Games I'm Currently Playing - May 30th, 2006
And it seems oddly fitting that, in a holiday weekend which showed the world how Brett Ratner can destroy everything that Bryan Singer had carefully set up with the previous two X-Men films, the theme of this post is sequels losing the creators' visions. Three games in my "Just Barely Started" category all exhibit this characteristic. When a game becomes bigger than itself, it oftentimes loses its focus. Let's take a look at these games one by one:
Name: Me & My Katamari
System: PlayStation Portable (PSP)
Stage: First Impression
When Keita Takahashi created the original Katamari Damacy, he was trying to tap into something that was unique. Although the original game might have seemed like an exercise in trying to be weird for weirdness' sake, although it may only really be that weird to Western tastes, and although the game might seem like it is trying too hard to be hip by being square, something about it all worked. It just clicked together and it's now undoubtedly a cult amongst many gamers, even though others may not understand where the love is coming from. But the combination of the simplistic graphics, the original gameplay, the catchy soundtrack, the "on-crack" cut scenes, and the piercing screams from those you roll up just, well, struck a nerve.
And like any secret recipe, even though someone tells you the exact amount of each ingredient to put into the dish, it just isn't the same as the original. The originator of the recipe just has that intuition and knows how much of each item to put in for it to work. I'm not trying to claim Keita Takahashi is some genius... far from it. But what he created was just what felt right to him, and luckily many gamers thought it felt right as well. That same intuition was used to create the sequel, We Love Katamari and, although it showed some signs of his reluctance to make the game, it still worked because it was still his intuition.
When I popped in Me & My Katamari into my PSP and started the game, I could immediately tell something was wrong. Even though the formula was the same, the minor tweaks, slight alterations, and lack of intuition were apparent. I could tell right off the bat that something was amiss. And it wasn't just the awkward control scheme, either. I didn't even need to start a single stage and it felt... dirty to me, like a bunch of people in lab coats took the first two games, dissected them, and then tried to make their own clone.
I am actually quite proud of the fact that my suspicions were correct: Keita Takahashi had nothing to do with the making of the PSP version. And it shows. This may just be my first impression, as I haven't done anything more than the training stage, and maybe it'll feel better after I've given it more of a shot. If I ever get around to playing the game more thoroughly, you'll definitely see my follow-up thoughts. But for now, something about it doesn't feel right, like a picture frame on the wall that's only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a centimeter off balance. It's not much, but it's enough to make you wonder what's wrong and to irritate you.
Name: Metroid Prime: Hunters
System: Nintendo DS (DS)
Stage: First Impression
I was never a fan of moving Metroid to a first-person view. I played both Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes all the way through, and though both games were very solidly made games, I never quite felt that they maintained the feel of the 2-D Metroids, despite the many claims to the otherwise. It just never felt like the GameCube Metroids knew what made Metroid... Metroid.
That is until I played Metroid Prime: Hunters.
Now I understand more. Although the 2-D Metroids will always be far superior in my book, the Metroid Prime games on the GameCube suddenly seem that much stronger. That sense of vast exploration and that feeling of somber loneliness, evident from the NES and SNES Metroids, were well conveyed in those two GC versions well. And I could see it all the more clearly when I discovered how much Metroid Prime: Hunters fails to convey either mood.
Perhaps I'm still too early in the game: I've just finished the first planet. But if the game is going in the direction I'm thinking it is (multiple planets to explore), it already takes away so much from what makes Metroid what it is. Without one huge expansive world to explore, the game seems limited in scope. Even if you have to return to previous planets after gaining new power-ups, that sense of exploration feels reduced. And by having other hunters come by and challenge you every so often, it doesn't feel quite lonely anymore. The other Metroids always had this mythical and abandoned essence, like you were digging into someone's past and finding out everything about them. This DS version feels like you're just exploring someone's house after they've gone away for the weekend.
Of course, this could all be changed after I give the one-player mode more playing time, but I get the funny feeling that this one-player mode was put in the game as an after-thought. It had to be in there to justify purchase for those uninterested in the multi-player options. But it also feels like it has a secondary purpose: to introduce you to the Hunter vs. Hunter concepts, to entice you to play multi-player mode. With that secondary motive inserted into the game, it just doesn't feel as genuine.
Name: New Super Mario Bros.
