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Hugh Likes Video Games: Metroid Dread

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Metroid Dread
Developed by Mercury Steam
Published by Nintendo
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Samus Aran is back, baby!

My life-long love of the Metroid series began with Metroid II on the clunky, grayscale Game Boy. It was the first video game I bought with my own money, or close enough. I had won a gift card to the mall in a school raffle. I’ve had a soft spot for the taciturn and mysterious bounty hunter ever since. But after the series pivoted into Metroid Prime, I had all but given up hope of seeing a brand-new 2D Metroid. I expected the four games in the series to remain relics of the past, fondly remembered and imitated by indie devs, but a part of history.
I was pleasantly surprised by the announcement of Metroid Dread if a little skeptical. I needn’t have worried, and perhaps should have seen it coming. Created by Mercury Steam, the studio which created the 2017 remake Metroid II: Samus Returns, the fifth game in the series is a return to form.
The gameplay feels much more modern, but still in line with older games. Samus moves with more fluidity and grace than her previous entries, the melee counter returns in a much more satisfying form, and her new slide move is fun to use. She has an agility that feels more akin to her movement in Smash Bros. than Super Metroid. But it works, and it makes exploring this huge new planet a delight. That momentum is also very important for the game’s other new enhancement: Stealth sequences!
Metroid Fusion toyed with the idea of stealth by introducing SA-X, a powerful enemy with all of Samus’s abilities that the player must avoid and hide from in scripted sequences. In Dread, Samus faces off against the E.M.M.I, nigh-indestructible scientific robots out of Boston Dynamics’ worst nightmares. They each have a specific area they patrol, and Samus must avoid and run from them until she can find a way to stop them. Overall, these sequences are a lot of fun but require a level of precision that leads to frustration at times.
This demand for precision also extends to the boss encounters. Bosses are varied and wonderfully gross in their designs. An early encounter has you fighting a big mutant scorpion thing standing on jutting rib bones. Each encounter requires not only precise timing but a keen eye. Each boss has patterns and weaknesses more akin to Zelda’s bosses than Metroid, and each has a melee vulnerability that leads to a sort of quick-time event where they are vulnerable. While these sequences are cool and surprising, the bosses are very tough, and by the time I was facing them over and over again, I was sick of them. It is frustrating when you’re running through a boss for the fifth time because you haven’t fought it in the exact steps the game demands. Earlier game bosses were more tests of the player’s ability to explore and find hidden resources like missiles and energy tanks. Metroid Dread has a much softer focus on exploration.
The game’s zones are wonderfully designed, but the game is filled with one-way doors, drops that Samus can’t go back through without late-game upgrades and hidden pits. I felt a bit herded at times, and discouraged from really exploring at my own pace. While this preserves the game’s momentum and ensures you don’t get too lost, it loses the thrill of exploration for a more guided experience, and this lack of options extends to the game’s controls.
While Metroid Dread gives players a lot of tools to work with, there’s no way to adjust or experiment with your layout. Y shoots, ZL slides, and holding in the left joystick activates the speed boost. When it works, such as with the slide, movement and combat feel fluid and dynamic. When it doesn’t, and with the speed booster in particular, movement becomes a frustrating, emersion-breaking chore. Allowing players to map their buttons, or implementing any sort of accessibility options would have gone a long way to improving the game. The graphics were also gorgeous but occasionally a stumbling block for me. Metroid Dread looks fantastic, but it was designed with the OLED Switch in mind. I played it in handheld mode on my original Switch, and while it still looked great, there were a few sections where I wasn’t quite sure what was a foreground element and what was part of the background. I ran into a few literal walls that way, which is just embarrassing for a bounty hunter of Samus’s caliber. 
 Overall, Metroid Dread is a glorious return to 2D form for the series. It still innovates in all the right ways and brings back enough of the classic feel that it gets my hearty recommendation. While I wish it would get out of its own way at some points, it’s Samus’s biggest 2D adventure yet. While it doesn’t quite replace Super Metroid in my heart, this is still a brilliant entry in a series that doesn’t get enough love from Nintendo. This game is a Switch essential.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania Advance Collection

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Castlevania Advance Collection
Developed by M2
Published by Konami
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Dracula Season is back, baby!

