Friday, October 29, 2021

Hot Wheels Unleashed (Multi) Review

The end of the month approaches, but SuperPhillip Central is just warming up with our schedule of reviews to round out October. Consider these treats ahead of Halloween! Next up to receive the review treatment is Hot Wheels Unleashed!

Some assembly still required.

Licensed games are like a Blind Box: Do you ever really know what you're going to get? There was a time--and forgive me for dating myself here--where a licensed game was an immediate red flag. The era of LJN gave me some mild trauma back in the day. Since then, however, licensed games have gotten better and the quality has improved considerably. That's been the case as well with Hot Wheels games. Now, a new Hot Wheels game has revved up its miniature engines and roared onto all major platforms with Hot Wheels Unleashed. Is this licensed racer worthy of your collection?

Starting off in your Hot Wheels Unleashed career, you are gifted three Blind Boxes. These contain a trio of almost totally random vehicles. I say "almost totally" because it seems that you're given a generally balanced vehicle, a super speedy vehicle, and a vehicle that isn't really worth racing in. It's just that the specific vehicles in each category are random. Other vehicles in Hot Wheels Unleashed are earned through regular play, earning coins to purchase more Blind Boxes, vehicles in the shop, and through play in the single-player mode.

Unleash your wild side with some riveting races.

Speaking of which, Hot Wheels Unleashed's main single player mode is called Hot Wheels City Rumble. It's an assortment of races and time trials along an overhead city map. When one event has been completed, new paths around that event open up. Thus, you can get around the city map in multiple ways. Many paths lead to dead ends, but these dead ends house wonderful rewards like Blind Boxes and new vehicles. Completing events also rewards you with a bevy of coins, gears, and other goodies. Coins are used to purchase Blind Boxes and new vehicles in the in-game shop, which regularly rotates its selection of five purchasable vehicles, while gears are used to upgrade your collected vehicles.

Unleash your inner sightseer inside the Hot Wheels City Rumble mode.

Unfortunately, Hot Wheels City Rumble, while structurally sound, is a bit of a repetitive experience. It basically only offers three event types: basic races, time trials, and boss races. Basic and boss races are essentially the same, only with the latter requiring you to cross the finish line in first place as opposed to simply making it on the podium. Each event has two goals to it, one regular goal to complete the event, and a harder Unleashed goal. Time trials pose the stiffest challenge in City Rumble, but even with the difficulty set to Easy in the mode, the AI does get a bit difficult in later races within City Rumble. It's a far too frustrating experience racing against AI that is higher than the Easy difficulty, which speaks to how imbalanced the difficulties truly seem to be.

Hot Wheels Unleashed offers a great sense of speed while revving down the toy tracks that have been assembled through the game's six unique, sprawling environments. The track designs twist, turn, showcase loop-de-loops, obstacles like barriers and giant spiders that spit webs onto the track that slow you down, as well as feature magnetic strips that allow the vehicles racing on them to turn upside down and defy gravity with ease. In this sense, Unleashed sort of reminded me of F-Zero X in the design. Of course, falling off the track--all too easy due to the not-always-precise physics--doesn't result in an immediate destruction of your vehicle like in F-Zero. Instead, you just hold down the top face button to reset your vehicle to the track. 

Unleash your inner daredevil with some death-defying jumps.

Racing around as your Hot Wheels vehicle of choice is a lot of fun, even with the occasional way your car might react adversely and bizarrely to jumps, boosts, or hitting walls. Drifting is encouraged on turns and quite easy to do. The action fills up a boost meter to be--well, unleashed during straightaways and to make those last second passes against the competition to hopefully cross the finish line in first place. 

Unleash your inner F-Zero pilot by racing on some gravity-defying tracks.

Outside of the single player offerings available, Hot Wheels Unleashed supports online play. However, lobbies show a problem with the game's economy. It's not easy to earn coins after City Rumble has been completed. You only earn the reward for clearing an event once, outside of the coins received for participating in the race. That means the next best way to earn coins to purchase Blind Boxes is to play online. Thus, you'll get a lot of people either selecting super short races or simply sitting at the starting line to grind for coins. The latter works because once first place crosses the finish line, a quick 30 second timer counts down, signaling the end of the race once the timer hits zero. 

Blind Boxes cost 500 coins apiece, and they are already very frugal with the rewards they give you. Too often I received repeats of vehicles I already owned, thus I'd either sell the duplicates for coins or grind them into gears to be used to upgrade vehicles. Since races only offer around 70 coins to first place regardless of the length of the track (and some of the game tracks are lengthier affairs than I would prefer), it gives players the incentive to always choose the shorter races if they wish to grind for coins. Needless to say, it's quite a grind.

