A note on power-ups in Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7

Mario Kart Wii wasn’t my favourite instalment in the series. I thought the graphics were a little bit slapdash, the proliferation of control schemes was a bit bewildering, and it seemed a shame that the recent Super Mario Galaxy had ended up having little influence on the design of the levels. But one very specific thing irritated me right the way through the experience. Mario Kart Wii introduced the POW Block as a power-up. The POW Block upsets all the characters in front of the user, causing them to lose whatever items they’re holding. But the series already has a power-up that causes most players to lose their items, the Thunderbolt. The combination of the two meant that you were forever losing your power-ups in Mario Kart Wii, and it made it pointless to hold on to them to use strategically.

A screenshot of Mario Kart Wii showing the POW Block about to activate

(Sigh)

Thankfully the POW Block was removed in Mario Kart 7, along with number of other superfluous power-ups like the Fake Item Box. In their place, Mario Kart 7 introduces the Super Leaf. This gives your racer a tanooki tail, which you can use to bat aside weaponry and rival racers. It’s not the most dramatic introduction to the mix, but I like it. When you play a Mario Kart game in singleplayer, you’re usually in first place. But you end up with a limited range of power-ups that aren’t very interesting or useful. The Super Tail not only livens things up by adding an extra option in the mix, it’s also just plain useful to the racer in first place. It’s a defensive item rather than an aggressive one, and when you’re in first place your primary concern is defending your lead.

Mario Kart 7 is a better game than Mario Kart Wii. It feels tighter in terms of both graphics and design, and there are even a few tracks with a clear Galaxy influence. It’s hard to tell how Nintendo will try to refine the formula for the inevitable Wii U instalment but I’d recommend ditching the Blooper. I can tolerate it in Mario Kart 7 because it highlights the 3D effect, but I don’t like it. It seems contrived having AI opponents pretending to have impaired vision and I’d rather it was gone. But we’ll just have to wait and see how Nintendo approach the formidable task of topping their lucky seventh instalment of this ever-popular series.

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Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2

I wouldn’t claim to be the number-one fan of any game series, and I tend not to get excited about game releases any more. That said, a couple of days before the release of a major Final Fantasy game, my sanity starts to erode as I get worked up into a frenzy of excitement. The wait for Final Fantasy XIII-2 was particularly unbearable. Not only had I ordered the most expensive version of the game (the £80 Crystal Edition), the dispatch of my copy ended up being affected by retailer GAME’s financial woes. GAME received their stock late and then decided to dispatch their Soulcalibur V pre-orders before starting to send out Final Fantasy XIII-2. By the time I received the dispatch email, I was panicking. I’d read a few anecdotal accounts from people on Twitter and web forums who had had their Crystal Edition orders cancelled with no explanation – would my precious copy, pre-ordered months, months, in advance, be OK?

The dispatch of my copy was not the end of my ordeal. GAME’s Twitter account was uncertain whether pre-orders would arrive in time for release day. An unimaginable horror – having to wait until the day after release to play the latest Final Fantasy title – loomed. The fateful Friday of release arrived. I waited for the delivery van in my living room, on tenterhooks. Would my copy arrive? Or – gulp! – would I have to wait until tomorrow? The minutes and hours became more and more prolonged as my sanity ebbed. Was that… was that my reflection in the mirror, or the delivery man? People passed by the front window, wondering why I was staring out at them. They would never know the true reason – that I was staring at them because I wished they were Parcel Force vans. The morning was passing, lunch approached. Was that sound my rumbling stomach… or the doorbell?

Finally, finally, there was a knock at the door. The delivery man! I struggled to suppress a wild grin – I wouldn’t want the him to think I was mad, would I? I unleashed my Crystal Edition from its cardboard tomb. I gazed upon its contents, its artbook, its lenticular artwork, its soundtrack, its artcards. And then, at last, I reached out the game box. Now, after this long wait, I could begin the experience I had waited all this time to undergo. I read the manual.