System: Nintendo DS (DS)
Stage: First Impression
Derek Daniels and I once had a conversation about Mario Vs. Donkey Kong for the Gameboy Advance. We both had a strong dislike for the game, and he described that the reason for his distaste was that the game didn't "feel" right. He didn't have to explain it and I knew what he meant. The timing in the game is off. They force you to try and complete stages quickly, yet when you run for moving platforms as quickly as you can, they are always moving away from you, out of reach, when you get to them. The enemies were designed to obstruct you, forcing you to wait for them, rather than using your skill to find a way around them. The pacing of the game was off.
"It doesn't feel like a Miyamoto game," Derek said. In Miyamoto games, he told me, everything always felt right. Platforms were always placed exactly far apart enough for your maximum distanced jump to land perfectly onto the next platform. And yet he always managed time for a player to search for hidden passages and items. His games were always paced so that it felt as comfortable to explore a stage slowly as it was to burst through at lightning speed. New Super Mario Bros. suffers the problem that it doesn't feel like a Miyamoto game. Everything about the game is off. The pacing, the timing, the movement -- it just doesn't "feel" right.
The new enemies in the game are designed in such a way that forces you to wait for them. For example, there are crows that appear and fly across the screen at the very top. Then, they take a U-turn and fly across the screen again. And then, finally, they make a dive towards you. This whole process takes about 7 seconds to complete. And when they appear, it's really hard to perform any platforming because you don't want to be caught in mid jump when they come after you. So when they appear on screen, what do you do? You stop. And wait. And wait. And wait. And kill the crow and move on until you reach the next crow. And stop. And wait. And wait.
Then there are enemies that ruin the exploration factor. In one swimming stage, a giant eel chases you from the left across the stage, a stage littered with things to find and giant coins to collect. So all you do is swim as fast as possible and watch yourself pass up a ton of things you want to take time to explore. Miyamoto would never do this. Hampering your ability to explore is a sin to him. At one point, however, I found an invincibility star hidden in an invisible block. "Brilliant!" I thought, and felt they had redeemed themselves. I grabbed the star, let the eel swim past me, and then I was able to explore the stage at my heart's content, with no thoughts of outrunning a giant eel hindering my exploration. And I happily explored the stage slowly for a few seconds when the eel suddenly reappeared at the left and promptly killed me.
Mario's control also seems to affect the game's pace. Turning Mario around is a pain. If you are swimming at full speed and decide to turn around and swim the other way, it takes about 3 seconds to do it. Even when just running and turning around, your skid lasts forever. If you are going to give him such a long skid, give me the skid jump from Mario 64, please! But nope, that's not there. What they did give him, however, was the triple jump from Mario 64... and then proceeded to give you nowhere to use it. You need a full head of steam to make it work, and unless you know exactly what's ahead of you, it's completely impractical to try it. Even moving Mario from a stand-still feels slow. In the original Super Mario Bros, you could always do a little hop to make him get going even a tiny bit faster. But in this game, hopping doesn't help, further adding to the pace problems.
The game just feels like it breaks so many rules of Miyamoto gaming. Miyamoto Mario games always seem to give you a sense that you never stop doing something. It may not be a conscious effort, but it always seems like Miyamoto was keen on making sure you were always active. Even if you weren't moving the stage while trying to fight two Hammer Bros. in the original Super Mario Bros., your mind was always working and your heart was always racing, trying to find that opening to sneak in and take out the first Hammer Bro. And almost every stage in the original Super Mario Bros. allowed you to run through it at full speed, and it always felt natural. And if you needed a power-up to find a secret on the stage, Miyamoto always seemed to give you that power-up on the stage itself. In New Super Mario Bros., the two items most prolific at finding hidden passages are only available at the floating red "?" blocks that move from stage to stage. So you always have to get the item, survive that stage with the power-up intact, go back to the stage that has the secret passage, and hope to not lose the power-up before you reach the hidden passage.
It's funny to write a "First Impressions" on a game I've already beat, as well. I never got to talk about the horrible saving mechanism in this game: not being able to save whenever I want to in the overworld is a bad design choice. But I found out that, after beating the game, you are allowed to save anytime you want on the overworld. And, thus, I found every warp point I could and went from World 1 to 5 to 8 and straight to the boss and beat the game. And, now, being able to save wherever and whenever on the overworld has already made the game feel that much more enjoyable, as I go back and actually play all of the other worlds. And as a result of me "beating" the game, I will have to officially promote this game to a "Heavy Rotation" game now.