20 Years of Pokemon

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Yesterday marked the official anniversary of the Pokemon series. While I was a slightly late bloomer to the now 20 year-long franchise (I got into it after Gen 2 was released on Gameboy Color), I’ve enjoyed it ever since. I’ve mentioned before how I’m mostly a fan of the games in particular, though I did miss out on both the Gameboy Advance and earlier DS games (somewhat fixed since ORAS was released). And soon, later this year, a new generation of games titled “Pokemon Sun” and “Pokemon Moon” will be in my hands.

Instead of looking back on the series, however, I want to talk about the future. Great strides have been made so far, such as finally making the jump to 3D, better Internet connectivity for trading and battling, more opportunities to nab rare Pokemon outside of always traveling to the nearest Gamestop, etc. But there’s still one complaint out there that persists even today: “The formula is basically still the same.” Now, personally, I prefer the adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (as long as the formula is fun). Adding innovations is sometimes all I need, and I highly enjoyed ORAS for their DexNav feature and Latios/Latias travel in particular. I’m also hopeful that Friend Safaris will return, because they felt sorely missed (to me, anyway) in ORAS. However, there are still a few things I’d like to see from the series going forward.

I spoke with some friends recently on the idea of an eventual game, maybe even a console one, incorporating some or all of the regions into one grand adventure. During that topic, I brought up my (and many others) annoyance with HM moves still being a required feature. I realize changing this might also change how badges work, but an idea I had was why not have a 7th slot for an extra Pokemon? That way, for those people who like to use an HM ‘mon, the option is there without sacrificing a team slot. It could even be designated specifically for a ‘mon that wouldn’t take part in battles.

Another feature I’d like to see is something brought up by a content creator I like, Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug. He mentioned how neat it would be to use both the customized Pokeball animation system from Gen 4 and combine it with the ability to deck out the Pokeball’s design. I think, given the established character creation in X/Y, this could be possible. Speaking of that, while I realize these recent games are packed full of hardware space, I’d love to see more options for character creation. I had fun having my own avatar-ish character in place of the usual default ones, and I know more could be done with it.

There are many features I could dream up, but the final one I’ll mention is a game having a Dark type gym already. Ever since the type debuted in Gen 2, Dark types have only ever been used in the main games for the villains and Elite Four. Fairy type only debuted in the current generation and it already has had a gym, so why not Dark? On top of this, I’d like to see a little more balance between the gym and Elite Four teams. I feel a gradual build-up in levels is a given, but I think this should also apply for the number of Pokemon each member has. For example, I think the Elite Four should definitely have a full team. The last two generations in particular only gave each member four Pokemon as opposed to the Champion’s six. My thought is that once you reach that point, you’re guaranteed to have a full team of six AND be leveled enough to tackle them. Four Pokemon each just seems pathetic, especially when compared to the gym leaders.

So, while there is still plenty of room for the series to improve, I still think it’s a blast to play. Pokemon has endured longer than I think anyone expected it to, and each generation that pops up is tailor-made to ease new players into the series. While I consider myself an old-school Pokemon fan, the newer games have reaffirmed my love for these simple but entertaining RPGs. I can’t wait to see what “Pokemon Sun” and “Pokemon Moon” have in store.

Goodbye, Gravity Falls

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Well, after 40 episodes, “Gravity Falls” has come to an end. It’s been a wild ride since I first jumped into the show about a year ago, but the one thing that’s stayed consistent is that I still consider it one of the best cartoons I’ve ever seen. For the sake of the finale still being fresh, I won’t be spoiling anything here. Instead, I’d like to reflect on what this show has meant to me. If I happen to repeat anything from the above blog, I apologize in advance.

While no show is flawless, Alex Hirsch created one that emphasizes the importance of story and characters. Even if an episode’s story can be considered “filler,” both the main and supporting characters in “Gravity Falls” kept me coming back again and again. I loved following Dipper and Mabel’s adventures and watching them grow a little through the series. They still remained kids at heart, however, and I think it was great that a lot of focus was put into their relationship with one another. This is especially true in the second season when they learn more about Grunkle Stan and HIS family life, because it sets up good parallels between them. Honestly, I could go on and on about how I pretty much love every single character in this show. Hirsch and his team took great pains to make each character even remotely interesting, including the ones who come across more as comic relief than anything. Sure, there were some that weren’t my favorites, but I never felt any of the characters were outright bad.

