Nintendo Switch: Snake Pass (review)

Release date: March 2017

Developer: Sumo Digital

Format: Digital download (eShop)

Other platforms: PS4, XBox One, PC (Windows)

Price: $26 AUD

After the relatively lackluster launch lineup for the Nintendo Switch, a lot of people – myself included – were looking forward to something different to play during breaks from Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Snake Pass caught my eye as soon as I saw its first trailer, with the cute, cheerful characters and lush, vibrant environments making me nostalgic for 90s platformers like Donkey Kong 64 and Crash Bandicoot.

Comparisons with Donkey Kong seem a bit inevitable when you consider that Snake Pass‘s music was composed by David Wise who worked on most of the iconic music from the Donkey Kong series. Having played Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a few years earlier, I was especially reminded of its chilled out soundtrack, as Snake Pass‘s music has a similar vibe.

There’s not much of a story in Snake Pass, but the game doesn’t really suffer for not having it. You control a snake called Noodle as he travels through 15 levels with the help of his hummingbird companion, Doodle. Controlling Noodle takes a lot of getting used to, as you really have to think like a snake. If you just push the thumbstick forward, you won’t get anywhere in a hurry; instead, you have to make him slither from side to side like a real snake in order to build up speed, and though you can raise Noodle’s head to climb over low obstacles, most climbing requires Noodle to wrap around various bamboo structures. Playing as a snake is definitely a novelty, and the developers have really got the gravity and physics of how a snake moves and acts right (apparently the guy who came up with the idea used to have a pet snake, which explains why the movements look and feel so natural). It may be unforgiving, but it’s certainly realistic.

Some areas also see Noodle swimming underwater or having to unlock obstacles by pushing a ball into a slot or by moving a lever or spinning a turnstile. All of these mechanics are introduced relatively early in the game and aside from taking place in increasingly treacherous environments, they don’t really evolve as you progress. Though I suppose control options are going to be limited for a character that has no arms or legs.

There is no jumping in Snake Pass, and no enemies to fight. The lack of combat makes it a fairly relaxing puzzle-platformer for the most part (at least in the early levels), though it is possible to die if you fall off the stage or land in a pit of spikes or lava. This makes the challenge ramp up significantly in later levels, as some of the collectibles required to progress are positioned in hard-to-reach areas where a single mistake can result in fatal falls.

There are three sorts of collectibles in Snake Pass. First are the three brightly coloured shapes, keys that must be collected to open the gate before you can move on to the next level. Next there are the numerous blue bubbles. Finally, there are five gold coins in each level, and these coins are by far the most challenging to collect. If you only collect the three gate keys, you can probably finish the game in about 4 hours, but if you’re aiming for 100% completion it will take double that, at least. Aside from that 100% completion, there seems to be very little reward for collecting the bubbles and coins, and – as I’ll go into below – the game frustrated me enough that I was content to just get the three gate keys and go on to the next level.

As much as I was charmed by Noodle and his colourful world, I still had a few gripes with the game. The first was with the camera; as in many Nintendo 64 3D platformers, the camera would quite often choose the least helpful angle it could, obscuring my view as I tried to slither up a tricky structure of bamboo poles. Moving the camera is easy enough with the right thumbstick, but this means taking your thumb off the A button, which is not ideal if you’re trying to climb vertically (there were times I felt like I could have used a third thumb). I died a number of times simply because I couldn’t see what I was doing, and either took my thumb off A to move the camera (resulting in Noodle letting go and falling to his death) or because I tried to navigate the obstacle effectively blind and unsurprisingly was unable to do so. The ‘helpful’ hummingbird was not always helpful, either, often either refusing to lift my tail when I pressed the button to call him, or lifting it and then dropping it without me asking him to, usually at the most inconvenient time.

Several sections require Noodle to coil and slither around intricate bamboo structures in order to reach high platforms. This means wrapping tightly around the bamboo by making relatively small motions with the control stick. Unfortunately, whether Noodle wraps around or just flings himself out in that general direction seems to be purely down to luck, so expect to have to to climb the same section repeatedly because Noodle fell off the structure for no reason. You can use the left trigger button to grip tightly, but this, too, seemed a bit hit-and-miss. Combined with a sudden difficulty spike about a third/half of the way into the game, this created an extremely frustrating experience at times (I’m not the sort of person to throw my controller when I lose my temper but Snake Pass certainly challenged me in that regard). It also annoyed me that checkpoints weren’t placed after more of the difficult sections, as it meant that falling or dying at a particular point often forced you to repeat two or three gruelling climbs rather than just one.

Though Snake Pass is a relatively short game, it still offers plenty of depth and challenge to those who want it, and its pick-up-and-play structure makes it particularly suited to the Nintendo Switch’s portability. The experience was marred at times by an uncooperative camera and a disobedient hummingbird, and the difficulty spike in the middle part of the game felt a little extreme, but I still had some fun with Snake Pass, even if sometimes the controls made it more frustrating than it needed to be. If you’re desperate for a new game to play, I’d recommend giving Snake Pass a go, but if you still have plenty of other games to get through first, maybe wait for it to go on sale.

Score:

 

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Nintendo DS: Professor Layton and the Curious Village (review)

Release date: April 2008

Developer: Level 5

Format: Physical cart

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$20 AUD

Though I played a lot of puzzle games as a child, I lost interest in them as an adult. I had heard a lot of people in various gaming sites and forums praising the Professor Layton series, but I still wasn’t motivated to actually try one. Then I was in Target one day and saw several games marked down for clearance, including Professor Layton and the Curious Village for $5. I decided to pick it up along with whatever new-release game I was buying at the time.

