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‘Super Mario Kart’s’ Masterful Mushroom Cup

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Super Mario Kart Nintendo SNES

It’s easy to take Super Mario Kart for granted considering just how far the franchise has come since its inception in 1992. Mario Kart is a series that improves on itself logically and linearly with each iteration, more so than any other Nintendo property. Of course, each entry is designed to stand on its own with a unique identity, but even a game like Double Dash— which is built around one core concept that was never revisited— has clear mechanical and design similarities with its 3D predecessor, Mario Kart 64, and each of its successors. There’s a uniform quality to how Mario Kart presents its mechanics and track design, linking all the way back to the original game on the SNES. Where Super Mario Kart is the foundation on which every subsequent game has built itself upon, however, it also remains the most uniquely designed entry in the franchise.

Starting with Mario Kart 64, Nintendo began designing the series with 3D sensibilities in mind. Even Super Circuit, the franchise’s only other 2D entry alongside the original, has arguably more in common with 64 than it does SMK. Tracks have more spatial depth, characters control with considerably more leeway, and the overall difficulty curve in order to be more accessible to general audiences. This is a trend that can be noted in every game after the original, but one that cannot be applied to the original. Super Mario Kart is 2D through and through which means it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles 3D offers. Not that it needs it, though.

In no way whatsoever is Super Mario Kart a lesser game because it isn’t designed in the same way as its successors (or because it’s 2D for that matter.) To this day, Super Mario Kart features some of the tightest track design and controls in the franchise, if not the downright tightest. Arguably to a fault. The biggest roadblock fans of Mario Kart might find when revisiting the original is just how difficult it is in comparison to the rest of the series. 50cc is simple enough, but 100cc immediately demands a level of mechanical understand that’s more or less reserved for 150cc nowadays.

super mario kart
Super Mario Kart
is a rather simple game when broken down to its core mechanics, but only deceptively so. One wrong move can spell disaster and cost a race, a blow that hurts all the more considering tracks are 5 laps long. Someone playing through Super Mario Kart for the first time might find the game discouraging as a result. Even back in the day, the humble racer offered quite a level of challenge. Like F-Zero before it, Super Mario Kart demanded players get good or stop playing before. Thankfully Nintendo wasn’t so tactless as to just toss new racers into the deep end.

Whether it be played through 50cc or 100cc, the Mushroom Cup makes for one of the best “tutorials” on the SNES. While not a tutorial in a conventional or traditional sense, each of the Mushroom Cup’s five tracks work to gradually reveal the importance of the core mechanics at play while also introducing track types and track hazards. By the end of the fifth and final track, an attentive player should have a well-rounded understanding of what Super Mario Kart expects from them.

Mario Circuit 1 is, understandably, the easiest track in the game. Although its main purpose is to simply allows racers to acclimate to the controls, there are multiple ways in which the track allows for deeper mechanical understanding while offering a safe space to experiment. As a track, Mario Circuit 1 doesn’t even require drifting. A player can simply hold down B to accelerate and turn on the D-pad when necessary. At the same time, Mario Circuit 1 is one of the best courses to try drifting in as its road is spacious enough where players won’t necessarily go off-road should they chance a drift with a particularly wide arc.

Super Mario Kart

For those struggling with drifting, but nonetheless practicing the maneuver, Mario Circuit 1 offers a space where hopping thrives. Since drifting can go wrong in unsteady hands, sometimes hopping is a better alternative for new players. By simply pressing L or R, players can trigger a brief bounce. Said bounce can be used to jump over small gaps (or in rare cases even items) in later tracks, but it also serves as a means of readjusting one’s position. With a well-timed hop, a kart can change its trajectory without committing to a full-on drift.

It is worth noting, however, that drifting is a faster alternative to hopping at all times. A well-timed drift can lead into a mini-turbo. While nowhere near as useful as in later entries, mini-turbos are brief bursts of speed that save quite a lot of time when pulled off properly. Super Mario Kart perhaps has the hardest mini-turbos to pull off in the series, but Mario Circuit 1 offers a reasonable track to practice turning a drift into a full-on speed boost. Of course, Super Mario Kart doesn’t always make it so easy to pull off its mechanics as evidenced by its second track.