Just in time for Halloween, M2 has released a new collection of Castlevania titles from the Gameboy Advance, and these 32-bit classics have never looked or played better.
The collection includes Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow, all of which were originally released on the GBA, Super Nintendo’s Dracula X, and a nice horde of extras. Players can choose from the North American, Japanese, and European releases of each game, along with an art gallery, manuals, music players, and encyclopedias. Each game also includes a ‘gadget,’ a special tool added to help manage collectables that can be turned on or off.
The three GBA Castlevanias were all side-scrolling exploratory RPGs in the style of PS1’s Symphony of the Night. While not as beloved as that cult hit, the three games are each a gem, and being able to play them on major consoles or PC in one package is a nice bonus.
Circle of the Moon was a GBA launch title, and while it was impressive, the dark, intricate sprites were hard to see on the unlit screen, and progression relied on random item drops for the game’s card-based magic system. This is the game that benefits the most from this collection. The visuals look great on the Switch handheld screen, and the encyclopedia and added gadget make collecting card and health drops a much less frustrating process. While it’s no longer considered canon in the Castlevania series, CotM is still one of my favorites, and I’m glad it’s included here.
2002’s Harmony of Dissonance is a much more straightforward follow up to Symphony of the Night featuring a castle more reminiscent of the PS1 game, and a nimble, Alucard-like protagonist in Juste Belmont. This game had its visuals tuned for the darker, smaller screen, and the very complicated, labyrinthine double castle is trickier to navigate, but this was still a delight to return to, even if this is the game that gets the least out of the included extras and form factor.
Aria of Sorrow, the last GBA Castlevania game, is probably the star of the show here. Released later in the GBA’s life, Iga and his team at Konami created an incredibly atmospheric castle that doesn’t feel too big or too cramped, while delivering the most interesting story in the series by setting it in the far-off future date of 2035. Soma is a joy to play as, and his ability to collect and absorb the souls and abilities of enemies gives the game a lot of replay value. There’s just so much variety in what he can do that I really went digging to find all the souls I could.
Also included is Castlevania: Dracula X, a Super Nintendo not-quite-port of the Turbo Graphic CD game Rondo of Blood. Infamous for its extreme difficulty and removing most of Rondo’s innovations, cutscenes, and voice work, it’s technically a part of the collection, but mostly exists as an afterthought here. But it is included for completionists who want to butt their heads against quite possibly the most difficult final boos fight in the whole series.
Castlevania Advance Collection brings together three hand-held classics that hold up today. These were some of my favorite games on the GBA, and I’m thrilled to be able to still bring them with me on the Switch twenty years later. If you never tried these sprawling adventures back in the day, or if you’re just in the mood for something thematically appropriate but not too intense this Halloween, pick up for PC through Steam, or your modern console of choice.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Cozy Grove

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Cozy Grove
Developed by Spry Fox
Published by Quantum Theory Games
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny – What if Tom Nook was dead the whole time?

