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A Prejudicial Approach to ‘Overwatch’

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I hated Overwatch. I really did. Right from the start. From the release of the CG trailer that showed off the characters with the visual style and even comedic timing typical of western animation (read: overused to the point of cliche), all the way until release.

I didn’t like the character designs, from the too-obviously brooding Japanese stereotype of Hanzo (not to mention his brother, the robot ninja), to the DJ who shoots soundwaves from his gun and spouts terrible “aren’t I cool?” one-liners while zipping around on his space-age rollerblades, to the cut-rate adolescent power fantasy of Reaper. I hated the music and the cheesy “hero” vibe. I hated the huge character roster that made it seem like yet another game aspiring to appeal to MOBA players. I hated that it appeared to be chasing after Team Fortress 2 in more ways than one (including the frustrating nature of the loot boxes), a game I disliked so much that I stopped playing team-based shooters entirely. (Full disclosure, I was a fan of Team Fortress circa 1998, when it was a mod for Quake, and drew steadily away after Valve got their hands on it.) Overwatch was a game I was ready to ignore for the rest of my life, and not only did I fail to play the open beta, I actively avoided doing so. It was a game I neither wanted nor needed; not from Blizzard, and not from anybody else.

As of this writing, my career profile tells me I’m level 40 and I’ve put 32 hours into the game since launch. I’ve also watched some basic guides on the different characters, watched every animated short Blizzard has released, and read all the promotional comics they’ve produced. I think it’s fair to say that I love Overwatch.

Effective use of skills is not only the key to victory, it's extremely satisfying.

Effective use of skills is not only the key to victory, it’s extremely satisfying.

What the hell happened? A fair question, and one I find myself asking on a regular basis as I continue playing, encouraging my friends to play, and attempting to get better with each of the game’s characters. Digging for the real answers has taken some time, but it may make a better story than a simple survey of the problem.

There were two major things that roused my curiosity regarding Overwatch. Firstly, the new Doom release (one I loved, as did our reviewer at GoombaStomp), which was an incredible amount of fun, but offered a disappointing team-based multiplayer component. Spending so much time with such a fast and furious shooter of the old school made me yearn for my PlanetQuake days, when we deathmatched every Friday for years. I haven’t had a regular shooter or group to play it with for well over a decade, not since Quake 3, and the experience of playing Doom made me long for it again. Most modern shooters have repelled me on a variety of levels, either thematic, mechanical, or both.

The second reason for my curiosity about Overwatch was simply how much positivity surrounded it. Within the gaming public at large, sure; that seemed reasonable given its incredibly accessible exterior, with cute, Pixar-like characters, colorful visuals, and Blizzard pedigree. But everyone I knew that was playing Doom and having a great time was also talking about Overwatch in terms that can only be described as gushing. Not knowing why was killing me.

Learning how to use all the characters properly is a rewarding, if lengthy, endeavor.

Learning how to use all the characters properly is a rewarding, if lengthy, endeavor.

As a games writer and an editor who has worked for several different games outlets over the years, curiosity is something that frequently compels me to play games I have no personal interest in playing for entertainment. I’ve played Call of Duty games even though I hate them, struggled through real-time strategy games that weren’t exactly my cup of tea, and put up with all manner of mechanics in Japanese RPGs that drove me nuts. Usually I was there for the spectacle, or because there was something a particular game did with such joie de vivre that I had to witness it for myself. While I rarely play such games to completion, I have many times felt that if the opportunity arose to touch them, even if only for a short while, it was an opportunity worth taking.

And so with Overwatch. My curiosity overtook me, and I started watching some streams of the game. I still wasn’t sold. It looked slow, methodical. There was all that time spent running back to objectives after death, waiting around the character select screen, waiting for the match to start. Watching people play it on consoles was even worse, as there’s nothing a competitive FPS veteran hates more than the imprecise movements of a controller.

When the opportunity to actually play Overwatch presented itself again, I took it. Not knowing wasn’t going to cut it. I had to see for myself why people were loving the game so much when it seemed to be doing everything in its power to repel me, someone who ostensibly resided in its target demographic. Other unanswered questions seemed to be riding on this as well: had my inability to truly engage with modern multiplayer shooters been because of fundamental changes in the genre that would forever keep me away, or had I just not found the right one?