A screenshot of Final Fantasy XIII-2 showing Snow holding Serah

Snow makes an appearance – he has new hair, surely the most exciting feature ever added to a sequel

So then, Final Fantasy XIII-2. It’s one of the few direct sequels to a mainline Final Fantasy game – and, perhaps unfortunately for anyone who hated the controversial original, it’s perhaps the only follow-up to a Final Fantasy game that feels like an actual sequel. Other follow-ups, such as Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, have featured wild shifts in core gameplay from the original, inconsistent character design and completely different soundtrack staff. In contrast, Final Fantasy XIII-2 feels more like a refinement, an expansion. Although character clothing designs are done by different designers and two new composers have been added to the soundtrack team, everything feels just about consistent with the world of Final Fantasy XIII. The extra world-building feels like it’s unearthing a world the original game failed to adequately explore, rather than awkwardly bolting on extra narrative elements.

If you hated Final Fantasy XIII then you will find little appeal in Serah and Noel’s time-travelling quest to find Lighting and save the future. But if you merely disliked certain elements of the original game, you may find they’ve been amended in Final Fantasy XIII-2. The environments are less linear, and there are now groupings of NPCs – and while you couldn’t call these ‘towns’ in name, they serve the same purpose while providing a more streamlined experience than the towns and cities of the JRPGs of old. The time travel mechanic allows you to return to previous areas and optional areas at will, so you can take a break to do some extra-curricular exploring or side-questing at any time. The characters are a pleasant surprise: new lead Serah is neither excessively vulnerable or overwhelmingly girl-powerish, while newcomer Noel is likeable and has an interesting backstory.

The battle system hasn’t changed much. There are now only two main characters – the third slot in your party is filled by one of a selection of monsters, caught and developed in a somewhat Pokémon-esque style. You can add a variety of adornments to your monsters, or to put it another way, you can dress your monsters up in cute little hats, weee! The addition of monsters actually adds a fair bit of depth to the battle system as their battle skills can be extensively customised. They’ve also fixed some of the little things. There’s no longer a delay the first time you Paradigm Shift (change roles) in a battle – this didn’t even bother me in the original, but the removal of the delay improves the flow of battle so much. You can also change your party leader, both manually and automatically when the leader dies, which is as dramatic an improvement as you might expect (nobody wants to Game Over when there are healthy characters standing about with a wealth of revival spells and items).

A screenshot of Final Fantasy XIII-2 showing the battle system

The battle system in action

One addition I don’t like is ‘wound damage’. Wound damage lowers your maximum HP level for the remainder of the battle and it can be quite annoying when you end up with a HP gauge that’s a small fraction of its normal size. This only happened to me a few times during the course of the game, and tended to happen when I’d taken too long to kill an enemy. But you can end up in situations where it’s better to let a character die and then revive them with a Phoenix Down than struggle on, which just feels absurd (I only got through the final battle because each character died in turn, allowing me to get rid of the ridiculous levels of wound damage that had built up). It’s an interesting mechanic but one I never want to see again.

Graphically, the game is a little bit disappointing. I wasn’t expecting the visual opulence of the original, as this sequel was developed on a smaller budget, but there’s only one area that matches the heights of the previous game (although it comes in both night-time and daytime flavours). The returning areas have been redesigned with more muted colour schemes which feel like they’ve been implemented in a misguided attempt to appeal to Western gamers. Archylte Steppe is made up of muddier darker greens, even when you set the weather-controlling machine to produce copious amounts of dazzling sunshine. Other areas show a mysterious preponderance of oranges and browns. I can cope with the less-specular level designs – but I miss the bright JRPG colours of the previous game.

The plot, as you might expect from that of a Final Fantasy game about time travel, is an incoherent load of old balls. But it serves its purpose as a motivator and the characters carry it through. It’s as clear as mud but won’t leave your emotions entirely untouched. The primary antagonist, Caius, is one of the best villains the series has seen a while, with an epic theme tune to match. That leitmotif is one of many standout entries in the game’s soundtrack, an eclectic selection of tunes that won’t please everyone but certainly pleased me with its periodic outbursts of batshit mentalism nestled between the more traditional background and character themes.

