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Review: Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia

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The heroes from the Final Fantasy series cannot catch a break. Having been sent to a paradise world to rest from their battles, they discover that monsters have infiltrated said paradise. It’s up to them to band together and fight…again.

Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia is a game for iOS and Android devices, recently launched in the United States. (It’s been running in Japan since early 2017.) Dissidia has become a crossover subseries of the larger Final Fantasy franchise. It started out with two games on the PSP, followed by the Theatrhythm music games on the Nintendo 3DS, and now an arcade version on the PlayStation 4, titled Dissida NT. They essentially exist to throw the major Final Fantasy heroes and villains together in one universe to battle it out.

In the first two PSP games, the heroes and villains wake up in a strange world with no memories of their previous adventures.  They have a vague idea of who they used to be, and they know that they have homes they want to see again, but that’s it.  The goddess of harmony, Cosmos, and the god of discord, Chaos, enlist them to fight in a great battle for control of the universe.  The characters strike alliances with one another and grapple with various personal issues while trying to end the conflict for good.

Theatrhythm pretty much kicked the plot out the door from the get-go. Technically, the heroes are fighting Chaos again, but there’s no dialogue between them. You just pick a song from the series and try to keep up with the beats. They’re fun rhythm games and probably my favorite entries in the series, even though they don’t contribute anything to the story.

Now, we have Opera Omnia on mobile phones. This game changes things up by having the characters clearly remember their previous adventures in their home worlds, but have no recollection of their Dissidia battles. If you enjoyed Zidane and Squall’s odd friendship or Vaan saving Terra from Kefka, you’re out of luck.

In this way, Opera Omnia comes off as a soft reboot of the Dissidia series. The game doesn’t solely stick to major heroes and villains. You begin the adventure with Warrior of Light, from the original Final Fantasy, Rem from Type 0, Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, and Vivi from Final Fantasy IX. As you progress through each chapter of the game, you gain more and more allies in the fight. And there are lots of allies from the entire series. Other characters can be unlocked for a limited time through special event quests. As of this writing, we’ve gotten Squall, Vanille, Setzer, Balthier, Eiko, Tidus, and Prishe in this manner.

Just to give you an idea, my current roster of fighters consists of twenty-eight characters. And I’m still on Chapter 4.

While playing this game, I got the impression that Square-Enix might’ve finally noticed that they’ve been giving Final Fantasy VII a little too much love compared to other entries in the series. While you pick up Cloud, Tifa, and Yuffie early on, they don’t appear as often in cutscenes as Zidane and Vivi from IX. And Final Fantasy VI has started to receive more attention at last. The Japanese version of Opera Omnia already has Terra, Shadow, Setzer, Cyan, Edgar, Sabin, Celes, and Kefka. Considering that the first two games only ever gave us Terra and Kefka as playable characters, that’s impressive.

So, what goal do the heroes need to accomplish this time around? It turns out that the paradise world they inhabit has become infected by “Torsions.” Torsions are basically dark wormholes that spew out monsters. The goddess Materia summons Mog the Moogle to collect warriors who possess the ability to seal the Torsions. Then the worlds can finally be at peace.

Did you understand all of that? Well, don’t worry if you didn’t. Mog and co. will repeat this information many, many, many times. It reminds me of The Room, the greatest bad movie of all time, where characters would often repeat dialogue and have the same conversations. But at least in The Room, the writing was so bad that it was funny. With these games, the writing’s just competent enough that it’s more annoying than funny.

And that’s always been a problem with the Dissidia series. I remember playing Duodecim for the first time and loving it. Yet as I got further and further into the story, I groaned every time someone brought up the manikins- the game’s enemies- which was often. “These manikins are everywhere!” “How do we stop the manikins?” “Oh no, here come more manikins!” “If we don’t stop the manikins, we’re all going to die!” “BUT HOW DO WE STOP THE MANIKINS???” Replace “manikins” with “Torsions” and you get the same problem in Opera Omnia.