The story starts with Professor Layton and his assistant, Luke, driving to the small town of St. Mystere after receiving a letter from Lady Dahlia. Dahlia’s husband, the recently deceased Baron Augustus Reinhold, wrote in his will that his fortune would go to whoever solved the mystery of the Golden Apple; while many have tried, no one has yet succeeded. Not long after Layton and Luke start investigating, however, another member of the Baron’s family is murdered, and the duo soon discover that the Golden Apple is only the beginning of their mystery. I will admit that I went in expecting to be underwhelmed, but it’s actually an engaging story, and the personalities of the different characters make you care what happens to them.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village is also beautifully presented in a charming cartoon style, with completely animated and voiced cut scenes delivering the story in between puzzles and exploration. This is surprising and impressive compared to a lot of other DS games, and these high production values make the story even more interesting. I also quite liked the music, though it did get repetitive after a while; I would have liked to see a greater variety of tracks included.

So, what’s the actual gameplay like? Exploring the town and its surrounds is essentially a point-and-click adventure, where you touch arrows on the screen to move into different areas. In each scene, different characters and objects can be interacted with; some people will only give you information to progress the story if you can solve a puzzle for them (everyone in Professor Layton games loves puzzles), while other objects might yield optional puzzles. You can also find Hint Coins hidden in some places, which are useful for when you get stuck on a puzzle.

The puzzles themselves are where the game really shines. There are many different types of puzzles, from slider puzzles (rearranging components to fit into a particular shape) to logic puzzles to mathematical puzzles. Each puzzle has a value in “picarats”, which in most cases decreases by 10% the first two times you get the puzzle wrong (the penalty is higher for multiple choice puzzles). Also, some puzzles can’t really be answered ‘incorrectly’ as they require you to move things around to achieve a certain objective (such as arranging items to fit within a particular shape). The picarats don’t seem to have any purpose other than indicating the difficulty of the puzzle, so losing them isn’t really a big deal. If you get stuck on a puzzle, you can quit it with no penalty and come back to it later, though there are some puzzles that are required before you can progress.

While some puzzles are easy and have obvious answers, some are incredibly difficult and even when you do work out the solution, it sometimes seems down to luck more than anything. There were a handful that I had to look up online, and my response when I saw the answer was to scratch my head and mutter, “huh?” Then again, I suppose it caters to different ways of thinking, so what seems ridiculous to me may be quite obvious to someone else.

In addition to the puzzles, there are also a few other mini-games to solve throughout the adventure. When completing puzzles, you will sometimes be rewarded with a gizmo, a portrait piece or furniture. Furniture can be used to decorate Layton and Luke’s rooms at the inn to make them happy, while portrait pieces can be assembled to complete a painting. The gizmos can be assembled to create a little robot dog who can sniff out Hint Coins or puzzles you might otherwise miss. These mini-games are completely optional.

I would definitely recommend picking up Professor Layton and the Curious Village if you find it, especially since it can be found so cheaply now. The beautifully presented story and the huge variety of puzzles will appeal to people of all ages. Just be prepared to have to go online to look up a puzzle solution every now and then, and some players may prefer to play with the volume off once the music becomes too repetitive.

Score:

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Nintendo 3DS: Ever Oasis (review)

Release date: June 2017

Developer: Grezzo

Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical cart

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$50 AUD

My undying love for Fantasy Life is no secret, and the fact that the ‘sequel’ is only a mobile game rather than a fully-fledged 3DS game is something I’m still bitter about. When Ever Oasis was announced at last year’s E3, it looked like it would at least help me scratch the cute RPG itch.

The story opens in your older brother’s oasis, where he tells you about some of the skills it takes to be an oasis chief. Not long after, your brother and his oasis are swallowed up by Chaos, though he manages to send you to safety with his magic before he bites the dust. Upon awakening, you meet Esna, a water sprite, who helps you to create your very own oasis. From this point on, you expand your oasis by getting more residents to move in, gardening crops and and setting up shops for your residents, growing crops and holding festivals to attract more visitors. In addition to running your oasis, you also need to fight off the odd Chaos attack on your oasis, as well as travelling in search of a way to defeat Chaos for good.

Characters you meet in the field or in dungeons will eventually visit your oasis, and provided certain requests are met (they may want a certain item or a particular shop) they will become a resident. Once this happens, you can help them set up Bloom Booths, where they can sell materials you give them to visitors in order to earn you Dewadems, the game’s currency. These characters will usually also tell you about another character they saw on their adventures, hinting at another person who will come to our oasis once you find them and talk to them. You need to make sure you keep the shop-keepers well-stocked with materials (which can be found by harvesting crops, gathering items in the field and by defeating enemies) as if they sell out, their happiness drops and they can’t earn you any Dewadems. Having to run around visiting each shop to refill their wares can be time consuming, but luckily a character eventually moves in who does all this for you once you indicate what materials need to be given to which Bloom Booth owner. You can also assign characters to take over gardening (as long as they’re not running a Bloom Booth) – meaning you can just hand over the seeds and collect the crops rather than having to plant and tend to them yourself – and exploring, allowing the characters to go out into the field and level up while they bring back various materials depending on where you send them.

