The 'Shroom:Issue 206/Critic Corner

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Director's Notes

Written by: Hypnotoad (talk)

Shroom2017 Anton.png

May is here, and you know what that means? We're more than halfway to Halloween!! 🦇👻🎃 !!!!!!!!!! To help us get through the time between now and then, we here at Critic Corner have been hard at work writing SO MUCH that you'll be more than occupied (assuming you reread several dozen times).

This month be on the lookout for a one-time section, Hall of Shame by Waluigi Time (talk), Hooded Pitohui (talk), and Roserade (talk), as we lead up to our Mario Wiki Anniversary polls and awards!

Thank you for voting Half-Baked Reviews as April's Critic Corner Section of the Month!! Be sure to give your love to all of our sections here, and give a shout out to our writers whether in chat or in their forum threads dedicated to their sections. Be sure to vote vote vote!


And now for my regular announcements: We've decided to implement in Critic Corner something similar to News Flush over in Fake News, where no formal sign-up application process is required for one-time or limited sections. From now on if you just want to send in a single review for something you just read, watched played, tried, whatever, you just have to send me your review privately either to me directly in chat, or in a message to me on the forum at least one week before each 'Shroom is to be released! There's no commitment or obligation to provide a full monthly section (although you absolutely can shift it into one if you so choose), just send us your thoughts on a thing and we'll feature it here! If you have any questions or curiosities about this, please feel free to ask!

As always, if you would like to help Critic Corner, we always have openings for more writers! You are free to write for sections such as Character Review and Movie Review, or really anything you'd like to do! There's no pressure to have a huge section; they can be shorter and concise! The application process is very simple, starting with reading the Sign Up page, and sending your application to Meta Knight on the forum. Any idea you have is welcome, and if you have any questions or need help signing up, please feel free to reach out to myself or other 'Shroom peeps!

Section of the Month

CRITIC CORNER SECTION OF THE MONTH
Place Section Votes % Writer
1st Anton's Half-Baked Reviews 15 57.69% Hypnotoad (talk)
2nd Video Game Review 5 19.23% Waluigi Time (talk)
3rd The Mariospective 4 15.38% Goombuigi (talk)

Reviews / opinion pieces
Justice for Hammer Bros.!!
Imagine the sand stuck in that now......
If I could turn back time~ 🎶

Hall of Shame

Written by: Waluigi Time (talk), Hooded Pitohui (talk), and Roserade (talk)

Hello there, 'Shroom readers! The Awards are coming up again, so in the spirit of drumming up engagement, I thought it would be fun to do a little section giving my thoughts on last year's "winners" of most of the Fail Awards. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, considering the context?), I haven't actually played all the games here, so I wrangled some help from people who actually did play them! Hooded Pitohui wrote for F7 and F9, and Roserade wrote for F8. Thanks guys!

Spring Mushroom (F1. Worst Power-up)

Spring Mushroom
Misery in fungus form.

Looks like we're starting off with one I agree on wholeheartedly! I am an unapologetic Spring Mushroom voter on this award. Usually when you collect a power-up, there's supposed to be, you know, an upgrade? Instead we get this thing that restricts your movement options and makes Mario constantly bounce around, but hey, you get a high jump? It's not worth the trade-off at all and feels like you're constantly slogging through the downside to occasionally make use of the upside. If you're going to have trade-offs, it should be the opposite, or something like the Frog Suit where it excels in one area but doesn't work so well outside of its specialty. I would never use this thing if I wasn't forced to, although I wouldn't be surprised if speedrunners figured out how to cheese every Spring Mario level by now. Why this came back in Super Mario Galaxy 2 instead of the Ice Flower or Red Star, I'll never know...

For some reason, they basically brought this back in Super Mario Bros. Wonder as the Spring Feet badge. The controls are a little better this time around and it's easier to stay in place, but you're forced to use it in an especially challenging level that made me hate it all over again. At least they classified it as an Expert Badge and acknowledged that it's meant to challenge you instead of pretending this is an upgrade in any conceivable way.

Hammer Bros. (F2. Worst Enemy)

Hammer Bro in New Super Mario Bros. U
They did you so dirty...

Uh, yeah, if you know me, you'll know that I really don't think Hammer Bros. deserve this spot, to the point that I organized a write-in campaign for Porcupuffer, which didn't change the outcome but got it from not being on the ballot at all to placing 5th in the span of one year. So... that's cool?

