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Free-to-Play Games, Here to Stay

Free-to-play (aka F2P) gaming has been around for almost 20 years, and it’s clear that it’s here to stay. By now many categories of monetization have been firmly established. There was a time when free-to-play games were synonymous with shallow games with super sleazy money-making tactics, and the various app stores are still littered with thousands of such games. But even though you could avoid free-to-play games completely, doing so would be missing out on many games that are actually worthwhile.

The gentlemen of the manor have teamed up to discuss the good, bad, and the ugly of free-to-play games, and pick out a few games you should definitely check out, as well as those you should avoid at all costs (literally!). We’ve discussed the games by monetization type, although keep in mind that many games adopt multiple monetization types.

Free to play, but pay to unlock more content

Professor GreilMercs: “Shareware” was a term for games released in the early days of computer games that basically amounts to a demo and you pay to unlock the rest of the game or additional levels. A number of modern games have adopted this strategy, although Nintendo in particular got a lot of flak for releasing Super Mario Run this way.

Lucius P. Merriweather: But I loved Super Mario Run! Although Nintendo definitely didn’t make enough of the game free to play at the start. I probably wouldn’t have gone on to pay for the full game based on those three short levels unless I’d read the glowing reviews. I guess that’s the dilemma with this model – how much of the game do you give away for free?

PGM: I’m okay with paying for extra levels in general (although Super Mario Run took it to an extreme), and in some cases the extra content is more like DLC to a full release of a game. But for me, with a lot of free-to-play games like this that I’ve tried, by the time I get to the end of the free levels I’ve had enough since the games tend to be pretty shallow.

Another variation is to release the first game in a series for free, with the hope that you’ll get hooked and you’ll buy the sequels. In particular, there have been a lot of games that have adopted a TV-like approach where the game is broken up into chunks and released as “episodes”, and making the first episode free seems like a reasonable way to draw people in. The adventure game Life is Strange is a good example of this and has gotten a lot of good reviews, although I haven’t played it myself yet.

LPM: Ghost Trick was an excellent game that went with this type of model , and which I’d thoroughly recommend [although it was also released on DS as a complete game].

PGM: League of Legends, which I’ve played a bit of, also has a similar setup. They rotate free characters and you can play with them as much as  you want within that specific time period, but you have to pay to keep one permanently. This seems smart and fair, since that lets you try out all the characters before committing to one in particular.

Free to play, but so many !@#$ ads!

PGM: Most of the games that adopt this strategy are pretty shallow, but I have played and enjoyed free versions of the various Cut the Rope games that presumably make their money from the ads or inviting friends to try it (although that mechanic seems to be less common these days). The gameplay is simple but fun (swipe or touch various parts of the stage in order to get candies into the mouth of the cute green monster), and the ads aren’t too intrusive.

LPM: Yeah, this one seems fairly innocuous to me. Many games that feature ads have an option to pay to remove them, a bit like Spotify. Really Bad Chess, described as “chess with totally random pieces”, was an excellent game from last year that went with the pay-to-remove-ads option, and I happily stumped up the paltry amount of cash to get rid of them. I find it difficult to argue with this kind of model; the game is free, so the developers have access to a huge audience but still make cash from the ads. But if you find them too irritating, it’s usually pretty cheap to get rid of them. Win/win, I reckon.

Free to play, but pay for unique items or gear

PGM: In the earlier days of free-to-play games, it seems like a lot of games fully embraced “pay to win” mechanics, i.e. pay for the best weapons, armor, etc. Nowadays, probably due to strong negative feedback of pay-to-win mechanics, developers avoid such grubby monetization, or at least make it much less obvious. Instead they focus on selling unique but not overpowered gear, which oftentimes have purely cosmetic differences such as alternate costumes.

LPM: These types of games can suck you into a money-draining black hole, where you can only really progress by investing in the latest gear. But it looks like developers have generally realised how unpopular this model is with players, and lots of modern games just offer purely cosmetic items for sale to avoid ruining the balance of the game. Buying new skins in Overwatch is a good example. If people want to buy fancy hats, then let them – just don’t let them buy a massively overpowered gun.

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PGM: This type of monetization seems like a happy medium to me, as long as the items for sale are purely cosmetic or don’t give a significant advantage.

Baron Richenbaum Fotchenstein: I’m told that Path of Exile is one of a small group of benign F2P games that only offer entirely optional cosmetic items for purchase, but I have yet to try it out for myself.

Free to play, but pay to progress more quickly

PGM: Another way game developers have incorporated monetization is to only let you play for  limited amounts of time each day unless you pay up, or have you pay for items that you could earn by playing for free, but at a much slower rate.

A lot of great Nintendo games, such as the Animal Crossing series and the Brain Age games, had gotten me acclimated to the idea of only playing games for a few minutes per session, so I was well prepared for slower-paced games such as Neko Atsume and Pokemon Go when they rolled around. I was addicted to Neko Atsume, a game in which you buy objects in the in-game shop to put in your yard to attract cats, for a while. But since the game has such a leisurely pace to begin with (and the cats you attract are based largely on luck), I never felt any need to pay any real world money.

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Similarly, Pokemon Go is fun and also a game designed to be played over a long span of time. Living in a city it’s easy for me to stock up on Pokemon Balls and other items for free by visiting PokeStops, but the one item that would speed things along but that you have to buy is the incubator. Incubators let you hatch Pokemon eggs after walking a certain distance in the real world. The game gives you one incubator with infinite uses, but being able to incubate many eggs at once to hatch rarer or more powerful Pokemon is a little tempting.

