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August 11, 2017

Steam Pack 5


This probably won’t be one of my more famous Steam Packs, for a good reason. While I was editing the humongous review of Super Mario RPG, I kept some smaller game running in the background, some clicker, because I’m a stupid addict. It made me think of free games in general.

Steam has an odd relationship with free games. It accepts any small games by developers that are handed out for free on the platform, no matter the amount of effort put into them; as an example, I reviewed small experiments like Carpe Diem before. It also has a ton of free games that include microtransactions, of the kinds that are necessary to either properly beat the game or get an edge in a competitive multiplayer mode. We also have free games that include microtransactions but can be beaten without ever paying a single penny. Today, I am looking at the concepts of free, free-to-play, “fee-to-pay”, microtransactions, payable extras, you name it – but not necessarily in that order. No, it’s not gonna be a heavy article, I just sensed a theme among the titles I played lately and thought it would tie the whole pack nicely together. Let’s begin, shall we?

Camera Obscura


Price on Steam: 1.00$

Starting with something almost free, we have a little indie project that combines a platform game with puzzle elements… common genre among indie devs, as I’ve discussed before. This one does something I’ve never seen before, though. Anteater Games beings us Camera Obscura: You’re the protagonist. You’re an amateur photographer. There’s a giant tower. You want to scale it. You got a magical camera with you.


For some reason, you die if you touch any enemy. Including
the cute anteaters here. Inexplicable.
You need the camera to reach the top. It creates temporary movable platforms out of the solid areas surrounding you at the time you took a picture, like hard light becoming terrain for a few seconds. Why “movable”? Because these hard light platforms created by your camera will move along with you for a second before setting themselves in place and staying put for a few more seconds. The puzzle aspect of this platform game is thus to take pictures at the right moment, then move as needed to be able to cross gaps or jump to higher ledges thanks to the solidified light. It may be just a little hop, or it may require running over what once was a bottomless pit.

On top of that, the game has enemies, which are indestructible because our protagonist went in with only a camera and left their bazooka at home. Sheesh! Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. They “can” kill enemies, usually by crushing them into the hard light, but most of the time the protagonist and their single HP will be at the mercy of whatever living threat is in the way. Not every platform will be replicated into hard light, though; and some places are locked by puzzles, requiring, say, an enemy to press a switch so you can progress.

Your temporary platforms can also become a hindrance
if you don't place them correctly.
It’s a strong concept, and one that opens the way to a lot of space-based puzzles. The protagonist’s jumping abilities are far from incredible, so many of the solutions will simply involve creating an additional step between two platforms to make a viable staircase or walk over a large gap. It’s also possible to move the game’s camera (by which, I mean the screen) in all directions, and though your magical camera won’t reach that far to make platforms, you can still use that feature to see what’s coming next.

Also, collecting photos containing
backstory rather than pictures, a
sweet little completion quest.
This game is very hard, but fair. You need to master the camera’s ability early on, though.. The thing will require very precise timing when it comes to moving and jumping, and a single mistake can cost you a life (thank God they’re infinite, and thank God there’s a lot of checkpoints). 57 levels of the same thing can get tedious, especially if the concept isn’t expanded upon, and it’s one of the flaws in this little game. Thankfully, the environments are sufficiently diverse and the soundtrack adds a lot of ambiance. In the end, it’s a game that might not please anyone, but folks who like puzzle platformers might find something here to their liking. Oh, and when you buy the game, you get a free level editor, allowing you to create your own levels and publish them on the game’s Steam Workshop!

Learn To Fly 3


Price: Free-to-play

Everyone has to start somewhere.
I used to visit Newgrounds a lot before I joined Steam. I remember liking quite a few altitude games on there. Those are games where you control a little character usually trying to go to space. You collect money to upgrade your launcher, get better jetpacks, decrease air friction… One of the funnier games in that genre was the Learn to Fly "series" (it had only 2 games), about a penguin trying to reach space or blast through a giant iceberg. It’s famous for its tongue-in-cheek tone, where every upgrade has its accompanying reference or joke, and for the utterly ridiculous lengths the little penguin will go to in order to achieve its goal. I guess the maker(s) of the first two decided to stick the third one on Steam.

See how far it can go?
Hey, this is not a UFO Parking Zone!

Unlike the first two, this one is actually free-to-play, meaning that you could in theory spend real-life money on it. For, you see, the first time you play, most upgrades are locked, and can only be unlocked after multiple playthroughs. Beat the original, 200km height goal, and then beat it over and over again – that’s a fairly quick way to unlock everything.

Whoa, that's heavy.
(P.S. This is Payload mode, hence the giant weights.)
Here, you can spend real money to buy Sardines, which you can then use in the game’s Black Market to buy cheat upgrades, special bonus items, or one-time-use modifiers that will make you earn more in-game money or reach a higher altitude. Last but not least, you can buy trading card packs. Yes, there are trading cards here. Not any trading cards, mind you; these will contain additional launchers, rockets, body modifiers, all of which can then be equipped to your penguin to go to crazier and crazier altitudes. You can also get in those packs some of the previously-mentioned one-time-use modifiers. Some cards can even conntain Bonus Points, which are required to upgrade elements that affect the whole game. The Bonus Shop will make your launchers more efficient, your fuel will take longer to consume, your penguin will be more aerodynamic, your gravity less limiting… It’s playing God all to allow a penguin to go to space.

