How To Do Repetitive Gameplay Right

Most every game gets repetitive at some point, whether it’s because you’re stuck at an obstacle or boss fight or because the gameplay itself is short and standard (for example, there isn’t a lot you can do in a football game except, you know, play football). The key is what the game does in response to this issue, as handling repetition well can be the difference between a good game and a bad one.

Consider the latest two games I’ve highlighted, Miitopia and Sonic Mania. Despite being completely different genres, both games lean on linear gameplay through worlds with a number of branching paths, with any number of bonuses waiting for ambitious explorers. This means that completionists and OCD players like myself are going to have to go back through each level a number of times to fully ‘defeat’ it. So why did I enjoy going back through Miitopia levels but come to detest doing the same in Sonic Mania? Essentially, it was because Miitopia always did the right thing when it came to repetitive gameplay, whereas Sonic Mania never did.

So how do you handle repetition in games? Here are a few takeaways from my experience:

  • Save the player’s progress early and often. Break your levels down into small segments (conceptually if not literally), and record the player’s progress after each one. That way, if the player runs into a challenge that takes them a few tries to overcome, they can a) focus squarely on that challenge instead of slogging through a bunch of stuff they’ve already done, and b) not have to re-do said challenge if they fail further down the line.

Upon falling in battle, both Miitopia and Sonic Mania send the player back to the beginning of the stage they were playing. The difference is that Miitopia‘s stages are much smaller than Sonic Mania‘s, and boss fights are separated into their own stages, so returning to the point of the player’s prior failure is quick and easy. Sonic Mania, on the other hand, ships players all the way back to the beginning of the zone they were playing when they receive a Game Over, forcing them to play through up to two (pretty long) acts to get back to where they perished.

  • Give the player plenty of chances to succeedSonic Mania actually has a nice checkpoint system built in, which works great when you have a life to give. The game is surprisingly stingy with its lives, however, and it doesn’t take long to burn through them all on a tough boss fight and suffer the indignity of a Game Over. Say what you want about lives being so plentiful as to be meaningless in the Mario series, but the games give players more than enough chances to overcome the challenges they face. (In fact, Super Mario Maker‘s infinite-retry system is the only thing that makes beating kaizo and other super-hard levels possible.) Miitopia copies the Mario Maker technique and lets you try your hand at a level as many times as you want.
  • Make the rewards for exploring both worthwhile and permanent. In Miitopia (and most RPGs, for that matter), every individual battle you play through gets you money and experience, and thus exploring ultimately makes your party stronger. In Sonic Mania, exploring a different path might net you… More rings? Maybe a shield or an extra life? Not only are these rewards not terribly enticing, but some are also ephemeral and will disappear at the end of the stage. It just feels like exploration in Sonic Mania is just for the sake of exploration, and doesn’t actually net you much in the end.
  • When all else fails, make sure no two gameplay sessions are the same. In truth, some of the most fundamentally repetitive games out there (MaddenMario KartOverwatch) are also some of the most popular and enjoyable. The reason is that games like this introduce just enough randomness (different players, different maps, etc.) to ensure that every match is its own unique entity. Miitopia accomplishes this mostly through its potentially-infinite cast of characters, as well as the different roles they can take on. Sonic Mania has nothing like this, although in all fairness single-player platformers are at a huge disadvantage in this category.

In the end, it’s all about finding ways for the player to enjoy your game, even in the face of repetition. When a game can pull it off, it allows for near-endless replayability. When a game doesn’t, it had better hope that a one-and-done playthrough is worth the cost.

Song Review: Brett Eldredge, “The Long Way”

I was waffling on whether to review this song or Rascal Flatts’s “Back To Us” today, but since “The Long Way” is basically a modernized version of RF’s “Take Me There,” I figured this qualified as a compromise.

Brett Eldredge went big, brash, and bombastic with his last single “Somethin’ I’m Good At,” and while I really enjoyed it, country radio scolded him, whacked his nose with a newspaper, and made him settle for a disappointing #21 Billboard airplay peak. Judging from “The Long Way,” the second single off of Eldredge’s new self-titled album, the singer got the message, as this song is safer, more radio-friendly, and ultimately nowhere near as interesting.

The production opens with spacious 80s-esque synthesizers and a drum machine that makes the listener do a double-take, and unlike Easton Corbin’s “A Girl Like You” (which quickly introduces a rollicking guitar to give the track a country flair), “The Long Way” makes the listener wait a while before slowly adding more traditional instrumentation (electric guitars, steel guitar, real drums). Thankfully, the song avoids the outright pop territory that Keith Urban’s “The Fighter” staked out, and restrains the sound enough to established a relaxed tone that fits the song’s subject matter. If anything, the tone is a bit too relaxed, and ends up pulling its punches so much that it fails to leave much of an impact on the listener.

