Tag: Wii

The Last Story: Flawed but Satisfying

So I finally got around to finishing The Last Story the other day. On the whole, I liked it.

It's certainly got a lot of the same old themes from Final Fantasy, as you'd expect from a game produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi where he appears to have literally just typed "Final Fantasy" into a thesaurus. There's a corrupt empire, an ancient threat from outer space, plants withering and the earth beginning to rot, a pair of starcrossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, and a focus on providing story explanations for game mechanics.

Many of Uematsu's themes, of the musical variety, return as well -- I heard hints of Terra, Edgar and Sabin, Gau, and Setzer in the ending alone, one of the final boss themes is a dead ringer for the FF7 boss theme, and the main theme recalls bits of Locke, Celes, and Aeris.

It's good stuff, though, and not too derivative; I'm probably primed to pick up all those little FF6 threads from all that listening to Balance and Ruin.

It's pretty standard High Fantasy genre stuff -- lots of horns and strings and timpani. It doesn't have the breadth or variety of Uematsu's 16- and 32-bit compositions, but that's a function of this game being a lot more tonally consistent than those were. I've talked in the past about how FF7 has more mood swings than a bipolar teenager. Last Story is much more steady -- there's plenty of levity to be had, but little or nothing in the way of racing giant birds or attending an opera.

For all that's familiar, it's a very different kind of game. It feels smaller in scale -- sure, there's still a cosmic threat that endangers all life on the planet, but the scope feels smaller. The game is centered around a single city -- the kind of thing that just wasn't done in JRPG's back in the '80's and '90's but which has become increasingly commonplace. More than that, the plot is intimately focused -- it's less about the events going on in the world than how they personally affect the handful of main characters.

Final Fantasy tends to focus on small ragtag parties who travel all over expansive worlds and eventually save the world. Suikoden focuses on small ragtag parties who participate in small regional conflicts and eventually gather large armies to overthrow dictators (and save the world). Last Story combines the intimacy of a Suikoden game's regional conflict with the intimacy of a Final Fantasy game's small, closely-knit party of player characters -- in a setting that's smaller than either. It's like what you'd get if a Suikoden game took place entirely inside the castle and its surrounding environs, or if Final Fantasy 7 had taken place entirely in Midgar.

And -- like a Suikoden game and unlike Sakaguchi-era Final Fantasy games -- it also creates the impression that there are more stories to tell in this world. The heroes save the world, the current threat is dealt with, but the Empire is still out there and who knows what else is going on in the world. This is the kind of game where there could be sequels set in this same world -- which is great, because that's still a rarity in JRPG's (except, recently, for Final Fantasy games that really, really don't need them, no matter how much I may have enjoyed Crisis Core), and both the main Suikoden series and the Ivalice series sadly seem to have stalled at this point.

At any rate, maybe I'll get into specific plot details another time, but for now I'm going to take a minute to talk about mechanics.

As for the gameplay, it's really quite enjoyable, but it has some warts, particularly in the boss fights.

The complexity of the combat is a good idea in theory. It's clearly designed to give a more satisfying experience than Fight-Fire-Cure.

In practice, boss fights tend to go pretty much like this:

  1. Wait for a party member to explain what the boss's weakness is.
    • They will either explain this only once, in which case you will probably miss it, or they will explain it over and over again constantly forever until you go into the menu and turn the fucking voices off.
    • Also, occasionally, the game will fuck with you by introducing a simple concept in a completely counterintuitive manner. Like explaining elemental weaknesses in a battle with an ice-elemental monster at a point where the only offensive spell your party has is an ice spell.
  2. Try to hit "A" at exactly the right moment to perform the action that you need to perform to make the boss vulnerable; hope and pray that you are facing the object you're supposed to be interacting with dead-on and the "A" button performs the action it's supposed to instead of just rolling you out of range.
  3. Repeat step 2 until the boss becomes vulnerable to normal attacks. (In my experience this usually takes about 3 successful presses of the "A" button at exactly the right moment and about 50 unsuccessful presses of the "A" button that make you roll out of range and have to try again.)
  4. And then the rest of the fight is just Fight-Fire-Cure.
  5. Unless by this point you've been whittled down so badly that Syrenne is dead and Zael is on his last life. In which case you'll need to play defensively.
    1. Run around the boss in circles like it's a turn-of-the-century shooter, except without any shooting.
    2. Whittle the boss's health down, agonizingly slowly, with your remaining mages.
    3. If you do get hit, lunge for the nearest heal circle.
    4. Hope the boss doesn't just straight up fucking one-hit kill you.

