So Long, Old Friend: A Requiem For The Wii U

Image From Nintendo

I didn’t want to write this. I’m still not ready to shovel the dirt on Nintendo’s poor-selling pseudo-tablet, even as the Switch train gains steam and Nintendo prepares to pull the plug on Miiverse. The Switch’s portable mode and annoying-placed HDMI port gave me an excuse to leave its predecessor it its exalted spot next to the TV, and the still-small Switch library meant that I was still reaching for the Gamepad on a regular basis.

As The Oracle once said, however, “Everything that has a beginning has an end.” My beloved Wii U’s end will arrive this Friday with the release of Splatoon 2, which will supersede its predecessor and remove the Wii U’s biggest argument for its continued relevance. The remaining few Wii U games I see myself playing in the future all support off-TV play, which clears the way for me to move my HDMI cable over to the Switch dock and relocate the Wii U to my shelf of legacy consoles. (My Gamecube will finally have something to keep it company.)

Few tears were shed over the announcement of the Wii U’s demise—it was one of the Nintendo’s worst-selling consoles ever, and gamers grew frustrated with the long waits between first-party titles (and the total lack of third-party ones). When the history of Nintendo is written, however, the Wii U deserves to be remembered as a great console that laid the groundwork for the company’s current success:

  • A fair chunk of the Switch’s current/upcoming lineup got its start on the Wii U. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Pokkén Tournament DX are enhanced ports of Wii U games, Zelda: Breath of the Wild began its life as a Wii U game, and Splatoon 2 owes its existence to the massive success of the Wii U’s Splatoon. With Smash Bros. and Super Mario Maker still waiting in the wings, I expect this statement to be even more true in the future.
  • The Switch has been billed as all of Nintendo’s past innovations rolled into a single console, but the Wii U’s contribution seems to be the most obvious. The home/portable hybrid idea is the logical extension of the Wii U’s off-TV play, and the Switch’s portable configuration resembles a more-refined version of the Wii U’s Gamepad.
  • In a slightly-out-of-character move, Nintendo actually seemed to learn from the mistakes of the Wii U era. Long first-party game droughts have been replaced by a regular schedule of Nintendo content. Third-party developers have been actively courted for the system, and some of their games (Snipperclips, Sonic Mania, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle) seem to be matching the hype level of Nintendo’s own titles. The hardware has been bumped up just enough to meet modern expectations (60 fps, 1080p, etc.), although the Joy-Cons still seem too overengineered for their own good. The marketing has been much better at explaining exactly what the Switch is and why it’s so awesome, and consumers have responded at levels not seen since the Wii era. There’s an old yarn from the sporting world that says you have to lose a championship before you can win one, and it fits perfectly here: Nintendo turned their Wii U failures into Switch successes.

Console nostalgia is driven by games more than hardware, though, and despite its limited lineup, the Wii U featured some of my all-time favorite games. Specifically:

I wasn’t an early adopter of the Wii U, and even after getting one in 2014, the system didn’t get a lot of activity for the first year or so. Sure, Super Mario 3D World and Mario Kart 8 were great, but they were consistently overshadowed by other games (mostly Pokémon titles), and they were all games I’d already played in some shape or form. Splatoon, however, was a game-changer for me, as it was a refreshing, addictive take on a genre I hadn’t messed with in over a decade. At a particularly rough point in my transition from Kyle to “Dr. Kyle,” it was the nightly ink battle marathons, the Splatfest all-nighters, and all the cool Turf Warriors I met that helped me keep what was left of my sanity. Super Mario RPG may always be my favorite game, and Pokémon Pearl‘s seniority may give it the #2 slot, but Splatoon has earned a place on my all-time game podium at #3.

A few months later, Super Mario Maker granted me powers that I’d been dreaming of for multiple decades, and I sunk hundreds of hours into creating the Mario (and various other characters, thanks to the Mystery Mushrooms) levels of my dreams. More importantly, however, I was introduced to the Kaizo Mario community, which challenged me in ways that the Mario franchise never had. Completing this courses increased my confidence in my gaming abilities, and that confidence began seeping over into other aspects of my life. (After you’ve beaten The Koopa Klown Caper of ’84, review comments on your conference paper submissions don’t seem nearly as scary.) It may not have impacted me in quite the same way as Splatoon, but I’d still put it somewhere in my all-time top ten.