"Play of the Game" still needs tweaks to weight tweaks a bit less, but it's still a boost to see your name in lights.

“Play of the Game” still needs tweaks to weight kills a bit less, but it’s fun to see your name in lights.

While the game downloaded, I went back to watch the original trailer, and also to watch the other character trailers that I’d missed. They still didn’t appeal to me stylistically, though I could appreciate the artistry, but in looking at them from a more mechanical perspective I started to see the potential for interesting differences in the characters. Once I got into the game, the distinctness of each became readily apparent.

So did the fact that I liked the game. It wasn’t more than a few matches in that I decided people were on to something, and not more than a few hours later that I felt I had a pretty good idea what. While the game doesn’t move like Quake, and characters individually tend to feel slow, all the emphasis is on positioning and playing to the strengths of a chosen character by using their skills effectively.

And yes, I know, that sounds like most class-based shooters—but the characters here make a huge part of the difference. Despite a couple of less-than-thrilling designs, there isn’t a single one that doesn’t feel viable and unique.

While McCree, Hanzo, and Widowmaker all require players to aim well, Hanzo’s arrow-sniping feels very different from using Widowmaker’s scope, and though McCree can do a sort of sniping of his own, and isn’t a front-line character, his ability to stun, rapidly unload his six-shooter, and get a quick reload makes him a more formidable enemy up close than either of the other two. Winston and Roadhog are both big tank characters, but Winston can leap around the map at will, and his lightning gun hits everything in a short radius for low damage, while Roadhog is a big oaf with a shotgun that drags people into his best range using a hook. Space doesn’t permit me to go on at length about these interesting comparisons for all the characters (there are 21 of them, after all), but suffice it to say that each feels different even from other characters that fill a general role like “tank” or “support”.

Even the support characters are tons of fun to play, with 3 healers that all feel decidedly different.

Even the support characters are tons of fun to play, with 3 healers that all feel decidedly different.

Despite this, the game doesn’t feel like it’s chasing the MOBA ideal as hard as I thought it was. This is still a shooter, and one that both requires and rewards skill with more than a handful of individual characters. This isn’t about quantity over quality, choosing based purely on cosmetics, or about focusing in on a favorite. You’re less likely to have a “main” if you want to stay competitive, as you need to learn enough characters to be versatile, and there isn’t much overlap between them. While I still suck with a few, at this point I feel like I can readily fill any needed role on a team, even if I have to switch characters several times in the middle of a match.

Yet what’s amazed me most is how satisfying the game is. Losing to a well-organized team that completely stomps your own is just as un-fun here as in any other game of the same type, but a fight that’s even moderately well-matched always feels fantastic, win or lose. Battles are special because one doesn’t just go up against a few other classes, but against a huge cast of characters with personalities and styles all their own. The characters never leave center stage even with such an abundance of tactical options. When you’re flying around with your jetpack and hassling enemy positions, you feel like Pharah, not just a collection of skills representing a more mobile unit choice. The constant commentary and banter from the characters helps this as well.

Get used to watching how you died while you wait to respawn. It's entertaining at times, but mostly instructive.

Get used to watching how you died while you wait to respawn. It’s entertaining at times, but mostly instructive.

Ultimately, learning how to enjoy Overwatch was, at least for me, a lesson in pushing past my own prejudices. I had many of them at the outset, and all of them told me that this was a game I should avoid; yet here I am, having an incredible time jumping into random pickup groups and playing with several of my friends. I’ve even come to enjoy a fair bit of what once initially put me off. I still don’t love the music, and I’m less fond of a couple of the characters, but I learned how to play those characters and can now both appreciate what makes them fun and play them in matches where their skills are most useful.

Games don’t always have an easy time overcoming prejudice. In a world of vitriolic fandom that often demands every franchise be tailored to their exact specifications, it can be hard for them to overcome barriers of perception. But we know they do. Demon’s Souls, and of course Dark Souls after it, often met with incredulity from players and critics who felt the difficulty was an unwelcome gimmick, and yet many people changed their tune after spending enough time with the games. I managed to change mine with Overwatch, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to do it with a Blizzard game, though perhaps it was the biggest uphill climb (I wasn’t fond of Hearthstone at first, either, but getting me to play cards is generally an easier proposition).

