Comic Books, At the Library?!

It’s certainly been a while, faithful readers of GIMMGP.  Laura and I have been working the weeks away on some super-secret projects that we hope to unveil soon, so look forward to that day (whenever it may be)!  In the little bit of spare time I manage to scrape up at a day’s end, I have been reading plenty of comic books which I borrowed from the library.

Thanks to the massive catalog at our local branch, I have discovered several superhero one-shots that slipped under my radar during their initial release.  These paneled pages have been a soothing balm for my electronics weary eyes after a long day of technology-filled work and play.  Allow me to share some of my favorite titles from these library excursions.

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Superman: Red Son

Let me be frank at the commencement: I don’t care for Superman comics.  Perhaps it’s the overly good-natured character, or simply the idea that at his power level, no foe should be too great yet the Man of Steel keeps getting subverted by evildoers.  Something about his nigh-invincible abilities laced under the tropes of classic superhero comics has made the character and the stories around him rather uninteresting to me.  In spite of this, there are some titles starring Superman that I find to be genuinely engaging and Red Son is one of these tales.

RedSon2The premise of Red Son is a seemingly simple twist on the classic origin: instead of landing in Kansas, what if Superman happened to land in the Soviet Union?  From this basic idea, an alternate history of the Cold War unfolds with Kal-El going from benevolent Russian super-citizen to paranoid Big Brother-esque dictator.  On the side of the Americans is famed scientist Lex Luthor, whose attempts to balance the power between nations leads to the creation of major villains from the Superman universe.  Just as there are analogues to villains like Brainiac and Bizarro, there are alternate versions of heroes like Batman (a disenfranchised KGB agent) and Hal Jordan (leader of the Green Lantern Marine Corps).  All of these intriguing characters and twists on the traditional Superman story are wrapped up in fantastic artwork, full of highly detailed backgrounds and colorful character redesigns.  I would recommend this comic for anyone who has given up on the Man of Steel, or for those who love the Last Son of Krypton and are looking for their next fix.

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Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil

Before I realized who wrote this title, I had little interest in reading it.  Captain Marvel was never on my radar, save for the occasional shouting of “SHAZAM!” as a sort of pseudo-inside joke.  Then I heard that Jeff Smith, the fantastic author of my beloved Bone comics, penned this superhero tale.  And so began the rapid devouring of The Monster Society of Evil.

Shazam2Mr. Smith’s take on Captain Marvel is a perfect jumping-off point for any novice to the classic superhero.  A fresh look at young Billy Batson’s encounter with the wizard who would tie him to his magical alter-ego provides a proper origin story at the start of this four issue series.  From this not-so-chance meeting, Billy Batson gains the power to utter a magic word and become Captain Marvel, the world’s mightiest mortal!  This comic is chock full of heart, featuring plenty of bombastic superhero moments that frame a touching story of an orphan who finds a new family in the city he dares to protect.  In addition to the great story and emotive artwork, the collected trade of Shazam! features a making of section that glimpses Jeff Smith’s production notes and compares his work to the original comics from the 1940s.  I would recommend this comic to kids and the adults who still have a spark of childhood joy from comic book magic.

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Kingdom Come

Now we come to the biggie, the crème de la crème, the best superhero comic I have read in years.  Kingdom Come is from the DC Elseworlds imprint (read: the fun comics that don’t interfere with their oddball continuity) and details a story from a future universe where a conflict grows between the Justice League and their mostly amoral offspring.  What results is a fascinating tale that unfolds around a seemingly simple character: a sullen minister named Norman McCay.

KingdomCome2At the outset of Kingdom Come, Norman McCay visits a dying Wesley Dodds (the original Sandman) and the passing superhero transfers grisly visions of impending doom to the minister.  Shortly after, Norman is visited by The Spectre, who recruits him to pass judgment at the approaching superhuman apocalypse.  Norman is whisked behind the scenes as the old guard of superheroes (including a mourning Superman, a sullen and aged Batman, and the ever battle-ready Wonder Woman) deals with the destruction and chaos of a new breed of superhumans, many of which are their own children.  An interesting parallel between the scriptures of Revelations and the acts of these titans is made, and Norman (along with the reader) is caught in the background; merely a spectator to the oncoming tragedy.  This comic features the amazing artwork of Alex Ross, whose painted work feels like a glimpse of photographs from another reality.  I would highly recommend this comic to everyone, particularly those who think that superhero comics have become silly and childish, with no message of hope to be had in their overly dark pages.

There you have it, fair readers.  While I have managed to ingest other solid comic books from our library, nothing comes close to these three great stories.  If you are looking for more articles to scratch your comic book itch, be sure to pop over to Geek Force Network, where I have recently highlighted several great indie comics (and video games!).  While you’re at it, why not check out your local library?  It might surprise you to see how much sequential art is nestled right beside the summer reading program lists.

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Co-op Recommendation: Battleblock Theater

BehemothThe PAXEast Expo Hall is something of an anxiety-producing beast.  There are legions of people packed into a convention center that has been lined with hundreds of booths, and each of these booths is filled with tons of mesmerizing media.  There are cardboard cut-outs and statues, fabulous prizes to be won and little tchotchkes to be gathered; every company and studio wants to grab your attention and get you stoked about their latest products.  Needless to say, attending a video game convention can be quite overwhelming.  Fortunately, Laura and I learned from our very first PAXEast to always visit The Behemoth booth every year, as it is the most inviting and honestly fun place to be on the convention floor.  Besides the neat merchandise and friendly staff, every demo station is built into a faux arcade machine where delightfully cartoony games may be enjoyed by a pair of friends.  It was here that my good friend Bobby and I first encountered Battleblock Theater.

