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Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Review – Pros & Cons

30 April 2017

Is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch the definitive version of Mario Kart yet? The simple answer is yes. Forty eight tracks, four speed classes, oodles of characters and kart options, four-player split screen gaming, online gaming for up to two players split screen, time trials, and a fully fledged Battle Mode. Yes, it’s the most definitive version yet. So the real question here is whether there’s room for improvement, especially for seasoned players.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe - Review - Pros & Cons

I never owned a Wii U, upon which Mario Kart 8 was originally released, along with its DLC that now comprises the Deluxe version on the Switch. The Wii U was a disaster in the pantheon of Nintendo systems by being its worst seller and possessing the weakest game library. Nintendo loyalists consequently deserted it in droves – including myself – while it couldn’t redeem itself by gaining new fans. The big problem was the gimmick controls of the game-pad in a market that had grown long tired of such novelties on previous systems, notably the Wii (which I also boycotted). While the game-pad was far more conventional than the Wii’s Wii Remote, it was perception that Nintendo were still messing around with gimmicks instead of getting back to basics of quality games on interesting systems. In the Switch, and by extension games like The Legend of Zelda: Breadth of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo has done exactly that, and rewarded those once disenfranchised fans with immediate releases of pinnacle versions of games from those series.

While I never owned a Wii U, I certainly played plenty of Mario Kart 8, thanks to several associates owning it on the Wii U. So that usual expectation of learning and mastering brand new tracks you get from a new Mario Kart does not apply to me. In that sense, I’m an experienced Mario Kart 8 player, and an experienced Mario Kart player in general, and with Deluxe now the fourth iteration of the same driving model – of holding the shoulder button to build up boost when power-sliding – I don’t even have a new technique to learn. I’d say most Mario Kart players would fall into that latter category, so potentially will find much of in Deluxe to be familiar – possibly too familiar.

PROS

Battle Mode: After the Wii U only offered a superficial experience on regular courses, Deluxe has a fully implemented version with specific courses and with 5 battle types.

Boosting: There’s a third stage when drifting now – purple. Known as an “Ultra Mini-Turbo”, it’s rare to activate it on normal corners because of the long duration of sliding required. Mostly I’ve activated it in anti-gravity mode after a speed boost from bumping into objects and other racers puts you into a stage 2 boost range, so it’s only one step up to purple.

Slipstreaming: It seems far more easier to attain, and the speed reward seems really large. I can’t know for sure because I can’t compare directly to the Wii U. Suffice to say, it is a fast activation and a really juicy speed boost!

Speed Classes: All four are open from the start, including the super fast novelty 200cc mode as first seen in the Mario Kart 8 DLC on the Wii U.

Time Trials: One of the most under-valued modes in the game, and again it’s complete with online leaderboards and ghost racing options, and is extremely addictive.

Ghost Item: Gone since Mario Kart 7 on 3DS, it should never have been removed from the game. Stealing items from other players and then using them against them is one of the most satisfying parts of Mario Kart. Generally speaking about items, the allocation is quite balanced too. You need to be near the back of the field to get the really powerful items like Bullets, Stars, Lightnings, and Lucky 8s.

Online Mode: While it’s basic in its standard form, that’s designed to constantly keep you in the action. Players are offered a choice of three tracks or a random choice, and then the computer picks randomly one of those options. Battle Mode is similar with the addition the battle type is random too. In my four tries I played Balloon Battle, Renegade Roundup, Coin Runner and Balloon Battle. If you want more control, there are plenty of custom races and Cups set up by others players, or can be set up yourself and invite friends. Compare to that to Mario Kart DS, the first online Mario Kart, that was fixed at a four race Cup and people would often quit before the championship ended. As a rule, online gamers are morons so the basic options will satisfy most players.

Fire Hopping: The exploit in the Wii U version that allowed you to extend the duration of boosts by hopping left to right, is gone. Good!

The Switch: Nintendo have nailed this device. Nothing beats whipping it out on the couch and playing a few online races while you can still monitor the TV or ignore someone wanting to talk to you. Oh, and the graphics are gorgeous and fast, both on TV and in handheld mode. More here

CONS

Single Player Mode: There’s none! While the 48 courses are divided into 12 Cups and therefore 12 mini championships to win, for seasoned players, they’re a joke. There’s no challenge! This is a perennial problem for Mario Kart, especially on home systems. Even hitting a new game of unfamiliar tracks, most experienced players rarely have any trouble breezing through “the game”. It’s only in split-screen or online multi-player modes that you can truly experience Mario Kart at its exhilarating best. Of course, new players to the series will have a challenge. Hand the controls to a novice or a child, and they will struggle through even 50cc. Still, we’re in a era now where some people have been playing videogames for 30 years, so even if they lack specific skills, they will adapt fast. I raced a few Cups on bikes – which was a new skill to learn – and still adapted quickly to win easily. At best, the CPU opponents may bombard you near the finish line or you fall off the track in error, which will cost you several places and potentially a championship. Otherwise it’s on your merry way. There is simply zero challenge in the game. I repeat: zero challenge!

I even raced the first Cup on 200cc, which is an unnatural speed for the game, and won it with three wins and a second. While the option of trying to earn a 3-star rank on each Cup is somewhat a challenge, all you’re doing is trying to annihilate the field as much as possible. Hardly ideal and, again, like the rare losses in a 150cc Cup, missing the 3-star rank mostly comes down to bad luck or your own silly errors. Chasing coins to unlock all the kart options is really the game’s only aim, and that’s only achieved through tedious persistence, not reward for supreme effort. It’s farcical.

There’s absolutely no excuse for Nintendo not to include some sort of serious single player mode in the game – whether that be an insane difficulty mode where CPU opponents race super fast lines or are super fiendish with items. It can be done simply too. Note that Diddy Kong Racing on the N64 had an Adventure Mode, where you gradually unlocked courses and even had boss races. Even on Nintendo’s own Mario Kart DS, it had had a mission. This could be returned, and expanded, where you might race a fiendish team Donkey Kongs constantly attacking you with bananas. Most basic of all, Nintendo only needs to do is ramp up the AI – possibly via “Master Cup”, and offer it as a Super Championship over all 48 courses. Fix it for Mario Kart 9, damn it!

Kart Selection: There should be an option to randomly assign a driver and a kart configuration, or at least the latter. Why? As with any Mario Kart, certain combinations prove the fastest so everyone gravitates to those. It makes for the same old racing styles, less inclination to experiment, less fun and less longevity. On Mario Kart Double Dash on N64, there was a random option, and we always used it. It really livened up the racing, and would offer true bragging rights for the most versatile racer out there. For something so simple to add, it’s staggering it’s only been seen in one version of the game. To think, playing online could have a fully fledged random option, where instead of seeing half the field of Metal Marios, you could be racing anyone and anything. The single player mode would also benefit from such options, where you must beat the Cups with a light, medium and heavy type of configuration. Or there’s a Random Cup that will switch everyone to another configuration after each race.

Mirror Mode: A perennial inclusion since the N64 and a perennial waste of time. Who cares if left corners are now right? A far better idea would be Reverse Mode. Yes, you race the tracks in the opposite direction, as is common in many car racing games, and would therefore give you 96 courses all up. For those people that will immediately whinge “what about those sections of courses that you can’t reach if going in reverse”, you simply place a cannon on the course to shoot racers back up. It’s not rocket science! Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Balloon Battle: The main Battle Mode, it would be nice if it had an elimination option. Lose your five balloons means you are out of the game. Currently you are restored with three balloons and a few wins removed from your tally. It would be nice if there was a mode of last kart standing.

Twelve Racers: That’s the default number in the game and with so many it can get chaotic. I’ve found 8 to be optimum, which was the standard until the Wii, and is still the standard on dedicated handhelds like the 3DS. At present your only options in split screen modes are CPU opponents on or off. Even in single player, it would be nice if it could be changed too so the focus bends more to racing and less on chaos. Here’s an idea. Why not make a championship mode of only four racers where you would race 3 fiendishly difficult CPU opponents? Come on! It really shouldn’t be so difficult.