Unleash your inner collector with an assortment of Hot Wheels vehicles to add to your repertoire.

Furthermore, despite the Hot Wheels Unleashed offering a remarkably robust track creator, which wouldn't surprise me if the same creator was used by the developer to make all the tracks in the game, tracks that are created can only be raced on either locally in time trials or you have to hope your track will show up in the random lottery of tracks in online lobbies. Seeing as you get a choice of six random tracks online (three from the game and three created from a totally random assortment of published tracks), the likelihood that your track will show up much less be chosen to play on seems a bit farfetched. Thus, it lessens the motivation to make your own track, despite how cool but albeit unwieldy to utilize it is.

While making tracks isn't as wonderful or glamorous as it could be currently, the ability to customize your own vehicles with a bevy of creation options via the Livery Editor stole the show for me in Hot Wheels Unleashed. You can create a massive number of liveries, share them online, and pretty much ride in style with them. Almost every vehicle, save for licensed ones a la Superman and such, can be painted over with a combination of recolors, stickers, decals, and more. I proudly raced my SuperPhillip-themed Exotique Legendary vehicle in City Rumble and then took her online to show it off to the masses. It's a glorious and cool feature that I look forward to using more in the future.



Finally, unleash your inner artiste, creating your own custom tracks and liveries, and then share them online!

And, yes, I see myself returning to Hot Wheels Unleashed in the future, for sure. With more updates to the track editor, more single player content, better coin and Blind Box economy, more vehicles and track environments included, and improvements to the online racing experience, I can imagine a much better game. As of now, Hot Wheels Unleashed features enough quality under the hood to make for an entertaining racer, but not enough to make it a "must buy" at this point in time. Don't misunderstand--this is still one of the better, if not THE best Hot Wheels game available to date. It's simply spinning its wheels a little too much for this particular gamer.

[SPC Says: B-]

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania (Multi) Review

Next up on the review docket here at SuperPhillip Central is a game that celebrates 20 years of Super Monkey Ball madness. It's Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania, and as you will be able to tell by the review tagline, I really enjoyed this celebration of all things Monkey Ball!

A truly a-peel-ing package

Right away when the super-catchy opening theme song of the game "Hello Banana" greets your ears with its infectious rhythm and melody, you know Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania is going to be one of those special entries in the Super Monkey Ball series. The series itself celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania serves as the anniversary's celebratory game, offering over 300 stages plucked and rearranged from the original Super Monkey Ball, its sequel, and the Deluxe release. The quantity is definitely there, but how is the quality?

For those new to the world of Super Monkey Ball, the games all have the same objective: tilt and tumble the level to guide your monkey mysteriously stuck in a ball through progressively more difficult stages. Reach the goal to successfully complete the stage. Fall off, and it's back to the beginning of the stage. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania makes for a more welcoming adventure for beginning players as well as veterans too due to forgoing the use of lives. There's more need to worry about effortlessly rolling through the beginning stages only to lose all of your lives to one particularly tricky stage.

There's no stopping AiAi--he's on a roll!

Stages in Super Monkey Ball run the gamut from simply designed with gentle twists and turns to navigate that hold helpful railings to prevent falling off too easily, to death traps that make you wonder just who the heck hates monkeys in balls so freaking much! At the start of the Story Mode (more on modes later in this review), I was finding myself casually strolling through stages without much issue. By the end, I was cursing the Super Monkey Ball gods after each and every (and there were so MANY) failed stage attempts and fall outs. 

What monkey-hating monster built these deathtraps!?

The controls of Banana Mania are as simple as any other game in the series. You move with the left stick, and this time around you can slightly pivot the camera around your monkey with the right stick. Unfortunately, there is no option to look downward when you're in the air, making it so trying to finetune your approach to platforms below you much more than trouble than it needs to be. This is incredibly frustrating when your ball is catapulted into the air, and you need to land on a platform below you. Yes, the mini map in the bottom-right corner of the screen does alleviate some of the burden here so you can tell where you're going to fall, but not entirely. And it's not like this is a new problem to the Super Monkey Ball series--it's been a niggling issue since the series began. It's simply a shame it hasn't been properly addressed.

Borrowing from Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz and its HD remaster, a jump ability is included. This time around, however, it's not only unlockable but also totally optional. When turned on, it prevents you from recording your best times, but you're still able to freely clear stages without issue. The jump ability presents some incredibly interesting and amazingly fun speed-running opportunities for stages. Additionally, there are some helper functions available to players who might not be fully able to complete each stage on their own. These come in the form of doubling the timer, allowing access to a slow motion feature, and guiding the player to the goal via a helpful series of arrows so players won't easily lose their way. 

