ARMS: My Testpunch Impressions

If you’ve been following my Twitter ranting over the last few days, you probably know what’s coming…

Over the weekend, Nintendo opened up the floodgates and allowed the world to join in its Global Testpunch, a pair of weekends dedicated to showcasing and stress-testing its new ARMS franchise. I’ve made no secret of my ambivalence to the game (fighting games just aren’t my thing), but I wanted to give the game a chance before writing it off, so I dusted off my boxing gloves and went a few rounds with Nintendo’s springy fighter.

The quick version of this post is that while I can see the appeal of the game, I’m not still not all that impressed or enthused. My detailed thoughts can be found below.

  • The stages were a bit more different than I first anticipated, but outside of the smashable pillars in the laboratory arena, they still felt pretty similar. Unlike Splatoon, where you were encouraged to explore every nook and cranny of the map, the nonstop action of ARMS (unless it was a three-player battle; more on that later), kept your focus on the task at hand and not the scenery.
  • The character designs were pretty cool, but it felt like the weapon choices differentiated them more than their special abilities. The difference between Spring Man and Monster Mummy was less noticeable than the difference between the Slapamander and the Megaton. (Of course, had I been better at the controls, the character differences may have been more apparent.)
  • Speaking of the controls: Using the Joy-Cons in the thumbs-up grip was really awkward at first (I had to keep rotating them to make sure they were facing the right way), and I ended up resorting to Wii-era ‘flicking’ instead of throwing punches. While it felt better with practice, there were a couple of commands that I thought should have been mapped to different buttons. Specifically, I though the dash/jump and special attack triggers should have been switched, and having the targeting button as the Up D-button was a terrible choice (they probably should have improved their auto-targeting controls rather than mapping it to a button). I tried the Joy-Con Grip during my last testpunch round, and while the controls felt more familiar, my performance seemed to suffer.
  • One-on-one battles were straightforward enough (and pretty intense!), but three-player free-for-alls were underwhelming because they encouraged players to hide on the periphery and let the others duke it out, and then swoop in for the kill shots once everyone else was weak. The team battles were better, however, and the tethering mechanic added a neat twist.
  • Volleyball was okay, but it was a bit of a chore. Targeting the ball was a problem, and once a player scored a point, it seemed like they could quickly respond to the serve and go on to score several in succession. Close games were exciting, but they also seemed a bit rare.
  • The network connection seemed pretty solid, with only a few disconnects and only one battle with noticeable lag/teleporting (as if Ninjara needed any more help with that…) The real-time battle updates in the lobby were pretty cool, and the emotes were a nice touch, although I liked the canned phrases of Mario Kart 8 better (generic and inoffensive as they were).

In truth, however, there were two things that sunk this game for me:

  • I had been playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf before my second testpunch round, and I distinctly remember thinking halfway through the round, “You know, I’d like to take another crack at catching a tiger beetle right now…” If a game can’t keep my attention from drifting to a slow-paced life sim, that’s a red flag.
  • My arms and elbows started getting really sore from all the flicking, and as someone who has battled repetitive-motion injuries in the past, any pain like that is a total non-starter.

While some commentators gushed over ARMS so much that I questioned whether we were part of the same testpunch, nothing I saw over the weekend changed my opinion about not buying the game. It’s certainly a unique take on the fighting genre, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if it gained a Splatoon-like level of hype and prominence. I’ll just be watching from the sidelines while it happens.

Song Review: Brooke Eden, “Act Like You Don’t”

Like a jigsaw puzzle of a nondescript scene, Brooke Eden’s “Act Like You Don’t” seems to have all the pieces needed to make a good song, but it lacks that indescribable quality that compels you to pay attention in the first place.

Up to this point, Eden’s career highlights include two unsuccessful American Idol auditions, two EPs, and her single “Daddy’s Money,” which peaked at #50 last year (two other singles failed to chart at all). “Act Like You Don’t” is the second single off of her latest EP Welcome To The Weekend, and while it’s a perfectably passable single, I can’t help but feel like it’s missing something, some key ingredient needed to draw in ambivalent listeners like myself.