So yeah. Combat makes some interesting decisions that are really nice in theory, but really fucking tedious in actual execution. It's the sort of thing that I think really could be improved in a sequel.

And while the game uses save points (boooooo), for the most part they're employed competently; they're spaced pretty close together and the game also has checkpoint saves that are even more frequent.

In fact, this works out pretty well right up until the last boss gauntlet.

The last boss gauntlet is fucking bullshit.

It relies on hoary old JRPG artificial difficulty tropes like spacing save points too far apart. In one case, there's a series of three consecutive battles with no save points or checkpoints in-between. Die in the third one and you'll have to replay the first two. But if you give up and quit, then the next time you restore from a save you'll not only have to replay those first two battles, but the boss fight right before them, because there's no save point after the boss. There's a save point before the boss, but you can't backtrack to it after you beat him.

And the last boss gauntlet is long. From the Point of No Return where you can no longer backtrack or buy equipment (which is distinct from the previous Point of No Return, where you could no longer backtrack but could still occasionally buy equipment), it goes something like boss, save point, boss, cutscene, checkpoint save, gauntlet of tougher-than-average regular enemies, checkpoint save, cutscene, boss, boss, cutscene, save point, cutscene, boss, checkpoint save, boss's second form, save point, cutscene, checkpoint save, another cutscene that you can fast forward through but can't actually skip, boss with three forms.

And, in addition to the complaints above, the difficulty of the fights is adjusted upward by things like repeatedly splitting up your party for no real good reason, and adjusted downward by sticking those last two save points in rooms where you can indefinitely spawn monsters that are laughably easy and yield ridiculously high experience.

In short, it feels like the frequent Sakaguchi problem of a climax going out of its way to keep ratcheting things up and reminding you that this really is the climax, with actual gameplay seeming to be an afterthought.

And then the game still doesn't end. I think it's actually nice that there's something to do postgame (not just a New Game+ but an opportunity to go back to town and do sidequests or what-have-you), but by the end there really was a feeling of "Jesus Christ, when is this thing going to end?"

There is seriously another numbered chapter after the Epilogue. That is not how fucking epilogues work!

You know, I was going to do a bit here about what I liked about the plot, themes, characters, and so forth, but instead I think I'm going to go eat my leftover beer bread, watch Daily Show, and then play FF6. Suffice it to say, I like how almost nobody's pure good or pure evil. Maybe I'll come back to this later.

Guess I kinda did leave this on a gripefest. But that's misleading -- check the title! I thought the game was pretty good.


Well, it's officially summer now. As opposed to three weeks ago when it wasn't summer, just a 113-degree spring.

Mostly indoors in the air conditioning lately, and catching up on TV and video games. Didn't realize I was so close to finishing Mario Galaxy when I quit playing it like 5 years ago.

Course, if it weren't for the backlog and money being a little tight at the moment, I'd be perusing the various Internet game sales on right now. GOG's got a big one, Steam has plenty of deals, the Humble Bundle has both a weekly bundle and an Android-themed bundle going right now, and Amazon has a bunch of stuff for cheap too. (That last one's an affiliate link; if you buy something through it I get a small kickback.)

I don't have the time to play the games I already have. But I picked up the free download of Torchlight and maybe I'll get to it one of these days. And I've had al little more time this past week, anyway.

Lessons Learned in Wii Repair

Console Zombie's Wii Repair Guides are really quite good. However, after having rooted around in them a bit, I can make a few additions and corrections:

  • In addition to the listed tools, I found that I needed the following:
    • Razor blade -- many of the screws are covered by little stickers. I couldn't remove them with my fingers; I needed a razor blade to peel them off.
    • Tweezers -- and in some cases, I couldn't get them all the way off with the razor blade and needed to grab the corner with a pair of tweezers to pull it the rest of the way off.
    • Chip extractor -- I used this to remove the plug that connects the faceplate to the board. It was too tight to do with my fingers.
  • And speaking of the faceplate, the instructions on the Wii Case Opening Tutorial are slightly out of order. You can't remove the faceplate before removing the screws on the lefthand side; the front screw on the left side holds the faceplate on.
  • The Wii Optical Drive Troubleshooting Guide says that if you don't see a red light when you power on your Wii, it likely means the laser is bad. That may be true, but in my case it wasn't -- test the spindle motor before you go ordering a replacement laser.

Yes, I needlessly ordered a replacement laser only to find, after taking apart and reassembling my Wii, that it worked once and then went back to exactly the same behavior as before.