A screenshot of Final Fantasy XIII-2 showing Hope with Serah

Hope reappears for the sequel too – you can't equip him with a little hat or anything though so WHAT IS THE POINT?!

I’m going to broach the subject of the ending now, and while I’m not going to discuss plot details (in fact some gaming websites have referred to what I’m going to talk about in headlines), you may want to stop reading if you’re particularly spoiler-shy. Are you particularly spoiler-shy? Stop reading… now. Final Fantasy XIII-2 ends with the words ‘To be continued…’ and this has caused a bit of controversy. Some people think the ending is DLC-bait, others think the game works as a standalone narrative. My two cents is this: I quite like the ending as a piece of storytelling but it is clearly not the end of the story and in this instance I feel uncomfortable with the cliffhanger. If you have a game like Mass Effect 2, which was clearly stated to be the second part of a trilogy of games, then there is no need to provide a self-contained story. In the case of Final Fantasy XIII-2 it is not clear how the story will be resolved, although it seems more likely this will be done through DLC than another sequel. I don’t want the story to be resolved through downloadable content – I bought the game for PS3 precisely because I wanted the highest quality assets and lossless FMV; experiencing the true end of the story through assets that have been compressed to save on bandwidth and storage is precisely what I don’t want. But this is speculation to an extent – we’ll have to wait to see whether the Final Fantasy XIII story ends with DLC or an unprecedented second sequel.

Overall, I really like Final Fantasy XIII-2. It’s a fun, playable RPG and out of all the Final Fantasy games that have been released in the last decade, this one is probably my favourite. It isn’t as pretty as the original, and its story is lacking in clarity but it’s enjoyable, well-structured (with no missables!) and restores some of the sense of ambition and scale that I feel some of the series’ recent instalments have been lacking. And you can put cute little hats on monsters! That, surely, is worth £80 and an agonising wait on its own.

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Even more Final Fantasy Pullblox/Pushmo QR code bookmarks

I’m back with more Final Fantasy Pullblox/Pushmo QR code bookmarks. This time I’ve created bookmarks for the Playstation Final Fantasy games: VII, VIII and IX. I’ve also created a second bookmark for the original Final Fantasy – I felt I’d been a bit lazy in not doing puzzles for the upgraded job classes, so I’ve done a bookmark with them on. You can find that over at the post for Final Fantasy I-III. I’m also going to add an index at the bottom of each puzzle post to aid navigation. Enjoy these new puzzles! Remember to click on the link to see the full-size version, ‘View Image’ just shows you the thumbnail.

You can also find half-size versions of these, and some miscellaneous puzzles, in my imgur gallery.

Pullblox/Pushmo puzzle index

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A note on the stereoscopic 3D effect in Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7

Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 marked the start of a new wave of 3DS software, and one thing that jumped out in reviews was that Nintendo had clearly changed the way the 3D effect worked in these games. I noticed this difference myself – despite normally using my 3DS with the 3D effect turned off, I always turned on the 3D effect to play these two games. I was reading the Iwata Asks article about Super Mario 3D Land when I noticed an interesting bit of information about how the stereoscopic 3D effect in these recent games differs from what went before.

Hayashida: A good action game makes you move your body. But it’s a problem if that distorts the visuals. Then Miyamoto-san said that Mario Kart 7 doesn’t get blurry. I took a look, and it really didn’t. I wondered why and came to understand it was because the player’s kart was placed in a location where there is no binocular parallax. While driving, the players are looking at their own kart, so it doesn’t look blurry. So what will people be looking at in Super Mario 3D Land?

Iwata: Mario, of course.

Hayashida: Exactly. It’s Mario. We call that place where there is no disparity between the left and right eyes the reference plane. We thought we would adjust the reference plane to Mario, so he would be less likely to blur. That gave birth to the Normal View.

