The 'Shroom:Issue 102/Critic Corner
Tum te tum, doo do doo, I don't know what I'm even doing with my life anymore. Go away, let me mope in peace.
...Fine. No new applicants this month, although Marshal Dan Troop (talk) has gone bi-monthly for Shoey's Shoetacular Reviews, so keep an eye on that every second month. Um... yeah, that's it, really. Peace out!
oh yeah also, fuck Tony Abbott.
Section of the Month
Ooga booga! Dippy gets her jumpscare on in Until Dawn.
Summer's gone, so how about travelling to Snowman's Land with Time Turner?
Crocodile Style Reviews
I’ve been asked often – by which I mean, once or twice by half-interested friends or family – what I find so alluring about horror stories, that particular brand of fiction designed specifically to invoke feelings of dread, anxiety, and awkward sensations in the back of your underwear. The dignified answer is that I have a fondness for fiction with a strong sense of atmosphere, pacing, and ability to inspire strong emotions in me, because fiction that just leaves me feeling bland tend to bother me even worse than ones that get me infuriated. However, the more accurate answer is that I simply like watching a bunch of entitled 20-something year olds that no one likes get brutally mauled to death for no better reason than to fuel my misanthropic desire to give the planet back to the dolphins, and honestly, that’s good enough for me.
Horror video games tend to appeal to me a lot more than horror films simply because the interactive element puts you, as the player, directly into the vulnerable position of a miserable wanker desperately trying to survive in a hostile environment, although one can easily be forgiven for thinking the genre is a dead cesspit of ruined dreams. Triple-A developers don’t reckon horror alone ships copies, so either just don’t take the risk or toss gratuitous gun sections in to eliminate any sense of vulnerability, while indie developers… well, the less said about them, the better. But alas, here we are with a brand new horror IP from Sony, which always raises flags because most big name studios obsessed with glossy HD visuals tend not to understand that the best form of horror is that which we, the player, invent in our heads, not the detailed pixels of a monster’s half-mutilated bumhole, but I digress.
Until Dawn's story follows the misadventures of a group of teenagers voiced and motion captured by every television actor desperate for a paycheck, with the prologue/tutorial showcasing a prank-gone-wrong that results in the death of two rich sisters. Skip ahead a year, and the remaining eight teenagers return to the ski lodge in remembrance of the two girls, which turns out to be a bad idea all-around as it turns out there’s a door-to-door salesman on the mountain desperately trying to hawk his bladed goods on the young ratbags. You quite jarringly switch between the eight characters at different points of the game as they attempt to find a way off the mountain, all the while learning of a more sinister force working against them.
I feel I should state upfront that Until Dawn is what’s called an “interactive movie,” that particular style of adventure game design that Sony are desperately attempting to salvage after David “Polygons Is Emotion” Cage got done with it, and to this end, it delivers most of its gameplay in the form of flashing signs in your face like an obnoxious traffic control officer, by which I mean Quick-Time Events. Actually, it makes an attempt to incorporate more player involvement than that, often being more engaging such as combat sequences which require you manually aim into the target reticule of whatever you want to punch holes into, twisting the joystick to open doors, swiping the touch screen to turn book pages, and most frustratingly, holding the motion-sensitive controller perfectly still to avoid detection, which doesn’t bode well for the body-expressive Italian within me. I was not fond of motion control when Nintendo did it, and a change of company branding has not sweetened the deal for me.
Of course, the primary draw of Until Dawn is The Butterfly Effect mechanic, because of course it is. Every game developer seems to be in a contest to see who can flex their cranial muscles the hardest for bonus nerd cred these days. I mean, what’s next? A game built around the Fibonacci sequence? The schrodinger’s cat paradox? Time dilation theory? …Actually, that last one would be pretty wicked. Anyway, much like The Walking Dead or last month’s Life Is Strange, Until Dawn warns you to consider your actions carefully as they will have consequences down the line, of which they very helpfully keep a record in the menu screen in case you need to figure out where your life went so horribly wrong. The game has a habit of throwing the most important decisions on you during tense scenarios where split-second action is called for, which works well for denying you the chance to go over your flowchart to carefully weigh your options, and the autosave feature does a decent job of keeping you trapped in your choices… for the most part, anyway. There were two moments in the game where I attempted to cheat the system – the first was merely to test if you could save scum (P.S., yes you can), and the second was to change a decision I made that got a wolf companion killed, because fuck it, seeing frightened teenagers get strung up on a meathook by their jaw is alright by me, but break the dog and you break my heart.
