Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker (2014)

One of my favorite features from Super Mario 3D World was the inclusion of Captain Toad and his mini-games. Clearly, many others also adored those mini-games as Nintendo developed a full game using the base concept from Super Mario 3D World. Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is a puzzle-platformer adventure game. The main objective is to progress through small stages and collect stars and gems along the way.

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Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is a great game to just chill out for some relaxing fun. This is largely due to its simple level design. Levels are small arenas that the player can rotate to get a better view from all sorts of different angles. Captain Toad cannot jump or attack, so most levels consist of navigating these small maze-like courses, avoiding enemies and dangerous obstacles, and finding your way to the star, which acts as a goal in every level. Along the way, the player must also collect the 3 gems that are hidden in every level, as some stages later in the game require a certain number of these gems to unlock. These gems are often hidden in plain sight, or at least are fairly easy to guess where they might be hidden. Stages are very compact and quick to navigate through, so even if you are having trouble finding a hidden item it takes no more than a minute or two to play through the entire stage again to get another look. For the most part, the gems are out in the open and you just have to figure out how to get to them. Usually it involves a bit of puzzling or thinking of a not-so-obvious way of navigating these tiny courses. This is in stark contrast to a game like Yoshi’s Woolly World, where the collectibles were obtuse to find and required scouring every inch of a level to unearth them. In Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, there is no obnoxious combing of entire levels to find secrets, they are in plain sight and you just have to figure out how to get to them, which is how collectibles should be handled.

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While I find the level design itself to be both simple and gratifying, I think the visuals of each level are also top-notch. The idea of making most levels a small cube that just floats in the sky is actually pretty cool. Every stage is kind of like a 3D diorama that you can rotate in your hands. This is a unique way of exploring all sorts of different environments, which is a key element of any adventure game, but it takes out all the long treks and expanses of nothingness between each important zone. It also allows the developers to space out any theme they want, rather than playing them in big chunks. In traditional adventure games, if you enter a snowy area for example, you know that you are going to be exploring that snow-covered area and that area alone for the next few hours, and after a while seeing the same environment over and over can just get dull. I enjoy the fact that the themes can be spread out across the game instead of having to play them all at once. You can always expect some fun places to explore in a Nintendo game, and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is no exception. There are plenty of visually appealing environments and atmospheric areas to discover.

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While I did enjoy Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, I feel like there was a lot of missed potential here. Nintendo does not have a puzzle game franchise, and I feel like there was perfect opportunity to make Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker into a puzzle game series. Instead, we got a platforming-adventure-puzzle hybrid, which is fine, but the puzzle elements are fairly lacking. Most puzzles in this game are just involve hitting a switch which changes the stage and opens up a new path to the goal. There are no truly head scratching moments or things that make you really think about how to proceed. There are a couple of optional challenges that the game provides that are interesting, like limiting how many times you can hit a switch during a particular stage. These are fairly uncommon though and are entirely optional. Some levels show a good deal of potential and made me think that I was going to keep track of all the different forms the stage takes from hitting a button, and then hit the buttons in the correct order to progress forward. In reality, you just kind of progress forward and hit the buttons along the way, there is not much thinking involved. I was never really thoroughly impressed by any of the levels, and as a whole the game lacks a “wow” factor.

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Not every game has to be an industry-changing, genre-defining game. Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is just fine for what it is: a short, clever, charming, and relaxing adventure. If you are looking for a cute adventure game with a few platforming and puzzle elements, then this game is perfect for you. This is not an ambitious title that will shape the industry for years to come, but it does not pretend to be. It’s just a simple little adventure game that you can meander your way through. For these reasons I give Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker a 7/10. I enjoyed the calming pace and nature of this game, but there is definitely some untapped potential here.

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Yoshi’s Woolly World (2015)

Mario’s beloved dinosaur companion returns in this fuzzy platforming adventure. Nintendo has a large number of platforming IPs, each main character having a unique array of abilities to set the games apart. To go along with that, they all have drastically different difficulty levels. Starting with the slow and forgiving Kirby, Yoshi is the next step in difficulty, followed by Mario, and finally Donkey Kong. Kirby games tend to be introductory platformers and tend to bore more experienced players, so I was hoping to find the sweet spot of relaxing and difficult with Yoshi’s Woolly World. While the base levels of Yoshi’s Woolly World are fairly simple, there is a high variance in the difficulty of the game depending on many of the collectibles you try to obtain.