It’s not all bad though. There’s a mini-arc of trying to catch and recruit Yuffie after she steals some of the party’s weapons- and then Zidane, who has acted very upset about losing his dagger, decides he’s going to flirt with her anyway. There’s another cutscene that consists of nothing but Zidane trying cheesy pickup lines on every female member in the party, with no success. And Chapter 3 has the heroes grappling with whether or not to join forces with Seifer and his friends. On the one hand, they seem to be fighting a common enemy. On the other hand, the two groups can’t stand each other and eventually decide to go their separate ways. This has always been the strongest aspect of Dissdia: when the writers indulge in the appeal of the crossover and have fun letting the characters bounce off of each other.

While the strength of the writing fluctuates, the battle system is a fun throwback to older Final Fantasy games that successfully mixes in some of Dissidia’s style as well. You get three party members who face off against enemies in turn-based combat. There are two types of attacks that can be used: Bravery and HP. The amount of Bravery that your character obtains determines how powerful your HP attacks will be. So, if your character has 0 Bravery, and you hit an enemy with an HP attack, the enemy will take no damage. This leaves some room for strategizing how you will attack enemies.

That said, as much as I love having so many characters at my disposal, it does make leveling up more of a pain. The game developers made an attempt to fix the problem by giving out extra rewards on certain quests if you use a particular character. You can also gain more experience on quests by using certain characters. Still, it’s a struggle, and it would help if the new characters you acquire throughout the story didn’t always start at Level 1, no matter where you are. It would make more sense to have them at different levels depending on when you acquire them, like other Final Fantasy games have done in the past.

Since this is a free-to-play game, Opera Omnia does rely on microtransactions to some degree. The quickest way to acquire the best weapons and armor comes from the Weekly Draws and Event Draws. You can either pull for one weapon using a Draw Ticket or eleven weapons using 5,000 gems. You earn gems and tickets by logging into the game and completing various tasks. Or you can go to the Gem Shop and buy them.

The game gives you different purchase options, from a Bronze Chest that gives you 120 gems for $0.99, to an Adamant Chest that gives you 12,000 gems for $74.99. I can’t imagine spending $75 in one transaction for fake money, and for a deal that only allows you two pulls from one of the draws, it doesn’t seem worth it. But I’ve found the game to be playable without drawing for weapons very much. Time will tell if that changes as I get farther and farther into the story and the difficulty increases. It’s also worth noting that you can enhance your weapons yourself with materials that you find. But if you want good weapons fast, the draws are your best bet.

So far, Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia has been a fun experience and I enjoy playing it. I can’t wait to see what other characters get added to the lineup. (Locke? Rinoa? Where are you?) While the plot is still a little weak, I love watching the characters play off of each other and setting up a party for turn-based combat. If you’re a fan of any of the Final Fantasy games, it’s most likely that you will enjoy it too.

Initial Thoughts on “Hogwarts Mystery”

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It took almost two decades, but I finally received my letter from Hogwarts. And if you download the app for Hogwarts Mystery, you can get yours too!

Hogwarts Mystery is one of two mobile games set in the Harry Potter universe. The other, Wizards Unite, has not yet been released. While the latter appears to be similar to Pokémon Go, the former focuses more on the story and the chance to see yourself as a wizard in whatever House you choose.

After selecting a look for your avatar, you set off for Diagon Alley, as Harry did, make new friends and enemies, practice spells, and brew potions. You get to choose what rewards you earn for completing certain objectives in class. Every avatar has opportunities to level up in three ways: Courage, Empathy, and Knowledge. How you respond to various questions determines how fast you level up in each category, and sometimes an answer will be locked because you don’t have enough Courage/Empathy/Knowledge to say it.

You’ll also discover that your avatar has a mysterious family past: his/her brother got expelled from Hogwarts and disappeared. It looks like this will be the story arc that carries over for all seven years at Hogwarts. Luckily, your avatar finds a best friend in Rowan Khanna, who supports you in your quest for answers and defends you from anyone who tries to mess with you.

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I love her.