Until Dawn is very definitely focused on its narrative more than anything else, which is actually paced really well and offers enough division in the paths your choices take you to establish a degree of intrigue and genuine shock at the results of your actions. The environments may be essentially linear, but there’s enough collectibles and diversions to encourage exploration and analysis of every interactable object in the game. This is supported by the Totem collectibles that give the player a glimpse of a future event, for better or for worse, which none of the kids seem too bothered with. Maybe this is just me, but if a carved out chunk of wood was showing the disembodied head of my mate dropping into a pool of blood, I’d definitely be having a few words with the landlord. The hints themselves are vague enough to not spoil anything but nonetheless keep you on your toes, as I recall one totem showing a death via immolation, which prompted me to avoid all sources of fire or flammable material throughout the game, which ended up saving one sheila’s life… it didn’t turn out to be the one shown in the totem, but hey, count your blessings. Most of the collectibles aren’t necessarily for advancing in the game, which is certainly a point in its favour. More than anything collectibles just offer a glimpse into the chilling backstory of the game much like the Chozo Lore in Metroid Prime… well except for one set of collectibles, which the game demands you find or else it won’t let you save one character from getting his head blown up.
As tends to happen in these sorts of games, the dialogue starts out as tween angst drivel before eventually devolving into a screaming contest, and the jarring turn towards a supernatural theme in the latter portion of the game over the serial killer set-up established early on does kind of push the narrative firmly into the realm of ridiculous. But I never lost my interest in it because Until Dawn firmly commits to its ludicrousness. Give the serial killer a Juggalo mask? Absolutely! Literally punch a pig in the face because it jumpscared you? Nothing wrong there! Hurl hordes of hunched and screaming Peter Garrett lookalikes at you? Hell, that’s just a normal day in Parliament! Until Dawn owns its absurdity and is thusly able to deliver a genuinely compelling thrill ride of a game that perfectly replicates the excitement of slasher film silliness. Although my Tumblr senses are tingling due to the fact that black kid is the easiest to get killed, and even suffers the most unglamorous death in the game at the hands of some common deer if you choose to channel your inner Ted Nugent. At that point you’ve already lost at life.
So to summarise, the game suffers from some wonky writing, occasionally fiddly controls and several characters can grate on the nerves a bit, but what it does do right it does spectacularly. It’s not exactly scary, but by placing more attention on the thrill and general feel of uncertainty as a result of the Butterfly Effect mechanic, it manages to create and maintain a captivating and gripping experience even through its utter insanity. A definite pleasant surprise game of the year for me, so if you’re not a chickenshit and you own a PlayStation 4, I highly recommend giving it a try and hopping aboard Supermassive Games’ wild ride, because there’s no getting off once you’re on.
Tiki Tak Tribe
I start this review off with a confession: I have never played any of the original Donkey Kong Country games. Now before you all go lobbing bananas at me, this is down to age and lack of care for the Virtual Console, so in all honesty I probably won't have the want for the Kremlings that other folks may have.
When Donkey Kong Country Returns was announced, I'm sure many people were expecting the return of the Kremlings, and instead we got these guys: the Tiki Tak Tribe, wooden instruments that survived centuries in a volcano... full of molten lava... somehow, this worked out well for them. So, despite this already obvious plot hole, I actually like these guys on the whole. Sure, I'd rather be fighting a crocodile over a set of maracas (though obviously not in real life). But at the end of the day, it's not like they're actually doing the main fighting, just hypnotizing innocent creatures for you to destroy.
