Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Tuesday 10s - My Most Anticipated Games for the Rest of 2024

The Tuesday 10s return this week on SuperPhillip Central. For those uninitiated, The Tuesday 10s--when they happen, at least--occur on Tuesdays and are basically unordered top ten lists. They can be about games themselves, or even game concepts like levels and characters, for instance.

Today, and with this morning's Nintendo Direct behind us, I feel we have a good idea on what to expect for the rest of 2024. That's not considering any surprises or future announcements in the second half of the year, of course. That said, these ten games are the ones that I'm most excited to play for the remaining months of 2024!

After you've peeked at my picks (and hopefully read the rationale behind each of them, too), please feel free to comment below on which games you're most hyped for to round out the year!

Astro Bot (PS5)

What salvaged an otherwise ho-hum (for me, at least) State of Play late last month was the conclusion of the presentation, featuring a trailer starring a lovely little robot that could named Astro Bot. The game of the same name is a major outing for the character, originally seen in different forms in The Playroom VR demo, then the PlayStation VR exclusive Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, which this new PS5 adventure seems to riff off of a teeny bit here and there. 

The PS5 pack-in game Astro's Playroom heralded in a glorious showcase of the DualSense controller, and in general was just a fantastic game to introduce players to their new PlayStation 5 systems. No doubt from the announcement trailer that developer Team Asobi has thrown myriad ideas at the wall, and in my eye, all of them seem to be sticking wonderfully. Here's hoping this ode to PlayStation's history and moreover massively captivating and charming-looking 3D platforming sticks the landing as well when it arrives on PS5 on September 6th.

Dragon Ball: Sparking! Zero (PS5, XBX, PC)

I can't think of a better tribute in game form to the late, great Akira Toriyama than seeing his Dragon Ball creations and characters comes to life in one of the ultimate 3D fighting game packages. That seems to be what we're going to get with Dragon Ball: Sparking! Zero, pitting a multitude of characters from Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball GT, and Dragon Ball Super against one another as a roster that calls back to Budokai Tenkaichi 3's. If you're unaware, that game featured a massive amount of characters to play as, and Sparking! Zero seems to bring with it even more high octane action, eye-melting visuals (in the GOOD way), and multiple story campaigns starring different characters, with Goku's containing the most battles, as expected. Couple this with the ability to create and share your own custom story missions, cutscenes, and battles, and you have one seriously super Dragon Ball game for fans!

Dragon Quest III: HD-2D Remake (NSW, PS5, XBX, PC)

Speaking of Akira Toriyama's works, let's rock a different kind of dragon with the illustrious Dragon Quest series, which Toriyama's art lives on through. During this morning's Nintendo Direct, Nintendo not only revealed more footage from this gorgeous HD-2D remake of Dragon Quest III and--finally--a release date (November 14th, 2024), but also the announcement of the other games in the Erdrick trilogy being remade as well with Dragon Quest I and II in store for next year. It's been almost three years since Dragon Quest III's HD-2D remake was originally announced, and seeing it with a firm release date almost feels like a fever dream, like managing to slay four Metal Slimes in the same battle without any of them fleeing. Like such a battle, the experience of playing--or for some, RE-playing Dragon Quest III will be an absolutely rewarding one. I'm certainly looking forward to it.

Fantasy Life i: The Girl Who Steals Time (NSW)

There is no shortage of fascinating RPGs arriving on consoles and PC this year. While this next game had no presence during today's Nintendo Direct, Fantasy Life i: The Girl Who Steals Time still is planned to release on October 10th. I absolutely adored the original Fantasy Life on the Nintendo 3DS. Its job-based gameplay where players worked to increase their skills, opted to tackle monsters and other foes in the game's fields and dungeons via action-RPG goodness, and found a nice life for themselves, made for an incredibly addicting game. With new town elements and online play in this new sequel, I'm quite eager to get my hands on Fantasy Life i: The Girl Who Steals Time, and have this be the game which steals all of my time when it launches as a current Nintendo Switch exclusive.

Indiana Jones and the Great Circle (XBX, PC)

With a less-than-stellar aura surrounding the Xbox brand in recent months--the most important being the closing of some incredible studios and letting go of some tremendous talent--and a seemingly aimless direction for the brand in general, it was important for Microsoft's Xbox to pull off at the very least a competent showing two weeks ago. I'd say, fortunately, the showcase was a success. The reveals were exciting and top-notch, but the game that will most likely release by year's end that most excited me from Xbox's show features one of my favorite fictional characters in film: Indiana Jones. 