So your eyes aren’t receiving two different sets of information relating to Mario or your kart, just one. Before the two recent Mario games came out, the biggest problem I had with the 3D effect was the way it was difficult to resolve the image of your avatar. For example in Pilotwings Resort, your eyes are sent significantly different images of your character, and I personally found this uncomfortable. My eyes couldn’t resolve these images, I either saw the ‘left’ version of my avatar, or the ‘right’ version, never a 3D image. My eyes probably have a way of sorting this kind of thing out in real life, but when presented with a relatively crude imitation of a 3D image, they just can’t cope.

A screenshot of Super Mario 3D Land showing coins moving into the screen

This moment in the first level, where coins hop out of the screen, was designed to highlight the 3D effect

I hope this approach to stereoscopic 3D becomes a standard for 3DS games in the future, because I just find it much more comfortable. That said, this kind of 3D isn’t to everyone’s tastes.

Hayashida: About 80 percent of people responded that the Normal View made it more comfortable. But about 10 or 20 percent said that it was better before. So we thought we would leave the previous view, and that became Extended Depth. You can change between the two views with the +Control Pad.

The Daily Mail’s idiot game reviewer isn’t a fan either: he criticised Mario Kart 7‘s ‘barely there’ 3D effect. But that said, I did occasionally find the Extended Depth view in Super Mario 3D Land quite useful – sometimes you’re willing to have a stronger 3D effect at the expense of comfort for a short period. So perhaps future 3DS games should provide a choice of 3D views, either changeable on the fly or from the ‘options’ menu. Stereoscopic 3D is, in some respects, a brave new world, with few established rules on how to use the feature. It’ll be interesting to see whether some established practices develop or whether the approach to 3D continues to differ widely.

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An interview with Walk Through the Clock

Developing for iOS is increasingly popular, with both established developers and newly-formed indies getting in on the act. But it’s a viciously competitive market, and only a few titles can rise to the top. I spoke to a first-time developer, Melborne-based outfit Walk Through the Clock (made up of programmer Shaun Freeman and artist Greg Bowtell), about the development and release of their first game, Call Connect, a high-score game based around old switchboard technology. We discussed the making of the game, and the lessons learned during its development.

What inspired you to make the leap from gamers to game developers?

Greg Bowtell: Personally, I’d grown a bit tired of just playing games (though I still do play of course) and it felt like a natural progression to start implementing my own ideas somehow. I knew the kind of games and gameplay I liked, mostly from a visual and mechanical standpoint, and wanted to pursue making those. Small-scope, focused, innovative experiences interest me – I’m not so keen on blockbusters (impressive though they often are).

Shaun Freeman: When I was finishing high school I had no idea what I wanted to do and the new games development courses seemed right up my alley. I mean, I loved to play games so how awesome would it be to make them? And then when I finished the course the decision to be indie came from that thing that most gamers have when they’re playing a game and they think: “I can make that, but better!”. You always play games and see the little mistakes or the ideas that work and they trigger a desire to want to make something like that but better! And that’s why I made the change. Well, that’s part of it. The other major part was seeing how popular these little iPhone games were and how profitable they could be and, having an idea of how games were made, I thought that it really wouldn’t be that hard to make something that small and pick-up-and-play. So why not give it a shot? We had nothing to lose really, as we were doing it part time outside of work and other commitments. We wanted to see if we could do it – I guess that’s what it boils down to.

Where did Call Connect‘s switchboard idea come from?

SF: I’ve always liked old tech, like the way the switchboards worked, and record players and so on. I think the idea for Call Connect was triggered whilst watching an episode of Mad Men, when they showed the ladies in the call room.

GB: It was always about the ladies.

SF: And that’s why we got into game dev too. The ladies. But going back to the question, I’ve always known of the way the phones used to work and I was in a game-thinking mode at the time, so I saw the coordination and the organisation that they needed to do to get the switchboard working and saw something very gamey in it. It grew a bit from watching all the YouTube videos I could find on it too, as they showed what it was really like and how many cables the big interchanges could have all over the place. After coming up with the basic premise, I then fleshed it out with Greg and we worked through getting down the basic gameplay.