Eldredge remains one of the best vocalists in country music today, and while this song doesn’t test his limits like “Somethin’ I’m Good At Did,” (to be fair, no other song could even come close to doing so), it gives him the time and space to show off his effortless range, impressive tone, and boundless charisma. What would likely come off as a half-hearted pick-up-a-girl song in the hands of a weaker artist (more on this later) instead comes off as earnest and sincere, as Eldredge’s delivery makes the narrator a genuinely sympathetic character.

The writing here is well-meaning, but it’s a little too generic for my tastes. The narrator has decided that the woman he has just met is his forever soulmate, and he asks her to show him the things and places that made her the person she is today. While there are a few interesting lines thrown in (my favorite is asking to see “your hand-me-down ’99 Impala”), the images are generally either vague (fields of clover, October harvest) or overdone (where did your parents meet?). I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard this song before (and thanks to Rascal Flatts, I have), and if it wasn’t for Eldredge’s performance, the narrator would either come across as impetuous or inauthentic. As it is, the song won’t offend anyone, but it won’t stick in their head for very long either.

Overall, “The Long Way” is an okay song that forces Brett Eldredge to cover for lightweight production and uninteresting lyrics, and while he mostly succeeds, it’s certainly not one of his best singles. I won’t mind hearing this tune on the radio, but I won’t remember it once it’s finished playing.

Rating: 6/10. Could somebody please find Eldredge and Darius Rucker some stronger material to work with?

Sonic Mania: Is It Worth Buying?

Tails is already bored by Eggman’s antics.

After the complete bust that was Sonic’s 25th anniversary, SEGA and the Sonic Team promised that 2017 would be different, and that the Blue Blur would be serving up a heaping helping of both new and nostalgic gameplay for gamers to enjoy. Headlining this effort would be two major releases: Sonic Forces, a new 2D/3D adventure co-starring the player’s very own OC, and Sonic Mania, an old-school love letter to the 2D titles that made Sonic a household name back in the 1990s.

Sonic Mania dropped several days ago at the astonishingly low price of $19.99, a nice surprise for consumers accustomed to $60 price tags. After a few days playing through the game, however, I’m doubly glad SEGA and company set the price so low, because honestly, that’s all this game is worth.

There are two major types of complaints that I’ve been hearing. The first is that the game itself is glitchy, to the point that the whole thing freezes up and has to be restarted. I haven’t run into any glitches yet during my own playthrough, but they’re definitely out there, and will hopefully be fixed in the near future.

The second type, however, are complaints about the gameplay itself, and these have been bad enough to actively destroy whatever fun I was having at the time. Here are my issues:

  • As someone who is used to the tight, responsive controls of the Mario series, the fast-and-loose controls of Sonic Mania are a real pain to get used to. For example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been caught on a slope and just want Sonic Tails to come to a complete stop so I can spin dash, and it takes me several attempts to actually pull this maneuver off. It’s also a pain to quickly shift your direction to maintain momentum as your character gets pinballed around the stage  by springs and other speed boosters (but don’t shift your direction if your character walks up a wall and starts running in the opposite direction upside down, because you’ll fall off if you do). Throw in some occasional bizarre physics (the Studiopolis Zone boss fight was a nasty example of this), and you’ve got a recipe for a slew a teeth-gnashing deaths.
  • A lot of progression methods in the game feel very unintuitive and hard to spot. Breakable walls and other interactive environment items are often visually indistinguishable from the background, and while they might be callbacks to earlier mechanics from older games, that doesn’t help players with limited Sonic backgrounds like yours truly. Once again, the boss battles are a prime example of this: My first encounter with the Mirage Saloon boss, for example, consisted on me just running around avoiding the thing wondering “What the heck am I supposed to do here?!” Once again, coming off the masterful puzzle setups in games like Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, I expected better from Sonic Mania, and was disappointed that I didn’t get it.
  • On their own, the above issues might not be so bad: You spend a few lives failing and flailing until you come up with the right strategy, and then you move on. However, if you get a Game Over at any point in a zone, even at the ending boss fight, you have to restart at the very beginning of the zone and replay the whole freaking thing all over again. If you still haven’t figured out how to get past the obstacle, you’ll get shipped back to the beginning again (do not pass Go, do not collect $200). Worst-case scenario, you end up getting completely schooled by the Oil Ocean Zone final boss like I did, and have to replay the entire level FIVE FREAKING TIMES. Unlike a game like Miitopia, where replaying levels to take different paths was always interesting and exciting, going back through zones in Sonic Mania got really tedious really quickly, and despite discovering several secrets along the way, it was not enjoyable in the least. This game is just begging for an improved checkpoint system that at least lets you start at the beginning of the act you failed in instead of the zone.