But while Overwatch isn’t likely to have those sorts of barriers for most people at the marketing level, given its wide appeal, it might run into problems with frustration, depending on how well the matchmaking ends up working for new players. Overwatch is, for all its color and cuteness, a tough game with a community of tough opponents, and there’s a lot to learn before new players will feel properly up to speed. For those people, the prejudicial difficulties may arise after losing for the 25th time and being tempted to say, “Man, this game just sucks!”

Michael J. Riser writes weird fiction and articles about videogames. He occasionally posts stuff at Bookruptcy.com, and (more frequently) @Quemaqua on Twitter.

Games

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

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Games

Indie World 2019: The Best Games From Nintendo’s Showcase

With a healthy mix of brand new titles and a few shocking ports, here’s all the best games announced at Nintendo’s Indie World showcase.

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Indie World

Whenever Nintendo announces another indie presentation, it’s impossible to know what to expect. One may be a fairly low-key event, while another might announce a brand new Zelda game. The latest “Indie World” presentation for Gamescom 2019 found itself somewhere in the middle. It didn’t feature quite as many earth shattering reveals as the previous presentation in March, but with a healthy mix of promising new titles, updates on previously announced games, and a few shocking ports, Indie World was a worthwhile showcase in its own right. Without further ado, here’s some of the very best game announcements from the presentation, arranged in order of their appearance.

Eastward

Indie World

I’m firmly of the belief that you can never have too many Zelda-likes in your life. For this reason alone, Eastward looks like it could be an exciting addition to the Switch’s indie lineup. Better yet, this latest Chuckelfish-published game looks like it has all the makings of a great entry in the genre.

It tells a simple story: a miner finds a young girl alone in a secret underground facility, and together, they go on to explore a post-apocalyptic land. Although this world has been apparently ravaged by a cataclysmic disaster, it still looks gorgeous thanks to its lush pixel art and fluid character animations. Pair this with your typical Zelda-like gameplay loop of overworld exploration and dungeon puzzle-solving, and Eastward looks like it will be a promising prospect when it releases next year.

The Touryst

Indie World

Shin’en Multimedia has long been known for making some of the best-looking titles on Nintendo consoles with visual stunners like the Fast Racing series. However, The Touryst is a departure from the games they’re known for. While it’s just as breathtaking as their previous work with its beautiful lighting and voxel-based design, it’ll be a much slower experience than Shin’en’s signature lightning-fast racing games.

As its name would suggest, it focuses on a tourist taking a relaxing tropical vacation, whiling away their time with activities like shopping, scuba diving, and visiting arcades. However, the trailer also hints of a greater mystery lurking beneath this laid-back surface. With Zelda-like dungeons to explore and puzzles to solve as well as a contemporary tropical setting, it seems like it could be considered a spiritual successor to the NES cult classic, StarTropics. It should definitely be one to keep an eye on when it launches this November.

Röki

Who’s the real monster here? Röki is a narrative-focused adventure game set in a world taken straight out of Scandinavian fairytales, featuring a snow-laden forest inhabited by fantastical creatures of Nordic mythology.  It puts players in control of a young woman exploring this mystical environment, with the goal of saving her family and interacting with these various monsters. Its visuals adopt a beautiful storybook style, and with its emphasis on accessible gameplay and telling a touching story, it looks like it could be a worthwhile purchase for anyone in search of a more poignant adventure when it hits Switch this winter.

SUPERHOT

Indie World

It’s not a true Nintendo presentation without a shadow drop or two, so SUPERHOT took it upon itself to be the first to fill that void during Indie World. It’s a striking shooter built upon one simple concept: time only moves when you do. This core idea creates a uniquely methodical approach to the genre, nearly turning SUPERHOT into more of a puzzler than a shooter. It’s already made quite an impact on other platforms, so it should fit right in on Nintendo’s hybrid wonder – and best of all, it’s available right now.