For me, the Wii U and its games came at the perfect time, and captured my attention like no system since the DS (and the Wii U gets bonus points for doing it without Pokémon). I don’t really care that the console was a commercial flop, or that good games were few and far between by the end of the system’s life. It was a bright spot at a dark time, and I am eternally grateful for that.

So thank you, Wii U. Your time next to my TV may be done, but your legacy will never be forgotten.

Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Broken Halos”

I like how this song sounds, but I have no idea what this song says.

Despite From A Room: Volume 1 becoming the first gold country record of 2017 (and doing so in a mere month), Chris Stapleton’s run of radio futility continues, as the record’s leadoff single “Either Way” peaked at a mediocre #26 before crashing and burning. Part of the blame lies squarely on Mercury Records’s unexplainable release strategy: “Broken Halos” was released as a promotional single before “Either Way,” (and wound up with a higher Hot Country Singles chart position than “Either Way” ever did), yet the label did not capitalize on the song’s positive reception and is only now pushing it for radio adds as the album’s official second single. After repeated listens, however, I have to say that while “Broken Halos” is a nice song to listen to, its unnecessarily-muddy message leaves me more confused than anything else.

The production here is a major step up from “Either Way.” The volume balance of “Broken Halos” is much better, and the instrumentation is no longer drowned out by Stapleton’s voice. While the only change to the instrument lineup is the addition of a drum set on this song, the mix has noticeably more punch and energy (especially from the acoustic guitar), and there’s a lot less dead space that it has to fill. (The bridge instrumental is still pretty underwhelming, though.) Stapleton’s voice has also been dialed back a notch or two as well, making the vocals and instrumentation equal partners in the track. The mood is much brighter and more positive, and as a result it’s a more pleasant listen than “Either Way.”

Stapleton remains the vocal king of country music, and despite a slightly-more-restrained performance that better matches the production, his voice still retains the power and charisma that defined his earlier material. It’s not a terribly demanding song to sing (its range isn’t too wide, its flow is nice and slow), and it lacks the “oh wow” moments of “Either Way” where Stapleton’s voice could really shine, but he still infuses his delivery with enough emotion and earnestness to pull in listeners. Let’s be honest: The dude could probably sing the phone book and still make it compelling.

Where the song goes a bit astray is in the writing, as it seems to feature two orthogonal threads that are hard to reconcile. The song is called “Broken Halos,” and the oft-repeated hook “Broken halos that used to shine” seems to indicate that the song will be about virtuous people that have fallen from grace and onto hard times. The verses, however, spend their time talking about selfless folks who come into peoples’ lives just long enough to save them, and then move on to the next hard-luck case—in other words, folks whose halos seem to be completely intact and shiny. So who is this song actually about: Former angels, or current ones? The writing, though solid on a technical level, never gives us a clear answer, and the confusion is a slight blemish on an otherwise-solid track.

Overall, “Broken Halos” addresses most of the issues raised about “Either Way,” but incurs a self-inflicted wound in the form of the writing that limits its potential. It’s still a good song that features stellar performances from both Stapleton and the musicians, but it could have been a great song, and that’s a huge missed opportunity.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a listen to see what you think.

Splatoon 2: Early Impressions

Why do I always blink in photographs?

Over the weekend, Nintendo opened Splatoon 2 up to the public for a full-fledged stress test in the form of the game’s inaugural Splatfest. My initial Switch-buying stance caused me to miss out on the Global Testfire back in March, so this was my first hands-on time with the game, and after four hours of ink-flinging, I can confirm that the while there are some tweaks around the edges, Splatoon 2 still contains the fun and magic of the original game, at least for the multiplayer mode (which represents most of the game anyway). My specific thoughts are as follows:

