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Art Style: CUBELLO

Full Review

art Style Cubello CoverIt's understandable that a hardware manufacturer like Nintendo would condemn app gaming. The company makes its fortune on dedicated video game machines and the traditional $30+ software pricing; the $1 mobile alternative is a serious threat to the viability of that strategy, especially in the handheld market. You won't see the House of Mario endorsing Angry Birds and its ilk any time soon (until it comes to 3DS, anyway).

It's a shame that a Nintendo-branded smartphone is so unlikely, because gaming's biggest name already has a series perfectly suited for the bite-size mobile market. The little known Art Style franchise on WiiWare and DSiWare emphasizes "elegant design, polished graphics, and pick-up-and-play controls." Having played the gravity-manipulating Orbient on WiiWare and cardboard-factory simulator Boxlife on DSiWare, I can definitely see the Art Style brand as a viable and profitable iPhone series.

Last month I picked up Cubello, one of the earlier Art Style games on WiiWare, from the Club Nintendo rewards program. It looks like the offspring of Tetrisphere and a Rubik's Cube got caught in a light gun game. I like it better than either of those things, though.

Fluidity

Full Review

Fluidity CoverThanks to the indie uprising, we have a heightened visibility for games that might have gone unnoticed just five years ago. A garage developer's labor of love can now share front page headlines with the AAA behemoths of the industry. Many fine media outlets even make a special effort to cover these smaller productions. Indie games have become the punk rockers of the industry, offering a lean alternative to overproduced AAA formulas, often with rebellious verve and spunk that resonates with us ninety-nine percenters (and at a price we ninety-nine percenters can afford).

But even in this new era, where the little guys yield as many pageviews as their big budget competition, an indie game needs to have some innovative hook or bombastic message in order to rise to the top. I can think of no other reason why Fluidity, a brilliant puzzle platformer with Metroidvania elements, has gone largely unnoticed. (Except that the game is marooned on Wii's invisible WiiWare digital distribution service, that is.)

It makes sense, though, doesn't it? So many indie darlings that went big had some kind of divergent aura about them. Limbo and Braid made their names with artsy themes and visuals that you just don't see in big money productions. The cheery brutality of Super Meat Boy, Magicka, and Castle Crashers upgraded them from mere mechanical joys to acclaimed game experiences. Fluidity, on the other hand, lifts its style and mood from airline safety manuals, of all things.

Rhythm Heaven Fever

Full Review

Rhythm Heaven Fever CoverRhythm Heaven Fever is a procession of adorable cartoon situations. A boy kicks away stray footballs that threaten to ruin his date. A quartet of baby seals tilt back-and-forth in marching-style unison. A tiny monkey taps a tambourine, its big brown eyes gleaming with joy as you repeat its patterns. The game's energetic sweetness is the antithesis of this console generation's characteristic gravelly machismo and brooding drama. It's pure joy.

And yet, it wracks my nerves like a Counter-Strike match. My palms sweat as I constrict the Wii remote in a boa's death grip. My heart races before I even select a song. Like a tiger crouched in the brush, I await the right moment to strike each note with parched eyes. Even with the peppy rhythms as a constant guide, relaxation is a shortcut to failure.

You can't get careless because the game demands total precision. Guitar Hero understands that you have five frets to manage and cuts you some slack if you're a split-second early on the downbeat. Rhythm Heaven Fever scrutinizes to your timing to the millisecond: near the end of the following video, the song approaches 180 beats per minute and splits each beat into 23 blocks; I am tasked with hitting only the center column. There is no room for error.

The smiles and rainbows are a front, as the cute chimps and happy cheerleaders of Rhythm Heaven Fever know exactly how well your internal metronome is running. And they are judging you. Harshly.

de Blob [Video]

First Hour Review

de Blob CoverTim Schafer is funding a game through Kickstarter. That still blows my mind. It's been clear for some time that the existing publisher-developer model isn't ideal, and that the industry would move away from it in time, but I don't think anybody expected consumer-funding to hit the relative mainstream so soon. Of course, Schafer is one of the industry's few big names, and he specializes in an inexpensive, fan-favorite style that has been MIA for years. With that in mind, it's too early to say that the floodgates of fan-funding have been flung open. But maybe we can say that the publishers' dam has a nice new fracture in it.