Seriously though, Hammer Bros. aren't that bad! Sure, if you go back to the NES days, they're one of the most challenging enemies and the controls of those games definitely don't help. But these days, they're really not that much of a problem. The controls are smoother than ever, there's a bunch of different power-ups to deal with them, and Yoshi can even eat their hammers! They're even less of a problem in the 3D platformers since you have a lot more room to dodge their hammers. I'm not going to say I necessarily like fighting Hammer Bros., but between evolving gameplay and the expanding cast of baddies, they're far from the worst of the worst that they used to be. Also, dare I say these guys are one of the cooler designs from the original Super Mario Bros. enemy lineup? They really put the "troop" in Koopa Troop (side note, did you know that Nintendo has apparently mostly dropped Koopa Troop and is now just referring to them as Bowser's Minions? Terrible decision!) and lend themselves well to variants.

Poison Mushroom/Rotten Mushroom (F3. Worst Obstacle)

Artwork of a Poison Mushroom from Super Mario Party
I'd still take this over the Spring Mushroom.

This one feels like it came out of left field, because the Poison Mushroom isn't a staple of the platformers at all! The only mainline games it appears in are Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, World-e in Super Mario Advance 4, the Special Worlds in Super Mario 3D Land, and of course the very similar Rotten Mushroom in Super Mario Maker 2. It's definitely not something you'll be running into all the time, and it's not really that bad anyway. It may as well be a glorified Goomba that hides in ? Blocks. I think the real problem here is that it's designed in a way that players consider it more of an item than an obstacle (notably, the Poison Mushroom got several Worst Power-up write-ins). So from that perspective, yeah, it sucks! If you "collect" it you get damaged, and it makes the ? Block it came from a dud that you'd have been better off avoiding. I can't say I'm a huge fan of these, but I don't really mind them that much. I can look at them for what they are, and at least for the Poison Mushroom, it's only been used in situations that are designed to be more challenging. As for the Rotten Mushroom, well, you put it in the player's hands, so all bets are off. Can't really blame Nintendo for that, though.

Autoscrolling levels (F4. Worst Level Concept)

If I already boarded the airship, does it matter if it's moving?

Autoscrollers are a funky thing. Sometimes they're annoying because they're constantly rushing you forward and don't give you time to explore, sometimes they're annoying because they're slowing down your progress through the level, and if you're really lucky then sometimes they're annoying because both of those happen to you in the same level. I can live with autoscrollers, but I don't think they're very fun and I wouldn't be at all disappointed if they just never showed up again. There's more creative ways to force the player to move at a certain pace without resorting to the arbitrary slowly moving screen that Nintendo has already used. Rising lava or having the level be slowly destroyed behind you is a good way to create a sense of urgency while still letting you move ahead as fast as you want. Or to slow down progress moving forward, there can be blocked passageways that only open on timed cues or by using some element in the level to break them open. Even something like Boohemoth is more interesting because the autoscrolling is tied to enemy movement and you can temporarily stop it by staring at it. Basically, be creative with it! By now, the classic autoscroller feels more like a limitation from the NES era that's still here for some reason.

Gacha (F5. Worst Game Mechanic)

Mario Kart Tour Google Play icon (version 3.2.0)
WHEEL

What can you say about gacha? It's gacha. A terrible moneymaking scheme that only exists to wring as much money as you can out of your customers. It also preys on gambling habits, so... that's fun. Incredibly disappointing that Nintendo said they weren't going to do this and then immediately resorted to it after Super Mario Run apparently didn't perform to expectations. At least they seem to have stepped away from this for now.

Boom Boom (F6. Worst Boss Battle)

Boom Boom's official artwork.
He looks like he knows...

Well, I like Boom Boom, as a character he doesn't really have much that makes him stand out, but I have some Super Mario Bros. 3 bias in me. But this award is about boss fights specifically, and as a boss, he's, well, fine? Not really anything too special, he fills the recurring midboss role well and at least has some tactics to switch things up as the game progresses. He's definitely not anything overly challenging, especially for experienced players, but it's not like he's super underwhelming either. He's here, he does his job, pretty inoffensive if you ask me. I'm not really sure why he won this award, especially by such a wide margin of votes (20.29% to the runner-up's 9.67%). Maybe the problem is just that he shows up too much?

Fun fact: Boom Boom wasn't even on this award when we ran it in 2022, but did well enough in write-ins that he got added to the poll in 2023 and skyrocketed straight to the top. Good for him?

Mario Strikers: Battle League (F7. Most Disappointing Update Cycle)

Key artwork for Mario Strikers: Battle League
Hey, where's Daisy?