Using Harrison Ford's likeness and Troy Baker's serviceable impression of Indy, Indiana Jones and the Great Circle is a first-person action/adventure game that sees our artifact-finding, temple-exploring, globe-trotting adventurer doing all those things complete with the look and feel of actually playing a film in the series. The humor is so on-point, and one of the best features--at least presentation-wise--that I've seen so far. While there's no firm release date and just a vague 2024, here's hoping Machine Games can deliver a game worthy of the Indiana Jones name--unlike perhaps for some, the last two films in the franchise...

The Legend of Zelda: Echoes of Wisdom (NSW)

One of the empty spaces in the Nintendo Switch catalog, at least for me, was that of a wholly new top-down 2D Zelda adventure. Little did I know that with today's Nintendo Direct that not only would we get a wholly new top-down game in the franchise, but it'd literally be a ZELDA adventure! For the first time (no, I don't count the Phillips CD-I games, sorry), Zelda is the primary protagonist in a game for the series her name is attached to. 

The Legend of Zelda: Echoes of Wisdom could have easily been Zelda with bow instead of a sword, and that might have made folks appeased. However, Nintendo, in traditional Nintendo fashion, went above and beyond. Zelda gains a rod that she can use to capture objects like tables, beds, boulders, and even foes to ensnare to do her bidding in what is shaping up to be a truly clever and creative adventure. From the trailer shown, we saw that Zelda can conjure blocks of water to reach higher, other inaccessible areas; she can build stepping stones with beds; and even launch boulders at baddies to truly rock on. We won't have to wait long for Zelda's first foray into adventure when The Legend of Zelda: Echoes of Wisdom releases on Nintendo Switch on September 26th, 2024.

Mario & Luigi: Brothership (NSW)

Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door have seen recent releases. Now, the trifecta of Mario RPGs is complete on the Nintendo Switch with the announcement of a brand-new Mario & Luigi game! Mario & Luigi: Brothership is an isle-hopping (or is it "isle-launching"?) adventure starring the Brothers Mario with a whole cavalcade of new characters to meet, enemies to defeat, and places to visit and explore. Bros. Attacks return, as does the ability to use Mario and Luigi's unique teamwork abilities to solve puzzles in the overworld areas of the game. It's such a sight for sore eyes to see the return of Mario & Luigi, and such a delightful looking entry as well, both visually and gameplay-wise. We won't have to wait too terribly long for Mario and Green Mario to once again team up together as Mario & Luigi: Brothership sails onto the Switch on November 7th, 2024.

Sonic X Shadow Generations (NSW, PS5, XBX, PC)

While Mario will have lots of fun this year (with more to come on this list), Sonic isn't resting on his laurels. And I must admit, I did NOT expect this much effort to be put into a remaster of Sonic Generations, a game that was already a phenomenal one to begin with. This being the year of Shadow and all, SEGA and Sonic Team have opted to insert Shadow into game into his own adventure, essentially splitting the game into two parts, collectively titled Sonic X Shadow Generations. 

The incredibly well done Sonic Generations half is included, of course--this time adding the Sonic Mania's Drop Dash into the spin of things--while Shadow Generations not only gives the fourth-damn-Chaos-Emerald-seeking hedgehog a suite of remixed stages from his now-storied history in the Sonic franchise and several boss encounters (these first two things currently have an indeterminable amount, but they're immensely polished all the same), but also a Sonic Frontiers-style hub world that connects all of the content together. I'm eager to explore both pieces of this hedgehog game package when Sonic X Shadow Generations boosts onto all current platforms on October 22nd, 2024.

Super Mario Party Jamboree (NSW)

It's been a little bit since Mario last held any kind of new party with his pals (and enemies alike) on the Nintendo Switch. Well, the wait for a new party is over! Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom crew's latest soiree, Super Mario Party Jamboree, is billed as Nintendo as their biggest one yet. With a respectable seven boards (five all-new and two returning from Mario Party 1 and 2 respectively), over 100 mini-games, over 20 playable characters, multiple planned modes, and the ability to play online against up to 20 opponents in Battle Royale-style Mario Party madness, Super Mario Party Jamboree is shaping up to a bash you won't want to miss. RSVP if you'd like to be prepared to par-tay when Super Mario Party Jamboree launches on Nintendo Switch on October 17th, 2024.