Holding Items: A “feature” that’s been around for a few iterations, both humans and CPU races love holding shells or bananas behind their kart for protection. While I don’t mind it in principle, there should be a downside to it, like losing speed or unable to slide and boost around corners. After all, you have one hand off the wheel and holding something out the back, so that must compromise your driving ability somehow! Otherwise, a good racer that gets to the lead is basically invulnerable to everything other than a blue shell. The other solution is the item drops automatically after 5 seconds.

Custom Mii: This representation of yourself that hangs out in the online lobbys cannot be updated once created. Mine is slightly too tall and I can’t make the adjustment.

SUMMARY

Yes, while Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the best Mario Kart ever, it’s not the best possible Mario Kart. Not by a long shot. For that we must wait for Mario Kart 9. Off to unlock the Blue Falcon…

 

Nintendo Switch – Hardware Review

06 March 2017

It wasn’t meant to be, buying a Nintendo Switch on day 1. After all, I was critical of its high cost and, especially, its lack of games on launch, with only The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild the only premium title. While I’m a fan of the Zelda series, I’m not a rabid fan, and have only owned three games, they being Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask (both on N64), and A Link Between Worlds on 3DS. So it was wait for other games to make the Switch a more compelling purchase, which I estimated would be by the end of 2017.

Nintendo Switch Box - Hardware Review

Then something mysterious happened. In the lead up to the launch on 3 March, Fast RMX – a racing game in the mould of F-Zero and Wipeout – was announced as a release title, and Blaster Master Zero – a remake of the classic NES game Blaster Master – was announced as second week release. I was more interested, without being committed. The next piece of titillation was seeing Big W offering a bundle of the system and Zelda for $519, which was $40 off RRP, or $30 off the cheapest price elsewhere. They also had the Pro Controller at $15 cheaper than anywhere else I saw. Not that any of that prompted a change of mind.

Late on Thursday night, the day before its release, I’m on youtube, and I figured reviews should be out for Zelda. They were all 10/10 at the three most reputable sites I checked. I thought then and there, stuff it, I’ll buy one. I could wait 6 months and maybe save another $20 or so, or enjoy the thing now. The price was roughly only $80 more than a PS4 when you consider respective discounts, so it was off to Big W’s website to see if I could reserve or pre-order online. Nope. So I figured I’d sleep on the decision. I awoke without any change of mind, so drove to Southland to make a purchase, and suddenly I’m an owner of a Nintendo Switch, the first Nintendo home console I’ve bought since the GameCube in 2002. Banzai!

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Impressive. Most impressive. Initially feeling quite small, the screen and joy-cons materialise into an impressive beast once all integrated as a single unit. Going through the set-up phase, instructions were to remove the joy-cons, and I found myself for the next 30 minutes or so using them in separate hands to complete the process, log into the eshop, buy Fast RMX, and then play the game. They really work nicely holding them separately. Then I attached them to the device, and that proved really comfortable too. It would be remiss not to say at this point that the screen is stunning! It’s one glorious device as a handheld and I’ll probably find myself using it this way most often, particularly since my main gaming these is on the 3DS.

Next step was to attach the joy-cons to the grip and try that with the device placed into the TV dock. There’s no compromises in the design here; it’s a quality controller, and as good as anything out there. While the buttons and control sticks are smaller than standard controllers, adjusting to them is fast, and if you can handle the setup on the 3DS handheld, then the grip and joy-con combination won’t be a problem. The buttons and control sticks are the same size, and combined with the grip the whole thing is more comfortable.

Nintendo Switch - Box contents - Hardware Review

Graphically, the biggest difference was that the large TV screen made Fast RMX seem even faster. That’s a function of the much closer perspective, not that it was actually faster. Everything remained crisp and super smooth too, with the only flaw I saw was lack of, or no, anti-aliasing or other technique to reduce jagged edges. Whether that’s Fast RMX itself or a limitation of the system, we won’t know until we see more games. Reviews of Zelda cited occasional slowdown as the only concern. Not that this affects gameplay for either title and, besides, the Switch is not supposed to be a system to satiate graphics whores. That’s the domain of PC gaming where continually pumping thousands of dollars into hardware is necessary to support their insecure geekwank tendencies and pretend they’re getting a better gaming experience.

Note that there’s no conventional d-pad with the standard Switch controller, only a four-button replacement on the left joy-con. While I quickly adjusted to that when flicking through the Switch menus and inputting information, how they would work in something like a fighting game remains to be seen. I’d have preferred a d-pad as I said in the preview, especially as I believe the 2-player tabletop mode will be the least utilised of the playing modes, and the points of a d-pad could have easily doubled for a button when using a single joy-con as a controller. They also need the supplied wrist strap attachment to make the alternate shoulder buttons bigger and the controller more comfortable in general, and it’s doubtful people will be carrying those around for the odd chance of 2-player tabletop gaming.

Finally, the Pro Controller, a separate, though not a necessary, purchase. Believe the hype, it’s probably the best controller ever designed. It feels so huge after coming from the joy-cons, with bigger buttons, a bigger spread between buttons, a bigger throw of the control sticks, and a beautiful feel. Again, with Fast RMX, there was a 5-minute adjustment period to it. Ergonomically, all the control options that the Switch offers are superb. That Nintendo could nail the design and quality while retaining this flexibility is astounding. They are back to their best days of the GameCube and SNES with their controllers. They were the best ever, until now.

Nintendo Switch Pro Controller - Review

STORAGE

Internal storage has actually been the biggest gripe about the system, with only 32gb on board. I don’t see the fuss. People are again in the PC or the latest console mindset of needing large drives to download games or support massive day one patches. Nintendo operates entirely differently by releasing only complete and fully tested games, and they expect you to buy hard copies for major releases. Those hard copies are also cheaper, where you can find Zelda for $80 easily in stores compared to $90 in the eshop. The only advantage of digital downloads is they remove the need to carry around game cards. In regard to game sizes, Zelda is 13.4gb, whereas Fast RMX is less than 1gb. Snipperclips is 1.6gb, while retro titles will be 100mb or less. Unless your plan is buying from the eshop only, then the most you’ll ever need to do is add a 64gb SD card for about $30.

HOME CONSOLE OR HANDHELD?

Nintendo have made a big deal that the Switch is a home console first, a portable one second. Technical specifications, using a mobile computing chip and limited storage capacity, suggests portable first, home console second. It doesn’t really matter. It will depend on the user. Personally, my favourite mode is a pseudo home/tabletop hybrid. I plonk it on the table next to me, lie back on the couch, and use either the grip or Pro Controller to play, while monitoring something on TV. The beauty of it is that everything synchronises so seamlessly. All controllers are immediately recognised and it’s just a matter of activating your preferred mode once turning the system on. Nintendo have done a stellar job with it that sense. The next test is the games. That is something that will require waiting until the end of the year before a proper evaluation.

Nintendo Switch Presentation – Hits and Misses

Warrior’s Video Games of 2016 & Nintendo Switch Preview

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – who is the last Jedi?

24 January 2017

The Last Jedi, that’s the title of Episode 8, the next movie in the Star Wars saga, so let the speculation begin. The title has such a finality to it that I couldn’t immediately rationalise it as relating to the latest trilogy, so thoughts were of a new stand-alone movie or TV series. No, it will follow from 2015’s Episode 7: The Force Awakens.

Star Wars: Episode 8: The Last Jedi

If it’s about the last Jedi, who could that last Jedi be? Given the events of The Force Awakens, that would be Rey, which means Luke Skywalker dies. Hooray! Wait, forgive me for lapsing into the moment of “the first transport is away” during Empire Strikes Back when the Rebels evacuated Hoth and I yelled “hooray” at the cinema during the re-release of the original trilogy. Anyway, Luke dying is all too easy, so we must explore further. Time to harness the force.

Rey is not a Jedi yet, and if she becomes one, why would she be the last? Even if she couldn’t discover anyone else powerful with the Force, she could easily spit out some quadruplets with the help of the midi-chlorians. The last Jedi is Luke! He needs a dignified ending, so Episode 8 will mostly be about him. After Luke trains and mentors Rey, he will retire to his remote mountain as Rey goes to save the galaxy. While the force will be with her, she’ll start her own movement. The Jedi become extinct.