Rowan has been my favorite part of Hogwarts Mystery (outside of the wish fulfillment of going to Hogwarts). His/her gender changes depending on what gender you select, but I’ll refer to her as “she” for this review since that’s what I picked. She’s kind, funny, and loyal, and there’s something about her that just reminds me so much of the friends that I have in real life.

Unfortunately, I can’t hang out with my friends in real life while playing Hogwarts Mystery. I’d hoped that there would be some kind of multiplayer feature that allowed my avatar to interact with others. But so far, that doesn’t appear to be an option. Hopefully, it will come with an upgrade somewhere down the line, because I don’t want to imagine going to Hogwarts without my real friends by my side.

Hogwarts Mystery looks great, with fun, colorful graphics that remind me of the old Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets games that I used to play on my GameCube. There are times when my avatar’s facial expressions look awkward, but it’s not a deal breaker.

And speaking of those other video games, Hogwarts Mystery has some nice shout-outs to them as well. Your avatar will eventually learn the Flipendo spell, which never appeared in the books or movies, but was the go-to spell for just about everything in the video games. You’ll also learn how to brew Wiggenweld Potion, which Harry used to heal himself. It makes for a nice blend of the canon established by the books, movies, and video games, with something for every fan to love, regardless of how they were introduced to Harry Potter’s world. (Now, if they could just throw in a reference to A Very Potter Musical, I’ll be set.)

I’m enjoying the story so far. At first, I felt disappointed by the choice in setting because I wanted my avatar to be a random Hufflepuff having adventures during Harry’s years at Hogwarts. Now that I’ve actually started playing the game, I can admit that it was a good idea to place it in the time period between Voldemort’s initial defeat and Harry’s school years. This choice allows for an original story about your avatar and their friends, and we still get to interact with most of the teachers from the books, i.e. Professor Snape and Flitwick. Our avatar’s backstory has only been revealed in bits and pieces so far, but it’s intriguing.

I also like how we get to choose our House, rather than take another quiz. Granted, I never had a preference until Pottermore’s quiz put me in Hufflepuff. And if you like taking quizzes, you’ll find the Sorting Ceremony a little anticlimactic. But then again, doesn’t this tie into one of the themes from the books?  As Professor Dumbledore says in Chamber of Secrets: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

So, the story’s great, the characters are wonderful, and the visuals look good. It’s a Hogwarts fan’s dream!

Except when it isn’t.

With a free-to-play mobile app, there will always be issues with micro transactions. After all, the developers have to make money somehow, and I don’t take issue with that. I do take issue with how the game prevents you from doing very much at any given time before you either wait for your energy bar to refill, or start paying.

Your avatar has an energy bar, and mine currently has a maximum of 25 points. Whenever you take lessons, your character spends energy doing things like studying, talking to Rowan, collecting potions ingredients, etc. And these are all things that you have to do in order to complete the lesson and move forward. More than once, I have run out of energy mid-lesson and needed to put the game on hold until the bar refilled. It’s also not very exciting or fun to tap away at your phone while your character “does” things and nothing’s really happening.

The game becomes more fun when you get to do things that don’t cost energy, like bonding with Rowan over a game of Gobstones and trying to guess the right responses to heighten your friendship. I’ve only just learned how to duel, but that looks promising as well. You need to pick whether to assume an Aggressive, Sneaky, or Defensive stance against your opponent, and then select spells or healing potions to use.

There’s one other major issue that I have with Hogwarts Mystery: the lack of customizable options for your avatar. Although you can adjust the shape of the face, nose, and eyes, all avatars have the same body type. You only get a handful of options for hairstyles and such when you first start the game, and everything else needs to be unlocked by spending gems and coins. This includes glasses. Why do we need to pay money to unlock glasses? Lots of people wear glasses. Harry Freakin’ Potter wears glasses. It’s not going to matter to most people, but it’s one of my pet peeves when a game doesn’t give you that option right from the start.

Given time, I’m hoping that the developers of Hogwarts Mystery will iron out the issues with the gameplay and find other ways to profit off of micro transactions. The game has a lot of promise with good characters, an interesting story, and shout outs to the Harry Potter franchise in all of its forms. If you’re a diehard fan, you will have fun here. But it requires either a lot of patience or a lot of Galleons to get the most out of the experience.