Recruiting new residents forms a substantial part of the game as it’s the only way to level up your oasis, and some of the later story requests require you to have your oasis at a certain level or have a certain number of residents. Also, the more residents you have and the happier they are, the more your HP increases by when you travel into the field. Though all the characters are cute and have their own personalities, the constant pattern of ‘find a character, have them visit your oasis, fetch them an item/build them a shop and have them move in’ grew a bit tedious after a while. Also, if you take on a quest while you have another quest active, the first quest gets cancelled, meaning that even if you go to where the item you’re supposed to find is, it won’t be there (surely you should still be able to go and get the item and give it to the character later). I played a lot of this game in short bursts between working on my thesis; resident-hunting for hours on end would have bored me, but taking a break every now and then to recruit another character or two and explore another cave on my to-do list was quite enjoyable and kept it from becoming an unpleasant chore. Once a character has moved in, you don’t really get much in the way of interaction beyond “thanks for restocking my shop!” so it can be hard to remember who’s who after a while.

When you’re not growing your oasis and talking to the residents, you’ll be venturing out through the desert, into various caves, dungeons and other settlements. You can take residents into the field with you, and this is another reason it’s worth collecting as many as you can; each character has a particular skill, and many items can only be obtained using that skills. The dungeons have various puzzles that can only be solved by certain characters. For example, some dungeons have flowers that allow a character to paraglide over large gaps, while others might have switches hidden under heavy pieces of damaged artifacts, which can only be moved by a character with a long staff. Early dungeons usually only required one skill at a time but in later dungeons, you really needed to work together with your party members to solve complex, multi-faceted puzzles, which made things interesting.

While it was never really difficult to work out what needed to be done, it was frustrating to get half way into a dungeon only to find that I couldn’t progress further because I didn’t have the right character skill. As you can only take two residents with you at once, the fact that some dungeons required three or four (or more) skills to solve all the puzzles, access all the areas and gather all materials meant that I kept having to warp back to the oasis, change my party and then warp back. Luckily warp points are provided fairly liberally in the dungeons, and if you use the Aqua Gate, you can go back to the Oasis and then return via the Aqua Gate to the exact point you warped from, but it interrupted the flow and I did feel like it was drawing out the game for no good reason. Another design choice I found odd was waiting to level up characters until they returned to the oasis; why couldn’t they level up in real time in the field as they actually earn the experience?

The desert areas and dungeons are filled with a variety of smallish enemies, most of which are pretty easy to kill, though some can present a little challenge (especially if you don’t have a character whose weapon is particularly effective against that enemy). For the most part, your other party members move and attack fairly naturally in real-time combat, and you can switch between them at any time. The problem is that ‘friendly fire’ is a thing, and since the party members often won’t wait for you to get out of the way before they start attacking an enemy, prepare to find yourself getting shot and hit a lot. This doesn’t seem to do any damage, but it does stun you briefly. There were numerous times I took damage from enemies simply because my party mates kept attacking me and preventing me from avoiding the enemy attack. Though it may be more ‘realistic’, it was frustrating, particularly in a game that seems aimed more at a younger audience.

Travelling through the dungeons is usually pretty easy as most enemies can either be bypassed and ignored completely or can be defeated with little effort. However some enemies are strong enough to pose a challenge, especially when several of them attack you at once. Ever Oasis is pretty forgiving if you die though; you can revive on the spot once, and as you complete some of the story quests, you earn more chances to revive. If you’ve used up all your revives, you can either load your last save or return to the last warp point you used. A boss enemy awaits at the end of each dungeon, and though these have a high HP and take a while to defeat, it always feels more like a war of attrition rather than a display of skill. The boss’s attack pattern usually changes very little throughout the fight, so it’s basically a matter of getting in close and whaling on its weak point until it gears up for its attack, and then running away and staying out of range until it’s finished. Rinse and repeat. That’s not to say it wasn’t still fun, but I would have liked to see the enemy attacks evolve a little more as you got their health down.

Though weapons and clothing can be purchased from merchants or Bloom Booths, most of the better weapons and accessories can only really be obtained by Synthesising materials at the Synthesis Tree in your house. As you level up your oasis, talk to new people and obtain new materials, you will receive recipes to create new items. Accessories like rings and bracelets can give you a defense boost, while weapons generally have attack boosts in addition to other effects, which helps you defeat enemies much more quickly. It’s worth making up a variety of weapons, as different races of characters can only wield certain types; for example, only the tall, slender Drauk can use the long staff weapons. You can also make clothes and hats, though these seem to be for aesthetic purposes only; they don’t have any stats attached to them. The customisation options in Ever Oasis are fairly limited compared to other RPGs, which disappointed me a little, as did the method for Synthesising items. I enjoyed Fantasy Life‘s various mini-games for crafting different things, but here you just select the item you want to make and it happens automatically (provided you have the required materials). Some may like this simpler, more streamlined approach, but I thought it was worth mentioning as a heads-up for those who love playing with different sets of armour and stats and so on. You also need to change characters’ weapons at the Oasis – you can’t do it in the field – and each character can only have one weapon, so it’s best to equip powerful new weapons to the relevant characters as soon as you get them so you don’t find yourself underpowered in the field.

Aside from expanding your oasis and so on, there’s very little story aside from ‘hunt down these three magic artifacts we need to stop Chaos’. Depending on how much you rush through it, the main story will take you about 20 hours to finish. After you have done this, you can keep playing to level up your oasis further and collect more residents (if you haven’t already maxed them out), but this is a path that will probably only appeal to those who have to 100% complete every game. I have enjoyed my time with the game and felt like it was a nice way to wind down in the evenings, and there were times where I got absorbed into the game enough that I lost a few hours. However, I don’t really have any desire to go back and keep playing now that I’ve finished the main story quests.