Hello, readers of The 'Shroom! This is Hooded Pitohui, jumping in briefly to talk to you about sports! Well, actually Mario sports games on the Nintendo Switch, but that still fits, right? It's no secret that the sports games on the Switch - Mario Tennis Aces, Mario Golf: Super Rush, and Mario Strikers: Battle League - are considered... underwhelming. The general consensus seems to be that they're serviceable, but bland, and lacking the expansiveness of their predecessors from back in the days of the Gamecube and Wii. Lacking the minigames and side modes of their predecessors, stripping away and dialing back the gimmicks of their courses, having shrunken character rosters at launch, the games have been accused of lacking personality, and the new DLC model Nintendo has embraced for Mario sports game in the Switch era hasn't helped the games to shake off that impression of being underwhelming. With a number of characters and even courses only getting added through post-release updates, the launch builds of these games come across as even more barren.

It seems like each subsequent entry on the Switch was more disliked than the last. While Aces was a welcome return to form after Ultra Smash and Super Rush at least brought some new (if divisive) ideas to the table, Battle League doesn't have much to soften the blow of taking a step back from the days of the Wii, and the reactions to their update cycles seem to have paralleled the reactions to the games themselves.

Looking at even just the rosters of each game gives us a strong impression of why that's the case. Aces started off with 16 characters at launch, two shy of the GameCube's Power Tennis' 18, but still pretty healthy, and with pretty much all the major Mario mainstays, a tennis mainstay like Boo, and a couple of surprise additions in Chain Chomp and Spike. That may be fewer characters than the GameCube had, but it's still a pretty diverse mix that covered all the bases, and that was before the game's DLC came along! Said DLC came in bringing back some other Tennis mainstays like Koopa Troopa and Shy Guy, adding Pauline after her Odyssey boost, and even bringing some extra surprises like Kamek and Fire Piranha Plant. With a good mix of old characters returning and new characters being introduced, and an expansion of the roster by a whopping 14 characters, that's respectable DLC!

Super Rush managed to match the 16 characters (minus Miis and transferable characters) from the GameCube's Toadstool Tour, and had a pretty decent mix of the usual suspects, a couple returning golfers, and some surprising newcomers like King Bob-omb, but its DLC felt a bit... truncated, only adding 5 characters to the base game. It was the kind of update cycle that makes you go "it's not bad, but why not just have those five in the launch build?".

Then there's Battle League. Here, there were 8 characters to the 10 that Strikers Charged had back on the Wii, and that's not factoring in the near-elimination of all the sidekick characters, further taking an axe to roster diversity. That still might not sound too bad. After all, Aces had two characters less than its GameCube title, but here's the rub. Aces had a healthy cast with all of the major Mario characters you would expect and some new surprises. Battle League didn't even have Daisy at launch! It's rare that a spinoff doesn't include Daisy, so this was pretty notable. Across its updates, Battle League only added 6 characters, and if you consider that Daisy really ought to have been in from the start, it's more like it only added 5. That's the same amount as Super Rush added, but with a much smaller roster from the outset, and a questionable starting roster that, unlike Super Rush, required DLC to feel filled out. Put in that light, it's not hard to see why Battle League disappointed in this regard, and why the DLC felt more like an attempt to fill out a barebones release than to extend and add to the game.

I've used rosters as a case study here to demonstrate why Battle League has had an even more disliked update cycle than the other Mario sports games on the Switch, but you can look at most elements of Battle League and see the same pattern of losing the expansiveness of the Wii days. Where Strikers Charged had ten new stadiums that (save two) had distinctive gimmicks and seven returning stadiums without gimmicks, Battle League had just five gimmickless stadiums to begin, with only three new gimmickless stadiums being added in the DLC. Without the DLC, it feels lacking, and even with the DLC, it feels like a step-down!

Little wonder, then, that Battle League received the ignoble distinction that it did, huh? Here's to hoping that this is the bottom of the barrel and that we get sports titles that feel more complete and expansive from launch!

Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS (F8. Worst Remake)

Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS North American box art
This game really makes me disappointed.

Greetings, beautiful 'Shroom readers! Welcome into another edition of... uh, Hall of Shame, I guess. The typical greeting doesn't work so well in other formats.

So yeah, Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS sure is a game that released that I owned. Realistically, this concept should've been a slam dunk: the Mario Maker formula, now on a portable device? The Wii U was 30% of the way to portable, but a 3DS fits in your pocket! So being able to create and play anyone's levels from anywhere should be great, right? Well, the fundamental problem that I believe cements this version's place as a Fail Award winner is the fact that... you can't play anyone's levels from anywhere. There is no server to upload the levels into. Instead, you can only encounter other player's work through StreetPass or Local Play. Sure, StreetPass mayyyyybe could've netted you a cool level to play, but that still required, y'know, passing that other 3DS on the street. If you didn't have a friend who also owned a 3DS with Mario Maker that could then show up at your house, you were SOL. That's probably the most baffling thing about this release. If a core tenet of the experience is unobtainable on the hardware, why even bother at all?

