Forget about misplaced film analogies, I’m starting to think Resident Evil 4 might be the Abbey Road of video games - not just a title that shook the industry and course corrected everyone even thinking about flexing their own creative muscles in its wake, but also arriving fully formed after years of refinement and experimentation, effectively acting as a thunderous mic drop for their creators and the years of work that preceded it. In fact, this game has been so universally and thoroughly praised, that the idea of picking it apart critically feels futile.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to denounce a modicum of this game’s quality here. Anything I say for the rest of my mortal life that resembles intense negate criticism of RE4 ought to be interpreted as a cry for help, and the authorities should be alerted of my status immediately. What I am suggesting though, is that it’s monolithic status in the industry has likely steered away modern critics from really digging into the systems to discern what really makes the package sing. “Resident Evil 4 is one of the greatest games of all time” is a sentiment that’s as natural as breathing to most (myself included), so why even bother trying to justify that notion? I won’t be challenging that instinct today, as breaking down every positive element to RE4 would be an exercise in futility at this point, but there is a single ever-present thread that permeates through the game’s massive campaign that I would like to discuss today.
Call it a theory (a game theory, if you will) but I think many modern “gamey” games have taken RE4 and its sneakiest qualities for granted, or just completely missed certain brushstrokes that brought the game together. It’s hard not to love everything here, obviously, but something that really stood out to me on my numerous recent playthroughs was how RNG influences every corner of play across the game’s massive campaign.
We all know by now how masterful Resident Evil 4’s restricted control scheme is, but in my eyes, the reason why is due to everything else surrounding the control scheme. Say for the sake of argument you’ve just cornered yourself in a room with a dozen Gonados. A fate worse than death in a traditional action game, but it shouldn’t be too scary here due to Leon’s plethora of ranged options, right? If you’ve played RE4 before (and if you haven’t, what the hell are you doing here?) you know that encounters rarely play out in such a breezy fashion. Enemies and their movement patterns are erratic, their attack options are multifaceted and frequently require different countermeasures, and the silent difficulty scaling that pulls the strings on normal mode means you always have to stay on your toes to fight for your survival. This dynamism swings in your favor too, with critical hits and item drops occasionally feeling like the determining factor between success and failure during bouts. Even in the most ideal of circumstances you always have to stay on high alert, with every layer quickly crumbling with the slightest of breeze and collapsing over your plan near constantly. It’s miraculous how you can play one room over and over again with a vague route in mind, and things can still go wrong.
The item drops are another point too: while the game gives you far more ammo than you could ever need, relying on one weapon will all but guarantee its depletion, forcing you to fall back on other options until you find more ammo. It’s easy to rely on the shotgun due to its range and power, but it feels like for every encounter where you want to fall back on it, another harder fight is sure to come soon. Despite the clearly uneven power scale between your arsenal of weapons, the game somehow remains near-perfectly balanced for an entire playthrough as a result of these micro-decisions you’re forced to make every 5 seconds.
Loot drops from villagers and the economy as a whole also go great lengths towards effecting Resident Evil 4 long-term, but it's revealing to me that even on the highest threshold of difficulty, it's something you never actually need to engage with. Due to the strength of universal options like the knife and invincible melee attacks, combined with the breadth of ways to use crumbs of ammunition for even the weakest guns, you always have a strong chance of survival. The core gameplay design is so tight knit that even the addition of an in-game shop that lets you sell every weapon and item in your arsenal simply exists as a way to mix and match gameplay styles on the fly, and try out distinct strategies in a way that feels totally customized to the player and no one else. If you want to sell everything just to max out the Killer7 at the very end of the game and kill the final boss in 8 shots, you can do that! If you want to kill off the Merchant entirely and only use the tools the game is guaranteed to give you, go for it! You’re all but directly encouraged to do so. That’s true dynamism.
Considering everything at play, from Leon’s limited control to the intense variables that shift the playing field with every passing second, it’s fair to say the outcome of the game is at the mercy of RNG in some way. Generally speaking I’m wary about this flavor of design - I always like to have control over my inputs and consequences if I have the dexterity to overcome a challenge, so the idea of a spinning wheel of numbers guiding me towards (or away) from victory isn’t something I normally want to engage with. This may be why I’ve gravitated towards fighting games as a competitive outlet over the past decade, as their mechanics are so cut and dry that the only thing standing in the way of success is my own skill (and often, my hubris).

Resident Evil 4
isn’t like the other girls though. The core mechanics and encounters are so good on their own that the designers didn’t need to weigh down on the player in other more heavy handed ways. It doesn’t need to randomize the shape of rooms to differentiate encounters, weapon stats are never clashing up against the power level of enemies in a way you can’t be expected to work around, and the player is still largely in control of their success at all times despite factors that are genuinely out of your control. Even an enemy randomizer, something that has been proven through ROM hacks to still add to games in meaningful ways, is simply unnecessary when you have a campaign so tightly packed with variety and interesting scenarios. The unpredictable elements that do come into play simply follow the player and force them to engage with the mechanics in cool and interesting ways - no more, no less. It’s one of the more elegant threads of randomization I’ve ever seen, and is a clear sign from the designers that they absolutely knew what they were cooking with. Capcom created perfectly optimized systems around the simple act of pointing and shooting, and could be as hands off from the player as possible to let the design of this suplex of a game speak for itself.

This past week I made a trip to hang out with some friends an hour down the road, and something we do almost every time I come over is plug in the modded Wii and fuck around with whatever iso catches our eye. This two day event was no different: Monday night I banged out the last third of Resident Evil 4, and the next morning; huddled around the TV looking for something to pass the time with, I tried Pikmin on a whim. My memory card was full from last night’s adventure so I could only get a taste of the adventure at the risk of losing a massive amount of work, but even from the 3 day sample we tried, I could tell it was something special. Everything about it was attractive to me, from the Nintendo-spun RTS mechanics to the peculiar world they inhabited. I knew when I got home from that trip that I had to sit down and really sink my teeth into the game.
Funny enough, Pikmin has actually been a bit of a white whale for me personally. As a kid playing Luigi’s Mansion for the first time, unearthing the Pikmin trailer felt like peering into something beyond our world. It always looked like something I’d be into, but fate was not kind to my interests, and I never got my hands on a copy. Though maybe in retrospect I should have actually asked for the game once or twice… Regardless, I finally sat down to play it as an adult, and predictably it was absolutely wonderful. What I didn’t expect was that I’d go on to play through the game 3 times to completion within the week. Looking into it online it seems like the length of the game, and by extension the 30 day time limit, seem to be the biggest point of contention amongst most players. This is peculiar to me, as in my experience I found it to be the glue that prevented the game’s systems from completely collapsing in on themselves. That’s not a sleight against the mechanics though, and I do want to shine a light on the actual game part because I feel like it gets overlooked when looking at the game from the outside.
Every layer is razor sharp, and the few massive pieces of design interlock so well to allow for interesting strategy puzzles, that removing or adding just a single piece would likely send the whole thing crashing down. Across a single day there are only a few major things to keep track of: The Pikmin population, part locations, level layouts, and enemy spawns. It’s all disgustingly simple on paper, but contending with everything at once is where the magic really happens. Efficiency is the name of the game here, and because tasks have to be performed in real time by the Pikmin (with slight time saves coming from the number of Pikmin on a task and the status of their bud), a strong grasp of level navigation is all but essential to prevent massive time and population losses. Some weeks I’d play simple and juggle basic tasks to nab a part or two a day, whereas other times I’d find myself playing more towards chipping away at level hazards one day, and then cleaning up with 3 or 4 parts in a single stretch the next. It’s a testament to the complexity and density of the admittedly small levels that even after multiple reasonably efficient runs, I still couldn’t even begin to chart out anything resembling an optimal path to get parts as quickly as possible.
So how about the timer? Well, it's maybe not a direct threat in the way the developers intended. On a first playthrough you have more than enough time to collect all 30 ship parts and get the best ending (on my first playthrough with minimal resets I managed to beat the final boss on day 27, and collect the final part on day 28) and you’ll likely continue to shave off time with every subsequent run, so on paper it may seem like it the timer may as well not be there at all, right? I’m not convinced.
The reason I find the time limit to be such a captivating piece of the puzzle is not because it’s a particularly challenging thing to work around on its own, but for how it shifts your perspective on every mechanic and every choice you make over the course of a run. If you took this exact campaign and all it’s challenges, but lifted the 30 day timer, the way you’d approach each level would completely flip on its head. Multitasking would be unnecessary as you could execute a plan as slowly and carefully as possible, you would have all the time in the world to plant the maximum amount of Pikmin for any one scenario, and the punishment for mistakes shifts from added tension and short-term changes of plans, to simply robbing you of more of your time. In layman's terms, removing the timer would probably miss the point.
It’s been said that people tend to optimize the fun out of something if given the opportunity. In the case of Pikmin, this has completely different insinuations depending on the existence of a timer, and that’s what makes it such a fascinating inclusion to me. No matter how well you understand the game, no matter how sharp your execution is, it doesn’t matter. The timer is always looming overhead like an albatross subtly weighing on your psyche and steering your every move. Some may view it as something that just restricts player freedom, but with how loose the balance of the game and the timer admittedly are, it somehow perfectly balances itself as an element of the game that always subconsciously keeps the player in check. Few titles before or since have promoted optimisation in the face of a looming failure state so well, and this coming from a Nintendo game of all things could very well steer younger audiences to explore more games of this niche, and I just sorta love that prospect honestly.
This type of psychological tension is something I wish would be explored in more inherently childish games like this, and not just reserved for “mature” games. I sorta understand why this hasn’t been a common design principle - especially for a modern children’s game - but I love that the Big N was willing to put something like this together with their own flourish and have it come out so perfectly realized despite being such a bizarre mismatch of aesthetical and mechanical sensibilities. It would be easy to call it just a tech demo given its compact size (and it’s literal roots in GameCube tech demos) but that would be a mistake. The original Pikmin still stands as one of Nintendo’s boldest games to date, and I think it deserves to be viewed in the same glamorous light as every other masterpiece released on the purple lunchbox at the time. We need to do our best to cherish this game now, because I think the time of its potential influence and popularity has already begun to fade.