Now, I'll give this 50/50 on blaming the guide and myself. Because I was blaming the spin motor in the first place and didn't think it was the laser until I read that guide and it said that if you can't see a red light, you've got a bad laser.

But, there was some real foolishness on my part in not thinking to test the motor myself, something I should have thought of even though it's not in the guide: disconnect the power to the spin motor and see if you get the same result.

After I found that my new laser didn't work any better than the old one, I did that, and yes, I get exactly the same symptom with the motor disconnected as I do with it connected. Even if it isn't mentioned in the guide, I should have checked that before I spent $10 for a replacement laser I didn't need. Oh well -- you live and learn. Or sometimes you live and forget the shit you already know and are only reminded after you make a stupid mistake.

A couple more quick notes:

  • I ordered an eForcity screwdriver set with a tri-wing and a small phillips, both magnetic. It worked reasonably well for five bucks, but the reviewers are right: these things are flimsy, and in particular the two tri-wing screws on the bottom of the Wii are in there tight. I stripped the head of the tri-wing a bit and I wouldn't expect it to make it through a second round of repairs; it's worth getting if you only plan to use it once, but if you want to buy a tool you can keep and reuse, you're not going to get it for five bucks. Also, the magnet on the phillips is not strong enough to hang onto the larger screws that connect the optical drive to the chassis, which are the hardest screws to put back in.
  • Speaking of which: I'm both experienced and careful at repairing electronics, but I broke off lots of little black bits of plastic in working on my Wii. In particular, all four of the pieces that hold the screws where you attach the optical drive just cracked to hell when I screwed it back in. The parts inside the Wii are flimsy as hell and if you're the kind of person who'll be upset if you break something, you really shouldn't be opening up your Wii. Me, I'm a little disappointed -- but if I can get the sucker working again it'll all be worth it. (And if I can't, then fuck it, I'll just attach an external hard drive and rip all my games to that.)

And a final thought: man, moving parts suck.

I look through my collection of old consoles, and the top-loading cartridge ones all still work. SNES, Genesis, N64 -- you're just plugging a board into another board. I have never had an issue with any of those machines.

The NES, well, as you might expect I've had to replace the 72-pin connector. But aside from that single moving part, it's always worked like a champ.

You start getting into optical drives, though?

Well, in fairness, I've never had any trouble with my Dreamcast, GameCube, or the Sega CD I bought on eBay. Or my Xbox 360, though I've only had it for a few months.

But my PS1, PS2, and Wii all quit reading discs after a few years for one reason or another. (Also the second controller slot on my PS2 quit working. I don't know why, and it's not a moving part so it kinda undermines my case that moving parts are the problem. But not my case that They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To.) And while I haven't personally had any trouble with my new Xbox 360, that console may have the worst reputation for durability of any yet devised.

Hard drives aren't a perfect solution -- after all, hard drives can sure as hell die on you too -- but they're a superior option, especially since console manufacturers have had the good sense to make them easy to insert and remove.

As we move toward SSD's, that's going to make for an interesting set of challenges in and of itself -- I've only been using one in my desktop for a few months and it hasn't failed me yet, but my understanding is that, while they fail less frequently than spinning-platter drives, they fail all at once -- while you can usually recover most of your data from a failing hard drive, if an SSD goes it's gone.

Guess that's an argument for cloud saves. Which, at the rate Nintendo is progressing with its Internet support, should be available sometime around 2048 (but will not allow me to load my own save on my grandchildren's console).

And of course there's a downside to digital delivery as currently implemented: you don't own your game. It's DRM'ed and you can't resell it. For that reason, despite all the bullshit involved in using an optical drive, I still prefer to buy my games on digital media when I can.

Slow Day

Fiancée stayed home sick today, so I didn't get a chance to record anything.

Dizziness not as bad today; cough/breathing a little worse than when I was taking the full dose of the inhaler, but I'm much more functional so I think I'll probably keep it at a half-dose for now.

Puttered around today. Applied for a few jobs, took care of my lady, worked out, read a bit of Little Brother since Doctorow's signing Homeland at Changing Hands on Sunday and I'm thinking about going. Worked on my Wii homebrew configuration a bit; I haven't gotten my replacement lens in yet but now I've set it up so I can play backups from an external hard drive or SDHC card. (Speaking of, it looks like Sony's trying to get rid of a bunch of inventory; the local Fry's has 16GB cards for $9 and I've seen similar deals online, too.) Seemed like an appropriately Little Brother-y thing to do, though I'm still hoping I can get my Wii fixed up to just play my discs.