I also love how this show embraced the supernatural and mythical. Obviously, Bill Cipher was a great, oddball villain and deserves praise for being one of the more disturbing ones to come out of something Disney-related lately. But I really loved every single creature in this show, good or evil. The evil ones were often menacing and just plain creepy at times, while the “good” ones weren’t quite as nice as they appeared. I’ve mentioned before how I loved the art style of this show from the get-go, and that continued to be the case with the character designs. The show knew when to keep things light and fun and when to delve into nightmare territory. I feel this is a show I would’ve loved as a kid.

One awesome thing about the show is that it never felt like it was talking down to kids. Yes, some episodes had a bit of a moral, but it was never shoved in your face repeatedly like in other shows. There were important lessons for kids, but their main purpose was to serve the story. I also loved the inclusion of the little cryptic messages you could decode. In keeping with the show being smart toward kids, having something clever like that allowed kids who understood the codes to play along with the show. I thought that was an excellent kind of interactivity, as you could easily have family members of any age work together to solve them. I’m hoping the book version of Journal 3, coming out this summer, will have more secrets like that. I can’t wait to pick it up and maybe learn some extra tidbits from Hirsch that weren’t included in the show.

Ultimately, “Gravity Falls” is a must-watch for anyone young and old. Shows like it and “Steven Universe” have given me the same feeling I had watching many of those memorable shows from the 90’s. If there’s one thing I can appreciate about the show, it’s that it leaves you wanting more while still ending on a pretty satisfying note. While I would have loved a third season, I have nothing but respect for Hirsch ending it on his terms and thus completing the story without interruption. Too often we see shows either go on for so long that they lose their luster a bit, or end up cut down prematurely thanks to the networks or low ratings. I’m happy “Gravity Falls” didn’t suffer either of these fates, and I’ll gladly continue to watch and enjoy it for years to come.

Another Valentine’s Day

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Many people like to criticize Valentine’s Day for not being a “real” holiday aka a manufactured holiday by companies to sell flowers, cards, and chocolates. I never put much stock in it as the “holiday of love” when I was younger, as back then we’d spend the day (while in school) passing around cards and getting some candy. And when I got old enough to gain an understanding of love, I still figured you’d celebrate that sort of thing all year around, not condense it to a single day that TV and radio promoted as THE day for it.

That still holds true even now, despite me no longer being single. While I appreciate the sentiment of the day, I feel like you should give your partner plenty of love and affection all year round. I still like being acknowledged on Valentine’s Day, even though my fiance and I have only ever spent one physically together so far, but I don’t worry about us doting on each other like crazy during it. But hey, if he wants to give me extra kisses/hugs/chocolate/etc., I won’t refuse it.

What makes that easier to swallow is the fact that I share my birthday with this holiday. Valentine’s Day may be shallow to some, but with it being the day I came into this world, it holds more meaning to me. Like with many kids, I celebrated with parties, cake and presents. As I got older, while some of that remained the same, the parties were more relaxed and I’d spend them with either friends, family or a small mix of both. Now, having turned 28, I’ve spent many birthdays recently just doing mundane things with maybe a cake or dinner out on the side. Whether I got sick, had to work, or just spent the day home (as I’m doing today), I’ve accepted that not all of my birthdays will be uberly fun.

However, the one constant of both my birthday and Valentine’s Day is hearing from friends and family wishing me well. So, while others out there will either be celebrating or cursing this day, I’ll be relaxing at home and thanking everyone out there who appreciates that, 28 years ago today, I came into existence. And no amount of flowers, cards, or chocolates could ever top that.

Review: “Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam”

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I know this blog has been focused on video games lately, but after finishing “Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam”, I knew I wanted to talk about it. Having played all of the Paper Mario series (still hoping for another PM game at some point!), when I saw that a crossover with the Mario & Luigi series was coming out, I had to try it. My fiance has been playing through that series anyway, so it was win-win.