The rest of the game isn't shabby by any means. It's Mario Maker, it's hard to mess it up, and the subtractions from the Wii U version aren't drastic enough to sour the actual level creation experience. Nintendo did also include a solid portion of pre-made levels, probably understanding that this game would, by necessity, be a more "single-player" game. Fair enough, although I think locking certain object transformations behind that mode that weren't locked in the Wii U version is a little crummy. My level-sharing experience is already so sad, just let me make the coins pink from the beginning Nintendo.

In the age of the Nintendo Switch and Super Mario Maker 2, there is literally nothing justifying owning this game. Although funnily enough, I guess Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS really wasn't hit so hard from the 3DS/Wii U online server shutdown, huh?

Mario Party-e (F9. Most Forgettable Game)

Promotional artwork of Mario Party-e
This game's success just wasn't in the cards...

It is I, readers of The 'Shroom, Hooded Pitohui, back again to monologue like a cartoon villain! Er, wait, hold on. These are my notes for the Phineas J. Shoe recording I won tickets to. I'm actually here to talk to you about Mario Party-e, a weird, like, 90% physical card game and 10% digital minigame collection. It feels a little like WarioWare meets card games, but somehow less exciting than that concept when it's not even a very exciting concept to begin with.

At the end of the day, it makes sense that this game is pretty forgettable. At its core, it's a middling little card game. It could pass a little time if you were extremely bored, but it's not really fun enough to justify getting the cards out and setting them up for play over the multitude of other things you could do with your time. Then there's the matter of needing to use the e-Reader to get the full gameplay experience. I'm sure you have a GBA and an e-Reader just lying around that you could easily take out to play this, right? You're willing to deal with that finicky e-Reader scanning, too, aren't you? Well, truth be told, even if you don't have an e-Reader, you aren't missing much. There's a whole eleven minigames to play, and none that stand out as a good time. They're mostly in the realm of "serviceable, sure". The cards don't even come with cool new art or anything. It's just Mario Party 4 renders.

There simply isn't a lot to Mario Party-e. It's the kind of game I imagine very few people picked up in the first place, and for those who did, well... It's the kind of game you maybe play once, for the novelty of it, and then never play again. If that. It's so unremarkable that it might also be the kind of game that gathers dust in a corner until you sell it in a garage sale or take it to a thrift store. A middling-at-best card game that takes more time to set up than it's worth to play, that wants you to use an accessory that few people have, and that is overshadowed in the realm of GBA-adjacent mediocre Mario Party titles by Mario Party Advance, it's easy to see why this one ends up in a drawer somewhere, forgotten.

Frequent takedowns of fan content (F10. Most Shameless Business Decision)

A fan-made model of Mario in Dreams, which was taken down. For use on the List of unofficial media acknowledged by Nintendo page.
Dreams crushed.

I mean... how do you review the concept of takedowns? On the one hand, I get that Nintendo has legitimate interest to protect their property, especially when people are trying to make money off of it without permission and/or making incredibly blatant ripoffs. It's their legal right to do it, after all, and if it wasn't then this wouldn't even be a discussion! On the other hand, it's a shame that legitimately creative projects got taken down and had to cease development. The list of unofficial media acknowledged by Nintendo on this very wiki has several examples of both the creative and the not so much (looking at you, Mole Kart), though for any younger readers out there, please be aware that the page does include some encyclopedic discussion of adult content. It especially stings when it's something like Super Mario 64 Maker that offers an experience you can't get in any official products. That being said, there's still thousands of fan games, animations, and hacks out there that have been able to exist without issue, a couple of which I've even covered here in The 'Shroom before, so it seems like the ones that catch Nintendo's ire are usually the ones that fly too close to the sun and set up a Patreon directly tied to development or whatever. The moral of the story is don't do that! It doesn't end well.


And that concludes the Hall of Shame! Thanks for reading, and be sure to vote for your favorites when the Mario Awards polls go up next month - or least favorites, as the case may be.

'Shroom FM

Written by: MCD (talk)

Hi. I'm back from music. Here's what I found out:

Tidal Memory Exo

death's dynamic shroud and Galen Tipton - You Like Music

Initially released via DDS' subscription-based NUWURLD Mixtape Club, I'm not sure how or why You Love Music escaped containment. I am very glad it did, though, this is absolutely wild. It starts off with just a minute of scrambled noise, and that's one of the most straightforward parts of this. Every track is doing something completely different, all based around these experimental, glitchy beats. A unique and unrelenting album, and a very fun listen.