Recap Review: Tomb Raider (PS1)

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It’s a groundbreaking video game that stars a rare female protagonist. It’s been adapted into two movies starring Angelina Jolie, with a new reboot starring Alicia Vikander coming to theaters on March 16th. Thia the Bard has already written an excellent article for Real Women of Gaming about the impact that it had on the gaming industry with its famous protagonist, Lara Croft. It’s the one and only Tomb Raider!

It’s also a game that I never tried playing until recently. But then, lo and behold, I managed to find a copy in my local retro game store for $6, and here we are.

Tomb Raider, originally released for the PlayStation 1, Sega Saturn, and PC, stars Lara Croft, an adventurous woman who likes exploring dangerous locations and finding priceless artifacts. The game begins with Jacqueline Natla hiring her to find a piece of a scion in the mountains of Peru- but Lara is soon betrayed and strikes out to find the rest of the pieces on her own.

When I first started playing this game, I realized just how much modern games have spoiled me. I’m used to playing through tutorials that hold my hand the entire time, telling me exactly what buttons to press in every situation. Tomb Raider has a tutorial, but it’s not part of the main game. Instead, you can access Lara’s home in the main menu, and she’ll guide you through jumping, running, walking, etc. But even then, there’s no “press X to perform an action.” It’s always “press the jump button” or “press the action button.” You want to know which button’s the jump button? Well, you’ll just have to read the manual or figure it out yourself, because Lara’s not talking.

So I was completely out of my league when I first dove into the adventure and had to backtrack to Lara’s house to figure out what I needed to do. That said, I love the setup. It’s perfect for experienced gamers who don’t need a repeat lesson at the start of every playthrough, and also great for people like me who tend to start games, stop them when life gets in the way, and then pick them up again months later. The tutorial’s there to refresh your memory whenever you need it, and then you can jump right back into the actual game.

Unfortunately, the controls and graphics haven’t aged well. It can be difficult to navigate a three-dimensional environment with a control pad instead of a control stick.  I’ve done it in the past with DS games like Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. But Tomb Raider felt clunkier, perhaps because it’s on a bigger screen with wider areas to explore. Fortunately, the developers added the “walk” command that allows Lara to move slowly through treacherous areas, and while walking, she cannot fall over a ledge no matter how much you push her. This helps out a lot.

(Also, yes, some PS1 controllers come with control sticks, but the ones that I own did not work with Tomb Raider.  Lara only ever moved when I directed her with the control pad.)

Obviously, most games from the PS1-era have not stood the test of time in terms of how they look.  So it is with Tomb Raider. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the silliness of polygon characters bobbing their heads up and down as they “talked” in certain cutscenes, if only for nostalgic reasons. The cutscenes that take place in-between levels have a higher quality.  Although, again, that’s not saying much. It looks great for a PS1 game.

The visuals may look awkward, but Tomb Raider has good voice acting for its short cutscenes and Lara’s tutorial. It also has a different approach to its soundtrack compared to other video games that I’ve played in the past. You’ll hear musical themes throughout the game, but only at specific points, and not for very long. It usually starts up when you reach a significant area or come across a certain enemy. The rest of the time, you explore the tombs in silence. In this way, the soundtrack gives you a sense of where you are and how you’re progressing through the game. However, it’s no guarantee of anything. There are situations, such as the final fight in the Tomb of Qualopec, where the enemy attacks Lara with no musical warning whatsoever and you have to act fast.

Finally, there’s Lara Croft herself.  I like her character and how she prefers exploring tombs “for sport,” as she puts it, rather than for riches. Additionally, I think it’s really neat that while Lara does battle a couple of male antagonists, the main villain in the first Tomb Raider is another woman. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

Yes, Lara’s character design is problematic with her unrealistically large breasts shown on the cover.  But, for what it’s worth, the actual game doesn’t focus on her appearance as much as it focuses on her love of tomb raiding and action skills.  As Cracked.com put it in their article, “6 Glitches That Accidentally Invented Modern Gaming:” “Lara is strong, independently wealthy, beautiful, smart, and great at what she does.”  And I enjoyed have the opportunity to go on exciting adventures with a smart, capable, adventurous woman as the playable character.