Visions of Mana (PS5, XBX, PC)

Harkening back to the age of old-school RPGs while giving off a gorgeous and modern visual presentation package, Visions of Mana is, of course, the latest entry in the long-running Mana franchise. Chosen by the Faerie to revitalize the Mana Tree, a great expedition and grand journey awaits our colorful cast of heroes. The idea of facing off against foes both small and large (especially those Eidolons) sounds incredibly enticing and exciting to me. I absolutely loved the Trials of Mana remake four years ago, so to say that I'm eager to engage with more of the Mana series would be an understatement. Bring it on, Square Enix. I'm ready for some comfort food gaming when Visions of Mana starts its adventure on August 29th, 2024.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

[SuperPhillip Plays] Mario Power Tennis (GCN) - Full Playlist Now Available

It seems fitting to follow up Thursday's retro review of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour with something also related to a Mario sports title from the GameCube era. If you're already subscribed to my YouTube channel of SuperPhillip Plays or have previously viewed this post on SuperPhillip Central, then you no doubt already recall that my quest to be the best in all sixteen tournaments in Mario Power Tennis began several months ago with episode one of my video series. 

Now, the series is complete, and all 16 episodes are available to watch, binge, and enjoy at your leisure! I hope you'll consider partaking in this series of exciting tennis action featuring intense rallies, fun across several tournament styles, and more!

Catch the full playlist below in this easily digestible, perfectly bingeable package. Have a great weekend ahead, everyone!

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour (GCN) Retro Review

How about a retro review for this unplanned throwback kind of Thursday? That's exactly what we're in for together with this retro review of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour from the GameCube generation.

"Fore" score and several birdies ago, Mario and friends 
stepped out on to the tee for a GameCube golf outing.

I can't get enough cartoony arcade-y golf games. Whether it's Hot Shots Golf/Everybody's Golf, PANGYA, or, of course, Mario Golf, nothing gets my love of video game golf going than colorful characters playing on fantastical courses. That's why I couldn't resist going back to the GameCube's Mario Golf title, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour. I've pretty much squeezed out all of the goodness of the Switch's Super Rush, the 3DS's exquisite World Tour, and the Nintendo 64 original as well, so it only made sense to move on to the GameCube one, a bit of a game I left to my teenaged years and haven't played in modern times. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour is pretty much more of the same from its Nintendo 64 predecessor, adding some new features and unfortunately some bumps in the green as well.

Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour features a colorful cast of over a dozen Mushroom Kingdom all-stars, each with their own stats, such as maximum drive (how far they can hit the ball) and arc/trajectory of their shots. There are of course your mainstays of the series: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Yoshi, Bowser, Wario, and Waluigi--of course--but there are also some less traditional picks, such as Koopa Troopa, Birdo, and the first time inclusion to the Mario Golf series of characters such as Diddy Kong and Bowser Jr., the latter of which had just debuted a year or two prior in Super Mario Sunshine. 

Yoshi is but one of the returning playable Mushroom Kingdom characters from the N64 Mario Golf.

Apart from Bowser Jr. who is a secret character, there are three other unlockable golfers as well. These are unlocked through completing specific modes and challenges within Toadstool Tour: whether it's beating all of the side games, achieving a certain amount of Best Badges--obtained by getting a Birdie or better on a given hole--and so forth. In addition to the characters yet to unlock, the base roster can also be upgraded to Star Character level by challenging them to a Character Match, a round of versus golf where the lowest score of each hole wins that hole. The player with the most holes won by the end of the round is the overall victor. Star Characters hit further, hit harder, and are best suited for more seasoned players.

Wario is one mean but decidedly not-so-lean power hitter!

Toadstool Tour contains a wide amount of modes to play through aside from the Character Match. Tournament is the main means of unlocking new courses. You compete against a field of computer opponents to get the best score by the end of the round. The required score to come in first place seldom, if ever, changes, so it's less about "beating the field" and more "beating a certain score". There's also Ring Shot, which pits players against multiple holes across all six courses. The goal here is to hit your shots through all of the rings, and then successfully sink your ball into the hole with par or better. Easier said than done in later stages, as on many occasions you'll be tasked with hitting your shot far out of the safety of fairways and usually into bunkers, rough, and other hazards you'd usually wish to avoid. 