Iglooghost - Tidal Memory Exo

I hadn't been paying much attention to Iglooghost since his last album - not for any particular reason - but this is superb. It's really cool to see how his sound has evolved over time, and this feels like one of his most consistent projects in a long time. There's so much depth and energy to the sound he cultivates here, and everything sounds so sharp and precise - particularly how the vocals and surreal, industrial beats interact. Almost all of the tracks here are fairly similar lengths so there's definitely a risk of some parts getting missed or lost, but despite the speed it all moves along at, everything hits the mark. One of those albums that sounds exactly like the cover art.

Jessica Pratt - Here in the Pitch

The rich, dusky instrumentation and reverb on Pratt's vocals give this a nocturnal, dreamlike atmosphere. Her vocal style feels very reminiscent of classic pop, and there's some gorgeous harmonies and melodies here where this really shines. The album definitely feels a little surreal at times, but with a vague sense of familiarity behind it. It's a great listen, all in all, and well worth checking out.

Vampire Weekend - Only God Was Above Us

On my first listen, this didn't do a huge amount for me - reliably good but not anything above and beyond. I've since gone back though and enjoyed it a lot more on a relisten. Ezra Koenig's vocals still sound as fresh as ever, the instrumentation is bright and lavish. There's some quite noisy and jagged guitar hooks, some of which did grate on me a bit, but it works within each song well enough, and certainly adds a bit of edge to the album. On my second listen I particularly enjoyed some of the longer tracks more - particularly "The Surfer" and the closer, "Hope" - both of which start off mellow and steadily grow in a really satisfying way.

Book Review

Written by: FunkyK38 (talk)

A Bright Heart
BookReview206.png
Author Kate Chenli
Release date 2023
Genre fantasy
Pages 344
Available From

Welcome back to Book Review, everyone! This month, I will be reviewing A Bright Heart by Kate Chenli!

This one was a Barnes and Noble find for me earlier this year. It is Chenli’s first book, and after reading it, I am really looking forward to what she decides to write next! Let’s jump into this book, shall we?

We meet our heroine, Mingshin, as she is sitting in jail, awaiting her sentencing. She is dragged from the cell and brought to Prince Ren, the man that she helped win the throne and fell in love with. Ren laughs at her for her weakness, and as he orders her execution, she sees her cousin, Aylin, watching, preparing to become Ren’s queen and take the throne with him. Destroyed by their betrayal, Mingshin cries out to the gods for help, asking to have a second chance. The next thing she knows, she wakes up in her bed, with her mother and servants alive, no prince or cousin in sight. Confused, Mingshin realizes that she has been sent back in time to before she met Ren, and although confused, she vows to herself that this time will be different. This time, she will not be swayed by Ren’s lies, she will not be deceived by her family, and she will not let herself fall in love.

The first thing that really jumped out to me about this book is how it starts off running. Everything I described to you is just the first twelve pages or so- Chenli doesn’t waste time getting things going. Mingshin’s first life is described, and then she is sent back in time to start her second chance. I had read the summary before I decided to buy the book, but I was expecting more from her first life. There is nothing wrong with getting started quickly, and Chenli keeps a good pace throughout the entire book. It’s one of those books that you’ll struggle to put down, and even now, a few months after I’ve read it, I’ll pick it off my shelf and read through it in a couple hours. Chenli struck a good balance of making the book impossible to put down, while also leaving in a sequel hook. My hopes are incredibly high for the possibility of a sequel, and I hope she can keep her momentum going if she decides to write a sequel.

Next let’s talk about Mingshin. Obviously, she is a protagonist who has to re-learn the lesson of “trusting in others can be a strength”, but despite that she’s one of the smartest protagonists I’ve read in a long time. She is determined. She is playing a huge chess game with her entire life, with the royalty, with her family, and she manages to balance everything superbly. I find a lot of the time, a protagonist like this (“I’ve been betrayed and I’ll never love again”) often doesn’t make smart decisions, but I followed every decision Mingshin made and I was with her the whole time. Her family getting their comeuppance is satisfying, and learning the secrets of the mysterious force that brought her back to life sets up intrigue for future entries. Her love interest is also set up extremely well, although I won’t talk too much about him. But they are definitely a couple that I was rooting for the entire time I was reading.

I can’t recommend A Bright Heart enough to you. If you read Daughter of the Moon Goddess along with me, this book will be right up your alley. If you like fantasy books with a reincarnation twist, pick this one up. It’s shaping up to be one of my top books of 2024, and I really think you should give it a read, too!

That’s all for me this month, readers! Next time, I’ll be reporting back with a new Graphic Novel Review for you all!

