So Where Does The Rabbids Franchise Go From Here?

Could this guy really be the next Smash Bros. combatant? (Image from Polygon)

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is more than just a enjoyable turn-based combat game or a successful non-Nintendo Mario game. It also serves as a revitalization of Ubisoft’s Rabbids, a game that takes what were (are mostly still are) some of the least liked characters in gaming, gives them depth and personality, and makes them interesting and even likeable! Nobody was clamoring for a new Rabbids game a month ago, but Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle might just interest a few gamers in seeing more from this franchise.

Of course, the Rabbids have been starring in their own games for over a decade, and…well, like I said, nobody was clamoring for a new Rabbids game. If Ubisoft wants to wring some more life out of their bwah-loving protagonists, they’re going to need to find a way to re-capture the feel of M+R Kingdom Battle without having the Mario franchise as an anchor.

So what can Ubisoft learn to make their next Rabbids game a success? Here are my suggestions based on what I’ve seen from M+R Kingdom Battle:

  • Make playable Rabbid characters more unique and less ‘bwahhh.’ From Rabbid Mario’s smug attitude to Rabbid Peach’s selfie shenanigans, it’s the personalities of the characters that make them interesting. Rabbids have been dressing up in silly costumes for a while, but until now their attitude never seemed to involve past screaming “BWAHHHH!”and behaving as insanely as possible. This needs to change: If Rabbids are going to be the main focus of a game, the PCs need strong, identifiable characteristics that players can connect with and appreciate (and not be annoyed by).
  • Double-down on the adventure/RPG genre. The Rabbid console releases have been mostly minigame collections in recent history, and while there have been stabs at other genres (Rabbids Heroes, anyone?), nothing seemed to catch the public’s imagination until Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. This suggests that as long as the characters as interesting (per my previous point), gamers would be interested in learning more about the Rabbids and their world. Adventure games and especially RPGs would be perfect for this because they would let the developers dive deeper into the lore of the series (filled with all the requisite insanity, of course). What sort of communities would Rabbids build? How would they govern themselves? If you can convince people that these questions are worth answering, then longer, deeper genres would be perfect for doing so.
  • Include a serious counterpoint to the Rabbids’ usual antics. The classic Rabbid silliness is still present in Kingdom Battle, the comedic effect is amplified by Beep-0, whose serves as the straight man by offering serious-sounding commentary on whatever bizarre situation the Rabbids get into. As it turns out, Ubisoft may already have the perfect person for this role: Rayman, the protagonist who used to headline these games until the Rabbids eclipsed him (and whose star has faded despite the release of some critically-acclaimed titles). He could fill the role of dispassionate observer (even as the lead hero!), shaking his head along with the player as he experiences the Rabbids’ classic insanity.
  • Explore more crossover opportunities. If Ubisoft is serious about re-establishing the Rabbids as a tentpole franchise, they should explore more crossover possibilities just as they did with Nintendo. In fact, M+R Kingdom Battle may not be the only Nintendo-based opportunity: What if Rabbid Peach or Rabbid Luigi showed up in Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros.? Heck, would Rabbids make sense in a Sonic or Crash Bandicoot game? At the very least, Ubisoft could increase the Rabbids’ brand awareness by getting the characters in front of different and larger audiences, and perhaps even increase peoples’ interest in the characters (again, provided they are presented properly).

You can never have too many strong IPs in your arsenal, and Ubisoft should consider Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle a first step towards rebuilding the respectability of its Rabbid characters. If they can take the things that made this game great and apply them to future titles, in a few years the world’s gut reaction to these insane rabbits will be excitement instead of disgust.

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Song Review: Dylan Scott, “Hooked”

Oh joy, another generic, mediocre male singer making dated love-as-a-drug references to convey the depth of his passion. Just what the genre needed!