Mizuguchi got that dawg in him

No sense at all in acting performative and presentable about this, MediEvil stands as a crowning representation of everything I found to be appealing about video games in my youth, and is a welcome reminder of why I still spend most of my precious free time with this embarrassing hobby of mine. This goes beyond just strumming the chords of nostalgia in my old greasy heart though (this isn’t a title I grew up with), there’s simply a childlike-playfulness on display here that you don’t see much of these days. Yeah yeah I know, new game bad old game good, take a shot - this is just one of those things you just can’t really recapture in modern day man.
“But Luke!” you may be exclaiming, “This game is so outdated by today’s standards! It’s clunky and hard to go back to.” In an attempt to be charitable in response to this hypothetical (yet distressingly common) sentiment, I will say that you aren’t exactly wrong about your assessment of the game, but is that really much of a problem? I suppose most people are used to friction in games stemming from stat grinds and seemingly endless pool of meaningless dribble disguised as content to sift through, but I think there's room in the industry for games as bumbling and occasionally cumbersome as this. Say what you will about Dan “The Man” Fortesque; “clunky” this, “slippery” that, your foul words have no ill-effect on him. It’s no skin off his back, for he is literally a pile of bones.
In retrospect, It’s no wonder why my capacity for critical thought was shut off so long ago: I was smitten by this game from the very moment I laid an eye on it’s harrowing field of mindless zombies and a wall constructed from some of the most impressively poor draw distance I’ve seen on the system, but can you blame me? Many people hold up the PS1 as the system where razor sharp aesthetical visions come to life, as a canvas for gorgeous technical flexes of the highest possible calibur of the time, and as an excuse for a bunch of nerds to showcase intelligent teardowns of system OS and architecture to really make Sonic’s ass sing. But how often do you hear the praises of a game like MediEvil? I don’t want to diminish the value of the art itself, the land of Gallowmere is truly inspired and seeing the cartoonish depictions of common Medieval tropes and caricatures delights me, but there’s something to be said for how the crust layered over the vision really amplifies the whole thing. I mean this with complete sincerity, a game like this works so much better when presented with all the grace of corpses tumbling down a hill while draped in the cold moonlight.
That’s to say nothing of the actual structure of the game itself though , creatively nudging you towards cleaning out every polygon of the game’s 20 odd levels lest you miss an important item in the pumpkin patch that won’t be needed until you reach the dragon’s nest. I think it’s this scatterbrained approach to puzzle solving that really brings it all together for me, rarely being as obtuse as to necessitate a walkthrough, and only occasionally being as linear as to promote blind runs through levels. You never know exactly what's expected of you or when certain items will be needed, so I occasionally found myself stumbling over simple problems in pursuit of an answer less complex than was actually required of me. Generally speaking the game is never more complicated than “use this item on that thing” but it just makes the whole thing feel very adventurous, I adore how it feels like there’s an endless treasure trove of shit to find while being so small and compact so as to not feel overbearing.
I’m guessing that this is exactly the type of game that FELT insurmountable as a kid, sharing secrets with friends on the playground in an effort to learn all of it’s secrets and finally make it to the end, but as an adult it still holds up just as much in my mind as a quaint adventure with exceptionally low ambitions and a sharp knack for tickling all the pleasure centers in my brain. I dunno, I just love everything about this lol. I’m sure someone out there far smarter than me can piece together the little sprinkles of worldbuilding that make the world feel more alive, or write a captivating college thesis about how Zarok is an intensely compelling villain with his lofty goals of checks notes ruling Gallowmere(?) but I have no pretensions about this. I’m a simple man of simple needs. I like when the funny British skeleton with bad teeth tries to talk when he doesn’t have a jaw after a lifetime and beyond of spreading falsehoods about his name, only for him to be the one who has to put a stop to the mustache twirling villain and his dubious schemes. Truly the hero the United Kingdom needs, but not the one they deserve. Maybe in MediEvil 3 he can take down the late Queen of England once and for all, I’m sure not even Dan could resist an adventure as treacherous and deadly as that. My DM’s are open Sony if you wanna discuss this further

