Starting Screen is the USgamer staff's weekly column. Check back every Monday as we share our thoughts on the news as well as our favorite obscure RPGs, game music, and racing games.
It wasn't until Sunday evening that I finally got around to plugging my Switch into the TV.
To that point, I had been content to tuck myself into bed for my Zelda and Shovel Knight sessions, where my cat would join me to serve as a useful prop for my Switch.
This is pretty much going to be me when I play Switch pic.twitter.com/iqXrmHjKVC— Kat Bailey (@The_Katbot) March 4, 2017
On Saturday, I picked up a copy of Breath of the Wild on the Wii U for my partner, and again retreated to my room to avoid spoilers. I had feared that Zelda wouldn't translate very well to a handheld-style environment, but so far it's been so good that it's been fun to play no matter where I've broken it out. It's especially great for discrete play sessions—the sort that fuels high-quality handheld gaming. I'll just spend some time wandering, clear out a random camp or two, do some cooking, then turn of my Switch for a little while. There's a really low barrier to entry with Zelda that makes it easy to pick up and play at random times.
Playing it on handheld also helps to cover up Zelda's minor technical failings. It's still very stylish and attractive when played on a television, but there's no denying that it's a step down from more advanced fare like Horizon Zero Dawn. By contrast, playing it on a handheld screen invites comparisons to 3DS and Vita, where Zelda fares considerably better.
It also serves to highlight the fact that there haven't been many portable experiences like Zelda on a handheld screen. Monster Hunter is big and beautiful, but its discreet zones and narrow focus make it a very different experience. Xenoblade Chronicles was a noble experiment, but its visuals suffered greatly on the 3DS. Zelda is a fully-sized console experience, a massive world with virtually no boundaries, and it plays wonderfully as a portable game.
In the run-up to the Switch's release, there was quite a bit of chatter about whether it had an identity crisis. Indeed, even in the wake of strong opening weekend sales, it's fair to wonder if there will be a point in the near future where the Switch ends up getting squeezed out by more powerful consoles on one side and tablets on the other. It looks fine now, but what about in a couple years?
These limitations may well prove the Switch's undoing; but in the short-term, Zelda provides a simple, powerful proof of concept for the system. On Sunday, I plugged my Switch into my TV and settled in for some quality time with Zelda and Shovel Knight. When I had to leave later that day, I brought the Switch with me and wound up playing for a couple hours in a coffee shop. In the evening, I tucked in under a blanket and played in my bedroom. Happily, battery life has not been an issue to this point, making it that much easier to tote my system around and play whenever I want.
For me at least, the Switch removes the barriers to entry that tend to keep me from playing my PS4 or Xbox One. It doesn't require me to stay in one place or tie up the TV, and it lets me jump into the game of my choice almost immediately. It lets me play games on my own terms, whether on the TV or on the road, and I kind of love it.
I never would have guessed Zelda would be the game to give me that feeling—I figured it would be too big and too involved—but its design appears to be a master stroke by Nintendo. Even the smaller shrines seem carefully calibrated to offer the sort of bite-sized experience for handheld. If that's what they were going for, then hats off to them, because it works perfectly.
I never want to pass judgment on a console based on one game—heaven knows that the Switch has its problems—but its heartening to see that its core concept works right out of the gate. Fix the problems with the memory and get some more games on it, and Nintendo might have something really special here.
Kat's Obscure RPG of the Week
I actually learned about this one over the weekend. It's called Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru, or "For the Frog the Bell Tolls." It's an RPG developed by Nintendo R&D1 and Intelligent Systems that later served as the basis for Link's Awakening.
For the Frog the Bell Tolls uses the same basic engine as that game, though in many other respects its very different. Among other thing, the main character can transform into a frog and a snake, which affords him various abilities. Battles are also automated, with victory being determined by the protagonist's strength and equipment. Its connection with Zelda is honestly kind of tenuous, but if you watch videos of it, you can see some of the technical similarities.