Cozy Grove is a chill game in the style of Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley that can best be described as a ‘chore simulator’ but that’s hardly a bad thing. Players are put in the boots of a novice Spirit Scout, sent to Cozy Grove to hone her skills and put the many ghosts haunting the island to rest. Also, the ghosts are anthropomorphic bears, because why not.
As you meet each ghost and learn a bit about their story, they will task you with quests, most of which involve gathering either specific items hidden on the island, or resources earned from fishing, mining, and other activities. Players can also commission and place decorations and raise plants and animals.
While this all will sound very familiar to players of the genre, the systems are well executed, and the hand-drawn art is charming. The island is rendered in muted black and white tones, but as ghosts have their daily needs fulfilled, the areas around them fill with color. These areas can be expanded using decoration in the game, making the game easier to see and giving it a real sense of progress.
Cozy Grove does require a great deal of patience, even for a game of this type. Items the characters need to complete the next part of their stories are often locked behind quests for other characters, or require high amounts of limited resources. Characters don’t give story missions every day, either. It can be frustrating to wait for a character to give you what you need for another part of the story. Especially if multiple other characters need something from them.
I played on the Nintendo Switch, but Cozy Grove feels like it was designed with tablets in mind. While the button controls are by no means bad, the game has a bit of trouble with targeting, and often selects the wrong object to interact with when using button controls. There is a ‘swap target’ that occasionally appears if the game is unsure where you are pointing, which somewhat resolves the issue, but it isn’t always there.
These are minor quibbles in what is an excellent, heartfelt, and charming little chill-out game. Cozy Grove is a perfect game to wake up with over coffee or unwind to after a long day The game is available on mobile, PC, and major consoles. If you have the time and inclination, it is a cozy goth delight.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Dragon Quest II

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Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line
Published by Square Enix
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny – A flawed but still-fun classic

Last week, Dragon Quest celebrated its 35th-anniversary last week, and I have been playing through the second entry in the venerable series to celebrate. While the game has a lot of rough edges, the Switch port still largely holds up.
Originally released in 1987 in Japan and 1990 in North America, Dragon Quest II is a continuation and expansion of the original Japanese role-playing game. In the first adventure, a lone knight, who is the descendant of a great hero, saves a kingdom from an evil wizard, who is also a dragon. The sequel picks up the story a century later, with three of that hero’s descendants picking up the family trade and taking out Hargon, a malevolent priest bringing about the end of the world. While this is still a primitive example of a console RPG, it does mark some notable firsts for the genre. The player starts out controlling a single hero, but picks up two companions along the way, making it the first JRPG with a party. Your party doesn’t quite have defined classes per sei, but each character plays a little different, with the Prince of Midenhall playing the role of a warrior with high attack and defense, but no access to magic, while the Princess of Moonbrook can cast powerful spells but can’t wield swords or wear heavy armor. The Prince of Cannock is a bit in the middle, with some access to both.
You also get a boat to explore a wider world, which includes a simplified and smaller version of the world map from Dragon Quest! While there is a pretty big (for the time) world to explore full of towns to visit and dungeons to delve into, the story isn’t very complex by today’s standards. There are plenty of clever secrets and things to uncover, such as a hidden slot machine minigame, but the plot is your basic quest to go find the big bad and put your sword through him.
The Switch port carries on from a long line of ports and remakes that have incrementally improved the game over the years, from the Super Famicom to Game Boy to Wii and up through mobile phones. This is definitely a game that is in no danger of ever going ‘out of print.’ Naturally, the graphics and sound have been upgraded, and the game looks fabulous, with highly detailed and colorful sprites, although there isn’t much animation in the game, with battle scenes still being fought against still images. But even if they don’t animate, Akira Toriyama’s designs really pop in HD. And Koichi Sugiyama’s orchestral score sounds great.
The gameplay is pretty relaxing, with turn-based combat and simple puzzles that are usually resolved by finding the right NPC or using the correct item based on their clues. You don’t always have full control over actions in battle, as enemies appear in groups and you can’t select individual monsters if they’re in a crowd. But the AI has been improved over the years, and the game tends to deal out damage in an optimal way for the player. While the monsters are fun to look at, combat can get pretty repetitive, though. Developers hadn’t quite worked out the curve for adding bosses, and you won’t see very many until the last castle.
The only thing that hasn’t been improved from the original, and is still the biggest drawback, are the dungeons. The towers and caves in the game are long and very maze-like, with lots of frustrating traps that just serve to prolong the game without being much fun. The cave that leads to the final dungeon, in particular, has a set of very nasty trap floors that force you to begin again from the entrance, with random encounters hitting you every few steps. It’s not the most engaging design, and I had to put the game down a couple of times and play something else.
With those drawbacks aside, Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line is a classic that further defined an emerging genre. Plus, it is on sale right now as a part of Dragon Quest’s anniversary, so curious gamers can experience this historic gem for cheap on the Nintendo Switch eshop or IOS and Android app stores.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Rain on Your Parade

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Rain on your Parade
Unbound Creations
Played on PC

The Skinny – Cloudy with a 100% chance of MAYHEM!!1!