THQ provides a great example of how a publisher's mismanagement can ruin a developer. Blue Tongue Entertainment was an Australian outfit that developed De Blob for Wii in 2008. The game had a modest budget and a modest advertising campaign; it was a modest success, selling just under a million copies on a console tailor-made for its target audience and lacking in competition at the time. Apparently the dollar signs blinded THQ to circumstances, and it funded a multiplatform sequel that, across four systems, didn't even meet half of the original's numbers. THQ is paying the price for such decisions, but Blue Tongue Entertainment felt the brunt of the blowback when the studio was dissolved and staff was cut.

So my De Blob first hour review and the blockbuster sales it will surely generate come far too late to save Blue Tongue Entertainment from THQ's misguided decisions. Better late than never, I suppose.

Rhythm Heaven Fever [Video]

First Hour Review

Rhythm Heaven Fever CoverIt irks me that so many gamers believe the only worthwhile rhythm games are played with guitar peripherals. I love a good Rock Band party as much as the next Keith Moon wannabe, but there are too many wonderful music-based experiments in puzzle games and platformers and RPGs and shooters to cloister yourself in a pile of plastic instruments.

One such experiment was Rhythm Heaven, a strange blend of WarioWare and J-Pop that was one of my favorite Nintendo DS experiences. It didn't have a double platinum soundtrack or intense finger dexterity challenges, but the bubblegum ditties and cute-wacky scenarios got my head bobbing and my hummer humming as few games can.

Fortunately, Rhythm Heaven found enough of a worldwide fanbase to justify the next release, Rhythm Heaven Fever for the Wii. It trades the touch-screen taps and slides for a traditional two button setup, but the bright cartoon eye candy looks even sharper this time around. Budget priced at $30, Rhythm Heaven Fever could be worth a look if you didn't bury your Wii after Skyward Sword.

Fluidity [Video]

First Hour Review

Fluidity CoverI don't know why I've bothered registering my games with Club Nintendo these past five years. So many surveys and registration codes, and what have I received in return? A couple calendars, an LCD relic, and a set of collectors' pins. It's downright sad next to the free eReader that Sony sent me.

But times have changed, and this is the new, modern Nintendo! The bold new Nintendo of 2012 not only releases limited-availability demos and supports paid DLC, it actually puts up some worthwhile prizes for Club Nintendo members. Specifically, Club Nintendo now offers a small selection of downloadable games in exchange for the coins that you earn by registering Nintendo products. First party games only, but hey, baby steps.

Fluidity, a WiiWare title of some renown (called Hydroventure in Europe), was one of the games available in December for a fair 150 coins (it's no longer there, but you can only get it on the Wii Shop Channel for $12). The game received positive press and has whiffs of Metroidvania and fluid dynamics puzzles, so that sounds like a winner to me. I've played an hour: am I happy with the coins I spent, or should I have gone for the Mario Folder and Bookmark Set instead? I'd be the coolest kid in homeroom with those folders...

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Full Review

Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword CoverThe Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was my primary reason for buying a Wii at launch. It left me feeling disappointed and greatly annoyed. Five years later, beating The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword on my second Wii (after selling my first just days after beating Twilight Princess) leaves me with nearly the opposite effect: I loved it and am slightly giddy to write a review about it before the end of the year.

I was definitely not feeling the game a few hours in. Twilight Princess’ first hour is awful and Skyward Sword’s is arguably worse, and the ramp up feels tedious. My list of annoyances was longer than any kind of enjoyment I was getting out of the game, but once the game does ramp up, it does it incredibly successfully.