BehemothGameAt the time, we had no idea what sort of game we were playing, or even what our motivation was in this strange world.  There were two adorable characters on the screen, one for each of us, and we led our little heroes through strange obstacle courses filled with acid baths, deadly spikes, and evil kitties.  There was no tutorial, save for a few signs that explained some of the button functions, so much of our time playing was spent experimenting with the game.  The first thing we found was our heroes could fight each other, which led to a few “accidental” deaths (a punch into acid here, a misplaced fireball there).  But not to worry, our characters would respawn immediately, bright, shiny, and new (thank goodness).  Then we noticed that we could stand on each other, as to reach higher items and areas (or to just sit on someone’s head while the other player had a nice nap).  From these simple yet unexplained rules, Bobby and I started to do everything we could to break this game.  We were tossing each other around the maps, bouncing off our heads to grab collectible items, and using our own projectiles to create new combos to destroy our enemies.  In short, this game was awesome and we wanted to play it all day.  But with a growing line behind us and plenty more to see in the Expo Hall, we pulled ourselves from the arcade machine and moved on to other booths.

Two years passed between our initial glimpse of Battleblock Theater and its public debut, but our fevered desire for this silly and fun game never faltered.  I purchased the game from the Xbox Live Arcade on the day of release, eager to find out the story behind our little cartoon friends.  I was not disappointed:

Battleblock Theater has the sort of story my friends and I would make up on the fly while chilling out and enjoying a couple of beers (read: drinking heavily).  I can only imagine how the pitch meeting went over:  “So, there’s a dapper gentleman, and he wants all of his friends to go on a cruise, but then they get shipwrecked on an island of evil cats.  And the cats, see, they put a cursed hat on the gentleman’s head, and then force his friends to compete in death relays for feline amusement.  What do ya think?”  And the narrator, good gravy, let’s talk about this guy.  An over-caffeinated storyteller (who does not pull his punches) comments on the player’s performance and provides all of the dialogue for Battleblock Theater.  So much of the game’s humor comes from the high-spirited and sarcastic comments being force-fed to the player.  These elements perfectly compliment the frantic gameplay and make for a colorful and manic cartoon world.

In an industry that emphasizes the need for high-rez graphics, gritty storylines, and massive online skirmishes, it is nice to see that some studios remember what first brought people to video games: discovery and fun.  The Behemoth makes games that are easy to learn, but they don’t bash the player over the head with rules and tutorials.  This allows each player the opportunity to discover new styles of play hidden within the basic rules of a game.  As Laura and I made our way through the many stages of Battleblock Theater, we continued to find novel ways of getting around and collecting items.  There was no single way to complete a level, and by carving our own path, the experience of play became much more personal and endearing.

In other words: stop what you are doing, grab a friend, and play Battleblock Theater.  It’s a fun time.

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When Attending PAXEast: Some Advice

gimmgp:

Even though Laura and I will not be attending PAXEast this year (those tickets and rooms sold out fast), we wanted to share some advice to all the folks who will be spending their weekend at this massive convention. Please to be enjoying!

Originally posted on Games I Made My Girlfriend Play:

Since it’s creation in 2010, Laura and I have been attending PAXEast, and every year our Video Game Pilgrimage seems to get better.  Now many of you may be asking, “But Chip, how can I personally improve my Penny Arcade Expo experience?  Surely all of the responsibility falls on Masters Gabe and Tycho to make my money seem well spent!”  While it seems that most of the good times you will be having do rely on the coordinators of this convention, we here at GIMMGP have learned many lessons along the way that have made every year at PAX just a little bit better (read: SO MUCH BETTER).  Now we will share these lessons with you, the faithful reader!

Lesson 1: Don’t drive when flying is so much easier.  Laura and I learned this the hard way during our first trip to PAXEast.  From GIMMGP Headquarters, it is a roughly…

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Guest Post: Life With Spoilers

Today on GIMMGP, we have the joy of sharing a post from Cary, the talented writer behind Recollections of Play.  Outside of sharing nostalgic moments in music and gaming on her own blog, Cary also contributes to Geek Force Network and serves as an admin at United We Game.  Please be sure to check out her work at each of these sites; it’s good stuff! 

by Flickr user –nanio- (http://www.flickr.com/photos/nananio/)

by Flickr user –nanio- (http://www.flickr.com/photos/nananio/)

When other gamers learn that my husband and I, two mostly-regular gamers, don’t often play games together, the tandem question that sometimes follows is “what do you do when you both want to play the same game? How do you avoid spoilers?” My answer varies, but it generally boils down to with planning, but it depends on the game. When we get a game that we both want to play, one of us will usually “call” it first (because occasionally we’re still in grade school, haha), or sometimes we debate about it, depending on what other games we have to play at the moment.  If one of us is trying to finish a particular game, then the new game automatically goes to the other person.  And when the new game is played, the other person simply avoids watching. It’s pretty simple (mostly) and it works for us (mostly).  But honestly, that’s only because rarely do our gaming interests cross.  We have about two dozen games in the wings, and of them, there are only a couple that we’ve wanted to play at the same time.     But every now and again, games come along that one of us wants to play while the other remains on the fence. Red Dead Redemption, Sleeping Dogs, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, Batman: Arkham Asylum…these are just some of the games that come to mind where one of us made the purchase with all intents to play while the other stayed at arm’s length. And as bristly as I can get about spoilers, I’ve learned to live them to a certain degree because they’ve often opened my eyes to great games that I might have otherwise missed.