In short, no other game in 2017—not Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, not Splatoon 2, nothinghas induced as much rage or made me as salty as Sonic Mania did. That’s not to say that there’s nothing redeemable here: Racing through levels at mach three is just as enjoyable as it was twenty-six years ago, some of the non-Sonic mechanics (for example, Tails’s limited flight) are kind of interesting, and the boss battle design (despite the confusing moments) is a huge step up from the older games. This game has quite a few things going for it, even if (in my view) they get overshadowed by its problems.

So let’s get back to the original question: Is this game worth buying? In the end, it comes down to the game’s surprising price point: Sonic Mania isn’t worth $60 by any stretch of the imagination, but $20 feels like a fair price, especially if you’re a huge Sonic fan hankering for a true sequel to the hedgehog’s original side-scrolling antics. I don’t see myself revisiting this one much after I beat it, however, and I’m hoping Sonic Forces turns out a bit more enjoyable than this game was.

Song Review: Michael Ray, “Get To You”

*sigh* I wasn’t looking forward to this review, but with “Get To You” officially in the Mediabase Top 50, I can’t put it off any longer.

I’ll be honest: I consider Michael Ray to be the absolute worst artist in country music today, and my opinion of him has only dropped with every single release. “Kiss You In The Morning” was generic Bro-Country, “Real Men Love Jesus” was an antiquated, out-of-touch ode to stereotypical male behavior, and “Think A Little Less” is a creepy, disgusting pile of garbage (the song boils down to “stop resisting and get in my bed”) that’s in the conversation for the worst song I’ve EVER heard. (Had I started this blog early enough to review it, it would have earned a flat 0/10.) Needless to say, I was very apprehensive when I saw “Get To You” appear on the charts, but I was duty bound to give it a listen, so I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and hit play….

…actually, this song is surprisingly tolerable. Forgettable, but tolerable.

The production here is your standard modern pop-country mix, with an electric guitar carrying the melody, a steel guitar providing some background atmosphere, and (mostly) real drums keeping time. The overall sound is very spacious, giving the vocals space on the verses before swelling up for the chorus (unlike the Zac Brown Band’s “Roots,” this track does a decent job building and releasing energy), and the track leans on minor chords to set a somber, serious tone. Ultimately, the production here is fine, but it lacks that special something to make the song feel unique or memorable.

I have to admit, Ray does a decent Chris Young impersonation with his vocal performance on this track. Ray’s voice isn’t a great fit for the track, however, as the song constraints him to his lower registers where he sounds a bit rougher and doesn’t seem to be as comfortable. He’s much better when the choruses allow him to stretch into his upper range, and the falsetto he closes the choruses with actually sounds pretty good. The biggest thing, however, is that Ray doesn’t sound nearly as sleazy as he does on his past singles, demonstrating enough charisma to come off as a concerned human being rather than a meatheaded, sex-crazy bro. There’s a believability here that I didn’t think Ray could pull off, and makes me wonder if he might actually have a future in the post-Bro era.

The lyrics here describe a narrator trying to to understand why a woman is so reluctant to commit to a relationship, and trying to figure out what to do to “get to you.” (To be honest, if I was a woman and my only romantic option was Mr. “Think A Little Less,” I’d “run away, run away from love” too.) There’s no outright misogyny here, but the narrator does feel a little pushy in his demands for a reason why the relationship is ending, and seems a little too sure that the woman will eventually fall in love with someone again. (Have you considered that the woman is just not that into you, and is letting you down easy with the old “it’s not you, it’s me” line?) To his credit, Ray keeps the narrator from feeling overbearing or offensive, but in the end, there’s not a lot here to keep the listener paying attention. Frankly, I’ve heard this song done before and done better (see: Thomas Rhett’s “The Day You Stop Lookin’ Back”).

Overall, “Get To You” isn’t a great song (or even a good song), but I can listen to it without my gag reflex triggering, and for Michael Ray, that’s progress. He proves that he can pull off an empathic narrator here, and if he can get some better writing and more interesting production behind him, maybe I’ll stop getting queasy whenever I see him on the charts.

Rating: 5/10. It’s radio filler, but at least it won’t make you turn the radio off in disgust.