There are four modes: Story, about sending your penguin as high as possible; Payload, in which your penguin is given a heavy weight and must reach a high altitude in spite of the added weight; Classic, in which your penguin will instead try to fly around the world, getting thrown horizontally rather than vertically; and Sandbox, where one can toy around with the game's programming to try and reach the craziest possible heights - or utterly crash the game, if the player goes too far.

As you can guess, all of the interest is in getting those booster packs, as they hold all the rewards you want. You could pay for Sardines to buy them… or never spend any real money at all, and grind for Sardines with multiple playthroughs, earning them by completing in-game achievements, and just buying a pack every time you have enough Sardines. That’s how I did it, and I beat the game without ever spending any real-life money on it.

Hmm... Do I want to pay for in-game currency... or do I want
another actual game instead...
In fact, the microtransactions seem to have been tacked onto this game as a way to excuse its status as a technically “free” title. And allow the developers to make some cash and, perhaps, make an even better Learn to Fly 4. LtF3 has the same humor and tone as the others, and adds a lot of customization options to the mix. Cute and funny; a decent time-waster, I guess. Just don’t spend any money on it. You can beat this game without paying a single dollar. Tenacity will lead you to places! No need to spend!

Minion Masters


Price: 5.49$ (fee-to-pay)

That's a busy screen and not that great a game so far,
but the cute Deck Master makes up for it I guess.
A basic PvP title about cards being used to summon monsters on the player’s side of the field, to then assault the base on the enemy’s side. Simple enough, no? Every type of enemy has its own abilities, attack speed, target requirements (can they hit airborne monsters? Can they shoot projectiles?), and a cost to be summoned to the field. It becomes an odd mix of tower defense and resource management as you farm points to summon your stronger beasts to go against the enemy, who has the same strengths and limitations as you do… just with a different deck. The first player destroying the other player’s base wins the duel. Monsters with bigger summon costs will survive more hits on the battlefield and deal massive damage, but will often have drawbacks like walking slowly, attacking slowly, or being only able to attack some categories of enemies.

Yes, the lion is my avatar. Got a problem with that?
There’s also various abilities that can be unlocked during a match, all depending on which “bridges” you control. Both sides of the field are connected by bridges that the summons walk through, and each bridge is controlled by the owner of the last summoned monster that walked through it. These include bonuses like faster increase in summon points, better attack, and so on. You can get new deck masters with different abilities, allowing you an edge against some of the opponents.

Obviously, the PvP aspect is the main reason why this game exists. There is a very short 1-Player mode where you just battle CPU opponents, allowing you to spin the wheel and get more rewards, whether it’s new cards to use in the game or some of the various currencies that can be used. It's all preparations to get into PvP, however.

Gotta smash the enemy! ....'s fortress.
Let me make this clear, though: This game is still in Early Access, so it’s incomplete (your purchase of the game and any additional content are supposed to help the developers continuing work on this product). Base price is currently 5 dollars – but you need to pay an extra 20$ to get upgrades that will make it quicker to level up in the game, get better rewards, and so on. Yeah. 25$ is getting a bit pricey for a PvP game in Early Access… That’s not even mentioning the microtransactions. For, you see, you can spend real money to buy Rubies, which you can then use in the game to get new deck masters, arenas and power tokens. And as is the case for every fee-to-pay game, while you can progress slowly by accumulating victories in PvP tournaments and by coming back every day to get rewards, ultimately grinding that way is slow and tedious. You WILL need to spend some more if you want a competitive edge… because you’ll otherwise be at a disadvantage when battling others who may have paid dear money to get better summons and effects on their side.


I don’t blame Minion Masters’ developer, BetaDwarf, for adding fee-to-pay elements to their game, but as it stands, I can’t really enjoy it. I get why they do that, you pay for the main game and then you can choose to pay for more or not, and all the money they receive can help them develop a better product in the long run. But it falls into the common fee-to-pay traps of eventually forcing the player to pay if they want to be able to measure up to everyone else. It’s not bad, but I don’t really like it. Hopefully it becomes less restrictive as time goes and we can enjoy it without having to pay more than the game’s starting fee.

Time Clickers



Price: Free

After I realized I had too many of those, I decided to purge clickers out of my Steam collection. Too much of a waste of time. Hell, the only one I kept is Time Clickers, and even then, I’ll likely delete it as soon as I’ve beaten it. So, let’s take a look at that one, and then be done with clickers in general.

These blocks are in the shape of a lightbulb, right?
Like every clicker, there’s a thing to click on, and upgrades to buy. Could have been a cookie, could have been a monster, could have been a cookie monster. Nope, we’re clicking on… cubes of different colors (weakest to strongest: Red-white-yellow) put together into a recognizable shape. This forces you to move the cursor around to click every block in order to destroy it. The accompanying upgrades are also made to target and shoot cubes in a certain number and at a certain frequency, unlike upgrades in other clickers that would rely solely on Damage-per-second (DPS) since there would technically be only one target on the screen. The attacking speed of your upgraded weapons matters into the DPS.