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There are a number of other Pokemon games that have been released that take the “pay to continue playing” monetization to more distasteful levels. Pokemon Shuffle is a match-three game in which you catch Pokemon, and basically the Pokemon Company’s version of the Candy Crush games. Like those games you’re given a number of free plays that slowly recharge over real-world time. The gameplay is so luck-based and includes so many Pokemon that are only available for a limited time (including what seems like hundreds of variations of Pokemon, like a Pikachu with a hat or whatever) that it’s impossible to “collect ‘em all” without ponying up money on a regular basis. Although I got hooked on the game for a while when it first came out, this was one I was happy to abandon.

Alexander Connington: I’m ashamed to say that I’m an avid player of Puzzle & Dragons, better known as PAD, a mobile game that falls into this category. The game itself is both free to play and quite casual – just a simple match-the-colors puzzle game at its core that only takes a few minutes out of my day to play. However, you can also roll for “eggs” that contain new monsters with special skills that affect the board in various ways, and I’m convinced that this feature has caused players to go bankrupt, because rolls require that the player spend “magic stones.” These stones can be earned through playing the game and are even given away all the time, but extra stones can also be bought with real money. And the nature of the game is such that some players, popularly known as “whales”, spend ridiculous amounts of money on stones to chase after rare monsters.  

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It’s entirely possible to play PAD without spending a dime – I’ve done so myself – but the developers of this game know exactly what they’re doing, and I’m positive they wring an enormous amount of money out of their player base every month. If you have an addictive personality, don’t get within ten miles of this game.

BRF: I used to play Marvel Puzzle Quest, which is basically the exact same game as the one Alexander just described, just with different art, and it seems like there are quite a few variations of this exact same money-trap. My assessment is much the same, that these particular types of free to play games are very meticulously designed to herd the player towards spending money at every possible opportunity. While you can get some free play out of it, you will always hit that wall eventually, where the need for various in-game resources just keeps rising and rising and you just cannot possibly keep up with it and remain a free player at the same time. Once you’ve convinced yourself it’s okay to spend money on something like this once, it almost certainly won’t be the last time, and that’s what these companies are praying for.

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I started out as an entirely free player myself, then found that eventually you need to get in a guild (or alliances as they were called in MPQ) if you want to keep going, and we all kept telling ourselves “we don’t need to spend any money on this. It’ll be fine!”, but we all ended up doing it eventually. I stuck around for so long that I actually ended up taking over the group and things just got more and more complicated from there, to the point that I started re-arranging my schedule so I could make it to the end of important puzzle events in time. I finally realized how ridiculous it was that I was spending so much time, effort, and stress on a silly phone game that essentially just has you running in place for eternity under the illusion that you’re making some kind of progress, and quit before I became one of those dreaded whales myself.

And man, Alexander isn’t kidding at all about those whales. It can become basically like a full-on gambling addiction to some people. I talked to people that were spending literally HUNDREDS of dollars PER WEEK to maintain their perpetual status as one of the top groups in the game. This is not healthy behavior and companies that run these kinds of games are specifically targeting these people, which looking back on it all, is really pretty damn disgusting.

LPM: I must admit, I was pretty sceptical of Pokemon Shuffle and its slowly recharging hearts when it first arrived. Paying to play for more than 15 minutes or so at a time or stumping up for powerful, game-breaking power-ups seemed a particularly egregious form of free to play – why not let me just buy the damn game and play as much as I want?

However, the game dropped at about the same time my son was born, and it turned out to be the perfect short-break gaming experience at a time when the idea of hours-long gaming sessions was but a distant memory. I would happily drop in and play for a few minutes during breaks between crying/nappy-changing/more crying, and I progressed pretty far.

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In the end though, I came up against that brick wall so frequently encountered in these types of game – the point where it becomes too hard to progress for free, and paid-for power ups became pretty much essential. I put it down at that point, but that’s also the point where the “whales” would keep going – and the idea that a game’s model relies on small numbers of individuals paying huge amounts of cash is pretty distasteful. It’s essentially targeting the people who enjoy your game the most and rinsing them down for all they’re worth.

Free to start, but subscriptions required

PGM: In my mind committing to a game that requires a subscription is almost like deciding to get married: once committed, you’ve invested so much into it that abandoning it would be unthinkable. I’ve been so commitment averse that I haven’t gotten into any games that require subscriptions, especially since a large chunk of games of this genre are MMOs and I prefer to play solo in general. If I had a regular group of gaming buddies I could see myself getting into MMOs, but haven’t thus far.

BRF: I’m generally a solo-only player too, but back in the day some friends talked me into trying World of Warcraft and whoaaaaaa into the downward spiral of MMO disappointment I went! They’re actually really fun if you do happen to know people to team up with, but in my case, all my friends would end up quitting until I was the last one remaining, and then I’d just be stuck there alone. I’d try to carry on with strangers, but it was never the same. I actually went through this same cycle through several more games after that, from Dungeons & Dragons Online to Lord of the Rings Online to Age of Conan and finally Warhammer Online, where I finally had enough of the cycle of disappointment and swore them off forever. Personally, I came to think of these games as temporarily fun, but ultimately disappointing time sinks. I have to give them credit for offering a lot more content and variety for your money than you get for dumping the same into some soul-sucking match-three phone game though.

