Magical Tetris Challenge — 1Q2017 issue

When Tetris and Dis­ney col­lide

Mess­ing with an old and uni­ver­sally loved favorite such as Tetris is a risky propo­si­tion. You can get it right or mess it up hor­ri­bly, where it is for­ever known as the “messed up ver­sion of Tetris.” Luck­ily, Mag­i­cal Tetris Chal­lenge by Cap­com man­ages to dodge that label and add a few ele­ments to the main game to refresh an older title.

Mag­i­cal Tetris is, at its core, a fun game with lots of charm to spread around. There are mul­ti­ple modes to choose from and the vari­ety helps the replay fac­tor long after the nov­elty of com­bo­ing wears off. The story mode is the other mode most played at GI, and is based off the new Mag­i­cal Tetris mode. While I’m not fond of the cliffhanger by dif­fi­culty level method, the story is ser­vice­able and moves the action for­ward with a nice added Dis­ney touch. Main­stays such as Mickey, Min­nie, Don­ald and Goofy fill out the cast, though you can only play as these four.

Mag­i­cal Tetris earns its bread and but­ter in the way it builds on the Tetris for­mula. With Tetris in the name and designed to appeal to a mass audi­ence using that, Mag­i­cal Tetris starts out with the basics: Cre­ate and clear lines using seven letter-shaped pieces. Clear four lines and you get a Tetris.

Ah, but herein lies the addi­tions to Mag­i­cal Tetris and where the basics end and advanced play begins: For every line cleared, a small amount of energy is added to a magic meter. Fill up the magic meter and you get what we’ve termed at GI as a break­down: All pieces restruc­ture to cre­ate a neat space and a large por­tion of the well where your pieces fall is wiped clean. Also, clear­ing lines cre­ates com­bos, which can be coun­tered until a piece is shaped 10 by 10. Com­bos and coun­ters cre­ates a back and forth, dur­ing which oddly shaped pieces are cre­ated and fall into the play field. By set­ting up the pieces in a decent shape in your well, you can achieve what is called a pen­tris, or five lines cleared
simul­ta­ne­ously.

Com­bo­ing and coun­ter­ing makes the game­play fun and adds an increas­ing level of com­pet­i­tive­ness and urgency to every match. Even if you’re not the most Tetris-competent gamer, Mag­i­cal Tetris does an excel­lent job invit­ing all skill lev­els in to learn and get bet­ter. The basics are quickly explained and the advanced tech­niques are made plain as you go along. That helps in the fran­tic atmos­phere of a spir­ited two-player human match, where any­thing and usu­ally every­thing can happen.

The game shines in its visu­als, which ben­e­fit from that Dis­ney touch. The game is bright and col­or­ful and designed in the way of Dis­ney games and ani­ma­tion, mean­ing it’s top-notch through and through. The graph­ics are still good for an N64-era game and haven’t aged badly. The sound­track has aged well, too, and is still one of the best of the era. Each character’s stage is mem­o­rably themed and stands out enough for you to remem­ber it well after your game is over.
Hav­ing played the major­ity of the Tetris spin­offs and cre­ations out on the mar­ket for the past 30 years, I need to have some­thing that pushes me to play. Mag­i­cal Tetris suc­ceeds in adding to the Tetris for­mula just enough to buy its way in to my library and stick around through charm and abil­ity. This is an excel­lent Tetris spin job.