I personally only played one other M&L title, “Partners in Time”, but I never finished it thanks partially to being too underleveled (remember, I used to find grinding excessively tedious) for boss fights, causing me tons of frustration. However, I remember enjoying the writing and humor of the game, so I figured this would be my chance to give the series another shot. I had a much more enjoyable time with “Paper Jam”, though it wasn’t without its flaws. Let’s break down how I felt about the game overall.

Story:

The premise of “Paper Jam” goes like this: Luigi uncovers a book that holds the world of Paper Mario, and he immediately unleashes it by accident. Paper Mario, Paper Peach, Paper Bowser, his minions and a slew of Paper Toads come flying out, and soon both versions of Peach are kidnapped by both Bowsers. The book is also stolen, causing Mario, Luigi and Paper Mario to go on an epic quest to rescue Peach and the paper inhabitants before the Bowsers cause more trouble.

Basically, the plot is the standard “Bowser kidnaps Peach” only doubled. The story has plenty of interesting ideas, such as some of the M&L world becoming paper-like as the Paper citizens stay stuck in that world. However, it doesn’t go far enough with this idea and instead focuses on the traditional Bowser plot. This annoyed me further by having the potential of two Bowsers roaming around being undercut by them not having any semblance of a coherent plan. Sure, they have Peach and Paper Peach, but aside from that, you only hear about what they plan to do before the final battle. It’s lackluster, though I’m not sure if this was meant as an intentional dig at how Bowser in any form can sometimes be kinda dumb. All I know is it felt like wasted potential.

Luckily, the humor and sharp writing are here and helped make the lack of plot more bearable. Paper Bowser easily has more of a personality here than in “Sticker Star”, which was a huge improvement. There are some great references to Nintendo and both series present here, though this is still a M&L game first and foremost. I like the characterization and humor in general, except for one thing: An overabundance of jokes about Luigi. Seriously, I know he’s been a butt monkey for a while now, but this game lays into the guy so much that I just felt sorry for him. In respect to that, I also grew to dislike Starlow, the game’s tutorial/guidance character. I don’t know if she’s as snarky in previous M&L games, but she was the main source of Luigi jokes here and it got old fast. Anyway, despite those gripes, the writing was definitely a high point for me.

Graphics:

This game mixes the newer 3D graphics of M&L with the 2D graphics of Paper Mario, and the results are…mostly good. I found both styles meshed together the best during regular battles, Papercraft battles, and cinematics. As for character models and scripted bits… Well, let’s just say that at times, the M&L graphics looked a bit more ugly in comparison to PM’s crisp sprites. I realize that the M&L series started out on Gameboy Advance and these later 3DS games are emulating their style, but at times it just looked weird.

As for the world itself, it’s honestly a bit boring. As with most recent Mario games, it follows the standard themes of field/desert/beach/fire/ice/etc., which would have been find if the areas themselves were interesting. Unfortunately, the landscapes are a bit barren in terms of cool landmarks, opting for a more platform-y look to them. The areas are broken up by Toad villages where you can buy or restock supplies and perform quests (more on those later), but overall I wasn’t awestruck with the level design. The map also makes the world feel small, despite each themed area being made up of several small areas. This M&L world just felt too linear for my tastes.

Sound:

This segment isn’t going to be nearly as long as the others. Music-wise, I thought the tracks were good and set the right tone where appropriate. However, I don’t think I’ll be humming any of them as they didn’t come off memorable to me. The sound effects are also nice and clear, and I didn’t find any that annoyed me. I know some people may be annoyed with the gibberish Mario and Luigi spout, but playing “Partners in Time” did prepare me for that, so it didn’t bother me. I did like that Paper Mario was kept mute like he is in the PM series. Oh, and beating the game unlocks the music player. It’s an odd “end of game” reward, but at least it’s there at all.