For example, let’s take Arkham Aslyum. While it was a game that excited many, it was one that I wasn’t sure was really for me. I didn’t know much about Batman, I was unsure about the combat system.  I’m bad at stealth, and it just didn’t seem like a game that I’d enjoy. But, in my own wishy-washy way, I also didn’t want to watch the game because, what if, maybe, it was a game that I should play because everyone else said so? I didn’t just want to go and spoil it! Right? After way too much silent debate, and at my husband’s behest, I finally watched him play through a level; one that he thought wouldn’t spoil things too much. Turned out that I ended up watching him finish the game. It was so fascinating and mindbogglingly good that I couldn’t not watch. I didn’t take the opportunity to play Arkham Asylum, but I was well setup to play Batman: Arkham City, which I did quite eagerly and immensely enjoyed. And now, even knowing how Arkham Asylum ended and the Joker’s fate, I still want to play through it. The spoilers didn’t ruin anything, they just heightened my interest.

A similar thing is happening now with The Last of Us, which my husband is currently playing. It’s won many accolades and plenty of acclaim from players, but I’ve kept my distance. Though I do love a good story, I’m not a fan of survival horror. I have almost zero patience for dealing with extremely difficult situations in games — not having enough at my disposal, constant death, painful progression. Whatever that says about me notwithstanding, when we got TLoU, it seemed like a game that would constantly keep me on the edge of controller-flinging. So I started out just watching it, and this process, spoilers and all, has allayed a number of my fears. Yes, I now know Joe and Ellie’s beginnings. Sure, I know the state of the world in the game. And I know what’s expected of the player throughout. Though I’ve only been a here-and-there spectator, I now know that it’s a game I want to navigate. As I watch, I’m constantly thinking about how I would get through a particular level or what I would craft in a given moment. The spoilers I’ve witnessed don’t matter much to me because I’m pretty sure that my experience would be completely different from that of my husband’s, especially since we each have different approaches with story-driven games.

I’m not going to get to TLoU any time soon, so my knowledge of it will probably fade by the time I do, but I’m grateful knowing that it’s not a game I should avoid just because of my own preconceived limitations. I’ve come to term with game spoilers, and I generally welcome them if only because they sometimes help to expand my horizons, which is always a good thing, even when my mind tells me otherwise. It doesn’t know everything, after all.

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Community Post: The Duck’s Top Five Mario Levels

To close the month of February, a handful of writers from United We Game are going to be sharing a series of community posts focusing on the fun and fantastic levels from the Super Mario games.  Every day this week, a new post from a different author will show up here on GIMMGP.  Additionally, all of these posts will hit across other blogs like Recollections of Play, Niall’s RamblingsCheeese Toastie and Video GamesGamer Crash, and The Duck of Indeed.  Today’s post comes from The Duck of Indeed.  So jump on in and enjoy the Mario Mania all week long!

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United We Game’s February community posts continue, with today being the day the Duck will present you all with my entry on the topic of levels in the “Mario” series.  Gamer or not, pretty much everyone’s heard of Mario, and there’s a reason this squat plumber is so popular even after people have been playing his games for over three decades.  Because the games have something in them for everyone.  They have good, old platforming goodness through a wide variety of environments, an innocent charm that people of all ages can enjoy, challenge (and boy, can they be challenging), not to mention princesses to save and big Koopa Kings to toss.  There are so many “Mario” levels out there, and yet they still manage to find ways to do something new with each one and make them stand out from the rest.  So I decided for my post that I would list my top five “Mario” levels, and to make it fair, I am going to list my top level from each of my five main “Mario” games in order from least favorite to top favorite.  The games I considered for this post span 1991-2010, “Super Mario World”, “Super Mario 64”, “Super Mario Sunshine”, and the two “Super Mario Galaxy” games.

5. Okay, this first one is not strictly my favorite level from a particular game.  I chose it more because I have some good memories associated with this level that I can’t really claim to have with the others.  This level is Stand Tall on the 4 Pillars, which is found in Shifting Sand Land from “Super Mario 64”.  In this level, you go into the pyramid and fight the boss, called the Eyerock (consisting of two hands with an eye on each palm, a surprisingly common boss in games), for a star.  As I hinted at before, the level itself is not that exciting, but the last time I played this game was the very first time in about 10 years of owning it that I finally got 100%.  And this particular playthrough consisted of my very first time through this level.  Ever.  So, for one thing, getting to play an entirely new level in a game I had been trying to beat for a decade was pretty exciting, which is one cause for my fond memories of it.  The other reason is what took place while I was playing it.

I remember I was relaxing in my most comfortable chair one afternoon playing this game.  It was quite a peaceful time, and for some inexplicable reason, my cat, Alex, decided to jump onto the chair with me, which he had never done before and never did ever again.  The chair was much too small for the two of us, so he had to settle with largely laying on my lap, making it that much more fun to play the game.  And this happened to be during this very level, which was also a surprise, considering it was my first time through it and my first time ever seeing this boss.  And so I will forever have pleasant memories of playing this level one lazy afternoon with a comfy chair and a cat on my lap.

4. My next favorite level comes from “Super Mario Galaxy”.  This level, despite not being a fan of the fiendish creature called the bee one bit, is Bee Mario Takes Flight, a level in the HoneyHive Galaxy.  And I just love it, for many reasons.  To start, it’s just such a cute level.  It’s so bright and colorful, with cute, cheery music.  And then there’s the bees.  Not just Bee Mario, but the regular bees in the level.  While most bees are terrifying and evil, these bees are just so darn adorable!  I’m not kidding you!  They are so cute!  They are plump and fluffy, and they make adorable sounds when you go up to them.  Honestly, it’s mainly the adorable bees that make me love this level, not just Bee Mario, even though he can be pretty useful, the way he can fly and climb around on certain surfaces.  But, I guess in the end, it’s really the adorable bees that make this level great.  This level and the bees that populate it are the bee’s knees.