As the dominance of arcades fades further into the past along with other relics of our memory, a growing collection of armchair critics have begun to question limited lives and their place in gaming, often unfairly maligning them as nothing but an outdated relic from a time where arcade operators just wanted to squeeze extra money out impressionable children. Similarly, many modern games have leaned away from actively scoring the player during the duration of the game, also to the delight of some. Obviously these don’t belong in every game (you’d be hard pressed to conjure a compelling argument as to why the scoring of Super Mario Bros. is one of the better elements to that title), but what detractors of these don’t recognize is the extra layers that immediately get added when you build a game around these two systems.
Scoring on its own may be an explicitly intrinsic reward in an old arcade game, but what happens when you’re granted extra lives for getting high scores? Suddenly the thought of working towards mastery over basic mechanics becomes a bit more alluring, especially in titles where an extra life can be the determining factor between continuing to play the game and being forced to spend more of your parent’s money. Depending on the game, you may also realize there's been a shocking amount of consideration for how scoring itself is handled - it's not just about bragging rights anymore, you’ve essentially unlocked a whole new slew of mechanics and gameplay challenges to play with in a title you may have disregarded before. These old games weren’t just a ploy to steal your money, they were designed by real people trying to make their game a more exciting and complete package than whatever other games were sharing space in the arcade.
These hidden gems of design ideas can still be found all over arcade titles waiting for a curious player to discover, and one genre that feels absolutely rich for this type of exploration is the shoot-em-up. These games tend to be so challenging for most players that the only reasonable way towards an elusive one credit clear is to earn extends through creative uses of the game’s scoring systems, because there's no way the layman would be able to get by without eventually crumbling under pressure and making mistakes. While you may not be able to read every single bullet pattern that gets thrown your way even after many hours of play, if you engage with the scoring system you’ll likely have a bit more room for error and have a far greater chance of reaching the end. While these games seem insurmountable at a glance, these truly are titles that anyone can learn and get into with enough determination and perseverance. That said, I think there’s extra room for these games to blossom and evolve even more than they already have since their inception.
Standard shmups are often complex but somewhat linear pieces of artistry. Interesting offensive mechanics may throw wrinkles into the equation and force players to consider each scenario with every possible solution, but due to the relative rigidity of bullet patterns and enemy layouts, you could reasonably find an optimal path through and solve the game with enough time, dedication, and study. There's obviously a certain beauty in that - ascending to match the piece on its level and finally seeing through the canvas between the splashes of painted bullets that get in your way of success - it's one of the more literal ways you can use games as a vessel for artistic expression and there's absolutely value in that. The only problem is that at a certain point, the core loop of the game shifts from a problem solving affair to an execution check. Obviously this type of gameplay has its own appeal, and my simplified summary doesn't account for tertiary methods of play such as score attack and pacifist runs (or any number of ways you feel like tweaking the gameplay flow to your liking), nor the arduous journey of climbing the mountain of success in the genre to even reach a point of true mastery. It's just that, with their traditional implementation, I don't find them to be the best vehicles for pure player freedom and expression in the medium of games.
On that note, I think it's unfortunate, albeit understandable to a certain degree, that Battle Garegga a title that's slipped under the radar for most. Its initial facade of an industrial war-grounded aesthetic is relatively unassuming paired next to the otherworldly architecture of galactic ambitions in more popular shooters, and at a glance it's hard to parse its mechanics any further than "it sure is a shmup". The irony here is that, once you peel back any preconceived notions on the game and really dig into its cavernous depths, this is by far one of the most enchanting takes on the genre you can find.
If traditional shmups are more about knowing what the game is about to say than what your actual response is, then Battle Garegga is all about constant back and forth exchanges where making a poor decision may blow up in your face with no easy way to bounce back. It's an active conversation, constantly flowing between leading roles of command and brief moments of reprise to consider your next plan of attack. Few games of any genre have truly captured this feeling for me, let alone shmups, but what's really surprising is that it doesn't do anything extremely complex on the surface to demand this type of engagement. There are many different selectable ships that fuzzy up the decision making during runs, but bullet patterns can be easier to read than what you may expect from your average Cave affair, your secondary attack options are multifaceted but still pretty easy to understand, and bombs mostly work how you'd expect for a shmup. Altogether, this makes the game rather easy to enjoy on a baseline level, but those elements alone are not what set it far above the pack for me. Rather, the defining element to Battle Garegga is it's infamous ranking system, essentially this game's version of dynamic difficulty scaling.
To me, dynamic difficulty is put into games for two primary reasons: putting higher skilled players in check to prevent them from feeling bored by a challenge they're far beyond the level of, and to push lower skilled players past their comfort zone and give them a taste of what's just beyond their grasp. You could make an argument that it's unfair to punish skillful play like this, but generally speaking I don't think this is done out of malice. It's fair to say most developers designing their game around scaling difficulty simply want to push players a little bit more each time they play and make sure they never hit a slump where they desync with the natural difficulty curve of the game. In its best iterations, dynamic difficulty has worked so well at keeping players in the zone that they didn't even notice it was pulling the strings at all.

Battle Garegga
, conversely, feels outright antagonistic towards the player at basically every turn. Nearly every action in the game is enough to push the in-game rank just a little bit higher, and the only way to drop the rank is by dying. Don’t get your hopes up that this is like Resident Evil 4 or GOD HAND either, where you could easily tank the difficulty through repeated failure to make an upcoming section easier if you felt like it, because its limited life system will quickly net you a game over if you try to quickly drop your rank with rapid, thoughtless deaths. It sounds so simple, but applying this design idea to a shoot-em-up of all things has such massive ramifications on the game and seeps into every single facet of play. There's no doubt in my mind that many people have and will continue to drop Battle Garegga simply due to the Ranking system, and if they’re just starting out I don’t think I’d blame them. Improving at shmups already feels like an impossible task for most, so considering that the game was severely punishing them for standard play, as well as requiring more money for each credit at the game’s release, I can see why players quickly roll over to a different game after getting frustrated and confused at this one. In modern day with the benefit of hindsight however, I think brushing this aside would be a huge mistake.
As you can probably guess, Battle Garegga ignited a spark from me I haven’t felt in a long time. But what is it about this exhausting cocktail of cruelty and creativity that does it for me? Well all of it, frankly.
Rank is the big elephant in the room regarding the game as I’ve mentioned before, and it really is the backbone of the whole experience. Nearly everything you do increases the Rank, but what does this actually mean? In the long term, it means every decision made can have unforeseen consequences later in a run, varying from faster and denser bullet patterns to end-game bosses having their HP doubled, but simultaneously this means your short term stretches of gameplay are orders of magnitude more stressful. Take stage 1 for example, many shmups suffer from the first stage being a minute-long warmup before you get to the real game, and can lead to resets becoming all the more exhausting when the biggest slump of gameplay (comparatively anyway) happens right at the start. In Battle Garegga, there’s SO much shit to worry about and so many variables to consider that every fresh run feels like you’re already starting at nearly 100% mental capacity. I mentioned rigid routing earlier, but here it's not so cut and dry. Depending on your ship choice your upgrade route might swing wildly, and every item you pick up is preceded by a massive question that lingers for your entire playthrough: “how might this fuck me up later in the run?”
Looking at it on paper, it genuinely might not be a massive boon on your rank to pick up one extra shot upgrade or not, but even beyond the ramifications of prepping at the start for a stretch of the game you won’t reach for another 4 stages, there’s a blanket of anxiety that gets cast over a run from this that completely shifts the energy of the entire experience. For a mainstream comparison, I felt a similar ever-present pressure while playing through Resident Evil for the first time this year. Similar to controlling the Rank in Battle Garegga, every bullet fired and Ink Ribbon spent left me wondering much harder how my final stretch through the mansion would be, but it can’t be understated just how much of this is retained when compressing this feeling into a 30 minute game compared to spreading it across a 4+ hour one with multiple save points to catch your breath.