Additionally, Practice Games help hone your golf skills, such as chipping, putting, and approaching. They each come in novice, intermediate, and expert modes. Then, there's the Near-Pin Challenge, taking place on the lone Par 3 short course in the game, Congo Canopy. Here, you're tasked with driving the ball as close to the pin as possible without missing the green. Birdie Challenge is an even more challenging version of this, tasking players with getting consecutive birdies on every hole within this treetop course.

Where Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour really shines mode-wise is in its multiplayer repertoire. For one, up to four players can play together, whether on separate controllers or sharing controllers or a controller. The multiplayer suite of modes includes traditional Stroke, Match, and Skins play that are all no stranger to any golf game worth their downswing, but also two-on-two Doubles play, playing with a randomized and limited amount of clubs in Club Slots mode, the coin-collecting Coin Shoot mode, and myriad more.

Up to four alternating players can take to the links together in one of many multiplayer modes.

Toadstool Tour's tournaments, modes, and matches are played across seven unique 18-hole courses, one of which--the aforementioned Congo Canopy set in DK's Jungle--is the sole Par 3 short course. The initial two courses are pretty much standard fare and could be mistaken for real courses in a traditional golf game for the most part. It's not until you get to the desert ruins and canyons of Shifting Sands, the third course in the game, where things become more exotic and interesting. 

While courses like Cheep Cheep Falls are generally grounded golfing experiences...

It's a big shift from the starting two courses, Lakitu Valley and Cheep Cheep Falls, where fairways are large, greens are gentle, hazards are rare, and the courses are more grounded, to the final two courses of the game: Peach's Castle Grounds and Bowser Badlands, where things go deep off in the realm of the fantastical with full Mario and Mushroom Kingdom theming. I'm talking warp pipes that whisk your ball away closer to (or sometimes even further away from) the hole, Mario enemies like Bob-Ombs, Chain Chomps, and Thwomps, and rivers full of lava in the case of the latter course of Bowser's. These final two courses will put even the most professional Toadstool Tourer through their paces. They are TOUGH.

...You'll soon find that there's fungus among us (and plenty of other surprises) in later courses!

Of course, all the characters, modes, and courses within a golf game would be all for nothing if the actual golfing gameplay wasn't up to... well, par. Fortunately and probably without much in the way of needing to worry about it, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour scores under par here. (For those not too acquainted with golf terminology, that's a good thing.)

From typical golf game aspects like being able to survey and get an overview of the topography and play environment of each hole by moving the camera around--an effortless task--to having a full repertoire of helpful information like wind speed and direction, elevation to the hole, incline, etc., Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour does not leave much out to assist you with taking your best shots possible on the links. 

The traditional three-click gauge from the OG Mario Golf on the Nintendo 64 is here and present, offering a bit of spin on this classic. Starting the gauge is still performed by pressing the A button, but on the second button press--the one to set the power of your shot--you can either opt to press A again or B this time around. If the former is selected, this turns the rest of the current shot into automatic mode, where the accuracy of the shot is determined by the game randomly. If B is pressed, manual mode is selected, allowing players to time the accuracy of their shot, as well as add any topspin or backspin to their shot through combinations of A and then B or vice versa, upon setting the accuracy. Spin in general is a new addition to the Mario Golf series introduced within Toadstool Tour.

Luigi may be beached currently, but he's ready to escape the sand with a well-hit chip shot.

Returning from the past two Mario Golf games is that of being able to determine where you hit the ball, allowing you to arc your shots more carefully, best used when attempting to avoid obstacles like trees. Another aspect from past Mario Golf games: power shots, return as well, allowing harder drives, chips, and more to happen as long as your character has enough of them left to use. With each power shot used that is not given perfect sweet spot timing (i.e. the power bar on the left side and the right side both are not perfectly synced and aligned together), the power shot counter goes down one. 

For all that Toadstool Tour does right in improving upon Mario Golf on the Nintendo 64, it does do some things that are a bit bewildering to the point of me shaking me head. For one, putting is much more challenging than it needs to be, by virtue of the power gauge moving so fast when starting it. This makes short putts harder to manage and sink than one might imagine. Further, the camera angles at times tend to linger on your character awkwardly longer than they otherwise should upon them hitting their shots. In the case of putting, it'd be nice to know where I went wrong with the angle of my putt, but that's too bad because the game opted to focus on my golfer instead for more than necessary. While these issues are more gripes and minor issues than anything else, they do add up overtime and make for a somewhat frustrating experience occasionally.