Ever Oasis is a fun fantasy adventure RPG that will probably appeal more to younger players. It’s full of cute characters and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be found in gathering more residents and leveling up your oasis, but the repetitive nature of many of the quests and lack of any real challenge will probably not keep older or more experienced gamers playing for long after the end story credits roll. It’s worth picking up if you just want a fairly relaxing pick-up-and-play time-waster, but if you’re after something with a bit more depth, Ever Oasis isn’t really for you.

Score:

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PC: Limbo (review)

Release date: July 2010

Developer: Playdead

Format: Digital download (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux)

Other platforms: PS3, PS4, PS Vita, XBox 360, XBox One, iOS, Android

Price: ~$10 AUD

One of the first games I got on PC was Limbo. Though I played it not long after I got it, I never got around to doing a review, and since I don’t have any reviews of PC games on this blog yet, I thought this could be one to start filling the gaps with.

When you first start up the game, there are no cut scenes to tell you what’s going on, no backstory to explain why you’ve ended up where you are. You wake up in a dark forest, with your sister missing. Once you set off to look for her, you encounter very few other life forms, and they are not friendly.

Even though the main character is a young child, Limbo is really not a kids’ game. You will die more often than Kenny dies in South Park, and in an increasingly horrific variety of ways, yet the deaths are never comedic or humorous. Each time you see the child impaled, crushed, electrocuted, drowned or decapitated, it’s always shocking and upsetting, even though the gore is relatively subdued to to the graphics style. The sections where you get chased by a large spider early in the game create a genuine sense of fear and anxiety for the young boy, yet for me, the creepy, murderous children you encounter later seemed even more terrifying (I dislike children in general, though, so that probably doesn’t help).

For the most part, the game is a fairly linear puzzle-platformer; you move from left to right, avoiding traps and solving puzzles as you go. The early puzzles are not really difficult, and the first half of the game seems to have a greater focus on avoiding enemies than puzzle-solving, but while the number of enemy encounters drops off significantly in the second half, the puzzles at this stage require a bit of thought to work out how to solve them. There will be a lot of hidden traps that kill you before you even know they’re there when you first try to pass them. This could be frustrating, but Limbo is quite forgiving, with checkpoints scattered frequently throughout the chapters; when you die, it never takes more than a minute or so to get back to where you were when you were killed. Though you can run and jump, climb and push or pull objects, you can’t actually fight or defend yourself, so survival hinges on avoiding and/or disarming threats before they can take you out. There’s also a decent variety among the puzzles, so you never really feel like you’re having to do the same thing over and over.

One of the things I loved most about Limbo was its atmosphere. You might think that a purely black and white colour scheme might get boring to look at after a while, but the subtle mist and film grain effects only enhance the sense of foreboding and loneliness as you make your way from the forest in the early part of the game to the abandoned industrial areas later in the game. There’s very little music in Limbo; aside from a few brief melodies or heavy crashing notes that tie into what’s happening to your character, most of the background noise is just ambient sounds like insects or a soft breeze. Not only does this add to the sense of dread and menace, some of the puzzles require you to listen carefully for sounds that give you hints of how to proceed or dangers that might be waiting ahead.

Limbo is a fairly short game; it took me about 4 and a half hours to complete, though if I’d not rushed in so many sections (and therefore hadn’t died so often) I probably could have beaten it faster. But short games can be a refreshing change from 50+ hour RPGs, and given the dark and depressing nature of Limbo, I think it would have overstayed its welcome (at least for me) if it was much longer. The ending arrives abruptly and it’s a little ambiguous (though in keeping with the tone of the game overall, it doesn’t appear to be a happy ending).

I don’t know how much the game cost when it came out (I think someone may have actually gifted it to me) but these days the standard price on Steam seems to be about $10, and it often goes on sale for a lot less than that. This deceptively simple-looking game is one of the most memorable games I’ve played, and I’d definitely recommend it for those who want something to scare them.

Score:

Note: Some screenshots used in this post were provided by Monty and Eric from the Video Games FTW group on Facebook, as I had lost some of my original screenshots when moving computers.

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Console: Classic Mini Nintendo Entertainment System NES (review)

When the first batch of Mini NESs was released late last year, I didn’t bother getting one because I figured I wouldn’t use it that much. Once people started getting theirs and talking about how much they loved it, however, I started to get a bit envious and decided I wanted one if I could get it. Unfortunately when the second batch was released through EB Games, their site couldn’t take the huge amount of traffic from everyone trying to buy them; in the end, some people got their orders through, but I was not one of those people.

One day in January, Vooks Tweeted that EB Games had sneakily released another batch of Mini NESs online, and this time I was able to order one. It arrived a few days later.

mini-nes-box

Naturally the first thing I had to do was set it up so I could fangirl over it and take some photos:

mini-nes

My new baby, pictured with 8-Bit Mario and Link amiibo.

Setting up my Mini NES only took a minute or so. Annoyingly, Nintendo doesn’t include an AC adapter, so you may need to power it from the TV directly or find a 3rd party adapter (luckily these are usually cheap and most people probably have spare ones from their phones or other devices). The official Mini NES adapters were still in stock when I ordered my unit, so I just got one of those.

Here’s the list of games that come pre-installed on the Mini NES (I’ll probably do reviews for at least some of them individually at some point, when I’m trying to avoid doing uni work).