The production here has a retro R&B flare, and consists of a restrained-but-high-pitched electric guitar carrying the melody, and organ providing some background atmosphere, and a mixture of synthetic and real percussion (mostly the former) making up the foundation. The pace of the song feels a bit inconsistent, as the verses give off a relaxed feel while the choruses let the drum machines run a bit too wild and add an unnecessary sense of urgency to the track. The atmosphere runs into the same problem, as the guitar tones establish a slightly-optimistic tone that runs counter by the subject matter and the minor chords used on the chorus. Overall, the mix feels a bit generic, as if we’ve heard all of this before, and doesn’t leave much of an impression with the listener.

For her part, Eden has a good voice that falls somewhere in between LeAnn Rimes and Carly Pearce in its sound. While she gets a little raspy in the lower ranges of her vocals, her upper range is surprisingly strong, and she shows off both her flow and flexibility as the song jumps back and forth between rapid-fire and more-methodical lyrics. She does a great job owning the narrator’s role and making the song believable, but where Pearce succeeded in passing her pain onto the listener on “Every Little Thing,” Eden isn’t quite as effective at doing so here, and she draws a sympathetic reaction rather than truly moving the listener. Again, her performance isn’t bad (in fact, it’s probably the strongest part of the song), but it’s not enough to elevate the track to a more interesting level.

The writing here discusses the narrator’s plea for an ex to at least pretend to make a clean break for the good of both parties, and while it features some strong content, it feels pretty weak from a structural perspective. On one hand, the images are fairly vivid and specific (if a bit generic), and there are some sharp lines like “When I smell a stranger wearing your cologne/It’s like poison to me, yeah I can’t breathe.” On the other hand, however, it feels like half the lines on the song either have too many or too few words, forcing Eden to constantly adjust her flow to fit all the words in or cover the empty space. This pace inconsistency seen in both the lyrics and production seem to be the song’s biggest issue, as it keeps the song from establishing a constant rhythm and building energy as it goes along.

Overall, “Act Like You Don’t” is an inconsistent track that has all of the elements needed for a great song, but doesn’t pull them all together. Brooke Eden shows some flashes of future potential, but there’s an it factor she’s missing here, and she’ll need some stronger material and production backing her up to turn her promise into reality.

Rating: 5/10. You’re free to “Act Like You Don’t” need to hear this one.

Why I’m Excited For Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

Image From Polygon

Back when I discussed the future of the Mario RPG series, I mostly ignored the Mario/Rabbids crossover that was rumored to be coming at the time, partially because we didn’t know much about the game at the time, and partially because it sounded “like most of Mario’s gang will be reduced to cameo roles in the game.” In the wake of yesterday’s massive leak regarding what’s now billed as Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, however, it’s time to start taking this game seriously.

Reaction to this announcement has been a bit mixed, seemingly ranging from cautious optimism to outright disgust. While I’ll admit that there are a few aspects of this game that concern me, on the whole I’m actually interested in this idea because it presents the perfect opportunity to shake up a series that was in need of refreshing.

Both Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario have grown heavily reliant on existing characters from past Mario titles, and while Nintendo’s has made the formula kinda-sorta work up until now (or not, given some of the critiques of Paper Mario: Color Splash and Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam), at some point the company was going to need more than just battle system tweaks to inject some new ideas to add some life to the series. The introduction of the Rabbids (and maybe other characters from the Rayman universe, and maybe even all-new character designs) provide an opportunity to expand the Mario universe and give us more characters to interact with than ten Toad palatte-swaps. Maybe Mario & co. could fight Vermi-Dogs, or Zombie Chickens, or Scissor Birds, and maybe different types of Rabbids could inhabit towns as NPCs. The possibilities for variety are enormous, and we haven’t been able to say that about either Mario RPG successor in quite some time. (The same goes for the environments, as even a “twisted” desert or ice world would be more original than the usual generic ones.)