While not remotely difficult in the slightest, Donut Plains 1 does up the ante considerably coming hot off the trails of Mario Circuit 1. Where off-roading is relatively forgiving in MC1 (going so far as to featuring an off-road shortcut that actually doesn’t waste any time should a player take it without a mushroom or star,) Donut Plains 1 has grass that slows racers down considerably, walled off areas to keep players on the road, open water to sink anyone still driving without abandon, and a large chunk of mud right before the finish line to punish players hugging the edge of the track.

Where Mario Circuit 1 presents a safe space to introduce the mechanics, Donut Plains 1 ditches that safety in favor of refinement. The physically tighter, curvier paths punish poor drifts far more than before. Racers need to be mindful of how they’re drifting so not to veer off course. Coming back to the track in MC1 was generally quite easy and didn’t eat up too much time, but DP1 can be quite punishing in this regard thanks to the walls.

Walls themselves likewise encourage players to really nail down their drifts. Where off-roading at least keeps the player actively moving off course, hitting a wall stops a kart dead in its tracks. Of course, walls in Donut Plains 1 are spread out far enough where players are rarely in danger of this happening (save for a lap on 150cc gone horribly wrong,) but their presence still serves to highlight just how early Super Mario Kart introduces a major concept. Hazards aren’t too damning during the Mushroom Cup, but they very quickly start to pose a threat.

The water in Donut Plains 1 is a nice warning of this. It’s very unlikely a player will drift so poorly they’ll land themselves in the water, but the pool is still a presence, one that gets immediately fleshed out in the next track: Ghost Valley 1. Essentially Donut Plains 1 taken to an extreme, Ghost Valley 1 demands stability above all else. Where the water in the previous track simply submerged players for a few seconds, Ghost Valley 1 features a course that outright allows racers to fall off. Worse yet, any walls on the track are only there temporarily and fall off once hit. A player falling into the pattern of colliding off walls will soon find themselves pummeling into the abyss below.

To its credit, Ghost Valley 1 is not so cruel as to expect the world from players right away. Due to the sharper turns and bottomless pits, the course is wider as a whole, much more in line with what Mario Circuit 1 offered. Keeping complete control of the kart is crucial here as drifting to the point of spinning out or simply veering at a bad time can land a player straight off the road. It isn’t a particularly difficult course when mastered— it’s realistically the easiest track in the Mushroom Cup other than Mario Circuit 1— but it serves as a good training spot for other tracks, especially one of the Ghost Valley variant. Perhaps most importantly, GV1 places shortcuts front and center.

While shortcuts existed in Mario Circuit 1 and Donut Plains 1, they were both off-road cuts that could only be pulled off with a mushroom or star. Even then, the former’s shortcut offers no time penalties should a player take it anyways. Ghost Valley 1’s shortcut, on the other hand, is downright impossible to pull off without a feather. By using the feather, players can jump onto a strip of land right in front of the finish line. Said shortcut isn’t so over and done with, however, as landing requires players to veer towards the finish line lest they immediately drive off course.

By this point in the cup, players should intrinsically know how to: hop, drift, pull off a mini-turbo, look for shortcuts, and keep their karts stable. Each track adds in new obstacles to look out for, but there’s a clear progression in how tracks play off each other and compromises are often made so not to make one track considerably harder than the others. That said, this design mentality gets thrown out the window when it comes to Bowser Castle 1, a track that very well could have served as the cup’s final course.

Bowser Castle 1 introduces four major concepts: lava which more or less serves as a brighter version of Ghost Valley 1’s bottomless pits; zippers which give players a burst of speed; Thwomps which serve as moving hazards, potentially crushing players as they dink under them or blocking them in their path; and bumpers that cause a player to bounce when run over. Combined, these elements make for a hectic track with danger at every turn.

The track itself has its own learning curve of sorts, dedicating the first lap to simply allowing players a chance to feel the layout. As Thwomps stay stationary in the air during the first lap, there’s no real danger to a player other than themselves. By this point, drifts should at the very least be maneuvered carefully so giving racers a clear view of the Thwomps before they activate is a fair way of warning them that “something” is coming. Of course, a visual tell can only do so much.