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Like most other Nintendo platformers, trying to collect the collectibles scattered throughout each level is a way of stepping up the difficulty for players who are looking for an additional challenge. Yoshi’s Woolly World takes this concept to the next level. Each level has 4 main collectibles for the player to find, and each has an individual purpose. There are yarns, flowers, stamps, and hearts, the two most important are the yarns and flowers. The plot of Yoshi’s Woolly World is that evil wizard Kamek unravels all of the Yoshis, who are made of yarn and scatters them across the land. Collecting all the yarns in a specific level essentially rescues one of those Yoshis and lets you play using their unique color scheme. If you collect every flower in all 8 levels of a specific world, you unlock a hidden bonus level, which is a shame because these bonus levels were generally my favorite and it is unfortunate that they are hidden behind collectibles. Stamps and hearts do not provide much for the player, but if you go through the trouble of getting all the yarns and flowers, you might as well go for 100% and get a golden star for finding everything. Personally, I generally like collectibles in games, but I feel like Yoshi’s Woolly World went about them the wrong way.

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Gathering collectibles in games is an optional task, and is best left that way because not all players love collecting. In Yoshi’s Woolly World, the player is heavily incentivized to collect things to save their Yoshi companions and to unlock hidden levels. Unfortunately, I do think that the collectibles were handled properly.  In a platformer, collectibles should be gated behind a platforming challenge, maybe a set of tough, consecutive jumps. Or in the case of Yoshi, whose special ability is that he can throw eggs, maybe have collectibles be an aiming challenge. Occasionally, there could be hidden areas that the player can spot if they are perceptive which hide collectibles. In Yoshi’s Woolly World, the vast majority of the collectibles are hidden in those secret types of areas. It even goes further than that, many collectibles are hidden inside invisible clouds or walls that the player cannot spot unless they physically touch it. So, if you are looking for collectibles you essentially have to constantly jump around and bump into every wall, ceiling, and touch every inch of the screen if you want to find these invisible objects. This is not ok, it slows down the pace of the game tremendously and makes progressing through levels tedious rather than entertaining. And if you miss something you have to go through the whole level again doing the same thing just to find one missing item. Most of the time I had to replay levels 2 or 3 times before I found the invisible final item nonsensically floating in the middle of the sky somewhere. It turns the game from a platformer into some sort of treasure hunt, where the treasures are hidden illogically and with the sole intention of wasting your time.

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Perhaps I hurt the experience for myself by going for the 100% completion, but I am not sure if I would have been engaged without searching for the collectibles. My suggestion for newer players is to hunt for whatever collectibles are on screen, but do not obsess over them as they are a giant time sink. It is a shame because then you won’t get to save Yoshis friends and you won’t get to play the great bonus levels, but they are not worth the time required to unlock them. If you complete the game regularly and want more, then definitely go back and try to 100% every level, but don’t ruin the game for yourself by going for all the collectibles right off the bat.

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The levels of Yoshi’s Woolly World are fairly easy, as I would expect from a Yoshi game, which is why I was going for the collectibles in the first place. What I liked about the level design was that every single level was unique. Every level had a sort of gimmick in place that was the central theme of the level. Ropes that you grab and swing on, bubbles that you bounce on, creating your own platforms by tossing eggs,  these are just a few examples but every single level has some sort of twist to it. I liked this as the game constantly felt fresh and there were no “throw away” levels that are there just to pad the content. My big issue was that everything just felt kind of slow. Outside of the secret levels, all but a few of the levels you just kind of waddle along at your own pace without immediate threats or danger. I guess I should have expected this out of easier platforming game, but I feel like this is how collectibles could have been used to improve the experience. Maybe collectibles could disappear after some time has passed as a way of speeding up the player, or have a series of optional jumps that increase difficulty for experienced players. I felt stuck in a sort of limbo, the game was too easy and not engaging when just played normally, but was a tedious scavenger hunt when I went for the collectibles.

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Outside of the uniquely and memorable gimmicks in every level, there are a few other features to this game that make it appealing. First, and most obviously, is the phenomenal art direction. Taken straight out of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, I absolutely love the visuals of this game. Everything is made of woven yarn and wool, and there is a ton of attention to detail to keep it all looking like it was handcrafted. These knitted characters and worlds are adorable, whimsical, and charming, it is probably my favorite feature of the game. It is especially cute whenever you get to play alongside Yoshi’s new canine pal Poochy, I mean who doesn’t love a good dog?  There is also a co-op mode so you can play with a friend, or maybe your kid as this a good platformer for beginners. Another cool feature is the ability to buy power-ups through gems that you collect in the levels. You will have an overabundance of these gems and it could be pretty fun to spend them to give Yoshi powerful abilities. Lastly, I think this game is probably an appropriate difficulty level for young kids. It is definitely a little tougher than Kirby games, but not as hard as Mario or Donkey Kong. I just think that there should have been a good way of stepping up the difficulty for more experienced players. I absolutely loved the hidden levels of this game, they were fast, fun, and had some challenging platforming. If the whole game had similar level design this would have been a must play game in my opinion, but there are so few of these levels and they are hidden behind an irritating collectible system.