The relatively large number of playable characters also hints at a return to a more-traditional party/battle setup for the game. Mario RPG fans have been clamoring for the return of partner characters for quite some time, and while Rabbids dressed as Mario characters probably weren’t what they had in mind, they’re the closest thing we’ve had to non-Mario PCs since Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Having 8 different characters to play suggests that the game will scrap the Mario-and-occasionally-Luigi-vs.-the-world style of prior games in favor of the three- or four-person party seen in most standard RPGs. (Honestly, I wish they’d go even farther and scrap the action-command system as well, but that’s a staple of Mario RPG games at this point, so I won’t hold my breath.) In addition to the new Rabbids, I’m curious to see how the game handles Peach and Yoshi, as neither has seen the character-building that the Mario bros have had over the years. Is Peach more Daisy-like than we imagined? What exactly does “the explosive head” description mean for Yoshi? Even “eagle eye” Luigi might be in line for some new quirks! I’m not sure what’s coming, but I’m very curious to find out.

Of course, change for the sake of change isn’t alwaya good thing, and there are a few tidbits about the game that make me a little nervous:

  • According to The Game Historian, Shigeru Miyamoto rejected Square’s proposal of equipping Mario with a sword because it didn’t square (no pun intended) with the Mario universe…and the laser cannons being advertised here seem even less suited to the series.
  • The released documents promise “humor & self-mockery,” but Mario RPG games have always been known for this kind of stuff (especially PM: Color Splash), so I’m not sure how much farther Ubisoft can go with its humor before it wears thin.

On the whole, though, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle feels like the breath of fresh air the Mario RPG series needed. It also feels like a low-risk move for Nintendo: The company can just return to Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi if the game flops, and whatever damage it might do to the Mario legacy will be quickly forgotten the minute Super Mario Odyssey hits store shelves. (Actually, I would argue that the worst-case scenario would be a repeat of the Square/Nintendo saga: M + R Kingdom Battle becomes a hit, Ubisoft and Nintendo have a falling out over something, and the game winds up a beloved one-hit wonder that never gets a proper sequel.)

So I say bring on the laser cannons and cosplaying rabbits! I’ll need something to play in between Splatoon 2 marathons, and it’s nice to see Nintendo swing for the fences and take a risk with its IP (even a small one) for a change. If Rabbid Luigi becomes the next Geno or Goombella in the process, so much the better.

Song Review: Chris Janson, “Fix A Drink”

Honestly, how bad do things have to get before country singers set their beers down and actually do something about a problem?

Outside of 2015’s surprise hit “Buy Me A Boat” (#1 on Mediabase, #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart), Chris Janson has struggled to find radio traction in his career, with the five other singles he’s released since 2010 peaking at no higher than #20 (and most doing substantially worse). His latest attempt at relevance is “Fix A Drink,” the leadoff single from his upcoming second album, and while it might be a fun song for the moment, I wouldn’t consider it a very interesting or memorable track.

The production here is a standard country-rock mix with a little bit of Bro-Country tossed in. The melody is carried by electric guitars that squeal a bit more than your typical instrumentation, and while the drums are real, they give way to a synthetic-sounding beat during the first verse. There’s no traditional instruments here to speak of, and the overall sound bounces between a hip-hop cadence on the verses and a more-conventional country party track on the choruses. The bright tones of the guitars set a playful, carefree tone well-suited to the summer season.

I consider Janson to be a middle-of-the-pack vocalist in the country genre, and his vocals here are decent but not great. His delivery copies the verse/chorus switch of the production, as he spends the verses talk-singing as if he’s trying to channel Sam Hunt, and then switches to a run-of-the-mill delivery for the chorus. While Janson can sound a bit labored in his voice’s upper range, the song avoids this by keeping him squarely in the wheelhouse, letting his keep his voice low on the verses while not pushing him to jump too high on the chorus. Finally, Janson has a laid-back, easygoing vibe that makes him sound believable as a mixed-drink savant despite the fact that he gave up drinking years ago.