With Thwomps rising and falling, it’s more important than ever to drift well. Being crushed by a Thwomp flattens a kart while hitting a Thwomp usually cuts a few seconds off each lap since players need to wait for it to rise. Good drifting, on the other hand, will see the player cutting through the field of Thwomps, landing themselves right on the bumpers, veering right back into another set of bumpers, and drifting towards the finish line. Super Mario Kart doesn’t just teach its player base through punishment; skilled players are rewarded.

The zippers themselves are an interesting concept, albeit one that might not necessarily benefit the game. While racing, CPUs have specific patterns. They will always turn a certain way, drive a certain way, and stick to a certain path. This can actually be used to one’s advantage since they’ll know where to plant items, but it also results in CPUs missing out on taking advantage of the track. CPU racers will never hit the zippers, not even on 150cc. Because of this, players get a clear advantage when hitting a zipper, one the computer controlled characters don’t have. (Though that’s perhaps for the best considering Super Mario Kart CPUs love to cheat.)

While Bowser Castle 1 is epic enough in scope and scale to serve as a suitable finale, that honor belongs to none other than Mario Circuit 2. A bookend of sorts, Mario Circuit 2 brings players back to a familiar setting, trims down the hazards, and features plenty of room to practice techniques in a skilled manner. Where Mario Circuit 1 encourages basic understanding, Mario Circuit 2 promotes basic mastery. Good drifting here is just as rewarding as in Bowser Castle 2, and the zippers near the end of the track can be used to curve the player into a drift towards the finish line.

Walls make a return appearance (the nonbreaking kind,) and oil slicks are introduced as a hazard that makes racers spin out, but there’s nothing particularly threatening about Mario Circuit 2. Most of the damage that can be inflicted will either be from CPUs or from poor playing. MC2 is designed to be a straight up race first and foremost, keeping gimmicks to the sideline and giving racers a track where they can put their skills to the test. On 150cc, a dexterous hand is more or less necessary to get through Mario Circuit 2 in the top four.

By the time players are (hopefully) taking center stage on the podium, the Mushroom Cup’s infinite wisdom will have brushed off. Or at the very least, players will understand what Super Mario Kart expects out of them as a game. Without needing to put a single piece of text to screen, SMK teachers exclusively through its visuals and design. Such a feat is downright rare to run into nowadays, but it’s a trend that Mario Kart continues for the most part. Super Mario Kart may not be as clearly polished as later entries, but it doesn’t particularly need to be. It has its own charm, its own style, and plenty to love. The Mushroom Cup shows that off in spades.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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‘Castlevania Bloodlines’: The Official Sega Genesis Sequel to Bram Stoker’s Hit Novel, Dracula

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Castlevania Bloodlines

Castlevania isn’t a dialogue-heavy series by any means, but it’s still home to one of gaming’s most compelling narratives. Equipped with only their ancestral weapon, the legendary Vampire Killer, descendants of the Belmont clan face off against Count Dracula every 100 years like clockwork (give or take). His resurrection is inevitable. Just as good will always triumph over evil, evil will rise again. Castlevania was about the cyclical nature of good and evil long before Dracula mused about the nature of humanity in Symphony of the Night. Castlevania chronicled the Belmont family’s centuries-long struggle to keep Count Dracula at bay, game after game. Of course, he wasn’t the Count Dracula– more a representation of evil– but that was as much a given as a Belmont rising up to wield Vampire Killer. Then Castlevania Bloodlines happened. 

Released in 1995 exclusively for the Sega Genesis, Bloodlines may have looked like any other Castlevania game, but it marked a series of eclectic firsts for the franchise. Gone are the Belmonts and the game neither takes place inside of or involves getting to Dracula’s Castle. Bloodlines is even titled Vampire Killer in Japan, creating a bigger divide between it and previous entries, but that hardly compares to Bloodlines’ strangest contribution to the series: making Bram Stoker’s Dracula canon. 

The nature of how Dracula fits into the Castlevania mythos isn’t as plain and simple as just taking the book as writ as canon, but it fits much cleaner than one would expect. Although Bloodlines may lift elements from the novel with its own embellishments, its changes are ultimately inconsequential. Quincey Morris doesn’t have a son in the novel, but he’s the only major character alongside Dracula not to keep a journal, keeping his background relatively obscured. Quincey also doesn’t sport his signature bowie knife in Bloodlines’ backstory, finishing Dracula off with a stake (instead of the Vampire Killer for whatever reason.) 

