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.
It feels crazy to write this; but until Mario Kart 8 Deluxe came along this weekend, a Nintendo game hadn't topped the UK bestseller charts since 2011. Not even the mighty Breath of the Wild, which followed on the heels of Horizon Zero Dawn, managed that feat.
That Mario Kart 8 Deluxe should be the one to finally break through is something of a surprise given that it's a barely-changed port of a three-year-old game. It's even more surprising in light of the fact that it sold some 8 million units worldwide the first time around, and that it had a greater than 50 percent attach rate to the Wii U. Clearly, a lot of people are double-dipping.
But then again, Mario Kart 8 is a really good game—maybe the best in the series—and plenty of new Switch owners missed out on the initial release. Mario Kart is also one of those evergreen franchises: it's a party game that manages to feel fresh no matter how many times it goes back to the proverbial well.
But perhaps most importantly, everything feels new and interesting on the Switch right now. Some of that is the fact that it's a novel new platform, but a lot more of it is the fact that Nintendo has finally nailed what Sony spent two successive handhelds trying to create: a a true portable console. And it makes everything feel kind of great.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is just the latest proof of concept in that regard. All weekend on Twitter, I saw people gushing about how they were bringing it to their friend's house and playing it with the JoyCons, just like in the commercials. Former USG boss Jeremy Parish wrote, "[A]fter the initial two minutes of setup (and once I laid down the law about placing the screen in between players, to be fair to everyone), MK8D remained in active use for the rest of the night. We started off with standard races, but once the younger kids with the shorter attention spans wandered off to find other amusements, the two older teens switched over to battle mode for the remainder of the evening."
He continued, "It's not difficult to imagine extending this use case to dozens of other games on Switch. Instant-match fighting games? Infuriating New Super Mario Switch multiplayer sessions? Cooperative Contra III on Virtual Console? Sign me up, for all the above."
That, ultimately, is why the Switch works as well as it does. It's a portable system, but it's not an isolating experience that requires multiple handhelds just to play a round of Monster Hunter or Mario Kart. That it can be plugged into a television makes it feel less limiting as well. In all, it significantly lowers the barrier to entry that most consoles suffer from, never feeling like too much of a hassle to simply pick up and play.
Over the weekend, I toted my Switch to a local coffee shop, indulging in a few quick runs while waiting for lunch. Like Zelda, Mario Kart 8 gives you those quick, satisfying hits of self-contained gameplay, but they're even more discrete owing to the fact that they're on individual tracks. I was even able to connect to the coffee shop wi-fi to access the online features, though I didn't do any multiplayer racing (that's something I'd probably reserve for my TV... and a better wi-fi signal).
Obviously, this isn't the first time that I've played a portable Mario Kart. The history of Mario Kart on handheld stretches back to the GBA, and continues through iterations on the Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS. But Mario Kart 8 Deluxe manages to feel "bigger" than either of those iterations by simple virtue that I have the option to play it on my TV. I'm always a little leery of calling a handheld game "compromised" since many of my very favorite games are on portable systems, but the seamlessness of it all does make a huge difference.
It's funny to think of how far we've come since 2005, when the PSP first tried to offer a true console-style handheld experience. I remember walking into a Best Buy when the PSP launched and trying out Twisted Metal, and subsequently being disappointed by the dark screen, muddy textures, and worst of all, long load times. It felt like the very antithesis of the portable experience, and while the PSP definitely got better with time, it never really lived up to its promise of "PS2 quality gaming on the go." Playing "console quality" games like Resistance and Assassin's Creed on platforms like the Vita and the PSP always felt a little bit wrong, like they were being forced on a system where they didn't belong. I eventually learned to avoid portable ports of major franchises like the plague.
By contrast, the Switch has thus far managed to walk that line admirably. It benefits enormously from its huge, attractive screen—which makes triple-A and retro games alike look great—and the fact that it feels more like a tablet with buttons than a dedicated handheld like the Vita and the 3DS. As I mentioned earlier, its ability to be seamlessly plugged into a television is another major plus. I worried at first that the Switch would make both handheld and console games feel severely compromised; but thus far, the concept has worked out brilliantly. Of course, we'll see how things are looking in a couple years as console technology continues to race ahead and the Switch feels increasingly dated, but it's looking good so far.
In the meantime, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is one more example of why the Switch seems to have struck a chord with the general gaming populace. It can even make a three-year-old game feel brand new.
Kat's Obscure RPG of the Week
The Sega Genesis doesn't get as much credit as the SNES for its RPGs, but it had its share, Phantasy Star chief among them. One of the more overlooked of these is Landstalker—an isometric action RPG by Climax Entertainment, the same company that worked on the original Shining Force. Landstalker is an isometric action RPG starring Nigel the Treasure Hunter, whose main goal is to... you guessed it... hunt treasure.
Landstalker stands out from a lot of other Genesis fare with detailed, cartoony sprites in the vein of what you might find on the SNES, and a bright (though not that memorable) sountrack to match. Its action primarily takes place in its lengthy dungeons, where you slay enemies, hop across chasms, and search for loot. It's not much more than a curiosity these days, not the least because of its awkward controls, but its pedigree and attractive graphics make it worth remembering. It's just a shame they didn't keep the bath scene in the western version.
As for its (sort of) sequel Lady Stalker, that's a discussion for another article...
Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Mario Kart 8's Remix of the N64's Rainbow Road Theme
Nothing gets your blood pumping like a Mario Kart Rainbow Road theme. The series always saves its best tunes for that very last push, that final test of skill, speed, and steering.