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Overall, I think Yoshi’s Woolly World is a decent game. While I spent a lot of time ranting over its obnoxious collectible system, I don’t think most players will even attempt to collect most of them. And while for someone who is more familiar with platformers the game is slow and easy, it is the perfect difficulty for its intended audience. As someone who grew up playing the original Yoshi’s Island, maybe I expected too much out of this game, but I felt seriously stuck between the game being too easy when played normally, and flat out annoying when playing for collectibles. Still, the whimsical charm and creativity of Yoshi’s Woolly World is sure to impress. For these reasons, I give Yoshi’s Woolly World a 6.5/10. It is great as an introductory platformer, but I feel that it offers little outside of that.

Should games journalists be good at games?

The controversial question that many gamers have been recently asking is this: do reviewers have to be good at the games that they review?  This all started from the DOOM Polygon disaster last year, in which a Polygon reviewer was sent to preview the new DOOM game and record some footage. Here is that footage. Whoever Polygon chose to send to this event and preview DOOM for the world to see clearly has never played an FPS before and it showed in their anemic gameplay. This sparked a bit of a controversy and led to this question at hand. This question has recently shown its face again, similarly it is from a 30-minute preview of an upcoming game, this time the game is Cuphead. WARNING, this video is painful to watch for anyone who as ever played a video game. In the 30-minute-long video, the games journalist fails to even complete the first level of Cuphead and does not seem to grasp the basics. Hell, he spends 2 minutes trying to complete a single jump in the tutorial. This shameful display has resurfaced and reignited the debate if game journalists should be good at the games that they play.

To me, the answer to the question is fairly obvious. People who review games for a living absolutely need to be good at them. In the two previously mentioned examples, it would be very unfair for those 2 journalists to give their opinion on games that they clearly have no business playing. The games would be horribly misrepresented, as the reviewers would give their perspective from somebody who does not even know how to play the game. Now to be fair, people may be more experienced with certain genres of games, but if that is the case, do not review a game from a genre that you are clearly bad at. I think most people would tend to agree that reviewers have to have a decent level of competency to review a game.

The real question for me is, can reviewers be just average at games, or do they actually have to be fairly good? My mentality at first was “just don’t suck”, but my opinion has changed let me explain why. Originally, I figured that as long as journalist had a basic level of skill and were average at the game, they could give an accurate review of a game. I mean, most people are average, so a reviewer who is also average would have opinions that tend to align with the majority, right? Probably, but that does not qualify them to explain what makes the games they are discussing good or bad. Sure, they could talk about some surface level stuff, but a lot of games are great because of the small details, because of the things an average player would not notice, but they are still there.

Just like in movies, an average viewer like myself could tell you if a movie was good or bad. But if you ask me about narratives, cinematography, lighting, audio design, CGI, editing, the director, etc., I would be completely lost. I can view it as the whole, but I cannot break it down and explain what makes it successful. The same applies to video games. A casual player cannot pick apart a game and explain the minutiae that all come together to make one cohesive experience. Dark Souls for instance may seem to be just an average fantasy RPG at first glance, but most people who play it agree that it is one of the best and most influential games ever made. The leveling system, lore, enemy design, visuals, world building, level design, unforgiving attitude, and the online aspects make for an extraordinary experience. I will not go into details as that is for my upcoming Dark Souls review, but many reviewers and average players just glance over these details and what makes them work so effectively.

As a sort of aside note, I wish everyone would stop referring to hard games as “Dark Souls of X-genre”. Yes, Dark Souls is notorious for its difficulty, but that isn’t the only factor about the game. When I see games like Cuphead, which has no similarities to Dark Souls other than its difficulty, being referred to as the “Dark Souls of run-and-guns” my soul hurts a little bit. Game comparisons can be valid, but they actually have to make sense and be more related than just the difficulty level of the game. For example, Hollow Knight is Dark Souls-esque because of its looping level design, checkpoint system, visuals, ambiguous lore, intense boss fights, death and soul system, unforgiving and hostile world, and its difficulty. So please stop calling everything “similar to Dark Souls” just because it is hard.

I think games journalists these days are mainly hired for their writing skills or their personalities, rather than their expertise of video games. This is becoming abundantly clear. Harder games often get flak for being too hard, and game reviews do not explain the in-depth mechanics of games and what makes them work. I do not consider myself to be one of the best video game players or an expert, but I do feel like I am good enough to give a valid opinion on the games that I play. People who are paid to professionally play and review games should be experienced enough to understand the inner workings of a game and dissect it, rather than viewing it as a whole. Just like what a professional film critic might do. At the very least, websites like Polygon need stop using people who are wholly incompetent and unable to play games, let alone review them.

