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Gamebox 2.0: Games of November 2019

As we get into the holiday season, November was a busy time for new releases. We pitted the Mario and Sonic universes against each other in various sports in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, reunited with AiAi and the gang in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD, busted down doors to take down bad guys in Door Kickers Action Squad, explored the heavy metal horrors of Valfaris and more.

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (Zach): Arriving earlier this month on the Nintendo Switch, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is the latest sports party game where the rosters from Nintendo and Sega’s biggest franchises compete in various events, obviously this time around based around next summer’s Olympics in Tokyo.  The biggest additions for this entry in the series is a story mode where Mario, Sonic, Bowser, and Eggman are sucked into a retro game console called the Tokyo 64 and have to compete in retro style events to escape while Luigi and friends like Daisy, Amy, Tails, and Silver try to figure out how to get Mario and Sonic back into the real world.

The addition of a story mode is welcome for gamers who can’t get a group of friends together but the main issue is that there is way too much downtime.  There are interminable dialogue sequences between each event and the events are so short that it almost turns into a visual novel instead of a sports party game.  You travel between various real-life locations in Tokyo and they are all fun to wander around in and there are trivia questions that pop-up related to the history of the Olympics and the characters in the game but that also makes it feel kind of like a weird spiritual successor to the Mario is Missing/Mario’s Time Machine games.  The story mode should stick around but it definitely needs to be trimmed in the next game in the series.

The other big new addition is the retro events and those are fantastically implemented with the Nintendo characters reverting to NES versions of themselves while the Sega characters transform back into their Genesis models.  The events in this style play like classics like Track and Field and it’s a great way to change things up from the more modern versions of the sports in the game.  Some events are not translated into the retro style but the events that are in that style look and play great, even though most of them boil down to button mashing.  The retro events are available to compete against friends both online and locally along with all the events in the modern style and you also unlock mini-games by playing the story mode.

There are also “Dream” events that are more party game style, with things like a downhill race or a battle royale karate battle.  If you’ve played any of the other Mario & Sonic games, you should have a feel for how most of the events play.  None of them are very complicated and a lot of them are either hitting buttons at certain times or mashing to run.  Some of them like Fencing and Boxing seem like they might require a bit more nuanced but even those can boil down to just mashing your way through.  Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games 2020 is a solid party game that should please fans of games like Mario Party but if you don’t have a lot of people that you can gather and play locally, you might want to wait or pass, as the single-player options are not the best and there’s not a lot of depth to the various events to make them worth devoting a lot of solo time to.

(Chris) The Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series take the fan-favorite characters from Nintendo and Sega and has them compete in real-life Olympic events. In this latest entry, Mario, Sonic, and friends are getting ready to compete for medals in Japan but Browser and Eggman have a new scheme to trick the heroes. When a mysterious game console sucks up Mario, Sonic, Bowser, and Eggman, the video game athletes find themselves in a digitalized version of the Tokyo Olympic games of 1964! The present and the past collide and only the best can get the gold and a way back home!

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 has a revamp story mode to bring in some classic graphics and gameplay from the retro age. The game is not only in 3D models and third-person views, but there are also 2D sprites and old school sports mini-games too. The story mode gives a decent single-player experience to get familiar with most of the competitions, and the AI isn’t too difficult to go against. The pacing is a bit slow and drags on a bit with a surprising amount of dialogue in-between sports events. Cutscenes can’t be skipped and it really adds a toll when trying to redo failed events. However, it’s a fun attempt to offer an engaging story, but it can get tedious at multiple points.

There’s a healthy offering of events to play, each with some interesting designs. Since this a sports focus game, much of the gameplay uses skill rather than luck like a party game. It’s not all just mashing buttons and hoping for the best. Tho, a few of the games give the fast-twitch gamer the advantage. There’s a great use of retro aesthetics in the 2D events. Sprites from  Sonic and Mario games make appearances and the sound effects have a great fuzzy tone to them to bring back the nostalgia.

The Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games manages to stay very refine against other sports titles, even when it’s still a bit whacky to see Sonic and Mario perform judo moves. Overall, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is a great title for fans of the classic look and feel of retro games. This game is perfect for gamers to throw on with friends for a quick match or get into a fiercely competitive match. The presentation of the game comes from developers that care about the history of both franchises, and it comes together very nicely.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD (Zach): Originally hitting the Wii in 2006, AiAi and the gang are back on Switch, PS4 and Xbox One (and later this year on Steam) with the HD remaster of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz.  The game features the classic single-player Super Monkey Ball gameplay as you make your through various courses by tilting the course to guide your chosen monkey to the goal.  Things ramp up pretty quickly from the first stage, which is just rolling straight to goal, and getting into twisting ledges with no guard ramps, moving platforms, big ramps and more along with facing off occasionally with bosses.  Each of the monkeys as their strength and weaknesses and you can also play as Sonic this time around as well.