Dylan Scott is a Louisiana native who had been releasing singles to absolutely zero acclaim for several years before finally catching lightning in a bottle with “My Girl,” a half-fast, half-slow, all-boring ballad that took over a year to reach the top of the charts. Now, Scott is try to follow up his success with “Hooked,” and while the song is a bit more sure of what it wants to be, it’s the sonic equivalent of empty calories, a fast-paced tune that provides energy and nothing else.

The production here is the song’s main selling point, mixing the bombast of Bro-Country with the toe-tapping feel of an old-school country stomper. The mix is primarily beat-driven, with a prominent bass drum shouldering the load on the verses and the full kit jumping in on the chorus. The chorus also features hand claps and a rolling banjo, both of which sound much more natural and authentic than on most Bro-Country tracks. Beyond that, the mix is surprisingly minimal, with only some guitars floating around in the background (the electric guitar only comes to the forefront on the bridge solo). Some crowd noise is pumped in artificially to add some noise, but I found that this detracted from the mix and just made the song harder to hear. Overall, though, the tempo and intensity of the track generate a ton of energy, and the vibe is a decent mix of seriousness and positivity. There’s potential here in the sound, but sadly there’s nothing else here that measures up to it.

Vocally, Scott reminds me a lot of Kane Brown, as both men have an impressive lower range that they can show off at will. However, while “My Girl” gave Scott a few chances to show off his deep baritone, “Hooked” traps him in his much-less-impressive upper range, which makes him sound like just another guy. (The verses allow him to get kinda-sorta low, but not enough for his voice to resonate like it does on “My Girl.”) Scott’s flow sounds fine, and he certainly sounds like he’s having a blast singing the song, but there’s something missing here that would really make the song stand out and memorable, and thus the performance just flows in one ear and out the other without leaving an impression.

That “something missing” is likely the songwriting, which is about as bland and generic as it could possibly be. Not only is the song based on a typical Bro-Country trope (meet a girl at a bar, reduce her to her physical characteristics, immediately take her home and sleep with her), but it leans on a love-as-a-drug metaphor (he “hooked” and “buzzing” on her) that’s been done to death in the genre (Zac Brown Band’s “Beautiful Drug,” Chris Lane’s “Fix,” Thomas Rhett’s “Craving You,” etc.). The song does its level best to paint the narrator’s intentions as noble, dedicating the entire second verse to the fact that he isn’t going to leave the girl even though he totally could, but there’s still a layer of sleaze here that the lyrics can’t mask. It’s a story I’ve heard a hundred times before, and it’s not one I’m itching to hear again.

Overall, “Hooked” is a track that is all style and no substance, with its in-your-face production trying really hard to convince you not to look behind the curtain and notice its unmemorable vocals and uninspired writing. It just ends up feeling kind of “meh,” and there are better love songs on the radio right now (“For Her,” “Unforgettable,” “A Girl Like You”) that are more worthy of your time.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t bother with this one.

Song Review: Chase Bryant, “Hell If I Know”

All right, I’ve gotten to review two great singles in a row! Let’s see if we can make it three…
*sees Chase Bryant has released a new single*
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

That’s right folks, it’s time to take our annual dose of Chase Bryant mediocrity! I still have a bad taste left in my mouth from his 2016 single “Room To Breathe,” and while country radio had been mostly okay with Bryant’s work up to that point, they treated that song like it was radioactive (or maybe the better term is “radioinactive,” given that it peaked at an embarrassing #43). This year, Bryant is giving us “Hell If I Know,” and while it’s marginally better than his last single, it’s still not something I would waste my time listening to.

Apparently Bryant missed the memo about the genre’s trend back towards traditionalism, because the production here is ripped straight from the Bro-Country era. The drum machine is the most prominent instrument here, with a token-sounding banjo thrown in to carry the melody. The choruses add some real drums and atmospheric electric guitars, but they add some noise and not much else. (Despite Bryant being an accomplished guitar player, the electric guitar basically wastes away in the background until the bridge solo, and even that isn’t terribly interesting.) The faster tempo provides some energy and sets an optimistic tone that suits the song, but it just feels like I’ve heard this song a million times before, and it doesn’t leave much of an impression when it’s over.