Anton's Half-Baked Reviews

Written by: Hypnotoad (talk)

Spring Cleaning

It’s truly disgusting how it’s already most of the way through May; spring cleaning is here and there’s so much to clean, so many rooms, spaces, stuff, things, and all I can do is just keep going as progress is progress, any step forward is one closer to the goal, and every stray review I have half-started and stored to be completed now is another step closer to freshening and refreshing. Clearing out some of my review backlog also helps clear out my fridge and pantry, and it’s all about multitasking and efficiency as I stumble quickly towards busier times.

OLIPOP Barbie Peaches & Cream


When I first saw this at Sprouts in April 2024, apparently released early and accidentally, I thought there must be a mistake, that this is just backstock of product that was expiring soon and they were just pushing out. It was just such a large quantity in their special refrigerated display, connected to a movie that had released in July 2023 and mostly left theaters by the end of September 2023; I guess awards seasons were still on-going with the movie winning Grammys in February 2024 so this easily could’ve been to keep the zeitgeist going for long enough to get more votes, but still felt late with it officially premiering May 14th. What’s actually happening, though, is this not being for the Barbie movie, but for the Barbie doll and Mattel company as a whole, celebrating their 65th anniversary, and keeping the momentum the movie generated to have another pink dream summer.

I can't deny that it looks cute.

This has all kinds of things going for it: vegan, plant powered, gmo-free, gluten-free, paleo, low on sugar, and most critically provides a good amount of fiber. Loaded with several kinds of inulin as part of their OLISMART blend, it promises to help promote digestive health. As with everything, but especially a product that’s marketed as being prebiotic, a sniff test must happen first, which this passes phenomenally as it smells really good. The flavor is mostly accurate, sure does taste like peaches and cream, not even so much like a cream soda but a more vanilla ice cream flavor with a subtle but apparent fresh peach. The various other juices come into play, though, perhaps stronger than they intend, as apricot comes through about as equally; I didn’t see that as much of an issue, but they sure did.

OLIPOP promises to be a guilt-free alternative to regular soda, and a functional beverage that doesn’t compromise flavor, and I can say that the only aspect of its elevated status I felt was the retail price being $2.49 a can; this positive experience is a triumph over the functional everything that will be coming next month.

SmartSweets Barbie Pink Lemonade Dream


The child these dolls belong to was screaming and crying that I was using them until I told her she can have some of the gummies when I was done.

SmartSweets is a candy company that specializes in low sugar copycats of all kinds of other candies, in ways that fascinates me regarding the legal landscape of proprietary shapes and designs. What makes these Smart Sweets smart is significantly less sugar and calories than traditional gummies, and with a decent portion of fiber. Sweetened with Stevia, naturally flavored, plant-based, gluten-free, woman-owned if that’s something that earns your dollar. Paid $3.50 (on sale, originally $3.99) for what was a pretty small-looking 1.8 oz bag of gummies, which felt horrible, but these were displayed right next to the OLIPOP Barbie sodas so I felt obligated. When I opened the package it did have more pieces than I thought it would have based on appearance and general weight of the bag, but still rounded out to only about 20 total.

The gumminess of them is lacking, leaning more a firm stickiness that has me reflexively swallowing them early so as to not rip my crowns out, and cleaving between teeth too easily to get a good chewy experience. The pink lemonade flavor is there, impressively a pink lemonade with subtle berry in there and not just regular lemonade, but only barely, and with the particular texture they have there ends up being a lot less chewing involved that may otherwise bring the flavor out more. I'm definitely seeing these available in more stores, with more shelf space, with TikTok in particular buzzing about them, so there's gotta be SOMETHING there with these and I think it's just that they're simply a healthy alternative that doesn't taste completely disgusting, and if that's the advancements in food science that we're making as we burn through 2024 then I believe our future leans more towards a utopia.

Reese’s Caramel Big Cup


Leave it to me that, as soon as I post a large-scale review that took a year or more to compile and put together, a new item is released that could’ve fit in. In November 2023, mere days after my Complete Reese’s Cup Review in October 2023, Reese’s released their Reese’s Caramel Big Cup, forcing me to buy it and drag this here into the Spring Cleaning review where I’m sure in 8 months I’ll come face-to-face with another release that will have me feeling like I should’ve just waited 5 more years to come out with a full review of them all. But, new year, new me, I’m trying to bring my reviews to be released as close to me trying the stuff as possible, give or take a few months depending on scale and variety, I’m TRYING!

And that’s more than I can say for Reese’s.

What else is left to put in these? Marshmallow? Jam?