While medium to long putts aren't too taxing to time the power of, those short, less-than-3-ft. shots can be NASTY!

Now that we've talked in detail about where Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour falters a little bit, let's chat about where the game goes above and beyond--its charm and personality. Everything from character animations, hole out celebrations, and taunts (remember taunts?) to the colorful and vibrant menus chockful of character, there's just so much personality and lovely vibes pulsating throughout this golfing package. I don't think I'm telling tales out of the clubhouse here when I say that Toadstool Tour really makes modern Mario sports games seem sterile by comparison. Meanwhile, Motoi Sakuraba delivers one of his best Mario sports soundtracks with cheerful, chipper music that really gets you in the mood to do some happy-go-lucky golfing with Mario and friends. The voice quips from the Mushroom Kingdom crew delight, and even has some more fully voiced stuff in the hilarious animated intro and surprisingly in the letters that your Character Match opponents send as a means of challenging you to a round.

Bunkers and beaches abound around the Blooper Bay course.

All in all, if Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour was a course like the seven within its game, it wouldn't be without its unsightly divots and scuffmarks on its otherwise smooth fairways and greens. Camera issues and putting woes can make for an aggravating experience at times, but everything else lives up to the good Mario Golf name. The level of character in the game is unmatched in most Mario sports games past and present, the course design is challenging and enjoyable, and overall, the golf gameplay experience is engaging and worthwhile. Even long after unlocking all characters, courses, and modes, I continue to return to the links with Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom crew, as Toadstool Tour definitely endures the test of time, sinking most of its putts to head home with a gold trophy.

[SPC Says: B+]

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Top Ten Sky-Themed Areas in Video Games

For this Tuesday, the sky is the limit for this special top ten list. I initially planned for this list around The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's release due to the sky islands that game possesses. Seeing as it's more than year since that time, I think I'm a bit late to the party. Instead, we're just going to talk about some of my favorite sky-themed areas, levels, tracks, places, etc. in video games for no real reason other than why the heck not! After you've checked out my choices for top tier sky areas in gaming, I'd love to read your thoughts on what places that you feel I should give proper props to!

10) Tengu Man's Stage - Mega Man 8 (PS1, SAT)

We begin this journey through the skies and levels adjacent with Tengu Man's Stage from Mega Man 8. Not only is the Robot Master cool in general in his design, but his stage is also rather enjoyable, taking place high up in the air among floating and hovering platforms--the latter of which bob and undulate under the Blue Bomber's weight. The level is so high up in the sky that at one point Mega Man must call upon Rush to stand on and ride via Rush Jet mode, turning Mega Man 8 into a light shoot-em-up as the pair slowly maneuvers through the hull of Tengu Man's aircraft. Pitting Mega Man against wind, an armada of enemies, and gravity itself, Tengu Man's stage is a wonderful one and highlight of Mega Man 8's first four Robot Master levels.

9) Pirate's Isle - Skies of Arcadia (DC)

The opening isle of the overlooked, underrated, and severely needing a modern remaster game, Skies of Arcadia, Pirate's Isle is a quaint and cozy place. However, underneath, buried under the surface in its core rests the home of the secret base and headquarters of the Blue Rogues. Heck, to the unbeknownst (i.e. pretty much everyone outside of the isle), it's known as Windmill Isle. This titular windmill actually powers the underground port where the Blue Rogues' Albatross airship lays. That said, the island's covert nature eventually gets alerted to by the evil Valuan Empire who proceeds to lay siege to it. Upon progression in the game, the protagonists of Skies of Arcadia not only vow revenge but also assist in rebuilding the town. Whether you know it as Pirate's Isle or Windmill Isle, the chill nature of the island at the start of the adventure and the subsequent rebuilding from the ashes later in the game makes it a memorable location to all who have had the privilege to play this underrated Dreamcast gem.

8) Floating Continent - Final Fantasy VI (SNES)

We move from an underrated RPG to one well loved for great reasons: Final Fantasy VI. An insanely cool concept for a dungeon as well as one that is incredibly important to Final Fantasy VI's story as well, the Floating Continent is the final dungeon played during the World of Balance portion of the game. To say that the story takes a notable pivot here would be an understatement. Non-story-related, though, the place is just an awesome dungeon in general, full of powerful enemies to defeat, quite unstable terrain that deforms, shifts, and collapses as Terra's party progresses through it, and mounds that create tunnels which transport players from one area of the island to another. It's not only a cleverly designed, brutal skill check for players, of course, but the Floating Continent serving as the moment where the proverbial sh-t hits the fan makes it one of most memorable in a game full of notable moments.