Not only does this change how you view items you’ve already collected and decisions you’ve already made, this has a really cool side effect on the physical space that items themselves take up before you even think about picking them up. While item drop locations are entirely deterministic, the shifting Rank means you can rarely be quite sure of when and where specific items might drop, and also inadvertently turns surprise random drops into an extended piece of the enemy roster. Some items are good at different points in the run, and also change in external value depending on how you want to deck out your ship, so every drop requires a quick and intelligent evaluation of whether it's something you should deal with or not. Options are probably the easiest example of this, being one of the most valuable upgrades you can earn for your ship, but adding more rank in one pickup than any other item in the game, so while you could pick up a few extra Options early to dramatically increase your DPS, you have to quickly decide whether or not this extra firepower is worth it in spite of the rather large immediate rank increase.
Medals are the one piece of this pie that feels a bit too rigid on paper, essentially being an item you should disregard entirely if you drop a combo and reset their value, but tied in with the rest of the items and the uncertainty of where they’ll appear, they end up wrapping around to becoming one of my favorite things to keep up with in a run. While the decision has basically already been made for you that you always want to pick them up to keep up a chain and quickly work up towards an extend, they have a nasty habit of dropping in the most repugnant places possible, as keeping track of every mechanic at once, on top of keeping a mental note of what enemies exactly will drop the item you want, is just too fucking much for the average player to juggle. Enemy formations are already beautiful and layered in their construction and consideration for a distinct challenge, so tie that in with an item that essential feels random in its placement -on top of fighting enemies that can effectively change the spread of their attacks from run to run based primarily on your rank - and you end up with fresh and unique obstacles to overcome, often when you’re not ready for it. Depending on the speed of your ship a bad item spawn can be absolutely catastrophic, so having to stay on your toes and be ready to squeeze through even the tightest of bullets to keep up your chain gives me a rush like no other. Shmups are generally defined by absurd hand crafted patterns to push through, so having a persistent piece of challenge that feels as dynamic and unpredictable as this is an absolute breath of fresh air for me.
The final layer that really makes this system so fascinating is its relation to deaths and your failure state. Death is the only action capable of dropping the rank, and hoarding your lives for long stretches of time is a surefire way to end up with an experience far too hard to keep up with by the time you hit the halfway point of a run where your Rank REALLY starts to bite you in the ass. Naturally this has led to strategies revolving around deliberate suicides before challenging sections or getting an extend, but giving you extra room to bounce back from genuine mistakes is a nice motivator to try and push sloppy runs further than you may have tried before. Even in the worst of my runs, I constantly find myself saying stuff like “well, let’s see how the rest of the stage goes”, “at least my rank is a little bit lower now”, or “shit, I better play well in the next stage to get that extra extend.” Again, it's this dynamism that really sets this game apart from not just other shmups, but most games in general for me.
Now, if you’re familiar with the development of Battle Garegga there’s a chance you already know this, but here's the part where I have to rip off the bandaid and admit something. In an interview translated by blackoak on the Shmuptacular forum in 2011,
lead designer and programmer Shinobu Yagawa admitted of the Ranking system that “...It sounds bad, but it was one of my methods for increasing income for arcade operators.” While this may just seem like a damning condemnation of Yagawa and the rest of the team, like they just made the game as a 百円硬貨 muncher and it just organically evolved into the mechanical mess it is today, that would be ignoring the fact that everything surrounding Ranking is exceptionally well considered.
I’ve already mentioned the enemy formations, but the general stage design here is just absolutely perfect. Each stage usually has a central gimmick, setpiece, or persistent element to consider that gives every stretch of the game a distinct identity and creatively blows up your rank for the next stage and eventually fuck you over by the end of it all. My favorite of these being a massive 1-2-3 punch right around the middle of the game: A mini-boss in stage 3 that you have to tear apart piece by piece and keep alive for as long as possible to earn an extend while keeping track of the fighter planes that act as safe spots for the boss and new enemies for you to deal with, the dozens of medals that come from bombing huts in stage 4 that skyrocket your rank and deplete you of your resources right before the impending boss rush, and flying platforms in stage 5 that always drop six items of varying use, but the likes of which being tied to your item drop order mean the actual layout and set of drops is going to different every time you fight them. As an addendum to my old point on items as dynamic obstacles, this stage and set of enemies is maybe the best example of this. They’re by far the easiest enemies to fight in a vacuum, but the core of each platform being an obstacle course of items to weave through to either avoid extraneous Rank increases or to keep up your chain when a Medal spawns is one of the most breathtaking pieces of design I’ve ever seen in an arcade game.
There's no doubt in my mind Yagawa did not envision the modern version of how Battle Garegga would be played, but you don’t just accidentally design and map a game out as thoughtfully as this. Somehow there isn’t a single stage in the lineup that feels out of place, and all of them contribute to the structure in ways I just can't get enough of. I especially enjoy how even the game’s pacing keeps you on your toes, going from a dense set of 4 levels where you prep for the hardest sections of the game, a massive endurance test of a boss rush right in the middle that takes place over whats by far the longest stage of the game, and two final stages that, while pretty standard as far as structure go, act as your final test of the game’s mechanics quite well. Initially I wasn’t sure how to feel about the last third of the game shifting the focus away from Rank control and setpieces, but being the section that shows most clearly the ramifications of your choices throughout the game, as well as being the one stretch that's anything like this, I think it ends up slotting into the full stage lineup quite well. Somehow, despite being as crammed full of overlapping ideas and off the wall mechanics that always have a new wrinkle to uncover, everything fits into place and adds to the game meaninfully (even dying to drop your Rank clearly had some thought put into it, with the number of lives you have when dying determining how much your Rank will drop, meaning its always better to suicide before getting an extend and not after. Brilliant.)
Maybe this persistent stress and indecision felt during play is why Battle Garegga isn’t for everyone, but I just can’t get enough of it. Even though I’m far below the level where I can truly capitalize on every millisecond of play to maximize my score, I constantly find myself pulling back to appreciate this impossibly complex web of interwoven mechanics, and ogle at the ways players have broken the game in half and bent it to their will. The fact that the game is over 25 years old and players are still pushing the limits of what's possible in it is awe inspiring. This perfect combination of its unsolvability and difficulty of wrangling with it’s mechanics, combined with its loose enough structure to allow for players to truly stretch their legs and express themselves, is a perfect microcosm of why I fell in love with video games to begin with.
What I’ve come to learn over the years of getting into games from before my time is that first impressions might fool you, and may inevitably push you away from something you’ll truly fall in love with. We always hear about “don’t judge a book by its cover” but even beyond that, I think shaking away preconceptions of art (whether it land anywhere on the scale of a singular piece or an entire genre) can lead to finding new ways to appreciate even something as overtly laced with cynicism and cruelty as they come. Taking off the rose tinted glasses, it's extremely clear that the era of arcades from the 80s and 90s didn’t always have a clean experience for the player in mind. It’s why games were tough as nails in their original pay-to-play format, and it's why a massive stretch of early console games felt like they carried over some old bad habits from their predecessors. Income was always a driving factor to their design, and pretending that wasn’t the case would be extremely disingenuous of me. Looking beyond that, however, is the key to finding what made these games stick with people back then, and continue to pull them in now. If we all cast aside our rigid understanding and discussion of certain game design concepts, I think we’d all collectively find more games to fall in love with and appreciate. Maybe we’d find more games that have an exciting platter of stuff to dig into that was truly there all along, just hiding under our noses waiting to be discovered. Maybe we’d find more games like Battle Garegga.

