Mini Review Marathon 2021

It’s that time of year again! I really look forward to my Mini Review Marathon. It’s a good writing exercise to try and condense my opinion about a game down to just a paragraph or two. This year I have nine such reviews lined up for all of you!

1. Ultimate NES Remix (Nintendo 3DS)

From the promotional trailers, you’d think that Ultimate NES Remix was this collection of wacky levels just bursting with creativity — I imagined Nintendo designers cracking their knuckles and showing ROM hackers how it’s done. But unfortunately, that’s not exactly what this game amounts to. Ultimate NES Remix feels more like a tutorial for teaching the younger generation how to play NES games. It’s filled with micro-challenges taken from the entire gamut of Nintendo’s most prominent NES lineup. The challenges start with completing basic actions, like jumping over barrels or racing to the finish line. The challenges rise in difficulty, teaching the player more advanced techniques until they see brief snapshots of basically the entire game, from beginning to end. You do see some of those crazy “Remix” levels, like trying to play Donkey Kong as Link, but they’re only a small fraction of what the game offers. I find that teaching people how to approach your legacy content, and then gamifying said lessons, is also an interesting concept all on its own. However, I couldn’t help but feel like the promotional material was a bit misleading. I guess it would’ve been hard to sell a Nintendo game entitled, “NES for Dummies.”

2. Pilotwings Resort (Nintendo 3DS)

Pilotwings Resort is successful in the sense that it actually got me to play through the entire game, something that the other Pilotwings titles haven’t managed to do. It’s a charming flight simulator that takes place on Wuhu Island, the setting for Wii Sports Resort. You have your pick of three different vehicles, each of which have their own challenges to complete. Based on the star rating you get, you unlock more levels and more vehicles. The vehicles have that classic Nintendo attention to detail with their controls and animations. The challenges teach you new ways to use the aircraft. You can also freely roam around the island whenever you wish in Free Flight mode. During Free Flight mode, the game becomes a sort of flight simulator / collectathon hybrid, with plenty of secrets to find. Pilotwings Resort was a highly relaxing game, and I adored the immersive stereoscopic 3D effect. I understand, though, why people weren’t impressed with it as a 3DS launch title. It’s the sort of game that you want to have as a companion to a big-hitter, and that just wasn’t there. Now that it doesn’t have that kind of launch pressure on it, I’d say that Pilotwings Resort is an ideal game to casually play now and then.

3. Pushmo (Nintendo 3DS)

Pushmo is by far the best puzzle game I’ve played on the 3DS. The main mechanic is that you can push and pull blocks in and out to reach a little child in need of rescue at the top. This sounds simple, but the game gets remarkably complex about this one mechanic. You’ll have to do a lot of trial and error, and eventually you’ll need to plan multiple steps in advance in order to successfully make it to the top. The game has over a hundred levels, and each one manages to keep the mechanic interesting. Each one will test you or expand a new concept. My favorites were, of course, the levels based on Nintendo characters, where I’d scale up and down a massive pixelated Piranha Plant or Lakitu. Like most puzzle games, there’s barely any story, though I found the fluffy, sentient, red marshmallow of a main character endearing. I adore the way he waddles around and waves his hands when he falls. I ended up needing walkthroughs of the last 50 levels, but even that didn’t hinder me from enjoying the experience. I didn’t even touch the level editor. A part of me would love to dip my toe into it, though another part of me knows that I don’t have the time to do that.

4. Nano Assault (Nintendo 3DS)

Nano Assault is an odd twin-stick shooter taking place on microscopic cells. You control a little spaceship that eliminates viruses by… shooting them with lasers? I don’t get it, either. The stereoscopic 3D effect creates a clever visual trick, making the graphics seem vastly more detailed than they actually are. Every so often the game switches from its typical top-down view to more of an on-rails shooter, not unlike a Star Fox game. I’ve seen many people complain about the difficulty, though I think in the end I found it rather fair. It’s true that you may see a few Game Over screens. However, the game will adapt its difficulty based on your performance, so if you die a few times it will start to go easy on you, and if you find it not very challenging at first, then it will make sure to change that. Not a bad way to spend a few hours.

5. Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer (Nintendo 3DS)

Not to be confused with the recently-released Animal Crossing: New Horizons Happy Home Paradise. This review is about the first one on the 3DS. This game received quite a few low scores back in 2015, which really surprises me. While Animal Crossing is decidedly a life simulator, Happy Home Designer narrows the scope down to an “Office Worker Simulator.” You clock into work at the Happy Home Academy, where you then take on clients who want their homes remodeled or renovated. Using the 3DS touchscreen you can freely select and manipulate furniture and decorations. This control scheme is so intuitive I wished that the original Animal Crossing: New Leaf had the feature. The game doesn’t have any sort of challenge to this mechanic — you just remodel homes as you like. Eventually Isabelle hires you to remodel some buildings in town as well. It’s very similar to the Happy Home Paradise DLC. I liked the game, albeit the game never deviates from its repetitive structure. It was a relaxing change of pace from the tough-as-nails games I had played during the summer and fall, like Dark Souls and Metroid Dread.