7) Cloudtop Cruise - Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

Take a cruise aboard the clouds in, coincidentally enough, Cloudtop Cruise debuting on the original vanilla Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U. As expected, though, with a course from Mario Kart, this won't be any Sunday drive. You have twists, turns, and multiple opponents ready to give you a cruisin' for a bruisin' in the sky. Set on a windy, snaky, fluffy white cloud road that eventually leads to the top of an airship's deck before launching players directly into a thunderstorm, Cloudtop Cruise serves as the starting track of Mario Kart 8's Special Cup. It certainly doesn't ease players into the action, offering quite an amount of turbulence, but also a highly entertaining track, too. In fact, it remains one of my favorites from the base game. For good reason, too, it's just a lot of sky high fun.

6) Skyloft - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)

We talked a little bit about quaint and cozy spots and towns with Skies of Arcadia's Pirate's Isle. We move to a place that's even more so those with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword's Skyloft, the opening area of this early timeline series adventure. For me, Skyward Sword successfully made a stellar sense of space and place with Skyloft, bringing its inhabitants and series of islands set in the sky to life in a way that some previous Zelda games failed to do for me. Many notable locations rest in the rather expansive set of isles that make up Skyloft, including the Bazaar, the Knight Academy, Beedle's Shop, a Waterfall Cave, and the Statue of the Goddess. The people of Skyloft utilize winged bird-like creatures known as Loftwings to travel through the sky and surrounding islands, and they're a major part of the opening of the game. Skyloft is a common place to return to throughout Link's adventure, growing more and more like home with each and every visit.

5) Palace of Winds - The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA)

It's difficult to mention The Legend of Zelda series without making note of a major element in the games: its dungeons. With dozens upon dozens of dungeons in the series' history, no doubt there have been ones set in the sky. In fact, it was quite a challenge to choose between Twilight Princess' City in the Sky and this selection: the Palace of Winds from The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. In the end, what makes the Palace of Winds more memorable and enjoyable for me is multifold. For one, its dungeon item is one of my favorites in any 2D Zelda: the Roc's Cape. It allows Link to leap into the air and glide across gaps and chasms with ease. It makes Link's mobility and where he can go open up immensely. The dungeon itself is one of the final trials within The Minish Cap itself, making for potential brain-stumping puzzles, some of the most difficult enemies in the game, and a multiple tiered structure. It's essentially a two part dungeon with the climax of both being a super exciting boss battle aboard the backs of flying creatures in the sky. All of this makes for a gloriously unforgettable dungeon within this underrated Zelda game.

4) Sky Land - Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)

Speaking of places in two parts, the fifth world--commemorating the back half of Super Mario Bros. 3--Sky Land is deceivingly small when Mario and/or Luigi first arrive. For one, where's the dang sky? As players find themselves on a map on the ground. It's only until players scale and complete the absolutely tall tower--a bridge between areas, essentially--that they're led into a land above the clouds and the massive amount of more levels to complete! What's even cooler is being on the map and seeing the land on the ground below that players had just finished. Having this latter portion of levels taking place in the sky, no doubt you can imagine myriad moments to fall via large swaths of bottomless pits, enemies like Lakitu and the nightmare-inducing Fire Chomps to contend with, and loads of challenging platforming trials to take on. 

3) Gusty Garden Galaxy - Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

 We're still not quite through with Mario's adventures yet. While his last entry on this list saw him taking to the skies, Super Mario Galaxy's Gusty Garden Galaxy takes him to the outer reaches of space and all the lovely gravity gimmick goodness that goes with it. Filled to the brim with bountiful flowers--some of which can be grabbed and used as a means to gain altitude--beautiful blue skies, and plenty of platforming potential in the form of garden mazes, thorns to evade, Piranha Plants and moles to take on, and one of the coolest challenges--using Ice Mario to wall jump up the faces of waterfalls. Gusty Garden Galaxy is one of my favorite levels in any Mario game. Between the boisterous orchestral, moving melody of the level, to the absolute enjoyable way Mario can move about the level's many planetoids, worms, Wigglers, and vines, Gusty Garden Galaxy never fails to make me smile when I enter into its atmosphere. It always is a level I eagerly anticipate returning to in any repeated Super Mario Galaxy playthrough.