There’s no mention of Jonathan Harker, Mina, or Abraham Van Helsing– and Dracula’s motives aren’t at all in-line with his novel counterpart’s– but Konami’s references to the novel make it clear that audiences are intended to consider the novel canon even if the details don’t quite match up. It seems a strange choice, especially for a franchise that was pushing its tenth anniversary by the time Bloodlines released in 1995, but it’s not a totally random decision on Konami’s part. Much like how Super Castlevania IV’s tonal maturity gave it a greater layer of depth, Bloodlines thrives off its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If there’s one immediate benefit to tying Dracula to Castlevania: Bloodlines, it’s grounding the latter in some semblance of reality. Set in 1917, Vampire Killer was the most modern Castlevania to date– not just at its release, but until Aria of Sorrow was released in 2003. The games were never period pieces, but they were set far enough in the past where literal Universal Monsters wouldn’t keep the series from staying narratively grounded. More importantly, the series’ settings were always consistently gothic, creating a unique sense of style around Dracula himself rather than the time period. 

Bloodlines opts for a wildly different approach altogether when it comes to setting, doubling down on the series’ historical elements while keeping Super Castlevania IV’s darker tone intact. Dracula feels a part of the world, rather than the world of Castlevania feeling a part of Dracula. At the same time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula helps ground the very minimal plot by giving John and Eric’s trek across Europe greater scope. John and Eric even have a personal stake in the plot, having witnessed Quincey’s death. It’s all window dressing, but Bloodlines’ assimilation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula gives the series some narrative legitimacy to rub shoulders with its high quality gameplay. 

The connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula are admittedly loose, but they’re loose enough to work in the game’s benefit. Dracula is structured as an epistolary novel with chapters divided in letters, journal entries, articles, and logs. The story is told coherently, but this approach often results in the point of view & setting changing. While uncertainly a direct reference to the novel, Bloodlines similarly allows players to switch between John & Eric whenever they use a continue on Easy mode, and each stage takes place in a different country rather than just Transylvania. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula may give Bloodlines its foundation, but it’s that globetrotting that gives the game its identity. Stage 1 opens in Romania, the ruins of Dracula’s Castle left to time after his previous defeat. Where other games would immediately transition into the depths of Castle Dracula, Bloodlines’ Stage 2 instead takes players to the lost city of Atlantis in Greece, while Stage 3 involves scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to slay a demon at the top. There’s a grandiosity to the stage design simply not present in previous entries. Not just in terms of scope, but in actual structure. 

Only six stages long, Bloodlines is the shortest of the mainline Castlevania games, but it makes up for its lack of length with longer stages overall. The main story falls on the shorter side, but the stage to stage pacing ensures that Bloodlines neither outstays its welcome or goes too soon. While a Stage 7 may have done the game some good, Bloodlines’ six stages offer some of the tightest action-platforming in the franchise. Enemies are by no means infrequent, and Bloodlines requires players to understand both John & Eric’s unique platforming skills by Stage 3, outright preventing progress should players fail to adapt.

John’s unique platforming ability will be familiar to all those who played Super Castlevania IV as, predictably, he can use the Vampire Killer to hang. This time around, however, John can whip onto just about any ceiling. Eric, on the other hand, has a charged jump that thrusts him into the air when released. Eric’s jump ignores platforms entirely, allowing him a degree of verticality Castlevania typically doesn’t give to players. Stage 3 even features a room that’s a bottomless pit for Eric, but easy platforming for John thanks to its whip. Subsequently, there’s a room where John can’t make progress due to the ceiling, but Eric can jump right through.

John and Eric’s abilities are natural extensions & evolutions of Simon’s from Super CV IV, just split between the both of them, but it’s also worth noting how Bloodlines’ more involved platforming helps to further flesh out Castlevania’s world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula coupled with the European setting did more for the series’ world-building at the time than any of its predecessors, save for Rondo of Blood. It’s not often that a video game series absorbs a literary classic into its main plot, but Castlevania handles it surprisingly well. 