Backing Up Wii Data -- All of It

So I've been having problems with my Wii. It's stopped running discs entirely -- I put one in, it spits it right back out. I suspect the spindle motor, and I'm going to try fixing it myself with a little help from the guides and parts at Console Zombie -- but before I go taking my Wii apart and poking around in its innards, I figure I should probably back all my shit up.

Course, as you may know, the Wii doesn't allow you to back up everything onto an SD card. Certain downloads and save files are copy-protected. This is what is known, amongst technical people such as myself, as a bunch of stupid fucking bullshit.

See, the way I see it, I should be able to back up my saves in case my console gives up the ghost. Or, say, go over to my brother-in-law's house and have access to every course on Mario Kart without having to unlock them all again in fucking single-player mode.

So I did a bit of reading up and found a utility called Savegame Extractor. It requires installation of the Homebrew Channel.

I have an old Wii and the latest version of the Wii System Menu (4.3U). After some reading, I found that the appropriate utility for my system was LetterBomb, and there are installation instructions at wiibrew.org.

It was about as simple and painless as root tools come. Select your firmware version and input your MAC address, then download the LetterBomb zipfile. Rename the private folder on your SD card, copy the boot.elf file and private directory from the zip to the root. Put it in the Wii, power it up, open up the messageboard, and click on the LetterBomb icon. From there I installed the Homebrew Channel, and installed BootMii as boot2 (apparently on recent Wii revisions you can only install as IOS, ie overwriting the Wii firmware).

Once you boot up again, you'll need to use either a GameCube controller or the buttons on the Wii face (Power to move the cursor, Reset to select an option) on the bootscreen. You should back up your NAND memory (provided you've got 512MB free on the card; it's under the gears icon, then the icon with the arrow pointing from the chip to the SD card).

Next thing: install the Homebrew Browser.

Create an apps directory on the root of your SD card. Download the Homebrew Browser, extract it, and copy the homebrew_browser subdirectory to apps. Once it's on the SD card, you can load it from the Homebrew Channel; from there -- well, from there I got a stack dump and had to reload it. But I reloaded it, and from there you can download all sorts of useful apps -- including Savegame Extractor.

In fact, there are a few variations on it -- there's Savegame Manager, which combines Savegame Extractor with Savegame Installer, and which also just flat-out stack-dumped every time I tried to use it -- but there's a fork called SaveGame Manager EX, which works great, comes with a GUI that mimics the Wii's, and has a nice batch option to extract everything from the Wii at one go, eliminating all that tedious clicking on each individual file and then selecting Copy. (And, okay, also copying over some other shit that you don't really need to expend the space on backing up, like the Netflix Channel. But hey, still.)

Soapbox time: I'm not doing this to play pirated games. I'm not doing this to cheat at online games. (I'm not doing it to cheat at offline games, either, but if I were, that would be none of anybody's goddamn business but my own.)

I'm doing this to access my data, the games I bought and paid for (and, all right, one that Brent got me for my birthday), the saves I slogged through hours of stupid bullshit single-player Mario Kart to get.

And I shouldn't fucking have to install a bunch of hacks to do this.

I like my Wii. Rather a lot. I mean, Jesus Christ, look at how much effort I've gone to to keep all the stuff I've got on it, and that's before I've even started taking it apart.

But Nintendo is completely fucking ass-backwards in its approach to modern technology in general and network play in particular. Its "safeguards" are asinine and poorly-thought-out. They won't stop some guy with an Action Replay from unlocking all the karts on Mario Kart or all the fighters on Smash Bros and then going online (and hey, Nintendo? Maybe if you didn't make it impossible to unlock anything on multiplayer in Mario Kart, and a pain in the ass to unlock everything on multiplayer in Smash Bros, people wouldn't be tempted to cheat to do it?). They just put up barriers to prevent people with broken consoles from getting their data off. Which, again, includes games they paid for.

...and frankly they're not very good barriers. This was really a breeze. I'd like to thank the developers of all the various tools I've mentioned, and the writers of the walkthroughs on how to set them up. Because this was pretty damn painless, and to be frank I enjoyed doing it.

Tune in next time to see how I do at taking my Wii apart and seeing if I can fix it.

If I even get that far. I don't have a tri-wing screwdriver onhand, so I'm going to see if I can get the screws out with a small flathead. If not, well, tri-wings are like $5 on Amazon.