Overlevel at the start, and you,ll be overpowered!
See levels pass by at super-speed!
Other than that, it still follows the same beats as so many other clickers: Click-click-click, complete waves of 10 enemies, fight a boss every 5th wave or so, fight bigger bosses, upgrade your weapons with the money received… And, starting from Wave 100, get a secondary “currency” of sorts that will increase your damage per second by 10% for each one you get, although you can spend it on permanent upgrades that will make your playthrough easier or allow you to get further. Oh, most clickers also include microtransactions, because even developers of clicker games need to make some money. See, I just described most clickers out there.

Soo... many... things to upgrade... Holy wow.
Time Clickers does things a little different, though. First, in most other clickers you get a 10% bonus to DPS for each of the special currency you keep, and you lose that bonus if you spend said currency on upgrades. It’s not the case here, as you can get permanent upgrades in Time Clickers and you still keep the DPS bonus. Oh, also, there are no microtrasanctions whatsoever. It may be a grind to beat the game, but you won’t spend a single cent on it!

That’s okay, there’s no point in continuing past Wave 4,000 anyway. Or after you got every special upgrade to the maximum level, which is also a Hell of a grind, but anything you do after this is merely for bragging rights. Get all the achievements, upgrade everything to the maximum, also improve your weapons with the third currency, weapon cubes (a third currency that improves your weapons, though they take much longer to gather; that's another thing I don’t see in other clickers), and… I dunno, beat it and then stop wasting your time on it.

I mean, it’s a clicker. It’s inherently a waste of time with rewards to make you feel some sort of accomplishment without actually doing much for it, as well as something pretty to look at, something that you can just keep in the background or set and forget while you do more important things. It’s addictive but ultimately pointless. I liked this one because it didn’t include a way to take your real money, but I’ll still delete it from my collection because I shouldn’t spend my time with those games. Oh no, I should play, y’know, other games. For review on this blog.

So, this completes another Steam Pack. Yeah, sorry, I guess this one didn’t have much in the way of jokes. Oh well. Come back next Friday for something that will be full of jokes, guaranteed. 

August 7, 2017

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Part 5)

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5


Talking down Bowser with simple logic. That, my friends,
is why Geno is awesome.
Time to finish this! In Part 4, Mario, Mallow, Geno, Peach and Bowser defeated Exor the sword, only to get sucked into its mouth and end up in the original world the Smithy Gang came from: A factory. Geno confirms that this is the Smithy Gang’s world of origin, a cold, dead place where only machines and monsters could exist. We see outside the factory, and yeah, it’s nothing but darkness and fog. Of course, now that Bowser got his castle back, he wants to leave the group, but Geno is quick to remind him that more weapon-based monsters will come out of Exor as long as the Smithy Gang isn’t truly defeated. Bowser reluctantly agrees to help the team until the end.

Even though the factory itself is a world of machines, the outside is inhabited by ghosts. Weird combination, but I suppose it just helps to show how alien and bizarre this world is. Don't you just hate it when ghosts show up out of nowhere, without any real reason, just to fill up space?


BRICK JOKE!

DAMMIT!

Ah yes, the bells can attack too.
They'll... ring you out!
Even weirder are the bosses met here. Oh yes, if you wanted gimmicks, you’re going to get gimmicks. A lot of gimmicky bosses. First is Count Down, a large clock that unleashes different attacks based on which hour it displays. However, it’s only a tool for the Ding-A-Lings, the two little bells on top of it, which can also attack. As a boss, it’s a very creative idea. Tough, but not impossible. Although, yes, it’s creative, but there is no reason for this thing being battled! Unless… Unless it’s the timekeeper of the factory’s activities, and its demise will make everything go awry? Nobody’s on time anymore, schedules get messed up, spears and guns living together in the same houses! Gun-dogs and knife-cats living together! Anarchy!

…Sometimes my interpretations get weird. And yet, there’s some sense in there.

After Count Down, we meet greyscale versions of past Smithy Gang enemies and bosses. It appears that Smithy has started mass-producing his creatures. There’s only one problem; in most cases, the Machine Made copies are weaker than the originals. Of course! Make minions en masse and their might may not match the major models! Er… That alliteration fell apart at the end. There are still colorful enemies around here though, like hammer monsters and, for some reason, more ghosts. The major Smithy Gang members are now fought in Machine Made versions, like the Axem Rangers (pitiful when they’re brought down to the ranks of enemies), Bowyer (who can still disable your buttons), Yaridovich can still split himself…

Just wait till you see their snakes.
Speaking of weird, unexpected bosses that don’t seem to fit the setting too well… we run into Cloaker and Domino, two robots who take inspiration from… Arabian Nights? One has a sabre and is more physical, one has a veil and uses more special attacks. It’s so weird. And when one of them is defeated, the other climbs on their pet, the Earth Link or Mad Adder (both giant robot-like snakes), and the battle continues. These guys, I just can’t justify. No clue why they’re a part of the Factory, they barely follow the weapon theme of the Smithy Gang!

But we’re coming close to the end now. We’re getting into the final hallway, in which we battle a factory clerk… who looks like a chibi version of Shovel Knight for some reason. Maybe the developers of Shovel Knight took inspiration there? …Probably not.  We find a Toad who has managed to run all the way through the factory to get to us and sell items before the final battles. Let me remind you that we’re in a factory infested with enemies that respawn at will, located in an alternate dimension, accessible only through the mouth of a giant sword planted into the fortress of the Mario franchise’s most recurring villain. If that Toad managed to reach this place by himself, then that is one badass Toad.