My issues with this song stem mostly from the songwriting, which unwisely advocates for inaction and shallow escapism as a response to adversity. (Adam Craig and Jon Pardi also fell into the same trap.) The narrator here counsels listeners to forget about all the negativity in the world, and instead just kick back, have a libation, and watch the world burn. The advice comes across as overly simplistic and even tone-deaf given the gravity of the problems currently facing the world (listening to this track in the wake of the Ariana Grande concert bombings feels wrong on every level). I didn’t think I’d ever hold up Old Dominion as a model for anything, but at least they offered a vague action plan for listeners when they tackled a similar topic on “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart.” Janson, in contrast, gives us nothing but a mixed drink to face the world with, and never acknowledges the fact that eventually the listen will have to deal with the problems that surround them. The rhyming and structure of the writing is actually pretty tight once you get past the bad advice it shills, and the production’s positive vibes and Janson’s charisma ensure that people will enjoy the song, but for me, the shallow ignorance of the song’s premise is a bit too large to paper over.

Overall, “Fix A Drink” is yet another entry in the longstanding series of “drinking your problems away” songs, and not a particularly compelling one at that. It’s a thin, shallow summer song that mostly harmless (and even kind of fun) which considered in a vacuum, but its message completely falls apart when reality butts in. I can’t fault Janson for not solving the world’s problems, but I will fault him for not even trying.

Rating: 5/10. There are better summer songs (“Winnebago,” “Outta Style”) that are more deserving of your attention.

Song Review: Lauren Alaina, “Doin’ Fine”

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it always makes for an interesting country song.

Lauren Alaina burst onto the scene as an American Idol runner-up back in 2011, but her moment in the spotlight seemed to pass quickly, as her first five singles failed to crack the Top 25 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Luckily for Alaina, the sixth time turned out to be the charm, as her 2016 single “Road Less Traveled” got some traction on the radio and eventually became her first No. 1 song. Alaina is now looking to capitalize on her momentum with “Doin’ Fine,” the third single off of her Road Less Travelled album, and despite the crazy story contained within the song, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about her chances.

The production on “Doin’ Fine” feels very similar to “Road Less Traveled:” Both use a slow-rolling banjo and some restrained electric guitars to carry the melody (with some steel guitar in the background for flavor), and both follow a similar “sparse/restrained verses, loud/busy chorus” pattern. “Doin’ Fine” leans more on real drums than its predecessor (in fact, once you get past the opening you never notice the drum machine again), and while I think the change is a net positive, the drums are a bit too loud in the mix, and when the cymbals start crashing they drown out the rest of the instruments. Most importantly, however, “Doin’ Fine” cuts out many of the minor chords that “Road Less Traveled” relied on, establishing a more positive and uplifting tone than its predecessor (and that’s saying something, given that “Road Less Traveled” was a follow-your-dreams power anthem). The tone stands in contrast to the darker content of the writing (more on that later), giving the listener the sense that the clouds above the singer’s head are parting, and that despite what happened in the past, the future is looking bright. Setting a contrast like that can be risky, but this mix sticks the landing.

Alaina’s vocals are reminiscent of her fellow Idol alum Carrie Underwood, and while she can’t quite match the raw power of Underwood’s voice, she matches up well in nearly every other category. She demonstrates good range and a decent flow here, and despite some of the song’s crazier statements, Alaina is charismatic and believable enough to sell the song (of course, it helps that this song was co-written by Alaina and based on a true story). With country music facing its habitual dearth of female artists, Alaina’s is a voice that is both enjoyable and sorely needed.