I love the designs for the Tiki Tak Tribe, barring the generic enemies as there are only so many drums you can see before deciding that other instruments would've been awesome, like a flute, or a trumpet, or an ivory piano (I mean come on, the game does have elephants in it). In all honesty, I prefer these designs over the Kremlings; whilst there was some variation most Kremlings were just crocodiles wearing themed outfits. With the Tiki Tak Tribe (barring the aforementioned generic drums) all the main members are different kinds of instruments, even if you're absolutely certain that the kalimba is not an instrument.
However, as much as the I love the Tiki Tak Tribe designs, they do lack one major thing that an antagonist needs, and that's a reason to be a dick toward the protagonist. Bowser keeps kidnapping Peach, King K. Rool hates the Kongs, the Tiki Tak Tribe... wants bananas? So they can... live? Because wood apparently needs the potassium that bananas carry, or the radiation. Whichever one it is, it really doesn't make sense and I'm fairly certain that thinking about it will just cause you harm.
So overall, despite the fact that they're made of wood yet love volcanoes, and needs bananas to survive, I actually like the Tiki Tak Tribe and I'm completely fine with the fact that they were the Kremling replacement for this game. I just don't think I'll be able to look at an instrument in the same way ever again.
Hello, intrepid readers of The 'Shroom! My name is Time Turner, and I'll be delivering to you my second instalment of Location, Location, bringing you from the depths of Oho Ocean to the peaks of Corona Mountain and every attraction in between. On my last expedition, I showed off Oho Oasis and its tropical setting to go with the season of summer. Well, now that the heat is fading in favour of brisk winds and decaying leaves, I thought that it'd be appropriate to prepare for the upcoming winter, at the very least mentally. Let's jump straight into one of the chilliest places in the Marioverse, filled with snow, ice, and snowmen from the classic Super Mario 64: that's right, it's Snowman's Land!
Some of you may be thinking of the area from Super Mario 64 with the race against the Big Penguin, the icy slide from the top to the bottom, the Mother Penguin looking for her son, the Headless Snowman missing part of himself, and so on, but that's Cool, Cool Mountain, a snow area that's totally distinct from the topical snow area. After all, Snowman's Land has a snowman, and... There's a tiny igloo... There's a rip-off of the Bully fight from Lethal Lava Land... The snowman's also really, really big...
For all the unique areas in Super Mario 64, from a haunted house to a dark cave to a giant clock, I find it surprising that not only are there two different snow areas, but that Snowman's Land doesn't have much going for it even though Cool, Cool Mountain has so much going for it. After my first time playing the game, the mountain was always fresh in my mind, as if I had just played through the level, while the land was like a footnote I only remembered when watching other people play. It doesn't help that Snowman's Land is visited long after its snowy predecessor, but as I read through the articles, I asked myself this: what prevents it from standing out, and what makes Cool, Cool Mountain stand out?
To start off, one of the biggest problems that I have with it is definitely the lack of characters throughout the stage. Even something as minute as the Bob-omb Buddies and King Bob-omb in Bob-omb Battlefield goes a long way to bringing life to a stage, but Cool, Cool Mountain has a large variety of them. As I listed above: the penguin that wants to race you and reacts if you cheat, the penguin mother looking for her lost child who can scold you for bringing her the wrong penguin, and the snowman head and body each looking for their missing piece stand have always stood out to me. Not only do they give a purpose to Mario's mission besides "star there get star", but they're also not one-note NPC's that spout some trite exposition. Rather, they're actual characters who react appropriately to what Mario does. The closest thing that Snowman's Land has for a character, besides the Bob-omb Buddies that every level has, is the giant snowman that spouts a few lines of clunky exposition when you start to climb him. This is not even close to the other characters; there's no actual degree of interactivity in this "exchange", since the snowman issues a vague threat that you cannot respond to in any way. I'll talk about the snowman as a stage with more detail in a bit, but right now, I'll succinctly say that I am massively disappointed by the stage's choice of NPC's.