GB: It fit the MO of what we wanted to do for a first effort. Single screen, addictive, repeated mechanic and therefore manageable. We weren’t really looking to do anything with a narrative, not only because that sort of experience is less successful on the iPhone but also because we wanted to be gameplay-focused.

SF: Yeah, trying to keep it simple to make our first effort as easy as possible. We both knew how easy it was to lose interest in something that was too big in scope, although we still encountered that a little with Call Connect.

GB: Likely as a result of nights here and there rather than an ongoing, day-in day-out effort. This thing was basically built between 9pm and 2am.

SF: Which isn’t ideal all the time.

GB: No. We did have a good run at it for a fortnight or so in the middle stages and that knocked over a large portion of it. But in the main it was a few nights a week.

Did the game come together pretty much as planned, or did you need to make substantial changes to your approach during the development process? Where there any particularly major changes in direction?

SF: The basic gameplay was there from the start. The movements of connecting and completing calls. But we felt it needed a bit more so that’s why we added the bonus mode. It helps to break up the flow a bit. Keeps it fresh and also gives the player something else to think about and keep track of. Also, from the start it was only just the ‘hard’ mode. It wasn’t until after the first release that we built the ‘easy’ mode, as people were finding it a bit hard to learn to play when they could fail quickly. The easy mode was probably the best thing we added, as looking at all the stats it’s pretty much 90% easy mode to 10% hard mode being played.

GB: I spent a fair amount of time figuring out the scoring system, which then underwent many iterations to get right. Having spent so long on what is a relatively simple game to play, I’ve lost track of exactly what came in and when, but I’d say there were no major changes. The core gameplay was there, the scoring system was there, we established the visual themes early on. It was mainly tweaking. The easy mode was probably the biggest addition.

SF: Also, the tutorial. I guess it’s probably the thing that makes indie development so good, you can feature creep like that. We weren’t locked in to a schedule or plan. If we saw something amiss then we could fix it.

GB: It was both fun and maddening all at once.

SF: It also allows you to not have to think about everything from the get go, you can allow yourself some breathing space and time for the other ideas to come to you. The stuff that you only think of when you start playing. That said, you don’t want to feature creep into the distant future.

GB: We’d be fucked if we had deadlines.

SF: Well yeah. One of the better things afforded by not having to release the game to live.

A screenshot of Call Connect's easy mode, showing the tutorial

The 'easy' mode and tutorial were added after the initial release of the game

As I understand it, Greg handles the art and Shaun handles the programming – how did you go about filling your game with sounds and music?

GB: I figured I’d be doing the sound as it seemed to fall under my remit. Musically, I’m barren – fortunately I have a brother who’s in a band (The Star Express) and is a talented muso. He and a friend/bandmate came up with the theme tune, which we rather like. The sound effects were a pain in the arse actually as I’d done next to nothing of that sort before. I had to jump in, start tweaking things and see what happened. Initially, the answer was ‘not much’, but as time passed I started to get a handle on what I could manage. The key effect I wanted to get right was the plug insertion noise. That took a fair while. It was a combination of lots of tweaked clicks and thuds. I wanted you to want to hear that sound, much the same way you want to hear that popping sound in Minecraft. So, that one I’m proud of. The sound could undoubtedly be better but I hadn’t the time to develop my skills to a level I’d be totally happy with. I’d say it’s adequate. I knew how each effect should sound and how the effects should reward the player, I was just a bit fuzzy on how to get there.

SF: I think it works quite well. I quite like the dings of when a call comes in, especially when it really gets going as it adds to the stress. It compliments the gameplay, as sound should.

GB: It was a Waterworldesque patchwork floating-city job, but it works. That’s not to say it was shit or expensive or had Kevin Costner in it though.

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Hands-on with the Playstation Vita, part two

Here’s the second part of my Playstation Vita hands-on. I’m going to take a look at the other games I played at the Vita Rooms in Manchester and then give my overall impressions on this new gaming platform.