Overall, I’ve had a mixed experience with Tomb Raider. I love the concept of exploring ancient tombs to find powerful artifacts before the Evil Organization gets there first. I like Lara’s character too. But it’s not a series that I’m dying to continue playing. There’s only so many times that I can miss a jump before I stop having fun and start feeling frustrated. Then again, that’s probably just me and my own lack of gaming skills. I’m still looking forward to the new movie, and I’ll probably try out the Square-Enix reboot on the PS4 someday.

Review: Luigi’s Mansion

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I’ve heard that gamers consider Luigi’s Mansion to be a classic from the Nintendo GameCube era. Personally, I’d given it a try once before and didn’t get very far before I lost interest. But that was years ago, so why not try again?

Well, I tried, and I did end up enjoying it. It’s just not a game that I’d want to play over and over again.

Here’s the premise: Luigi, the lovable brother of the famous Super Mario, has just won a mansion. That sounds great, except that Luigi doesn’t recall entering a contest in the first place. When he arrives, he discovers that it’s filled with ghosts and that Mario’s trapped somewhere inside! Luckily, there’s a quirky old ghost hunter named Professor E. Gadd (I love that name) who equips our hero with a Poltergust 3000 that will suck up any attacking ghosts.

As he clears each room of ghosts with his new vacuum-weapon, it’s up to Luigi to figure out what happened to Mario and who’s responsible for trapping them in the mansion.

First, I love the music that plays throughout Luigi’s Mansion. It’s spooky and playful, so it fits the game well. It’s cute how Luigi will hum or whistle along as he walks through each room. He’s a great character; while he doesn’t speak much, he’s very expressive. Plus, you have to admire him for fighting off ghosts single-handedly, even when he’s clearly scared out of his mind, because he loves his brother that much.

In theory, the gameplay is simple: Luigi uses his magic vacuum to suck up ghosts. As he goes through the house, he’ll also uncover elements medals that let him use fire, water, and ice on the environment and special ghosts.

That’s all fine and good, except this means that Luigi’s Mansion centers on aiming in the right direction with the Poltergust and I cannot aim to save my life. It’s one of the reasons why I usually don’t play shooters, and why my weapon of choice in Bioshock was the wrench. Every time an arrow challenge comes up in a Zelda dungeon, I waste countless arrows trying to hit the target while groaning in agony. So that made Luigi’s Mansion more frustrating for me than fun. But if that’s something you’re good at, you’ll have no problem conquering Luigi’s Mansion.

Still, the longer I played, the more I found myself enjoying the game. It’s fun to search the house for ghosts. Some are Boos, some look like blobs with faces, and then there’s a special type: the Portrait Ghosts. Professor E. Gadd once had them trapped in paintings, until they escaped right before the start of the game. They each have a unique design and personality, though most of them aren’t hard to capture compared to regular ghosts.

It’s also worth mentioning that Luigi’s Mansion is a short game that you can complete within a couple of days, depending on how much time you spend on it. It only has four “areas” to unlock, plus the room of the final boss. Since I wasn’t extremely invested in the game, I didn’t mind its length. Others may find that aspect disappointing.

If you have a GameCube and you love Luigi, Luigi’s Mansion is a game worth playing. It’s not my favorite video game, but I don’t regret trying it out.

Review: Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney

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All rise for the debut of Apollo Justice, the newest defense attorney in the Ace Attorney series!

The game has been remade recently for the Nintendo 3DS, but was originally released as a Nintendo DS game and it’s also available on iOS and Android devices. You don’t need to play the previous games to understand the story or characters, but I highly recommend doing so because they’re awesome.

Apollo Justice, the fourth entry, takes place seven years after the seemingly happy conclusion of Phoenix Wright’s story in Trials and Tribulations. Unfortunately, we discover that Phoenix has since lost his badge after being tricked into presenting forged evidence in court. Now he’s been accused of murder, and his only hope lies in newcomer Apollo Justice, who has idolized Phoenix for years.