Inspired by games like Donut County and Untitled Goose Game, Rain on your Parade puts players in the driver’s seat of a mischievous cloud in a dazzling paper-craft world. Using a set of weather-based powers, players journey through fifty mission-based levels to reach their ultimate goal, the mythical city of… Seattle!

With tongue firmly in cheek, this clever little game delivers on a wide variety of challenges as you work your way across the world. The weather powers are fun to use and are constantly mixed up. Rain soaks people and can be used for other puzzle objectives like growing crops, but can be remixed by soaking up other substances, like oil which can be used to start fires with your lightning ability. Snow and tornado powers also let the player freeze objects or manipulate the environment, although both are unlocked fairly late in the game.

The levels, which range from beaches to grocery stores to the surface of the moon, are cleverly designed, although a few are VERY short. The writing in Rain on your Parade is the real highlight of the experience. It is wickedly sharp and unexpectedly varied in its targets. One mission will have you ruining a pool party by soaking all the sunbathers, but the next will have you delivering coffee in a parody of The Office or pulling off a museum heist. There’s always something new to do, with a clever twist to the mechanics in each level. The sharp, funny writing carries the game as well.

The paper-craft aesthetic of the world is also well implemented and helps to keep the game lighthearted and fun. The player’s cloud, which can be customized with hats, accessories, and a face you can redraw to your liking, is made of cardboard. The human figures resemble Fisher-Price Little People, and the settings and objects have a paper-craft aesthetic. It feels much more akin to overturning a toy box than a GTA-style rampage. This is reinforced by the brief story sections that frame the action as a bedtime story.

While the puzzles are varied, most of the levels themselves are pretty short and won’t require quick reflexes to solve. They mostly boil down to using the correct order of abilities on the right objects to solve a condition, then watching the effects play out.

Rain on Your Parade is a clever little gem of a game, perfect for unwinding, but it sits firmly into its niche as a casual toy chest of an experience. If you’re looking to relax with a bit of silly destruction, I highly recommend it.

Hugh Likes Video Games: 2020 Top 5

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Hello, readers! With not much else to do this year, 2020 was definitely a year for gaming. And gaming got a lot of attention this year, from the glossy spectacle of Final Fantasy VII Remake to the glitchy mess of Cyberpunk 2077. I tend towards a more indie bent in my gaming, but here are my top five games that caught my eye this year, as usual, in alphabetical order.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo
Played on Nintendo Switch

Let’s start with the biggest truth of the past year. 2020 was a garbage fire of a year, and in a year where we couldn’t just go and visit our friends, games became virtual spaces to meet up and visit. And for me, that mostly happened in Animal Crossing New Horizons. There’s not much that I would call serendipity this year, but Animal Crossing dropping in mid-March, just as everything shut down became a haven. A game about building refuge became a port in the storm for millions, me included. I wasn’t a fan of AC before this, and I doubt I would’ve picked up the game otherwise, but it allowed some peace and comfort in my life, as well as the ability to visit friends’ islands when I couldn’t visit their homes. I have mostly dropped off, prompting my villagers to complain about how they’ve missed me every time I pop back in, but ti was a needed balm for a few months.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

Fall Guys
Mediatronic
Played on PS4

Fall Guys made the obvious leap of combining great ideas into one package better than the sum of its parts: Online Battle Royale Gaming and Obstacle Course Game Shows. The alchemy of cartoonish costumes and padded foam rolling logs works up to an oasis of calm and joy, even as I get knocked out one more time.