The cables they give you for the power adapter and the HDMI are decent, but for some reason the controller only has a 1 metre long cord.

mini-nes-game-select-screen

Once you fire up the console, you get a game selection screen that lets you scroll horizontally through the 30 available games. Many are 1 player games, but there are several that can be played 2 player, and a handful that can only be played with 2 players. The Mini NES only comes with one controller, so if you do want to play multiplayer, you’ll need to buy another controller separately.

mini-nes-doctor-mario

Saving your games requires the use of suspend points, which operate in the same way they do on some Virtual Console games on the 3DS or Wii U. While a few games do have save functions within them, you will still need to create a suspend point after you’ve saved; otherwise, when you start the game again, it’ll start from wherever you last created a suspend point, essentially overwriting the save made from within the game (I learned this one the hard way).

mini-nes-super-mario-bros

I should admit that while I played on friends’ NESs as a child, I never actually had one of my own (my first console was the Sega Master System 2, and after a large gap my next was the Nintendo 64). Therefore I didn’t purchase my Mini NES with the same sense of nostalgia many other people did. It also means I can’t really discuss how well these emulated copies of the game perform compared to when they were played from carts on the original console. I’d imagine they’d probably run better on a genuine NES but I didn’t have any problem with input lag or other issues when playing the games I’ve tried so far.

mini-nes-zelda

The Mini NESs were quite scarce for the first few months after they released. With limited numbers being released in each batch and each batch being few and far between, speculation that the units were limited in production fueled a lot of scalpers buying them up to sell for inflated prices on eBay and Gumtree, and some of those scalped units are still floating around online. If you haven’t got a hold of one yet, don’t give any money to a scalper; it seems that more Mini NESs are in fact being produced, so if you can wait a few months, you should be able to get one eventually (edit: earlier this year it was announced that no more Mini NESs will be made, so if you didn’t get one already, you’re probably screwed).

If you have a Wii U and/or a 3DS, you can buy most of the games on the Mini NES on the eShop (I think the only one you can’t buy on the eShop is Final Fantasy). This means that some people may not see the Mini NES as having any value, and this is probably a fair viewpoint to have. If you already have one of the above-mentioned consoles, it will probably work out cheaper to just buy the games through the Virtual Console. That being said, collectors of Nintendo or any retro gaming gear will love this thing. For the number of games you get on the Mini NES, $99 isn’t that bad, and on top of that, you get a cool little retro console to display on your shelf next to your modern consoles. I definitely don’t regret buying my Mini NES and I hope they eventually release a Mini SNES at some point (update: they are! I’ve preordered one so I’ll post about it too when I finally get my hands on it).

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Console: Nintendo Switch

When Nintendo dropped their first trailer for their new console, the Switch, towards the end of last year, I and a lot of people were really excited. A device that could be played on the TV like a traditional home console OR taken with you and played in handheld mode without sacrificing much in the way of graphical quality? Sign me the hell up. Though I mostly play handheld games, I do also love sitting back with console games when time permits, so the concept of a single gadget that lets me do both was something I was really looking forward to.

Though I was initially on the fence about buying Nintendo’s latest console on launch (partially due to the tiny launch lineup of games, partially because the first generation of any console usually has issues and partially because the Nintendo Direct that went into more detail about the Switch was pretty underwhelming), playing it early at the hands-on event back in January and getting into the first 20 minutes or so of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made me realise I didn’t want to wait for it. Though Zelda: BOTW was also scheduled to release on the Wii U at the same time, it required roughly 3.4 GB of memory for an install. My Wii U has less than 2 GB of space remaining, and rather than having to go and buy an external hard drive for one game, I figured I might as well put it towards a whole new console that would eventually get even more games. So, first thing on March 3, I was at EB Games picking up my preorder.

nintendo-switch-day-1-purchase

As you can see, I went nuts with Zelda: Breath of the Wild stuff, since that’s the only game on the system I wanted at launch (I did want I Am Setsuna as well but it’s not available physically and it’s $60 on the eShop, which is double the price it is on other systems; I’d happily pay it for a physical copy but not a digital version). I’ll review Zelda and its Amiibo in another post, but for now I just want to talk about the Switch console itself. I should also note that it’ll probably be more of a ‘first impressions’ post than anything since the console is only a few days old, and no doubt updates will bring in a few more changes; I’ll come back and update this post once I’ve spent more time with the system. After showing the basic specifications for the system, I’ll go into what I like and don’t like about the Switch.

The Specifications
Without going into huge amounts of detail, here are the main things worth knowing about the Switch:

  • Memory: 32GB internal memory, though this is reduced to about 25GB once you take into account the operating system etc. You can expand the memory with Micro SDXC cards and as far as I know, there’s no limit to the size you can use.
  • Battery life: Varies depending on game, but seems to be anywhere between 3 and 6 hours in handheld mode. I got about 3 hours (maybe slightly less) while playing Zelda in handheld mode but I haven’t tried other games yet. JoyCons seem to have a life of about 20 hours from what I’m hearing, though some people are reporting inconsistencies (see below).
  • Screen: 6.2inch capacitive touch screen, with a resolution of 1280 x 720.
  • Dimensions: ~23.5 X 10 X 1.5cm (including JoyCons)
  • Weight: ~400 grams (including JoyCons)
  • Game Media: Switch games use a proprietary cartridge (or card?) very similar in size and shape to the PlayStation Vita’s games.
  • Backwards Compatibility: NA, I’m afraid. While Nintendo’s past few systems (both home and handheld consoles) have allowed you to play games from the system before, the Switch can only play Switch games. So if there are any Wii U games you wanted to play but didn’t because you never had a Wii U, you’ll need to hunt down a Wii U console.
  • Online Service: While free at the moment, the Switch will eventually become Nintendo’s first console with a paid online service in about August this year. We don’t yet know what the monthly/yearly fee will be in AUD but hopefully it’s not too high; it’d be hard to justify spending much on it when there will likely only be a handful of online-playable games by that point.
  • Virtual Console: Nothing on this front yet, either. However, most other consoles have launched without digital access to their back catalogue, so we can assume it will be added eventually. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Good
Firstly, the operating system on the Switch is much cleaner and more streamlined than Nintendo’s previous systems (mine’s obviously a bit empty at the moment since the only game I have is Zelda). Games are organised as large square tiles that take up most of the screen, while key functions like the eShop, photo album and settings are available as small circular icons along the bottom. The different options within the Settings menu are also much easier to navigate. Choosing the Controller icon allows you to pair more controllers and also tells you how much battery is remaining in your current controllers. By tapping your profile icon in the top left, you can easily add friends and see who’s online.