It’s fitting that Castlevania Bloodlines is titled Vampire Killer in Japan. At its core, Vampire Killer is a recontextualization of Castlevania. The story is still framed through the Belmonts’ struggle against Dracula, but the scope is wider, extending mediums in the process. Vampire Killer is about the legacy of the Vampire Killer and the vampire killers whose fates are sealed by the whip. Symphony of the Night may be a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, but Bloodlines set the stage for Symphony to tell a traditional and intimate story.

More important than anything, though, Castlevania taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula and making it a part of its canon is just so outlandish that it makes perfect sense. The series that regularly featured Universal Monsters as bosses was never going to ignore the novel forever. That Bloodlines uses the novel tactfully and in a game where its presence is appropriate– intentional or otherwise– weirdly elevates Castlevania as a franchise. Castlevania isn’t just a Dracula story, it’s the Dracula story. And of all the games to make that declaration with, Bloodlines is a damn good choice. 

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XO19: Top 10 Best Announcements of the Show

Xbox just had their best XO presentation ever, and it wasn’t even close. Here’s a rundown of the best announcements from XO19.

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xo19

Microsoft had a lot to prove going into its fifth annual XO showcase. Console launches are on the horizon, cloud competitor Google Stadia is about to ship to early adopters, and Game Pass subscribers are as hungry as ever for new additions to the lineup. Then there’s the fact that XO has always been looked down upon by the gaming community in general as a lackluster, padded presentation.

All of that changed with XO19. This was, by far, the best XO in the event’s history. In fact, it featured more shocking reveals and genuinely impressive announcements than a good deal of Microsoft’s recent E3 press conferences. From new IP reveals, to first-time looks at gameplay, to a couple “I never would’ve believed you a week ago” shockers, it’s clear that Xbox stepped up its game from years past. Here’s our list of the best announcements of the show.

10. Everwild Reveal

It’s not too often that we get to experience a new IP from Rare. Their last attempt, Sea of Thieves, was a fully multiplayer, always-online affair that gradually garnered a cult following thanks to some of the best community engagement and most consistent content updates in the industry.

We don’t know what type of game Everwild is yet, but it’s certainly oozing that same colorful, ambient charm that made players fall in love with Sea of Thieves all those years ago. Seeing as how we only got a cinematic teaser, though, it might be quite some time before we’re running around these gorgeous environments.


9. ID@Xbox Lineup

The ID@Xbox team has pulled it off again. Despite being stuck with an almost insultingly poor time slot in the presentation, several of the indies shown off in this short montage rivaled some of the show’s AAA spotlights. It had everything from high-profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Touhou Luna Nights, and the Yacht Club Games-published Cyber Shadow, to more modest beauties like SkateBIRD, Haven, Cris Tales, and she dreams elsewhere.

The best part? All of these are launching on Game Pass day and date. The worst part? No actual dates were announced for anything shown. Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many high quality indies are continuing to come to Xbox (and that relationships with Devolver Digital and Yacht Club are rock-solid).


8. West of Dead Reveal/Open Beta

xo19

Raw Fury has one of the better eyes in the indie publishing scene. Gems like GoNNER, Dandara, and Bad North have all released under their watch, and West of Dead might be their best acquisition yet. It’s a heavily-stylized twin stick shooter that switches things up by making tactical cover a core part of the experience.

The trailer hinted at roguelike elements being present, and the ever-popular procedurally generated levels should significantly up replayability. How it plays, however, remains to be seen…unless you have an Xbox, in which case you can play the exclusive open beta now before the full game comes to all platforms next year.


7. Halo Reach Release Date

xo19

The Master Chief Collection has long been the one golden goose that endlessly eludes those outside of the Xbox ecosystem. Earlier this year, though, Microsoft made waves when it announced that it was bringing the entire collection over to PC. Reach is the first step in that process, and it’s finally making its way to both PC and Xbox One as part of the MCC on December 3rd.

It’s just a date, but the fact that so many new players get to experience one of Halo‘s most beloved outings at last easily made it one of the highlights of the night.


6. Grounded Reveal

xo19

Who woulda thought? Fresh off releasing one of the best RPGs in years with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian decided to show off a passion project from one of its smaller teams: Grounded. The premise? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Survival Edition.

