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 more.
One of the curses of playing games for a living is that after a while you can't help losing the sense of wonder that brought you to the hobby in the first place.
When you know how the digital sausage is made, even amazing setpieces and gigantic open worlds can start to feel rather plain. It's both a consequence of getting older and having a view behind the curtain.
It's a perspective that makes experiences like Super Mario Odyssey, which launched last Friday, all the more special. It's a game simply loaded with fun and interesting surprises. Indeed, in a letter to reviewers, Yoshiaki Koizumi and Kenta Motokura, who served as the producer and director respectively of Mario Odyssey, said that their main overarching theme was "surprise."
"Throughout development on the game, we imagined the look of surprise players will have when they actually come to play," they wrote. "A major element that players can enjoy in this game is finding Power Moons and we feel it's important that we leave players the surprise of stumbling across them for the first time."
Finding a Power Moon is indeed a surprising and delightful experience. You'll find them absolutely everywhere in Mario Odyssey: behind walls, on distant islands, in places you would never expect. Often you have to think outside of the box to get them. This tweet from over the weekend really stuck out to me:
Nintendo's new philosophy seems to be that players can and WILL break your game, and should be rewarded in full.https://t.co/m9PUHYUuH7— Dominic Tarason (@dominictarason) October 29, 2017
It's an approach that Nintendo took with Breath of the Wild as well. Both are seemingly intent on testing the bounds of possibility while dotting their respective landscapes with tons of delightful easter eggs. It's a refreshing sight in a medium that can often feel rigid and mechanical in its quest to duplicate summer blockbusters (or get you to spend as much money as possible).
Another element that Mario Odyssey gets right is its sense of pure wonder. I felt it when I stepped into the Cap Kingdom for the first time and gazed upon a world reminiscent of the magical classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. Its grey landscape and massive, almost intimidating moon were immediately memorable, as were the sad cap people inhabiting it.
My favorite part, though, was when I became a surge of electrical energy and set off toward the horizon, where the dim outline of a cityscape awaited. I immediately wanted to know what lay beyond, and what secrets and delights it would impart.
Not long after, I possessed a T-Rex and used it to bash down a wall. I took control of a frog and leapt an impossible distance to the top of a wall. I wrested away a boss's pet Chain Chomp and bashed her in the face with it. Each new creature was a cool and interesting opportunity to further test my limits, and the limits of the world around me.
It's extremely difficult to impart that sense of wonder without feeling contrived or forced, which is what makes Nintendo's recent efforts so remarkable. Both Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey carry with them the sense that there's something new and interesting over every hill and around every corner. They restore that childlike sense of wonder and delight that is so fundamental to a truly memorable interactive experience.
I treasure this sense of wonder. It's the same sense of wonder I felt upon stepping out of the vault for the first time in Fallout 3. It's what I felt upon entering the violent and mysterious world of Dark Souls. It's the kind of emotion that requires a certain mastery to evoke, whether its artistic or technical. The games I just listed have it, and so does Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild.
It's a relief, to be honest. With games having now reached a point of diminishing returns from a technical standpoint, the sense of novelty that fueled previous generations has become much more rare. As games have become more expensive, they've also become more formulaic and less daring.
But between Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey, Nier Automata, and even Destiny 2, I've had the chance to have my sense of wonder rekinkled many times over this year. It's a reminder of why I fell in love with games in the first place, and what keeps me marching on after close to a decade in the press.
I can't wait to play more.
Looking Ahead to the Rest of the Week
After last week's insane release schedule, things have calmed down a tiny bit. But now too much. Here's what you should be keeping an eye on this week.
- Paris Games Week: Sony dropped a number of announcements and trailers over their Paris Games Week event, most notably Ghost of Tsushima-the latest game from Sucker Punch. Make sure you check out all the trailers, because there are some real doozies in there.
- Call of Duty: WW2: Sledgehammer's latest brings the series back to its World War II roots, with all the trappings you expect from a Call of Duty game, zombie mode included. We're gonna be a little late to the party on this one, I'm afraid, as we've been disinvited from Call of Duty's review events for the past few years. Look for some initial thoughts on Friday, followed by a full review the following week.
- Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back: Yes, this is still coming out for some reason. In fact, it will be out tomorrow on PS4 and PC. And we're streaming it! Be afraid. Be very afraid.
- Summon Night 6: Lost Borders: The second ever Summon Night to be translated into English releases tomorrow on PlayStation 4 and Vita courtesy of Gaijinworks. While this little gem of a visual novel/tactical RPG has mostly flown under the radar, it has a loyal cult following. Alas, we don't have the bandwidth to review it, but check out Axe of the Blood God on Friday for our thoughts.
Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: The Wooded Kingdom from Super Mario Odyssey
Nintendo doesn't skimp on the soundtrack for its 3D games, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Makes me wonder why the 2D "New" Super Mario Bros games have been using the same songs since the series' existence, but I guess that's a whole 'noter ball of mustache wax.