Hotline Miami Collection

Indie World

If it has style, action, and plenty of violence, it’s probably a Devolver Digital game. The boutique indie publisher has supported the Switch with plenty of quality games over the past few years, but the brutal series that launched the publisher into fame in the first place has been strangely absent. Thankfully, that changed today with the surprise release of the Hotline Miami Collection on the eShop.

Gathering both games in the iconic Hotline Miami top-down shooter series into a single package, this release brings all of their signature hardcore difficulty and neon style to a Nintendo platform for the first time. For anyone who’s enjoyed Devolver’s fantastic output thus far on the Switch but hasn’t yet experienced these famously bloody titles, it should be an excellent purchase.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Microsoft’s surreal love affair with Nintendo continues with the reveal that another Xbox One console exclusive will be making its way to Switch. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition is the ultimate version of the acclaimed artistic platformer. It will feature the same beautiful visuals, detailed world, and touching story that made the original release so special, along with all the additional areas, story, and improvements of the Definitive Edition.

For those concerned that the game’s incredible visuals will lose their luster on Nintendo’s under-powered device, there’s no need to worry: the developers have confirmed that the Switch version contains no compromises, running at a locked 60 frames per second at 1080p resolution while docked, with a native 720p resolution in handheld mode. It joins the ranks of Cuphead and Super Lucky’s Tale as yet another former Microsoft exclusive to appear on Nintendo’s console, and with its uncompromising conversion to Switch, it should be one of the most remarkable Switch ports yet when it releases on September 27.

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Game Reviews

‘Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Review: Raising the New Generation to a High Standard

Fire Emblem: Three Houses marks a triumphant return to home console that puts in the effort to pull the player into its world.

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There are few comeback stories in the gaming industry as impressive as that of the Fire Emblem series. After very nearly going cold the grid-based, SRPG was single-handedly saved by 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening and has since gone on to prosper as one of Nintendo’s most well-recognized IP’s. Now, after more than a decade, the storied franchise makes its return to home consoles with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, an entry that takes bold steps forward in promoting it above and beyond anything the series has seen to date.

Three Houses, Three Countries, One Path

Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place on the continent of Fodlan and consists of three major countries. At the center of the three territories is the Garreg Mach Monastery which simultaneously houses the Military Officer’s Academy as well as The Church of Seiros, the land’s primary religion. The game picks up with your self-named protagonist being appointed a professor at the Monastery after protecting some of its students from a bandit attack. At the same time, an enigmatic young girl named Sothis begins appearing in your dreams who alludes to ominous events to come.

Sothis
Sothis will aid the player character throughout their journey

The gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be split into two categories — The traditional turn-based grid combat familiar from past titles and the teaching and guidance of students at the monastery. Teaching and school life are brand new to the franchise and are the foundation on which the entire game is built upon.

In the early goings of the game, you are asked to choose between the three classes, or houses, to instruct and guide in your time as a professor. These three houses — The Black Eagles, The Blue Lions, and The Golden Deer — each correspond to one of the three countries of Fodlan and consists of students from those territories. Your selection of which house to lead will have ramifications that permeate practically every aspect of the game including the story, units available in combat, and interactions within the school; this lends the decision a weight that goes beyond choosing who has the prettiest faces.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses House Leaders
Claude, Dimitiri, and Edelgard are the heads of their respective houses and will play pivotal roles in the game if you choose them

The school year is divided into months with school activities taking up the bulk of the time that culminates with an assigned battle at the end. As a professor, you are tasked with teaching your students the art of war and this is accomplished primarily in the classroom. 

Each week begins with establishing a lesson plan for your class. You can work with students one-on-one to develop specific skills of various weapon types, assign them to group tasks to forge bonds and other proficiencies, and help them establish goals that they will work towards on their own time. Doing so allows them to equip better weapons and, most importantly, acquire new class types through certification exams. 

