For the numerous corpses of rebel infantry and snowtroopers littered about the frozen tundra, amidst the hollowed-out, smoldering wrecks of AT-AT walkers and snowspeeders, the war is over. For the rest of us, it rages on still, an icy mess of tow cables and tauntauns. There looks to be no end in sight to this conflict, no rest for the weary warriors who soldier on. And why should there be when it’s so much damn fun? The Empire Strikes Back‘s Battle of Hoth has captured the imaginations of gamers for three decades now, and developers aren’t about to stop that. The setting was featured prominently in EA’s footage for Star Wars: Battlefront right from the get-go, and despite having played nearly every version of this famous assault ever available, I still felt that undeniable urge to run right out and spend sixty dollars to experience it yet again.
It’s said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. If that’s the case, here’s the evidence for my committal:
–The Empire Strikes Back (Atari 2600, 1982)
–The Empire Strikes Back (NES, 1992)
–Super Empire Strikes Back (SNES, 1993)
–Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (N64, 1996)
–Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (N64, 1999)
–Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader (Gamecube, 2001)
–Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike (Gamecube, 2003)
–Star Wars: Battlefront (Windows/PS2/Xbox, 2004)
–Star Wars: Battlefront II (Windows/PS2/Xbox, 2005)
Each one of these games features a Hoth mission of some sort, so needless to say, I’m quite familiar. Unfortunately I never got around to playing the Empire Strikes Back arcade game from 1985, Star Wars: Rebel Assault in 1993, Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy in 2006, or the Hoth expansion in Star Wars: Force Unleashed in 2009, or anything else I’m missing (even that dumb fighting game for the PS1 couldn’t resist setting a stage there), but if I could have I would have. The Battle of Hoth is as ubiquitous as WWII used to be for first-person shooters, only it’s still cool. In a universe that features speederbikes, light saber duels, and Millennium Falcons, why is that? I don’t know. Maybe people really like snow. But also, it could be because this is the one vehicle aspect of the Star Wars movie franchise that developers have been able to consistently nail, especially as of late, a perfect marriage of a recognizable sequence in the film with goals that organically make sense for a video game, alongside controls that feel satisfying enough to keep the player immersed in the moment and stark, eye-popping visuals.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. I couldn’t honestly say that the first two games on my list were especially memorable. Licensed games on Atari ranged from mediocre to industry-killing, and the overriding sense of the NES Star Wars titles is bland frustration. It wasn’t until Super Empire Strikes Back that my gaming interest in this snowy fight was piqued. For the first time, I actually felt like I was behind the helm of a speeder, thanks to Mode 7, and the controller had enough button inputs to allow for more than two maneuvers. The progression in enemy types felt more natural and in line with the films, not having to invent baddies or fill the screen with womprats (remember that scene?) in order to keep things exciting. The Hoth sequence used only what we saw in the film; from probe droids and snowtroopers to AT-STs, ending with the boss-like AT-ATs, things could not have been better set up. Sure, it’s a bit unrefined by today’s standards, but this was the spark that made me see the potential.
That promise was realized in the N64’s Shadows of the Empire, where the developers at LucasArts were so proud of their take on Hoth that they made it the very first stage. This was an incredibly smart move, as it was a stunning intro, conveyed in glorious polygons and smooth gameplay, controlling (at the time) like a dream, thanks to the subtleties made possible by the analog stick. That there was a half-decent rest of the game, involving the stock action-hero pilot of a Millennium Falcon rip-off named Dash Rendar running through foggy corridors and clumsily platforming his way to showdowns with both Boba Fett and his own ability to steer a speederbike, was made nearly irrelevant by this masterpiece. Many players (such as myself) would come back to Shadows again and again simply to relive this level, often hitting reset upon completion and ignoring Dash’s further adventures.
Naturally developers took note of this trend, so the decision to base an entire game around the Battle of Hoth mechanics was a no-brainer, with Factor 5 Project Leader Brett Tosti saying “Everybody loved the scene in Shadows of the Empire. That whole scene was actually the genesis for Rogue Squadron because everybody said, ‘why don’t you do a whole game like that?’ So we did.” Rogue Squadron built slightly upon the previous success and expanded the concept to a variety of craft, like X-wings, yet still The Battle of Hoth was a highlight, and so when the sequel appeared on launch day for Nintendo’s new high-powered Gamecube console, no one could feign shock at having to once again fend off invading Imperial Forces. But Rogue Leader still dropped jaws, flipping the hyperdrive switch and delivering the definitive Star Wars vehicular assault. From incredible audio and epic visuals that mimicked the film, to astute attention to the tiniest of details, like waves of tiny enemy troops disembarking from transport ships only to be mowed down by trigger-happy players, Rogue Leader‘s Hoth sequence was a complete sensory experience, made only better by buttery gameplay that led gamers to believe there was a chance to finally turn the tide in favor of the rebel base this time. Anyone who passed on Rogue Leader is missing out not only on the best Battle of Hoth level, but one of the best Star Wars games, period.