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Percival Smythe-Pipton: My experience of F2P has been pretty much contained to MMOs, with the occasional exception of the odd iPhone app and browser-based time waste. In games whose very point is to create an expansive and immersive environment, the concept of advertising is something that doesn’t really sit well; after all, no one wants their foray into a top-end dungeon interrupted by a pop-up for Wonga. With my choice of games having started with the classic pay-to-play model followed by subscription (a la World of Warcraft), the others have moved to F2P with a couple doing it fairly soon after release. The reason for this conversion is usually along the lines of, “We want to reach a wider audience”, which in translation means, “No one wants to pay.” After all, there aren’t a great many people who’ll shell out £40-odd on a game only to pay a tenner a month to keep it running.

The seemingly unique exception to this rule is the the pervasive World of Warcraft, which at its height had a subscription base of over 12 million Azeroth-loving souls. That’s an awful lot of tenners per month. Still, even this mighty bastion of gaming has taken a hit in this area, with the most recent figures from creator Blizzard giving the numbers at somewhere around 5.5 million. Since this announcement in 2015, Blizzard have stopped making them, but estimates from around the interwebs give the current total at about 4-5 million, which is still very respectable by itself, let alone adding the fact that that’s millions of people paying every month.

People moan, and lord they do moan, about WoW as a model and how much they hate Blizzard, wishing upon them boils, locusts, and the common cold. And yet it’s almost completely microtransaction fee. I mean, if you must have that one fancy mount, or that shiny new pet, then you can pay a little bit of money and it’s worth noting that said little bit of money often goes on to charity. With your sub comes the fact that nearly everything is achievable in game: every item, every mount, every weapon, all of it. Sure some are restricted to certain events etc. but the point is you don’t have to pay any additional fees, and when you consider that a measly amount of tokens or gems or whatever in another game can start at around £4.99 per pack, this is actually a pretty nice deal in my opinion.

Have fun, but don’t be a whale! 

BRF: It seems that it is possible to be free-to-play without being a soul-sucking pit of despair. I think that the best thing is for players to do some research before jumping into any of these games so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into before it’s too late.

PGM: I definitely agree. Despite all the negative experiences we’ve described, there are still plenty of worthwhile free-to-play experiences to be had, especially if you take the time to do a bit of homework beforehand. One of the key points is to always remember that these game developers are in this business to make money, so if you can see yourself getting addicted to a game and getting roped into spending large sums of money on a regular basis and not being able to let go, you should definitely avoid games that are pay to win. Be on the watch for the warning signs of greedy mechanics that are clearly designed to make money, and read reviews and user comments about games you’re interested in before committing, especially for games that require regular payments to stay current. Have fun, but make sure that your free-to-play experience doesn’t leave your wallet hurting!

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Fire Emblem Heroes: Five months on

Lucius and I have joined forces to take stock of Fire Emblem Heroes, Nintendo’s smartphone game that for both of us has become an unexpected obsession. Both of us are long-time Fire Emblem fans and have written about this game before (here and here), but our detailed look back starts with the earliest announcements and days of anticipation and goes up to the present. We also look to the future, with some thoughts about where things may go from here. So strap on your armor or grab your tome or healing staff, cue the Fire Emblem theme music, and join us for a closer look at the dangerously addictive Fire Emblem Heroes.

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Announcement reactions

Professor GreilMercs: Nintendo had announced Fire Emblem on mobile devices way back in spring of 2016, leaving fans to speculate for months over what form it would take. One obvious route would have been to just create a digital version of the trading card game (which, by the way, is called Fire Emblem Cipher and is a lot of fun), but fortunately developer Intelligent Systems had much more in store. The game was finally revealed via a Nintendo Direct devoted to the series early this year, and my initial reaction was of cautious optimism. While I was super psyched to see the return of my favorite characters from the series, the small size of the maps seemed limiting. I was also disappointed in the lack of support conversations, which in the main games is where two characters interact, and it’s a mechanic that serves to really bring the characters and the world of the games to life.

Lucius P. Merriweather: Yeah, I wasn’t too sure of it at that first announcement, either. The small maps seemed like a “dumbing down” of the main game, and I was worried the whole thing might just be some throwaway gimmick with a greedy gacha money-making system tagged onto it. The lack of support conversations also seemed like a big loss; in the last couple of games, the fighting almost took a back seat to the ongoing soap opera of the characters’ lives, and those conversations have really become a mainstay of the series.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally got to play the game for myself…

Release and initial reactions

PGM: I enjoyed the game on its initial release, and quickly blitzed through the story mode. The character artwork and voice acting and the touchscreen interface are all great. I pulled two quite good 5* characters (the highest ranking) who saw me through a lot of my first months with the game, as I was hoarding orbs (the currency for pulling new characters) until my favorite characters were released (basically anyone from Sacred Stones and Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn). In terms of character selection, it’s not surprising that the vast majority of the characters are drawn from the most popular games, namely the first game in the series, Shadow Dragon (remade as Mystery of the Emblem), and Awakening and Fates, the two most recent games (barring the just-released Shadows of Valentia). Incidentally, in terms of character selection and such, Nintendo is taking the same approach with the upcoming Fire Emblem Warriors by focusing on elements from those specific three games, which is somewhat disappointing for long-time fans of the series.

LPM: I was also a little disappointed at the relative lack of characters from earlier games, but it’s understandable given the sales figures for the later entries. Awakening sold upwards of 2 million copies, so the characters will be familiar to lots of people, whereas earlier entries like Sacred Stones sold well under half that amount. Still, I was well chuffed at bagging Sacred Stones stalwart Ephraim early on – and I’m holding out for an appearance from Ewan or Syrene. But in terms of fan service, they’ve done a good job of rolling out old favourites quite regularly, and there are still hundreds of characters they could release.