They added graphics to Portal 🥶

Fans weren’t lying, this really is the best Sonic game we’ve had in years.

If you’re looking for a balanced review of the game, you won’t be finding one here. If you’d like more positive perspectives on the latest Sonic hotness, I’d highly recommend reading Pangburn and MagneticBurn’s written pieces on the game, as well as watching ThorHighHeels and Cybershell’s recent videos on it. This review will not discuss any story spoilers, but will vaguely touch upon the final few bosses.
Initially I had (unfairly) written the game off based on its truly awful press coverage, but it’s not like I had much faith in this franchise’s future anyway after getting a game as vapid as Sonic Forces. Though let it be known that I’m always willing to give something a chance, no matter how little I think I’ll like it. I hadn’t planned on getting to this for a while, but after my brother bought it on Steam out of the same curiosity for the game that I had, I knew I should probably just go ahead and play it. Now that I’m on the other end of the experience I think I’m even more concerned for this franchise's future.
After his last 3D outing this series was bound to take a sharp turn somewhere, but I think this genuinely might be Sonic’s most baffling course correction yet. True to its name, Sonic Frontiers stands as the dividing line between the older boost era of games and whatever empty path the series may decide to take next. This should be cause for celebration as I think everyone was essentially done with standard boost games after Forces, but I’m not convinced this open world zone approach is the right way to go if this series wants to stay on the cutting edge.
Over his career, Sonic has always been nothing if not a trend chaser, and that’s abundantly clear here. Shifting away from a straightforward progression though linear stages, Frontiers dumps you into a huge, empty map and sends you off on your way to do whatever it asks of you, knocking out dozens of menial checkmark tasks on your way to the next Thing. Generally you’ll be bouncing between haphazardly placed waves of enemies, puzzles that feel like they were made by a computer, and traditional boost stages in some of the most shameless methods of content rehashing I’ve seen in a long time. In-between these game-percentage ticks are the vast open fields themselves, letting Sonic stretch his legs a bit and run freely and mindlessly like the little rascal he is. After getting all the chaos emeralds on any given island (a process normally executed by fighting a boss to get a gear, using that gear to open a boost stage, playing the boost stage to collect keys, and using the keys to unlock emeralds), you’ll be thrust into a massive set piece pitting Super Sonic against a massive titan, and after beating the boss you’ll be ejected to the next island where the process begins anew.
It may sound harsh to explain this loop so bluntly and unceremoniously, but it’s not like I’m being totally uncharitable. This is the large bulk of what you’ll be doing during an average playthrough. Even among those who love the game, most would agree that a lot of the content in the open world itself can feel tedious at best or downright poor at worst, and I’d be inclined to agree.
Stopping dead in your tracks while zooming from place to place to complete another copy and pasted “puzzle” to fill out a map you’ve already explored is a recipe for disaster in any Sonic game as far as I’m concerned, and that's before you even consider the quality of the puzzles themselves. I think I’d be more charitable towards these if they were taxing in any way whatsoever, but they genuinely amount to turning your brain off for a variable period of time and getting rewarded with the mild satisfaction that you’re working towards a greater task in some small way. Sometimes you’re holding a button down for 30 seconds, sometimes you’re following a path around an obstacle course, sometimes you’re drawing a circle on the ground, sometimes it may even give you a slightly more valuable trinket as a reward for your hard work, but none of it will meaningfully latch onto you regardless. The game may as well just give you the stat boost / item for finding them (see also: looking at the marker on your map and running from one side of the map to the other to get to it) because the puzzles ultimately add nothing to the experience but provide a shallow time waster between story moments.
Let me slow down for a second, I know that these puzzles aren’t the primary draw of the game and it’d be foolish of me to pretend they are. This is a Sonic game after all, it’s always been more about the journey than the destination. Even the best 3D Sonic games are usually pretty fun to move around in regardless of any extraneous elements that may bog it down, so how is the movement in Frontiers? Well…
I’ll be upfront and admit that boost Sonic has never exactly been my thing, but there was a real opportunity here to transform this style of control into something that not only felt fresh, but managed to hold up the rest of the experience on its shoulders, flawed as the surrounding game may be. Against all odds, the system presented here managed to be possibly the most underwhelming iteration on this formula yet, but it’s not entirely the fault of the physics engine.
There was clearly an effort made here to give Sonic more tools to work with and add extraneous world elements to make field traversal flashier. but ultimately most of your experience will just be spent boosting everywhere if you’d like to get to your destination with any semblace of expediency or natural flow. It feels like most movement options (barring a few niche maneuvers like boost jumping off of a rail or other admittedly interesting speedrunning tricks for the Cyberspace stages) just punish you for trying anything other than the prescribed fun it wants to give you. Gone are the days of empty homing attacking to convert air acceleration into ground speed or spin dash jumping off a slope and shooting into the stratosphere, and in their place lie disconnected setpieces of rails and platforming challenges to stumble into and sit back in awe of. Admittedly, it can be rewarding in its own way to string these setpieces together in a way that can very occasionally bring me back to the beautiful labyrinthian nightmares of Sonic CD, but this type of traversal just is not my thing at all - boosting off a bump in the ground and entering a stiff arc in the air will never scratch the same itch to me as some of the crazy shit you can do in Sonic Adventure.
The elephant in the room regarding the openworld design is Breath of the Wild, a game that not only breathed new life into its own series back in 2017, but inadvertently spawned a wave of imitators that wouldn't pop up for at least a few years after the fact (you can’t make a game like Elden Ring in just a weekend). Sonic Frontiers is clearly drawing inspiration from this title, and while this isn’t a terrible thing on the face of it, I’m intensely bothered by the approach taken by Sonic Team. On the surface, both games are strikingly similar: A desolate, wide open map to explore, exceedingly simple puzzles sprinkled across the land, an emphasis on player growth in its collectables, and short cutscenes that add almost nothing but small moments of character growth to bolster the main plot. A common critique I’ve seen levied at Breath of the Wild over the years is that the land of Hyrule is boring to traverse, that nothing you do ever feels significant and that there’s nothing truly special to be discovered. I obviously resent this notion, but the reason why its crept back up in my mind is how Sonic Frontiers just feels like that imaginary game people have occasionally punched down on for 5 years. While many will bring up these two games in the same conversation primarily as a point of praise for Sonic, I feel like the core of each game couldn’t be any different.
Sure, it may be true that not every single task you perform is Breath of the Wild is exemplary, the secret to their success is one word: freedom. The freedom to go anywhere, do anything, see new sights, play at your own pace, and tie it in a nice bow at the end of it all. There are more granular elements to the game I adore, like how truly alive the world actually feels, but the thing that stands out the most to me in this concoction of fun is how decision making affects the game on such a massive scale. It’s not just that the game gives you a stat boosting item for a large portion of puzzles, it’s that you have to make the choice between boosting health or stamina. The world can be vicious early on with enemy camps dangling good early-game rewards on a string just in your grasp, so upgrading health might be desirable. At the same time, having a higher stamina bar is all but essential to make some of the more treacherous climbs in the game, and may also inadvertently make some combat encounters easier on the defensive if you need a hasty escape plan. While both of these can be mitigated somewhat through clever uses of the cooking system, it’s this consideration for player choice and their long term consequences that really make Breath of the Wild special to me, and go some way towards recapturing what made the original The Legend of Zelda feel like such a magical bolt of lighting on the industry.
No such consideration exists in Sonic Frontiers. Every task feels like it's being done for the sake of itself, rather than acting as a vehicle for interesting engagements with the world. Stat boosting has no bearing on how you play the game and does nothing but make combat slightly less tedious, so those rewards you get for completing puzzles may as well not exist. Enemy encounters similarly feel slapdash, there was not a single fight in my 15 hours of playtime that instilled any excitement in me whatsoever and I was tired of fighting the same mobs and minibosses by the time I saw them more than once. I guess it must appeal to someone that there are hundreds of little things on the map that go in one ear and out the other, but it certainly doesn’t to me. Frankly I don’t feel like this new approach fits the playground philosophy of Sonic in the slightest, and unless they come into the next game with a fresh mind on how puzzles and combat are designed, I think this approach should just be scrapped altogether. If Breath of the Wild was Zelda’s come to Jesus moment, Frontiers is Sonic’s JESUS IS KING moment.
As I’ve tried to lay out so far, I have massive fundamental problems with this game, but what truly breaks my heart is every small crevice of the game that just blows its potential for no good reason. It feels like with every nearly decent idea Sonic Frontiers has, it somehow undermines it and makes you realize the whole thing was built on an extraordinary shaky foundation to begin with. Why go to the effort of divorcing the homing attack from the double jump, only to layer it over another opposing action anyway with the combo button? Why even force a stamina bar on you when it takes two seconds to enable infinite stamina? Why offer me the choice of pumping my stats into ring capacity when you simultaneously benefit massively if you can reach the maximum rings, making an increase in rings tantamount to wasting my time long term? Why dangle a defense stat in my face when I can spawn infinite rings at any point negating every single challenge in the game? Why would you design these massive bosses in a game with combat at the forefront only for me to fight every single one in exactly the same way. Why would you add a mediocre fishing minigame to your laundry list of side activities and skip out on the presentation side of it (the only good reason to have a fishing minigame), completely? Why include Big the Cat in your roster of side characters if Jon St. Jon’s goofy ass voice isn’t the one backing him up? Why include a parry if you can just hold it down indefinitely, defeating the entire point of adding a parry to your game? What’s the point of living if we are all just going to die?
Even beyond the gameplay itself, I never found the actual primary tasks you’re bouncing between to be very satisfying either. Between chaos emerald runs, you’ll be collecting island specific collectables to satisfy the needs of a few of Sonic’s friends, and will be treated to short cutscenes of banter between Sonic and the character in question. Occasionally these conversations will directly tie into or work to resolve the current events unfolding in the game, but oftentimes are just quick conversations about old adventures or ad libs about the current psyche of the characters. The writing of these scenes (and by extension the story as a whole) have honestly eclipsed all other discussion surrounding this game, and part of me understands why. It's clear Ian Flynn cares for these characters and wanted to push this series forward in a big way, nearly every scene feels far more grounded than what you’d find in an older game with even this same cast, and with every character interaction you can practically feel the love flowing from the heart of Flynn as he tries to humanize everyone to the best of his ability. I see why people are into his approach of character writing, but man it’s just really not my thing.
To me, the highest highs of this series were always founded on sincerity through the shmaltz and camp. It's not that you had to take it seriously, it's that it was all coming from a genuine place of earnesty to make something fun first, and to write a compelling character drama second. Even when Sonic is absolutely fumbling over himself trying to weave together an interconnected mess of a story, he still somehow manages to bring it all home with an absolutely legendary finale. I’ll admit that much of this may be down to personal taste, but none of the melodrama here in Frontiers really managed to resonate with me, and I think part of that may be due to the presentation and escalation of scale here.
One of my favorite elements to the older Sonic games, (and you’ll have to bear with me here) was the buildup and anticipation to Super Sonic. This was less the case in the 2D games as it served more as a completion reward more than anything, but with the transition to 3D came a far grander scope, and an attempt at narrative pacing. The key word there is attempt - I think most would admit the writing in Sonic games has never been Shakespearean - but the effort was certainly appreciated, and likely played a large part in how these games were remembered over time. Even the blindest of Sonic haters would have to admit that he rarely disappoints for the finale, and this shift where Super Sonic went from a cute in-game bonus to a crazy big payoff right before the curtain call was a brilliant move on SEGA’s part. I tend to be one who prefers intrinsic gameplay benefits over extrinsic ones, but the buildup to the inevitable Super Sonic encounter in every subsequent 3D Sonic game has excited me ever since I first finished Sonic Unleashed back in 2008. Not only was it a smart move to ensure players couldn’t steamroll the challenge of the game (assuming they didn’t also intensify the requirements to unlock Super Sonic), but also to make the game’s final moments land way harder than they could have if say, you had repeated access to Super Sonic at multiple points throughout the game up until that point.
This is why the approach found in Sonic Frontiers feels extremely flaccid to me. It's hard to get excited over an encounter that may have been the equivalent to smashing my childhood toys together had it happened in an older Sonic game, but when it gets repeated 5 times without any build up or escalation on subsequent encounters, it quickly loses its luster. At first I thought this may have been done to amplify the impending finale where we’d really do some mad shit with Super Sonic, but that's not the case. Instead you have two choices based on the difficulty you’ve selected: on Normal you can have a final boss that plays just like the final encounters on the previous 4 islands followed by a Super Sonic cutscene, or on Hard you can have that followed by an… Ikaruga inspired final boss? I know I’m normally the biggest blind defender of shoving shmup sections in games where they admittedly rarely belong, but there was such a missed opportunity here to blow the roof off the finale of the game and at least end with a bang, but I suppose that would require some amount of buildup to be paid off by a hypothetical section like this.
I don’t wanna rip this game away from anyone who’s having a good time with it, after suffering for years with no reinvention I can totally buy that this game would be the one that ties everyone together and brings back a feeling of hope for this series that hasn’t been felt on this scale since Sonic Generations. That said, I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed this on any level. This genuinely might just be a case of me growing up and this type of thing not really being for me anymore, which would be a genuine shame if that's the case. This series that once felt like a cause for joy and celebration in my life now feels trite to me, like the ship is finally sinking and the Captain is trying everything in their power to keep the cruise afloat. I’m sure they’ll still find some way to wrangle me back in to see how the blue bastard is doing in the future, but there’s no doubt that the spark is starting to fade for me.