I have mixed thoughts on caramel, because there’s always just something off about it: burnt, bitter, makes my mouth feel too dry, makes me feel like my teeth are going to be torn out or crumble into dust, all ends of the spectrum and it’s safer for me to avoid it completely if I intend on leaving with a good feeling, but I can’t deny that a caramel apple is the perfect snack. This left me with apprehension, but also a mix of wonder and hope as it could be any myriad of bad things but can just do something that should be incredibly simple right with having my expectations starting beneath the floor. Runny low-quality caramel that just makes it taste and feel worse. I can feel like they tried going for a buttery and creamy caramel, but cut enough corners with it thinking that the chocolate and peanut butter would cover it up, and it did! The caramel flavor can be easily missed if not for the visual cue of it leaking out and the awkward smell. Like, it’s not BAD bad, but I truly don’t think that the caramel does anything good for it when I can select literally anything else, any other kind of Reese’s, any other kind of candy bar, any of the other caramel ones, and just have just a simply absolutely no reason to ever go back to this. There’s nothing that this one does that pushes it over the edge towards actively desiring it, like how the Reese’s Pretzel Big Cup gave an interesting texture and a noticeably saltier flavor, unless you’re a fan of sticky sugar dripping all over you. Perhaps a more firm caramel would set it apart from the otherwise equally soft peanut butter and chocolate, dark chocolate to mitigate the sweetness

It’s important to point out that Reese’s has made a caramel cup before, to what seems to be similar conclusions of being too sweet, too runny, too unstable, and too prone to that horrific 2005 humor that I struggled to read here. Hershey’s put out a press release that declares this is the “first ever Reese’s Caramel Big Cup”, which sure is technically correct if you’re specifically stating that it’s the Big Cup and not just a Reese’s in general, but that feels a bit manipulative. More proof added to the concept of retiring products and bringing them back later once either people have forgotten to then claim it’s an all new product, or nostalgia has come in to drive sales, and every day I wake up hoping this similar sinister scheme selects Chocolate Peanut Butter Chex Mix next.

Campfire Smores M&Ms


I’ve contemplated having this in a Halloween review this year, last year, would’ve maybe fit the year before if they didn’t only just come out in July 2023, just just had bigger fish to fry and cooler ideas. There’s just something that’s mind-numbing with trying so many M&Ms varieties that I just couldn’t ever do it, just felt so sad, disappointing, deflating, predictable, boring, kinda gross actually, and I’m proud to have discovered that the Campfire Smores M&Ms are exactly that.

If only actual M&Ms housewares looked as good as the candies do.

A milk chocolate center with a toasted marshmallow-flavored white chocolate layer and the classic candy shell, a description found on the website and nowhere to be found on the bag; I’m well past being sick and tired of marshmallow flavor being the go-to for absolutely every holiday theme, just an absolute lack of creativity and whimsy in favor of exploiting a consumer base that is going to buy whatever nonsense you throw at them anyways. I do admit that s’mores is a pretty solid end-of-summer flavor that bodes well with a chocolate candy, but with the context of marshmallow flavoring becoming increasingly common alongside white crème it’s pretty disheartening and disillusioning. Credit where credit is due, it has a nice color scheme that goes well with the rest of my Halloween décor, despite being a summer limited time flavor. The bright orange these have doesn’t really evoke graham crackers the way the 2016 version of their Smores flavor did, but I can’t deny that it’s a more attractive color, and I cannot deny that the primary function of seasonal M&Ms should be to serve as functional ornamentation, but this is just as inedible as the porcelain and fabrics. Just fully tastes awful, and even worse they just don’t taste like s’mores at all. I can’t even figure out how they thought this was reminiscent of s’mores at all as there’s no graham cracker flavor or crunchiness that I figure was the reason they went with crispy M&Ms before, or toasty marshmallow in any sense other than a vague vanilla sweetness and none of that fireside smoke, with chocolate being the sole flagbearer. It’s hard to take a treat that holds power almost entirely in its ritual–sitting fireside, resisting the temptation to use a stick you found in the treeline nearby and begrudgingly using a boring long fork, holding the marshmallows in the fire until they're charred and in flames, smashing the marshmallow onto the graham cracker and chocolate and slamming it shut, burning your hand on everything oozing out while you try to take a lopsided bite as the firm graham cracker fails to snap in the right way leaving you with a larger mouthful and crumbling mess, warmth in both temperature and community filling your soul–this gives you none of that and instead just tastes bad.

I’m extremely concerned about other reviewers out there who claim and believe that these taste exactly like s’mores, because obviously they’ve never had a decent or real s’more in their life and have been lied to by several people.