If you wanted to take screenshots on the Wii U or 3DS, you had to press the Home button while playing, then suspend the game, go into Miiverse and either make a post or add it to your screenshot album, which was rather tedious. The Switch has a Capture button on the Pro Controller and the left JoyCon which allows you to save screenshots to your picture album with a single button press. Once you’ve finished playing, you can go into your photo album and easily share screenshots to either Twitter or Facebook.

Modes
The Switch’s main selling point is the ability to play it both on TV or on the go, but it can also be played in tabletop mode, which is good for if you want to do some multiplayer gaming but aren’t near a TV. Let’s have a look at the different modes (hopefully I’ll be able to update them with more relevant game screenshots once we get a bigger Switch game library).

TV Mode
Like other home consoles, the Nintendo Switch can be played on TV, with the JoyCons either being used individually or in the Grip (or swapped for a Pro Controller). Whether you use a Pro Controller or the JoyCons in the Grip, it feels much the same as playing with a standard controller on other consoles.

switch-tv-mode

Handheld Mode
By sliding the JoyCons onto the side of the Switch and lifting it out of the dock, you can play it in handheld mode. The screen portion on its own is about the height and width of a 3DS XL but is much slimmer, and the JoyCons don’t really add much weight. As mentioned above, battery life varies depending on the game, but for the most part, you should be able to get at least 3 hours out of it, which isn’t much worse than dedicated handheld gaming devices. The Switch is surprisingly comfortable to hold in this mode; I found that when I played the PS Vita, I started to get a bit of RSI after a short while, but I can play for ages on the Switch with no discomfort (I know you’re supposed to take a break from gaming every hour but ain’t nobody got time for that).

switch-handheld-mode

Tabletop Mode
The Switch console has a little kickstand on the back of it that can be used to keep it upright on a surface in front of you, while you play with either the JoyCons or the Pro Controller. This mode seems to be aimed mainly at local multiplayer, as you can have a number of Switch’s connected this way, and depending on the game and number of players, you can probably get by with just the two included JoyCons (however some games require each person to have a pair of JoyCons). The ease of which spontaneous multiplayer gaming sessions can be set up in this way is a definite plus, but people with larger hands may find it tricky to hold a single JoyCon horizontally and use it as a ‘traditional’ controller for use in games like Snipperclips and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe when it comes out.

switch-tabletop-mode

So far I’ve mostly been playing in TV mode but I have spent a decent amount of time with it in handheld mode. The flexibility offered by being able to just take it out of the dock and keep playing it in handheld mode when my old man wants to watch TV is a huge blessing.

The Bad
One of the first things I noticed is that, although you can easily put the Switch in sleep mode, it’s harder to actually turn it off. Eventually someone told me that if you hold down the power button on top of it, it gives you Power Options, from which you can actually shut the system down. However, if you put it back in the dock to charge, it will turn on again and just go into sleep mode (I’m not sure if holding down the power button while it’s docked and then turning it off using the controller would work; haven’t tried that yet). While this isn’t a huge issue in general, I sometimes go days or weeks without playing any games, and when I’m not using a system, I like to have it unplugged and off, so I didn’t want to have the Switch in sleep mode and still be consuming battery power. It’d also be nice to be able to turn the console off while it’s docked by using the controller.

Speaking of controllers, some people are reporting having one JoyCon eat through its battery much faster than the other. My Switch has fallen victim to this as well; though both were evenly charged when I first started playing, my left one ended up in the red while the other one was still about 2/3rds full. Again, this doesn’t bother me a lot as their battery life is quite long anyway – longer than that of my usual handheld gaming devices – but it does mean that in total, you can’t have as much gaming time away from a charger of some sort as you could if both JoyCons ran down at the same rate. I bought a Charging Grip as I find I like playing in TV mode most, so in my case, it won’t really affect me too much, but it’s worth mentioning for those who prefer to play it as a handheld.

Thanks to the Capture button mentioned above, taking screenshots is very easy, but sharing them can be a bit fiddly. Miiverse was scrapped with the introduction of the Switch; you can still post to it from Wii U and 3DS, but not with the new console. The Switch also doesn’t have a web browser, so at this stage, the only way you can share screenshots from your album is by posting to Twitter or Facebook. After having my Twitter account hacked after adding a Twitter app to my PS Vita a while back, I’m not a fan of having my social media accounts linked to multiple services, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about this. You get the option to link your Twitter or Facebook account to your Nintendo Account, but when I posted without linking and went back later to post another photo, I found that it had saved my Twitter name and password anyway, which seems to defeat the purpose of allowing me not to link it. So far I’ve used my regular Twitter account but I’ll probably just make another disposable Twitter account specifically for my Switch screenshots. Another annoying aspect of being forced to use social media to post screenshots is getting abused by others for posting ‘spoilers’, even if you immediately save the screenshot to your device and delete the Tweet.