not exactly sure how interested i am in grinding out runs of this (it takes far too long for stages to really provide much friction, scoring doesn't seem to have an interesting hook, it suffers from having a prototypical f2p progression system that ensures playing the game a lot is enough to play the game more effectively, etc.) but it's a genuine shame a title this inventive from someone as generally renowned as yu suzuki will no doubt crumble to dust in the wind after it inevitably stops being supported after a few years. this is nothing new for mobile games i suppose, and it might just be that the control scheme of this one is more-or-less intrinsically tied to the hardware it was built for, but there's no doubt in my mind this game will inevitably die with the iphone.
no clue how this plays on mac - i just found out as i'm writing this that there's a version for that device - but the control scheme for portable devices genuinely delights me and honestly is enough to carry the whole experience for me. having to constantly handoff control of moving and shooting between hands is a really cool idea that i haven't seen elsewhere, and one that i don't think would translate quite as well to two analog sticks, at least not in quite the same way. it feels really cool to have a new game with juggling control of your character being at the forefront of the experience, so many modern titles are obsessed with having such modular and customizable controls that naturally lend themselves to easier preservation and portability, but rarely if ever provide an inventive play experience like one you’d see in a fucked up little mobile game. give it a fair shot and you might be surprised!
despite all that, the biggest surprise was easily the soundtrack and general sound design. whoever decided enemy plasma shots should sound like blowing bubbles while layering queen knockoff music on top of the whole thing deserves the nobel prize

even when this game is blatantly hacky and held together by duct tape, it still manages to be the best thing ever. blunderful work platinum 👍👎

(full disclosure, i broke a small personal rule of mine with this one and played this game’s remake, ninja warriors: once again, before the original release. in the end they were closer than i expected, but i figured it’d be important to share my position upfront as subtle biases are inevitable)
Kinda torn between a hard 3 and a soft 4 with this one, but don’t let my indecision fool you - this is quite an excellent 2D beat 'em up. At this point I’m close to saying the shortcut to making an enjoyable beat 'em up is to just add a million moves to the game, but Natsume’s approach to Ninja Warriors was a bit more thoughtful than that. There’s usually a good reason to pick one move over another in combat, which is mighty impressive for a game with popcorn enemies that die in just a few hits, and selecting a new character feels tantamount to switching the game cartridge entirely. Take Kunoichi and Ninja, the two characters I’ve played through the game with at the point of writing. When I heard that Ninja lacked a proper jump in a genre I had previously perceived as overly simple, I foolishly disregarded him for Kunoichi on my first run of Once Again, but in retrospect he honestly might be my favorite character in the game. While the main difference between basic combos may be nothing more than range and damage, every other layer makes the two feel anything but similar, even when they share a similar template in a general sense. Kunoichi’s jump vs Ninja’s dash, her rebounding air attacks vs his short offensive hop attack, the fact that Ninja can move while holding an enemy while Kunoichi cannot, etc. I could go on but the little details really add up and break up the experience of playing the game quite nicely. It admittedly sounds pretty basic on paper, but the suffocating waves of enemies and sharp boss design counter-balance the relatively simple mechanics to ensure every run feels fresh in some way regardless of which character you end up using. It's some really smart stuff.
Where I actually hit a bit of a snag was surprisingly with the meter management, and here’s where I have to unfairly compare the game to its remake that came out 25 years after the original. Since you only have two ways to spend meter here, and any second spent without a full bar puts you at risk of losing the whole thing in an instant, I found myself instinctually playing safe and holding onto my meter for longer stretches of time, until eventually using a bomb as a free escape tool when I inevitably but myself in a nasty situation. Maybe it’s my previous experience with Once Again talking here, but I was surprised at how much the loss of a cheap ranged attack affected the way I viewed and utilized the meter. In the remake each character has a ranged attack for a fraction of your meter (from what I can recall it has roughly the same cost as a metered combo ender), and while it can’t be understated how powerful these moves can be, I mostly find them compelling for how it shifts your perspective on every element of play. In both versions, a knockdown with a partially filled energy bar is enough to drain it, so no matter what you’re putting yourself at some risk by not filling the bar asap. However, since your metered options are far stronger in Once Again, the temptation to spend meter more frequently grows exponentially. Ranged attacks are simultaneously easy to burn thanks to their strength and relatively low cost, while still having a bit of long term risk associated with it every time you spend that meter, and this small addition leads to a hectic flow where you’re spending meter frequently to clear rooms efficiently while still being punished later on for poor meter management.
To clear the air, I don’t want to imply that one version of this system is a flat improvement over the other. JohnHarrleson made an excellent case for how the original game’s implementation of meter usage can be just as engaging in his review of the game, and Once Again owes most of its success to the excellent foundation laid by the SNES classic that preceded it anyway, but in presenting two games that are similar on the surface yet exceedingly different in execution, it’s only natural for everyone to develop their own preferences. Ultimately I think the most impressive thing about this pair of titles is how natural the evolution to Ninja Warriors and Once Again was, how tenderly changes were applied to the core game without completely morphing its identity. If I could change one thing about the remake it would be to include the original ROM on the disc, because while I ended up preferring Once Again on the whole, I don’t really think you’re missing out on a dramatically better experience by picking it over this. At this point Natsume has more than sold me on their personal flavor of arcadey game design and their ability to expertly reevaluate their old work in a new light, so I’m extremely excited to keep exploring their library and see what else has been slowly forgotten by the public over time.


came to the realization this morning that i don't think i'll ever get the chance to play this again, a game so mid blizzard decided to wipe it from existence for the sake of a glorified balance patch. all i want is for some of these characters to get copy and pasted into literally anything else. hammond my beloved, my darling, why must you play with my heart like this