To support this theory, note that the Sith are already extinct. In place now is the First Order, and the threat to them is a new force – a force that will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Second, The Force Awakens was much a retelling of the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, so expect The Last Jedi to fill a similar role in the current trilogy as Empire Strikes Back did back in the original. The First Order will rebound, Luke is the new Yoda, and Rey becomes the sole hope of the Resistance.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – The Complete Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Review (No Spoilers)

Ranking the Star Wars Movies – Episodes 1 to 6

Obama’s Legacy – The Reality Check; Trump’s Inauguration

22 January 2017

Democracy. Don’t you just love it? Donald Trump is officially the 45th President of the United States and it’s still quite difficult to believe – and that’s as a neutral observer. Imagine the situation for supporters and opponents. Supporters have certainly revelled in the victory and enjoyed seeing elites and the media squirm, while opponents have been a full denial mode, still obsessed with the irrelevant popular vote, Russian interference and generally throwing massive tantrums. The anti-Democratic party even saw fit for about one third of their house representatives to boycott the ceremony. Not that anyone noticed, or cared. These democracy deniers have set a nasty precedent for behaviour, showing themselves as total hypocrites and burying their phony ideals of “when they go low, we go high”. In true Trump style, he gave no concessions during his address, ripping into past administrations and the Washington establishment for their greed and self-aggrandisement, and directly belting the Obama administration when speaking about the “American carnage” that must stop right here, right now. It was a populist speech in that sense, promising to put America first on all key issues and hand power back to the people.

Donald Trump inaugurated as 45th President of the United States

Donald Trump inaugurated as President. Image: Politico

Personally, I found the tone of Trump’s voice a bit harsh, with the substance of the speech quite good. The best lines came towards the end – one about black, brown or white all bleeding the same red blood of patriots, and when opening your heart to patriotism, there’s no room for prejudice. That’s Trump. He does it all his own way. Again he defied predictions of delivering a mellower, more unifying speech, by repeating key campaign points heard over the last 18 months. The now former president Barack Obama looked disgusted, with Michelle Obama ashen at times. The next four years will be fascinating to say the least. Trump has affirmed his commitment to Twitter and one can only imagine his first address in front of the United Nations general assembly.

Most remarkable about the Inauguration Day is the inauguration itself. It’s set for noon on 20 January every four years, and Americans really know how to put on a show. It’s the third one I watched live after Obama’s two, and it’s hard not to feel that American pride during that monumental and peaceful transfer of power. It’s all staged so perfectly, with so such precision, and it was eerie seeing the Obamas enter the helicopter and fly out of the Capitol, just as George W Bush did eight years ago. Then comes the trek along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House by the new president, the parade in front of the White House and the inauguration balls.

Always the most impressive moment is the rendition of the national anthem at the inauguration ceremony, this time performed by Jackie Evancho (who?). She’s a 16 year old opera singer and comes from that great nursery of major talent these days, reality TV. It was a classy and dignified rendition, and really honoured the occasion itself.

BARACK OBAMA’S LEGACY

Since the election, Barack Obama has been on a “victory lap” promoting all his achievements. Apparently he’s now the best president he’s ever been, which is probably the same sentiment most of them share. There’s no real preparation for such a job, so it’s all learnt day by day, and it’s probably not until the final year or two that a president feels fully attuned to their role. Nostalgia then kicks in, as the president reflects on all these years in the job, and the sadness of suddenly being evicted. That’s more so when another party takes over and there’s a feeling of unfinished business, as Obama seemed to have. No president wants to see his work undone either. CNN did a good job recently of compiling Obama’s presidential legacy in a 2-hour special. Although it was hosted by Fareed Zakaria, a known Obama supporter, it raised many good points, exaggerated some, debunked a few, and totally missed others. The reality check.

THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT (OBAMACARE)

The biggie, as it’s the only major reform or legislation Obama produced in his 8 years in office. First, for those outside the USA, Obamacare is not the universal healthcare that most of the developed world experiences, where you can walk into any public hospital, get treated, and walk out without incurring any costs. Obamacare is a plan to subsidise insurance companies to make insurance more affordable. While there’s dispute about actual figures, the general consensus is about 40 million Americans were uninsured and Obamacare took care of 20m of those. Mostly that was achieved by heavy subsidies and expanding Medicaid (government funded healthcare for the poor).

Reality Check: The US population is about 330m, which means nearly 90% of people were covered, typically by their employers, while veterans and the elderly were covered by the government. Those with plans were mostly were happy with them. To target that 10% uninsured, Obamacare disrupted the entire insurance system, throwing people off their plans, forcing businesses to stop offering insurance, raising premiums and raising deductibles (you could pay $5000 out of pocket before the insurance kicks in). Worse than that, these were all broken promises. A family’s premium was meant to reduce by $2500 per year, existing plans could be kept, as too existing doctors. It’s these broken promises that has infuriated much of America. They weren’t one-time spontaneous promises either. Obama pounded and pounded, particularly about keeping existing plans, to reassure most Americans they would not only be untouched, they’d be better off. Obamacare is in a death spiral anyway, as costs increase, people drop out, and insurers can’t compete. Much of the initial price rise stems from the vast array of essential services plans must offer to be eligible for the exchanges, and therefore eligible for Obamacare subsidies. Because people with pre-existing conditions can’t be denied insurance anymore, they’ve signed up in huge numbers, as have the poor. Meanwhile younger people in good health haven’t bothered, and those earning just a little too much to get subsidies to offset the higher premiums have bailed. Instead of a gateway to universal healthcare as most of the world knows it (Obamacare was always meant to fail so government would take over), the only real legacy is if key mandates, like pre-existing conditions and children on parents plan until age 26, are preserved when Republicans repeal and replace it. In politics, policy is often debate in itself, shifting sentiment and setting foundations, so on that measure, Obama has succeeded to help ensure no American should be denied health insurance. Grade: C

THE ECONOMY

After inheriting a financial crisis, the unemployment rate is now less than 5%, and there’s been continued economic growth over much of Obama’s presidency. He also brought it some good reforms to stabilise the financial sector and he “saved” the automotive industry. What’s not to love?

Reality Check: The real problems lie behind the figures, with job participation low, under-employment high and wages stagnant. The under-employment, or high level of part-time workers, is partially due to Obamacare regulations that don’t mandate employer-based insurance for workers on 30hrs or less per week or companies with fewer than 50 workers. The one policy Obama did institute for the economy, the massive fiscal stimulus of almost 1 trillion dollars (that’s $1,000,000,000,000,000,000), failed by his own measure. Unemployment wasn’t meant to rise above 8% (it went beyond 10%), the economy took 2 years longer to begin its recovery and there’s still way too many people on food stamps and other welfare. Even now, guess what the number one issue was at the last election? The economy! Let’s not forget the USA is also lumbered with a $20 trillion debt, almost half of which is Obama’s. Grade: D

FOREIGN POLICY

ISIS, Syria, Libya, Crimea and Russia – the world’s never been as dangerous and American power never looked so weak. In fact, Russia seems to have taken over as the world’s “policeman” by intervening in Syria to remove Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons and creating mischief in the presidential campaign. It’s a debacle. The Middle East is still a mess, and made even worse when the USA was complicit in the UN Security Council declaring Israel’s settlements illegal, and the Iran Nuclear Deal has its critics.

Reality Check: Obama ran on being the anti-war President. The USA was meant to retreat, or even “lead from behind” as cynics say, and encourage other nations to do their bit in the world’s crisis areas. Americans don’t want to be involved in any more wars, so it was easy – and honouring a promise – not to send any American armed forces into combat. His main mistake was his rhetoric did not match his actions. Talks of “red lines” in Syria made him look weak, and almost ridiculous once Russia intervened. Closing Guantanomo Bay on day 1 was never a reality (it’s still open), and it being a supposed recruitment tool for terrorists is laughable compared to Obama’s own drone program that’s killed thousands of people. Still, Obama kept the homeland safe from major attack (the key role of a president), killed Osama bin Laden and even won a Nobel Peace Prize for not being George W Bush. Grade: A

ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION

One of the big promises that failed. Under the much vaunted slogan of “comprehensive immigration reform”, Obama didn’t even try, preferring to eventually use executive orders in his second term to enact DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which ensured so-called “Dreamers” (children brought illegally into the USA by their parents) would not be targeted for deportation. Not that they ever were anyway. Authorities struggle enough as is with recent arrivals and criminal aliens, so it was all symbolic to energise his party as the pro-immigration one. Sanctuary cities – cities that disobey requests by federal immigration authorities for illegal immigrants, even violent ones, to be held in detention – were allowed to flourish too. That particularly infuriated Republicans, as these cities are seen as deliberate acts to encourage illegal immigration. To counter that, Obama supporters touted the record millions of people that have been deported. These are mostly caught at the border and immediately deported. Sometimes it’s the same people over and over again, so it’s not indicative of any real commitment to border control.