  • I’m a big fan of the new map designs shown during the Splatfest. Starfish Mainstage has a lot of verticality to it and includes a ton of nooks and crannies to ink/explore, Inkblot Art Academy reminds me a lot of Blackbelly Skatepark with its central tower and side alleys (though it lacks the slopes near the bases), and Humpback Pump Track has a large central hill for the teams to fight over and an outer ring that lets players outflank the opposition. My one complaint is that the nighttime motif of the Splatfest kept me from noticing any background details that might give the maps more personality.
  • Moray Towers is my favorite map in Splatoon, and the new ink rails offer a lot more options for attacking a team’s base. It makes it a bit tougher to defend your side than before, but there’s nothing more satisfying than sniping someone out of an ink rail. (I’m interested to see how the added sponges change up Port Mackerel, as that map developed a really bad reputation in the original game.)
  • I like the idea of rotating maps during Splatfest instead of sticking withe the same two or three the entire time. It helps ensure that people who can’t stand certain maps aren’t forced to play them all day.
  • don’t like the idea of randomizing your Splatfest for every match, so I’m really hoping that was just a temporary limitation for this demo.
  • I spent a lot of time with the Splat Dualies, and while they’re functional enough, they don’t suit my playstyle very well. I tend to rely on jump-dodging to avoid foes during combat, but the Dodge Roll leaves you ground-bound in kid form, and I didn’t find the roll to be as effective as avoiding shots.I probably won’t use them very much in the full game.
  • On one hand, the 5-6 disconnections/connection errors I got during the event aren’t bad in isolation. On the other hand, Splatoon has been rock solid for me ever since I upgraded my Internet (I see a connection error maybe once a month), so seeing an uptick in disconnections here was disappointing. Hopefully things won’t be as bad in the normal lobbies.
  • Honestly, I was underwhelmed by the new special weapons. Most were just okay, and the Stingray felt particularly useless (you could barely aim the stupid thing once it fired). Would it kill them to bring back a few specials from Splatoon?
  • The Splattershot, Splat Charger, and Splat Roller are still the same weapons people know and love, albeit with the few tweaks. The weapons felt like they consumed more ink than before, and burst bombs in particular felt a bit slower than in Splatoon (all bombs seemed to have a longer throw range, however). I stuck mostly to the main weapons, but that will change once I get my hands on some Sprinklers. (Happily, my beloved .96 Gal/Sprinkler combo has already been confirmed, as has my Quick Respawn Backwards Hat.)

Overall, I had a lot of fun with the Splatfest despite getting wrecked consistently by the opposition, and I can’t wait to try out the full game (especially the expanded single-player campaign) when it drops this Friday. Splatoon 2 seems to have pulled off the impressive feat of staying true to its predecessor while offering enough new material to “stay fresh.”

RPG Maker Fes: Is It Worth Buying?

That’s an awfully brave thing to say to the guy who writes your dialogue…

Think game design is easy? Try messing around with RPG Maker Fes for a while, and see if it changes your mind.

The RPG Maker series has been around for several decades now, but it finally made its 3DS debut this past June with RPG Maker Fes. At its core, the game is essentially Super Mario Maker for RPGs, giving the player a powerful set of tools to design their own worlds however they see fit. (There’s also a free RPG Maker Player that allows anyone to play finished creations, even if they don’t own the game itself.) If you fancy yourself a competent storyteller but not a great programmer or graphic designer, this game is your opportunity to show the world your stuff!

As someone who’s been dabbling in game design for a long time, I had a ton of fun messing around with the tools in RPG Maker Fes. However, if you’re thinking about picking up this game, there are a few important things to consider:

  • If you’re really serious about creating an RPG, you’ll need to put a lot of time into this game. Despite my earlier comparison to Mario Maker, the controls of RPG Maker Fes aren’t quite as intuitive, and the game doesn’t offer much in the way of a tutorial. You’ll need to spend quite a bit of time at the outset just figuring out what the controls do and how to make them work.

Once you do that, there’s the small matter of actually building the world, characters, villains, items, etc. of your masterpiece. There are plenty of canned examples that can be dropped into the game, but you’re still going to have to lay out the overworld, painstakingly detail each town and dungeon, script out your cut scenes, tinker with your enemies to ensure battles aren’t too hard or too easy, establish the skill-learning progression of your heroes, and so on.

As an example, designing a small overworld map, fleshing out a single town, and putting together a brief opening cut scene took me almost eleven hours, and they could still use another coat or two of polish. Bottom Line: By the time you’re finished with this game, you’ll understand why games (especially RPGs) take so long to develop.