Taking notes from the Tokusatsu flavor of Japanese capeshit, Hideki Kamiya didn’t just want to blow the roof off of his last superhero game, he wanted to blast a hole in the ozone layer and cruise on the border the farthest reaches of the cosmos. He’s never been content with just shooting for the stars, but this title more than any other feels like the truest expression of what he’s wanted to achieve with his games. Having a massive team of action game legends and publisher money from Nintendo all but ensured that the final product would come out with a Platinum-like sheen of creative polish, but as far as I can tell, The Wonderful 101 still managed to impress almost anyone who gave it the time of day in a way nobody was really expecting. There’s a reason the game is still, generally speaking, regarded as one of the highlights of the Wii U. In 2020, it even managed to conjure over $1.5 million in an effort to port it to modern platforms, absolutely crushing the goals set by its Kickstarter.
Naturally, it crashed and burned on release.
The game bombed hard. I don’t envy the position of trying to market the damn thing to general consumers, but on top of the comparatively-niche appeal of the action genre and an aesthetic that repulsed many who laid eyes on it, The Wonderful 101 also didn’t make the experience of getting into it very easy. It wasn’t universally panned by critics or anything - in fact it reviewed pretty well considering how low its sales were - but it’s fair to say most people didn’t get it. Speaking personally, it took me multiple attempts on two different platforms to get past the on-ramp, and even beyond that point it took some time to really click with me.
It’s a real shame having so many of its players bounce off the experience before they can even experience a fraction of what it had to offer, but I almost don’t blame them, at least in retrospect. It's a title that gives out what you put in, possibly more than any other game I’ve ever played. Not everyone is gonna be willing to sit down and give something this mechanically-abrasive a chance, especially if it wears the façade of being nothing but a kid friendly Nintendo romp. Late-teens dudebros aren’t gonna give it their attention, and It probably isn’t a game for grandma either, I get it. Having said that, I don't want this piece to scare anyone off from the game, far from it. If you’ve read this far you surely care about or are interested in the game in some regard (or have played the game before, in which case this specific passage isn’t super important (or just like hearing reading what I have to say ❤)), so if you haven’t closed the tab yet, hear me out:
I don’t generally like picking my absolute favorite things, it's way easier to just provide a list of things I love than to comfortably settle down with one thing, but this is kinda the exception. Without question, if you asked me what my favorite game is, the answer would be an easy one. The Wonderful 101 has it all for me: a colorful cast of characters, a gameplay loop I can’t find anywhere else, indulgent yet tasteful callbacks to the history of the medium of games, a heartfelt story, a campaign that never loses its luster, and a finale I can only describe as legendary. It’s the complete package. Some games may do individual things better, but no game does it all with quite as much fanfare. I unabashedly love it, and I want as many people as possible to give it a fair chance (or two), just as I did. The best things in life don’t come without hardships, after all.
Video games, especially those in 3D spaces, have often struggled to consistently convey critical information to the player when it's most often needed, and it's easy to see why. How do you give the player enough time to react to something coming into frame in a fast paced platformer or a racer? How do you differentiate a hole in the ground from being a safe drop or an instant death trap? Many potential issues can be alleviated through smart signposting and subtle signals to the player, but it feels like action games in particular have struggled with cameras more than most genres. All too often it's extremely challenging to keep everything in focus with multiple enemies on your ass while grinding against the terrain to navigate the field, and that's before you take into account a camera that might not play nicely with the level geometry and act in unpredictable ways. Thankfully, this isn’t an unsolved issue in certain corners of the genre.
Kamiya has proven time and time again that he knows how to create encounters that feel simultaneously frantic yet completely fair, and while his most consistent quality in this regard is his ability to design a large pool of enemies with extremely clear audio and visual tells, he also employs subtle tricks in all of his games to hold the combat together. Devil May Cry makes the level geometry transparent if it obfuscates the player's view of the action, Viewtiful Joe simplifies the chaos by playing on a 2D plane like an old-school beat-em-up while still keeping the intricacies of a fully fleshed out action game, and Bayonetta prevents most enemies from being able to attack from beyond the camera's point of view. All of these systems go a long way towards addressing potential issues with focusing on everything at once, but for my money, no game has presented a solution as bold and creative as the one found in The Wonderful 101.
Locking the camera to an isometric perspective is one of the game's many design decisions that not only keeps the action legible at all times amidst the madness, but threads every element of gameplay together seamlessly while calling into question many of the standards set by games made before and after it, though I'm getting a little ahead of myself. As I mentioned before, action games are quick to become tense scrambles where you can not only lose mental control of the field, but literally struggle to control the camera and your character in the heat of the moment. Even in Bayonetta, a game I adore for the way it handles enemies in relation to its camera system, it's still very possible for it to get caught on a random part of the level and disorient the player. Given the chaos on screen in 101, it could have been extremely easy for this issue to rear its ugly head again, but thanks to the camera this is almost never an issue. Since you don't have to put physical and mental attention on camera control, it frees up the body and mind to focus on every other part of the game at once, so long as you have the fortitude to get past the initial hurdle of learning the mechanics and understanding how to read the field (a task that doesn’t take an entire playthrough to accomplish like some may have have led on).
At an initial glance the game might be hard to read, but upon further inspection you’ll quickly realize that the bright colors and zany designs only exist to assist the readability of moment-to-moment encounters, everything stands out against each other and the environments so well that you’ll never find yourself wondering what's going on once you know what you’re looking at. What may first be perceived as an overly-busy aesthetic that only exists to appeal to a younger demographic quickly justifies itself as an essential part of the play experience. It's a very freeing feeling to have such a common issue in the medium disappear so elegantly here, and while I’m not saying all cameras need to copy The Wonderful 101, any mediocre camera system stands out to me way more now that I’ve seen what can happen if you play with conventions even just a little bit.
This would probably be nothing more than a cool quirk if the action didn’t keep you on your toes, so thankfully the amazing enemy design keeps the game from ever feeling too bland. Nearly every member of the game's massive roster of enemies and bosses plays with arena control in interesting ways and almost always asks the player to juggle multiple conflicting tasks at once, something I crave in games such as this. For instance, you may have your focus on a tank that goes down quickly to a slow, heavy weapon, but other enemies might be quick enough to get hits in while you’re trying to take down a massive threat (it sounds simple, but exemplary enemy design isn’t the standard in action games it really should be).The top-down view also gives some breathing room for the level designers to make the arenas themselves treacherous in creative ways, helping to create encounters where even fighting basic mobs can be a stressful task. Very few encounters lose their appeal for me as a result, and for a title that runs far longer than the average action game, that's no small feat.
These factors individually are more than enough to set the combat way beyond the quality of most action games, and there are plenty of tertiary elements to the experience that make the campaign one of the best in the entire medium (way more than what I could reasonably fit into the scope of this review), but in my eyes, the golden thread that truly unites every element together beautifully and morphs the game into a masterpiece of action game design for me is the Wonder Liner.
Weapon switching is one of those mechanics that is always appreciated in an action game, but seldom implemented in a way that does anything more than give the player more tools to fight with. That last point might sound like an odd criticism to make, especially since we’ve seen what can happen if action games don’t implement some form of instant weapon switching, but it’s generally not something that’s interesting to execute on its own. While I wouldn’t say it dumbs down action games that utilize this system - the skill required to play them usually falls on decision making more than executing the moves themselves after all - it’s just an element to the genre that hasn’t seen much questioning or evolution since it started to make its way into titles that necessitated it. The act of switching itself doesn’t add nuance to a game, ” simply prohibits one set of moves, and enables a different set of moves.”. Rather than just settling on a button to cycle weapons, 101 takes a more creative approach.
Your squad of 100 Wonderful Ones is not just flooding the screen to flex the technical ability of a game console that was outdated before it even hit shelves, but is a key element to combat. They aren't just there to facilitate your massive arsenal of weapons, they are your arsenal of weapons.
Using the right analog stick, you draw out commands that signal your team to morph into different massive weapons, whether it be a circle for a fist, a straight line for a sword, or a squiggly line for a whip. It's like if you did a QCF motion in Street Fighter but instead of throwing out a hadouken, Ryu pulled out a gun. They really get creative with your arsenal and I’d hate to spoil it all here, but every weapon manages to not only fill out an interesting tactical role in combat, but also feels completely different to use as a result of the drawing system. This is already a lot to wrap your head around on your first playthrough, and this is before you consider what implications every other mechanic has on this one. If the game had the exact same combat mechanics with a traditional camera system, it wouldn't really work without further disconnecting the liner from the game world in some way (drawing on the lens of the camera or specific flat parts of the environment are common ways of addressing drawing mechanics in other games). It’s possible another system could also work here, but what I love about the solution presented in The Wonderful 101 is that it ties these otherworldly mechanics directly into the game seamlessly. You aren't just issuing vague commands for your team to follow, you're literally drawing out the shapes with a chain made of your heroes.
Even past the surface level details that the game absolutely excels at, this has massive ramifications on the flow of combat. Because the liner is a literal object in the world of the game, it's possible for enemy encounters to directly challenge your ability to draw each shape with efficiency. In a vacuum you may be good at drawing guns and hammers, but can you do it quickly in the heat of the moment? Or if a spiked enemy is blocking your path, can you draw the whip consistently in a different direction to not lose your team members? In a game like Devil May Cry it can feel like action and evasion are totally separate pieces of the combat, as it’s way easier to take your turn and juggle an enemy into oblivion, but not here. Enemies and stage hazards aren't just obstacles in moments of defense while you catch your bearings, but also during offense while you frantically try to get out different weapons and keep your advantage. Launching and comboing a stunned enemy is also a pretty involved task here, requiring a special stun state and your own ability to swap around weapons quickly, so unless you have a really strong grasp of the game you probably won’t be in a spot where danger is more than just a few feet away. It’s some really brilliant stuff.
Understandably, this is where The Wonderful 101 lost a lot of players. It asks so much of the player at the start compared to its contemporaries, but speaking personally for a second, pushing past the hump and "getting it" was easily one of the most satisfying feelings I've had in any game. If you keep at it and don't let losses discourage you, eventually you'll reach a level of mastery where you don't even have to think about how you'll be able to get the shapes out. It's very similar to the learning experience of learning a fighting game character's moveset, different motions may feel alien at first, but give it some practice and it'll quickly become 2nd nature. That may be why I was willing to stick with the system and give the game a chance - I'm not exactly a stranger to fighting games - but I don't believe the genre is required reading to enjoy this game on any level. After all, it probably has the most forgiving continue system I've ever seen (arguably to a fault in some regards) so you'll never find yourself grazing up against an insurmountable challenge on your first playthrough like you might in a different action game. The story is also just an absolute blast, so even if you haven't found your sea legs yet with the controls, you'll surely forget about any bumps in the road after you slice through a skyscraper that's just been thrown at you with a sword made out of human beings, or picked up a giant [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] everything around you only to see a massive [REDACTED] open up in [REDACTED].
Now, in any game with ambitions as lofty as those found in The Wonderful 101, cracks are bound to show eventually. There are plenty of tiny criticisms I've accrued after two years of playing the game (A few that have jumped out to me being that it doesn’t mix as many enemy types in combat as I’d like, or how you aren’t able to utilize motion inputs like stinger and rising into multi-unite) but nothing that outright ruined the game for me. Having said that, the thing that leaves me scratching my head the most is the progression system.
A pervasive thought I see in discussion around the game is that your toolkit at the start feels extremely limited compared to other action protags. There’s a few reasons why this could be (not least of which being the need to gradually ease players into its systems at the start without overwhelming them too much) but I will concede that it makes starting a new save after unlocking everything a bit more frustrating than it needs to be. While I appreciate how insane it is that every single Wonderful One levels up individually while still contributing to one massive level up system, it takes far too long to unlock certain key abilities that would show off the combat's potential far more quickly. There's really no reason why you shouldn't be able to buy key moves like stinger, rising, and cyclone with O-Parts and Wonderful Credit Cards, or god forbid offer a cheat code to level up your squad to unlock other upgrades sooner on subsequent save files. It doesn't help that this bizarre progression system is tied to a game where every weapon is so limited on its own, relatively speaking. Even just compared to Kamiya's last big action game Bayonetta, dial combos have been completely removed leaving just one main combo and a few extra moves for each of the game's massive spread of weapons (the whole experience of the game justifies this I feel, but on paper it really does seem rather limiting).
Beyond the design of the base game itself, the remaster on modern systems has also seen some bizarre changes and frustrating bugs, but despite what a certain Nintendo-adjacent YouTuber who didn’t play more than 30 minutes of the game would tell you, these actually have nothing to do with the peripheral you use to control the game. Some genuinely great changes like further tutorializaion on your basic block and dodge are nearly canceled out by old standard moves requiring an unlock, specific enemy interactions not getting fixed from the original game or getting messed up in the new version, and a massive list of bugs and glitches that keeps growing by the patch with official support that feels deafeningly silent at the moment. I’d still recommend the remaster over the Wii U version for the boost in performance alone, but for the past two years it’s been exceedingly frustrating to tack a “but” to many of my statements while recommending it to certain people. Even though many of its biggest issues aren’t something a new player will experience on a first playthrough, it’s still something that’s hard for me to ignore when discussing the game.
I don’t care. Despite every issue I’ve mentioned or omitted, despite how weird of a thing it is to get into, and despite knowing deep down in my greasy heart that this isn’t something that everyone will be able to latch onto, I just don’t care. I love this too much to care. Everything comes together to make an experience so impactful that those small hardships feel like they were never there to begin with. The mini-games act simultaneously as cute callbacks to other games as well as being genuinely fun little skill checks in their own right, it’s still one of the funniest games out there from the written jokes to the visual gags throughout the game, it has the greatest quick-time event of all time with no contest, even the story feels really sharp and thoughtful. It really is the ultimate “greater than the sum of its parts” affair to me. You have no idea how refreshing it is to play something as full of life as this when the actual world we’re currently living in just feels like a shithole nightmare that exclusively beats down on those forced to participate. It truly feels like this game has more love for the joys of life than any other. It feels like it actually loves itself. And that's what it’s all about, right?
If The Wonderful 101 has taught me anything, it’s that it takes teamwork and perseverance to push through hardships in life. You never know what will be thrown your way, how you’ll push through it, or who you’ll have to push through with. But with the combined forces of everyone’s strength, it genuinely feels like even the impossible is possible. It’s not just about closing your eyes to the darkness and looking back to your childhood where you could ignore the evils of the world, it’s about learning how to grow together and push beyond what holds us back, both collectively and individually. Sometimes it will be difficult, and it may be hard to want to keep going, but it’ll be worth it in the end. It’s all about seeing the good in life and lifting up those around us so they can do the same. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that.