So as the Wii’s last hurrah, Skyward Sword leaves a great impression, here’s my review of the latest Legend of Zelda game, released in November. This is our second full review of the game, following Nate’s from last week. I re-read his review in preparation for my own, and have to say I agree on basically every point. So hopefully this review won’t be longer than it needs to be, but if you have some time, do read his write-up.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Full Review

Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword CoverThe lasting impression from my recent introduction to the original Legend of Zelda was its unstructured progression. With only a ghost of a narrative driving the action and few barriers to limit wanderlust, the course of my trip through Hyrule was almost entirely up to me. Having played Ocarina of Time before any other Zelda game, I was surprised to see just how hands-off the original was.

In contrast, last month's Skyward Sword may be the most linear Zelda experience yet. The newest quest sees Link flying from one compact landmass to the next with hardly any room for side trips. The vast sky of islands is sparser than Wind Waker's nearly endless ocean, and even the surface world below is but three masses of land separated by impenetrable mountain ranges and deserts and forests. This is a Zelda where the path to the next waypoint is often the only path.

Every game in the series since the eighties original has trended towards structure and direction as story progression and ability acquisition gained a greater share of the Zelda spirit. Aesthetic similarities and recurring tropes aside, The Legend of Zelda and Skyward Sword could be mistaken for two wholly separate franchises. For better or worse, Skyward Sword feels like the end state of a slow evolution that Nintendo has been cooking for twenty-five years.

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7

First Hour Review

Lego Harry Potter Years 5 7 CoverI love the LEGO videogames. I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably keep on saying it, especially if the folks over at Traveller’s Tales use their magical powers to read my mind and make LEGO Lord of the Rings or LEGO Men in Black next. My favorite of the bunch so far has been LEGO Harry Potter, Years 1-4, which managed to follow both the films and books while also giving fans a ton of love with their attention to details. It seemed perfect for LEGO-izing, with magic and a wide cast of characters, but I was disappointed that it only covered half of Harry’s legacy; the developers padded out the experience by giving players Hogwarts, a huge hub to explore that revealed more and more in a Metroidvania style after certain spells and classmates were acquired.

J.K. Rowling finished up all the books way back in 2007, and the money-making films now dead and done until some fool tries to remake them all in like ten years. I’ve never played any of the movie tie-in videogames—though I did have fun flying on brooms and catching Golden Snitches with Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup for the PlayStation 2—but from what I can gather, many of them are not great. Especially the Kinect ones, which tries to turn Harry into a new recruit for Gears of War. LEGO Harry Potter, Years 5-7 could very well be the last greatest game for the franchise, simply because there’s probably not much else coming out for it afterwards.

My favorite thing about the LEGO videogames are that they are perfect for playing co-op. There’s a challenge, sure, but exploring the levels and piecing everything together is more fun with a partner. Like my wife, Tara Abbamondi. Comments from her are in red!

Okay, let’s see if the first hour of LEGO Harry Potter, Years 5-7 is just as magical as the previous game’s.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword [Video]

First Hour Review

Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword CoverWith so many Legend of Zelda re-releases in 2011, I've had several excuses to reacquaint myself with the series for the last six months. I awakened Link for the first time, replayed bits of the first Zelda game I ever experienced, tried out a solo retrofit of the franchise's multiplayer experiment, and even charted my way through the legend that begot legends. For me, 2011 has been the year of Zelda.

Through this trip back through time, I've reevaluated my regard for Nintendo's beloved adventure franchise, and just in time for the newest iteration. Skyward Sword, at a glance, looks like just another Zelda, which is enough for most fans but insufficient for me. On top of that, the game boasts a distinct watercolor style, a sky/land dichotomy, and what appears to be an origin story for many of the franchise's trademark elements.

What has me excited is the motion-controlled combat. I loved the MotionPlus combat in Red Steel 2, and Skyward Sword uses the gyroscope add-on to provide needed nuance to Zelda's normally dull swordplay. Comparisons to Punch Out's puzzle-like duels have me salivating all the more.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to experience much of that in Skyward Sword's opening sixty. That's disheartening enough, but Skyward Sword doesn't stop at mere disappointment...the game outright insults me. Take a look:

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