The characters go a long way to making a location memorable, but the layout itself can make or break people's opinion, and even a single platform in a weird place can be a game changer. Wet-Dry World, for example, doesn't have any characters, but its mechanic of increasing and decreasing the amount of water in the stage makes it stand out. Once again, Cool, Cool Mountain rises where Snowman's Land falls. To start off, the snowman itself, the one that's hyped up with the entire area being named after it and with the painting to enter the land prominently featuring two snowmen, is incredibly lackluster. It's a rather short climb, with the snowman bluntly telling you that he blows wind and a penguin generically walking back and forth in front of him (the entire climb can also be easily avoided with the cannon). That one star at the top is the only reason to ever climb the snowman; the remainder of the stars are collected in the general area around the snowman, which makes it nothing more than a novelty to stare at.
This is disappointing to me especially because I think the best stages are the ones that give you a clear path with a bunch of branches. Let me use Cool, Cool Mountain as an example: the entire level is a slide from the top to the bottom, and most of the missions are spent either sliding down the mountain or the slide inside the mountain, while always incorporating new features. The first level is spent in the interior slide, with the goal simply being to make it to the bottom, and it drops you off at the mountain's base. This gives you a chance to see the mother penguin involved in the second level, which involves bringing the baby penguin from the top of the exterior slide to the bottom. This in turn lets you see the other areas around. The third level features the same interior slide, but this time as a race against another penguin. The fourth level features red coins scattered across the outside that you would have likely seen as you slid down, and so on and so forth. The main path is the two slides, but there are a bunch of notches all around them that you can easily explore. Snowman's Land doesn't have any of that: every star takes place in a patch of land that is pretty much separate from the other patches of land. This adds to the feeling that the level isn't a fun romp or something with an actual purpose, but rather a series of chores that you need to mark off of a checklist before moving on.
I would have forgiven this if the stars themselves were anything to write home about, but Snowman's Land doesn't even bring that. Besides the snowman which I've discussed in length, the missions involve knocking a Bully into water in a fight that's a carbon copy of the fights with the regular Bullies from Lethal Laval Land (another level that you'll very likely enter before Snowman's Land), an uninspired maze in ice blocks that takes place literally a few steps to the left of where you spawn, an incredibly short platforming section using the unique Spindrifts (these enemies spin you into the air when you bounce on them, and they're seriously underutilised), the same hunt for eight red coins that every level has, and the claustrophobic, simplistic, generic labyrinth that is the igloo. While many of Super Mario 64's other sub-areas have fun distractions (such as Cool, Cool Mountain or Tall, Tall Mountain) or proper extensions of the main stage (such as Jolly Roger Bay or Shifting Sand Land), Snowman's Land abandons both of those ludicrous ideas and instead settles for the cramped and cluttered mess that we got instead. None of the stars are unique, complex, or even challenging, making the whole gamut of stars not particularly interesting to obtain.
Still, even if the level doesn't attract people with its layout, it can at least attract from a visual viewpoint, right? Well... this is Super Mario 64 we're talking about here; if it's anything we can look back on critically, it's definitely the graphics. It is absolutely undeniable that they were impressive for the time, but you're not exactly going to confuse the game for something that came out recently. Still, something that Nintendo's always been good at is its use of colours, and there are tons of stages in the game that have such incredibly-vibrant settings, they do a great job of distracting from the blocky graphics. Even in levels that stick to muted (in comparison) palettes, like Big Boo's Haunt, the designs and the colours are still used effectively to make the stages feel distinct. I won't continue my trend of trashing Snowman's Land by saying that it uses horrible aesthetics, but it's also not a stellar example, either. It reuses a lot of the graphics from Cool, Cool Mountain, such as the snow and the crags, but Snowman's Land sky consists of a very dull blue, almost gray, in contrast to the lively blue that the mountain uses. This is a minor detail, but it's surprising how the either mood can be set with the right colours as the backdrop, and the gray does nothing but set you up for dullness. Its abuse of snow is also noticeable; while both areas have a big heaping of snow, the land offers much fewer variances and settles for splotches of white being everywhere the eye can see. Master of colours, it is not.