Sadly, For the Frog the Bell Tolls never made it to America (shocking, I know), but it did make an appearance in Smash Bros. as an assist trophy. Prince Richard, one of the game's main characters, also has a cameo of sorts in Link's Awakening.
Keep sending me your obscure RPGs! Mail me at email@example.com or tweet me at @the_katbot!
Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Night in the Woods' Astral Alley
Between Horizon Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the launch of the Nintendo Switch itself, video games feel very … big right now. The industry is hopping and buzzing, and it's easy for the smaller releases to get lost in the noise.
I implore you, then, not to let Night in the Woods get drowned out. It should only take you a handful of hours to clear, but you'll probably think about it for a long time afterwards.
You'll probably listen to it for a long time afterwards, too. Night in the Woods' composer, Alec Holowka, put together some intense tunes to haunt Mae as she wades through the parallel worlds of her twisted dreams and dying hometown. I still think the Holowka's work helped make Night in the Woods' Kickstarter trailer irresistible. It's one of the best I've seen.
As for the best piece that's actually in the game, that goes out to Astral Alley, the background song for Mae's second dream sequence. While I typically like to share videos of raw sound files as opposed to gameplay footage, Astral Alley's buildup is sublime. For Mae to escape her dream, she has to visit the four musicians that provide its background instrumentation: A violinist, an accordion player, a saxophonist, and a tuba player. Video game soundtracks need more tubas, in my opinion. FUNK ENGINE IGNITE.
Astral Alley compliments Night in the Woods' story and gameplay perfectly. Why is there a perpetual eclipse? Why is the sky flickering with weird lights? Why are four musicians playing for seemingly no-one in this weird dream world that reeks of impending apocalypse?
Some of these questions are answered. Some aren't. Enjoy!
Mike's Media Minute
Logan came out last week, marking the end of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. It's a startling milestone when put in perspective: Jackman has been playing the character since the first X-Men film in 2000. That's 17 years as the same character, through a number of films with some rough, rough quality.
In honor of that milestone, it seems Fox let Jackman and The Wolverine director James Mangold do what they want for the final film. What they wanted was to create an R-rated rough adaptation of Marvel's Old Man Logan, essentially crafting a rough Western tangentially-related to the X-Men franchise. It's great. Logan is a film about family and rediscovering what it means to be hero, without banging either drum too hard. It feels real and quite emotional, if a way many big budget superhero films are not.
Audiences rewarded the film with an $85 million opening weekend domestically and a $237 million worldwide take. Assuming the film has legs, we're about to enter a world where the best X-Men films, critically and financially, will be R-rated solo projects.
I don't think this means that every X-Men film needs to be rated-R, but it does prove that if you actually make a great film, audiences will be there for it. I love superhero action films, but they have to remember to be good films first, good adaptations second. Of course, what Fox may take from this is we all want R-rated superheroes, so…
Caty’s (AltGame) Corner:
Detention, from Taiwanese developers Red Candle Games, is a survival horror game that caught my eye a while ago. It’s set in 1960s Taiwan during the White Terror period—an era where 140,000 citizens were imprisoned and nearly 4,000 were executed for their perceived opposition against the Chinese Nationalist Party’s martial law. The game is a 2D, side-scrolling narrative-driven game that follows two students as they find themselves trapped within a cursed school. The story that unfolds is gripping and heartbreaking.
The game features religious imagery and mythology from Taiwanese culture; a rarity in games that finds itself at home in the game’s eerie atmospheric horror. It’s the type of game where long after you put it down, it stays with you. And it’s easily one of my favorite games of the year thus far. Detention is available on Steam for PC and Mac.
Racing With Jaz
Last week's GDC 2017 had a trio of racing game surprises in store. By far my favorite experience of the show was checking out a demo of Gran Turismo Sport on PS4 Pro. Polyphony's game looks utterly gorgeous in 4K resolution, and playing it proved to be a highly challenging, but thoroughly enjoyable experience. There's still no firm release date as of yet, but I was told that we can expect to see Gran Turismo Sport later on this year. I really hope that's the case, because after playing the game, I'm looking forward to it with immense anticipation.
