list of everything that needed to be adjusted following the demo. Highlights include the addition of gyro controls, improved targeting and feedback systems, and most importantly, an improved framerate. In fact, the developers have stated that performance was one of their “top priorities” when adjusting the game.

Marvelous did something incredible here: they listened to their fans. The fact that they were so open to feedback and eager to improve bodes incredibly well for the final release. They know that the mech action genre isn’t what it used to be, and they seem truly passionate about creating a quality title in the genre they love. In an industry that is so often focused more on emptying players’ wallets than creating a worthwhile title, this attitude is incredibly refreshing, hinting of a project that’s filled with genuine care and passion.

The unfortunate truth remains that Daemon X Machina is bound to be one of Nintendo’s least-hyped games this year. As long as games like Astral Chain, Dragon Quest XI S, and Link’s Awakening are all releasing within the same month, it will almost inevitably remain that way. But there is incredible promise for it nonetheless. With the quality of the game design, the legacy of its creators, and their clear passion for their project, it looks set to become something very special and deserves every bit of attention it can get. If fans can look past the games that typically hog the spotlight to find this bombastic little secret, they could be in for an enthusiastic, if under-hyped revival of a once-dormant genre.

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‘Earthbound’ is one of the Weirdest, Most Surreal Video Games

25 Years later…

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Games that Changed Our Lives

The SNES is arguably home to some of the best Japanese role-playing games ever made, but even among such revered company, Earthbound (known as Mother 2 in Japan) stands out as a brilliant satire about growing up and our fears of conformity. It’s anarchy versus conformity, only conformity doesn’t stand a chance.

EarthBound has been often compared to Catcher in the Rye with its complex issues of identity, belonging, loss, connection, and alienation. Blistering, hallucinatory, often brilliant, Earthbound is a one-two punch of social satire and a hilarious ride into the twisted recesses of a boy’s psyche. This often funny, always poignant coming of age tale, deeply embedded in suburban mores, centers around four kids, off to save the planet by collecting melodies while en route to defeating the evil alien force known as Giygas.

Earthbound
Earthbound
didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it sure had fun twisting the usual JRPG tropes. There’s a princess you must rescue, not once, but twice, who’s really just a child prodigy, and there’s an arch nemesis who turns out to be your next-door neighbour. The game puts you in the shoes of a young boy named Ness as he investigates a nearby meteorite crash. There, he learns that Giygas, has enveloped the world in hatred and consequently turned animals, humans, and inanimate objects into dangerous creatures. A bee from the future instructs Ness to collect melodies in a Sound Stone to preemptively stop Giygas from destroying the planet. While visiting eight Sanctuaries, Ness partners with three other kids, a psychic girl (Paula), an eccentric inventor (Jeff), and the prince of the kingdom of Dalaam (Poo). Along the way are underlining themes of corrupt politicians, post-traumatic stress, corporate greed, depression, capitalism, police violence, terrorist attacks, homosexuality, religious cults, and xenophobia. Your adventures take you through modern cities, prehistoric villages, cold winter climates, a desert wasteland, monkey caves, swamps, dinosaur museums, and even a yellow submarine.

“Ness, you’ve stood on the eight power spots of the earth. From these, you created Magicant, the realm of your mind.”

A pivotal moment in the game comes after collecting all eight melodies with the Sound Stone. After Ness has taken control of his Sanctuaries, Ness visits, Magicant, a surreal location that exists only in his mind and contains his warmest memories and his worst fears – an allegory perhaps, for how the entire game allows us to see into the mind of the creator. There, Ness must face his dark side. A man tells him, “Magicant is a place where you must cleanse yourself of the evil hidden within your mind. Take the time to look around, it is your mind after all.”

EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game.