The last point of interest is the soundtrack; good news: it's good! Bad news: it's not unique! Yes, the song that plays in Snowman's Land is actually the same song that plays in Cool, Cool Mountain, which is, again, a level that most players will go through long before Snowman's Land. I'm not going to pretend that there should have been a unique track for every level, as there are reused tracks throughout the entire game. Considering that Super Mario 64 was a launch title for the Nintendo 64, the songs that are here are impressive in both a technological sense and a general quality sense. Hats off to the sound composer, Koji Kondo, who has been a mainstay in Nintendo since the first Super Mario Bros. game and has continued to entertain me. The track itself can be best described as jolly, fitting the snowy theme while also being a charming remix of the game's main theme. It's not gloriously amazing, but it doesn't need to be. It fits Cool, Cool Mountain while also being pleasant to the ears instead of grating, so it's more than acceptable in my book. I don't have a problem with the song in Snowman's Land, but it's like adding insult to injury. The whole level is essentially a poor man's copy of Cool, Cool Mountain, and the fact that it reuses the same delightful song, reminding you of better times, is what puts the final nail in the coffin for me.
You know, I honestly didn't expect this piece to be so critical in the outset. I picked Snowman's Land as a counter to the sunniness of Oho Oasis, with the intention of once again recognizing a little-known location. But the more I delved into it, the more my writing spiraled into every reason why it was quickly forgotten. Maybe it's because Super Mario 64, for all of its janky glitches and oddball physics, was still a marvel when it came to its levels, and Cool, Cool Mountain still stands out today as a classic level for me. So, the fact that every element that I enjoyed from that level is used to such a lesser effect in Snowman's Land, especially when Cool, Cool Mountain is far from the exception in the game, struck me as being so dissonant. I definitely think that some of the ideas used here could have been retooled into something better. They could have put a much larger emphasis on the snowman, perhaps even literally centering the majority of the platforming and stars around it. But as it stands now, I'd simply ignore it if collecting all of the stars isn't in your plans.
Here's something new for y’all: an autobiography! I have to say, I am definitely not one to read autobiographies. I think I’ve read one or two in my life before, and one of those was mostly made for kids when I was eight. Fast forward to last year, and I’d picked up a copy of The Week at my aunt’s house and saw the book reviews for this one, Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography, in a Choose Your Own Adventure style. I also read a few of those books as well when I was in grade school, and I enjoyed the ones I read. Not enough to call it one of my favorite series ever, but it was a good way to waste some downtime during classes, but I digress. I asked for this book for Christmas last year, and I got it from another aunt, a lovely hardcover edition, and brought it back to school with me to start reading it.
There are a few different ways to read this book. If you’re willing to put up with the CYOA format, like I am, you’ll jump around and get to read a different story every time. On the other hand, if you’re boring, like my dad, you can just read it cover to cover to read everything as well. Either way will get you a good read, but the former will get you multiple reads if you’re interested. If you’ve never seen NPH on TV/Broadway/at the Tonys/etc, you really should check out his work. He’s witty and funny, and the book reflects that perfectly. Even in this format, with a second-person view, his voice and humor come through very well, especially in some of those fake twist endings. They’re some of the best parts in the book, these little scenarios where you’ve just either ruined your (NPH’s) life, or have just died period. I recently found one that involved magicians and sulfuric acid, and I won’t say anything more because it’s too much fun to find these. They’ll give you a good laugh, I promise, before you go back to the page you’d been previously on to contemplate a different route. The book comes with your standard autobiography quirks, like a few pages of glossy color photos of NPH’s childhood, early career, and his current family with his husband and kids. It also has a crossword puzzle, a handful of quirky hand-drawn illustrations, anecdotes from his peers, and even an ending song, if you get lucky and find it. Even the dust jacket on the hardcover edition has a word puzzle on the back cover.
If you’re not a fan of autobiographies, which I am usually not, at least give this one a try. It's a refreshing change of place with the CYOA format, and it keeps the book from droning on like a lot of autobiographies can. And it's Neil Patrick Harris. The guy is funny. He'll keep you laughing and reading and singing along. If you’re a fan of NPH, you owe it to yourself to read this one, of course! It's funny, charming, and delightful to read. And, as a last little plug for the book, in the words of NPH, “Yes, if you buy one book this year, congratulations on being above the American average, and make that book Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography!”