Small events such as students asking questions on subject matter or seeking advice on their goal paths are evocative or actually being a teacher. It’s easy to grow attached to your students as you guide them from a lowly Commoner class to something as grand as a War Master over the course of the game. While Three Houses does a good job of easing the player into these intricacies, there is an Auto-Instruct option available as well for those who find it daunting or don’t care for perfect optimization.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Teaching

The end of each week features a free day that can be spent in one of three different ways. You can host a seminar with another faculty member that provides a large amount of skill experience or embark on battles for quest rewards and character-specific paralogues that help flesh out their backstories. The option to explore the monastery, however, is the most interesting and involved of the three as it gives you free rein to roam about the campus in a fully 3D environment.

All In a Day’s Work 

Garreg Mach Monastery is sprawling, with numerous buildings explore, courtyards to walk through, and facilities to take advantage of. While the graphics of Three Houses aren’t necessarily something to write home about from a technical perspective — there are even moments of noticeable slowdown in particularly populated areas — the vibrant art style and eye-catching medieval architecture give the monastery a beauty that makes it a pleasure to wonder about it.  Small details such as pegasus knights flying in the sky and messenger owls flitting about between buildings breath life into the campus and lend credence that this is an academy in a fantasy world.

There are a plethora of activities to do while roaming the premises and Three Houses does an admirable job of easing you into each of them. Tasks such as gardening various crops and fishing for the biggest catch not only provide valuable resources but also go towards increasing your professor level which increases your maximum Activity Points you can spend in a day.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Monastery

Meanwhile, sharing meals with students in the dining hall, inviting them out to tea parties, and returning lost items all serve to build bonds between pupils and increase their motivation for further studies. Interacting with them in such ways or even just talking to them on the school grounds also offers insight into their thoughts and feelings on current events in the world, which goes a long way towards developing their character in addition to Fire Emblem’s long-established support conversations. 

As characters spend time together in the monastery and fight together on the battlefield their support levels will rise, granting various bonuses in battle such as increased hit rate and evasion. These supports are accompanied by conversations that flesh out each character’s personality and provide valuable backstories not found in the main story.

In typical Fire Emblem fashion, the cast of Three Houses is unique and distinct with multiple layers of complexity over initial arch-typical natures. Peeling back these layers over the course of the game serves as some of the most satisfying intrinsic rewards it has to offer, with macho, good guy Raphael and self-doubting Marianne being particular standouts in my play session. This is accentuated even more since every single line of dialogue, no matter how minor, is fully voiced, a rarity for JRPG’s. The English acting ranges from good to exceptional, but the Japanese voices are also available for those who prefer it.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Sylvain
Support conversations range from comical, to serious, to heart-warming — but they are always engaging.

It’s a shame the same level of polish can’t be said about the main story, however. The plot is rather straightforward and doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of expectations outside a mix-up here and there. Many scene transitions are nonexistent and jarring and the stilted movements of CG scenes reserved for important moments detract more than they add. That said, the stellar character and world-building that take place within the monastery more than makeup for the lukewarm story-telling and give ample reason to become invested. Not to mention the curiosity of seeing the story from the other houses’ perspectives encourages subsequent playthroughs.

Bonding and interacting with students outside of your class is worthwhile as well as it’s possible to recruit them into your own house. Convincing a student to join your class takes a large amount of effort over a long course of time, making the moment they finally give the “Ok” feel much more earned than recruitment has in past Fire Emblems. This not only gives you another unit to use on the battlefield but also avoids potentially seeing them as an enemy down the line when things aren’t quite so peaceful in Fodlan anymore.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Dining

It’s easy to fall into a routine when going about the monastery in Three Houses. The constant loop of every action taken feeding into accomplishing another is positively addicting. It encourages you to make the most out of each day while also emphasizing the steady march of time. For a game that places such importance on the passage of time, however, it is slightly off-putting how the seasons in the monastery never change from its default bright, sunny day, especially with talk of snow and colder weather abound in later months.

All time spent at school is ultimately in preparation for combat, though, and Three Houses presents some of the finest and most refined form of it the Fire Emblem series has ever seen.

Applying Theory to Practice

The fundamentals of combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are the same as all of its predecessors but numerous additions and changes cast it in a whole new light. Encounters take place on grid-based maps and you move each individual character to attack enemies, assist allies, and position them for counter-attacks, among other things. Once all of your units have moved the enemy gets their turn to retaliate and the process repeats.