I fell in love with Odyssey's Wooded Kingdom / Steam Gardens theme as soon as I heard it. '70s bop and funk isn't something you hear in a video game often, let alone a Super Mario game. Gosh, it's catchy.
It's also a little nostalgic, at least for me. I'm an '80s kid through-and-through, but I still grew up with a lot of '70s music. My parents listened to a lot of it, plus the version of Sesame Street I grew up with was very much steeped in the decade next door to my own. It doesn't get much more '70s than that series of pinball skits that taught us how to count.
Mike's Media Minute
What do I have to talk about this week? Stranger Things Season 2? It was a great season, one that I think in many ways was stronger than the first. Stranger Things pulled off its homages to 80s pop culture and while there's still a lot of this in this season, it feels like the story stands on its own more often than not. Plus, I watched it in glorious 4K HDR on my TV. It was a grand experience.
Really though, this week is mostly biding its time until Thor: Ragnarok comes out. We get Thor, then we get Justice League, and the true Box Office Thunderdome begins. Who wins? Who loses?
To be real, they're not really comparable films. Thor: Ragnarok is Marvel leaning heavily into the comedy for a new film featuring the third most important Avenger. Thor: The Dark World made $644 million worldwide, which is a fine take. If Thor: Ragnarok does around $100 million more, that's Guardians of the Galaxy territory and everyone goes home happy.
On the other hand, Justice League is the cornerstone of the DC Extended Universe. The script was written before the executive rejiggering at Warner Bros, so it represents a middle ground between was the DCEU was and what it will be. Wonder Woman is a hard act to follow critically, but I think if Justice League is average and enjoyable, I think WB will clean up. People really want these characters in good films and even the maligned Batman v Superman still made $873 million.
The trick is Justice League needs more than that to deflect the calls of the DCEU needing an overhaul. Again, WB has already started this process, so it's more of a perception issue than logistics one. We'll see.
Caty's AltGame Corner
A few years ago at the Game Developer's Conference, I attended the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. It's always my favorite panel of the whole conference, a three-or-so hour long event showcasing the experimental projects that independent game developers from around the world are working on. During this particular showing, Iranian developer Mahdi Bahrami was there to show off Engare, the latest game in his growing library.
Bahrami has remained a fixture of the independent gaming scene for the past few years. He was first given an honorable mention at the Independent Games Festival, held during GDC, at age 17 in 2011 for his game Bo. His library, and reputation for creating imaginative puzzle games, has only grown since then. His latest project Engare released on Steam last week on PC and Mac.
Engare is part puzzle game, part drawing tool, all a love letter to geometry and Islamic art. There's puzzles to solve in Engare, but mostly, it's up to the player's imagination to create their own designs and shapes with the tools at hand. Players are also able to export their creations from the game as either images or 3D models. Bahrami's been one of my favorite independent developers to watch over the years, and Engare is proof that he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and remains just as clever as ever. You can try out Engare for yourself on PC and Mac for $6.99.
This Week's News and Notes
- Sony concluded their Paris Games Week keynote by dropping a new trailer for Last of Us 2; and like the original, it didn't spare the gore. The sight of a villain breaking a character's arm with a hammer was disturbing to say the least, recalling one of the most infamous scenes from Misery. Personally, I'm not sure why Naughty Dog decided to go in this direction with their promotion. As Caty pointed out in our Slack Channel, the best moments in the original Last of Us had little to do with violence. So why play it up to such an awful extent?
- On a more positive note, I'm legitimately pumped for Ghost of Tsushima. Sucker Punch is a reputable developer, and the world needs more samurai games. If it lives up to its promise, it will be yet one more high-powered name in Sony's burgeoning stable of exclusives.
- On the occasion of Mortal Kombat's 25th anniversary, Caty took the time to speak with the actors who made it possible. It's a fascinating read that's well worth your time, and offers a glimpse behind the curtain of what was the single hottest gaming franchise of the early '90s.
- Kotaku dropped the full story of why EA decided to kill Visceral and its Star Wars game last week, and it's a fascinating read. While there's plenty of blame to go around, it strikes me as yet another act of self-sabotage on EA's part: the determination to cram another game into the Frostbite Engine; the intense executive meddling; the promise to provide resources followed by their abrupt withdrawal, the clash of cultures between studios. It paints a pretty damning picture of EA's culture, and offers some insight into why games like Mass Effect Andromeda have struggled so mightily. More detailed thoughts here.
- People are already doing crazy things in Mario Odyssey, and I love it.
- Animal Crossing is apparently the least pushy game in the series. That might be the biggest upset of the year.
- And finally, it's Halloween! Do you have your costume all set? Here are some last minute ideas.
As always, we'll be here all week with news, reviews, guides, and commentary. Thank you for supporting USgamer, and good luck finding all those moons.