the most common criticism i hear towards Gitaroo Man is in regards to it's difficulty, and where it really comes into play during the game's campaign. some say it happens in the 2nd half of the game, and few suggest that it gets challenging right at the start during stage 2. i reject this notion. no point of this game is nearly as challenging as the very end, as it's extremely difficult to play a fast paced rhythm game with tears in my eyes

is this really a win for klonoa? namco puppeteering his corpse with the prospect of future games that may not deliver or even get made? i'd rather this series die if this is the quality we can expect from it.
nevermind the obnoxious practice of holding series' hostage like this, it's deeply upsetting that the only compromise we get is a butchered representation of what came before. because god forbid people play old playstation games that "look dated" next to other games releasing today despite there not being a good way to experience how the original games were presented to begin with. you'd think more people would push back against this; especially considering the cries for more klonoa content from those who grew up with this series, but to my surprise basically everyone seems to be eating this up no questions asked. every few years this happens, an old series gets a spark of life in miserable fashion and sometimes it leads to something greater, but even with the best outcome i think its a bad precedent to set. sure crash bandicoot 4 crushed all expectations and is in the running for best game in the entire series, but it rubs me the wrong way that it came as a result of scrubbing away the hard work done by the original developers back in the late 90's.
i understand that much of this stems from publishers more than developers (it's not like they've been very forward thinking when it comes to the preservation of old games to begin with) but when companies demand stringent deadlines with no regard to quality control of course the product will come out half baked, no matter how much love was behind the wheel of it. i don't have a bird's eye view on the development of this project, but i can't imagine it was enjoyable or flexible to work under. even if their hearts were in the right place, theres no chance they had the tools needed to really do this series the justice it deserves.
no matter the circumstances though, this is what we're left with. a botched collection of beloved titles that, for the foreseeable future, is the only way to comfortably play these for most people. i'm not upset that it's overpriced or not stuffed with extraneous crap to justify the cost, i'm upset that this is the standard for preservation the industry is setting for itself. who cares about the game's legacy and how it impacted people, just slap a name on it to excite fans looking for to rekindle memories of better days gone by.
best case scenario we get a new sequel out of this collection and it really delivers on fan expectations, but is that really the lesson to be learned here? treat the past as a frivolous step to success so we can move onto the next new shiny thing? i can't help but feel deeply cynical over the industry if this is how we think we should celebrate the past. klonoa deserved better