Games a-Breakin'

I can't get Windows to boot at all on my main computer -- the Win8 preview doesn't expire until next week, so I think it's because I stuck my helper card back in so I could get a stable Mac boot. Which apparently means I can't get a stable Windows boot.

I tried to play The Walking Dead on the HTPC in the living room, but the controls don't map right on my Cordless Rumblepad 2, x360ce doesn't work, and my Xbox 360 wireless controller receiver seems to have died when I tried disconnecting and reconnecting it. I've got a third-party wired Xbox controller, but for some reason that doesn't work either.

And my Wii is now ejecting every disc I put in it.

Come on, games! I've been productive this week! I finished two submissions, scheduled a job interview for Monday, and have a potential programming position lined up for a few months from now! I deserve a little time to kick back and play games!

...guess I'll just have to work on one of the several dozen on the list that aren't Walking Dead or a Wii game.

Monkeys Aren't Donkeys

Something that always bothered me:

Okay. So Cranky Kong is supposed to be the original Donkey Kong, right? Except now he's old and cantankerous and has a long white beard.

Except here's the problem: Donkey Kong was released in 1981. Donkey Kong Country was released in 1994.

Now, I'm no expert on anthropomorphic video game gorilla physiology. But it seems to me that thirteen years is a bit of a short time to shrivel up and grow a long white beard. (And that's without even considering DK's appearance in the 1994 Donkey Kong remake just months earlier, looking perfectly healthy.)

I guess that, of all the places to draw a line in the sand for suspension of disbelief in a game about anthropomorphic, barrel-hucking gorillas, "How did that one get so old so fast?" seems rather an arbitrary place for it. But dammit, it bugged me.

And it gets worse: Donkey Kong Country Returns, released in 2010, a full 16 years after the original DKC (and 14 after DKC3) -- nobody has visibly aged. Donkey Kong, Cranky Kong, and all the rest look exactly the same as they did in 1994. 1981-1994: dramatic visible aging. 1994-2010: no aging whatsoever.

Unless -- and here's my theory -- the original Donkey Kong died of old age, the Cranky Kong in DKCR is actually the 16-bit Donkey Kong now old and decrepit, and the Donkey Kong you're playing as is actually...a now-fully-grown Kiddy Kong.

Course, then you still have to explain Diddy, Funky, and the rest of the Kong family.

Anyway. Here's the trailer for Wreck-It Ralph. Which, while not technically a movie about Donkey Kong, appears to be a much-better-thought-out story of Donkey Kong's journey from villain to hero than the Donkey Kong Country series.


Stayed home from work today with a migraine. One of the worst of my damn life -- no nausea with this one, fortunately, at least, not at first, but just this awful skull-crushing agony as if a thousand Thetans were pounding at the inside of my skull trying to ec-scape.

Woke me up at about 3:15 AM, too, which to the best of my recollection is a first. I've often woken up in the morning with a migraine, but seldom in the middle of the night. I was covered in sweat, too; don't know if that's some new and exciting feature of the migraine, or if I was running a fever, or just because I live in Tempe, Arizona and it is June and our lows are around 80 degrees this time of year.

Got up at 6, called in, popped a prescription migraine pill (with codeine!), and went back to bed for a fitful in-and-out-of-consciousness "sleep" until about 11 AM.

(Tangentially: I had a job, a couple of years ago, where some middle-management fuckwit had the bright idea of combining the sick line with the help desk. One day I called in and, hours later, got a call from work asking where the hell I was -- I explained that I'd called in, but apparently the help desk hadn't gotten around to my ticket yet. I came in the next day to discover that my ticket had finally been submitted at 4:45 PM, which, as you might suppose, is not the optimal time to let an office know that a worker will not be coming in today. Like, I think by 4:45, they've probably worked that out.

Best of all, I was then randomly selected to fill out a survey about how satisfied I was with my interaction with the help desk.

I made a point of not raking the tech over the coals -- I noted that help desk techs have a lot on their plate and often poor mechanisms for prioritizing their tickets; if you've ever worked help desk I don't need to tell you that nobody ever submits a ticket as low- or medium-priority -- and said that trying to combine the sick line with the help desk line was a fundamentally bad idea.)

Anyway. Ate some instant ramen, washed another codeine down with a few cups of coffee, and that managed to knock the headache down from "I can barely move" to "dull, ever-present throbbing". And I don't know if it was the codeine, the caffeine, or the pain, but by this point my coordination was completely shot.

Then I fired up the ol' Nintendo.

There's something I learned, around the age of 12 or 13: playing video games helps with the pain.