Bryant’s vocal performance has a similar generic feel, and would likely sound the same in the hands of any random male country singer. His delivery is at least solid on a technical level (his range isn’t really tested, but at least his flow is decent), and his voice doesn’t sound as thin as it did on “Room To Breathe.” To his credit, he sells the song well and does a good job filling the role of a happy-but-confused narrator, although his tone feels a shade too serious for a song that celebrates love. Again, it’s not a bad performance, it’s just not particularly impressive or memorable either.

The writing completes the generic trifecta by relying on overused, clichéd imagery and a laundry-list structure to convey the narrator’s inability to explain why his significant other fell for him. The verses are basically just a series of random questions that really aren’t that hard to answer in the first place (“The red sunset turns blue sky black” because the sun goes down, Chase. There’s no more light. And don’t even get me started on the link between smell and memory.), and both the verses and chorus include a bunch of the usual Bro-Country tropes (Friday nights, ice cold beer, telling the woman “everything looks better hanging off of your hips,” etc.). Male country singers are forever amazed by the fact that women fall for them despite their flaws, and there are a bunch of songs on the charts right this very moment (“Small Town Boy,” “More Girls Like You,” etc.) this cover the exact same topic. You’ve got to find a new way to tell a story this old if you want to stand out, and this song falls flat on all counts.

Nothing presented by “Hell If I Know”—not the production, not the writing, not Chase Bryant himself—gives the listener any reason to care about this song. It’s an unimaginative, uninteresting track that just barely qualifies as radio filler. Next year’s dose of Bryant better have a bit more flavor, or Nashville needs to stop serving it entirely.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: Is It Worth Buying?

Image From Go Nintendo

You know, I’m starting to think Mario could pull off a partnership with any character. What’s next, a crossover with Q*bert? Bubsy? Conker the Squirrel?

The short answer to our question is that despite all the potential red flags (it’s not made by Nintendo? The Rabbids are involved? Mario uses guns?), Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is absolutely worth buying. The reason for this, however, has nothing to do with the characters involved, and everything to do with the excellent combat system that makes up the game’s foundation. Set aside Mario and the Rabbids for a moment: If you like turn-based strategy games (heck, even if you don’t), you will really enjoy this game.

The game mostly consists of battles that pit your party of three against some assortment of baddies on a large 3D map with varying geography (and plenty of cover). During your turn, every character you control can:

  • Attack (using either a primary or secondary weapon)
  • Move (which could involve dashing through enemies to damage them or Team Jumping using a nearby teammate)
  • Use a Special Ability (which vary by character)

While these are pretty standard options for turn-based strategy games, the fact that you can perform all of them in a single turn is not, and furthermore, you can perform them in any order with any teammate. This means that you can interleave the move, attacks, and abilities of each character to build complex attack sequences that devastate your opponents. (Over time, you’ll also unlock different abilities for your characters, amplifying their potential for mayhem.) It’s satisfying, it’s addicting, and above all it’s darn good fun.

Of course, your opponents can also do the same thing to you, offering a level of challenge not seen in many Mario games. Make a mistake, and you will quickly get your head handed to you by the CPU. However, Game Overs are not the state-wiping nightmares that they are in Sonic Mania, and you are simply allowed to restart the battle (perhaps adjusting your team this time to better suit your strategy).