  • Be ready to spend a lot of time away from your 3DS thinking about your game. Oh wait, you thought the game ended the moment you turned off your 3DS? Think again: There’s no option in the game that says “Come up with a cool storyline for me”—you’re going to have to do that on your own, and that means spending a lot of time away from your console thinking about how to weave together a coherent plot. (It’s a bit like running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign as a DM, actually.)
  • Don’t expect to create a unique visual masterpiece. The game comes with a surprsingly-limited selection of character, item, villain, and backgrounds sprites, so if you’re an ultimate power-user who wants more control over the game’s look, you’re probably better off using a different tool to create your game (my favorite back in the day was the O.H.R.RPG.C.E).

RPG Maker Fes caters to a very specific crowd, one that daydreams of deep and complex adventures but may not have the technical or artistic chops to build a game from scratch. Members of this crowd (like me) will enjoy this game wholeheartedly, but casual gamers/creators are probably going to want to steer clear of this game, because if you don’t enjoy the actual creation process, the game is just a huge time sink with no real payoff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to send my intrepid hero off to Port Machado to retrieve some precious cargo for the king’s army. Let’s see, what items should I offer in the weapon shop…

Song Review: Jordan Davis, “Singles You Up”

Move over, Jake Owen—you’ve got company.

Jordan Davis is a Lousiana native who signed with UMG Nashville back in 2016, but just released his debut single “Singles You Up” (which is apparently a phrase he and his co-writers invented) last month…and after over a year of preparation, this is the best song they could find?! I’m not going to mince words here: This song is a sleazy, tone-deaf, Metro-Bro pile of garbage that immediately displaces Dustin Lynch’s “Small Town Boy” as my least favorite single of 2017. It’s tone and theme are eerily similar to Owen’s disgusting “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” and the only question left is whether it can surpass Owen as the worst-reviewed song on this blog.

The production here is a standard-and-unabashed Metropolitan mix that features slick-sounding guitars and uses a drum machine for its foundation. It follows the “acoustic verses, electric chorus” pattern seen in a lot of songs these days, but the former is much more pronounced in its role while the latter tends to get pushed into the background (it even gets overshadowed by Davis during its bridge solo). To its credit, the mix establishes a bright, energetic atmosphere that is easy on the ears (even if it doesn’t really match the tone of the lyrics), and it embraces its modern sound by not including even a token banjo, steel guitar, or any other “country” instrument in the mix. Truth be told, the production is probably the high point on the song…but it all goes downhill from here.

Davis himself sounds pretty “meh” to me. There are shades of Sam Hunt in his voice (although his delivery is more traditional than Hunt’s talk-singing approach), and his flow on the faster lyrics is impressive, but otherwise his sound is pretty unexceptional. His biggest flaw is his lack of vocal charisma: Unlike Owen, Davis is just not terribly believable is the narrator’s role here. While that mostly works in Davis’s favor on this track (he doesn’t come across quite as sleazy as Owen did), when he drops a line like “I’m sorry if I’m overstepping boundaries,” you don’t buy his apology at all.

And then we get to the writing, and it’s beyond terrible. At its core, the song is a copy of “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You”: The narrator decides to hit on a girl who already has a boyfriend, saying to look him up if the relationship goes south. Here are my problems with the song.

  • No consideration is ever given to the woman’s feelings and/or decision process. The narrator completely ignores the possibility that she’s “sippin’ white wine instead of whiskey” and being “a little more city” because that’s just what she wants to do,  leaving the narrator looking shallow and self-serving. It reminds me a lot of Lee Brice’s clueless “That Don’t Sound Like You,” where the narrator just attributes any undesired changes to their girlfriend to the evil guy she’s with. Word to the wise, guys: The trend in country music right now is to give women more respect, not less.
  • There’s no indication that the relationship the narrator is targeting is on the rocks. The only evidence offered by the narrator is that the guy isn’t looking at the woman enough and doesn’t sing along to her favorite song. It’s not enough to convince me that the woman needs to be saved from a bad relationship, and it makes the narrator come off like a slimy douchebag trying to break up a seemingly-solid relationship.
  • The opening line “I ain’t heard you laugh like that in a long time” indicates that this is not a spur-of-the-moment outburst, but rather something the singer has been thinking about for a long time. It amps up the creepy factor and makes you wonder “Is this guy just stalking this girl hoping she sees the light and hooks up with him?”
  • It’s a minor nit, but the made-up title/hook is confusing enough to ask Google what the heck it means (which failed, by the way). Encouraging people to dig deeper into this lyrical mess is not going to help matters.