PGM: Regarding the gacha mechanics, they’ve actually ended up not bothering me too much, as the game gives you a steady stream of free orbs and you can stockpile them for an event featuring a character you really want. In this case I definitely don’t feel compelled to be a completist, and through conscientious hoarding and a fair amount of good luck I’ve able to get the characters I wanted most (in particular, those of my namesake, such as Ike and Soren). The game also does a good job of getting you started with building up your roster of characters by letting you battle and earn characters for free, via “Hero Battles”, a regular rotation of low-star regular characters where you can earn two of each of 12 characters for a total of 24, and “Grand Hero Battles”, which are timed events that feature unique characters, often villains from the main games.

LPM: I’m surprised at how generous they’ve been, to be honest. I was expecting constant paywalls, with progression linked to buying orbs and characters. But there are numerous ways to earn orbs, and I’ve amassed an army of more than 100 characters without having to spend a penny. I have quite a decent crew of five-star characters, too. That said, the limited time period for which special characters are available does mean the temptation is always there to spend a little cash. I picked up cute lil’ old Bunny Ears Lucina during the spring event, and I was sorely tempted to throw some money at the game just to complete the spring set before the event ended. I mean, who could resist Xander wielding a giant carrot?

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PGM: Haha. Yeah, the special event characters are definitely tempting, but I’ve been doing a pretty good job of not getting too distracted by them. Although that sort of went out the window with the current summer swimsuit event, haha. 😉

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PGM: As for the gameplay itself, it’s actually less dumbed down than I expected, as there’s a lot more emphasis on characters’ skills than in the main games and everything is quite well balanced in terms of characters’ stats, their weapons and movement abilities, and their assist, special, and passive skills. I wasn’t sure how my interest in the game would progress, although the developers did promise regular updates to include new characters and modes.

LPM: Yes, what really pleased me the most is that although the game is much simpler and quicker than the main games in the series, there’s still a lot of strategy – and at advanced levels there’s all the skill setting and stat watching you’d expect of a full-fat FE title.

New modes and features

PGM: During those first months my interest in the game continued pretty steadily, which was somewhat surprising. The almost daily release of new missions to tackle, the majority of which offer worthwhile rewards, is compelling and super addictive. The limited-time Grand Hero Battles include the game’s most challenging maps that generally require repeated attempts and have a puzzle-like element. They’ve continued to fine tune the Arena mode (which pits your team of 4 against another player’s, although theirs is controlled by the CPU) and roll out new story chapters, variations (such as maps that require you to survive for a certain number of turns or have tiles that boost your defense), and modes (such as the Voting Gauntlet, which has you choosing amongst eight specific characters and fighting on his/her team).

LPM: I love the Voting Gauntlet. I’m currently championing Elise in a war of the lady healers. Seeing the ridiculous number of points each team accrues is a reminder of just how many bloody people play this game, and it helps you to feel part of a larger community.

The Grand Hero Battles are fantastic, too. The harder ones are almost impossible to beat sometimes, and it can take days or even weeks for me to work out a strategy to beat them. High-class stuff.

PGM: One of the biggest changes was the introduction of Skill Inheritance, which was added only a month and a half after the game was released. Skill Inheritance allows you to sacrifice a hero in order to pass her/his abilities (e.g. weapon, assists, specials, or passive skills) onto another hero. At the time it seemed way too early to add this feature in, as it seemed like it would destroy the game’s balance and wipe out all the things that made the heroes unique as all characters would all converge to the same combination of skills. But in practice this hasn’t quite happened. The core gacha mechanic ensures that your roster of characters will be different from others’, and so your pool of skills to inherit from will be quite different. Skill Inheritance does a good job of both letting you customise a character that you really like to fit your play style, and letting you make good use of characters that you don’t really like or have multiple copies of.

The other big change was added only recently, which was a new event mode called Tempest Trials that ran for the past couple of weeks. This mode actually makes the game feel like a proper Fire Emblem game, in that you have to tackle a certain number of maps in a row (seven being the maximum). You’re also limited to a certain number of attempts (in the form of four-person teams you can use). The rewards were high, and the challenge was worthwhile. The mode forces you to focus on a range of characters rather than just using the same four over and over again. The only downside was that the mode required you to play it over and over again during the event period without any breaks in order to get the best rewards, which ended up being super repetitive and a real slog. Still, this mode adds great depth to the already engaging game, and all of these additions have done an amazing job of keeping me hooked on the game way past the point I had expected to be.

Enjoyment turning into obsession

LPM: I think the moment I realised FE Heroes was becoming an obsession was when I missed my bus because I was just too engrossed in the game. I growled in frustration as I looked up to see my bus sailing past – but I was also secretly relieved because it gave me more time to play Heroes while I waited for the next one.

My daily routine now includes opening the game just after 8am to see what missions and goodies are on offer. And every ‘screen break’ now features a quick session of FE Heroes – which does slightly negate the point of a screen break, I suppose.

PGM: My interest in the game has gone through several slight dips and peaks. I hoarded characters until I reached the limit you can have (200, although you can pay orbs to up that number), and then I got into merging characters (combining two of the same type of characters to raise their stats) and inheriting skills. Planning out characters to use and what skills to inherit is exactly the type of Fire Emblem geekery that I obsess over, and I’ve spent hours looking up characters’ stats. I have a huge file on my computer where I record the stats of the characters I have amongst other geeky info, and I’ve pretty much memorized the various tier lists for the game that I’ve been consulting daily religiously.