2) Columbia - BioShock Infinite (PS3, 360, PC)

While time hasn't been kind to my thoughts on BioShock Infinite as a game (various reasons there), I cannot say that my opinion of the game's major locale, Columbia, has diminished in any way whatsoever. In fact, it's possibly only increased over time. This essential continent in the clouds contains many sights to see, lavish locales, and is a testament to incredible architecture, chiefly that of Neoclassical works (look at me knowing something small about architecture!). This massive city-state floats in the sky, creating some drop-dead stunning environments practically at every turn. One of the coolest parts of Columbia in a gameplay sense is the ability for the main character to grapple and attach to various overhead rail systems, grinding through the skies from island to island in this open and expansive locale. 

1) Sky Sanctuary Zone - Sonic & Knuckles (GEN)

One of the most memorable and entertaining sky-themed areas and levels in gaming to me is none other than Sky Sanctuary Zone from Sonic & Knuckles. An ancient series of ruins set in the sky, Sky Sanctuary is one of the final zones for Sonic within the game while the final destination for Knuckles during his story. Either way, players will discover riches in platforming goodness as they scale the scared sanctuary to reach the top. For Knuckles, it's to protect the Master Emerald. For Sonic, it's to reach Dr. Robotnik's Death Egg space station before it fully reaches into space. 

In Sonic Generations, Sky Sanctuary is one of the returning zones in the game, featuring multiple paths to take, platforms that wind up and move with Sonic's dash, plenty of perilous opportunities to fall into the bottomless depths below, and bridges that collapse one panel after another upon receiving a step from Sonic. Sky Sanctuary is popular throughout the Sonic series and even some spin-offs as well where it's appeared in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Bring them on, I say, as it's definitely a remarkably cool area to explore, platform, and sometimes race in, whether in 2D or 3D.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Sonic Dream Team (Apple Arcade) Review

Two Mondays in a row with a new review? That must be record, at least post-2021! We return to the review realm and the dreamscape itself with a new entry in the Sonic series: Sonic Dream Team. This game is currently an Apple Arcade exclusive, as of the time of this review. Let's dig in, and hope we don't have to dream on for a better adventure featuring SEGA's Blue Blur.

 Dream a little dream with Sonic and friends

There are some terms that might be complete non-starters or worse, turn-offs for certain sects of the gaming fanbase. For instance, "Apple Arcade-exclusive" and heck, maybe if you're really down on the series, "3D Sonic" as well. Sonic Dream Team fits both of those descriptions rather aptly, being one of those rare high-profile Apple Arcade exclusives that also happens to be a truly stellar 3D Sonic game. 

I don't damn with faint praise either when I say that, as a lot of us know--it's only been repeated ad infinitum, ad nauseum--Sonic hasn't had the best experience in three-dimension realm. Regardless, Sonic Dream Team offers a compelling take on the boost formula that rivals the enjoyment I had with its console big brother, Sonic Frontiers. Perhaps THAT'S damning with faint praise, as Frontiers, while a nice new foundation for the series, was hardly the best interpretation of 3D Sonic for me. 

Sonic Dream Team takes players through four worlds of boost-centric 3D Sonic action. Unlike Sonic Colors or Sonic Generations (the latter of which receives an impressive-looking new edition this fall), Sonic Dream Team's levels are fully 3D. There are no 2D sections to speak of, where the camera switches perspective from 3D to 2D or vice versa. Instead, it's all open goodness for Sonic and friends to trek on, speed through, and for players to hopefully enjoy.

Have rail, will grind!

The level design is all about finding your groove. It's highly satisfying to speed through levels--chaining boosts by collecting energy from defeating Eggman's badniks or picking up stray energy littered along the levels themselves--to go for fast times. Conversely, it's also enjoyable to thoroughly explore levels, searching high and low and in corners and crevices for Red Rings and blue tokens, of which there are five for the former and dozens upon dozens of the latter respectively in each level.

Charging through or otherwise homing attacking to enemies grants
you more energy for even more boosting goodness.

Levels are built with mobile devices and chiefly mobile controls in mind, offering wide platforms for the most part. However, you can also practically connect any game controller under the sun to play, giving you a more traditional console experience with the game. The touch screen controls are serviceable, but I found when trying to do anything requiring speed or a tight time to complete, these were more of a hinderance than anything else. Thus, an additional controller was a requirement for me, essentially.