Furthermore, Super Monkey Ball veterans who have logged hundreds of hours into the series across these past 20 years might have some struggles with the new physics on display. They are not 1:1 by any stretch of the imagination to the classic Monkey Ball games, which will be disappointing to many. That said, don't get me wrong--they're hardly bad, they're simply different to what Super Monkey Ball diehards will most likely be used to. Both acceleration and momentum are altered somewhat significantly compared to the older games. New players and those who aren't self-proclaimed purists probably won't find themselves with any issues or even will notice anything wrong with the physics of Banana Mania.

Careful, MeeMee! Keep your balance!

There are two major modes to Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania: Main Game and Party Mode. The former allows you to roll through over 300 stages of varying degrees of diabolical difficulty in a variety of modes. There is the main Story Mode, which is comprised of 100 stages split up between 10 worlds with short animated scenes sandwiched between each. There are also  Super Monkey Ball 1 and Super Monkey Ball 2 Challenge modes, which has you taking on a set number of stages from those games. The number and stages you take on, all at once without the ability to save, is determined by the difficulty level chosen. There are four difficulties for each game's Challenge mode: Beginner, Standard, Expert, and the unlockable Master, and for those who want an added--well, challenge to Challenge mode, there are rewards for clearing each difficulty without failing a certain number of times. Thankfully, you can prepare for this challenge to your heart's content via a Practice mode for all stages.

Story Mode features ten worlds of ten stages each. As you might expect,
they get progressively harder and more fiendish in their designs as you go on.

Finally, there is Special Mode, which allows you to take on unique, unlockable stages with different rules. Some task you to collect every single Golden Banana in the level, while conversely another requires you to avoid all bananas altogether. There are original versions of stages from Super Monkey Ball 1 and 2 to play, and these remove the assists added to make the levels more manageable from the Story and Challenge Modes. For instance, the already dreaded Launchers stage in Banana Mania's Story Mode features notches in the titular launchers that rocket your monkey ball upwards toward the goal. In the original version of the stages, these notches that help keep your the monkey ball positioned well are completely absent, making the stage much more arduous to complete--more so than it was already!

Whoa! Baby on board! (But not for much longer at this rate!)

If tilting and tumbling to guide monkeys through stages gets a bit too taxing, there's always the option to unwind with some Party Games, of which there are 12 total in Banana Mania. These range from old favorites like Monkey Target, Monkey Bowling, and Monkey Billiards, to mini-games like Monkey Fight, Monkey Dogfight, and Monkey Baseball. Each Party Game supports up to four players locally, and each supports a bevy of customization options. For instance, Monkey Racing allows you to pick between a single race, a Grand Prix competition of four races, or a time trial on a select track, as well as allowing items into the mix, and more. 

Further serving as the ultimate Super Monkey Ball game, there is an immense number of rewards to unlock within the game. Rewards in Banana Mania come in the form of a special in-game currency obtained by simply playing the game as well as completing one of 700 or so missions within. These range from clearing a stage for the first time, reaching a specific banana goal in a stage, clearing a stage by going through an alternate exit, playing a Party Game for the first time, and so much more. The currency can then be spent in the Points Shop, unlocking new characters to play as (such as SEGA all-stars like Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles "Tails" Prower", Kazuma Kiryu of Yakuza, and Beat from Jet Set Radio), new modes such as the aforementioned Golden Banana mode, new camera filters for Photo Mode (which all screenshots in this review use), and various clothing and cosmetic items for each of the six monkeys of the main cast. There is no shortage of content within Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania.

Sonic the Hedgehog is but one of a handful of SEGA's all-stars that are unlockable in Banana Mania.

Banana Mania's colorful and crisp visual style lends itself well to Nintendo's lesser powered hardware, which the Switch was the version of the game I played. It's not a perfect effort, as there were noticeable hitches (albeit slight and rare) while playing the game. It's nothing that ruined a run through a stage for me, but it was disappointing to see all the same. Meanwhile, the new soundtrack implemented to the game is neither an improvement or a step backwards. Much like the physics of the game, it's simply different. I, as well as my ears, found it to be a net positive overall, offering plenty of funky, infectious, and fun tunes to listen to as I made my way through the game's myriad stages. 

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania offers a complete Monkey Ball series package that is well deserving of the series' 20th anniversary. There is both quantity and quality oozing out of the game like a fiercely squeezed banana still wrapped up in its peel. The amount of stages is staggering, and each mode offers a unique series of them to enjoy. The Party Games, too, are mostly enjoyable at the end of the day with a few stinkers here and there. Finally, the sheer number of missions to complete and things to unlock, whether they be modes, costumes, cosmetics, characters, camera aesthetics, or what have you will enjoying some Banana Mania for months, if not years, to come. 

[SPC Says: B+]