The tone of Earthbound is perhaps its most fascinating attribute, best exemplified by its most famous quote: “There are many difficult times ahead, but you must keep your sense of humor.” Earthbound skillfully surprises you with a reservoir of emotion and sentiment that happily counters the game’s trendy ironic veneer. Along the way, Ness visits the cultists of Happy Happy Village (based on a real-life Japanese doomsday cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984); their mission statement is to paint the town red by literally painting it blue. You’ll fight a watchful puddle of vomit and battle through the zombie-infested town of Threed. You’ll use a peculiar device called the Pencil Eraser to remove statues of pencils that block you from advancing through specific areas, and you’ll suffer through terrifying hallucinations of your family and friends, and be asked to dismember your arms and legs, or otherwise, lose your mind. In one of the game’s most memorable moments, Paula is kidnapped by the Department Store Spook, an unseen entity that resides in the town’s shopping mall. And after defeating Frank Fly and his evil creation Frankystein Mark II, you’ll be escorted to the back of a police precinct, only to be assaulted by four officers and Captain Strong, the chief of the Onett police force. Defeat the corrupt cops and you’ll gain access to the second town you’ll visit (named TWOson, so as not to be confused with Onett, Threed, and Fourside). And when entering a cave, you’ll battle five moles made up of members who each believe themselves to be the third-most powerful of their group. Then there is backwards city Moonside, a warped mirror image of Fourside, that hides a secret more terrifying than the town itself. Just walking around feels like something between an out-of-body experience and a nightmarish trance, in which abstract art attacks you and the psychedelic imagery, lit by gaudy fluorescent neon-lights which contrasts the entire look and feel of what came before. It’s a city where yes means no and no means yes; a place where blond-haired business men teleport you across the city blocks and where an invisible man with a unibrow and a gold tooth gets you past the sketchy sailor hiding out in the back alley.


Throughout the game, Ness is repeatedly antagonized by his neighbor, Pokey, who resurfaces several times, and countless other enemies including Titanic Ant, professional thief Mr. Everdred, and a glorious evil statue Mani, Mani. But the real big bad of the game is the aforementioned Giygas, a.k.a. The “Embodiment of Evil” and the “Universal Cosmic Destroyer”, who intends to sentence all of reality to the horror of infinite darkness. Giygas borrows heavily from Stephen King’s It and was inspired by a murder scene from the black-and-white Japanese horror film The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beautya sequence which scarred creator Shigesato Itoi, when he accidentally watched the film as a child. Giygas is without question, the most disturbing, and strangest end-boss villain of any Super NES game – a character so deranged, there’s been hundreds of fan theories about what he really is.

While EarthBound’s overall gameplay feels like a traditional Japanese RPG of the era, the game is full of ingenious ideas that buck genre trends. EarthBound also makes no apologies for being very difficult to complete. It takes days to finish and is most challenging at the beginning when Ness travels alone and hasn’t yet powered-up. Inventory space remains incredibly limited since each character can only carry a certain amount of items and you can’t drop many of the items since they will come in handy later in the game. Boosting your XP is a must, otherwise, you won’t stand a chance in defeating any boss; and currency is also important when buying new weapons or visiting the hospital to attend to fatal injuries. Money must be withdrawn from the nearest ATM, deposited by your estranged father, and a bedtime snack from your loving mother sends you off to bed to recharge your stats. There are other refreshing deviations from RPG tropes, and every one of the four characters has a specific skill-set.

Earthbound is a strange game, themed around an idiosyncratic portrayal of American culture from a Japanese point of view. The game subverted popular role-playing game traditions by featuring a real-world setting while playing with various staples of the genre and adding a number of pop-culture references throughout. The Japanese title was inspired by the song of the same name by John Lennon – a song about growing up without a father for most of his life, and unsurprising, Ness’ dad is never once seen, and only communicates with his son via telephone. And that’s not the only Beatles reference you’ll see: EarthBound makes two additional nods to the world’s greatest band, along with allusions to Bugs Bunny, comedian Benny Hill, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, the Blues Brothers, Monopoly (Monotoli), Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Rambo, Mr. T, and The Who, to name a few. Written, directed, and created by famous Japanese personality Shigesato Itoi; this is surely his love letter to 20th-century Americana.