Mario Kart 64 — 1Q2016 issue

Mario Kart’s grow­ing pains

Mario Kart has always been an inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence. Com­bin­ing go-karting and Mario has and is a recipe for suc­cess for Nin­tendo, quite hon­estly. And, by the time Nin­tendo got around to mak­ing the sequel to the smash hit Super Mario Kart, they knew they had a sure­fire mas­sive hit on their hands.
Mario Kart 64 takes every­thing you loved about the first game and immea­sur­ably increases it. The Mario char­ac­ters, the tracks, the secrets; every­thing about Mario Kart 64 is bet­ter than the orig­i­nal in every respect. Dri­ving has improved with bet­ter steer­ing qual­i­ties for all char­ac­ters includ­ing the bonafied intro­duc­tion of pow­er­s­lid­ing. Mas­ter­ing pow­er­s­lid­ing means a world of dif­fer­ence in race times, espe­cially when you have brag­ging rights at stake. Old mechan­ics, such as the weight class con­cept, are still present but it seems every­one has a bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion with respect to how a class really con­trols. The light­weights feel like, well, light­weights. The heavy­weights actu­ally feel like they’re heavy to han­dle.
While I’m an admit­ted long-term Mario Kart afi­cionado, I have to admit that if you’re going to get into Mario Kart, this is the title to do so with. It’s not hard to pick up MK64 and grasp the mechan­ics. It’s also easy to play with friends who under­stand the nuances of Mario Kart so that you’re not left behind for very long. And it’s the play­ing with oth­ers that makes this one of the best party games ever cre­ated. MK64 has Bat­tle Mode as its ace in the hole and it makes it one of the first quin­tes­sen­tial party games, along­side Gold­en­eye, Super Smash Bros. and Mario Party.
With all that it has going for it, how­ever, there a few minor draw­backs. First, if rub­ber band AI both­ers you, this is not the game for you. MK64’s AI is one of the worst offend­ers of the rub­ber band­ing prac­tice and it gets worse as you go through the sin­gle player race cam­paign. Com­bine that with the pun­ish­ing dif­fi­culty of 100cc and 150cc races and you have a frus­trat­ing, controller-throwing mess. Sec­ond, this is the sec­ond game after Mario 64 where Mario char­ac­ters are vocal­ized. I promise you will get tired of hear­ing char­ac­ters say their favorite phrase long before you fin­ish any of the modes. It gets old quickly and makes one wish they could turn the sound off, except that you’ll real­ize quickly that the sound­track is actu­ally great. This, how­ever, is the game that turned me against Mario char­ac­ters talk­ing.
Mario Kart 64 is polar­iz­ing to some play­ers: Some think it’s one of the great­est kart rac­ing games ever made while oth­ers hate it. I tend to be in the mid­dle; it’s a great entry in the kart rac­ing genre, but there are some fairly major quirks with how it plays to throw a wrench into things. I like to think that the fun and the qual­ity asso­ci­ated with Mario Kart boosts it out of the mid­dle of the pack.

Super Mario 64 — 1Q2016 issue

Mario’s great­est evolution

Most of the gam­ing world would agree that Super Mario 64 is one of the great­est games of all time. I would agree also except for two things: First, the game gives me a tremen­dous headache after about 10 min­utes of play; and, sec­ond, I’m not like most peo­ple.
See, where I have a prob­lem with Mario 64 is where most peo­ple don’t have a prob­lem. Don’t get me wrong; I love the leap for­ward that presents itself as soon as you boot up the game for the first time. I was — and still am — in awe of the won­der­ment that is see­ing Mario in 3D after play­ing 2D Mario games for the major­ity of my gam­ing career. How­ever, I’m not in con­cert with the idea that it’s one of the great­est games of all time. Why? Just because it was the first to fully real­ize a for­merly 2D char­ac­ter in 3D splen­dor? Because it’s Mario and just because it’s Mario?
No, I can’t form my opin­ion or even include the game in the con­ver­sa­tion of great­est game of all time just because of any of those things. There has to be some valid rea­son­ing and while there are some great points for it, I’m not sold 100 per­cent.
Mario 64, graph­i­cally, is steps ahead of almost every­thing for the Nin­tendo 64. Note that I said almost.
Most games don’t hold a can­dle to Mario in fully real­ized 3D and, even with his polyg­o­nal block style as with most early N64 games, Mario still looks like a king. Peach’s Palace is inter­est­ingly laid out and the graph­i­cal qual­ity of the cas­tle still blows away the com­pe­ti­tion 20 years later. Watch­ing Mario run around, run and jump and be Mario but in a non-2D sprite is pure heaven for Mario lovers like myself.
But there’s that block­i­ness that I men­tioned before. It’s obvi­ous through­out and can be jar­ring from time to time. And for motion sick­ness suf­fer­ers like myself, the 3D is nigh unbear­able. It’s all I can do not to vomit after 20 min­utes, so my play­time is imme­di­ately lim­ited because of the visu­als. I should not be want­ing to vomit after play­ing a Mario game.
The sound­track makes up for the illness-inducing game­play. The sound­track is fan­tas­tic and it’s wor­thy of a main­line Mario game, eas­ily. From run­ning around in the plains of Bob-omb Bat­tle­field to tra­vers­ing numer­ous obsta­cles to take on the King of the Koopas, Mario 64 is a dream come true in terms of audio plea­sure.
And, this is, after all, the first com­mer­cial game where Mario actu­ally speaks. It’s a joy to hear him squeal and squawk for the first time as he explores the var­i­ous worlds.
With all of my neg­a­tive sen­ti­ments about the leap from 2D to 3D for Mario, I still appre­ci­ate the mas­ter­piece that is Mario 64. Ground­break­ing and simul­ta­ne­ously frus­trat­ing?
Yes. But it’s frus­tra­tion worth hav­ing even if it takes a tum­ble down my list of great­est games ever.