3. My next favorite level kind of bends the rules a bit.  This one comes from “Super Mario Galaxy 2”, and my favorite level from this game is, without a doubt, Return of the Whomp King from the Throwback Galaxy.  I’m kind of cheating here because, oh, my gosh, this is actually a level from “Super Mario 64”!  A bit ironic, as I honestly was not a huge fan of “Super Mario 64” (it was so darn hard, and that’s why it took me a decade or so to beat!), but this level was just so great because of the pure nostalgia.  This level is a replica of the second world from “Super Mario 64”, complete with the same delightful music and everything.  And it makes me happy because it was a world I actually liked from “Super Mario 64” (because, unlike most of the game, it was much easier).  Then, you get to fight some Whomps.  I like Whomps.  They look goofy.  (Even though we all know Thwomps are better.)

2. My second favorite level comes from “Super Mario World”, the Donut Ghost House.  I always liked the ghost houses.  They were creepy, with the spooky music and the dark interiors, not to mention all the ghosts (the big ones were so freaky!), and they were confusing, with all the doors and the strange order in which you had to go through them in order to escape, but that was what made them fun.  And I just love those old-fashioned Boos.  Adorable.  Except the ones that follow you when you look away.  That’s rather scary.  And so, since these levels were my favorites from the game, I just chose this one because it’s the first and because it’s the easiest.  Easy is good.

1. And my favorite “Mario” level, as you’d expect, comes from my favorite “Mario” game, “Super Mario Sunshine”, despite this one being the most different, but maybe that’s why I liked it.  I love this game, and I always loved Noki Bay most of all, a rather beautiful place with peaceful music and towering cliffs (which are, oh, so fun to climb), and I actually found the water to be even prettier when it was purple and polluted.  This level was so lovely and had such fun platforming that I always loved visiting it.  And as odd as it is, my favorite level in this place was Eely-Mouth’s Dentist, where you go underwater and clean the teeth of this giant eel.  The boss music in this game is quite awesome and epic (even when you’re playing dentist), and I just found it so darn satisfying cleaning up all those filthy teeth (except it was gross when some of them came out).  Maybe I’m a weirdo for getting such a rush from cleaning eel teeth, but I did, and that’s why I found this level to be awesome.

Duck, Dentist of Eel Teeth

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Community Post: Mario, You Lead and I Shall Follow

To close the month of February, a handful of writers from United We Game are going to be sharing a series of community posts focusing on the fun and fantastic levels from the Super Mario games.  Every day this week, a new post from a different author will show up here on GIMMGP.  Additionally, all of these posts will hit across other blogs like Recollections of Play, Niall’s RamblingsCheeese Toastie and Video GamesGamer Crash, and The Duck of Indeed.  Today’s post comes from cary of Recollections of Play.  So jump on in and enjoy the Mario Mania all week long!

by Flickr user ManuelSagra (http://www.flickr.com/photos/manuelsagra/)

by Flickr user ManuelSagra (http://www.flickr.com/photos/manuelsagra/)

No matter how many times Mario’s adventures are hashed and rehashed, games that prominently feature that famous plumber, his princess, and that evil dinosaur we call Bowser, remain fresh, fun, and playable dozens of times over. Mario games are level-driven games — you’ve got to make your way through stages or levels in a series of worlds in order to reach the final battle with Bowser. And only a few games, like Paper Mario and Super Mario RPG, have deviated from the platformer tradition started by Super Mario Bros. Despite that fact the games usually contain worlds of similar themes, each is unique in presentation and design. Even so, I will never cheer upon traversing a snowy/icy world because Mario is already slippery enough, no matter how many penguin suits he owns. I will never get excited for those pre-Bowser, fire worlds, as I will never have enough patience with lava and fireballs. So when it comes to my favorite Mario levels, there will be nary an ice storm or fire waterfall in site. But there will be something “big.” Curious? Read on!

Big Island (Level 4): Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)

You’re going to find a recurring theme in my list — I like oversized Mario things. I really can’t explain why, but I’m almost certain that the seed for this quirk was planted upon first playing around in Big Island in Super Mario Bros. 3. So like the moniker says, everything on Big Island, is …well big. The koopas, the goombas, the piranha plants, heck, even the clouds and backdrops are larger than life. I simply find it highly enjoyable to be a little Mario running around a land of giants, and being able to squash those giants as easily as anything!

Yoshi’s Island (Level 1): Super Mario World (SNES)

Last week I wrote a post for UWG on the importance of any given game’s first mission or level or quest, and in it I mentioned how most Mario games have great lead-in levels. Yoshi’s Island in Super Mario World is a perfect example of this. Not only does this level contain a plethora of Yoshies (my favorite Mario character), but it’s a fun place to be generally. The individual worlds aren’t extremely difficult to traverse and there’s plenty to stomp on and collect. Plus, it introduces some of the best Mario musical theme renditions available.

Tiny-Huge Island (Level 13): Super Mario 64 (N64)

Following in my preference for all-large-things-Mario is Tiny-Huge Island from Super Mario 64. But as much fun as it is to take on gargantuan enemies, this level is especially wonderful because it can be played in two different ways, with or without the giants. And it’s not just a matter of choosing to play one way or the other, you must play the level both ways, often switching between the tiny and huge, in order to get all the stars. Tiny-Huge Island occurs somewhat late in the game, and after repeatedly going through static level after static level, the notion of working through a level that changes, if only through the size of the enemies, is refreshing and welcome.

The “Invincible” Tubba Blubba (Level 3): Paper Mario (N64)

I hold the two Paper Mario games I’ve played in pretty high regard as I enjoy not only the turn-based style of combat and the games’ stories, but I simply adore the graphics. It looks like the characters were all colored in and cut out of a coloring book — so cute! The “Invincible” Tubba Blubba level sticks out in my mind because it contains friendly boos. Little, ghostly boos have been haunting and taunting Mario for years, but in Paper Mario, Mario has to help save their town from the clutches of the ghost-eating Tubba Blubba. One ghost even helps you along the way! I love the role reversal, as it was something so in contrast to the traditional enemies in Mario games.