I’ve been amazed at the number of hours I’ve put into this game. The other day I somehow got sucked into playing the game for 6 hours. A couple of those hours were finishing up the special marathon Tempest Trials mode in the morning, a couple more hours on grinding characters for skills in the afternoon, and then a couple of hours at night trying (and failing) repeatedly to beat the “Infernal” mode of a Grand Hero Battle map. There were a couple of days last month where I was caught up on all the missions and I was, frankly, relieved that I didn’t have to play the game. Right now I’d probably have to play about an hour a day to keep up with the missions, which is a little higher than would be ideal, but is still doable.

LPM: I was worried the game might get too repetitive at first. Certainly, grinding characters through the Training Tower can get a little dull sometimes. But the sheer variety of missions and battle types they’ve added to the game has put all thoughts of repetition out of my mind. There’s an embarrassment of options here.

The future?

PGM: Developer Intelligent Systems has perfectly paced the game’s rollout of new features, and definitely kept me hooked even though I haven’t had to spend a dime. I find it hard to imagine how they can continue to keep adding new features and modes, but just as it is the game should be able to continue to keep my attention for a good while (although I’m still waiting for some of my other favorite characters to be added, whine, whine). Right now with the existing roster of characters each character has a fairly unique combination of movement type, weapon type, and spread of stats (although there are too many sword users, which is inevitable as nearly all the main characters from the main games are sword users). A lot of the newer characters have been given new unique skills that have still managed to keep things pretty balanced, but it’s hard to imagine how that can continue for another 100+ new characters.

LPM: It’s been fascinating to see how the game has evolved and has continued to keep evolving. At first, characters like Hector and Takumi seemed far too overpowered, but nowadays it’s a struggle to get far with them, as more and more options and heroes have been introduced. Keeping on top of the meta game is a full time job, and it’s only going to get more complex and involved as more characters get introduced.

PGM: Intelligent Systems is one of my favorite developers, and contrary to my initial expectations the game is actually so much fun and addictive that I’ve added it to my list of Favorite Games of All Time. I’m skeptical that the game can continue to keep my attention for another year, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what Intelligent Systems has up their sleeves.

LPM: Me too. Oh my god, summer swimsuit Tiki has some sort of melon hammer! Right, time to farm some orbs…

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5 memorable bits from E3 2017

As Lucius mentioned, I sort of already went over the games I was happiest to see at this year’s E3, so I thought instead for my end of E3 post I would put together a short list of my favorite E3 bits instead. In no particular order:

  • The new info on Super Mario Odyssey really won me over. I hadn’t stopped to think about it, but people had noticed that all the costumes shown in the game are actually taken from Mario’s cameos from other games, including the Mexican outfit from Qix and the explorer outfit from Mario’s Picross. (Nintendo Life has a nice summary video if you’re interested.) I love game references like these, so I got a big kick out of this. Can we also be expecting doctor and referee outfits for Mario? 😉
  • As Lucius posted, the Amiibo line shows no signs of slowing down, and I’m as excited about the squishy Metroid Amiibo as everyone else; somehow it seems even cooler than the yarn Yoshi Amiibo, although I’m at a complete loss as to why that should be (and probably shouldn’t overanalyze it, haha). I like that Nintendo keeps experimenting with new and fun things to keep the line feeling fresh (even if their actual in-game usage is still fairly ho-hum overall).
  • GoNintendo posted a video about two touching moments that happened during the Ubisoft press conference, where basically Davide Soliani, the director of the newly revealed Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle  and Michel Ancel, the director of Beyond Good and Evil 2, got a little emotional as their games were revealed. I’m right with GoNintendo’s RawmeatCowboy that this was worth noting and applauding even though it wasn’t planned at all. It’s all too easy for the overly vocal and demanding (i.e. whiny and immature) people on the Internet to criticize all the hard work that goes into creating any video game, but seeing these developers’ passion for their projects up close and at a big event like E3 is a great reminder that behind all the stupid hype, corporate crap, and focus on sales numbers and Metacritic scores are individual humans who are artists as much as game developers and who deserve our admiration and respect.
  • Also from the Ubisoft presentation was the announcement of Starlink: Battle for Atlas, a game that is entering the video game toy market with customisable ships. I definitely don’t need more toys to clutter my life, but seeing these little ships completely reminded me of the Transformers I had as a kid, and I was hit with a distinct burst of nostalgia. I’ll be keeping my eye on this game to see what how it ends up, and I may even get tempted into picking up a couple…
  • The 3DS has been inundated with puzzle games, so I’m not sure I’m going to be rushing to get Sushi Striker: The Way of the Sushido when it releases next year, but I love wacky games in general and the art style looks great. It’s being developed by indieszero, known for their work on the NES Remix games, so it should be a solid game, despite looking too much like Puzzles & Dragons.