Gameplay:

And as always, now we come to the meat of the game. If you’ve played a M&L title, you know what to expect. For those who haven’t, “Paper Jam” at its core is an RPG. You explore the land, solve puzzles, fight enemies and bosses, and stock up in towns. You unlock abilities as the game progresses to use in the field as an aid for reaching new areas. This game is also insane as far as trying to get 100% completion, as not only can you collect gear items for stat boosts and healing/BP (or magic) items, but you also collect Paper Toads throughout the story and (my favorite collectible) beans that will permanently increase one of the brothers’ stats. These are by far worth getting as you can build each bro up however you want for battles.

The battling system is a mix of turn-based and action. You take control of the three brothers and perform regular attacks, duo attacks, or trio attacks. All of these are accompanied by action commands, like pressing each brothers’ corresponding button (A, B or Y) in a sequence or with accurate timing. You can also hit X to take less damage from enemies, and you sometimes control all three brothers during an enemy’s turn to try to dodge an attack. While I would’ve liked Paper Luigi to join the fray, “Partners in Time” taught me that handling four characters was a pain in the butt at times, so having just three felt more streamlined. Anyway, at the end of a battle, you earn experience and money. Each brother will level up after certain amounts of experience, and you can then increase their rank. Ranks allow you to pick additional abilities, such as an extra slot for gear items or more attack power. I found the battle system much easier to wrap my head around this time (helped by me leveling up properly), though I still found dodging to be annoying at times.

There are two added elements to battling as well: expert challenges and battle cards. Expert challenges are basically in-game achievements. If you perform specific attacks, dodges or special attacks, you earn points in battle for doing so. These points can be redeemed at shops to earn rare pieces of gear. And yes, they also count towards 100% completion. Battle cards are introduced a little later in the game and act as special moves you can perform without using up a turn. You can buy them in shops, earn them by beating quests, or enemies can randomly drop them. They use up Star Points, which you can replenish during battles by doing various attacks, though trio ones work best. These cards can allow you to gain back health, attack different types of enemies, lower an enemy’s level, or earn extra experience to name a few. I mostly relegated them to mini-boss and boss fights as extra help for some of the tougher ones. It’s a neat mechanic, though you’re only allowed to have 12 at a time despite being allowed to make more than one set of cards, and you use them in increments of three during battle .

As for what else sets “Paper Jam” apart from the other M&L games, this game focuses on two main gimmicks: rescuing Paper Toads and participating in Papercraft battles. Throughout the story, the game will sometimes stop to have you perform a quest, most of these revolving around rescuing Paper Toads. These quests can range from timed missions to basically playing hide-and-seek. You can also trigger additional missions by talking to Toads in the towns, and the Lakitu Info Center where you accept Paper Toad quests also has hard versions of some as well. To be honest, I found these quests ranged from okay to very annoying. The Paper Toad ones are required, and that often slowed the game’s pacing big time. Quests which were sometimes story-based and sometimes optional, eventually made me wish I could just skip them (looking at you, Nabbit chases).

The Papercraft battles, on the other hand, I found pretty fun. You control a papercraft and use it to dash or slam enemy papercrafts. Each enemy has a different attack pattern to change up each battle. You’re also armed with an energy and health meter. The health meter can be replenished by dashing into question mark blocks, giving you a free mushroom. The energy meter, which you use to perform attacks, can be filled by a simple rhythm game. You don’t have to be 100% perfect, but sometimes enemies will attack you during this state so being fast but accurate is beneficial. I honestly wish this mode had been the main gimmick instead of the Paper Toad quests. It serves a better story purpose (with Kamek and Paper Kamek trying to hinder your progress instead of just collecting lost Toads) and I looked forever to one popping up once I got the hang of them. The only issue I had was that the camera controls at times felt wonky, but it wasn’t so bad that it frustrated me.

Overall, “Paper Jam” is a decent M&L game. I wish more had been done with the Paper Mario aspect, but I still feel it was a better use of PM than what “Sticker Star” tried to do (still liked bits of that one, though). The story was at least passable and the sharp, witty writing helped it stand out. I feel like I got a better understanding of the combat system this time around, though I don’t feel like it and this series are for me in the end. I prefer the simple turn-based style of the PM series, personally. I don’t feel this game is a good jumping on point for someone wanting to look into either M&L or PM, but in respect to the M&L series, I’d say it’s at least above average.