These events kick off a new story with Apollo as the playable character, assisted by Phoenix’ teenage daughter, Trucy. The duo faces off against Klavier Gavin, a prosecutor who also happens to be a famous rock star. He likes to play air guitar after raising an objection. Because if these lawyers aren’t quirky to a fault, it’s not an Ace Attorney game.

Klavier ended up becoming my favorite character in this game. Granted, I’ve written before that the prosecutors are my favorite aspect of Ace Attorney, so that’s not much of a shock. It’s Klavier’s personality that surprised me. Previous prosecutors have helped Phoenix on certain occasions, but only after going through a good round of character development. Klavier is a nice guy from the get-go. He lets Apollo and Trucy have access to the crime scenes, gives them discount tickets to his concerts, and occasionally helps them out when he sees that Apollo’s on the right track but isn’t presenting the right evidence to the judge.

That’s not to say that he lets Apollo off easy. They’re still rivals in the courtroom. Nonetheless, he presents a change of pace that’s fun and refreshing.

I wish I could say the same for Apollo and Trucy. They’re nice characters and I like them well enough. But they’re basically Phoenix and Maya 2.0: a snarky, intelligent lawyer with a passion for justice and his cheerful, quirky assistant with a mysterious family past.

On the one hand, I do like them because this dynamic worked great in the Phoenix trilogy. If it’s not broken, why fix it? On the other hand, it would have been nice to see a more distinct difference between Phoenix and Apollo. Otherwise, why bother creating a new character? In the first AA game, we learn what inspired Phoenix and Miles Edgeworth to become lawyers. We never get that kind of insight about Apollo.  We get some backstory about him, but it’s revealed through other characters and we don’t get to see how it impacts Apollo.

Additionally, both Phoenix and Apollo lose their mentors early in the game, albeit under different circumstances. We see how the loss of Mia Fey affects Phoenix throughout his entire trilogy. And while Kristoph’s situation is a big deal to Apollo initially, and comes back into play later in the story, Apollo doesn’t reference him much in-between. There’s less of a connection between them. When his mentor does return, there’s more emphasis on how Kristoph impacted Phoenix’ life than Apollo’s.  As the new player character, Apollo deserved better.

Yes, Phoenix Wright returns as well, as an occasional mentor to Apollo. He’s a lot like Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, as the lovable hero who becomes disillusioned after losing everything. I didn’t mind his personality shift. Underneath it all, he still feels like the same character, just at a different stage of his life after suffering from a traumatic situation. (Then again, I felt the same way about Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi…)

So, having discussed the story and characters- which is necessary when it’s such a story-driven title- what about the game itself?

Apollo Justice plays out much like the previous entries in the series. You alternate between investigating a murder and proving your client’s innocence in court. There’s one new trick to the cross-examinations: Apollo can use an ability called “Perceive” on witnesses in court. You pick a statement in the testimony and zero in on the person’s face, hands, etc. to find whatever nervous tic they’re showing. Doing so helps you to see when the witness is lying.

Apollo Justice also has a couple of tweaks that make the game easier to play. For example, if you fail to present the right evidence too many times and lose all of your “health,” the game gives you the option to return to that last moment with a full health bar. That makes the courtroom sections much less frustrating.

Although none of the cases reached the level of “Farewell My Turnabout” or “Bridge to the Turnabout,” I thought they were all solid and fun to solve. They formed more of a cohesive arc this time around, with every case having some relevance to the overall plot.

If you enjoyed the original Phoenix Wright games, I recommend Apollo Justice. It doesn’t exceed expectations, but any time spent in Phoenix’ world is time well spent for me.

Review: Diddy Kong Racing

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When I’m not playing video games or writing, I can be found working at the library. Every other month or so, I like to combine my job with my interests by bringing all kinds of video game systems to the library for people to play. When that happens, I’m always amused by the way everyone gravitates towards Mario Kart.