When Should You Ink Your Spawn Point in Splatoon 2?

If there’s one piece of advice that new Splatoon players are repeatedly hit over the head with, it’s “Ink your spawn!” Veteran turf warriors tend to get frustrated when newbies, especially those with backgrounds in different shooter games, get caught up in the excitement of battle and head straight for the enemy with guns blazing. Splatoon, of course, is different: Your goal is to claim territory rather than splat the most foes, and every inch of horizontal surface in a map is valuable. I can’t tell you how many times my team has scratched out a narrow advantage in the center of the map, only to lose because our base was completely uncovered. So…yeah, ink your darn spawn point.

With that question settled, the conversation has shifted to when you ink your spawn point. This debate isn’t so cut and dry, but two lines of thinking have emerged:

  • You should cover your base immediately, and only move on to the center of the map once this is complete.
  • You should move to secure the center of the map immediately, and cover your base later (such as after re-spawning). This theory seems to be gaining the most traction, and is being pushed by prominent community members like Allochii of the Gaijin Gamers:

It’s a thoughtful, convincing argument. It’s also usually the wrong choice.

For my money, the first approach is the best approach: You should ink your spawn right out of the gate, and worry about securing the center later. Here’s why:

  • From my experience, maintaining map control in Splatoon 2 is much harder than in the original game, and come-from-behind victories are as common as Aerospray mains. That volatility means that being the first to grab the center of the map doesn’t mean a whole lot, as that advantage can be lost surprisingly fast. (One could argue that Splatoon 2 has the same problem as the NBA, in that nothing really matters until the last few moments of the match.) Territory around your spawn point, in contrast, is the easiest for you to cover and the hardest for your opponents to take. In short, you should worry about the turf closest to you first, because there’s more than enough time to claim the center (in fact, the later you do it, the better).
  • By the time you get splatted for the first time, things have likely gotten frantic on the battlefield, and you’ve got better things to worry about when you respawn than inking your base: Where is the enemy advancing? Where should you counterattack? How much time do we have to make a push? Do any teammates need support? Is there a safe place to super jump? In comparison, things are relatively calm at the start of a match, and you have the time to breathe and focus on the task (and turf) in front of you. This, in turn, gives you one less thing to worry about later on. (On rare occasions, you’ll find that you play so well that you never need to respawn at all, and you have to make a special trip back to your base to cover it. When this happens, however, the match is usually so one-sided in your favor that it doesn’t matter.)
  • Inking turf means building up your special meter, and having your special ability in your pocket can be a huge advantage when the initial fight breaks out. This is especially useful if you have a defensive special and aggressive teammates, as a well-timed Ink Armor activation can turn a battle into a rout.

Of course, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all mantra: Certain weapons (especially chargers) are going to want to grab strategic positions early (and they might as well, since they aren’t going to be terribly helpful inking the base anyway). However, for most players (especially new ones), the best option is to take the time to cover your spawn point in ink before moving out and engaging the other team.

Song Review: Zac Brown Band, “Roots”

It seems that the Zac Brown “Please Forgive Us” tour is still playing…but is it too little, too late?

After suffering a major fan backlash for its genre-bending album Jekyll + Hyde, ZBB promised a return to their roots on their follow-up disc Welcome Home. Country radio, however, was surprisingly lukewarm and unwelcome to the band, as the leadoff single “My Old Man” (despite being one of my favorite singles of 2017 thus far) only made it to #14 on the airplay charts before stalling out. Nevertheless, the band doubled down on their old-school approach with the album’s second single (appropriately titled “Roots”), and while the effort is worth applauding, I find the song to be a bit weaker than its predecessor, which makes me question its radio viability.

Production, the Zac Brown band sticks to the formula that made them great in the first place, with a fiddle, acoustic guitar, and piano featured prominently from the beginning, and an electric guitar and banjo thrown in later for flavor. (The (real) drums here deserve some special recognition, giving the song much more drive than some of ZBB’s recent offerings.) However, I have two major issues with the mix:

  • The song squanders its energy-building potential by pulling its punches on the chorus. There are some great electric guitar swells that lead up to the first chorus, making the listener anticipate a big sonic explosion, and then…nothing. The electric guitar pulls out abruptly, and the chorus chugs along with the same slightly-restrained tone of the verses. Subsequent choruses release a bit more energy thanks to the inclusion of the drums, but those transitions are nowhere near the visceral moment they should be, which is really disappointing.
  • The song’s reliance on minor chords gives the song a more melancholic feel than it should, and instead of establishing the upbeat, chase-your-dreams vibe the song wants, it feels like a last-gasp, career-winding down single. It’s probably great for closing a live show, but as a single it makes the listener how much the Zac Brown Band has left in the tank.