Reality Check: There’s a basic, almost primal, policy difference between the two sides. Democrats want open borders, Republicans want secure borders. Republicans won’t act on any amnesty or legal status for current illegals until the border is secure, while Democrats want it all done at once. That’s why “comprehensive immigration reform” from Democrats is a code-phrase for do nothing. When you consider both sides like to use the issue politically, there’s even less appetite for reform. All of Obama’s “work” will be annulled by new executive orders, and the politicisation of the issue backfired spectacularly with the manifestation of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. Grade: F

GUN CONTROL

Even with such tragedies like Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Obama made no incursions into curtailing the numbers and capabilities of firearms. In the face of the constitutional right to bear arms, America’s deep gun culture and strong resistance across the country, Obama flapped around the edges with extra background checks and closing a few loopholes on gun registration. Others in his party began talking vague and suspicious slogans like “comprehensive gun safety legislation”, and even had ideas of holding gun stores and sellers accountable if the buyer commits a crime. Eventually, Obama got nothing, and the appetite for restrictions is even lower than before. The bemused rest of the world must realise that most Americans are so skeptical of federation government intrusion, and they see gun rights as the cornerstone in the protection of their individual rights and freedoms. If their guns go, what’s next?

Reality Check: Obama needed to use the constitutional right as a weapon. At the time the constitution was written, the founding fathers had no idea about the strength of weapons in the future. It was all single-shot muscats back then, even for the federal government. They couldn’t foresee semi-automatic weapons or even nuclear missiles. These days, no militia could stop the feds taking over if they wanted, and there’s gun restrictions already. Americans cannot own machine guns or bazookas, for example, so begin to extend that. Even though it’s doubtful such talk would have changed much, in a democracy, it’s all about shifting sentiment. It might take years, or even decades for something tangible to happen. It needs to start somewhere, and Obama missed the opportunity. Grade: F

GAY RIGHTS

This shows you the importance supreme court justices, which was an issue pivotal in Trump winning the presidency. Relax! No justice that Trump nominates will overturn the two key social issues the gay marriage and abortion. Even Obama’s two selections only kept the left-leaning numbers on the court preserved, with the pivotal decision coming from Justice Anthony Kennedy, an appointee under the Ronald Reagan administration. Essentially his opinion was that under the constitutional right to equal protection, there could no longer be discrimination against same-sex marriages.

Reality Check: Obama also removed the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy about gays in the military. Of course, to show you the power of rhetoric, he was the first president to talk about gay marriage, which no doubt shifted enough sentiment for those supreme court justices to act in its favour. The country is way past this issue now. Grade: A

CLIMATE CHANGE

Tougher regulations and the Paris Climate Change Agreement, that’s about it.

Reality Check: Just like any regulation, it can be easily reversed. The PCCA is a compromise, as it’s not binding, and rather than the familar deal of restricting emissions by a certain percentage, the PCCA’s spurious “deal” is to keep warming under 2C degrees for the rest of this century. How nations will manage that, or measure it, is mystifying. It almost confers a god-like stature on governments that their action will directly cause changes in the temperature, when, conceivably, warming could halt without any “action”. After all, no one predicted the recent 18-year plateau in warming. Strangely, no one, despite all the “action” taken around the world, took credit for it either. The PCCA was designed like this solely to get the likes of China on board. They remain free to increase CO2 until 2030, when they only promise it will plateau. The good news is that, under Obama, the USA is now a major consumer of much cleaner natural gas. Fracking has taken off under Obama, meaning USA’s emmissions are way, way down, and ahead of any previous target. While that might not sit well with climate hysterics that wanted a socialist style redistribution of cash from big business and power-intensive industries to poor people unable to pay exhorbidant power costs, in terms of reducing emmissions, Obama has been a major success. Grade: A

RACE RELATIONS & UNITY

Despite Obama’s proclamations that they’ve never been better, they’ve gone backwards, and much of that is Obama’s fault. The soaring rhetoric of unity 8 years ago quickly fell for hyper partisanship, identity politics and acquiescence to real race problems in America, notably the obscene murder rate and gang violence in his home city of Chicago. Politically, the country has never been as divided before, nor the politics so corrosive. His party’s boycott of Trump’s inauguration was a disgrace, and Obama’s reluctance to speak about it, even when directly asked, epitomised his tenure to snub obvious moments of providing influence and much required leadership if it didn’t suit him politically.

Reality Check: Obama was elected twice, entered office with approval ratings nudging 80% (Trump is mid-40s), and leaves office with them almost 60%. For such a supposedly racist and bigoted country, that’s a decent achievement, even if much of it is more about his personal likeability than anything he actually did. Grade: C

THE FINAL LEGACY

During Obama’s two terms, the Democrats lost both houses of congress, lost the presidency, and lost around 1000 seats across federal and state houses and senates throughout the country. 34 of the 50 state governors are now Republican. It’s a damning indictment on his policies, and he’s left his party in tatters.

A part of the blame for Obama’s under-achievement is the system itself, that presidential candidates are selected so far in advance, and issues can change substantially. Obama was meant to get the USA out of Iraq and then institute his sweeping social reforms on a seemingly sound economy. He even hammered the Bush administration over the ever increasing national debt. Instead he faced a financial crisis, and was unable, or unwilling, to cope with new crises in the world. His cruise-control approach to leadership didn’t suit at the time, and once the Republicans swept into the house following the 2010 mid-terms, his reluctance to compromise effectively made him a lame duck for the next 6 years. From there it was about consolidating his own base and ensuring a Democrat followed him in 2016. He failed there too. Hillary Clinton, who he defeated in the primaries on his way to the White House, would have been far more suitable in 2008, with Obama coming in now.

Barack Obama leaves the Capitol in Executive One helicopter after Donald Trump inaugurated as 45th President of the United States

Bye Obama. Image: People

Mostly Obama will be remembered as a nice guy. There hasn’t been any president as cool or affable as this one, and he’s been a good ambassador and figurehead for his country. In some ways he’s lucky Trump is the incoming president rather than a strict conservative, as his populist mindset will ensure key aspects laid by Obamacare, like no denial of coverage, will stay. How it stays, that’s the big unknown. At least for Obama, he’ll be the one remembered for laying that key foundation, even if others are responsible for building the structure. Final Grade: C

Donald Trump is President – What the heck just happened?

Nintendo Switch Presentation – Hits and Misses

14 January 2017

After the failed Wii U, and the Wii for those alienated by motion controls, Nintendo presented its new system, the Nintendo Switch, in Tokyo yesterday. The system was already revealed in late October of 2016, albeit without crucial details like price, games and its full capabilities. As a presentation it had hits and misses of its own, with price and release date immediately revealed, followed by a muddling session showcasing various games, before finishing with the long-awaited Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and its confirmed released date.

Nintendo Switch Presentation - Hits and Misses

HITS

1) The release date of March 3 is much sooner than anyone expected. It’s only 7 weeks away. Nearly all predictions were for late March. Banzai!

2) The system itself is impressive, and the idea of being able to switch between home and portable and retain the same experience is fascinating. This portability is not so much about travelling either, as I suspect many people will play at home in this mode instead of taking over the family TV. Personally, I find myself playing the 3DS so often because I don’t need the TV. Often I play while watching TV, particularly watching things like sport or news that don’t require full attention.

3) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a launch title. This game was originally intended for the Wii U before delays struck and poor sales of that system saw the advancement of its successor and games postponed or cancelled in anticipation of it. Not only is Zelda a launch title, it looked stunning. Any Zelda fan will be salivating to get a hold of it.

4) Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario Odyssey. While the latter is the Wii U version with all DLC, a proper Battle Mode and other updates, the latter is brand new and looked superb, especially seeing Mario bouncing around “New Donk City”. Classic! Let’s note that the Wii U was so poor that not only were many games abandoned, many players abandoned it too. With MK8 the best of its series on home console, it’s spectacular that Switch players will get it so soon – on April 28. SMO is coming later in the year. Also coming, mid year, is Splatoon 2 – a successor to the popular and well received shooter/painter turf war game on Wii U.

5) The joy con controllers are full of technology, including motion controls and realistic dynamic feedback. Apparently you can shake it as though it’s a glass of ice and count the ice cubes in it. Whether this evolves to anything meaningful game-wise, it’s wait and see. The Wii was met with similar skepticism and it ended up a raging success. Because of the switch capability of the Switch, it means you get two individual motion controllers in the box too. The Wii shipped with only one.

6) Third party support. Over 80 games in development, with particular emphasis on games from major Japanese developers, like Xenoblade 2 and Fire Emblem Warriors. While the presentation confirmed the likes of Skyrim and FIFA, they are flotsam in the Nintendo market and exist more to show there’s broad third party support. Serious players of games like that are glued to other systems. The real issue is to ensure that support lasts. Developers were abandoning the Wii U even before it was launched.

7) Region free. Yes, you can buy games anywhere in the world to play on the Switch. Good idea considering if people travel with the damn thing overseas they might want to buy a local game in that country they are visiting.

MISSES

1) To keep it simple, I’ll stick to USA prices and round up to the whole dollar. Price of $300 is $50 higher than the sweet spot, especially considering PS4 and Xbox One are competitors at that level. In the pack you get the tablet, a pair of joy con controllers, a grip, a TV dock and all necessary cables. When you see the price of individual accessories, you soon realise why the Switch is $300. A separate joy con is $50, a pair is $80 and the TV dock is $90. Separately there’s a pro controller at $70. Japan’s prices line up roughly the same as the USA. In Australia, the system’s RRP is $470 despite 300 USD converting to 400 AUD. The extra $70 is because Australians are prepared to pay higher. Converting the accessories to AUD and adding our special premium, you’re looking at $70 for a joy con, $120 for a pair, $130 for the TV dock and $100 for the pro controller.

2) Technical specifications, where were they? We got the battery’s life ranges between 2.5 and 6 hours, with Zelda lasting for 3 hours. That’s quite adequate in this day of USB charging and generic battery packs, and note that some mobile games will deplete your phone’s battery in 2 hours. As for the system’s processing power, there was nothing, not even a hint of its capability. As mentioned in the Nintendo Switch Preview, it needs to be at least PS4 level or close enough to it. Otherwise it’s kiss those third party developers goodbye if the system is not a raging success in its first two years.

3) As much as the joy cons have this fancy technology, it will all mean nothing if games designed specifically for it don’t sell. Two games were shown:  1-2-Switch looked like a collection of standard motion control gimmick games, while Arms had potential. Then consider those players, like myself, not interesting in such games anyway. Potentially all this technology has done is jack up the price of the system for no reason. If the joy cons were basic button and stick controllers, you easily launch the system at $250 in the USA and $400 in Australia.

4) Launch games. Other than Zelda, that’s it! 1-2-Switch is confirmed; whether that means much, no one knows. It’s untried. If you were juiced for a Switch day 1 with plenty of great games, you’re disappointed.

5) Nothing about the Virtual Console or whether games you already own on Wii U or 3DS can be transferred free to the Switch. This simply better happen! I’d love to play Shovel Knight on the big screen, while Wii U players would love to travel with their potentially already voluminous library of Virtual Console and eShop games.

6) Online play is only free for a few months. If this period starts from March 3, rather than when you activate the system, that’s even more disappointing, bordering on woeful. Note that Sony and Microsoft charge a subscription to play online so Nintendo’s version is only a miss because it was previously free. One bonus from the Nintendo subscription is you get to play a free NES or SNES each month. To keep it permanently you must pay for it. While that sounds a bit stingy, if it’s a choice of any game, you can re-download it in the next month if you never finished it.

CONCLUSION

Many of us haven’t learnt from history. Despite wanting several compelling games and the Virtual Console brimming with Nintendo classics on launch, Nintendo don’t operate this way. Even the notion of a “system selling launch title” is bogus. There’s probably never been such a thing for any system, non-Nintendo included. You get system selling games over time, like Street Fighter 2 on the SNES, not day 1 monsters. This time is actually a slight exception given that Zelda – yes, a brand new Zelda game – is available on launch. That will sweep up those fans.

For the less fanatical players and the broader audience, Nintendo’s strategy is get the system out with a strong statement about its capabilities and a grand plan of future games to get you salivating, and then build momentum over the year releasing those games. Then comes the inevitable price drop and a pack-in game to begin reeling in all those that nibbled on the original bait. Selling crazy amounts of systems on day 1, it’s no chance, nor is it their goal. It’s doubtful they can produce enough units for such a demand anyway. Look at the disaster with the NES Classic.

Personally, I’m waiting. The price is too high, and I have plenty of other games to complete, and even start, than to donate more money to gaming companies. Because I bypassed the Wii U, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is of huge interest. With Super Mario Odyssey later in the year and Zelda long out, that’s three compelling games already, and there could be other surprises. Metroid? F-Zero? Star Fox? I’m in.

The broader market will be much tougher to crack. Competition from Sony, Microsoft and mobile these days is so fierce, and the market has changed. Christmas 2017 will be the pivotal time. The market for PS4 and Xbox One should be well filled by this point, leaving a void for Nintendo to exploit with their marquee titles, discount pricing and, possibly, new found hype as a result of games taking full advantage of the joy cons. Otherwise, it’s life again as a niche player, and a long-term future as a games developer only.

Warrior’s Video Games of 2016 & Nintendo Switch Preview

5 January 2016

Pokemon! Finally I understand this phenomenon despite being surrounded by it for 20 years. No, it’s nothing to do with that dopey non-game Pokemon Go either. It’s Pokemon Shuffle, and by extension Pokemon Sun/Moon, Pokemon soft toys and even a Pokemon book. Pokemon Shuffle is a puzzle game, free on 3DS or mobile device, with the purpose of matching 3 or more Pokemon symbols to defeat the stage Pokemon. After defeating the stage Pokemon, you then try to capture it. The beauty of the game is each Pokemon have different abilities, so the trick is gathering the right team to fight the stage Pokemon. This optimisation of your support team becomes particularly critical on stages with very powerful Pokemon.

Pokemon Shuffle

After logging 199 hours in 2015, I logged another 275 hours in 2016. Not bad value for a free game. You can “cheat” to a degree and buy gems, which buys you coins, which buys you abilities like 5 extra moves (800 coins) or double attack power (3000 coins). I’ve not done that because the other tactic works just as effectively: patience. 500 coins are awarded each day, and with coins added for completing stages (100 for normal stages, 200 for special stages and up to 5000 on the weekly coin bonus stage), it doesn’t take long to buy an ability to get past the really difficult stages and catch the Pokemon just beaten. Catching those Pokemon, as with all Pokemon games, is the game’s great lure, and it becomes an obsession to catch them all. Tougher ones to catch might require a great ball at 2500 coins.

The real beauty of Pokemon Shuffle is you quickly learn about Pokemon, their abilities and their strengths and weakness against each other. Yes, some become your favourites like Mewtwo and Garchomp, which is quite ridiculous since they are merely face symbols in this game. It was when I saw a Mega Garchomp soft toy in all his full-body glory at EB Games that I became fascinated. Wow, these are really crazy looking creatures! Eventually I’d buy it, along with a Mewtwo amiibo and several others, and then a Pokemon book detailing all 700+ Pokemon. Understanding this craze means I can revisit Pokemon X/Y from two years ago, and then get cracking with Sun/Moon that I got for Christmas.

Mega Garchomp soft toy

My cuddly Mega Garchomp

Now for the mind zap! Those 275 hours this year are not the full story because I’ve logged another 153 hours on my old 3DS. Yes, I have two games running. I’m not as fastidious about collecting everything on the old 3DS, and it’s about 70 main and 10 expert stages behind the New 3DS. Also, having cleared stages in advance on the New 3DS I know which Pokemon are worth catching on the old one, so that’s speeding up my run through that game. I’m at stage 525 on my New 3DS of, I presume, 530 available. Nintendo add stages over time and when waiting for more or stuck on a stage and low on coins, I usually go back to try catch older Pokemon or clear expert stages.