My mom and my grandparents didn't really buy that, and I suppose under the circumstances I can't blame them -- I was, after all, saying I had a migraine, and then staying home from school and playing video games all day.

But now there's research backing what I understood intuitively as a child: video games have an anesthetic effect. In recent years there have been studies in distraction therapy suggesting that video games have a real and measurable impact on pain management. (For one example: Applications of virtual reality for pain management in burn-injured patients, via the NIH, 2009. There have been other studies besides.)

I find that quieter games tend to be a bit better. And games that don't have a lot of text, because reading makes my head hurt.

I also tend to gravitate toward the familiar, stuff from when I was a kid -- Super Mario World and the like -- and I suspect there's a "comfort food" aspect to this. Though, on the other hand, SMW requires twitch reflexes, and when my reflexes are scrambled by codeine and caffeine it can be a much more frustrating game -- which doesn't help with pain.

Knowing that, today I started with Xenoblade. It's not too heavy on the text, I'm over-leveled enough that it's pretty low-key and not difficult or frustrating, and it doesn't require much in the way of hand-eye coordination or precise movements. (Well, most of it doesn't. Fuck you, Valak Mountain.)

But what it does have is big, vertigo-inducing vistas. Fuck. I was about three minutes in before I started getting nauseous and had to turn it off. Don't know if that's the migraine or the codeine, but I popped a motion sickness pill and decided to try Super Mario World after all.

I picked up my save from the last time I had a migraine and worked my way through Twin Bridges. So I guess my reflexes weren't completely shot.

Then I had a hot bath.

Now here's a question: what the fuck is up with bathtubs?

The standard American bathtub is a rectangle, and it's, what, four and a half, five feet long? And its deepest point is where your fucking feet go.

Who came up with that shit?

I'm actually kinda curious: were bathtubs designed this way because of the belief that baths are for children and teeny-tiny elfin women, or is it that only children and teeny-tiny elfin women take baths because no average-sized human adult can fucking fit in one comfortably?

Decided not to shave afterward. Still jittery. Just because I have the wherewithal to abandon Yoshi to a tragic fate on my way to Soda Lake doesn't mean I trust myself to run sharp objects across my face.

Anyhow. Guess my point is, "staying home playing video games" isn't always as much fun as it sounds. Sometimes it doesn't mean you're slacking. Sometimes it means you're doing everything you can to deal with excruciating pain.

All things considered I'd much rather have gone to work. Because aside from the "excruciating pain" thing, I don't get sick pay, and I'll spend tomorrow playing catchup.

So it goes, I guess.

Metroid: Brother from Another Mother Postmortem

So, Metroid: Other M has ginned up a fair bit of discussion and controversy. On the whole I liked it -- I probably wouldn't put it in my top five Metroid games (and how weird does that sound, "my top five Metroid games"?), but it was perfectly solid.

That said, there is plenty to gripe about -- and I'm going to throw my hat in, starting with the stuff that didn't work and how it can be fixed, and then moving along into the stuff I did like so we can end on a nice happy upbeat note.

Oh, and major spoilers follow. So, you know, stop here if you don't want to read them.

The cutscenes.

This particular aspect of the game has probably attracted more criticism than any other, and for good reason. We've gone from an essentially mute protagonist to one who constantly narrates -- badly.

How to fix: 90% of the problems with the cutscenes could be improved by cutting out the narration. Ever hear the expression "Show, don't tell"? If someone has to explain what's going on in a visual medium, you're doing it wrong. And we don't need Samus doing these "dear diary" things where she tells us what's going on inside her head -- as the Robot Devil sagely told us, "You can't have your characters just announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!"

There is one glaring exception: the one time the game doesn't overexplain the plot is the part that most needs it, the identity of the Deleter. Who the hell is he? The game doesn't tell us. Is Samus supposed to have figured it out? If so, why didn't she ever mention it in her incessant damn narration? The closest we ever get is her finding James's body last. Are we then to assume it was him? Or is it deliberately unresolved, perhaps to be revealed in a sequel? And if that's the case, why the hell isn't that set up somewhere? It's this major plot thread that just...gets dropped.

(And if it was anyone but Adam or Anthony, what's the point? Does it really matter which random Redshirt is the traitor?)

Oh, and also, guys...it's the twenty-first damn century. There is no excuse for unskippable cutscenes.

Item acquisition.