Soda Jungle (Level 5): New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U)

Did you think I wasn’t going to end with yet another ode to the oversized?? I recently completed New Super Mario Bros. U and I think it’s the best interpretation going of Mario’s original Princess-saving story. The Soda Jungle is a perilous place with acidic seas and other things to avoid, but it’s also got one level with huge enemies and one level with an enormous wiggler that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It’s also a level with lots of variety, spanning from above ground to underground challenges. But by and large, that introduction to Giant Brick Blocks, Grand Goombas, and Gargantuan Koopa Troopas really made my day; and I love going back to that level simply because it brings me joy to do so.

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Community Post: Mario, The Innovator

To close the month of February, a handful of writers from United We Game are going to be sharing a series of community posts focusing on the fun and fantastic levels from the Super Mario games.  Every day this week, a new post from a different author will show up here on GIMMGP.  Additionally, all of these posts will hit across other blogs like Recollections of Play, Niall’s RamblingsCheeese Toastie and Video GamesGamer Crash, and The Duck of Indeed.  Today’s post comes from Derek of Gamer Crash.  So jump on in and enjoy the Mario Mania all week long!

RavenBig

My childhood was dominated by Nintendo, its fearless red plumber and his crew. My first exposure to the world of video games came when I was very young with the Nintendo Entertainment System and of course, Super Mario Bros. It’s safe to say, I was hooked for life after pushing the jump button on the controller for the very first time. I’ve gone on countless adventures with Mario from his 8 bit days, all the way to modern times so there’s a lot of material to draw from when thinking about what aspects of a franchise you love. Have you ever stopped to think about why the Mario franchise continues to be a force after all these years?

As any person who is invested in games can tell you, the levels themselves are what make these platformer games great. I mean, think about it for a moment. Pretty much 100% of your time is spent running and jumping through them so if the levels are boring or poorly made, the game as a whole will suffer. That’s the key to understanding why Mario is consistently great. It’s the level design that shines through.

The tricky part then becomes trying to narrow down a gigantic list of Mario levels into just a handful of favorites. It’s almost like trying to pick a favorite child, pretty much impossible. So instead, I’m going to look back at some incredible innovations and trends that Mario has started by highlighting some of his bigger moments and legacy. The really interesting aspect here is that for decades, Mario has led the platforming charge. Typically, Mario innovates and others work to catch up.

Lets begin with the original Nintendo Entertainment System and the iconic title, Super Mario Bros. I think we can all agree that prior to this landmark title, the platform genre was incredibly different from what we know. Just booting up the game for the first time, you’re pretty much sent right along without any real instruction. Instinctively, you just know to run to the right and avoid enemies. As the NES ventured on we were also given Super Mario Bros 2 and 3 both of which were extremely different from one another in terms of gameplay and graphics. Each game added additional elements such as new power ups, new enemies, and more diverse bosses. For me, Super Mario Bros 3 still stands as one of the best platformers ever made. Running through those airships and defeating the boss characters for the first time was exhilarating and extremely exciting. I don’t think I’ll ever look at the sun the same way after the second world’s desert and that stupid grinning sun trying to side swipe you.

The Super Nintendo was next and with it came Super Mario World and it’s sequel Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Yoshi’s Island to this day remains in my top 5 games I’ve played, ever. While Super Mario World really opened the door in terms of advancing the genre with its colorful graphics, tight controls, and engaging worlds, Yoshi’s Island took things a step further with a superior presentation on top of already addicting platforming. For one, the game looks like it was made from crayons and felt pens, giving it a unique and memorable look. What’s interesting in this game is that Mario is no longer the star as he’s pretty much rendered helpless as a baby being transported by a horde of Yoshis. As such, the controls are a bit different with Yoshi’s being able to shoot eggs and flutter jump. I can remember bosses in this game being supersized versions of more traditional creatures such as Raphael the Raven. The objective here was to run around on a rotating sphere and ground pound these pegs so they’d hit Raphael on the other side. It was as unique and different a boss battle as I’ve experienced in a platformer. It’s also the first gameplay moment that comes to mind when I’m thinking about Yoshi’s Island.

If you want innovation, look no further than Super Mario 64. It’s amazing to think where we’d be without this title. Mario 64 pretty much kicked off the 3D platformer generation, as other titles worked to try and capture that magic which Mario had unlocked on the Nintendo 64. Seriously, without this game where would Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Bajo-Kazooie, Rayman and others have gone in this era? It’s a hard thing to imagine. Using Princess Peach’s castle as a hub world, collecting starts to unlock new sections, and jumping into and out of paintings to access new levels was pretty much genius. Obviously, Bob-omb’s Battlefield, the first “level” you’re given access to, stands out because it really marks the first time you’re allowed to experience Mario in a 3D world. I can still remember grabbing the wings which let you fly around the level. For a person growing up in the 2D space with Mario, this moment really blew me away. The genre of “platformer” really evolved after this title.

I’m going to jump ahead next right to the Nintendo Wii as Nintendo delivered one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever played when they released the Super Mario Galaxy games. As usual, Nintendo used Mario to once again push the boundaries on what people though were possible with platformers. The twist with “Galaxy” is that Mario is now in space and could visit all of these different galaxies each with their own unique themes. Some were more traditional platform style worlds while others could have Mario running around on a true 3 dimensional shapes. Better yet, Galaxy tapped into a completely new physics system which allowed each celestial object to have its own gravitational force letting the player walk sideways, on the ceiling, or run completely around the object. The Honey-Hive Galaxy still stands out not only for the introduction of the bee suit, but because it was the first galaxy to really remind me of a traditional 3D Mario world in this title. It was a nice break from all the planet hoping at that time.