So why stop there? Since then, zenith of enthusiasm for piloting a snowspeeder has not waned, and the popularity of the events from the opening act from The Empire Strikes Back has kept these levels as fixtures in many of the franchise’s titles subsequently released. While not every game can be considered a classic, such as Rogue Leader‘s disappointing follow-up, Rebel Strike (that for some reason thought we’d like some inept on-foot missions to go with our perfect aerial attacks), Hoth stages are so often highlights that even failure can be looked back on at least somewhat fondly. Such is the power of that tragic day, the draw of the Rebels’ worst defeat, and so we keep reliving it over and over, and until another scene in a similarly compelling exotic environment can take its place (whaddaya got, Force Awakens?).
The Battle of Hoth captured the imagination of Star Wars fans long ago, and for thirty years we’ve been fighting tirelessly, on tauntauns and in speeders, with tow cables and light sabers, each downed Walker a slim chance that one day the rebels will emerge victorious and change the course of the universe. How many countless Wilhelm screams before we realize the futility? How many more times will Dak prove himself utterly inconsequential? When will the madness stop? For the sake of Star Wars games, here’s hoping that day never comes.
The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child
Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.
The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.
The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.
Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.
Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.
When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.
‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab
Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some other trash.
In the 15 year long history of DLC, we have seen some really shameless displays. The notorious horse armor incident of 2006 and a notable day one DLC for the ending game of a trilogy notwithstanding, few companies have had the utter audacity to offer so little content for such a high price point. Enter Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind.
Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some social media nonsense for people who really hate themselves. That’s really it, that’s what you get. Honestly, Square-Enix should be utterly embarrassed by this DLC.
It’s been one year: 365 days, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, or 31556952 seconds, since the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Let that sink in as you begin the meat of Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind. Think of it as the extended version of a movie you really like… you know, the kind where they add 4 minutes to the 120 minute runtime.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind, really is that cynical. I’m not kidding when I tell you that the game literally starts with an exact cut scene from the base game, and a cut scene that happens to be available from the theater mode of the main game that you’ve already bought if you’re playing this DLC. Yes, the introduction to this new content is… content you’ve already seen.
In fact, that’s kind of the sticking point here: most of what you get for your hard-earned cash is footage you’ve already seen, and battles you’ve already fought, and story you’ve already experienced, just with slight alterations for context. Remember back in the 2000s, when we were super obsessed with prequels? This is like that, except even more egregious.
Generally I’m not so unforgiving as to call a company out for a forthright cash grab, but that’s absolutely what Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is. There’s just no other way to put it. You might find someone in the marketing department for Square-Enix who would disagree, but being a company that has faced just these sort of allegations for their last two major releases, Square-Enix either doesn’t read the news, or doesn’t care what people think of their products.
Square-Enix was roundly accused of shipping unfinished products in the case of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III — their two most high profile releases of the last decade. I personally gave mostly positive reviews of both games for this very website but if you want ammo to suggest that this company is deliberately trading on the nostalgia and passion of its fan base in order to make financial headway, there are few examples you could draw from that are as obvious as this DLC.
Look, maybe you’re a really big Kingdom Hearts fan. Maybe you just really wanted to know what the context was for that cliffhanger ending in Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe you just don’t do much research before you buy something. Or maybe… you just really trust this company for some reason.
Hey, I’m not judging… hell, I bought this DLC for $40 same as anyone else. I oughta be honest that I’m not reviewing Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind as some holier than thou critic, talking down to you from my position of privilege. No, I’m an angry consumer in this particular case. I’m a person who spent enough to replace a flat tire on my car, or buy my family dinner, on a game that is clearly playing off of my love for a franchise, and using it to bilk me out of money in a method that is so clear, and so concise, that those involved in the entire endeavor should be totally embarrassed for their part in the creation, marketing, pricing, and distribution of this expansion.
Yes, fans had their complaints about Kingdom Hearts III. “Where are the hardcore boss battles? Where are the Final Fantasy characters? Where are the secret areas? Where are the hidden plot developments?” Still, to address these particular complaints by hammering a few minutes or seconds here and there into already existing content is truly like spitting in the faces of the people who have built the house you’re living in.
I haven’t sat in the board rooms at Square-Enix and I haven’t been in email chains about the planning of projects at their company but what I can say is that there is something rotten in Denmark if this is what passes for a satisfying piece of content for the wildly devoted fans of a hugely popular franchise in 2020. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is literally, truthfully, and succinctly, the worst piece of DLC I’ve ever purchased.
10 Years Later: ‘Mass Effect 2’ is An All-Time Sci-fi Classic
Mass Effect 2 didn’t just nail the formula for a successful sequel, it tied together one of the greatest science fiction tales ever.
Mass Effect launched in 2007 as the boldest science fiction project ever conceived for consoles. The complex mythology, history and the many alien races, each with their own political/religious beliefs offered a depth rarely seen in the medium. Only a game as ambitious as Mass Effect 2 could not only match the pedigree of such a massive project but surpass it in every single way imaginable.
