The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Atlantis and Treasure Planet Would Make Good Live-Action Remakes

I’ve had some thoughts about Disney’s recent live action remakes, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to write them up since The Lion King just came out recently and we’re coming off a four month stretch that saw three total release (and with two more coming in the next four months).

I have my issues with them, I guess. I usually get around to seeing them eventually, but none of them really strikes me as substantially better than the original. Maybe The Jungle Book, since it seemed to have more of a unified through-line the original? But the original was never one of my favorites growing up, so I haven’t seen it in years and might be remembering things incorrectly.

Really, I just don’t have strong feelings about any of them so far. But I know they’re going to keep coming since they make so much money, so I figured I’d throw in my two cents on what I would do, for at least a little bit (since that will clearly influence Disney CEOs and make them restructure all of their plans).

And really, my two cents boil down to “make live action versions of Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire”. And yeah, some of this is that those movies were two of my favorites growing up. But there are plenty of reasons I think remaking these two films specifically would be a good move outside of my personal nostalgia poisoning.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A Study in Video Game Genre Mash-Ups: Indie Game Recs

For most of what I can remember while growing up playing video games, it felt like the idea of mashing up distinct genres into a single game was somewhat frowned upon. And that’s not entirely unfair, in all honesty. Some larger studios especially often take a “throw it all in” approach that can leave titles feeling like a collection of unfocused or half-baked ideas. And even if they are pulled off somewhat well, it can still feel really confusing for players as to why, say, a Sonic the Hedgehog game needed a fishing game mode that clashes pretty severely with the main gameplay.

But just like every other design decision that a game studio can make, it’s just another tool in the toolbox, and it can be done well! The answer to those two problems seems pretty obvious, in retrospect: limit your focus to just what you feel you can do well, and only include the new elements if you can find a natural way to connect it to the game’s main idea. I want to focus today on some of the different approaches that games can take to pull off a natural feeling genre mash-up, specifically through the lens of a couple of indie games that have managed to walk that tightrope and come out of the experience with some brilliant games.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Alwa's Awakening Is a Solid Little Indie Metroidvania

My last few indie game reviews have been really, really big, in different ways, touching on big, thematic stuff and more in-depth analysis. But doing only deep dives on the best of the best is exhausting and limiting, in a lot of ways, and I think there are also a lot of smaller titles that are incredibly solid and deserve love and attention, too, even if they aren’t in my running for whatever the video game equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzers would be.

So this one is more in the vein of my Blossom Tales review, which is fitting since there are quite a few similarities. Alwa’s Awakening, by first-time developer Elden Pixels, is an incredibly well-designed little throwback number that has clearly learned from the best. An 8-bit Metroidvania/platformer that feels like the perfect distillation of the genre, playing it on my Switch made me feel a connection with my younger self hunched over my Game Boy, while at the same time feeling like it’s own distinct unique thing rather than a recreation of a specific classic.

Of course, that nostalgic feel makes sense; Elden Pixels really feels like they’ve taken an old-school approach to designing things here. There was definite attention paid to focusing the game on specific set of elements the designers wanted to include and an emphasis on refining them, rather than letting the scope of things sprawl out of control. The player character only has two abilities in the start of the game, a jump and a staff attack, and every ability that you unlock over the course of the game is a spell that you cast with that staff attack. Not only that, but the game decides to pare that spell list to just three, with improvements to those three being the late-game finds that finally open up the entire map to you. There's a beauty in that level of straightforwardness.

And there’s a deeper deliberateness in all of that. It becomes very clear what types of abilities you’re going to be finding, as you come across areas of the map that are clearly kept inches out of your reach. Every challenge feels like a puzzle that you can solve if you just piece it all together, whether it’s dead ends that clearly just need one more tool, or learning the trick to spotting fake walls, or even finding ideal strategies for toppling bosses.

There are other nice things about their world design besides just the puzzle aspects, too. The different sections of the map are distinct enough in their design to stick in your mind and make it easy to remember spots to return to later. And the map is a very solid example of Metroidvania game design; secret tunnels connect you to areas you didn’t know would come back up, branching paths make you feel clever when you find them and explore them fully, everything is connected enough that it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere from any of the warp points which makes jumping between areas to further explore not a problem, and all of that good stuff.

Too many games in this genre stray into making things too linear, but Alwa’s Awakening has the good sense to leave things open and let you explore at your own pace with only general checkpoints for you to go towards at your leisure. You can poke into various parts of the map pretty early, a nice preview for what’s coming and a good way to get a sense of how things are laid out, and most of them have secrets to reach even if you can’t do much else yet. It’s all appropriately twisty and turny, and you can really jump ahead at your own pace in some areas (sometimes with ways forward that are clever enough that you feel like you may have accidentally broken the sequence the designers intended, even when it is all part of the plan).

The non-gameplay elements are all solid as well, if a little basic. Most of the character designs are lovable, if a little basic (particularly main character Zoe). Most of the story elements are pretty standard, but there are enough interesting hooks in everything that it certainly feels like the team is capable of more with more time, resources, and experience. The interludes in towns or up mountains add some nice variety from the dungeons and tunnels that make up the rest of the world, and again, with more time, I’m sure Elden Pixels would come up with a host of more interesting locals and characters to populate them.

The makers clearly studied their fundamentals of game design from the best, especially of the Game Boy/NES era, and applied that to creating their own vision of that style. All in all, it was enough to keep me coming back for ten hours or so in an attempt to find every secret and still leave me wanting more, which is always a positive experience. The things Alwa’s Awakening is good at are enough to grab your interest, and even it’s weakest points are never weak enough to make you feel like the game is missing out on anything. I look forward to seeing where Elden Pixels goes from here.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Wandersong, a Groundbreaking Musical Video Game, Is One of 2018's Best

One of my favorite games of 2018 was Wandersong*, and I wanted to write something about it for a while, but wow was it difficult to come up with something that didn’t just devolve into gushing praise.

*note: I played the Nintendo Switch version, but it’s also available on PlayStation 4 and PC/Mac via Steam.

Not that gushing praise wouldn’t be merited; the game is beautiful in every capacity, and the team of Greg Lobanov (creator), A Shell in the Pit (music), and Em Halberstadt (sound) deserves all of the compliments. Everything clicked with me. The game looks beautiful, with a strong art direction full of bold colors and a look that brings to mind construction paper and Paper Mario. The writing and story is fantastic, and full of probably my favorite cast of characters I’ve seen; even random townspeople stick in the mind, and the main cast are all incredibly endearing. And man oh man, the music.

I mean, the game is called Wandersong, so of course the music had to be good. But it really is something else. The soundtrack is, naturally, amazing, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since even before I finished the game. It’s loaded with memorable tunes, and so many are tied to key moments in the game that instantly call them to mind when you here them. It’s a perfect synergy.

It’s more than that, though; everything in the game revolves around music, from the biggest story themes to the smallest game mechanics. It’s a level of focus that many games don’t have, especially games in the rhythm/music genre. Every action in the game more complicated than basic moving in a 2D space (basically left/right/jump) is undertaken using the singing wheel that serves as the game’s main mechanic. Puzzles to cross large gaps or scale large heights? Casting magic spells? Dialogue with non-player characters? Encounters with large monsters? Every one of them, you use the wheel to get the Bard to sing, and the Bard’s music in turn interacts with the game environment in some way to meet the challenge.