Bad for the story. First of all, Samus being told not to use any of her equipment, and just deactivating all of it, has pissed a good many fans off, and rightfully so (see "Samus is a pussy", below). But even ignoring that, the execution is utterly nonsensical -- Adam allows his men to use Ice Beams from the get-go, but won't let Samus use hers until she's spent 10 minutes in a volcano? And speaking of the volcano, she's not allowed to use the friggin' Varia Suit at first? I mean, okay, you can come up with a plot explanation for being careful with missiles and bombs (though this would, you know, require some sort of damn payoff later in the story to actually work), but what the hell possible story justification can there be for not allowing someone to use heat shielding in a fucking volcano?

There is a neat "Screw (Attack) this" moment later on where Samus loses contact with Adam (for, it is later revealed, a profoundly stupid reason), and reenables a couple of moves on her own...but there's still no damn explanation for why she doesn't just unlock her entire arsenal at that point. For God's sake, she doesn't even enable the Gravity Suit until after she's slogged through the high-gravity area.

Oh, and incidentally, guys, it's been mentioned before, but giving a cute explanation for why Samus has to give up all her equipment at the beginning of the game only works if you explain what happened to all her missiles and energy tanks. Which brings us to:

Bad for gameplay. Unlocking Samus's powers at set intervals reduces the variety of items for you to find down to three: missiles, energy tanks, and powerups that reduce your charge time.

Now, reducing charge time is neat, and I was always happy to find one of those. And energy tanks are an essential part of a Metroid game too -- I just wish Nintendo hadn't decided to crib one of the more annoying collect-y bits from the Zelda series and started splitting them up into quarters. Does anybody like hunting for Pieces of Heart? Anybody?

Of course, the vast majority of the stuff you find in walls is going to be missiles. Trouble is, missile upgrades are damn near useless this time around, as you can fully recharge your missile supply in a couple seconds at any time (except, arbitrarily, in the last fight!). I mean, yeah, it's obviously better to have 50 missiles than 10, but the missile count just isn't as significant this time around. Especially when you're incrementing it by one at a time.

How to fix: Easiest thing to do would be just to go back to resetting Samus's powerset at the beginning of the game without explanation and having her get upgrades from Chozo statues. Sure, it requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but you know what requires a hell of a lot more suspension of disbelief? Being forced to turn off heat shielding in a volcano. And, you know, all that other shit I just got through complaining about.

If you're really concerned about having an in-plot explanation for Samus losing her powers, set the next game after Fusion and throw together some explanation about how the Fusion Suit can't retain its upgrades over time. Easy.

And it doesn't have to be the same arsenal in every game, guys! Let's see some new equipment!

Samus is a pussy.

We've already covered Samus's subservience to Adam, but the scene that rightfully cheesed a bunch of people off is the one where she's literally transformed into a crying child when Ridley confronts her.

Guys, I see what you're going for here -- the game plays with the image of a child's cry from beginning to end. And you're trying to show Samus gets scared sometimes -- Alien, after all, never had a problem showing Ripley scared shitless.

Difference is, Ripley still got shit done. She never needed a man to swoop in and snap her out of her little-girl crying.

And of course there's the fact that Samus has killed Ridley, what, four times by this point? That doesn't necessarily mean she can't still be afraid of him -- after all, it's not going to make the giant monster who killed your parents less scary if he keeps coming back from the dead -- but she never froze up on the previous four occasions, so it seems silly for her to do so now.

How to fix: I've already covered the "don't make Samus switch her equipment off and on at some dude's whim" point. As for the Ridley scene, it's okay to show her scared, but not to have her fall to pieces and just stand there. You really want to play the "crying child" thing, okay, make it a flashback, but this whole scene, Anthony's non-sacrifice and all, would still have worked without making Samus totally helpless.

Invisible walls.

This game has the worst abuse of invisible barriers I've seen since the Nintendo 64 era. It's embarrassing. If something looks like empty space, I should be able to walk through it. If there's an object with a flat top that's lower than the maximum height of my jump, I should be able to stand on it.

How to fix: If you don't want me to be able to walk through something, put a wall there. If you don't want me to be able to stand on top of something, make it taller, or have it end in a point. It's not rocket science, guys; this is embarrassing.

Pixel hunting.

I am not a guy who usually looks at walkthroughs, but several times throughout this game I had to punch one up after spending ten minutes trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be looking at out of all the tiny objects off in the distance that are almost the same color as the background. It's utter nonsense -- that boss isn't going to attack me until I see the larva? MB's just going to stand at that window and watch me look around for five minutes and only run away once I've actually looked directly at her? -- and it completely kills the momentum of the game.