Where the song stands out the most, is in the writing, as it gives us a glimpse into some of the craziness of Alaina’s upbringing. The opening line “Daddy got sober, Mama got his best friend” elicits the kind of “wait, what?” reaction that makes people pay attention, and while the imagery is a tad bit vague (and I wish Alaina had dived even deeper into her father’s demons and perhaps shed some light on where they originated from), the song still does a nice job of threading the needle between conveying the stark reality of Alaina’s world while also making clear that she’s dealing with it and is in a good place for the moment. It’s the sort of raw, honest take on the aftermath of a broken relationship that connects with listeners, especially when it’s paired with well-crafted production and a strong, earnest voice.

In short, “Doin’ Fine” is a great-sounding track that stands out from it peers and should make the most of the momentum Alaina earned from “Road Less Traveled.” If this track can replicate the success of its predecessor, Alaina may still have to deal with the legacy of her past, but her present and future will be looking mighty fine.

Rating: 7/10. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.

Song Review: Todd O’Neill, “Love Again”

The best way I can describe this song is to use an old Hee Haw skit:

“I crossed Chris Stapleton with Thomas Rhett!”

“What’d you get?”

“A generic Metropolitan track by some guy named Todd O’Neill!”

*fence board pops out and whacks speaker*

O’Neill received his big break last year when he won the Nash Next 2016 competition (yeah, I’d never heard of it either), earning himself “a major-label record deal with Big Machine Label Group as well as substantial radio play on Cumulus radio stations nationwide.” The latter part of this award is the most important here, as it got his official debut single “Love Again” just enough airplay to pop up on my radar screen. Unfortunately for O’Neill, the song is an attempt to modernize a Metropolitan track for today’s traditional-leaning radio climate, and it doesn’t quite stick the landing or stand out from the crowd.

The song’s R&B roots are most prevalent in the production, as the song is dominated by a slick-sounding electric guitar that brings to mind Drew Baldridge’s “Dance With Ya.” There’s no hint of fiddle, steel guitar, or anything else even remotely traditional, and while the song gets credit for using real drums to add some punch to the track, the guitar’s bright opening tones give way to a more-serious sound on the verses and chorus, contradicting the fun, uptempo vibe the rest of the song wants to set. Despite this, the track establishes a nice groove that connects with the listener and doesn’t wear out its welcome, even if I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not reaching its full potential.

O’Neill’s raspy voice falls into the Brett Young/Drake White/Chris Stapleton lane, and though he acquits himself fairly well, this lane is starting to get crowded, and he doesn’t really stand out from those other singers. His flow is good, and while he doesn’t get much of a chance to show off his range, the hints that do appear are promising (he gets fairly low on the bridge, and he capably climbs the ladder on a background “ooh-ooh” on the last chorus). However, O’Neill lacks the power of a Chris Stapleton or the sheer vocal charisma of a Brett Young, and while O’Neill sells the song well, he doesn’t quite do enough to distinguish himself from his more-famous peers. (It’s also worth noting that the harmony on this track isn’t great, as it just makes O’Neill voice sound washed-up and slightly garbled on the chorus.)

The writing itself focuses on the current and future effects that the narrator’s significant other has on the singer’s lifestyle, and it’s a mixed bag overall. While the idea of a person reorganizing their life for love is far from novel, the imagery used is refreshingly unique, with references to remodeling the narrator’s man cave and buying a motorcycle that can carry two people. (The standard Metropolitan objectification of women is mostly absent here as well, although the singer mentions that his love interest has a “whole lotta sexy when you move them hips.”) On the other hand, some of the lines are vague and lack the necessary context (it took me forever to realize that the “shopping for the cut that you like” line was about buying an engagement ring), and some of the rhyming is laughably bad (“ring” with “piece?” Seriously?). I would have also appreciated a bit more backstory about the whole “loving again” notion, as the lyrics give no clues about what made the singer hesitant to love in the first place. Is there a painful breakup in his past? Did tragedy strike a former love down prematurely? Unfortunately, the song has no answers.