A pretty good E3 all around, and the rest of 2017 is looking pretty good for gaming as well. Now I just have to find the time to play all of these games…

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My E3 cheers and boos so far

Well, the first day of Nintendo Christmas has come and gone, and as usual there were some disappointments, but overall this has been a solid E3 for Nintendo fans so far.odyssy

First off, the cheers:

  • There have been two big 180s for me in the past two days. The first was Super Mario Odyssey, which I haven’t been that excited about as I’ve mentioned before. But the ability to possess objects and enemies immediately opens up tons of gameplay possibilities, and the examples they showed (a Bullet Bill, a dinosaur, and even inanimate objects like springy posts you can use to catapult yourself) already make the game feel like a ton of fun. The exploration also looks more fun than the previous, more mission-based Mario games.
  • The second 180 for me was Mario + Rabbids. The game was leaked awhile back, and it sounded pretty iffy. I like the anarchic Rabbids in general, but I wasn’t looking forward to even more Mario & Luigi type RPGs. It turns out the game is actually in the vein of the XCOM games, which I haven’t really played, but looks like a great change of pace. The Rabbids humor looks like it’s meshing really well with the Mushroom Kingdom, and although it’s disappointing there only seem to be 8 characters (Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi and their Rabbids counterparts) it looks like Ubisoft has successfully captured the feel of the Mario games, which is great to see.
  • The remake of Metroid II looks fantastic. It’s a tad bit disappointing it’s not a new entry, but the remake of the original Metroid (i.e. Metroid Zero) was great, so I have high expectations for this remake as well. Developer MercurySteam has worked on plenty of Castlevania games, and from the footage they’ve shown it looks like they’re doing a great job.

fewrrs

As for the boos, they’re actually not really boos, but more like mild crotchety complaints from an old geezer rather than big thumbs down. They are:

  • At the top of my list, just because I’m so hyped for the game in general, it was great to see more of Fire Emblem Warriors, but I was really disappointed that they only showed footage of swordfighters. This makes sense from a game standpoint since they’re showing the beginning of the game and it probably eases the players into all the general Warriors mechanics before diving deeper into the more-complex, FE Warriors specific mechanics, but this has the upshot of making the game look like a generic Warriors game. The developers reassured the audience that the game will feature plenty of characters, and many types other than swordfighters, but would it have killed them to show at least one mage or pegasus rider? I just hope they’re saving these reveals for the other days. We have a strong hint that Tiki, a dragon, is playable in the game as they revealed an Amiibo for her, and it would’ve been awesome to have seen some footage of her.
  • I’m kind of annoyed at announcements of games that are just “this game is being developed” with zero info. In Nintendo’s case there were two big reveals that were just that: Metroid Prime 4 and a mainline Pokemon game for Switch. I can understand why companies want to build the hype for projects that will take a long time to be released, but even a bit of concept art or, well, basically anything, would be better than just a completely bare announcement.
  • I’m fine with there being new Yoshi and Kirby games, except that I feel like Yoshi’s Woolly World was just released (it was released two years ago and its 3DS version was released just this past February), and I feel like Kirby has had plenty of games released (perhaps too many) in the past few years. To be fair, it’s been a while since a regular console Kirby game has been released, though. (Kirby and the Rainbow Curse was also released in 2015 but had unique mechanics, whereas the more-traditional platformer Kirby’s Return to Dream Land was released in 2011 on Wii.) It’s disappointing that there are so many other great Nintendo IPs that continue to be neglected, like the Wario platformer series.
  • Lastly, Nintendo announced even more Amiibo than I was expecting, with at least a couple to accompany pretty much every new game they showed off, and they all look great. The downside… having to decide which ones I really have to have. Collecting just the Fire Emblem Amiibo is already hurting my wallet and my desk and shelf space, so this is just a personal twinge of regret rather than anything bad about the announcements themselves.

So that’s my brain dump for E3 so far. Two more days to go!

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The Top Ten Wii U Games

Ed’s note: We’re proud to welcome Professor GreilMercs to The Manor, one of several new regular contributors. Check out his stuff at http://ivgacademy.com/index.php/blog.


Late last year, almost exactly four years after its launch, the last Wii U rolled off the production line. During its short lifetime, the Wii U was often misunderstood, not helped by a mangled marketing campaign and general confusion as to how to best utilise its unique second screen. History will no doubt view it as Nintendo’s folly, but despite its small install base and relatively slim catalogue of games, it was home to some of the very best titles of its generation.

We spent a long time trying to come up with a definitive top ten list of the best Wii U games, which turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. Here’s what we came up with – be prepared for a few surprises…

10. Toki Tori 2+

GreilMercs (review) – The first Toki Tori  game (originally for the Game Boy Color) ranks as one of my favorite puzzle games ever, so I had high hopes for its sequel. The game is perhaps a bit too ambitious and sprawling, but the core mechanics are solid. Toki Tori, a yellow chicken who serves as the game’s protagonist, only has two moves, stomping to repel creatures and whistling to attract them. These combine with a menagerie of colorful characters for Toki Tori to interact with (including birds, crabs, and bats) and lead to a surprising amount of variety to the puzzles. The game is at times a bit frustrating and obtuse, but it’s oftentimes relaxing as well, and overall it’s a lot of fun and quite memorable.

9. Mario Kart 8

Lucius – When Nintendo announced Mario Kart 8, I wasn’t too excited. The last couple of entries in the series didn’t set my world alight, and I wondered whether it was time the series was put out to pasture. But my god it’s good. The course design is what makes it so special – swooping, whirling roller-coasters utterly packed with detail, all swishing by at terrific speeds in a whirl of colour. The game barely left my Wii U disc tray for the best part of a year – thanks in part to the generous, excellent DLC, which finally saw characters from other Nintendo series welcomed into the line up. And the music! Such amazing tunes… All in all, it’s by far the pinnacle of the Mario Kart series, only let down by a slightly subpar Battle Mode.