Is Pokemon Shuffle the Game Of The Year? No! First, it was released in 2015. Second, the hours logged typifies the current frenetic society we live in, the increasing lack of interesting games and, most of all, its system of allocating play time. You get 1 play ever 30 minutes and can only store 5 plays at a time, so I find myself whipping it out every few hours for a dose before returning to other things. Or, even play it while doing other things, like watching TV. Do that a few times a day for about a 45 minutes all up and that’s your 275 hours in a year.

3DS Activity Log – 2016

01 Pokemon Shuffle 275:33, 199:35
02 Mii Plaza 22:32, 127:10, 33:31
03 Yoshi’s New Island 6:24
04 Mario Golf World Tour 5:45, 1:06
05 Mini Mario & Friends Amiibo Challenge 3:20
06 Super Smash Bros 2:03, 13:09, 10:40
07 Castlevania III Dracula’s Curse NES 1:56
08 Pocket Card Jockey (Demo) 1:42
09 Aqua Moto Racing 3D 1:15, 5:02
10 Mario Tennis Open 0:52, 5:02, 12:30

Subsequent figures represent play time of previous years. The big drop was Mii Plaza from 127 hours to 22. That’s largely a result of completing most mini games and becoming less interested overall in them. Mii Plaza is the game integrated into the system, so it’s a sad state of affairs when a bunch of mini games and a free game are the most played games of the year. Amiibo Challenge is also free, as is Pocket Card Jockey, a demo. Strangely, Shovel Knight didn’t appear in the Activity Log, and I know I definitely played that once, and for a few hours. The only new games (“new” as in newly acquired, as both were released in 2014) of significance in the list are Yoshi’s New Island and Mario Golf World Tour. Both are excellent. If not for that damn Pokemon Shuffle, I’d have played them more.

I only walked 221,271 steps with the 3DS this year, down from over 500,000 last year and 1.1 million the year before. In 2014 I was obsessed to get a million steps so carried the 3DS everywhere, while figures for 2015 were bumped by two overseas trips and therefore plenty of walking. Losing incentive to play the Mii Plaza mini games means I’m more likely to leave it at home these days. Note: walking at least 1000 steps per day awards you 10 coins and the chance to hit other players, meaning access to the mini games.

3DS Activity Log – Overall

01 Pokemon Shuffle 479:33 (plus 254:19 on old 3DS)
02 Mii Plaza 206:19
03 Mario Kart 7 181:53
04 Star Fox 64 3D 56:02
05 Super Smash Bros 25:52
06 Double Dragon NES 18:45
07 Mario Tennis Open 18:25
08 Pilotwings Resort 13:34
09 Tetris Ultimate 11:03
10 Fire Emblem Awakening 9:40
11 Mario Golf World Tour 6:51
12 Ninja Gaiden 3 NES 6:50
13 Yoshi’s New Island 6:24
14 Nintendogs + Cats 5:58
15 Pokemon X 5:35
16 Ultimate NEX Remix 4:59
17 Steel Diver 3:20
18 Aqua Moto Racing 3D 2:33
19 Super Mario 3D Land 2:30
20 Shovel Knight 2:12

The surprise entry missing from the 2016 list is Mario Kart 7. For the rare gatherings with gaming acquaintances this year, we would play Mario 8 on someone’s Wii U. Even so, I’m surprised the great game of MK7 stayed out of the system all year. Wow.

The real shocker with this list is over 700 hours with Pokemon Shuffle. That’s lunacy! The only game I know categorically I’ve played more in my life is Audiosurf on PC. That’s at over 800 hours last check, so I might need to revisit it to keep it in front. Or play less Pokemon Shuffle? Nup. I’m addicted.

What else?

Even though I’ve rubbished gaming in general, I did buy a PlayStation 4 leading up to Christmas. Prices were so discounted that it was an insult not to buy one. Being a Star Wars nut, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars Battlefront were two of 3 games bought, with the third being No Man’s Sky. All are old releases so were cheap, which was part of the attraction in buying the PS4 to begin with. Notice a trend here? For most of my purchases for the last 5 or 6 years I’ve waited for them to be discounted. Or they are requests for birthdays or Christmas. Mostly it’s because I’ve a backlog of other games to play. If something truly exceptional arrives, I’ll buy it day one. The last purchase of that type was the New 3DS and Super Smash Bros two years ago. Even then, Target had the system at $20 and the game at $15 below RRP. Target always have the best prices.

All three of the PS4 games are good without hardly being ground-breaking. Star Wars Battlefront I only play the skirmish modes anyway since I don’t play online, TFA is a Lego game as we all know it with a few extra novelty bits, and NMS is… Well, I never knew of the hype about this game as I don’t avidly follow gaming news, so I hit it without any uber crazy expectations. In fact, the publicity as a result of failing to meet all the hype actually meant my expectations were low. So far it’s ok, and I’ve visited a couple of planets already.

My only real question with No Man’s Sky is: what is the point of it? There’s not an obvious objective like with most games. You’re plonked onto a planet and start doing stuff. Maybe it’s a Seinfeld game – a game about nothing. It could work!

With the hysteria about the Nintendo Classic NES Mini, I pulled out my actual NES and revisited the past. Castlevania, Ghosts n Goblins, Journey to Silius, Air Fortress and Elite – all as good as remembered, and the battery in the Elite cartridge hadn’t died either! I thought they had a life of only 5 years, so it was good to see all my game saves still there. Naturally once I got into the game from the last save point I was ambushed and quickly destroyed. I also have a Raspberry Pi with NES and SNES emulators and all the classic games so it does make you wonder why the hysteria about the NES Mini was so high. No doubt it’s the nostalgia, owning something official and the fact so few were shipped. I estimate about a 5 to 1 shortage, and how Nintendo never realised this in advance is stunning. Suffice to say I’ll probably get one eventually. Even though I can play the games any time now, it is such a great little package, very well made and so convenient.

 

GAME OF THE YEAR FOR 2016

Yoshi’s New Island!

Yoshi's New Island - Game of the Year

It’s simple. It’s the “new” game I bought this year that not only provided me with the most hours of play time, it was the most fun.

For games released in 2016, it’s either Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakes or No Man’s Sky. I’ll go for TFA.

 

NINTENDO SWITCH PREVIEW

Can Nintendo make a comeback? The Switch represents the first “normal” system since the Gamecube was released in 2002. I never got into the gesture and gimmick controls of the Wii and Wii U, so proudly sat out those systems. The Switch seems to be the anti-Wii and Wii-U in every sense, with conventional controls, conventional games and aimed at a conventional gaming audience – dare I say, “gamers”. The only thing I don’t like is the lack of a d-pad on the left side of the device. A Nintendo controller without a d-pad, it’s wrong, so wrong. While it’s to facilitate mobile 2-player gaming when sliding the two controllers from the device, that’s such a low-priority inclusion that losing a conventional d-pad is not worth the sacrifice. Besides, you could mimic conventional button use in this mode by using the various points on the d-pad anyway. Also, how can a game go from requiring both controllers in single-player mode to only one controller in 2-player mode? Seems weird. I bet anyone serious on 2-player mobile gaming would buy a second controller.

As with any system, games will be the key to success, and that’s even more crucial for the Switch. To recover that more serious side of the gaming market, Nintendo will need to undo two generations of damage caused by appealing to casuals with the Wii and losing the plot with the Wii U. Not only is a strong software line-up on launch and for the rest of 2017 required, the system needs to be powerful enough to get third-party support over its life. It needs to be close enough to PS4 in power to achieve this, and easy to develop for. Arriving two years after the PS4, it should be near enough as powerful, otherwise Nintendo may as well give up now. Battery life will also be important. With USB charging ubiquitous these days, 2.5 hours is wearable, 3 hours is preferable, anything more a bonus. Less than 2.5 hours will be bad publicity, and bad publicity is the one thing Nintendo can ill afford to receive. Everything must be positive.