This Toad deserves his own game!
Unless he became Captain Toad?

Three bosses that are basically the same, and some that add finally some
new stuff to the table. Eh...?
Then, we battle, in quick succession, the factory's manager, the director, and the chief. Who’s next, the factory financier? The chain production overseer? The coffee-refilling intern? Well, at least the chief is different from the others… he’s helped in battle by a large machine named Gunyolk. Although that monster is actually the living lava inside of it… However, beating those doesn’t stop the production of machine mooks, so I guess we’ll have to talk with the owner of this place. Geno is reserved but happy at the thought of the seventh Star Piece being soon theirs, but knows that this means he’ll soon no longer have a reason to stay with his friends.

Come on Geno. You followed us all the way to here.
You know how it goes. This is not gonna happen unless
we battle Smithy. And this will be epic.
Mario and Co. infiltrate the final room and meet Smithy, who looks like… well… an evil, hammer-wielding, robotic Santa Claus. I mean, it’s a nice contrast with the main hero to have the final villain be associated with a particular job, wield a hammer, sport facial hair… But much like most bosses in the factory, Smithy comes out a bit out of nowhere, especially for a final villain, with no backstory or character exploration; Hell, we didn’t even know what he looked like. We only knew there was a Smithy because the enemies were called the Smithy Gang! And since the sword Exor had not been named until the battle against it, we could have reasonably assumed that it was Smithy. That’s my big issue with the game’s plot, really, how the final parts have so much padding, and yet have so little in the way of explaining the last villains, including the friggin’ final boss.

Bis boss versus final boss. Sadly Bowser alone is not able
to match Smithy. Good thing he's in a strong team!
Thankfully, while we still know little of Smithy’s backstory, we get to see a lot of his personality. He’s a terrible boss to his minions, which makes sense since he can rebuild them at will. He is callous, nasty, and has a bad case of misplaced pride. He wants to create a world of weapons, which is all the motivation we ever get. Oh, and being a Final Fantasy-like boss, he has immense power and an insane amount of Hit Points. Well, his first form isn’t so bad… 2,000 HP, some strong attacks… Would be easy, if there wasn’t that damn Smelter in the room, the thing that spits out a kind of magma goop that Smithy reforms into enemies with his hammer. The strategy is pretty simple; destroy the Smelter first. Good luck doing that, though, since Smithy can still attack in the meantime.

So Smithy is beaten. Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Kinda simple, even. Angered by his defeat, Smithy thrashes about, despite the warnings of his minions… and falls through the ground, dragging the heroes down with him. And so we see Smithy’s true form…


…Can he go back to wearing that beard? He looked cooler that way. And where are we? In a furnace? Is this the decapitated head of another Smithy in the background? Holy shit!

Tank head? Yeah, that still goes under the cannons rule.
Cannons are fine, but guns are a no-no.
Speaking of, final battle means an extra-tough boss and the best gimmick yet. Smithy has 8,000 HP and five different heads, and can reshape himself at will. Each head has its own stats and moves – the tank head is attack-focused, the wizard head uses a lot of special moves but has horrible defenses, the mask head is weak in attack but strong against physical moves, and the treasure chest head has good defenses and looooooves to inflict status ailments. Since Smithy gives himself a makeover every turn or two, you can never tell what he’s going to do next. And oh yeah, his body can attack too, though with a measly 1,000 HP it’s much easier to incapacitate – not that it makes a difference since it can just come back to full health a few turns after it’s been defeated, and attack again.

The first time I played through Super Mario RPG, it was on an emulator. I know, I’m not proud. A lack of preparations and planning led to the fight lasting 40 minutes. Most epic final battle I had ever been through. Someone who knows what they’re doing will probably go through it in 20 minutes, maybe 10 even if the team is at a high level. Which is on par with most final RPG boss fights, really. Especially as far as Square-Enix is concerned. A time comes where I can’t say much else than “Tough fight!”, I mean, what else is there to add? Yeah, it’s the final boss, but it’s not like I can keep rambling about that.

It's time for goodbyes, I think.
If we can see each other again, if that ever happens.
So Smithy is, at last, defeated. He explodes, and the Star Piece that he had made a part of himself is freed, allowing Mario to get it. Our quest is over, at last. The seven Star Pieces flash around Geno and with his magic, he sends them to their rightful place in the Star Road, bringing back the granting of wishes upon the Mushroom Kingdom. And so, the Star Spirit inhabiting the Geno doll leaves, to go back to the Star Road. Farewell Geno, or ♪!?, whatever your real name is. We won’t forget you. I mean… we literally won’t, you’re like one of the most beloved character of the Mario franchise, ever, with fans clamoring for your return in newer games of the franchise, and maybe also as an actual battler in Smash. Why can we get Cloud and we don’t even get Geno? For shame!