While scanning worked okay in Metroid Prime, this is fundamentally different. Prime clearly marked everything that was scannable, and let you move around while you were looking for things.

How to fix: It can't be fixed. Fucking get rid of it. The moment you think it would be a good idea to include another pixel hunt, bash your hand with a hammer. Keep doing this until you no longer think it sounds like a good idea.

Unclear objectives and inconsistent rules.

Following off the above section: I had to look up a walkthrough three times in the endgame. First, to find out what I was supposed to be looking for in Room MW. Second, to figure out how to beat the Metroid Queen -- yes, I'd figured Power Bombs, but holding down the button didn't work, you had to go into the menu and activate them. Which would be fine if that had been how it worked for every single other power, but all the rest activated automatically. You can't go changing the way powers are activated at the very end of the game.

And after that, there was one final pixel hunt. In the middle of a fight. Where you can't dodge or recharge your missiles and indeed there's not actually any indication that your goal is to look at the middle of the room instead of the guys shooting you in the face.

How to fix: You don't need to hold my hand and spell everything out for me, but make points of interest visible (at least if they're places I have to go and not, say, missile upgrades), and don't change the rules of the game at the very end.

Anyhow, enough with the complaints and on with the good stuff:

The cutscenes.

It almost feels like the cutscenes were created in order, because -- with the exception of the horrendous Ridley sequence late in the game -- they get progressively better. Adam's death is a real high point, and while Madeline spends a bit too much time on exposition, there's a real sense of tragedy and pathos to the ending. There's potential here; it gives me hope they'll get it right from the beginning in the sequel.

And you know, I didn't really think the voice acting was that bad -- I didn't think it was fantastic, but it was competent, especially given the material.

The Metroids.

I could count all the Metroids in this game on my hands. They only show up at the end of the game, and they are bitch-ass hard to kill.

This is exactly how it should be. Keep the Metroids scarce, make them scary and make them a legitimate challenge.

The high-gravity sequence.

Yeah, it was a pain in the ass to play, and Samus's refusal to activate the Gravity Suit is utterly nonsensical, but it was probably the most legitimately creative point in the game.

The escape sequence.

It's hard to take a formula and make it surprising. Super Metroid put its twist on the escape sequence by making the room tilt; Zero Mission added the Zero Suit stealth sequence, and this one puts the whole thing after the end credits. Great twist; too bad it won't be a surprise next time (and too bad a guy with a loud mouth spoiled it on my messageboard).

The return of the Zero Suit doesn't make a lick of plot sense (and neither does Adam leaving his helmet behind in the first place), but it's fun -- chalk another one up in the "I'm willing to suspend disbelief if you give me something worthwhile in exchange" column.

Speaking of which,

Three Stages of Ridley.

It's completely ridiculous, but I love it.

No drops.

It was a little odd at first, getting used to the lack of energy/missile drops, but it really fits the mechanics of this game well. Running out of missiles is a minor inconvenience, but recharging health requires a real risk -- and pays off often enough that it's not frustrating, while getting you killed often enough that the game's still a challenge.

Well-placed save points and forgiving deaths.

In general, I tend to wish the Japanese would figure out that we're not saving to batteries anymore and realize save points are anachronisms and just let me save wherever I want -- but this is the next best thing. You rarely, if ever, go 20 minutes without hitting a save point and, better still, always respawn close to where you die (eg at the beginning of a boss fight). It allows the game to be challenging without being too punishing -- especially given the aforementioned unskippable cutscenes.

The gameplay!

Saving the most obvious for last -- for all its flaws, this is a pretty fun game to play. It's nailed the atmosphere and mechanics of the series. Sure, combat's a bit more complicated, but it seldom hurts the momentum of the game. Make no mistake: this game plays like a Metroid. It's got its blemishes, but I enjoyed it, and I played it through to the end -- and, perhaps most notably, it made me want to go back and replay its spiritual predecessor (and chronological successor), Metroid Fusion.

All in all, a pretty good game. With some spit and polish, a sequel could be better yet.

Video Games in the Media

To: NPR's Morning Edition

On this morning's Morning Edition, Kelly McBride expressed concern that Wii Sports would lead her children to erroneously believe they could actually play sports.

I think this is a very reasonable concern. I just got a Wii and spent a good portion of last week playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Yesterday morning I got up, put on my green tunic, grabbed my sword and shield, and went to cross the bridge at Yorkshire and the I-17. When the gateway to the Twilight Realm did not open and I failed to turn into a wolf, I was forced to come to grips with the shocking possibility that video games might not be real.