Monday, February 23, 2015

Let's talk about the changes made to Majora's Mask 3D

I have too much respect for the artistry of writing. As a flailing fanboy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, I would love to have spent a hundred more paragraphs discussing the 3DS remake in my review. But no, I've got to make it tidy and presentable. Bother.

So, I've returned to my blog to... assemble some bullet points. See, I'm not even putting any effort into how I word this because that would defeat the purpose of a blog entry specifically devoted to self-satisfaction. I want more opportunities to talk about Majora's Mask, so here's a series of changes made to the 3DS version and what I think of them. (I'm not listing literally every single one because that would take forever and most of the tweaks are incredibly minor.)

There's more explanatory dialog. Majora's Mask is a famously impenetrable game; its mechanics are unusual and its objectives are often murky. A lot of text has been added to point players in the right direction; it's often simply a matter of Tatl chiming in and saying, "Hey, we really should go here next." There's also an optional hint system in the form of a Gossip Stone in the Clock Tower where you begin the game. Nothing wrong with these changes. Accessibility without sacrificing challenge and reward.

The bosses have been overhauled. This is the biggest, most notable change. All four of the game's major bosses have been expanded upon in some way and tend to include multiple stages. They were fine in the original, but slightly one-note. They're more complex now and now revolve around exposing and attacking giant Majora eyes poking out of the woodwork. That consistent visual quirk also reinforces the fact that these bosses represent a persistent menace; they're not just the monsters that happen to be standing there. The Gyorg and Twinmold fights have changed the most radically.

You can now jump ahead to any hour. Another massive improvement, this time done to make the real-time component of Majora's Mask a bit less tedious. There was a lot of waiting around in the original, particularly if you were engaging in certain side quests, because you could only skip ahead to 12-hour increments. Now, you can use the Song of Double Time to jump to any hour. Good for veterans and newcomers alike.

Saving works differently. The original game's save system was deliberately restrictive to prevent players from wasting opportunities. It works differently now. There are far more owl statues (though you can still only teleport between the same ten), and it's now possible to save and reboot without limit. However, the game no longer auto-saves whenever you play the Song of Time. You need to save manually. This might catch longtime fans off-guard, and I very nearly lost progress on a couple of occasions when I nearly turned my system off assuming the game had saved for me.

A couple of the Bombers are hiding in new locations. This drove me up a goddamn wall.

The Happy Mask Salesman gives you the Bomber's Notebook automatically. Majora's Mask has a heavy leaning on side quests, what with the world being more interactive than your standard Zelda game and the characters inhabiting it have, uh, a lot of problems to be fixed. The Bomber's Notebook is a handy way of keeping track of who you need to assist, but it was originally easy to miss - you had to either replay the hide-and-seek mini-game (which no one wants to do) or you had to memorize the code to their hideout and use it in a subsequent cycle (when there's no other reason to return there). Now, the Happy Mask Salesman gives it to you automatically when he teaches you the Song of Healing. An improvement.

The banker is in a more prominent location. This is kind of a huge aspect of the game, since it's the only way to "transport" money from one cycle to the next - you deposit money, he stamps you, and you can then withdraw that amount whenever you like. He was easy to miss or ignore, though, whereas he's now in a more prominent spot right at the base of the Clock Tower.

The Song of Soaring is taught to you a bit earlier. Kaepora Gaebora now teaches you the song, which allows you to teleport between select owl statues, right when you enter the Southern Swamp, whereas previously, you'd first encounter him just outside of Woodfall, right as you were about to hit the game's first dungeon. That's fine, though Kaepora Gaebora is also a bit more polite to Link now, which I don't like. He was originally rather dismissive until Link persisted a bit.

The Great Fairy rewards for the first two dungeons have been swapped. This kinda makes sense. There are 15 Stray Fairies hidden in each of the game's four primary dungeons, and tracking them all down results in some neat little bonuses. Far and away the most useful is the extended magic meter, which is now granted at the end of the first dungeon, which will likely be the only time most people will bother to hunt all of the Stray Fairies (because they get really tough to find after Woodfall). The not-terribly-useful spin attack power-up is now given to you in Snowhead.

You no longer have to hold the action button to do a Goron roll. I assume this is because the game now has secondary analog camera control, which requires a free right thumb. This makes prolonged rolling sequences, like the Goron race or the Goht battle, less painful on the hands.

Swimming as a Zora is much slower now. This is the one change that I genuinely dislike. The default swimming speed for the Zora form is much lower than it previously was. It's still possible to swim at top speed, but only when using the magic barrier. Zipping freely around the Great Bay was one of the original game's basest pleasures, so limiting the ability doesn't make much sense, in my book. This also makes players less prepared on the one or two instances when the Zora dolphin jump is actually required.

There's a new bottle and a new quest accompanying it. There are now seven bottles to obtain. The new one involves talking to Gorman in his hotel room while he's hungover (on milk, of course, as this is a family game), fetching an item from his brothers out by the racetrack, and bringing it back to him in under two minutes. Not much as far as new content goes, but it's something.

The Garo Mask is now modeled after the Garo Master. It didn't make a whole lot of sense for the Garos to mistake you for their master when this mask made you just look like a regular old scrub, so the mask now matches the pink-and-gold decor of the Garo Master, the mini-boss that yields Light Arrows in the Stone Tower Temple. On the other hand, the Gorman brothers are now wearing these when they ambush Cremia's milk cart, which just looks goofy.