Runaway groom! Quick, catch him before he flees
on his toy train!
Next we see Mario, Mallow, Peach and Bowser on the cliff, looking towards Bowser’s Keep, and seeing Exor disintegrating into nothingness. With the threat of the Smithy Gang obliterated, we see what happens now around the Mushroom Kingdom. Mallow takes his rightful place as Prince of Nimbus Land. Bowser is busy repairing his castle, something that he would get used to doing in the future as more and more encounters with Mario or the new RPG villain would destroy his lair, in part or in totality. Jonathan Jones the shark pirate looks at the sea. Croco goes to Yo’Ster Isle, loses a race, but befriends Boshi the Yoshi wearing the silly sunglasses. Frogfucius attends a concert held by Toadofsky, whom I never mentioned until now because dammit, I couldn’t explain every single darn NPC and mini-game! Valentina fell on Booster’s Tower and he tries to marry her, Dodo directs the ceremony (somehow), but Booster chickens out midway into the wedding. I suppose he found out there was no cake this time around. Or maybe he’s too childish for the wedding night. The game then ends on a final shot of Mario, Peach and a few more, waving at the player with a big “Thank you” above them.

The end? Well… there’s also the credits, showing a parade around the Mushroom Kingdom. Led by Luigi – le gasp! He IS in the game after all! – and a few music-playing Toads, the parade presents the many actors of this story on a final hurrah, a reminder of good memories of the various adventures the heroes had. Including… Oh crap, it’s the Smithy Gang! They’re still alive! The Kingdom is doomed again!

Pictured: Enemies that should be dead.
Also pictured: The supervisor responsible for the
various translation goofs... who has still done a great
job in spite of the errors.

…Nah, the game is over. We’re fine. I hope. It ends with Mario and Peach on a shining star-shaped parade car as we get a final “The End” in the skies.

Good! I mean, yes, the game is good, but we’re not on my final words just yet. What else is there to say? Well, the game may have been beaten, but obviously you cannot save after Smithy’s defeat, so it will always be possible to go back to the Factory to beat him up. This also means that you can visit the Mushroom Kingdom at your leisure to find every little secret. And BOY are there many secrets in this game! I already covered the most famous ones – the Three Musty Fears, Jinx, Culex… but there’s more! There’s a ton of content that will pass by right under the eyes of anyone who plays this game only to see the end. Here, have a longer list of everything you can look for.
-Try to find all the hidden treasure chests around the Mushroom Kingdom;
-In Seaside Town, Frogfucius’ apprentice, gone to explore the world, will sell to you five one-of-a-kind items. They all require Frog Coins, a currency different from regular coins that can be found in treasure chests and during mini-games. Finding all of the world’s Frog Coins is a side-quest all to itself.
Casino, huh?
-After fighting Knife Guy and Grate Guy in Booster Tower, you can go out and look for Grate Guy’s Casino, which is very hard to find. In there you can play a number of luck-based games, with big rewards if you actually beat them. Needless to say, my own terrible luck has convinced me never to look for that place. Blackjack, slot machine, “Look the other way”… There are good items as rewards, but damn, too much luck is required there.
-Beating the race mini-game on Yo’ster Isle. This nets you an item allowing you to call Yoshi in battle, to eat enemies.
-Finding every best piece of equipment can be a pain, as many of them are either very well-hidden, or tucked at the end of a series of complicated actions and side-quests.
-In Tadpole Pond, we have Toadofsky, who will ask you to create music by jumping on tadpoles on the water area just before him. Hm… sounds familiar? I think Matthew Taranto took inspiration from that for his own game, Tadpole Treble.

And you do that here?
In your robot suit?
Huh.
Not a side-quest per se, but you can see shout-outs to other Nintendo franchises if you know where to look. Link and Samus can be seen resting at different inns (so is it canon that these two may have been vacationing in the Mushroom Kingdom?), and another place has an Arwing and two F-Zero vehicles as toys on a shelf. There are various other secrets like this, mostly when it comes to references and nods to the Mario universe as it existed back in 1996, barely 11 years after the first Super Mario Bros. (16 if you prefer to think that the franchise began with Donkey Kong).

It’s time for my final words, but first… a breakaway to explain this game’s legacy. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars has two distinct honors: The first Mario game made by Nintendo in partnership with Square-Enix (which is why none of the characters created for this game have appeared anywhere else, save for a cameo by Geno and an outfit in Smash 4). It’s also the first Mario RPG, which is a bigger deal than you’d think, since Nintendo’s next home console would see Mario adding role-playing games as a permanent addition to his spin-offs, with Paper Mario, and later on, the Mario & Luigi series debuting on Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance. Super Mario RPG is a precursor to both, as well as the only RPG that isn’t part of either of these two sub-series. While they cannot be used in Mario games due to copyright belonging to Square-Enix, various characters from this very game have seen substitutes created later down the line, in a way to circumvent the copyright limitation. As an example, the Chancellor of the Mushroom Kingdom can be seen as a prototype of what would become Toadsworth. It also introduced timed hits, which would become a staple of the systems in later Mario RPGs, especially in the Mario & Luigi series.

"We didn't own the left one, so we made the right one.
Take that, copyright!"
To be honest, I do prefer Toadsworth.

Nonono, you joined the good guys. Welcome to the right
side, Bowser. Don't worry, you're gonna see  life from that
side a couple more times in the future.
Sometimes without even noticing.
We also owe to this game many personality traits of the main stars that we couldn’t see before (as most Mario games thus far had minimal storytelling and little chance of showcasing the characters’ quirks). Bowser being an egomaniacal jerk who thinks of himself as better than everyone else is something that may not have started in Super Mario RPG, but it definitely cemented that trait. It also made him a good boss towards his underlings, like a father to his men, something that would pop up time and time again in later games. Princess Peach being able to jump into action and kick as much ass as her fellows is also something that began here. She still has had only one game to herself, but she’s been joining the action more and more often lately. More of her personality traits also debuted in this game.