GreilMercs (review) – To be honest, I found Mario Kart 8 to be fairly underwhelming, and I didn’t feel like the HD graphics and anti-gravity mechanics brought much new to the series. Still, it’s a solid multiplayer game (despite its lack of traditional battle arenas), and the weightier physics of the karts added a bit of realism – well, as much as can be said for a game in which you can carry around a Piranha Plant and shrink opponents with a lightning bolt. The DLC, which expanded the Kart world to include other Nintendo IPs, added some variety to the proceedings. The game has only been bettered with its rerelease on Switch, which is certainly the definitive version.

8. Super Mario 3D World

GreilMercs (review) – Super Mario 3D World fulfilled the promise of 3DS’s Super Mario 3D Land, and completely fulfilled the development team’s goal of marrying the straightforward 2D gameplay of the classic Mario games with the variety and freedom of the 3D games, not to mention including a fun and smooth multiplayer experience. The game adds more new mechanics and power ups than most of the games in the series, including the Double Cherry, Goomba Mask, Cannon Box, Light Box, a Piranha Plant you can carry, and, of course, the Cat Suit. Playing as the reunited cast of Super Mario Bros. 2 with their trademark special abilities is a blast, and the secret unlockable character was a great surprise and feels right at home with the rest of the group. The game feels like a successful and satisfying culmination of Nintendo’s 2D and 3D Mario games, and it will be fascinating to see how they top this one.

Lucius – I just couldn’t get into New Super Mario Bros. U, and I feared that perhaps I was falling out of love with Mario games – but then this beast came along and reminded me why Mario is so bloody great. The sheer number of ideas on display is astonishing – it will introduce a new mechanic but then discard it after just one level, before bringing in something entirely new on the next one. You could easily build an entire game around one of the ideas used in just one level of Super Mario 3D World… and in fact they did just that. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is an excellent spin-off game in its own right, but in Super Mario 3D World the Toad levels are just one tiny facet of a glorious whole.

7. Super Mario Maker

GreilMercs (review) – I generally shy away from games that focus on creating levels and such, but of course I had to check out Super Mario Maker. The lack of a story mode or sense of progression is offset by the sheer amount of variety of the official and user-submitted levels, much more than you might first think given the finite number of elements available. Although there are a lot of disposable submissions and boring “don’t move” Rube Goldberg-type levels, it’s not hard to find users whose creations easily rival Nintendo’s own level designers. The best levels are the ones that take the familiar Mario elements and make something new with a distinctly non-Nintendo feel, such as head-scratching puzzle levels. The game is surprisingly fun, and a refreshing change of pace from the Newer Super Mario Bros. series, which has for far too long been the default 2D Mario game experience.

6. Xenoblade Chronicles X

Lucius (review) – I’ve put around 130 hours into this game and finished the main story, but there’s easily enough content to keep me playing for another 130 hours – or more. The game is simply HUGE. And because of this, it nails the feeling of exploration, as you push your way ever further into the depths of unfamiliar and hostile continents. Like its predecessor, the sheer scale of the monsters you face is flabbergasting, and you’ll regularly be dwarfed by dinosaurs the size of buildings. After spending most of the game running away from these behemoths, there’s an enormous sense of satisfaction at returning towards the end of the game and smiting them with suitably souped up weaponry. Special mention should also go to the crazy story, which starts off with the Earth being destroyed – as openers go, it’s a strong one.

 5. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

GreilMercs (review) – The lead-up to any Smash Bros. game is full of speculation and ridiculous amounts of hype, and the lead-up to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (and 3DS) was no exception. It would of course be impossible for everyone’s favorite character to be included, but director Sakurai did a great job of adding another batch of new and surprising characters to the roster, many of whom had unique mechanics, such as Rosalina and Luma, Little Mac, Shulk, and Wii Fit Trainer. The game is overflowing with modes, including a surprisingly fun board game type multiplayer experience. Although the game isn’t as much of a step forward as Melee or Brawl, it’s still a game that you could (and people do) easily spend hours upon hours mastering, or just pick up every once in a while for some fun with friends.

Lucius (review) – I had an absolute blast with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U when I first got it. The unimpeachable roster of characters was undoubtedly the highlight, with everyone from Captain Olimar to the dog from Duck Hunt being represented, and there were even a few surprising debuts from non-Nintendo characters, such as Sonic and Pac-Man. The sheer range of playing modes on offer is astounding, and the trophies are brilliant bites of nostalgia, referencing all sorts of long-forgotten Nintendo lore. In the end though, I just found the game wasn’t for me – my interest in fighting games has waned dramatically over the years, and my friends found the multiplayer chaotic and too confusing to enjoy. That said, I can still appreciate that this is easily the pinnacle of the Smash series.

4. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate

Lucius (review) – This was my first Monster Hunter game, and it dug its claws in deep. It’s a hard game to get into, but thankfully I had my MH-loving sister on hand to guide me through the game’s complexities and arcane stats. Once I’d got my head around the idea that the only way to ‘level up’ was to make better armour from bits of the beasts you slay, I spent many happy hours gleefully chopping my way through monsters with an eye on the next fancy outfit I had in mind. And speaking of monsters, the sheer variety of them is phenomenal – and they don’t go down easy, either. Each hunt is a tense game of cat and mouse, first tracking the animal down and then gradually learning its attacks, before carefully laying a trap or going in for the kill. There’s nothing else quite like it out there, and I for one am an eager Monster Hunter convert.