In the end, “Love Again” isn’t an annoying or offensive song, but it’s not a memorable or interesting one either, which is about the worst thing a leadoff single can be. O’Neill deserves some kudos for becoming the Nash Next 2016 champion, but he wants to be anything more than that, he’s going to need some better writing and production to back him up.

Rating: 5/10. It’s okay, but don’t bother going out of your way to hear it.

My Reaction To The ARMS (+ Splatoon 2) Direct

Yesterday, Nintendo aired a new Direct presentation centered on its next big Switch release ARMS, and closed with a small single-player trailer for Splatoon 2. While I’m not a huge fan of fighting games and really couldn’t care less about ARMS at this point, I was curious to see exactly what the game would include, and find out definitively whether or not there was enough here to change my opinion. Let’s dive in, shall we?

  • The character design is pretty decent here. There’s a lot of variety in both the aesthetics (standard fighters, ninjas, pop stars, autonomous robots, non-autonomous robots, etc.) and functions (each character seems to have some unique ability to distinguish them).
  • The arena designs, on the other hand, are not terribly inspired. They all look nice and have some small differences, but for the most part they seem interchangeable.
  • The various non-fighting modes are nice, but they look kind of shallow and may not have a lot of replay value. Dunking opponents through a basketball hoop made me laugh when I saw it, but I feel like both that and the volleyball mode would get old pretty quickly. Grand Prix reminded me of the old Mortal Kombat “climb the ladder” setup (which I never really enjoyed, but a lot of people did), and 1 vs. 100 has a Super Smash Bros. vibe to it (actually, I wasn’t a huge fan of that mode in SSB either). Andre from GameXplain muses in their Direct discussion that the single-player content here will be pretty light (perhaps even lighter than in Splatoon), and I think he’s on to something.
  • Back in my E3 post, I said that Nintendo should adopt the Splatoon-style approach of releasing more (free) content in the months after the game’s release. Not only is Nintendo doing this, but they’re going a step further a running a “Testpunch” event across two weekends to give players a taste of the game (and the company’s servers a taste of the loads they’ll see in production). This is a great move to get skeptics like me to give the game a spin with no strings (springs?) attached, and perhaps convince them to take a chance on buying the full game.
  • The highlight of the Direct for me was the Splatoon 2 trailer, and it was as good as I had hoped. The single-player mode has more enemy and weapon variety (although I didn’t see the “Hero .96 Gal” I wanted), and builds nicely on the lore from the original game. While I’m not 100% sold on the “evil Callie” theory that’s been floating around, it would certainly be an interesting plot twist. (I also like the Hero Suit design a lot more now—the clothing now screams “cool Squidbeak splatoon member” instead of “highway safety worker.”)
  • I’m starting to think Nintendo’s going to owe Blizzard some royalties with its upcoming titles, because I’m seeing a huge Overwatch influence in both ARMS and Splatoon 2:
    • The character roster in ARMS feels very Overwatch-like in its composition (very diverse) and some of its specific designs (Mechanica is basically a ten-year-old D. Va).
    • In addition to the similar Splatoon 2 special attacks (the Ink Slam looks a lot like Lucio’s Sound Barrier, while the Jet Pack makes me think of Pharah’s Barrage), if the “evil Callie” theory is indeed true, then she’s basically Widowmaker. (It’s too bad that Marie wasn’t the captured one, as her charger preference would have made her the perfect Widow clone.) Honestly, I’m kind of hoping for more of this sort of thing (the charger equivalent of McCree’s Deadeye would be both awesome and terrifying).

In the end, this Direct was a 90% no-op for me: I’m still not that excited by ARMS, and I was already super-hyped for Splatoon 2. Still, that last 10% is key, because the ARMS Testpunch might be the thing that finally gets me excited about that game. (At the very least, the event will be worth a good blog post afterwards.) With these two games and the mountain of 3DS titles coming this summer, Nintendo appears to be heading into E3 with the most momentum that it’s had in years.