There’s no blatant sexual innuendo here, but the Bro-Country undertones bleed through this song like a Sloppy Joe overflows its bun. Pair all of this with Davis’s inability to elevate the concept to something respectable, and you’ve got a narrator who comes off as creepy, selfish, and unsympathetic (not to mention unoriginal), and that’s a really bad look for a singer, especially on a debut single.

Quite frankly, “Singles You Up” has no business being on country radio in 2017. With its overly-modern production, Bro-Country attitude, and unremarkable vocal performance, the label should have voted this one down and told Jordan Davis “Try again, dude.” I wouldn’t rank it ahead of “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” in terms of outright awfulness, but it deserves a place right next to it in Kyle’s Country Music Hall of Infamy.

Rating: 2/10. Avoid this like the plague.

How Concerned Should We Be About Toxicity in Splatoon 2?

Image From Nintendo of Europe

Toxicity has been around for at least at long as humans have. (I can just imagine some caveman telling a fellow hunter “Hey man, could you stop throwing the fight here? You aren’t hitting anything with that stupid slingshot, and that sabertooth tiger is wrecking us.”) When the stakes are high in a team competition, there are bound to be people who openly question whether their teammates are doing what they should do to win. Toss in the relative anonymity and sour attitudes of the Internet, and online team games are ripe breeding grounds for toxic behavior.

Because of these concerns, Nintendo made an explicit choice to not include voice chat when it made its initial foray into the shooter genre with Splatoon. While the game still had a few “attack vectors” for toxic players to abuse (squid taunting, booyah spamming, going after other players on Miiverse), the lack of direct verbal communication kept the game from suffering from the massive toxicity issues that plagued its peers.

For Splatoon 2, however, Nintendo decided to include voice chat as part of its effort to establish the game as a serious e-sport. While this allows teammates to better coordinate their movements in battle, it also leaves players vulnerable to toxic teammates. Given that similar games like Overwatch seem to be going through especially turbulent/toxic periods right now, how concerned should Nintendo be about a similar cloud hovering over Splatoon 2?

I think it’s good news/bad news time…

  • Nintendo has obviously put a lot of thought into their voice chat deployment, and they’ve tried to limit contact between random players. Game producer Hisashi Nogami provided the following quote to My Nintendo News:

“The reason we included voice chat is because we wanted users who already know each other to enjoy the game more deeply using a communication tool that’s linked to the game…Voice chat can only be used when playing with someone you know, such as in private matchmaking; voice chat with someone you don’t know in random matchmaking won’t happen.” (emphasis added)

People are less likely to take potshots at players they know than at anonymous squids that they don’t, so these restrictions are good news.

  • However, the bar to becoming friends with someone via a Nintendo system is pretty low in my experience. I’ve gotten quite a few random friend requests from players who I’ve only known for a few Turf Wars or Mario Kart races, and I tend to accept them without doing a whole lot of vetting. I’ve also sent out a lot of friend requests to Splatfest teammates who I’ve never met, and they’re rarely rejected. (In fairness, I should note that I’ve met a lot of cool people via these random friend requests, so it’s not a completely broken system, just a risky one.) In other words, it’s not too hard to become friends with people you’ve never met and don’t know, and when it comes to toxicity concerns, that’s bad news.
  • Because voice chat is done through a separate smart-device app rather than the Switch itself, there’s an extra cost burden placed on players who want to participate in it:
    • You need a smart device (phone, tablet, etc.) that can run Nintendo’s app.
    • You need a suitable headset if you want to hear both your teammates and the in-game audio.