To his credit, Zac Brown gives a decent vocal performance on “Roots,” exhibiting more than enough charisma and earnestness to sell the song and make it believable. He maintains his tone well in both his lower and upper ranges (which is no surprise to anyone who’s heard “Sunday Finest”), and his flow is steady without feeling too methodical or plodding. While I’m a little unsure about the future about the Zac Brown Band, Brown himself probably has a bright future as a solo artist should he choose to go that route.

The writing here tells the tale of an up-and-coming musician’s rise from guitar-picking dreamer to arena-packing superstar. While there are some interesting lines here (my favorite is the opener “My first best friend was a six string”) and there’s nothing here that’s going to offend anyone’s sensibilities, there’s not a lot here that’s particular unique or memorable. (I actually prefer the Eli Young Band’s take on this topic with “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” and neither that song nor “Roots” can touch Alan Jackson’s “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.”) The song lacks the easy relatability or sheer emotional power of “My Old Man,” and thus doesn’t leave nearly the impact on the listener.

Overall, “Roots” is an okay song, but not a particularly interesting one, and not what I would call one of the stronger offerings in the Zac Brown Band’s discography. While the ZBB is certainly sticking to its promise to deliver more “Roots”-y music, I’m doubtful it’ll be enough to reestablish their radio relevance.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, but probably not much more.

What If Nintendo Made An “N-Phone?”

Doesn’t the top screen already looks like a phone?

Once upon a time, Nintendo was the unquestioned king of portable gaming, with both its Game Boy and DS hardware lines selling hundreds of millions of units (and subsequently the games to play on these units). Over the last decade or so, however, the rise of smartphone gaming has eaten into the user base and profit margins of dedicated gaming handhelds like the 3DS, leading many to wonder (at least until the Switch came out) whether there was a true future in portable gaming for companies like Nintendo. Phones today are versatile, powerful devices, and consumers don’t want to carry around any more devices than they have to. What’s a gaming company to do?

Well, as the old saying goes: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Not only do I believe that the 3DS still has a future, I think the next iteration of the hardware (or perhaps its spiritual successor) should include cellular capabilities—in essence, it should be a smartphone. After thinking about this for a while, I honestly can’t think of a good reason not to do this:

  • In 2011, Reggie Fils-Aime pooh-poohed the idea of a Nintendo phone by claiming that “Phones are utilities. Phones are not by definition entertainment devices.” I don’t think you’ll find too many people who would make that claim today, with YouTube, Netflix, and countless gaming apps available at the swipe of a screen. Phones are just as much an entertainment device as a laptop or tablet, and Nintendo has already admitted as much with Pokémon GoSuper Mario Run, and Fire Emblem Heroes.
  • While Nintendo could potentially be stepping on some very large toes by entering the phone market (Apple, Samsung, etc.), they’re already in the same position in the home console market in comparison to Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo has a lot of experience of being in this sort of position, as well as how to thrive in spite of it.
  • In any market, you need a special something to differentiate yourself from the competition, and with its incredible IP stable, Nintendo has more special somethings than you can shake a stick at. (A comparable example would be, say, Disney starting their own streaming service.) A Nintendo phone wouldn’t be just another device, it would be the only phone that allowed you to play Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, etc., wherever you wanted.
  • The barriers to third-party development are much lower in the mobile gaming market, as developers are accustomed to making games to run on low-powered, resource-constrained devices. Overwatch may never be able to run on a Nintendo handheld, but Candy Crush probably could, and a Nintendo phone could open up all sorts of similar possibilities (and partnerships).
  • Future mobile offerings from Nintendo would not have to compromise their controls to suit a no-button touchscreen. A Nintendo phone could flip or slide open to reveal a conventional controller scheme inside, complete with buttons and a D-Pad. Super Mario Run could just be Super Mario again!
  • Cell phones seem to be finding their way into the hands of younger and younger children every day, as many parents now rely on them to stay in contact contact with their kids. Here, Nintendo’s kid-friendly reputation could give them an advantage in the market, as they could position themselves as a “safer” alternative with strong parental controls, making parents more willing to let their children have one.

While there hasn’t been a whole lot of talk about this possibility (outside of a 2016 SlashGear article), the idea seems a bit too exciting and obvious for Nintendo to have not considered the possibility. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that there are some R&D folks inside Nintendo right now who are thinking about this idea. With the 3DS clearly on the back nine of its lifespan, Nintendo should be thinking very seriously about making its own play into the smartphone market.