Ice & Bites Café


Quite literally in the same plaza as Build Your Burger is Ice & Bites Café, a bubble tea and dessert shop situated near UCF that sets itself apart from the other three thousand boba shops in Orlando by being pretty heavily geared towards the K-pop crowd and cutesy mainstream anime culture. Admittedly, in this weird vacation city of entertainment gimmicks this isn’t realllllllly all that unique, but its location being relatively far removed from the tourist centers yet still near large populations of young people places it in a comfortable set of less ostentatious gimmicks and bombastic nature. I intended on including this in the last review along with ‘freakshakes’ as it was one of the first places that came up in my quick search engine adventure, but Ice & Bites actually seemed to be ahead of the fold more than the stupid milkshake places as they remain pretty fresh with their trends–they’re currently hyping up cotton candy affogatos which are only 3 years behind!!

It’s hard to gauge this place as there seems to be no genuine About Us page or any information that says who they are on their pretty poorly built Wix website, which is information you typically don’t think would matter until suddenly it kinda does. The opaqueness relative to their highly-curated Instagram and social media presence feels, dare I say, predatory and capitalistic first and foremost rather than the fun-loving and bright exterior they hope you take pictures of and tag them in. I don’t mean for this to be an accusation of character, rather a judgment of perception and a call for acknowledgment of an aspect of connection and humanity because I shouldn’t have to rely on this guy to provide me with the weakest ‘they’re friendly!’. Maybe just a picture of the crew or management on the website or various social media pages, if not the owners? All I was able to find of any personal connection was this article which states that the co-owner, David, helped found this place to expand foodie options in Orlando. Thank you, Dave, you’re doing a good job, God’s work, and I truly mean that. This whole paragraph feels kinda mean and I thought about deleting it, but I think initial perception is important when building a brand and I just think a little more personality could help.

This would've collapsed if I took my hand away.

What I got here was the Taiyaki, listed as a fish-shaped waffle filled with ice cream. Taiyaki itself is just the fish-shaped pastry commonly filled with red bean paste, custard, chocolate, cheese, and potentially whatever else you may feel like, a Japanese street food similar to a plush and cakey waffle. Taiyaki being used as an ice cream cone is a relatively recent evolution, as more traditionally it is simply served alongside each other, with a restaurant based and located in New York City, TAIYAKI NYC, credited as the ones coming up with this idea and even further as one of the main entities responsible for exporting taiyaki to the United States in the first place. I’m familiar with taiyaki through having tried a frozen grocery store version before where I reconfirmed to myself for the ten thousandth time in my life that I can’t stand the texture of beans in basically any form, as well as through local food trucks that provided me with a more optimal experience of vanilla custard. I support waffles, in general, and believe they should be proliferated into more aspects of all creation, so this is a foodie trend I will happily support. What Ice & Bites offered was the taiyaki filled with whatever ice cream you chose from whatever their available selections were, along with toppings and sauce. Naturally, I went with lavender ice cream, pocky sticks, fruit skewer, and condensed milk. I realize that as I type this out that I am becoming a foul aberration of relatability, but, ever since I had lavender ice cream near Le char d’Apollon in the central park and gardens of Château de Versailles I just get it every time I see it, and what Ice & Bites had did not disappoint.

Excellent lavender flavor: floral, almost grassy, airy, muted, gently sweet and fruit. Very well could’ve just been a bulk mix as there’s no sign that it’s homemade or that this is a very large and intricate operation, but whatever it is was good. The condensed milk drizzle added the exact milky sweet flavor I like to have, especially pairing with a floral like lavender, which might honestly be my actual most favorite flavor pairing above chocolate and peanut butter. The fruit skewer was minimal and warm, would’ve been much better if it was chilled, and only two Pocky sticks which I guess is fine, but maybe a third would’ve been good. The worker did seem sorta nervous letting me know that having all that stuffed into a freshly-made taiyaki would have a bit of a wait, but it wasn’t too long and receiving a fresh one rather than one from storage had phenomenal results. The tail ends were crispy and caramelized, while the body that held the ice cream was warm and doughy, just an absolute perfect texture and combination. Overall it was a bit difficult to eat. Initially placed it into a cup, but the whole thing was too top-heavy with no real foot or balance to keep it upright. Once I was able to work away at enough of the top with the cute little spoon they provide, I was able to grab the fish like a cone, with keen awareness that condensed milk drizzle is all over it. Nowhere near as messy as it could’ve been, though, and it was just so simply delicious and fun to have that having to grab some extra napkins ends up being of no concern at all.

Fresh ingredients in a simple setting goes extremely far in terms of lasting impression of quality and favorability. This may not be an everyday indulgence, or even weekly, but I had a good time there by myself, and will be returning there again likely a week from this issue’s release for a cute date that I’m already smiling about.

The 'Shroom: Issue 206
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