Keys to Success

1) Near enough powerful as the PS4 and priced to match
2) Battery life about 3 hours
3) A system selling launch title
4) The best Wii U games like Mario Kart 8 on launch
5) A succession of strong follow-up titles, both new and Wii U ports
6) A comprehensive virtual console of all current popular titles and add Gamecube games
7) Region free to buy games anywhere in the world

What will you get for the price? My guess is for $250 USD, you get the basic device with the side controllers. For an extra $50 you get the dock and the controller grip. In Australia that’s $330 and $70. Full details will be known on January 12 or 13, depending on your part of the world. As a long-time and usually loyal Nintendo fan, I’m not only hoping for the best, this time I’m expecting it.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – The Complete Review

15 December 2016

Rebellions are built on hope, and so are Star Wars movies that deviate from the broader Star Wars narrative and its familiar characters. With this being the first of its type, Rogue One managed to succeed with a brilliant and emotional finale, after a somewhat chaotic and meandering start. It had a tough task considering its primary objective of detailing the Rebellion’s acquisition of the Imperial Death Star plans was not only one solitary event of many in Star Wars history, it had a known outcome. To broaden the scope of the movie, the formation of the Rogue One squad became a prominent event, which, without the Star Wars setting, would not have been that interesting. Within the group, there was no major character arc like with Rey from The Force Awakens. This was merely about two people and a droid randomly gathering a bunch of outcasts to eventually become Rogue One.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - The On-Fleek Review

Jyn Erso, the main character, didn’t benefit from any great development either. While she was impressive, comparing against Ray again, her arc was flat. We knew she was rebellious and fierce from the start, and that’s how she finished. Whereas Rey, the nondescript scavenger became the future hope of the galaxy. Without a strong character to pull you deep into the movie, the plot and, particularly, the action were left to hold attention, and that’s where the movie excelled.

Supporting characters were barely memorable. Captain Andor Cassian, who led the mission, lacked any hint of charisma. The new droid, K-2SO, whose introduction scene portended greatness, proved a disappointment. His humour was too smug to be funny, his moving eyeballs looked creepy, and ultimately he provided few memorable moments. The rest of the cast, outcasts as they were, were limited in their scope. Because of their nature, banter between them wasn’t as free flowing or natural as we’ve come to expect, unlike with Han Solo and Chewbacca from TFA. Where they provided natural comedy, there wasn’t any of that in Rogue One. The movie’s tactic was to revert to action scenes to bond these characters. The planet Jedha was a prime example, where Jyn and Cassian engaged in some anti-Stormtrooper shenanigans and picked up a few extras for their eventual rogue group.

As to the action itself, it was interstellar! It’s probably the best ever. The fire-fights and combat on the ground, the space battles – it was all peerless in its choreography, execution and technically perfect. You may quibble about the CGI used to reprise Governor Tarkin, that it didn’t look quite right. It won’t next to live actors. As much as CGI can recreate almost everything in reality, eyes looked too glassy and body movement was a bit stilted. Personally, Tarkin is not such a major character that a lookalike actor could not have served just as well. Also a highlight was seeing the nascent Rebellion in action. This was no well organised, cohesive force as seen in the original trilogy. There were several splinter groups within it, each with their own ways and limits to rebel, which no doubt enhanced the rogue capabilities of the rebellion itself, and even making the entire Rogue One operation possible.

It’s not a new Star Wars movie without nostalgia. While there were no great great flow of emotional moments like seeing Han and Chewie, and Leia and Luke Skywalker, in TFA, there were plenty of nods to bit players. Noting that Rogue One directly precedes Episode 4: A New Hope, several Rebel fighters were reprised from the attack on the Death Star, and they and their banter will put a grin on your face, while familiar droids, aliens and Imperial senior officers also appear (keep up your visual scanning). The filmmakers struck the balance right by not pimping out the iconic characters like Darth Vader. While he appears, it’s totally appropriate, and not at all gratuitous. If there’s something even remotely critical about Darth in Rogue One it’s the actor playing him had too much hip movement. Darth’s initial scene he struts out a bit like a catwalk model.

Rogue One is not the conventional Star Wars movie, rich in character exploration and Force mythology, as you expect. It doesn’t even want to pretend it’s Star Wars as you don’t see “Star Wars” mentioned anywhere the film. Certainly not in the opening. Other than learning the design flaw in the Death Star was intentional (apologies to the Empire for believing all those years you were inept), there’s no real revelations either. It’s firmly a movie about plot; the telling of a particular event. Most of the characters aren’t memorable, not that you’ll need to remember them. Early on, it swings all over the galaxy so fast, visiting new planets and introducing new characters, that it makes it difficult to keep track – particularly of the characters and their importance, and even their link to each other. Eventually you get there. Most of all it’s that wonderful finale to savour and remember. It could not have finished more perfectly and provides the greatest surprise itself.

When Rogue One is released for the home market, no doubt repeat views will be to start from that mesmerising final hour. In a sense Rogue One’s closest similarity to other Star Wars films is with Return Of The Jedi. Both do as they need at the start to get going, and then finish in a blaze of glory. History is likely to sit Rogue One and ROTJ next to each other as comparable. That’s certainly my view of it.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Review
Ranking the Star Wars Movies – Episodes 1 to 6

 

16 December 2016
Second View and Spoiler Section

Rogue One was far more emotional the second time. There were tears, and I might need to even elevate it above ROTJ one day. A bit more of the plot came to life, particularly the conflicting objectives Cassian had to deal with – the orders from the Rebels and Jyn’s mission to find her father. The group of rogues began to become quite loveable, mostly because they were so brave.

All the name-dropping made sense, the plot aligned, and knowing Jyn’s father from the start really helped. The trailers made me presume Director Krennic was Jyn’s father, so watched the film with that as a firm preconception. I thought the young Jyn was kept hidden from her father, either adopted or with special guardians, much like the case with Luke Skywalker. I never realised it was papa Erso there in those opening scenes. The holographic message Jyn saw on Jedha was the first trigger that her father wasn’t Krennic, before confirmation with the attack on the rainy planet of Eadu. Interestingly, my sister found the movie intriguing all the way. Maybe I let my inner Star Wars geek over-think things. Speaking of geeks, much of the laughter at K-2SO at the midnight session was forced. For this second view, on a late Thursday afternoon with a mainstream audience, barely a laugh heard. I’m reconciled to believe K-2SO isn’t meant to be funny, nor is Rogue One meant to be a funny movie. It was about a deadly serious movie about a deadly serious mission.

Many scenes in the trailers, even iconic scenes, never made it to the movie. Notably Jyn’s “I rebel” line and the scene where she’s confronted by a Tie Fighter on a platform. While watching I was waiting for the “I rebel” moment, expecting Jyn would return to the Rebel base after her successful mission to explain herself going rogue. Maybe showing such scenes to keep the audience guessing was all part of the plan?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - one of the missing scenes

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – one of the missing scenes

Mysteries. Rarely do you leave a Star Wars movie without questions circulating in your head. Given the nature of this movie and its settled conclusion, there’s nothing. Maybe you could ask why did the Empire destroy the their base on Scarif. Was it a last ditch insurance against the plans being stolen? Also curious was that the Rebels could rebuild their fleet as seen in Episodes 5 and 6 after so many familiar ones, like the medical frigate and the flagship, were either destroyed or captured in Rogue One. The number of capital ships seemed about the same in both movies, suggesting you couldn’t acquire them easily, otherwise the Rebellion would have far more for the attack on the second Death Star. Probably ships were added as more systems joined the Rebellion. The success of the Rogue One operation certainly would have inspired others.

Thank you that Jyn and Cassian never kissed!

 

29 December 2016
Third View – Hyper Critical

After 13 days without Rogue One, there’s only so long you can meditate, so it was to time to medicate by returning to the cinema. This would be the first in 2D as, except for IMAX, the 3D sessions had already disappeared. Don’t worry, I’ll deal with IMAX soon enough – in 10 days to be precise. Fear. Fear of losing that extra dimension would not be enough to stop me going this week.

It turned out the film was perfectly fine in 2D. Partially that is because the 3D didn’t pop like you normally expect, the cinema was brand new with a super big screen and Dolby Atmos sound, and it’s Star Wars, so it’s good on anything. The only difference I really noted is that Krennic’s tunic didn’t seem as wrinkled and Governor Tarkin looked more natural.