GreilMercs (review) – I missed out on Monster Hunter Tri for Wii, so Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate was my first real experience with the series. I was wary of the series’ infamously high difficulty curve, but it actually wasn’t too bad, and I spent many an obsessive hour playing the game and then studying up on the nuances of the game’s mechanics online. The gameplay loop, of fighting monsters to gain parts to make better weapons and armor to fight tougher monsters to make better weapons and armor (…) is addictive, and although I definitely feel like I’m missing out on the multiplayer side of things I still had a lot of fun playing solo.

3. Hyrule Warriors

GreilMercs (review) – I was pretty obsessed with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, but that did not even begin to compare with how obsessed I got with Hyrule Warriors. I’d always been wary of the Dynasty Warriors games because every review I’d read of the games stressed how repetitive the gameplay is, but Hyrule Warriors has so many characters and weapons and adds so many other objectives that you hardly notice it. Levelling up characters, defeating enemies in order to collect materials, and working through the story mode is pretty fun, but completing the adventure mode challenges to unlock new characters, weapons, and costumes is where the game goes from fun to seriously addictive. The Zelda trappings are what tie everything together, and the amount of fanservice is simply fantastic, fulfilling fans long-time fantasies of getting to play as series’ favorites, such as Midna, Ganondorf, Zelda herself, and… Tingle?? A complete surprise to me that it ranks so high on my list of favorite Wii U games, but it’s really that good.

Lucius – I only played the 3DS version of this game – Hyrule Warriors Legends – but bar a slight graphical downgrade, it’s essentially the same experience. And what an experience it is. Fusing the musou gameplay of Dynasty Warriors with the Zelda universe was a stroke of genius, and the generous list of characters to play with, along with a massive Adventure Mode that takes place on the original Legend of Zelda map, rounds off an extremely generous package that shows real love for the fiction. Like all musou games, the gameplay can become a little repetitive, but slicing down armies of soldiers with one swipe of the Master Sword always brings a smile to my face.

2. Pikmin 3

Lucius (review) – My only complaint about this game is that there simply wasn’t enough of it. I burned through the whole thing in a few days, all the time with a joyous grin plastered across my face. The move to HD has been an absolute boon for Pikmin, and the sumptuous environments are worth exploring simply to see the detail that’s been put into them. And the fruit! Surely if there was a prize for Best Looking Fruit in a Video Game, Pikmin 3 would win the contest without problem. Seriously, that fruit is beautiful. I actually remember spinning around a 3D model of an apple for about 15 minutes, just marvelling at its pores. Fruit aside though, this game easily bests the previous two in terms of fun and strategy – it’s just a shame we had to wait nine years for it. Hopefully Pikmin 4 will be a little quicker in coming.

GreilMercs (review) – I’d played and really enjoyed the first Pikmin game and had been pretty bored with the slow pace of Pikmin 2, but I got ensnared by Pikmin 3‘s absolutely perfect progression and found myself finishing the game in a ridiculously few number of sittings. The gameplay isn’t much different from its two predecessors, but this is a case where Nintendo’s level of polish really elevates this game to its lofty position among the Wii U’s library. The Wii U’s GamePad is super handy, and this was one of the few Wii U games where I felt the boost in graphics really improved the overall experience. The multiplayer modes are quite fun also.

1. Splatoon

GreilMercs (review) – The impact of Splatoon can perhaps best be described as doing for shooters what Mario Kart did for racing games: made them fun for everyone. The game is a sublime mix of fresh parts within its core gameplay, including providing multiple objectives  (painting turf vs. splatting enemies) and multiple styles of movement (moving as a kid and shooting with your gun vs. hiding or swimming in the paint as a squid, including up walls). There are tons of modes and weapons, and the neon aesthetics, funky music, memorable new characters, and fun and colorful street style combine with the superbly elegant, “just one more round” gameplay to create a fantastically fun experience. Easily the best new IP from Nintendo that appeared on Wii U, or any Nintendo system for that matter. The only weak link was a somewhat ho-hum single-player campaign, although that may be remedied in the forthcoming sequel on Switch.

Lucius – OK, confession here. Despite owning this game, I’ve only played about half of the single-player mode, and I’ve never tried it online. And yet here it is at number one. Why? Well, for a start, Prof. GreilMercs is VERY EMPHATIC that this is clearly the best game ever released on Wii U, and who am I to disagree with him? For another thing, online shooters are never going to be my cup of tea, but I can easily appreciate just how important and ground-breaking this game is – trust Nintendo to come up with a highly competitive FPS with no blood or violence. It can be done! Plus the Inklings are a simply awesome piece of character design – I have two of them in amiibo form sat staring at me on my desk right now. The single-player game is also wonderfully designed, full of ingenious levels and satisfying mechanics – just the act of shooting your ink gun is a joy. So, like Smash Bros., this game may not be my personal favourite simply because of its genre – but I am very, very glad it exists.

Honourable mentions

We debated for ages about the running order of the top ten. Here are some of the games that got pipped at the post: Tokyo Mirage Sessions FE#, New Super Luigi U, Bayonetta 2, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Little Inferno.

You’re probably wondering why on earth Breath of the Wild isn’t at number one, let alone not even in the top ten. Well, controversially, Professor GM isn’t a massive fan of it, and Lucius hasn’t played it yet, so it was mercilessly chopped from the running early on. We seriously considered a place for Little Inferno in the top ten right up to the end, having both enjoyed it immensely, but finally we decided it was a bit too slight to muscle out the big boys. Lucius also fought for Affordable Space Adventures to have some representation, but it was eventually nuzzled out of the running by Toki Tori 2+.

So what do you agree with on our list? Let us know your own top ten in the comments below!

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