I also drove a new off-road racing game from Milestone called Gravel. While its audio-visuals are a little on the weak side, the demo was nevertheless fun to play, and seems to have potential. It's basically designed to be a spiritual successor to Sega Rally, and to that end features an accessible and very forgiving handling engine that has a very arcadey feel. The finished product will pack around 50 vehicles, including iconic rally cars, and rally raid trucks and buggies, and five different modes of play. As a big fan of Sega Rally, I'll definitely be keeping my eye on how Gravel develops.
While I was at Milestone's booth, I also played their new Motocross game, MXGP3. It features all the bikes, circuits, and riders from last year's MX GP World Championships, as well as dynamically deformable terrain that changes as the bikes race around the tracks. The handling engine is quite arcadey, but is detailed enough to convey the feeling of different dirt surfaces as you skip over jumps and berms, and try to take advantages of ruts to hustle through corners at speed. Graphically, MXGP3 looks a big step up from last year's iteration, and I really liked the raspy sound of the bikes' two-stroke engines. The game has a US release date of May 30th: Hopefully it'll deliver the goods.
- I alluded to the Switch's issues earlier, but I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't spend more time on them here. Putting aside the well-documented issue with the Joy-Cons, it's pretty ridiculous that save data from the Switch can't be backed up. And that's just one of many questionable decisions on Nintendo's part. As it stands, the Switch's feature set is almost comically barren, making this the softest of soft launches. It's getting reasonably good press now because of Zelda and the sheer novelty of the system, but that won't last for too much longer. Life comes at you fast when you're in the hardware business.
- But seriously... holy crap, Zelda. I know this is a bit of a cheapshot, but Breath of the Wild really is the diametric opposite of Skyward Sword: a beautiful, open-ended game that gets to the point while respecting the intelligence of the player. There are a lot of games that seem fearful that players will grow bored for want of something to do, and so overload their map with shallow quests and dull collect-a-thons. Breath of the Wild is not one of those games. It's so rare that a game just makes me want to wander. What a treat.
- Caty posted some extended thoughts on Nier: Automata today in lieu of a scored review, which should be coming down the line. Nier fans will be happy to hear that she's mainly holding off on scoring it because it has something like twelve endings, some of which are quite... insane? Basically, it sounds like it's every bit as crazy as the original Nier, which my friend Steve referred to as "Frog Fractions Zero" in the most recent episode of our RPG podcast. It's gonna be good.
- Caty is also playing Persona 5 and I'm so jealous. Thank god for Zelda. Then again, Mass Effect Andromeda is just around the corner...
- Sega revealed today that Dawn of War 3 is coming out next month. I actually had a chance to play some multiplayer at GDC last week, and I'm sad to report that I wasn't impressed. The gameplay is mostly decent, following on from the tried and true Company of Heroes model, but the art style legitimately hurts my eyes. They characters have a cartoony look to them—probably to make it more reminiscent of League of Legends—and they blend into the landscape so much that I can barely make them out. It's an ugly, overly busy looking game, and not one I want to spend much time with. It's a shame because Dawn of War 2 was one of my favorite games of the previous generation, and I've been really looking forward to Dawn of War 3. Maybe the full game is better, but it doesn't make a favorable first impression...
- A new Overwatch character reminds me that I need to play Overwatch again. I haven't picked it up since before the first round of new characters were announced, and I feel pitifully behind in the metagame. I'm not looking forward to getting completely rolled.
- Personal Note: Super Robot Wars V finally came in today. I so do not have time to play Super Robot Wars V. Or Chrono Trigger. Or really anything besides Zelda and Mass Effect Andromeda. What a time to be alive.
- Final Question: What are you playing this week? Are you all in on Zelda? Is Horizon Zero Dawn more your jam? Or are you picking through your backlog? Share your thoughts in the comments!