One complaint levelled at the Nintendo 3DS was the requirement for two people to enter each other’s friend codes to add each other as friends online. I never found it a huge issue, though I did wonder why they couldn’t just let us search by User ID, like the Wii U did. Unfortunately the Switch has brought back friend codes, though at least this time, only one person has to enter the code and send a request; the other person can just accept without having to enter the first person’s friend code. Again, not a great hardship, but since we do have Nintendo User IDs, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why we couldn’t just search for friends using that instead.

switch-profile-edited

As you’d expect with the launch of any new hardware, the Switch does have some issues. One of the most common I’ve seen reported is that the left JoyCon briefly desyncs during game play. It hasn’t happened to me at all, but one of my friends said it happened to him three times during his first day of playing Zelda. Luckily it seems it can be fixed in a few seconds (ie. you don’t have to go out to the controller menu and manually resync it or anything) but it would still be annoying.

Another seemingly widespread problem that’s popped up – and I have encountered this one myself – is that the Switch will lose its wifi connection and tell you it “can’t find an IP address” when you try to reconnect. It’s only happened to me once, and it was quick/easy enough to fix, but still rather irritating. It seems to happen mostly while the console is docked after it has been put into sleep mode, and the most common solution (which worked for me) is to undock it and, in handheld mode, go into Internet settings and manually reconnect it to your wifi.

Accessories
Since the Switch launched with a number of accessories, I figured it was worth mentioning some of them. Most of what’s available are just JoyCons (available separately or in pairs) and the straps, as well as a dock (preorder only at this stage) and AC adapters. As mentioned above, the JoyCon grip that comes with the Switch doesn’t allow you to charge the JoyCons (out of the box, they can only be charged by connecting them to the docked Switch), so I bought a Charging Grip and adapter so I can charge the JoyCons while playing. Like with the Wii and Wii U, there’s a Pro Controller available for the Switch, but unlike its predecessors, I think the Switch’s Pro Controller is almost unnecessary (unless you have large hands) as the JoyCons in the grip feel and act much the same as the Pro Controller anyway. There’s also a wheel accessory you can slot a JoyCon into for use in racing games, but until Mario Kart 8 Deluxe releases at the end of April, I don’t think there’s much you can do with it for now.

You can also get various cases, though most only hold the Switch itself and the JoyCons; only a few can hold the dock and accessories as well. I got two Zelda: BOTW themed cases. The top one is for the Switch itself and it holds the system with the JoyCons attached. The case is a lot firmer than I was expecting. From the pictures, it looks like a soft cloth case, but it has a bit of padding. It can hold 14 games on one side, and the system itself slides into a netted compartment on the other side. This net is quite tight so getting the system in and out can be a struggle as the thumb sticks tend to get stuck on the net a bit. Still, the build quality is quite good, as is the printing on the outside of the case. I’ll probably get another case eventually but I’m not planning on taking my Switch on the go that much so it’s not a big deal. The other case is just for games and it holds 24 game carts (there were similar cases available for DS and 3DS games).

zelda-switch-cases

Anyway, that wraps up my thoughts and first impressions of the Nintendo Switch for now. As I said earlier, I’ll come back and update this post if anything changes, but overall I am glad I got the Switch on launch and am loving the ability to play an open world Zelda game wherever I want. That being said, I think that if you’re not interested in Zelda: BOTW, there’s probably not much point in buying a Switch for the next several months at least. The physical lineup of games at the moment is very slim, and with no Virtual Console and a fairly small selection of eShop games to start with (and with many upcoming indie games also being released or already available more cheaply on existing platforms), that $470 AUD price tag is pretty hard to swallow. However I expect – and hope – that once games like Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey hit the shelf, and we have more indie games that we can play on the go, the expense will be more than justified.

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Nintendo Wii U: Super Mario 3D World (review)

Release date: November 2013

Developer: Nintendo

Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical disk

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$70 AUD

sm3dw-case

Most Nintendo fans have played Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and/or the Super Mario Galaxy games, most of which were generally regarded as being some of the greatest games of their time. As relatively open world 3D platformers, they were a nice change from the standard 2D Mario games which have graced just about every console since the NES. Mario’s latest return to the 3D realm takes place in Super Mario 3D World, though in some ways, it feels more like a 2.5D adventure. If you played Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS, you’ll probably recognise its game engine in SM3DW, though the levels are all completely different between the games. Though you can move the camera a little, you can generally only view the level from one side, meaning it doesn’t have that open feeling previous 3D Mario games have.

The story starts with a green Sprixie (a fairy-type creature, I suppose the name is a cross between ‘sprite’ and ‘pixie) appearing before Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad and telling them that Bowser has kidnapped all the other Sprixies. True to form, the big spiky brute shows up almost immediately and kidnaps the green Sprixie as well before escaping. Mario and co. set off after him into the Sprixie Kingdom so they can save all the poor Sprixies. It’s not much of a story, but at least it’s a bit of a refreshing change from Peach getting kidnapped by Bowser.

sm3dw-purple-swamp

Following the standard formula for most Mario games, SM3DW consists of eight worlds, each with eight levels (with a ninth world being unlocked once you beat the rest of the game). The environments seem to follow the conventional template, with the first world being green and grassy, the second being set in a desert, the third being water-based and so on, but the individual levels within these worlds vary greatly. You get to ride a friendly dinosaur through a series of water courses, traverse volcanic castles full of monsters, ride on high-speed trains while being pummeled by Bullet Bills, and that’s just in the first few worlds. It all adds a sense of familiarity, but at the same time, the inventive and colourful level designs help make this game stand out from the crowd. There were some mini-boss fights half way through each world that were so easy it almost seemed pointless to have included them; these usually involved killing an enemy who could multiply itself, and most of them can be beaten in about 15 seconds. The boss battles also follow the “find its weakness and hit it in the same way three times” pattern we’re all so familiar with, and though the enemies were varied in their design and attacks, it did feel a bit formulaic.