It’s not a perfect game, of course. For example, it’s a good thing this game is not a platformer, because the controls are a bit loose (my characters are forever getting hung up on obstacles), and the camera is positioned at an odd angle that limits your view considerably (this is especially irritating when an enemy’s range exceeds the camera’s view and you can’t tell exactly how far they can see/shoot). The game bottoms out with its blue-coin puzzles, which pit you more against the game’s flaws (camera is fixed at a terrible angle, obstacles that seem to magnetically attract your party thanks to the loose controls, and a tight timer that demands precision the game just doesn’t give you) than the actual puzzle. Despite the gorgeous visuals, the worlds themselves are linear and constrained, keeping exploration to a minimum. These are minor gripes, however, and easy to forgive in the face of such an excellent battle system.

But what about the Rabbids? I hear you ask. Well…what about them? I’d never played a Rabbids game up to this point, so I didn’t have much of an opinion on them, but the Mario and Rabbid universes seem to mesh well, and the Rabbids add just the right amount of personality to the game without being annoying. (In fact, they actually highlight how bland and boring Mario is as a character. Luigi’s interactions with them, however, are priceless.) Some of the humor is a bit childish (poop jokes, underwear jokes, etc.), but there are also some genuinely funny moments as well (for example, Rabbid Peach’s selfie antics, and the fact that not even the Rabbids give Luigi any respect). Besides, if you don’t like the Rabbids, you can take solace in the fact that 95% of them are enemies you get to smite.

In short, don’t think of this as a Mario or a Rabbids game—think of it as a unique and complex turn-based strategy game that just happens to use rabbits and plumbers as PCs. If that sort of game appeals to you, then taking a flyer on Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is well worth it.

Song Review: Danielle Bradbery, “Sway”

Yesterday, Justin Moore’s “Kinda Don’t Care” was the best song I’d heard in two months. Now, it might not even be the best song I’ve heard this week!

Danielle Bradbery exploded onto the national scene by winning season four of The Voice in 2013…and promptly disappeared back into oblivion, as radio gave her debut single a lukewarm reception and flat-out rejected everything else. Just like Scotty McCreery, however, there’s a reason Bradbery rolled over her Voice competition, and it’s a golden voice that is completely unrestrained by genre. On “Sway,” the lead single for her upcoming album, Bradbery ditches her past country trappings in favor of a soulful R&B groove, and the result easily dethrones Lauren Alaina’s “Doin’ Fine” as the best female performance I’ve heard all year.

The production, as stated earlier, is a stark departure from the mixes on Bradbery’s debut album. Gone are the banjos, fiddles, and even the acoustic guitars, with only a slick electric guitar and a retro-sounding organ brought in to replace them. The real drums are still there, but only just barely: They are minimized in favor of a drum machine, and don’t jump in until the end of the first chorus. Normally a sonic shift like this would disappoint me, but the resulting mix is actually pretty restrained, and the groove it establishes is perhaps the best I’ve heard in country music all year. Even labeling this as Metropolitan doesn’t feel quite right—this is an old-school R&B jam, and the atmosphere it establishes is fun, dance-inducing, and even kind of sexy. Despite their years of practice, guys like Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett can only dream of a mix that works this well and sounds this good.

Bradbery herself may have come off as a Martina McBride clone on her past work, but she demonstrates her versatility by channeling her inner Meghan Trainor/Corinne Bailey Rae on this track. (The Bailey Rae influence is particularly strong here, given her similar the song’s subject matter is to “Put Your Records On.”) The transition sounds effortless and suffers no drop in quality whatsoever, a testament to the power of Bradbery’s vocals. Her voice maintains its tone through her entire range (there’s a touch of raspy breathiness at the lower end, but it only adds a dash of extra sultriness), and her flow is as smooth as molasses. Basically, this paragraph is just a verbose way of saying that Bradbery sounds fantastic on this track, suggesting that there may be a place for her in the R&B and adult contemporary genres if country radio continues to ignore her.