Before initiating combat a combat forecast appears that tells you the damage each side will inflict, the chance of landing that attack, and the chance of dealing a triple damage critical hit. Utilizing this forecast to calculate risk vs reward of various engagements becomes routine as deaths of characters are permanent when playing in Classic mode, although Casual mode makes its return that brings back lost units after the mission as well. The fight then plays out automatically with characters fluidly moving in unique and organic ways depending on how the battle plays out. While you have no control during these segments, there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing someone like burly Raphael deftly dodge an attack and roundhouse kick the enemy to the face in retaliation.

Battle

The weapon triangle — a series mainstay that gave rock-paper-scissors qualities to weapon types — has been done away with in Three Houses, requiring players to think beyond simply matching enemies with their direct counters. In its place come Combat Arts, a system that’s been taken from 2017’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. These special skills are obtained by gaining proficiency in weapon types through teaching sessions and combat and grant each character different ways to approach combat.

The set of Combat Arts learned are unique to each character. For example, Claude and Bernadetta are both proficient with bows but only the latter learns the far-reaching snipe art “Deadeye,” while only the former learns the blessed imbued “Monster Blast”. This applies to magic as well, with every character learning a different set of spells as they grow more proficient. While there is some overlap in spells and arts learned between characters, they nonetheless make them feel more distinct from one another as opposed to simply using the ones with the best stats, minimizing the problem previous entries have of “dead weight characters”.

Another wrinkle to combat is the addition of battalions and Gambits. Battalions are a unit of generic soldiers that can be assigned to each character to confer various stat bonuses. Each battalion grants the use of their special Gambit, powerful abilities that typically hit multiple enemies in an area, thus weakening their stats and preventing movement for a turn. Support type gambits exist as well, such as letting allies sustain a lethal hit once or making it so they take and deal only one damage for a turn. Not only do Gambits open up new strategic possibilities by introducing a form of crowd control to the series, but they are also pivotal in taking down Three Houses’ new enemy type: Monsters.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Combat
Battalions also add more life to the battlefields by showing more than just your unit and the enemy facing off one-on-one

Monsters have been in Fire Emblem games before, but never in this form. Monsters are gargantuan beasts that take up four squares on the grid, sometimes more. They have multiple health bars to drain, devastating area sweeping attacks, and barriers that diminish damage taken and prevent critical hits. The key to slaying these beasts is to utilize battalion Gambits to attack multiple parts of the monsters at once and systematically whittle down their barriers.

Unlike regular enemy and boss types that can usually be taken down by one reasonably powerful unit, monsters require the brunt of your military force to slay. Contending with both monsters and regular enemies as they barrel towards your army provides for some of the tensest moments in the game that then result in blissful satisfaction for overcoming them; all the more emphasized by Three Houses’ phenomenal soundtrack that amplifies feelings of triumph to remarkable heights.

Map designs, on the other hand, leave something to be desired as many take place in large, open areas where strategy ultimately boils down to careful positioning of units on defensive tiles. Even maps with branching paths feel like little more than an excuse to give your units an opportunity to equally distribute experience gained from combat. The lack of gimmicks and terrain variety leads to missions sometimes blending together, a problem exacerbated by the fact that nearly every victory objective is either “Route the enemy” or “Defeat the commander.” It’s never so dull as to become mind-numbing, but having more variety in the 60-80 hour long campaign would go a long way towards solidifying what is otherwise an incredibly tight combat experience. 

Lessons Learned, Experience Showing

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a grand culmination that takes a deep, introspective look into what makes the series so great and evolving it in meaningful and impactful ways.

The monastery and professor role not only fit right at home in such a character-driven game but also breath fresh life into the school setting that has long been regarded as “the graveyard of creativity.” The main story may not be the most engrossing but never has it been easier to grow intimately attached to such a large and varied cast of characters. Those attachments manifest in battles as a drive to persevere and the various tools the game gives you, old and new, give the power to do so. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is no doubt, the triumphant return to home consoles that fans have been waiting over a decade for and a sterling lesson that for a game series, class is always in session.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Rhea
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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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