The single-player mode is the main bulk of the game as there are 100 levels to conquer but the mini-games also return and this time around there’s a new game mode called Decathalon that has you playing through 10 of them to try and earn the highest score on the online leaderboards.  The only issue with that is that some of the mini-games are terrible and frustrating, like Hovercraft Racing or Monkey Slingshot, but classics like Monkey Target still hold up.  There are also online leaderboards for the Time Attack mode.  If you played Banana Blitz back in 2006, there’s not too much new here but if it’s been a while since you’ve played a Super Monkey Ball game or you’ve never played one, Banana Blitz is a fun, arcadey platformer(?) that especially perfect on the Switch, as you can do a few levels wherever you happen to be.

Valfaris (Zach): Coming from developer Steel Mantis and publisher Big Sugar, Valfaris is the follow-up to the brutal, metal action game Slain: Back from Hell and is even more brutal and metal than that cult hit.  You play as Therion, who returns to his home of Valfaris, a massive fortress that orbits a dying sun, to try and destroy the evil that has turned the once beautiful paradise into a twisted nightmare.  There are all kinds of horrific foes populating the various environments of Valfaris but luckily Therion has a massive arsenal of weaponry to take them down, including various swords and other melee weapons, a plasma pistol and bigger guns like a chain gun and shotgun.  The game is not for the faint of heart, both because of the brutal landscapes and violence but also because of the difficulty and gameplay mechanics you need to master.  Therion has a shield that can block and capture projectiles if timed right but that uses energy which has to be refilled by meleeing enemies.  This results in a balance of taking enemies out safely from a distance but not gaining any energy to moving in and taking them out with your melee weapon, which could cause you to take some hits.  Your bigger weapons also use the same energy as your shield so you have to figure out the best time to use every tool at your disposal.

There’s also a sort of Shovel Knightesque checkpoint system where you can collect gems that activate various checkpoint stations around Valfaris but the more of the gems you carry, the more life and energy you have.  You have to decide if you think you can skip a checkpoint and keep your higher health and energy at the risk of dying and being thrown farther back in the level.  The game looks stunning, with a beautifully grotesque world and enemies and the action is silky smooth and tight.  There are some massive bosses to deal with and they all look great and horrifying as well and the whole game is driven by a devil horn worthy metal soundtrack from Curt Victor Bryant, who is the former guitarist for Celtic Frost.  If you can manage to beat the game once through, there’s a “Full Metal Mode” that is a New Game+ mode that increases the difficulty but lets you keep all your weapons and their upgrades.  The game is out on all consoles and PC and if you are looking for a gorgeous, hardcore 2D platformer, Valfaris is a must-play.

Deemo -Reborn- (Chris) When a little girl falls into a dark and fantastical realm, she befriends a quiet creature name Deemo, and together help each other escape a mysterious castle tower. Rayark Inc. and UNTIES and bring an expansive edition of the Deemo title in Deemo -Reborn-. The original Deemo came out as a mobile title that was portered to other consoles with a few updates. Deemo -Reborn- is a Playstation 4 exclusive with the returning gameplay, featuring a reimagined story mode and VR support.

In the story mode, players take control of the unnamed little girl, who suffers from amnesia and must discover her past and how she ended in locked in the tower. She comes across the piano playing Deemo, who silently guides her. By finding and playing songs on the piano, the tower unlocks new pathways and reveals more the strange world.

The musical gameplay of Deemo -Reborn– follows a track set of notes, simplified to mimic piano playing and with quick tapping mechanics. The game offers some different mechanics depending on how you play the game. Playing in standard mode with a regular controller, there are six buttons to use on the control, with the twin sticks helping for special notes. In VR mode, the game uses the PS move controllers, where the player moves their virtual hands to tap along on a small piano setup. Each song has three difficulty levels and changes the number of notes. It takes about a song or two to get hang of the gameplay, and maybe the first act of the game to start increasing the difficulty.

There are puzzle-solving selections that have the player explore the castle for clues. Solving puzzles helps the little girl find more music to play and progress the story along. There are differences in approaching the puzzles based on standard and VR modes, but only effects perspective and ease of selecting puzzle pieces.

-Reborn- is a fun and relaxing title that has great music and a charming story mode. The fantasy elements of the story match well with the music and the adventure gameplay helps break up marathoning the musical selections. This console version is a great remake that keeps the spirit of the original title and brings together new elements to deliver a fun experience.