Paper Mario — 1Q2016 issue

A ser­vice­able tale on paper

The moment you know Mario has gone on too many adven­tures is when you know you’ve played way too much Mario. Paper Mario, the sequel to the hard-to-top Super Mario RPG, is when I knew I’d played way too much Mario and seemed to expect way too much from a Mario game. The joke, how­ever, was on me as I real­ized that an in-depth and long adven­ture awaited, and a story was to be told here that needed to be told after the high­light of RPG.
Paper Mario starts out much like any other Mario game: The princess has been kid­napped and Mario needs to save her. How­ever, there’s a twist in the danse macabre that is Mario and Bowser’s eter­nal strug­gle over Peach. Bowser has man­aged to get his hands on the Star Rod, impris­ons most of the wish-granting com­mu­nity and has lit­er­ally absconded with Peach and her court into the sky. This is the point at which you should be say­ing, “Really Bowser? You just helped save your uni­verse in RPG and you’re back to cre­at­ing prob­lems again?” But, nev­er­the­less, the story must go on and Paper Mario fills that void nicely with an engag­ing tale of team­work and cama­raderie. I was most impressed with the depth of the char­ac­ters and the deft way Intel­li­gent Sys­tems fleshed out the world of Mario and some of his never-before-seen allies who come from all walks of the Mario life.
Another impres­sive part of the tale is the tongue-in-cheek humor sprin­kled lib­er­ally through­out. Paper Mario isn’t afraid to be self-referential or pinch off other games when it calls for shak­ing up the rou­tine “Mario saves Peach” bit.
Spoil­ers ahead: There is a sec­tion that calls for a cer­tain princess to become a vir­tual Solid Snake-like char­ac­ter and it imme­di­ately calls forth images of Metal Gear Solid. That kind of bor­row­ing is the kind of thing that’s allowed and plays well within the con­text that Mario is the king of all that he sur­veys and even in his spin­off titles, he can still run with the best of the best, pay homage and still come out smelling like roses.
In his sec­ond RPG out­ing, Mario still plays just as well as his first attempt in the role-playing sphere. Paper looks like and plays out like a sto­ry­book, which is fresh and invit­ing to old diehards like myself. The mechan­ics are sim­ple to learn and are lay­ered enough that an expe­ri­enced RPGer can jump right in and under­stand what’s going on with­out much expla­na­tion.
If you played the first game, con­cepts such as timed defense, timed offense and first hits will make sense. It’s that kind of ref­er­enc­ing that makes the game a suc­cess: It’s easy to pick up and play, regard­less of your level of famil­iar­ity with the series’ sys­tem.
My main gripe, though, is that the game feels sprawl­ing and slightly dis­jointed at times. That’s a great prob­lem to have actu­ally, but there are times when back­track­ing and the seem­ingly end­less sid­e­quests tend to dis­tract from the main goal. Still, I’d rather have that prob­lem than be bored with noth­ing to sup­port the main story.
Also, as a rather nit­picky side gripe, the final boss fight is one of the most aggra­vat­ing fights I have ever expe­ri­enced.
I was eas­ily in that bat­tle for half an hour solely because of the boss’ abil­ity to heal, not because I was doing any­thing par­tic­u­larly wrong. If, at the end of the bat­tle, I say, “I will never fight this end bat­tle again,” there is a prob­lem there.
It was as if it was pro­tracted and drawn out for the sake of being a hard boss bat­tle.
My issues aside, though, I had an engag­ing and mem­o­rable time play­ing through and I couldn’t wait to work through a new chap­ter in the saga that was Paper Mario. This is a tale you lit­er­ally can’t put down.