To me, Mario remains timeless because of the thoughtfulness put into each one of his levels. If you’re someone who has played at least one Mario game in your life, I’m sure you can pick out one or two levels that really stuck with you. That’s some incredible magic and a rare quality that Nintendo is able to tap into game after game. Mario has given us some amazing adventures and memories through the years and here’s to many more to come!

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Community Post: Mario, the Great Peacemaker

To close the month of February, a handful of writers from United We Game are going to be sharing a series of community posts focusing on the fun and fantastic levels from the Super Mario games.  Every day this week, a new post from a different author will show up here on GIMMGP.  Additionally, all of these posts will hit across other blogs like Recollections of Play, Niall’s RamblingsCheeese Toastie and Video GamesGamer Crash, and The Duck of Indeed.  Today’s post comes from Sam Leung of Cheeese Toastie and Video Games.  So jump on in and enjoy the Mario Mania all week long!

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Ah Mario, who doesn’t love you? It’s the one franchise that most gamers and even non-gamers can agree on. Its bright and cartoony graphics, simple controls, lack of any real plot and imaginative and fun characters make most Mario games unintimidating and very accessible for more casual gamers. At the same time, the depth of the levels, wealth of secrets and difficult gameplay at higher levels make it similarly popular with well seasoned gamers. For those of us who have been into gaming for a while, Mario represents a simpler time in games and brings to mind many of our most treasured gaming experiences of our youth. It’s easy to see why Mario remains a much loved franchise and has stuck around much longer than most. And the quality of titles hasn’t really waned. The release of more Mario games is a constant that many of us Nintendo fans have come to rely on, like the sun setting every day. So out of all the Mario games ever made, it’s difficult to choose a few levels as my favourites (also because the specifics of many of the older games have faded from my memory over the years), but below are the 5 that have stuck in my mind after all this time. They may not be the best designed or the most influential, but they all hold a special place in my heart. 

In no particular order:

Mario Bros. – First level

It’s impossible to pick Mario levels without at least considering this one. Personally, it’s still one of my most loved and I can’t help smiling each time I play it. Despite being very simple compared to later levels and games, it always feels like Mario at its purest. It’s where Mario all started and despite missing all the bells and whistles of later games it’s easy to see why it took off from there. It’s an excellent introduction to most of the core concepts that translate across Mario games including smashing blocks to get power-ups, jumping on goombas and using pipes to get to secret areas. I would suggest everyone try it at least once, even if you’ve played all the more modern Mario games. It’s like playing a piece of history.  

Super Mario 64 – Cool, Cool Mountain

There were so many levels of Mario 64 that I loved it’s difficult to choose one. It was the first 3D Mario game and I remember my mind boggling every time I played it. In fact, this game paved the way not just for 3D platforming, but 3D gaming in general. I remember in my youthful naivety genuinely wondering how games could look better than it did then. If only little me could see what games look like now! Mario 64 had its flaws, but generally speaking it was some of the most fun I’d had with a game at that point in my life and I think it still holds up very well today (though some might disagree).

Although most people seem to remember the first and second levels, Bob-omb’s Battlefield and Whomp’s Fortress with the greatest fondness (and awesome levels they are from what I can remember), my personal favourite was Cool, Cool Mountain. Why? Because of those dastardly penguins! Although they’d been around in other Mario and Nintendo games, this was the first time they gained real prominence. Penguins have always seemed to be a source of great distress for many, but I’ve always loved them. In particular, that race down that icy mountain (against a penguin of course) has always stuck in my mind as being equal parts infuriating and wonderful. If you weren’t careful sliding down that icy slope, you could quite easily fall off the edge, which as I remember, was quite often. I remember loving the snow, the sliding mechanic and all the awesome penguiny-ness! I mean come on, giant penguins!

Rainbow Road of Mario Kart 64       

Mario Kart 64 is still one of my favourite racing games, although admittedly I’ve never been a very big racing fan. With its iconic power-ups, silly cast of characters and colourful and imaginative tracks, I’m pretty sure it was love at first play. Combined with the simplicity of the controls and a choice of different speeds, it’s one of those games that’s very easy to get to, but difficult to master. And like so many of the great ‘Mario’ games, it’s incredibly sociable. It’s still one of my games of choice when I have friends over, especially if they’re of the non-gaming variety. It’s also incredibly addictive. It’s never just one race is it? 

My choice of level or track is a very personal one and I may be alone on this, since it seems like most people I’ve played with hate this one. There are certainly much better levels to test your prowess, but this one was my personal track of choice as a kid. When I was a child it looked amazing to my young untrained eyes and I was immediately dazzled by the bright rainbow colours and the space setting. Although it looks unassuming, it’s also much harder than it looks, mainly because the rainbow colour scheme makes your eyes go totally nuts so it’s actually quite difficult to make anything out. Tthe corners are quite sharp and if you lose control of your car mid-air there’s a chance you could go flying off the track and into the desolation of space beyond. Love it!

Super Mario Galaxy – Honey-hive Galaxy

I remember being really confused by the physics system in this game at first, but at the same time really loving the freshness of the core concept. This wasn’t 2D Mario. This wasn’t even 3D Mario. This was crazy on crack Mario like I’d never seen before and I loved it. In this game you travel to various galaxies and worlds. Each planet has its own gravitational pull that draws you in as you get close and allows you traverse the whole surface the world, so you’ll often find yourself upside down or sideways or I don’t even know anymore. You may also have gathered that I really like space. SPACE! SPPPPAAAAAAAAACCCCCE! That’s a reference by the way, I’m not crazy (not completely at least). Don’t be deceived by its bright and friendly exterior either – parts of this game were really, really hard! 