I imagine Lakitu experiences a Pavlovian reaction when he hears the first jaunty chords of a Rainbow Road theme, though. Namely, he sighs, reaches for his fishing pole, and steels himself for a long day of hauling careless racers out of the depths of oblivion.
Sucks for Lakitu, but his suffering won't ruin my fun. It's hard to choose a favorite amongst the Rainbow Road themes, but I'm very fond of the Mario Kart 8 remix of Rainbow Road for the N64. So much brass and bass.
Second place goes to Mario Kart 7's remix of Rainbow Road for the SNES. Our very first trip around Rainbow Road was pretty memorable, wasn't it? All those pretty, flashing colors. All those barrier-free drops into blackness. All those angry Thwomps.
Mike's Media Minute
Hey, STARZ premiered the first episode of American Gods last night! The show is based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, focusing on the return of the old gods and their oncoming war against the new gods. Ricky Whittle stars as bruiser and con man Shadow Moon, while Ian McShane continues to kill it as the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. Honestly, the entire cast is on point.
The show is visually stunning as well, care of executive producer and showrunner Bryan Fuller. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Fuller has been involved with other very pretty cult favorite shows, including Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Hannibal. Given that pedigree, American Gods will be very good, shot very well, and cancelled within another season…
It's worth a watch, but I do wonder if the first episode errs a bit too much on delivering fanservice to novel fans and not enough on actually letting the uninitiated know what's going on. I guess we'll see, won't we?
Caty’s AltGame Corner
Ghost Hospital is a RPG that puts you into the most unfortunate circumstances. Here you are, a 12-year-old living human being, trapped in a hospital for ghosts. And your anxiety disorder just seems to make everything worse. Ghost Hospital is simultaneously eerie and charming—think like Undertale, but in a ghastly, brightly hued hospital. Along the way you make friends: another ghost around your age and Sarcastic Ghost, a blob-like ghost who “talks a lot despite not having a mouth.” Ghost Hospital is still in development, but its current demo is downloadable on itch.io for free on PC, Mac, and Linux.
Stray Thoughts on the News
- Heroes of the Storm kicked off its big HotS 2.0 event last week, dragging me and a host of Overwatch players over to Blizzard's MOBA for the first time in a while. The game is much the same as before, albeit with new maps and characters, but the way that it awards loot is totally different. Now skins, lines of dialogue, and even actual characters can be found in Overwatch-style loot boxes, which are earned by reaching varying milestones. It also features a match MVP after every game; though, sadly, no Player of the Game.
Overwatch has been derided for its lack of depth compared to its nearest competitors, but I think it deserves more love than it gets. Like most Blizzard games, Overwatch is notably easier to engage with than its peers, and its unique map objectives keep games fresh and interesting. Also like most Blizzard games, it gets much more complex at high levels, as the maps figure heavily into who gets drafted and who gets banned.
But what really stuck out to me this weekend was how much more positive the HotS community was than, say, the Hearthstone community. People seemed genuinely pumped to get an infusion of fresh blood, and there was lots of talk about evangelizing it to newcomers. That's a sign of both a healthy game and a healthy community; and indeed, the roster is arguably the most balanced it's ever been. So even if you're just dropping in to get your Overwatch skin, stick around. You may be surprised to find that Heroes of the Storm is actually a pretty great game on its own merits.
- Today is the 15th anniversary of Morrowind, which many Elder Scrolls fans tout as the best game in the series. It has the best writing, a great setting, and some of the deepest gameplay Elder Scrolls has to offer. When Elder Scrolls fans argue about the relative merits of Skyrim, it's almost always in relation to Morrowind. So Nadia has a modest proposal: Put Morrowind Remastered on the Switch instead of Skyrim. Seriously, we've all played Skyrim by now. It's time for Morrowind to get the mainstream attention it deserves.
- So... Prey. It's out this week, and no one quite seems to know what to make of it. It's been compared to BioShock, it's been touted as a successor to System Shock, and some have even called it a Metroidvania. It's not a game you can easily condense into a sound bite, which is pretty cool, but is maybe to its detriment. It's not being helped by the fact that Bethesda is once again withholding review copies at launch. Something tells me that it's going to slip between the cracks, perhaps unjustly. But I'd be interested to know if you're planning on picking it up at launch.
- Caty on Nintendo's Uniqlo t-shirt contest: "All those shirts are so good. I'm gonna go bankrupt." Amen, sister.
- I'm not one to share my dreams, but I suppose this one is relevant to my job. Over the weekend, I had a vivid dream of standing in line waiting for a SNES Classic, only to miss out on it at the last minute. I was so frustrated and angry, and I have no idea why. All I know is that I'm probably never going to own an NES Classic, and that annoys me to no end. It's amazing the hold these gimmicky little releases can have on us.
- Last week was also the 25th anniversary of the Kirby series, which we celebrated by ranking all of the games to date. As usual, fans had strong opinions in the comments, particularly on the subject of Kirby Superstar, which they touted as the best in the series. Personally, I think Kirby's Adventure is the best of them, and it isn't close. But perhaps you have a different opinion. In any case, check it out.
- Here's a thing: Mad Max was evidently one of 2015's most underrated games. Who knew?
- Axe of the Blood God: In last week's episode of the RPG podcast, Nadia and I dove deep into dungeons, which we apparently had not done to this point. It was a really fun episode! With the steady churn of RPGs slowing down for the summer, Nadia and I are going to get the chance to roll up our sleeves a bit more and really delve into what makes RPGs tick. I hope you'll join us.
- Another busy week is on the way at USgamer. As always, let us know what you've been playing, and what you're looking forward to over the course of the week!