sm3dw-bowser-bling-express-front

Most of the levels have their own idea or mechanic that provides a particular set of challenges, but these are generally innovative and don’t overstay their welcome. At least, for the most part. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that hardly any Wii U games made good use of the GamePad, the controller that was heavily pushed as one of its main selling points. While I agree with this, I do also think that it can be a bit gimmicky, and in my view SM3DW does fall into that trap in a few places. Some platforms contain a fan and can only be moved by blowing into the microphone, while some levels have sections made up of blocks that need to be tapped on the GamePad screen in order to move them into the right place for you to use them to get where you’re going. While this is clever and works well in some areas, it can get annoying to have to keep looking down from the TV to the little GamePad screen to move blocks and then back up again to keep playing (if you’re playing off TV and only using the GamePad, this isn’t going to be an issue).

sm3dw-world-map-green sm3dw-world-map-desert

The levels in the early worlds are pretty easy to get through, and even most of the stars are easy to collect. Once you get past world 3 or 4 the challenge does ramp up a bit, and it can be a real struggle to even finish the level, let alone collect the stars. It pays to collect as many stars as you can on each run through a level, as many levels in the later worlds can only be unlocked if you have a certain number of stars. You can play as any of the four main characters, each with their own skills; for example, Luigi can jump higher, while Peach can float with her dress. While it’s possible to get through all the levels as Mario, there are some areas where it’s a lot easier if you play as one of the other characters.

Many existing powerups return from previous games (such as the Fire Flower, the Tanooki Suit and the Boomerang Flower) but SM3DW introduces a few new ones. First is the Double Cherry, which adds a clone of your character every time you pick one up. Some elements require a certain number of characters to stand on a platform to unlock a collectible, so it’s worth keeping the clones alive for as long as you can, which is occasionally challenging when trying to maneuver them over small platforms and past enemies. The second powerup is the Super Bell, which turns Mario and his companions into a cute little cat. In your feline onesie, you can climb up walls and other surfaces that would be impossible in any other form, and you can also lash out with your claws to attack enemies or operate wheels to raise and lower mechanical platforms. This powerup appears in almost every level and could have been overused, but the level designs make it feel like it belongs, rather than something that was thrown in as an afterthought.

sm3dw-shadow-level

SM3DW also has a co-op option. The vast majority of my time with the game was spent playing solo, but when I went to my friend’s house last week, we started a new file on his console just to see how far we could get (and he enjoyed playing alongside “someone who knows what they’re doing” rather than with young children for a change haha). I can see how co-op could be a frustrating experience when playing with someone unskilled or hell-bent on trolling, but for the most part, co-op was just damn good fun.

In many ways, it can help make it easier to complete levels or achieve certain tasks (such as collecting red coins before they vanish after a limited time) and if one player dies, they will be returned to more or less the same place after a few seconds, as long as at least one other player is still alive. The only real issue is that the camera will generally focus on player 1, and if someone else gets too far off screen, they get turned into a bubble and pulled to player 1’s location, potentially making them miss out on whatever collectible they were in the middle of trying to reach. There’s also a competitive aspect, with the player who picks up the most coins and stars and reaches the flagpole at the end of the stage first getting a higher score and a little crown to wear in the next level.

sm3dw-plessie-ride sm3dw-ice-skate-goombas

Each world also has one level where you play as Captain Toad. This concept was later expanded into its own full game, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The levels are self-contained, but Toad cannot jump, so he has to rely on sneaking past enemies or moving elements of the levels by touching the GamePad screen or blowing into the microphone. Unlike the main levels, there’s no flagpole to jump on to finish the level; the only way to win the level and exit is to collect all five green stars. Luckily most of these levels weren’t that challenging and I never found myself coming anywhere near close to running out of time.

If you enjoy puzzle platformers, you’ll like these levels and I’d recommend you pick up Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, but if you prefer straight up fast-paced platforming, you’ll probably find these levels more of a nuisance than anything. Unfortunately, the Toad levels suffer from the same issue his standalone game does; the camera can be tilted either by using the right stick or by tilting the GamePad, but there is no way to disable this second option, meaning you have to sit completely still while playing or risk obstructing your own view of enemies or obstacles at the wrong time.

sm3dw-captain-toad-level sm3dw-captain-toad-boo-level

Throughout the levels, you can collect Miiverse stamps, for use in posts to Nintendo’s social media site. These don’t really serve any purpose but they’re something else to collect for those who like to 100% complete games.

sm3dw-miiverse-stamps

One of the things that stood out for me about this game was its soundtrack. Though many of the tunes are recycled from earlier Mario games, there are still plenty of new tracks, and they’ve all been given fresh new life as jazzy orchestral songs. I actually got the soundtrack from Club Nintendo (back when that was still a thing) because I liked it so much (my favourite is probably Shifty Boo Mansion).

sm3dw-boo-mansion

While I don’t think SM3DW quite reaches the heights of the Super Mario Galaxy games, it’s still a challenging, fun-filled experience and one of the best games on the Wii U, and it proves that the Mario franchise is a long way off becoming stale. It takes the frantic platforming you’ve come to expect from Mario games and injects it with vibrant HD visuals and a catchy soundtrack, and aside from a few gripes with the camera, it’s hard to find much to fault about it. If you have a Wii U, this title is a must-have.

Score:

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