Beeeeeees! Ordinarily I really, really hate bees, but there’s something really awesome about flying and sticking to walls as Bee-Mario. Honey-hive Galaxy is the first time you’re introduced to the bee suit, which other than making Mario look ridiculous allow you to fly in bursts and stick to honeycomb walls. Again, despite its fun and colourful look it’s actually quite challenging at times. There are parts where you can’t touch the floor, which is made of honey and slows you down and other obstacles like ponds that make you lose your bee suit if you touch the water, which are both very fun and pretty difficult. What I loved about it most though, was that it was so different both in aesthetic and gameplay to everything that had come before and perfectly exemplified just how original Super Mario Galaxy was.

New Super Mario Bros – World 3-2

There are so many great levels in this game it’s ridiculous. New Super Mario Bros managed to retain all the things I loved about the classic Mario games, while still making it feel more polished, more fun and completely fresh. It kept and expanded on many of the iconic Mario levels, so there was still your regular lava, ice and water levels for instance, but there were also a vast array of new ones. One of my favourites is a sky-based level full of giant mushrooms that tilt back and forth.

Why? Because it’s just got all the things I love about Mario, while still introducing some new concepts and mechanics. Because the mushrooms are constantly moving and bending, often leaving huge jumps between them, it all comes down to reflex and timing, which I love. It’s inevitably a level that trips my non-gamer friends up as there are fewer places for you to really stop and think. It’s all go, go and go with this level. If you miss the jump you’ll find yourself falling into space with very little chance of making it back up unless you press A and bubble in time (I don’t know if that’s actually the term for it, but it should be). I also just love the look of this level, with the giant mushrooms and bright colours. For me it’s a perfect example of bringing old and new Mario together and is just a ridiculous among of fun.

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Community Post: The World’s Most Talented Plumber

To close the month of February, a handful of writers from United We Game are going to be sharing a series of community posts focusing on the fun and fantastic levels from the Super Mario games.  Every day this week, a new post from a different author will show up here on GIMMGP.  Additionally, all of these posts will hit across other blogs like Recollections of Play, Niall’s RamblingsCheeese Toastie and Video GamesGamer Crash, and The Duck of Indeed.  Today’s post comes from Niall.  So jump on in and enjoy the Mario Mania all week long!

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He’s probably the most iconic video game character of all time, having now appeared in over 200 games and sold over 240 million copies in his time: Mario is a plumber that hasn’t done too bad for himself! This week the United We Game bloggers are going to each be discussing the levels behind the legend, what makes them so good, standout levels and how an Italian plumber ran, jumped, and dropped in their favourite games.

My experiences with Mario started at a young age. I was bought a Nintendo 64 for Christmas and fell in love with Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart, in my mind still two of the finest games he has appeared in to date. To be honest, I’ve not played many more since those days. When I started playing PlayStation and Xbox, I never really looked back. This doesn’t mean I’ve not played any of the more recent titles, I think Super Mario Galaxy was a great game and on the DS, Super Mario World is always a great play.

I figured that the best way for me to do this would be to whittle down all the maps and levels on Mario games and come up with my favourite three.

The first area on my list is going to be Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64. I’m sure many of you are reading that and saying “THAT DOESN’T COUNT IT’S NOT A LEVEL!” And although that is kind of true I still had to put it in here. It was the first Mario game that I’d played and the whole area just seemed so huge to me, the castle had so many possibilities. I remember when I first found out you could get on the roof, but wasn’t sure how. I proceeded to spend days trying to figure it out, and although the fact it took me so long is just a little bit embarrassing, I still felt triumphant! For some reason the “Never ending stairs” are something that I always remember about the castle, I’m not entirely sure why, they were just stairs. But it was that kind of thing that made the castle great; all the details, the little quirky bits. Things like the pictures on the walls of Peach, it all added to the castles feel and authenticity. Whenever I go back and play it now, it all seems so simple, but as a child I could get lost so easily. I’d spend hours just getting lost and messing around. I think that’s part of what makes every Mario game so good though, they’re generally all pretty simple, and they have a lot of replayability, particularly from a nostalgia point of view. In this particular game’s case, it achieves something that very few games do: if I was to go home and play Super Mario 64 right now I’d load it up and when the castle appears, it wouldn’t seem old. I’d feel like a kid again,  I could easily spend hours on that game.  To me, it’s timeless, a classic.

My second choice is the opening level of Super Mario Galaxy. This may not be the longest, the most difficult, or the most replayable level in Mario history, but this was the first new Mario game I’d played in years, and I just loved the concept. Super Mario Galaxy stands alone, there are no other titles like it, not that I’ve played anyway. I thought the way it was animated was fantastic, they kept all the charm of classic Mario and sharpened him up. It looked great, and the way you flew from one planet to another was fantastic. It still had all the classic Mario quirks, the Venus Fly Trap that must have been in as many Mario titles as Mario himself, and the ever rewarding simple boss. Now I say this because when I think of Mario bosses early in the game, they tend to be balanced fantastically. You feel good for defeating them, they’re not too difficult, they ease you into the game. This is a big part of what makes Mario games so easy to just pick up and play. I think back to the Whomp King of Whomp’s Castle, and King Bob-omb from the Super Mario 64 level Bob-omb Battlefield. They both achieved the same type of thing. I also loved the vividness of the level, it was so colourful. It’s also pretty fast paced, you were being thrown from one place to another, yet it always felt very smooth. All these features combined to give me a warm welcome back to the Mario series, and despite missing a fair chunk of titles, it felt like I’d never been away. It still had that fantastic Mario charm.