Players take control of kids the size of ants as they fight off actual bugs, cook, craft armor and weapon upgrades, and build shelter to survive in the wilderness of someone’s backyard. As silly as it sounds and looks, and as unexpected a project it is for Obsidian to undertake, it genuinely looks rather promising. The cheerful color palette is a welcome contrast to the dark, brooding aesthetic so many other survival games have adopted. There are plenty of details left to be uncovered, but if early impressions are anything to go by, this is one to keep on your radar early next year.


5. Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal

xo19

Age of Empires is one of the most esteemed strategy franchises in history. Despite having this beloved IP in their back pocket, however, Microsoft hasn’t published a new mainline game in the series since 2005. Age of Empires IV was originally announced over two years ago, and after buttering everyone up with the release of Age of Empires II Definitive Edition that afternoon, the first glimpse of gameplay was finally shown at XO19.

Simply put, the game looks gorgeous. Every building is full of detail and the countryside looks surprisingly lush and picturesque. Witnessing hundreds of units charging down the valley towards the stronghold in the trailer was mind-blowing as an old-school fan. They didn’t show off any innovations or moment-to-moment gameplay, but it’s looking more and more like the future of the franchise is safe in Relic’s hands.


4. Final Fantasy Blowout

xo19

Xbox’s success in Japanese markets has become something of a running joke over the years. Though inroads were clearly made with Bandai Namco, many more Japanese publishers won’t go within a mile of the platform. Possibly through working with Square Enix’s western division to put the latest Tomb Raider and Just Cause entries on board, it looks like the main branch has finally decided to give Xbox players a chance.

Starting this holiday, Game Pass subscribers will gradually get every single-player Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. More shocking still, The Verge reported that the Xbox team is working to get the massively popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV over as well. The sheer value of having every post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game included in Game Pass (even XV) is ridiculous. It remains to be seen what the rollout cadence of these ten titles will look like, but considering how long each of these are, one per month wouldn’t shock or disappoint.


3. The Reign of Project xCloud

With Stadia launching just next week, Microsoft had been surprisingly quiet on their cloud gaming front up to this point. The service had gone into preview for those lucky enough to get in and, by most accounts, it had been fairly well-received. The real question came down to what Xbox was going to do to make itself stand out from its competition.

The bombs dropped here felt like the equivalent to the thrashing Sony gave to Microsoft back at E3 2013. Microsoft shadow dropped 40+ new games into Preview for players to test (for free) including Devil May Cry 5, Tekken 7, Bloodstained, and Ace Combat 7. Even better, xCloud will support third-party controllers including the DUALSHOCK 4 and will finally show up on Windows 10 PCs in 2020.

Perhaps the most damning announcement, however, is that xCloud will be integrated with Game Pass starting next year. Only having to pay for a Game Pass subscription to access 100+ games and play them in the cloud (including Halo, Forza, The Outer Worlds, and all those Final Fantasy titles) makes xCloud a far better value than Stadia right out of the gate. If this didn’t force Google to adjust its strategy, we might be looking at a very short cloud gaming war.


2. Square Sharing the Kingdom Hearts Love

Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing on Xbox One was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand, players who had left the PlayStation ecosystem after playing the first games had a chance to see the arc’s conclusion. On the other hand, new players had no options for going back and experiencing the series’ roots.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue finally coming to Xbox next year is a godsend for younger players and new players alike. More important, however, is the tearing down of those over 15+ years old exclusivity walls. Just like with many of the Final Fantasys, the main Kingdom Hearts games had been married to PlayStation systems for years. This shift at Square is an exciting one, and it bodes particularly well for the next generation of Xbox hardware.


1. Yakuza Finally Goes Multi-Console

It seems like Phil Spencer’s trips to Japan finally paid off. In what was arguably the most shocking announcement of XO19 (right next to Kingdom Hearts), it was revealed that SEGA is taking the Yakuza series multi-console at last. Not only are Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1+2 coming to Xbox, but all three are going to Game Pass next year as well.

Does this mean support from Japanese studios will increase across the board? Of course not. But getting big names like Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and SEGA on board is nothing if not encouraging. Xbox is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure a diverse suite of third-party support come Scarlett’s launch next year, and it’s the healthiest the platform has looked in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bleeding Edge Release Date

KartRider Drift Reveal/Closed Beta Announcement

Last Stop Reveal

Wasteland 3 Release Date

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‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.

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Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple of days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page-turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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