I've mentioned "Sonic and friends" multiple times throughout this review, and the reason, of course, for that is that Sonic is not the only playable character within Dream Team. While the Blue Blur is the character you start with, as you progress through the game's story, new characters are rescued and join the titular Dream Team. Sonic and Amy serve as the speed characters, with the specialty of a light dash to rush along paths of rings in the air. Meanwhile, Tails and Cream the Rabbit use the power of flight. Finally, Knuckles and Rouge the Bat utilize their gliding and climbing prowess to cross lengthy expanses and scale specially marked red walls. Characters can be switched between on the fly as long as your current character is standing still on solid ground. The only other time this option isn't available is during special acts where a character type is automatically assigned.

Tails and Cream are fantastic flyers, but their flight time is limited, of course.

These aforementioned special acts are basically miniature, obstacle-laden levels that are usually linear in nature, unless you're tasked with tracking down five shards. Then, these levels are a bit more open in design. Either way, you have an assigned character class to use to clear them. Unlike the standard levels, these are very short experiences, but they are much greater in number.

Aside from the more explorable main acts and the multiple miniature-sized acts that Sonic Dream Team contains, each of the four worlds or zones in the game conclude with a boss encounter. These, too, stick you with a character class and have you battle a big boss in a multi-phase fight. From a giant inflatable crab that you burst for massive damage (that reference NEVER gets old...) to an Eggman mining robot split up into four parts that transforms into a massive robot close to the fight's finale, these encounters are rather spirited, albeit relatively easy to beat.

Bust this crabby boss balloon's claws to deflate its ego (and its ability to appear anywhere near as menacing!)

Thus, each zone in Sonic Dream Team features three main levels, about a handful of sub-levels, and a boss encounter to wrap it all up. Team Sonic's adventure in the dreamscape sees them speed through a colorful, vibrant world with inflatable foliage and tropical beach environment, a factory filled with lava and manufacturing equipment, a maze of platforms of varying gravity in a nightmare-style space, and a city that's basically an ode to Eggman himself, complete with the villain uttering lines over the loudspeaker in a semi-regular fashion. 

A recent update added a fifth zone, Sweet Dreams, completely separate from the Sonic Dream Team story, which features difficult checkpoint-free levels. Additionally, ranks were introduced as well, offering S ranks for quick completions of acts. These are truly tricky to achieve.

As for the story of Sonic Dream Team, it features Cream being abducted by Eggman, the latter of which is using an omnipotent Dream Machine to attempt to make his dreams--or rather nightmares for everyone else--come true. A mystic being in charge of protecting the dreamscape, the cleverly named Ariem, does her best to hold off Eggman's attempts, but brings Sonic and his other friends into the dream world to assist their friend and Ariem's struggle against Eggman as well. The story is told through still-frame cutscenes as opposed to something in real time, giving it and the overall game package a decidedly budget feel. 

However, what doesn't feel so budget is how well Sonic Dream Team plays. It somehow feels more authentic to the Sonic series than Sonic Frontiers, with the now-standard "gotta go fast" gameplay that puts into a groove that feels great. Its levels are ones that are crisp, colorful, and cartoony. (Nor is there a tremendous amount of rails and other objects popping into the environment from out of nowhere, but I'll digress now as I'm sort of bullying Frontiers by now. My apologies!) 

Knuckles isn't here to chuckle; he's here to flex his muscles.

Perhaps the weakest link in Sonic Dream Team is with regard to its music, featuring nothing too memorable musically or melodically. For a series with such constant bangers, it's a bit of a letdown, even knowing Sonic Team didn't directly develop the game (SEGA Hardlight did). That said, it's hard to find too much fault with the music. It's serviceable, pleasant enough, and never distracting.

Amy Rose may not have the natural power of flight like Tails or Cream,
but she's gaining lots of height here all the same!

Sonic Dream Team is one of those games that most likely (and perhaps SHOULD) make non-Apple Arcade subscribers or those without a device upon which to play the game a bit envious. To say folks are currently missing out on one of my favorite 3D Sonic experiences would be a bit of an understatement. That said, I also don't wish for this game to languish in perpetuity on a subscription-based digital service. The more people that get to enjoy this game, the better, so throw in my attempt to not be a pathetic beggar for console ports, but yeah, SEGA, please. Between the satisfying ways to link Sonic and friends' movements together through the well designed and well realized levels, to the sensationally fun feel of the game itself, Sonic Dream Team plays and handles like a--well... dream!

[SPC Says: A-]