Timebreak 2121 (Zach): Out now on Steam from ACRAM Studios LLC, Timebreak 2121 is a shooter that flips Superhot‘s core conceit around so that time only moves if you stop moving.  In Superhot, time only moves when you move but Timebreak‘s simple change gives it a completely different vibe than Superhot.  Instead of letting you wait and plan your moves, Timebreak 2121 forces you to be in constant motion and quickly line up shots while dodging enemy fire.  If you stop, the enemies and bullets move in real-time and you will most likely be dead.  There’s not really much of a story to Timebreak 2121, you seem to be possibly some sort of robotic test subject who escapes a lab and is fighting the forces of the evil corporation that made you (maybe?).  The game is really about beating each level in the fastest time possible and there are various objectives you’ll have to complete based on the level.  Some will have you clearing out every enemy while some are just about navigating obstacles to get to the end.  The latter has some interesting mechanics where there are things like lasers that are too fast to dodge if you stop but if you keep moving, they slow down enough to get past.

Some levels also give you a limited amount of ammo in your weapon, so you have to figure out, usually through trial and error, which enemies to shoot and which to take out with your knife.  The game has one-hit deaths, so if you screw up, it’s reset time.  Luckily the reset is instant, so you can definitely get into a “one more level” mindset and play well past what you were expecting to.  The game has a cool but somewhat generic dystopian future look and a great synthwave soundtrack and it’s definitely trying to go for a sort of retro 80s sci-fi movie vibe but also kind of reminded me a bit of something like the world in something like Observer.  If you’ve conquered Superhot and are looking for something similar Timebreak 2121 is worth checking out and definitely does something different with a simple flip of the central mechanic.

Polyroll (Zach): Available on Switch, Steam, and itch.io, Polyroll is a retro-style platformer from HOF Studios that feels like a lost classic from the 16-bit era.  You play as the titular Polyroll, a bug who must rescue his kidnapped friends.  Polyroll can turn himself into a ball and also can do a Sonicesque charge to launch himself off ramps and up poles.  The whole game has a very Sonic-like vibe but with a slightly more simple graphical style.

You make your through various themed worlds and battle a boss at the end of each world.  The bosses are fun and require different tactics.  One might have you bouncing off enemies to hit them while they are flying around while another requires you to constantly climb conveyor belts and platforms to keep up with them so you can hit them.  The game controls great and Polyroll has a bunch of different abilities to make his way around the levels.  You can also pick up Sonicesque shields that protect you from a hit but also have different abilities, like dropping bombs or being able to walk on spikes.  A lot of times, a certain shield plus use of Poly’s abilities will let you find a completely new path through the level or a secret area that has one of three big gems that are hidden in each level.  Collecting enough gems will let you access new areas on the world map.  If someone said this game came out on the 90s on the Genesis, you would most likely not question it and it’s well worth checking out for fans of retro platformers and the 16-bit era.

Door Kickers Action Squad (Zach): Coming from developer Killhouse Games, Door Kickers Action Squad is an awesome action game that seems to be heavily inspired by 80s action movies and cop shows.  You play as a member of an elite SWAT team that gets dispatched to various situations involving different gangs in various parts of the city.  You usually have to either take out every enemy in the building or rescue hostages.  There are several different team members to choose from and they range from the standard and easy to use Assaulter to more technical and tricky characters like Agent Fergie or Recon.  Each character has their own distinct weapon and you can level them up to unlock different abilities and perks and you can also unlock weapons and gear from the stars you earn on successfully completing a mission.  The nice thing is that while each character has their own skill tree, some abilities are universal, so you aren’t too far in the hole if you want to try a character you haven’t leveled up quite as much as another.

The game is played from a 2D side-scrolling perspective as your chosen SWAT team member enters the building.  The action is fast and brutal and will probably remind a lot of players of Hotline Miami but for me, it really reminded me of Not a Hero from Devolver Digital.  You have to take out enemies fast and efficiently or else they are going to kill you very quickly.  You can take cover behind boxes and one cool aspect of the game is that you build up a kind of COD style kill streak meter and you can use the meter to buy perks in level, like refilling your health or calling in things like sniper support to take out multiple enemies.  One of the big mechanics, obviously based on the title, is kicking down doors.  Some doors kick open with one hit but some take multiple hits.  Kicking the doors also lures in enemies and you really want to time your kick to hit enemies nearby so they get stunned.  You really have a lot of different avenues to attack the levels and you can try multiple paths to find out the best one (do you go through the front door or drop through a skylight, for instance).  The look of the game has a cool pixel art style and a great rocking soundtrack and it also has a lot of humor and personality, especially with the various SWAT members, who each of their own distinct personalities and drop various one-liners.  You can team up with a friend either locally or online to take down the bad guys in co-op and there’s an infinite tower mode and a zombie mode to change things up as well.  Door Kickers: Action Squad is an awesome action game that is worth checking out for players who are looking for a challenge and some fast, tactical action, either solo or with a friend.  It’s out on Steam, Switch, PS4 and Xbox One.

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