In other words, not just any random squid can jump into voice chat—you have to make a dedicated effort/investment to receive that privilege. It’s not much of a barrier, but it’s good news from a toxicity standpoint (if you’re going to say mean things to someone, you’ll have to pay extra to do it).

  • For players that don’t want to pay for the privilege of voice chat, however, there are freely-available tools like Skype or Discord that can allow players to communicate outside the scope of Nintendo’s walled garden. While this option requires some coordination ahead of time between players, it’s not hard to imagine people giving out their Skype user names as freely as they accept Miiverse friends. This is technically bad news, but these tools have also been available for players to use for the original Splatoon, and they don’t seem to have wrecked the community yet.

Overall, while I do think that the risk of exposure to toxic behavior is higher thanks to the inclusion of voice chat, the restrictions that Nintendo have put in place (both implicitly and explicitly) mitigate this danger somewhat. We’ll inevitably hear reports about the new voice chat feature being abused, but I don’t we’ll reach the widespread toxicity that games like Overwatch are experiencing right now. The key for players is basically to choose their friends wisely, and be considerate of others when  they chat with them.

There’s no way to completely eliminate toxic behavior, but if we all aim to be more understanding and less confrontational towards our fellow squids, we can minimize its impact and make the game more fun for everyone.

Song Review: Devin Dawson, “All On Me”

Look no further than “All On Me” if you want proof of Brett Young’s success, because it shows that “Caliville” imitators are already coming out of the woodwork.

Devin Dawson, a California native whose breakthrough came courtesy of a viral Taylor Swift mashup, signed with the Warner Music Group back in 2015, but did not release a debut single until “All On Me” dropped back in May. While the track borrows heavily from Young’s playbook—respectful lyrics, restrained-and-balanced production, etc.—and certainly won’t offend anyone’s sensibilities, it seems to lack that extra something that makes Young’s songs so compelling, and thus it doesn’t have the impact o f a “Sleep Without You” or “In Case You Didn’t Know.”

The production is anchored by a split-the-difference drum set (effected, but not synthetic), and cycles through a series of restrained guitars to handle the melody: It features an acoustic guitar on the intro, drops the guitars completely at the the start of the lyrics, and then slowly mixes in an electric guitar starting halfway through the first verse (perhaps too slowly, as it never becomes loud of prominent enough to generate any energy, not even on the bridge solo). Outside of an organ floating around in the background, that’s really all you get here. Compared to “Sleep Without You,” the tempo of “All On Me” is slower and the guitar tones aren’t as bright, making the mood feel a shade too serious for the subject matter. It’s not bad (aside from an incorrect note at the very end of the song that was inexplicably left in the mix), but nothing really stands out or demands your attention either, and that’s a major problem for a debut single.

The lyrics here show the narrator offering himself as a shoulder for the woman in his life to lean on, declaring that when life’s troubles become too overwhelming, she can always “put it all on me.” There’s nothing particularly novel here, and while the writing features some clever turns of phrase (“When it don’t add up, you can count on me” is my personal favorite), the constant “you can ___ on me” chorus line endings get a bit repetitive after a while. The lyrics also send some mixed messages about the narrator’s true intentions, as the singer invites the girl to “come get high on me” and “come and lay one me,” while also insisting his feelings are deeper and more permanent by declaring “you can bet your life on me.” This sort of ambiguity leaves the song heavily dependent on its delivery to keep it from veering into the gutter.

Thankfully, while Dawson’s voice comes across as nondescript and slightly nasal, his delivery is sincere and believable enough to keep the song from feeling creepy. He show flashes of potential with his range and flow during the song, but not always at the right time: His tone is suitably serious for most of the song, but his over-exuberant “come on!” and subsequent falsetto piece on the bridge feel awkward and out of place. While the Brett Young comparison is an easy one, Dawson exhibits nowhere near the amount of charisma and earnestness that Young does, and he fails to make this song particularly memorable.

Overall, “All On Me” is an okay song, but that’s all it is, and that’s not the first impression Devin Dawson or any new artist wants to make. It fits the current radio climate well, and doesn’t make any egregious missteps, but it’s a bit too safe/forgettable a play for my tastes. Being Brett Young may be a good place to start, but Dawson needs to do more to forge his own identity if he wants to stick around.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way to hear this one.