It doesn’t matter which Nintendo systems I put out, whether it’s the brand-new Switch or the Super Nintendo. It doesn’t matter what games I include. Splatoon 2? Super Smash Bros. Melee? Anything from Legend of Zelda? Just Dance? Nah, Mario Kart 64, Double Dash, or Mario Kart 8 Deluxe will work just fine, thank you very much.

It makes perfect sense because the Mario Kart series is so much fun to play. It’s a game that you can enjoy whether you’re a hardcore or casual gamer. It’s more fun when you can race against one of your friends or family members, but I love it even when I’m playing by myself.

That said, Mario Kart isn’t my favorite racing game. That honor belongs to Diddy Kong Racing for the Nintendo 64. As kids, my brother and I, along with our friends, spent countless hours playing it. In Diddy Kong Racing, you have the option to choose from three different vehicles: car, hovercraft, or airplane. You’re also required to unlock racetracks in multiplayer mode by completing them in the single player adventure mode. But that’s less of an issue now, if you buy a used copy from your local retro game store with a preexisting save file.

Unlike Mario, Diddy Kong Racing has a story, albeit a very loose one. Diddy’s friend, Timber the Tiger, gets put in charge of his parents’ peaceful island. Unfortunately, a giant, evil pig called Wizpig arrives and conquers the island. Desperate to clear things up before his parents get home, Timber gathers up his friends to defeat Wizpig…by racing him. It makes no sense, but it’s just an excuse plot for racing. I do like that it’s there because it used to give me a feeling of accomplishment whenever my brother and I won enough races to unlock another part of the island.

Each track comes with extra items you can use to give your character a boost. They come in the form of balloons and they’re less random than Mario. Red balloons give you missiles, Blue gives you a speed boost, Green gives you obstacles to drop, Yellow gives you a shield, and Rainbow gives you a magnet that you can use to pull other racers behind you. Unless you’re in a tight spot, you’ll want to hold off using the balloons right away. Hitting a certain colored balloon two or three times will provide you with power-ups. For example, if you collect one red balloon, you’ll get one missile. If you collect two, your missile will have a higher accuracy. If you collect three reds, you’ll get ten missiles.

You’ll need all of the balloons you can find when you finish the regular racetracks. Diddy Kong Racing has four thematic “worlds” on the island: Dino Domain, Snowflake Mountain, Sherbet Island, and Dragon Forest. (After you’ve defeated Wizpig, you unlock a secret world with even more tracks.) Once you’ve completed the tracks that make up a particular world, you get to challenge the boss. And the bosses are definitely a challenge. They’re fast and they start running before you do. If you don’t hit every speed boost and enough red missile balloons, you’re doomed.

In addition to regular races, you can unlock different mini games in each world. My all-time favorite was Icicle Pyramid. It’s basically a family-friendly version of the Hunger Games. You and three other players get dropped into a pyramid course with a certain amount of lives. Using the Red missile balloons or the Green obstacle balloons, you have to try to take out everyone else before they kill you. My friends and I would often form alliances to knock off the computer AIs and then turn on each other. I was no Katniss Everdeen and often lost. But we all had a blast with it.

Diddy Kong Racing also has a fantastic soundtrack. Even if you’re struggling against Wizpig or one of the other bosses, the fast-paced music gets you pumped and ready to try again. Diddy Kong is bright and colorful as well. Although it’s obviously no Mario Kart 8, the graphics for this Nintendo 64 game still hold up.

I should also point out that Diddy Kong got a remake for the Nintendo DS. It’s okay, but I’m not a fan of it. They had to replace some of the characters, namely Banjo from Banjo Kazooie and Conker from Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and mini games like Icicle Pyramid can only be accessed by playing against a friend in multiplayer. So if you don’t know another person with a DS and a copy of the game, you’re out of luck.

(Fun fact: Speaking of Conker, he was my favorite racer in Diddy Kong. One day, I saw a game called Conker’s Bad Fur Day at the game store and got excited. A game starring that cute little squirrel that I loved? HOORAY! Thank God my innocent eleven-year-old self did not purchase it. I had no idea how much Conker’s personality had changed in that M-rated, South Park-esque game.)