Released 3 years after the original, a full decade ago, Mass Effect 2 set the benchmark for not just sequels but for science fiction gaming as well. Few sequels are able to overcome the weaknesses of their predecessors with such perfect accuracy while also doubling down on what made them good in the first place.
The first task that fell to Bioware was to refine the combat. The original game had more of a strategic angle to it but that strategy meant the game was constantly stopping and starting, stuttering the action and ruining the flow of the game. By streamlining the combat into more of an action RPG experience (emphasis on action), Mass Effect 2 created a much better sense of tension in battle sequences. Aiming, using techniques and issuing orders also flowed more smoothly with these changes.
Another major change was the removal of the Mako, an exploratory rover the player drove around alien planets with. While a novel idea, the Mako often lead to aimless wandering as the player sought out resources on the many planets of Mass Effect. Instead of driving to their destination, players were now warped directly to the area they would be exploring. Resource collection was overhauled as a result.
While few players will talk about the thrill of spinning a globe around and aiming a reticle in order to collect resources in Mass Effect 2, the simple speed by which this process was streamlined offered a hefty margin of improvement over the original game. Resources that might have taken a half-hour to collect in the first game could now be found in 1/10 of that time. Resource collection, while a vital part of the game, was never meant to be the time sink it was in the original Mass Effect, and by speeding up this process, Mass Effect 2 allowed players to get back to the meat of the game: doing missions and exploring the galaxy.
Of course, these aren’t necessarily the most significant changes that players will recall from their time with Mass Effect 2. The story and character roster were also expanded considerably from the first game, and these are without a doubt the biggest improvements that this sequel is able to mount.
While Mass Effect had seven playable characters, Mass Effect 2 expanded that to twelve. Not only was the amount of characters an improvement, though, the quality of the characters on offer was also much stronger this time around. A full nine new characters were introduced for players to utilize in combat, strategize with and get to know throughout the game. Among them were badass assassin Thane Krios, dangerous convict Jack, morally dubious Miranda Lawson, and hivemind robot Legion.
In fact, the cast of Mass Effect 2 is so good that it has rightfully become a benchmark for the creation of a compelling cast of characters in RPGs, and video games, in general. The sheer diversity on display in the looks, personalities and movesets allowed for the cast is awe-inspiring, and this is without even considering the trump card that Mass Effect 2 flashed throughout the experience of playing the game.
The monumental suicide mission to raid the Collectors’ base and save humanity is the impetus for the entire plot of Mass Effect 2, and the reason for which the player is recruiting the baddest mother fuckers from all over the galaxy in hopes of success. It isn’t just a suicide mission in name either, many, or even all, of the cast can die during the completion of this mission, adding a layer of suspense and finality to the final stage of Mass Effect 2 that few other games can match.
To this end, players were encouraged to get to know their crew through loyalty missions specific to each cast member. By undertaking these optional missions and completing them in a way that would impress or endear themselves to the character in question, players were able to ascertain the unquestioned respect and loyalty of that character, ensuring they wouldn’t go rogue during the final mission.
Still, even passing these prerequisites with flying colors wasn’t a guarantee for success. Players also had to pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the characters when assigning tasks and making split-second decisions. Who you would leave to recon an area, repair a piece of equipment, or lock down a path, could make the difference as to who was going to survive the mission. Further complicating things, the characters you wanted to take with you to final branches of the mission might be the very people best suited for these earlier tasks.
“Mass Effect 2 isn’t just one of the greatest science fiction games of all time, but one of the best science fiction experiences in any medium, full stop”.
Getting everyone out alive is a truly Machiavellian task, requiring either a guide or multiple playthroughs in order to get it precisely right. To that end, my feeling is that it’s better to go at it honestly the first time around, dealing with the requisite losses that this experience entails. After all, it isn’t really a suicide mission without a couple of casualties right? Even with all of my preparations and foresight, I lost Tali and Legion in the final mission, but for the fate of the human race, these losses were an acceptable cost.
Even outside the strength of this fantastic cast and the monumental undertaking of planning and executing this final mission, there were other key characters and elements introduced as well. The Illusive Man, voiced by the great Martin Sheen, emerged as a necessary evil, saving Commander Shepard from death but asking morally complex decisions to be made as the cost of doing business. The relationship with, and the choices the player makes, in regard to The Illusive Man have far-reaching consequences for the remainder of the series, and as he emerged to become a primary antagonist in the final game of the trilogy, the considerations to be made were vast and insidious by their very definition.
With so many factors working in its favor, Mass Effect 2 is the rare game that is so perfectly designed that both its predecessor and sequel suffer by comparison as a result. While the improvements of ME2 make it hard to go back to the original game, the scope and ambition of an entire cast that could be alive or dead at the end of the journey also neutered the third game, causing many of the best characters in the trilogy to be excised from the final leg of the trip.
Truly, Mass Effect 2 isn’t just one of the greatest science fiction games of all time, but one of the best science fiction experiences in any medium, full stop. Like The Empire Strikes Back before it, Mass Effect 2 is the best exemplar of its universe and what makes it compelling and worthwhile in general.
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