The lyrics…well the story here is basically “Don’t worry, be happy, just dance.” They’re not novel (see: “Put Your Records On”), not clever, and honestly not that interesting. The truth, however, is that this doesn’t matter: This song is more about the feel of the music than anything else, and if the writing can convey some sort of vaguely positive message in the meantime, it’s an added bonus. While an argument could be made that the song encourages shallow escapism along the lines of Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink,” “Sway” is more palatable because its message is more “keep your chin up” than “drink your problems away.” In the end, the lyrics stay out of the way of Bradbery and the production and don’t disrupt the song’s momentum.

Overall, “Sway” is a great song by a great singer who deserves way more praise and attention than she’s getting. Country radio has historically been fairly hostile to female singers, so perhaps “Sway” is Danielle Bradbery’s declaration that she doesn’t need it to succeed. This song has “crossover/Top 40 potential” written all over it, and the genre may well live to regret giving her the cold shoulder.

Rating: 8/10. An absolute must-hear track.

Song Review: Justin Moore, “Kinda Don’t Care”

It took him almost a decade to do it, but Justin Moore has finally released a single with some legitimate “outlaw” cred.

Moore’s last single “Somebody Else Will” was the first song I reviewed here on the blog, and that’s about all it will be remembered for, as it took an obscene forty-four weeks for it to finally top the Billboard airplay chart. “Kinda Don’t Care,” the title track of Moore’s latest album, has now been announced as the LP’s third single, and it probably should have been the second one (or even the first one!), as it’s easily the best song I’ve heard from him since “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” back in 2011. Not only does the song mesh well with the current trend towards traditional sounds in the genre, but it plays to Moore’s strengths as an artist while feeling far more real and authentic than “Backwoods,” “Small Town USA,” and the rest of the pandering garbage he’s released in the past.

Sonically, the production here feels like it was ripped straight from the 1970s, as it eschews both modern trappings and neo-traditional nostalgia in favor of no-nonsense, rough-edged guitars and a hard-hitting drum set. The mix starts off restrained on the first verse with an acoustic guitar carrying the melody, but the drums and steel guitar jump in on the first verse to kick the energy level up a notch, and an old-school electric guitar adds some sizzle and punch the the second verse and the bridge solo. (Actually, the extended outro featuring the steel and electric guitar might be my favorite part of the song.) The tempo is a bit slower than expected, but the excellent instrumentation ensures that it never feels plodding or lacking in energy, and the serious atmosphere the track sets does a nice job of capturing the singer’s feelings of repression.

Moore’s vocal performance is solid on a technical level, as the song tests his range without straining it and keeps his flow at a nice, methodical pace. What sets this song apart, however, is that here Moore finally shows instead of tells, and lets his natural charisma and earnestness shine through instead of feeling the need to reference his “country” credentials. Moore has always had a knack for singing songs like this, but in the past he would be forever dropping brand names and rural clichés that made him sound insecure and a bit inauthentic. Here, he just lets his delivery do the talking, and he captures the spirit of the narrator perfectly by sounding worn out and ticked off, like he really “kinda don’t care.” While he’s proclaimed himself an “outlaw” many times in the past, this is the first time he’s actually felt like one.

Lyrically, the song is about a narrator who is cracking under the pressure and responsibility of leading a good, healthy lifestyle (while also suffering from some sort of heartbreak), and is just begging for a outlet where he can indulge in his preferred vices. It’s an interesting take on a subject that usually goes the opposite way in country music (i.e., the narrator is caught in a death spiral of vices and needs family/religion/a significant other to save them), and an approach I haven’t heard someone take in quite a while. (The most recent I can remember is “Time Off For Bad Behavior,” an album cut from a band in desperate need of a new name). It’s a tension everyone deals with to some degree (as Randy Travis once put it, “what feels good and what feels right”), and while I can’t help but feel like Waylon, Willie, and the other outlaws of the 70s would have found a more clever way to talk about this subject, there are still some fairly novel images here (watching weight and getting more sleep aren’t often talked about in country songs), and nothing here comes off as sleazy or offensive (even the desired hookup with “a pretty little thing” at least acknowledges that the woman feels the same as he does and “don’t want no strings”). Overall, the topic is relatable enough to make a strong connection with listeners, and the writing is just decent enough to let Moore and the production do their thing.