Hades

Hades
Supergiant Games
Played on Nintendo Switch

Hades is one hell of a game. Loaded with challenging gameplay, intricate systems, and a compelling story full of rich characters, Supergiant has created a masterpiece of the Rogue-like genre. While games like Dead Cells and Rogue Legacy had flirted with the idea of narrative in a Rogue structure, Hades doubles down and commits to telling a story that not merely progresses between runs, but relies on the life-die-repeat structure as a meaningful and necessary component. The result is a satisfying gameplay loop that makes even a bad run feel meaningful as players claw their way out of The Underworld, one room at a time.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
Omega Force
Played on Nintendo Switch

A prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the game is set during the Calamity one-hundred years before that game opens. While that game featured cutscenes that revealed glimpses of that conflict, this game shines by letting players fight out the epic war. Using Dynasty Warriors combat is a stroke fo genius, as that series lends an epic grandeur to the conflict, and we can see how mighty Link and the Champions really were. The game also lets players drive the Divine Beasts, essentially ancient elemental giant robots, for some even more epic destruction.The result is an engaging mix of fan service and mythic tragedy (plus some time travel nonsense) that makes this title stand out from others in the -Warriors series.

Merchant of the Skies

Merchant of the Skies
Coldwind Games
Played on Nintendo Switch

A delightful little indie game that didn’t see enough love this year, Merchant of the Skies is a steampunk airship trading game that sees you buying low and selling high across an archipelago of floating islands. Along the way, you upgrade your ship, set up facilities to harvest and refine goods from raw materials, set up a fleet to deliver them, and discover the region’s hidden secrets. This was a perfectly chill game with a lovely pixel art style. There is no combat to worry about, and as long as you can keep your ship powered, (or pay for a tow to a refueling station) the game keeps going. This friendly management sim hooked me pretty quickly, and had me playing for one more run to clear that next upgrade or uncover the next island. While the game did tend to want to autosave a bit too often for my taste, which left me cooling my heels at a loading screen, It was the perfect game to relax with in a stressful year.

Hugh Likes Comics: The Union

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The Union #1
Written by Paul Grist
Drawn by Andrea Di Vito, Drew Geraci and Le Beau Underwood with Paul Grist
Colored by Nolan Woodard
Published by Marvel Comics

The Skinny: This comic feels a lot like Jack Staff, but that’s hardly a bad thing.

The Union, Marvel’s (mostly) new team of British superheroes debuts at a rocky time for the island nation, both in the real world and the Marvel universe. On our Earth, Brexit continues, while on Earth-616, their most prominent superhero, Captain Britain, has been replaced by his sister, Betsy Braddock, who is a mutant. While neither of these issues are explicitly addressed in the comic, both loom large over the book as it introduces a new government sponsored team lead by Britannia, a character who feels very familiar to the absent hero.
The one familiar member of the team is Union Jack, who fills the role of a Captain America-like super-soldier on the team. Grist wrote a long-running indie comic Jack Staff, about a similar character who was based on a rejected pitch to Marvel. This opening chapter has a similar feel, and artist Andrea Di Vito literally has him holding onto a flag for most of the issue in a likely homage.
The Union looks like the start of a clever superhero satire. Let’s just hope it can survive being tied-in to Marvel’s latest event, King in Black. You can download it digitally through Comixology, or pick up a print copy at your local comics shop.

Hugh Likes Comics: Commanders in Crisis

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Commanders in Crisis #1
Written by Steve Orlando
Drawn by Davide Tinto
Colored by Francesca Carotenuto
Lettered by Fabio Amelia
Published by Image Comics

The Skinny: An ambitious start to a fascinating new indie superhero series.