Localizing Earthbound was a massive undertaking. Under directives from Nintendo, Marcus Lindblom worked with the Japanese artists and programmers to remove references to intellectual property, religion, and alcohol from the American release, such as the Coca-Cola logo and the red crosses on hospitals (due to issues with the Red Cross). Alcohol became coffee, Ness was no longer walking around nude in the Magicant area and the Happy Happyist blue cultists sprites were altered to look less like Ku Klux Klansmen. The Runaway Five members’ outfits were changed to make them look less like the Blues Brothers, and the “Sky Walker” was changed to the “Sky Runner” to avoid the Star Wars reference. Apollo Theater was changed to Topolla Theater, presumably to avoid issues with the real-life venue and the use of the word drug, seen on the various town maps was removed or changed. The list goes on and on…

Chock full of odd charm and humour in a genre that usually takes itself a little too serious, Earthbound is one of the weirdest, most surreal video games you’ll ever have fun playing.

earthbound

The game had a lengthy development spanning five years and involved a number of Japanese luminaries, including writer Shigesato Itoi, songwriter Keiichi Suzuki, sound designer Hirokazu Tanaka, and future Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Released in a huge box-set that contained a strategy guide with scratch-and-sniff stickers, Earthbound came with a $2 million marketing campaign derived from the game’s unusual brand of humor. As part of Nintendo’s “Play It Loud” campaign, EarthBound’s tagline read, “this game stinks.” Earthbound was proud to one of the most bizarre RPGs – and it didn’t shy away from its offbeat premise. Unfortunately, the game was met with poor critical response and sales in the United States, but as the years went by, the game received wide acclaim and was deemed by many a timeless classic. It has since become one of the most sought-after games in the second-hand market, selling for upwards of $80 for the cartridge alone. Holding onto an incredibly dedicated cult following, the main character Ness became a featured character in the Super Smash Bros. series and in 2013, EarthBound was reissued and given a worldwide release for the Wii U Virtual Console following many years of fan lobbying.

EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game. There are two extremely popular fan-made sites dedicated to the game (Starmen.netEarthboundCentral), and dozens of other sites have devoted countless hours in translating the sequel for English-speaking audiences. Earthbound was ahead of its time when released and its influence continues to be felt, inspiring the likes of Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Majora’s Mask, Chibi Robo, Retro City Rampage, and South Park: The Stick of Truth.

While Earthbound’s game mechanics stick to the traditional JRPG template, its surreal world, imaginative locals, and experimental soundtrack created a truly unique experience. Nothing stands out quite like its visual style – an 8-bit presentation powered by a 16-bit processor. The graphics might not be as advanced as some of the other 16-bit titles available on the SNES, but it is certainly among the most memorable. The SNES was home to some amazing soundtracks, but EarthBound’s soundtrack remains the best. Created by four composers, there’s enough music here to fill 8 of the 24 megabits on the cartridge – with direct musical quotations of classical tune and folk music, and a few samples culled from commercial pop and rock. It also contains one of the very best endings in any video game, a touching climax that captures the vulnerability and beauty of adolescence and the power of friendship. And the punctuation mark comes during the credits. Throughout the game, you’ll cross paths several times with a photographer who descends from the sky and snaps a photograph of your most recent achievement. These pictures will roll throughout the credits, serving as a makeshift montage of your time spent playing the game. And be sure to stay until the very end. To say more would be giving away the surprise.


I can’t think of another game as irreverently comic and deeply touching as Earthbound. Here is a game that resonates long after completion, and oozes originality in just about every frame. Ness may rock his sweet ball cap, handy backpack, telekinetic powers, and a trusty baseball bat, but even this hero needs to call his mom regularly, otherwise, he may suddenly find himself useless in battle. Earthbound stands, sweet and strong, outrageous and quirky, like its heroes — it’s about the loss of innocence as well as gaining wisdom – and is one of those treasures absolutely not to be missed. While it suffers from a slow start and stretched premise, the charm of its cast debunking an intergalactic conspiracy goes a long way. Of all the games I own on the Super NES, Earthbound is the game I treasure the most and the game that made me fall in love with the medium.

– Ricky D

EarthboundGameManual

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Freelance Film Writers

Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

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