The last level that I want to talk about is actually a Mario Kart level. Again, I look back on my early days of gaming and Mario Kart 64 was one of the games that introduced me to Mario, and what great game it was. I remember not long after having the Nintendo 64, me and my Dad had a big Mario Kart tournament, we did a couple of races each night and over the course of a couple of weeks a champion would be decided. He even made a wooden shield for the winner! I won, of course, and looking back now even though he more than likely let me win, it takes nothing away from the fun of that tournament and this game. The level, or track as I should really say, that I am going to single out is Banshee Boardwalk, and there is one reason for this: the chaos it ensured. With its lack of barriers preventing you from the sea and its narrow sections, Banshee Boardwalk would always end up being a bad race for somebody. It’s a pretty simple track to be honest, but this is what made it so much fun! Going from my memory, there were two major hot spots for this chaos, one being near the start. Once you’d got your first random weapon, you were in a very open part of the track, no protection from the sea, and somebody would always have a red shell with your name on it, usually putting you straight into the drink. The other was when you entered the small building, you could slightly cut the corner, but risked falling into the sea once more. If you did make the jump, you then had an immediate turn to the right, this little corner could often get very busy, and when the track is busy on Mario Kart, something’s gotta give! The other thing I loved on this track was the music. It was very odd, but very fitting of the track, and as with most, if not all Mario Kart tracks, it got quicker as each lap went by, almost matching the chaos that was going on during the race. I think Banshee Boardwalk is a great summary of everything great in Mario Kart and I think that’s why I like it so much; lot’s of crashing, lots of close racing, lots of fun!

So, there you have it, my top three levels from Mario games. I think the things that the levels have in common are simplicity and fun. It just shows that you don’t have to overcomplicate things to make fun games. I’m sure that there are more complex and technical Mario levels, but from doing a lot of looking back and playing over the games once again, these are the three that hold the best memories for me. I hope this shed a different light on the topic and you enjoyed my point of view, what were your top three Mario levels? I look forward to seeing everybody else’s articles in the coming days! A toast to Nintendo and their little red plumber, we love you Mario!

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Community Post: A Level for Every Player

To close the month of February, a handful of writers from United We Game are going to be sharing a series of community posts focusing on the fun and fantastic levels from the Super Mario games.  Every day this week, a new post from a different author will show up here on GIMMGP.  Additionally, all of these posts will hit across other blogs like Recollections of Play, Niall’s RamblingsCheeese Toastie and Video GamesGamer Crash, and The Duck of Indeed.  Today’s post comes from our very own Chip.  So jump on in and enjoy the Mario Mania all week long!

My earliest experiences with the Mario Brothers were not spent playing, but reading the instruction manual while watching my younger brother rush through the very first game on our Nintendo Entertainment System.  As I scoured over the game controls and characters, my brother would enjoy this relatively new experience with the ease of a much older gamer.  All of Mario’s moves seemed natural to him, as if he had traveled these fantastic worlds for years.  The reality of the situation is that my brother has better eye-to-hand coordination than I do, but the level design of Super Mario Brothers had something to do with his genius as well.

Think back to that very first level, World 1-1.  There was no tutorial, no overt guidance for the player; only a stubby little plumber standing on the far left side of a screen.  Any attempt to travel further left would result in the player hitting a wall, so to the right we must go.  Oh no, there’s an angry mushroom heading your way.  Quick, try one of those red buttons on the controller.  Okay, ‘B’ doesn’t do anything… what about ‘A?’  Ooh, you made Mario jump!  Try to stomp that mean looking guy.  Hey, you squished him, good job.  No time to celebrate though; there is a timer counting down up there.  Let’s get going.

The design of these early Mario games provided levels that taught players the rules without beating them over the head with exposition and hand-holding.  Almost all of the necessary skills could be communicated through visuals and the experience of play.  To sweeten the deal, these games had such a reliably steady difficulty curve.  Each concurrent stage added new challenges, but they hardly ever put the player in a situation without the resources to learn and grow.  This trend of difficult but fair level design has continued in the Mario Brothers series to this day.

Over the years, I have played many a title in the Mario series.  I would consider myself a rather advanced player; not a genius like my brother, but someone who has played enough of these games to acquire skills beyond the average level.  I have put in the hours, completed dozens of stages, and stomped many a koopa troopa.  In other words, I am pretty damn good at Mario.  However, I recently witnessed a charity event that humbled me to my very nerdy core.

Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 started on January 5th and featured some of the most amazing speed-runners playing games and accepting donations for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.  Over the course of seven days, 115+ games were played continuously for charity, including a hearty block of titles from the Super Mario series.  I just happened to tune in right at the start of a race between two players in the SNES classic, Super Mario World.  What I saw in that livestream blew me away:

Just look at these guys- they never seem to stop running!  They are using tricks within the game design that I have never seen before.  It seems like every level is not merely a slog from left-to-right, but a challenge to discover new and inventive ways to speed through the game.  While they do exploit some glitches over the course of play, the meat of their performance comes from intentional secrets and layouts within the level design.  This is particularly noticeable in the stages made up of platforms or mushrooms suspended above bottomless pits.  It looks like the placement of enemies was designed to be vaulted upon for a quick trip through difficult levels.  It’s as if the designers wanted to reward dedicated players with the means to bypass the usual routes and discover entirely new ways for Mario to travel.  This intention from the designers is made even more clear through the Super Play videos included in the more recent Mario titles.

That is the lesson I have come to realize in between the moments of actually playing games with the Mario Brothers.  There is an amazing balance in the design of these levels so any player can pick up the controller and have a worthwhile experience.  The novice players can discover a new hobby that eases them into the game with intuitive controls and a steady difficulty curve.  World 1 will prepare them for World 2, which will prepare them for World 3 and so on.  Behind the scenes, these levels have expert routes carved into the background; perfect paths with a hidden time limit that provides a challenge to the expert who is looking for something new in a beloved game.  For every level that made good use of my instruction manual studies, there is a stage that provided a seamless flow of play for my brother.  It seems that across the long list of games in the Mario Universe, there is a level for every player.

For the record, the level for me is World 1-7 from Yoshi’s Island: Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy.  But that’s just because I am a sucker for trippin’ dinosaurs.

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