The Stone Mask is now hidden in the Pirates' Fortress. This is famously one of the most useful masks in the game, as it makes you invisible to enemies, including the guards in the game's token stealth section. But whereas the (invisible) guard who gives it to you was previously found on the road to Ikana Valley, he's now in the center of the main plaza of the Pirates' Fortress. So you'll at least need to do a bit of manual stealthing in this version of the game.

Ice Arrows can now only be used to freeze water in designated, twinkling spots. This makes the Great Bay Temple considerably easier to figure out since it's always crystal clear where you're supposed to be creating platforms. I think the change makes the dungeon too easy, but that's just me.

The Giant Mask is now given to you midway through the Twinmold battle. Worth noting because anyone who fought Twinmold in the original knows that the Giant Mask is more or less essential for the fight, which means veterans will likely tear their hair out when it's not given to you at the normal time and place and they're forced to enter the battle without it. Don't panic. You'll get it.

Now there are two fishing holes. My opinion regarding fishing mini-games is that they always suck, so I don't know why this is the thing that Nintendo figured would improve Majora's Mask, but here it is. One of them is located next to the shooting gallery on the way to the Southern Swamp, while another is found near the Great Fairy Shrine in Zora Cape. Fishing tickets are now regularly given out as rewards for mini-games, as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Here are my Oscar predictions, then

I'm always dreadful at these.

Best Picture: Boyhood
Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman)
Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Best Actress: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Best Supporting Actor: J. K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Imitation Game
Best Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour
Best Foreign Language Film: Ida
Best Cinematography: Birdman
Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Documentary Short Subject: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Best Film Editing: Boyhood
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Guardians of the Galaxy
Best Original Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Original Song: "Glory" (Selma)
Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Short Film: The Dam Keeper
Best Live Action Short Film: The Phone Call
Best Sound Editing: American Sniper
Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash
Best Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Indie mini-reviews: Splice, Cubot and The Old Tree

Good day to you, internet. While I've largely spent the last couple of weeks playing either AAA releases that I've already reviewed (Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Dying Light) or lower-profile fare that I'll review eventually (Grow Home, Castle in the Darkness), I've recently invested a bit of time in a handful of indie puzzlers on Steam. I wouldn't say that any of them quite warrant a full, official write-up, so I suppose now's a good time to defrost the old blog. Let's talk indies.

First is Splice, recommended enthusiastically by GameCritics homie Brad Gallaway. Though I hadn't heard of the game, ten seconds of research taught me that it's by Cipher Prime, the same Philly-based (!) studio behind Auditorium. Like that game, Splice uses a minimalist interface to present players with an alien scenario; half of the game's battle is just initially figuring out what exactly you're looking at, how you interact with it, and what the game wants you to do to proceed. The answer is better explained by playing it for yourself, but the best answer that I can give is that you're connecting what appear to be cells in a Petri dish in such a way that matches an outlined patterned, moving, extending, and duplicating them as needed, and where the game allows you to.

I like that there are clearly multiple solutions to many of the puzzles, and I really dig the audiovisual presentation, which looks like someone took the Fringe opening credits as inspiration for a full game. (Having said that, there are no graphical options for the PC version, and I'd have liked to see a sharper image and a higher framerate, though it's not as essential for a low-key puzzler like this). This game came to my attention because it's just recently been ported to PS4, but apparently it's been kicking around on Steam and mobile devices for a few years now. It's creative and provides several solid hours of "frustrating one moment, rewarding the next" entertainment. Recommended.

Second is Cubot, which I came across while browsing the recent releases list on Steam. This one costs two bucks and comes with very positive reviews, and while it's certainly a low-maintenance affair (the options menu even has a glaring typo), it's a perfectly serviceable puzzler about rolling blocks of various properties around small grids. All cubes in a level move simultaneously, and each abides by a different set of rules. Some roll two spaces in a turn, some roll backwards, and so forth. The idea is to get each block onto a space of a matching color at the same time.

It's straightforward and doesn't make me ask, "How on Earth did they come up with this?!" like Splice did, but it's reasonably well-designed, unintimidating and even somewhat relaxing. It's the sort of thing that's easy to play with one eye while you've got the other eye on a movie or TV show; I spent an hour or two with it last night while watching The Theory of Everything. It's only $2 on Steam, so that's a rather easy sell if you ask me.

An even easier sell, because it's free, is The Old Tree. This one is available on Steam for no charge and will take no more than 10-15 minutes to complete. It's a point-and-click puzzler with bizarre, slightly whimsical 2D imagery in the style of something like Machinarium. I didn't like that game; while I initially found it charming, its puzzles grew too obtuse too quickly. That isn't a problem with The Old Tree, which is about a strange, tentacled alien hatching and gradually ascending through a series of bizarre scenes (none of which I'll relate, because it's such a short game and thus describing even one of the scenes would spoil a huge portion of it).

The puzzles are perfectly digestible (some might even argue that they're too easy), and it does that usual indie game thing of portraying the player character as a small, timid being in a big, scary world; note the use of oversized bugs. It's all lovely to look at, though, and while it doesn't have much of a plot, it may serve as a sort of test run for the developer's more advanced ideas. The Old Tree is free and won't take much of your time, so while it's not amazing, there's no harm in checking it out.