More than that, though, Super Mario RPG brought something unique to the franchise and the RPGs that would follow: The tone. Legend of the Seven Stars is heavy on jokes about the Mario franchise, making a mockery of its sillier elements, and pointing out the trends and common tropes of the setting. When Peach is kidnapped by Bowser, the Toads just go “Oh? Again? Alright then”, and go on with their lives. Everybody relies on Mario to get anything done, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. The interactions between the main characters are full of comedy. There is some deconstruction of the general elements of the franchise, and a lot of “lampshade hanging” as well (sorry, I can only explain this in TVTropes terms, go check the page I linked, you’ll see what I mean). This is omnipresent in later Mario RPGs, and even in some of the other genres the series has delved into… and it all pretty much started in Super Mario RPG; Legend of the Seven Stars.

Ooooh, meta!

So, is this a great game? Yes! It’s really, really great! I mean, it’s got flaws here and there, but it’s definitely great. It’s a grand story featuring tons of side-quests, and compelling, appealing characters and storylines. Oh, and also, it’s funny as Hell. The graphics “look” like 3D, and the game plays like 3D what with Mario being able to go in all four directions on any given map, but the sprites are actually 2D, drawn with inspiration from actual 3D models that the system would not have been able to use. The illusion is breathtaking, isn’t it? You can barely tell that this is “2.5D”! And the music. God, the music. To this day, it’s still hailed as some of the best tracks brought to the series! The “Forest Maze” track is still beloved today. Hell, there are TWO rap remixes of it with accompanying Flash videos, made by the same guy!

On top of all the NPCs, the game also brought to us many memorable bosses, and most of them are memorable specifically because they made use of gimmicks that are seldom-seen in other RPG franchises. Locking commands? Cloning the party by eating them? Those are rare things. And of course, let’s not forget that the game’s bestiary comprises over 200 different opponents, ranging from normal Mario enemies to odd bosses and mini-bosses, and the weirdest ideas for enemies you can think of (A carrot? And is that an elephant skeleton… with a bone trunk? Living puppets? Scepters? These weird shell-shaped things?). The Smithy Gang itself is memorable, as a team of robots based on weapons is a concept I had never seen before – although as the main villains of the story, some of them severely lack characterization and backstory, Smithy being the worst example.

Speaking of the story, while I do enjoy it I will admit that the padding of it is rather… blatant. A lot of portions seem to be there only to pad out the length of the story, with little connection to the plot. It’s especially true of a lot of bosses in the game, in the Factory in particular. And the game just drags on between the fifth Star Piece and the seventh, with some padding more obvious in places (being forced to complete 4 of 6 courses in Bowser’s Keep, as an example).

Yeah... I won't soon forget how forced that was.

The other main problem with the game is how, when it comes to items, equipment and accessories, very little is explained. Each object has room only for a small description, and the actual effects of many items are not described. It becomes a problem with some of the more special equipment, like the Lazy Shell that lowers attack but increases defense; the Quartz Charm, which boosts the attack and defense by 50%.... There are many other examples of items with odd effects, but the game doesn't tell you enough info. That’s an issue. It’s especially bad when it involves the equipment gained after completing complex tasks, and you have no idea of the effects of the reward you just obtained for your troubles.

Click the image to enlarge and see my two problems, summed
up here: The "Description is all we ever see of the item in the
game, very few explanation. Then, bad translation: "Noknok
Shell".

Oh, and of course, I can also talk about the translation again. It’s clear that Ted Woolsey and his team tried their best to bring the game to the English language, but they definitely had some issues, especially when it came to naming enemies and attacks. Some regular enemies of the Mario franchise are given names that don’t make sense (Paratroopas aren’t named Paratroopas, as an example), while other enemies keep a name close to the original Japanese one – when some other names could have worked better. Similarly the names of some of the attacks don’t make much sense. Thankfully, that’s a minor issue compared to everything else. Also, epic fail: They named regular Boos “The Big Boo”. Whoopsie.

Once again: Translation error.

Despite all this, yeah: Good game! A few flaws here and there, but great stuff overall. Go play it. That’s not an order, but it’s a very, very strong recommendation.

And so this closes the fourth anniversary review on Planned All Along! Sorry I had to take a hiatus at first, this stuff is really long to write after all. But yeah, I’m happy that it’s done, and I’m glad I could discuss this game. It’s been on my to-do list for a while.

So… I think it’s time for some Steam games now. Join me next week as I publish my next Steam Pack.

August 4, 2017

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Part 4)

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5

Let’s be quick with this, because we’re still a long way from getting that sixth star. Quick recap: We’re now in Nimbus Land, a country on clouds, inhabited by people who look like they could be Mallow’s species. We arrived in the middle of a time of turmoil as the King is sick, but we must not be afraid! A decidedly un-cloud-like person named Valentina has arrived with Prince Mallow… … …a dodo? Er, we have a cloudy-looking guy named Mallow on our side, and it doesn't seem to be that common of a name. Something’s wrong here. And unfortunately, the guards seem certain that this big bird is the Prince, and they won’t let anyone inside.