Commanders in Crisis is an ambitious new indie superhero comic that doesn’t aim simply to tell a story so much as to create a new universe. It introduces and follows the five titular heroes, who are a team along the lines of The Avengers or Justice League, although there is a bit more going on with them than it first seems, and the real twist of the book is at the end, so it won’t be spoiled here. I will say that Orlando and Tinto have created a compelling cast of characters with a huge burden to shoulder. Commanders feels like a crossover event for a line of comics that doesn’t exist.
One of the spots where ‘Big-2” crossovers tend to fall apart is that the action demands too much of the book’s page count, with splash pages and punch-ups pushing out character and story moments, making the plots feel rushed and the characters feel off. This is a well-paced book that gives us everything we need about these five characters in one short fight and a sequence of two-page vignettes following them through their off-hours. With five new heroes that don’t seem to fit neatly into their expected archetypes, Orlando and Tinto do a great job establishing who these heroes are and what they’re doing. I particularly like “Sawbones,” who is just the right mix of interesting powers and 90’s parody.
The other big pitfall for a story like this is the dramatic irony of knowing the status quo can only be shifted so much in a big superhero universe. The good guys are going to win the day, in the end, and while there may be a heroic sacrifice, they’ll only be off the board for so long. By establishing a whole universe, the creators are in the unique position of being able to take the story in any direction they want. There is a sense of possibility here that I haven’t felt in a Superhero book since Stormwatch.
Commanders in Crisis #1 is a gleaming gem of possibility. If you love superheroes, but are looking for something fresh that isn’t steeped in eighty years of continuity, This is a book to check out. You can find it at your Local Comics Shop, or snag a digital copy from Comixology!

Hugh Likes Comics: Slaughterhouse-Five

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Slaughterhouse-Five or, The Children’s Crusade: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Story by Kurt Vonnegut
Written by Ryan North
illustrated by Albert Monteys
Published by Archaia

The Skinny – Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Slaughterhouse-Five is both a ground-breaking anti-war noval and a deeply personal account of the firebombing of Dresden. It’s also a seminal work of New Wave Science Fiction. With this distinguished pedigree, adapting the work into a graphic novel would seem an insurmountable task. But Ryan North and Albert Monteys have done an outstanding job capturing the soul of the original book.
Even in text boxes and word balloons, Vonnegut’s signature prose comes through very well, and North does an excellent job trimming the work down to fit the requirements of the new medium. Monteys’s art is likewise on point. His use of a cartoonish style fits the attitude of the story well, and it gets under your skin, flowing from one scene to the next as easily as Billy Pilgrim slipping through time. Then, as with the original book, you will turn a page and be gut-punched by the beauty and horror of everything.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a moving, beautiful, sad, hilarious, enraging true adaptation of a peerless novel. It is among the best works I’ve read this year, and it belongs on the shelves of Vonnegut fans and newcomers alike. You can pick it up in hardbound graphic novel format from your Local Comics Shop, or digitally through Comixology.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Merchant of the Skies

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Merchant of the Skies
Published by AbsoDev
Deveolped by Coldwild Games

Played on Nintendo Switch

gamelogo

The Skinny: Come take a trip on this airship!

Merchant of the Skies is a resource trading and management game that puts you in the captain’s seat of a trading vessel plying the skies between floating islands. The Campaign mode sets you up as the scion of a trading family, just starting out with their own boat. You buy low, sell high, do a few favors for your Uncle who is trying to set up a postal system, and gradually discover the secrets and history of the area. As you gain income, you can buy bigger ships, purchase island, and eventually set up caravan routes for complex manufacturing and delivery. There’s no combat, and the only lose condition is running out of money. Once you complete the campaign, the game opens up a sandbox mode that lets you set the goal, or just lets you tool around in your majestic airship
The game’s pixel graphics steampunk fantasy worlds are beautiful and nostalgic. The region is presented as a filled with floating island and other sights, and you travel from one to the other Indiana Jones-style. When you visit an island, it switches to a side-on perspective with pixel sprite buildings and wee figures dashing about. This mode mostly uses menus to navigate, so you don’t have to worry about keeping track of your captain as they visit the trading posts.
The game does get a little laggy towards the endgame, when you have resource gathering and processing happening all over the map. The game auto-aves each time you leave an island, so as the game goes on, be prepared to spend a bit too long waiting towards the end of the game. Also, most of the endgame content requires resources rather than money, so eventually you’ll be raking in cash with nothing to spend it on.
Merchant of the Skies is an engrossing, low-stress management game with charming visuals and strategic thinking. It’s the perfect game for anyone looking for something on the Switch to chill out with.

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