Gravity Rush

I only had a quick go on this third-person adventure game, but it was enough to pique my interest. It has a lovely-looking art style, which I’d describe as a more detailed manga-style version of the cel-shaded graphics from games like Okami. Videos and screenshots don’t really do it justice, it looks much nicer ‘in the flesh’ on the Vita’s screen. I didn’t experience too much of the gameplay, but the gravity-shifting elements control very intuitively. I did notice that some awkward-shaped objects in the sky can leave you to slip off and hurtle into the air if you land in the wrong place, but I doubt that this something that will crop up frequently during gameplay.

A screenshot of Gravity Rush

Rayman Origins

I haven’t played any of the home-console versions of this, but the game looks absolutely spectacular on the Vita. This comes across a totally full-fat experience and is perhaps the best example of the Vita’s ability to provide home-console games on the go so far.

A screenshot of Rayman Origins

Virtua Tennis 4

Like Uncharted and Wipeout, this felt like it was trying to utilise the full power of the Vita, and it looked quite nice. I haven’t played Virtua Tennis since the Dreamcast days, but I got back into it quite easily. I’d read about a new control gimmick where you swipe across the touchscreen to move your player to the ball, so decided to give that a go. I was surprised how well it worked – it was nice and intuitive. Virtua Tennis 4 recived fairly middling reviews when it was released on other formats, so we’ll have to see how this fares when it comes out.

A screenshot of Virtua Tennis

Super Stardust Delta

This was the first game I tried on the Vita and I only had a quick go as I was eager to test out the likes of Wipeout and Uncharted. It looks and plays similarly to the PS3 game, with some extra touch control gimmickry. You can use the rear touchpad to drop a black hole weapon but this felt very awkward to me.

A screenshot of Super Stardust Delta

MotorStorm: RC

This is a spin-off from the MotorStorm series featuring remote-control cars. I initially struggled to get to grips with this as there didn’t seem to be an explanation of the controls, but I eventually figured out that you use the two analogue sticks in the same way you would for an actual remote-control car. Even once I’d worked this out I didn’t find the game particularly intuitive or fun, and while the graphics looked petty solid they weren’t particularly memorable.

A screenshot of MotorStorm: RC

ModNation Racers: Road Trip

I never bought ModNation Racers for the PS3 because the demo didn’t particularly grab me. I found this fairly enjoyable though – the racing seems solid, although like most kart racers that aren’t Mario Kart there’s a weird generic-ness about it. If you’re not going to be investing in a 3DS then this might be worth a look.

A screenshot of ModNation Racers: Road Trip

Frobisher Says

This is a quirky microgame title in the vein of WarioWare. It acts as a nice demonstration of the Vita’s various features and has you fighting bears and drawing faces on eggs, among other things. It’s also a nice demonstration of the Vita’s ability to carry off Locoroco-style 2D graphics – despite being a modest, quirky title it can look quite lovely in its own way. I had to stop playing it when it asked me to smile for the camera though – I wasn’t willing to do a big toothy grin in the middle of a room of actual human beings. So while I did like it, it’s perhaps not one for the bus.

A screenshot of Frobisher Says

Conclusion

I was playing LittleBigPlanet when the novelty of the Vita suddenly wore off. I realised that, despite Sony throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Vita in terms of controls, there’s actually nothing particularly extraordinary about the new control methods. While the Vita would have felt very mundane without its range of controls, there’s no single element that’s startlingly innovative. That’s not to say I think Sony’s gone down the wrong path with Vita – there are lots of possibilities here and the buttons-and-touchscreen combo could work quite well (I’ve said in the past that I think Minecraft would work well with this combination of controls). But when it comes down to it, we’ve had buttons and analogue sticks before, we’ve had touchscreens before, we’ve had cameras before, and while the rear touchpad is pretty novel, it’s also the least-practical item in the Vita’s arsenal. I think the Vita’s a nice solid piece of kit, too expensive really, but nice. It’s got a nice combination of controls – but it’s not really going where no console has gone before.

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