That part is worth watching just to see the mental
gymnastics Garro goes through to advertise the Mario
statue to Valetina.
So, how do we get around that? Why, cartoon antics, of course! A statue maker in Nimbus Land, Garro, will paint Mario with gold, and pass him off as a statue to be brought inside the castle. Because that’s guaranteed to work. Of course, Valentina already thinks that the castle belongs to her, so she’s littered the place with statues of herself, and the sculptor Garro, the guy who helped make Mario look like a statue, has to praise Mario’s looks in such a way that Valentina will let them through. Once the statues are put in place, Valentina orders her lackey Dodo to “polish them” and make them pretty, because in case you haven’t guessed, we are dealing with a queen of vanity here. Dodo seems to dislike her as much as she dislikes him, so he proceeds to peck every Valentina statue… and Mario, which exposes his cover. Or maybe not, if your reflexes are good enough to avoid the pecks of doom by jumping at the right times. Dodo IS kinda dumb after all. Even if you pass by Dodo, your cover still gets blown in the very next room anyway. Time for battle, I guess! While venturing around the castle, we can find imprisoned workers who give Mario a bunch of important advice as well as the Master Key of the place. Now that’s gonna be useful!


Before reaching Valentina, we get to a room with a giant egg in it. Breaking the egg reveals… who else? Birdo! I had a hunch that this bizarre pink character would be in the game. Did not expect her to be such a tough boss, though. Since when are eggs explosive and so damaging? Birdo attacks with explosive eggs, you heard that right. Eggs that somehow become enemies if you defend against them. Pretty gimmicky battle, but a fun one.

Finally we reach Valentina, and it takes her a moment to find out that Mario and Mallow have arrived. Of course, she immediately flees, with a flying Shy Guy and Dodo not far behind. Mario gives chase and battles more enemies on the way. He falls off Nimbus Land while Valentina stays, but it’s okay, climbing back is very easy. Outside, Valentina gets asked by Nimbus Landers about the King, long enough for Mario’s team to catch up and battle her.

Questioned by the Nimbus Landers, she panics.
Geez, it's like she wants all of the power with none of the
responsibilities. Would it be misplaced to compare her to
some guy making the news every day lately?

How does the battle start? Dodo shows up, snatches the character in the middle (since you always have 3 out at any moment), and a 1-vs-1 battle happens. Didn’t have a good character in the middle? Tough luck! If Dodo is defeated, the middle battler returns to the fight against Valentina. And yes, she is pretty tough, especially when Dodo joins again! Also, wow she’s tall. Would have expected her to be smaller than that. I’m getting weird flashbacks to The Chosen RPG.

Defeated, Valentina flees with Dodo, but they drop the key to the royal family’s quarters. Mallow immediately rushes inside. Remember how rain happened whenever he cried? Yeah, Mario pre-emptively opens an umbrella. You might want to as well, just in case Mallow transcends the fourth wall and you get rain in your living room. Or computer room. And so we meet the King and the Queen, who are so happy to see their son again, after the many years they spent without him… But of course, Mallow has been in this adventure for too long, and he feels the need to help until the end, so he comes back in the party. Sheesh, I would have thought his parents would have objected more than they did to Mallow putting himself in danger… Oh well, here goes one completed character arc.

Good thing Princess Toadstool let me borrow her umbrella.

As a bonus, we get to visit the King’s hot springs, and then we fall into Barrel Volcano. Time for the hottest dungeon so far!  A lot of new enemies, a lot of areas… You know the deal. There’s a store and an inn deep in the volcano, don’t think about this too hard, and we go on our way, and find this place’s boss. Or bosses.

Czar dragon and its undead form Zombone. How bizarre.
So first you fight that weird creature made of lava, the Czar Dragon – not sure where the Czar part comes from, though I think the monster in general may be a reference to the Blargg monsters found in various levels of Super Mario World. In fact, it’s made of various little fire monsters. But that’s not the weird part… when it’s defeated, it dies, and immediately comes back as a second monster, stronger, named Zombone. After this one is killed, we reach the sixth Star Piece… which is then swiftly stolen by a group of five colorful Smithy Gang folks… the Power Rangers! I mean Zyumerica Clonerangers! I mean Kamen Rider! I mean… Axem Rangers, that’s the right name!

That was not even the first design! Circled is the article
about sprite movies. The Wayback Machine hadn't kept
any screenshots of that one circa 2013.
Anyone else remembers the first year of Planned All Along? I do. Well, I kinda have to. It’s MY site after all. I mostly remember struggling to make more and more articles in order to keep the viewers' interest. I would make reviews, editorials (which, by this point, are just part of the reviews anyway), and Fun Stuff articles. The links are still in my Archives. In Fun Stuff, I would usually suggest fan works around Nintendo series, among them the Super Mario Bros. Z Flash series. That series actually featured the Axem Rangers in Episode 6, as quite a threat – well, until the big Sonic villain showed up and razed the island, because razing islands is a pastime of Sonic villains even in fan works.

Either way, that was a tangent related to the history of my blog, fitting for an anniversary review… but kinda pointless. Moving on!