In short, “Kinda Don’t Care” is a great song, with a perfect blend of retro production, solid writing, and a perfect delivery on the part of Justin Moore. I’ve been rough on some of Moore’s songs in the past, but I’ve got to give credit where is due: He absolutely nailed this one.

Rating: 8/10. It’s definitely worth your time.

Does Nintendo Have A Hardware Problem?

Image From Nintendo Life

You know, I’m beginning to wonder why people call for Nintendo to get out of the hardware business. Based on the company’s last few products, it seems like they’re barely in the hardware business to begin with!

You all know the story behind the NES Mini by now, and the Nintendo Switch still seems to be in short supply nearly six months after its release. Even the 3DS had a shortage crop up during the holiday season. Now horror stories are trickling in about trying to order an SNES Mini, with preorders coming online at absurd hours and companies packaging the devices into overpriced bundles to take advantage of the scarcity (to say nothing of the usual scalper shenanigans). It seems that no matter what Nintendo does, it never has enough of people want.

This pattern begs the obvious question: Why? After so many recent shortfalls, you would think that the Big N had learned its lesson by now. It’s got some of the greatest, most famous IPs in the world, and almost exclusively offers access to them via its own hardware…so why can’t they produce enough supply to meet demand?

On the surface, the root of the problem seems to be that Nintendo has been too conservative in its sales projections: For example, NOA President Reggie Fils-Aimé said that the company “didn’t anticipate how incredible the response would be” to the NES Mini, and Nintendo has already had to bump up its Switch hardware orders once since the console launched. The company still appears to be haunted by the Wii U’s poor sales, and wants to keep expectations low to make sure it sells everything it makes.

To be honest, however, this feels like a cop-out argument to me, a PR-ready excuse designed to cover up potential deeper supply chain issues. While Nintendo’s line is that it didn’t want to make more consoles, I wonder if the real issue is that they can’t.

A quick glance at a (perhaps outdated?) list of Switch hardware suppliers brings up one notable name: Foxconn Technology, a company best known for two things: Poor working conditions, and making iPhones for Apple. The Wall Street Journal recently published an intriguing article claiming that Nintendo’s efforts at ramping up production are being hamstrung by the sway Apple holds with the manufacturer:

“Nintendo is experiencing Switch shortages due to low supply of critical components, like memory chips that store data and liquid-crystal displays, which Apple is gobbling up for its own products…the Journal‘s sources suggest that Apple, which makes some of the world’s most popular products, has far more power in the supply chain, thanks to the massive number of units it orders from suppliers. Apple’s orders, therefore, are being fulfilled before others, leaving Nintendo to wait in line.”  Fortune, 5/31/17

While this report is Switch-specific, there have also been reports that the iPhone 8 is creating a shortage of common components such as DRAM and NAND chips, which would likely impact other Nintendo products like the SNES Mini.

So if Nintendo is getting squeezed on the hardware manufacturing side, what can they do respond? Try to up its priority by “spending more on parts?” Find another manufacturer or three to make its consoles? Reduce the amount of tech in their hardware? (For example, do the Joy-Cons really need all their bells and whistles?) There are several possible options, but I’m pessimistic about Nintendo exploring them. More than likely, the company will continue muddling along in its current state, hoping that it’s enough to survive the upcoming demand rush of Super Mario Odyssey and the holiday season.

In other words, don’t expect things to change anytime soon. Whenever the Game Boy Mini or N64 Mini or 3DS successor comes out, we’re probably going to go through the same old worn-out routine. The hardware will be impossible to find, people will rage, Nintendo will apologize, and the company’s reputation will be dragged back through the mud. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it likely will be.

It’s a good thing Nintendo has started producing games for smartphones, because at least you can buy one of those…