Stardew Valley (2016)

There is nothing more relaxing than chilling out and maintaining your farm in the calming Stardew Valley. This Harvest Moon inspired game is the brainchild of a single developer, ConcernedApe. Can this farming simulator overcome the pitfalls of the other games in its genre? In some ways yes, but I feel like the same problems that plague this genre also drag down Stardew Valley. Regardless of this, Stardew Valley is the perfect comfy game to just sit down and relax and play for a while.

From start to finish, Stardew Valley is undeniably charming. The great pixel art and sprite work, bright visuals, and upbeat music keep this game cheerful. The main character inherits a farm from their grandfather, and uses it as an escape from a soulless corporate world. It is your job to restore this run-down farm and maintain it for years to come. There is so much that needs to be done, and that is what makes Stardew Valley so addictive at the start.

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Through the clever use of quests, Stardew Valley subtly directs the player into the many different tasks that must be completed. Open-ended games like this can often lack a feeling of direction and the player can either become overwhelmed or they feel like there is no point to doing anything. This is not the case in Stardew Valley, helping out the villagers of Pelican Town is certainly rewarding and gratifying. But the real goal I found myself working towards was restoring the community center. Early in the game, you learn of the dilapidated community center, and you discover the secret that magical creatures known as Junimos are living there. They will help you restore the community center if you bring them all sorts of different materials.

All of the different crops, ores, fish, foraged goods, and other special materials that you collect will  be needed to fully restore the community center. There are dozens of bundles that require specific materials to complete, and you get a small reward for each bundle, as well as a big reward for completing all of the bundles in one of the rooms. These big rewards were very satisfying as they often opened up new areas and I could not wait to see what the next big reward would be. The use of the community center as a central goal was very clever, as it does not force the player into doing anything, but it serves as a sort of guideline as to what can be done. Whenever I felt like I had run out of things to do in this game, I took a look at what was needed in the community center and realized there was plenty that I had not explored or played around with. This sort of direction is desperately needed in an open-ended game like this. Unfortunately, once I had finished the community center, I felt like this game just lost its purpose.

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Games like this can often get repetitive, and Stardew Valley certainly does not avoid this later on in the game. Once you get your farm up and running, you have to spend good portion of your limited daily time and energy to just water the crops, take care of the animals, make artisan goods, and whatever else needed to be done that day. Eventually you just get into a cycle that you cannot break, and it started to get repetitive and draining for me. I know many people may find it relaxing to do the same tasks over and over, but once I got into this late game cycle I found it to be very boring. I had bought everything and was gaining money hand over fist, so I did not even feel like there was a point to this tedium. This combined with the lack of direction that the game had once I completed the community center made for a very monotonous late game.

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There were a few other issues I had with Stardew Valley. One of them being that while I mainly looked to this game as a source of relaxation, I felt like some of the main tasks in this game could get pretty frustrating. In particular, the fishing mini-game was aggravating and so much of time spent fishing just sitting around waiting for a fish to bite. Also, combat in this game is reminiscent of NES-era games like the original Legend of Zelda. This is not a good thing. While combat is a minor part of Stardew Valley, I feel like it often gets in the way while am trying to mine for resources. My last issue with Stardew Valley is that while it does a great job with its delayed gratification, I feel like it sometimes it goes overboard with using time from keeping the player from progressing. Certain tasks can only be completed in specific seasons, so if you want to do that thing, you are going to have to wait a while. As I was almost done with the community center, there were long stretches of days I just had to wait around before I could do anything of significance to further myself to completing my goal.

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As I said, Stardew Valley is usually pretty great when it comes to delaying gratification, but keeping you hooked while you wait. Most things in Stardew Valley take a while before you can start reaping their benefits. Planting crops, upgrading tools, adding new buildings, renovating your house, raising animals, making artisan goods, all of these things require a few days before they become profitable. But as you are waiting for that big payoff, there is still plenty to be done. Fishing, mining, foraging, or just cleaning up your farm were enough to suffice and keep me entertained while I waited.

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As a whole, I did thoroughly enjoy Stardew Valley. For the first 3 seasons, I was addicted and could not stop playing it. For the next couple of seasons, I still enjoyed it, but I could feel the tedium and repetitive nature of the game arise. In the final seasons that I played, I just kept going so I could have that one final payoff of finishing the community center. I just wish there was some more engaging tasks to be done while waiting for those final items to be attainable. Maybe Stardew Valley is not my type of game, as this is not a genre that I play very often, but the repetitiveness definitely wore me out after some time. That being said, even though this is not a genre that I typically play, I still really loved the first few seasons of this game. I would highly recommend it to anybody who likes these types of games. Overall, I have to give Stardew Valley an 8/10. It does run into the same issues as its predecessors, but is fantastic otherwise. If you are looking for a relaxing game to play, look no further than Stardew Valley.