6. Killzone Mercenary (PlayStation Vita)

I’m not familiar with the Killzone series, so I didn’t have much of a frame of reference when I picked up this game. All I knew was that the PS Vita community lauded it as one of the best games on the system, and I wanted to give it a fair chance, even though it was a First Person Shooter. Visually, it’s certainly one of the most impressive-looking AAA games on the handheld, but I feel like the game is more style than substance. You play as a mercenary in the Killzone universe, playing both sides of two warring factions. Every enemy you bonk earns you money, which you can then use to buy more weapons and gear. The controls work well, and thankfully the game supports gyro aiming. There’s an interesting “interrogate” mechanic where you can earn extra cash by not killing a handful of important enemies, though if you’re going to do it successfully you need to save this enemy for last. Outside of this simplistic interrogation system, though, Killzone: Mercenary covers the ground of other FPS games, and doesn’t stand out in any particular way. You have a standard set of weapons, a standard set of moves, and a standard set of missions. The stealth sections were rather clumsy; I could do without those. The story could have done a lot more interesting things with the concept of a gun-for-hire that is loyal to neither side, but it was still an entertaining popcorn plot. It was fine, but I think there are much better games on the Vita.

7. Panzer Dragoon Remake (Nintendo Switch)

I had a strong Star Fox itch this year, and thankfully I discovered a wonderful series that helped me scratch it. Panzer Dragoon: Remake is just that — a remake of an old Sega Saturn game of the same name. It’s an on-rails shooter where instead of flying a spaceship, you’re riding on a dragon. While the Arwing is built for fast-paced dodging, the controls in Panzer Dragoon: Remake are more methodical and slow. The biggest difference is that you can swivel your character to aim left, right, and even behind your dragon. Enemies will attack you from all sides, so you need to stay alert and watch every side of your dragon. Bosses will also typically pan from one side to the other. This one mechanic helps add a strong sense of immersion — you have to take in the 3D space around you. The soundtrack is beautiful. I had to double-check my research to make sure that Joe Hishaishi (the composer for Studio Ghibli) didn’t actually work on it. While the story itself is bare-bones, the levels are staged so well that it kicked my curiosity into high gear about the lore. Where did these ruins come from? Why is the empire seeking dragons? It gave me flashbacks to Nausicaa: Of the Valley of the Wind, where I just wanted to learn as much about this world as I could.

The setback to Panzer Dragoon is that, unlike Star Fox, there are no alternating routes. You have 6 levels set along a single linear path. The game can get pretty difficult as well, so if you’re unfamiliar with on-rails shooters, I’d recommend starting on the easiest difficulty. The game fully embraces its arcade roots; you even have credits. It’s also a short game. It’ll probably only take you an hour or two to complete all 6 levels; it’s basically designed to be played in one sitting. Its biggest appeal, though, is starting over, memorizing the layout, and getting an even better score. The sense of mastery you can feel from this game gives it a lot of replayability. If you’re a stickler for dollars-vs.-gametime, I’d suggest getting it when it’s on sale. This game single-handedly convinced me to look up the Sega Saturn and learn about its history of mostly-forgotten games, and now I’ve dived down a rabbit hole of old Sega Saturn games. The original Panzer Dragoon is great as well. In fact, there is a whole series that will hopefully get the remake treatment as well.

8. Graceful Explosion Machine (Nintendo Switch)

Graceful Explosion Machine is a delightful indie game that was released only a month after the Nintendo Switch launched. It’s a 2D shooter that takes inspiration from the old arcade shoot-em-ups and expands the concepts. It still retains its arcade roots, but instead of simply flying through a level from start to end, you endure waves of enemies as they assault you. As the title suggests, the game pops with color with every enemy explosion. You have 4 different weapons and a dash move. I liked the sword beam the most, but every weapon felt good to use. The game shines the most when you have mastered the controls and know exactly what weapon to use when. You’ll be dodging, shooting, dashing, firing missiles, all in a flashing Christmas lights display of laser blasts. Like Panzer Dragoon: Remake, you can replay levels and reach for a higher score, which becomes quite satisfying to do. I don’t typically like high score games, but the feel and core gameplay is so good, I wanted something more to do after completing the campaign, and chasing high scores was just the right goal to convince me to keep playing. While I like the world and immersion of Panzer Dragoon: Remake, the actual gameplay and shooting of Graceful Explosion Machine feels more satisfying. It’s the perfect Switch game to play in brief, 5 to 10 minute sessions at a time or right at the end of the day to help unwind.

9. Toem (PC)

Toem is an isometric, open-ended Pokemon Snap. You control an adorable little guy with an adorable little camera walking around adorable dioramas and taking pictures of dozens of adorable things. You progress by completing tasks for people in each level. Usually they want a picture of something, or they need your help by lending your first-person viewing skills. The level design is actually brilliant; it operates by gatekeeping certain areas of a level, offering just enough nonlinearity and “key unlocking door” mechanics to remind me of a Zelda dungeon or a Metroidvania. Once you complete enough tasks you can access the next area. You explore a summer campsite, a tourist beach town, a bustling metropolis, and a serene mountainside. No single mechanic is ground-breaking on its own, but they combine well together and feel good to execute. I can’t get enough of the silly Swedish-chef voices, the humorous writing, and the cartoony character designs. I just adore Toem.

And that’s the end of our Mini Review Marathon! As always, this will be my last post of the year. I will be taking a break for the holidays and return in January with my personal game awards and lots of other new things to write about. Thank you for being with me throughout this year. Thank you for reading, for commenting, and for liking. I really appreciate you!

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