Monday, 16 June 2014

Wii U Round-Up 11

Abyss -- One of the nice things about the eShop is that developers can set their own prices; consequently there are a number of inexpensive, fun little games like this that can be had for the price of a portion of chips. In Abyss you control an undersea probe that looks like a three-legged cyclops octopus and you're trying to avoid walls and collect all the gems before leaving the level. The manual is so bare-bones that, combined with the lack of a tutorial, it's as if you found this old game in a car boot sale and are giving it a go. That might make it sound bad, but it's actually kind of fun figuring everything out, given the amount of hand-holding most modern games give you.

It controls very much like Atari's classic vector acade game Lunar Lander, but thankfully isn't as punishingly hard as that. Nevertheless it is quite challenging, using a "tap tap tap" method of applying thrust to your little guy with one button and rotating left and right to try to skim over rock walls and into gems through twisting caverns. The 2D presentation is very bare bones and mostly black, reflecting the deep sea setting with a graphical filter creatively used to convey the murkiness of the depths. Your probe emits a dim glow that only just reveals your immediate surroundings, but every time you grab a gem the probe temporarily flares up to allow you a quick bearings check. The soundtrack features a nice electronic score and there's a voice that shouts out if you crash into a wall or die, but there's nothing too special to note otherwise. Although there's no time limit (best clear times are recorded) I'd hardly call this a relaxing game due to the tension of trying to navigate through narrow passages, but it's nice to have a go on occasion and it's dead cheap so give it a try.

Colour Zen -- Another budget release, this game started out on a mobile platform. Consequently it's ideally suited for Gamepad-only play, with the TV essentially being for spectators. That diminished role is further underscored by the soundtrack only coming out of the Gamepad speakers (use headphones for best quality) and the inability to play without looking at the Gamepad itself (be sure to check your display settings to confirm the Wii U image isn't too big for your screen, too).

Watching a video of this game in action is a bit confusing because the goal is a bit abstract in keeping with the title. There's a bunch of coloured shapes on the playfield surrounded by a coloured border and the goal is to drag movable shapes into other shapes to change the colour of the playfield until it matches the surrounding border. It needs to be played to be fully understood and though it seems trivially simple at first glance, becomes quite tricky in later levels. There is no score, no time limit and no statistics: just lots of levels that gradually introduce new rules and mechanics for combining and removing increasingly complex coloured shapes to reach the same goal over and over again.

The ambient electronic soundtrack and the gentle nature of play make for a relaxing, but stimulating experience. A kids version with fun animal shapes and (likely) a simpler rule set is due out this summer (June 2014) so the whole family can chill together - do give it a look!

Earthbound (VC:SNES) -- When this game hit the eShop there was an outpouring of almost religious ecstasy from certain quarters. Many old-time gamers had thought it would never see release due to copyright or other concerns after years of hoping for a release on the Wii Virtual Console were left frustrated. Naturally I had to see what the fuss was all about, though the Japanese Role Playing Game is not one of my favourite genres, historically. Xenoblade Chronicles changed my perceptions so I thought maybe I could really sink my teeth into this game, but ultimately it only reinforced my original view of RPGs as ultimately unrewarding time sinks.

If you're receptive to the idea of a story-based game with turn-based combat and no demand of button-pressing skills then Earthbound will likely hook you as it did me. The cute Charlie Brown-looking characters and silly tone are quite endearing and make you want to see where the story will go next. Underlying the absurdity of the monsters you face and character dialogue are positive messages about friendship and self-sacrifice for the good of others, but sadly in the end you're faced with a bit of a slog thanks to needlessly annoying back-tracking and limited save opportunities before the most ludicrous gauntlet and final boss battle I've ever seen.

Money is plentiful as are bonus items to buy, but inventory management can be a wee bit annoying given the limited slots of your party members and the need to phone up a service to come and take away a paltry number of items to store or retrieve for later use. Travel between cities can be a bit of a chore until you discover how to teleport, but the requirement for space around the characters to perform the accompanying animation makes it more annoying than it should be to use a short cut. It's a bit surprising considering other things the game designers did to make things a bit easier like have a house in many towns where you can buy a hint of what to do next if you get stuck.

The ability to create a save point anywhere thanks to the Virtual Console interface is great, but doesn't make random monster encounters that drain your party's health at inopportune times any less annoying or the epic length final boss encounter any less tedious. I can't say I regret playing it, but it definitely suffers from the idea that length is what makes a journey epic rather than the scope of the story. Xenoblade is epic in scope and length, but unlike Earthbound the length is controlled by the player to a large extent, the world is fun to explore and the story pays off in spectacular fashion without making you pay a price in tedium to make it feel like you've earned the right to see the end.

If you're new to the genre I'd strongly suggest trying something lighter and more fun like Opoona instead. I'm sure Earthbound fans would be perfectly happy to tell me how I'm wrong and that this is a brilliant game, so if you're a fan of JRPGs and haven't tried this do give it a go - just don't be afraid to call it quits after 15-20 hours of play!

F-Zero (VC:SNES) -- This is another classic Nintendo franchise I couldn't be bothered to try previously on the Wii. I think I may have played it on a friend's Super Nintendo along with Super Mario Kart, but it clearly didn't leave as lasting an impression as the latter.

I'm not a huge fan of lap-based racing games, but anything with a twist gets my attention and being a sci-fi racer with a great soundtrack was enough for me to give it a go. The graphics are pretty impressive for their era, with the low-set racers providing a nice sensation of speed accentuated by using the shoulder buttons for hairpin turns that would be impossible in vehicles with wheels. I have yet to win a cup, but I'm getting there - if only I can drag myself away from Mario Kart 8! Fans of the old school should give it a try, but I doubt you'll have much luck selling the kids on this one over more modern racing games on the Wii U.