So if you have a Nintendo 64 lying around, give Diddy Kong Racing a try! It’s a lot of fun and the bosses provide some serious challenges that you won’t necessarily find in other racing games.

…or you can play Mario Kart 64 instead. I won’t judge you. I’ll probably join you. It is Mario Kart, after all. 🙂

Review: Never Alone

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In 2014, Upper One Games and E-Line Media released Never Alone, a platformer based on the Iñupiat tale, “Kunuuksaayuka.” It is now playable on the PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox One, Wii U, and PC, as well as iOS and Android devices. I downloaded the game on the PlayStation 4, so that is the version that I will review.

In Never Alone, an Iñupiaq girl named Nuna leaves her village to find out why her people have been suffering from terrible blizzards every day. An arctic fox comes to her aid, giving players the option to either switch between the two characters in Single Play or work together with a friend in Co-Op.

During their journey, they face a hungry polar bear, gusts of freezing wind, spirits from the Northern Lights that try to capture them, and a terrible man who’s been destroying villages to find a bola…the same weapon that Nuna’s been using to clear obstacles. Uh-oh.

Never Alone is an important game because it was made in tandem with the Iñupiat people. As you progress through each level, you unlock short videos called “Cultural Insights,” and you can pause the game at any time to view them. They were made to teach players about the Iñupiat people’s culture and way of life. These mini-documentaries allow one to gain a better understanding of the characters and themes found in the game. It’s a fun way to learn more about an underrepresented group of people through their own voices. I hope they have the opportunity to make more games like Never Alone.

In the game itself, Nuna and Fox each have unique skills that make them essential to the adventure. You can’t simply use one and ignore the other. Fox can climb walls and call spirits to help Nuna. She uses her bola to break apart icicles and burning sticks that block their path. I did not try out the multiplayer mode with a friend, but I imagine this allows for fun cooperative play.

As it is, I found single player mode manageable, though it could become frustrating at times. When using friendly spirit helpers to bring Nuna safely from one point to the other, Fox needs to stay close or the spirit will fade away. This wasn’t a reoccurring issue throughout the game, yet there were a few instances where Fox drifted too far away and Nuna fell. If I’d had a friend controlling Fox, this wouldn’t have been an issue at all.

With that said, the game can get aggravating at times. Initially, I shrugged it off because I didn’t grow up playing the side-scrolling platformers on the NES, SNES, or Sega Genesis. I’m only just getting interested in those types of games now.  However, there were moments during my playthrough of Never Alone when I could’ve sworn I’d timed it right, and Nuna seemed to land a jump on to the back of a Spirit, only to hang in midair without catching hold and then falling to her death. I couldn’t tell you how I eventually succeeded and got her to stick the landing. I think it had to do with where Fox moved the Spirit, but there was so much delicate back-and-forth involved that I don’t know exactly.

You will always feel bad when either Nuna or Fox dies, because every time it happens, the camera focuses on the other one crying and falling to the ground in grief. But this also allows you to feel the strong bond between the two of them, given that neither character talks. Instead, narrator James Mumiġan Nageak tells the story in the Iñupiaq language as you play, with English subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

Never Alone looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous. Those are easily the best aspects of the game. I enjoyed the quiet, haunting main theme. With Nuna and Fox often exploring the harsh environment with no one else around to help them, a big, dramatic arrangement with a full orchestra would have felt out of place in this story. The music’s there just enough to enhance the experience without feeling intrusive.

And there’s such a beautiful world to explore, from floating ice on the ocean to the ruins of a village with the eerie spirits from the Northern Lights trying to catch Nuna. I would love it if Upper One Games could make something in the style of Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a wide-open, exploration adventure based on other legends from First Nation cultures, with more characters, side-quests, etc. Based on what I’ve seen in Never Alone, that would be amazing.

Never Alone is currently available to purchase on the PlayStation Network at a discounted price for $4.99 until January 16th.  Although it is a short game, it’s worth checking out to support the work of the Iñupiat people.