Good thing they're all fairly weak and would be dispatched
easily if we fought them one by one... As an entire team
agaisnt us, that's a little harder.
Back to Mario’s team chasing the Axem Rangers. They’re a surprisingly intricate shout-out to the Power Rangers, with the red Leader, the green spellcaster (techie?), the black multi-attacker, the yellow brawny guy and the pink healer. We chase them until they embark on Blade, their trusty ship, and we embark as well to trigger the boss battle. This is a very tough one, precisely because they’re five against three of us, and while none of them have insane amounts of HP (compared to other bosses by this point), they’re still overwhelming together. You can probably imagine the strategy: Defeat the pink healer or the green spellcaster, then deal with whoever’s the most dangerous next.

The order in which you beat them matters little, as they then join into a single boss that you have to defeat. A boss with a very powerful all-hitting attack, so you better beat that before it beats you. Thankfully, it’s also pretty low on HP, so a strong team can succeed rather easily. Blade sinks with the Axems, and we get the sixth Star Piece. We can now return to Nimbus Land and we ask the King for a way to get to Bowser’s Keep. Turns out, there’s a royal bus made of clouds that can be used to drive to the Keep! The Nimbus… er… Bus.

Just what we needed! More filler.
And so we get to Bowser’s Keep! Yup, yet another dungeon. God knows we haven’t had enough of those yet! The enemies met at the start of the game in the Keep have been replaced by much tougher versions. However, that’s not the portion of interest. You soon get to six doors, each having a different challenge. Two are “action” courses reminiscent of Mario platformers, because that meshes so well with an RPG; two are puzzle sections; two are battle sections. Oh, and you have to complete four of them. Clearly Square-Enix had fun setting up these portions, and wants you to see more than half of them, but in the middle of a dungeon that is only the second-to-last, between two big dungeons, it just feels like more filler. I mean, the puzzles are clever, the battle sections are good EXP, and the platforming parts can be imaginative; there’s even a shout-out to the original Donkey Kong game… but can’t I just move forward now? Well, at least each trial awards Mario and his team some special items when they get to the end…

At least Kamek didn't turn that dragon giant, there's that.
Finally, after completing four trials, we encounter a Magikoopa who’s been brainwashed by Smithy. He won’t let the heroes pass by without a fight, so we enter battle. This Magikoopa’s shtick is to summon additional monsters from time to time, many of which are actually surprisingly powerful, almost like they could have been mini-bosses themselves. But hey, a Magikoopa can’t last forever, so it’s defeated and the brainwashing wears off. Surprise, surprise… everyone knows that any negative effects on a character wear off when they’re given a good beating in an RPG. Oh, by the way, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island had come out a year prior, with Kamek’s first appearance, and apparently, reading his Magikoopa’s thoughts reveals that he’s Kamek. Granted, it may not actually be Kamek as this Magikoopa's name is different in Japanese, but the similarities are strong enough. So yes, as you can see, Square-Enix really did their best to reference as many elements of the Mario mythos as possible – even though it was still fairly small at the time, this being the first Mario RPG, released in 1996…

Yes, kicking a giant Koopa shell at that robot is a good idea.
Totally.
We go through the door, and we're back in the room with the chandeliers. Nice callback to the start of the game. And, a samurai Smithy Gang member named Boomer who has been waiting for the heroes. And his speech makes it seem like he should be important, even though like every other Smithy Gang weapon-shaped thug, we had no idea of his existence. What is this one’s gimmick during the fight? He changes fighting styles sometimes, also changing color from red to blue. His defense then lowers, but he becomes stronger in another stat. Being a samurai, Boomer sees shame in his defeat and proceeds to cut off the chain of the chandelier he was standing on, sending himself to his doom. The chandelier the heroes were on, however, rises to meet with the enormous face of the sword that fell from the skies, through Star Road, and into Bowser’s Keep: Exor.

Exor_right_eye.exe has stopped working.
Reason: Clawed, punched and struck by fring pan.
Oh, and you ascend directly into the fight against it, too, so no saving or healing. Have fun against this gimmick boss that has to have both of its eyes defeated before you can actually damage the part of it that counts! For the record, Exor’s hilt, its weak point, is untouchable unless you damage its eyes first. Each eye is an enemy with different HP values, special moves, and so on. The mouth, labeled Neosquid (...why?), also has a wide variety of attacks and can be bothersome. Once Exor’s eyes are out, attack the hilt. Use the 9,999-damage Geno Whirl on that weak point, it’s the only boss on which it’ll work.

The best part? Or perhaps the worst part? Exor’s eyes will heal over time, so you have to go back to damaging those after a moment. Oh, it’s far from the hardest boss in the game, but you can definitely get dunked on, and if you didn’t like that from the OG Dunker in Undertale, imagine what it’s like to get dunked on by a sword multiple stories tall.

After Exor is defeated, it opens its mouth, and the party finds itself engulfed into it. Next thing they know, they’re in a different dimension (common final dungeon location) that looks an awful lot like a factory…

Travel By Sword. That's gotta be one of the weirdest means
of transportation I've ever seen.
I gotta wonder, though, if Exor is also of the Smithy Gang,
and that other dimension is its homeworld, and its mouth is the
portal, then how did it appear in the Mushroom Kingdom in the
first place?

…Do I use male pronouns for the Smithy Gang since they’re all robots (aside from maybe the one exception of the Pink Axem), or just say “It” for every one of them? Damn, it’s complicated to have some consistency across the ten thousand words of a 5-part review… No wonder I don’t want to do reviews this big as often anymore…

Come back for the final dungeon, as well as my final thoughts on the game, in Part 5!