Nothing much felt different with the pacing of the film. It’s still meandering at times, and it’s only less chaotic at the start because you are now fully aware of how everything is connected. Drastic improvements could be made by cutting some of the opening scenes. No need for the market place scene where Cassian learnt about the defecting Imperial pilot. While its purpose was to show Cassian had a ruthless streak, this aspect of his character (actually, an aspect of most rebels at this stage of the Rebellion) was never explored further so it became irrelevant. Same deal with the scene on Jedha when the Imperial pilot was taken to Saw Gerrera. It added nothing. To be really bold, the opening scene can go, as the fate of the Ersos is told later during the hologram scene and through Jyn’s flashbacks. The film would therefore start with the rescue of Jyn. You could easily work in the ubiquitous Star Wars opening spaceship scene by showing the rescue force arriving on the planet where Jyn was held. If you want to preserve the approach to the beautiful Ring of Kafrene from the market place scene, then put Jyn there to be rescued, rather than drab Wobani.

Speaking of Jyn, a key aspect of her character was incomplete. What was the big deal about her having a blaster? Why would she shoot Cassian? K-2SO said the chances of that were high – very high. For some reason, Rebel command didn’t quite trust her. Either add an appropriate scene to show she’s a problem, or cut the scene inferring she’s a problem. Trust goes both ways.

The real clumsy area of the movie involves the fate of Galen Erso. The Rebels rescue Jyn to get to her father, just so they could kill him. It made little sense. Why kill him when the Death Star was already built and apparently the mission was also to learn about it? It seemed like petty revenge. This scene on rainy Eadu served mostly to galvanise the rogue group – and add a gratuitous X-Wing vs Tie Fighter battle scene, and to steal an Imperial shuttle. Surely it would have been better if Galen was on Scarif where the Death Star plans were stored, and somehow his rescue is intertwined with stealing the plans.

Dialogue, while not crucial in this film, needed tweaks. The most obvious is the designation of Rogue One itself. We’re supposed to believe it came from the spontaneity of the bumbling Imperial pilot flying the rogues to Scarif? Surely, “rogue” needed to be mentioned earlier, preferably by Jyn. Something like “So I’ve acquired a bunch of rogues, have I?” when certain rebels splintered from the decision not to attack Scarif. Then on the shuttle, you have that connection, like a confirmation of “rogue” by the Imperial pilot with Jyn before he adds the “one”.

It’s settled with K-2SO. He’s not funny! Barely any laughter during this almost full house. The only scenes of genuine laughter were “Cassian said I had to” when he told Jyn he’s joining her rogue group, and on Jedha when Jyn shot an identical Imperial droid just in front of K-2SO and he said “did you know that wasn’t me”. The real flaw with him is that he’s too humanised. Not only using his eyes moving to convey emotion, his neck is overly dexterous too. Droids should be droids.

Unlike most Star Wars movies, memorable lines are very few. The only one I’ve caught myself saying is “light it up”. “Rebellions are built on hope” is the basis of the film and that could be borrowed, while “I’m one with the force and the force is with me” is too hokey to be useful. The line I currently use often was cut from the film: “I rebel”. “Are you with me”, the key line in the August trailer, is sadly missing. I really wanted to yell out, “hell yeah”.

Even though I carefully listened, the exchange near the end between Mon Mothma and Bail Organa is incomplete. She mentions his hidden Jedi friend, and he responds about being served well by him in the Clone Wars, and then adds “I would trust her with my life”. Her? Somehow it skipped from Obi-Wan to Princess Leia. Even though this dialogue helps set the foundation for Leia’s future role, it was superfluous to the film other for a minor nostalgia effect.

The most interesting lines I picked up were the references to Red Five during the final battle. While immediate reaction is to think “OMG, that’s Luke Skywalker!”, remember he was still bullseyeing wamp rats in his T-16 back home at this stage. It would have been fun had there been a line in the film, “Oh, we’ve lost Red Five” – just to jolt our conscience.

I’m still not comfortable with the way the shield protecting Scarif was destroyed. Why was there the need to push the stricken Star Destroyer into a capable one nearby? Why didn’t the capable one fly away? Why not simply push the stricken Star Destroyer into the shield gate? That alone would have been enough. If that couldn’t be done or wasn’t enough, sacrifice one of the rebel cruisers!

What’s the time frame between the end of Rogue One and Episode 4? With escape pods readied and alarms sounding, it seems only minutes. I wanted to believe the corvette escaped and the Rebels had time to celebrate and regroup. Or maybe it’s not so immediate? Consider they’re still over Scarif, not Tatooine, R2-D2 and C-3PO were no where to be seen, the ship clearly wasn’t on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan, and Leia spoke of hope. There’s not too much hope if Darth is still on your tail.

Speaking of Darth Vader, his final scene is still so mesmerising. We’ve never seen Darth (as Darth, not Anakin) before at full power, so it was a brilliant addition to the film. With Rogue One being the first true sequel to the original trilogy – as it was set in the same time frame – it’s potential moments like these that made the anticipation for this film so high. Then with all the other references – the Rebellion, the Empire, Stormtroopers, the Death Star, X-Wings, Tie Fighters, AT-ATs and, most important of all, Princess Leia herself – it hit all the marks.

Most memorable with this film, especially the more you see it, is it becomes so much more emotional. It tugs at you like no other Star Wars film does. That’s because those once nondescript Rogues become far more attached each time you relive their heroics. As each one gets popped off, it becomes sadder and sadder. Even K-2SO, you begin to feel for him. As for the final scene with Jyn and Cassian, it’s almost unwatchable. It’s a tear-jerker way before it happens. Then you leave with that one word planted in your head: Hope. That’s the true legacy of this movie.

I wouldn’t change the original rating of this film – about the same level as Return Of The Jedi. Sometimes on reflection our feelings magnify, believing it’s better than we initially felt. With those initial feelings there was ambivalence, particularly during it. It was those final few sequences that seem to sweep everything else prior away. I also look to applause, particularly the geek-infested midnight sessions. The odd smattering, that’s it. The Force Awakens had quite a bit more, while the modern Star Wars sequel that had the biggest applause remains Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones.

With Carrie Fisher dying this week, it’s poetic Princess Leia had the very last word in Rogue One. Ironically, the news of Carrie’s death was the same day of this trek to see Rogue One. Then her mother, Debbie Reynolds, dies the following day, today. One can’t be sad. Both had great lives, and now Debbie won’t suffer the greatest pain of all is avoided: losing her daughter. She and Carrie are quickly reunited again. May the force be with you, both.

 

8 January 2017
Fourth View – IMAX

This was the most satisfying Rogue One experience yet. From the first scene to the last, I was engrossed. It wasn’t just because of the mind-blowing IMAX 3D experience either, it’s the fact of seeing a Star Wars film multiple times. They grow on you. All of them. I seem to recall it was the fourth view with the previous ones, certainly with The Force Awakens, that proved the best experience too. Every scene becomes pivotal. Every word means something. Every emotion feels real. It becomes the complete experience as always intended.

Much of this extra level of enjoyment simply revolves around familiarity. The words matter because the characters and the plot are now fully exposed and understood. Therefore you make the smallest connections whereas the initial views many scenes and dialogue seemed superfluous. One example is Red Five. In the previous view I mentioned finally hearing the designation. During this view I realised he was the pudgy pilot, not an unseen one left open for speculation that it might be Luke. No, Red Five is there, and he calls for help before being zapped.

Finally I’m picking up, or at least remembering, some more lines. The best in this movie is from Darth to Krennic: “Don’t choke on your aspirations.” I’ll be using that in everyday language. “Single reactor ignition” about Death Star’s laser is informative as well as useful, and “Light it up”, as mentioned in an earlier view, I’ve already used. Jyn wasn’t sure whether it was “alliance” or “rebels” when talking to Saw, and I noticed she had the exact same hairstyle as papa Erso. After Jyn, the next best character is Baze (long haired Asian guy). The worst is the Imperial pilot. Clearly they were clueless about the sort of character he should be.

With the finale, I noticed the Tantive IV did jump into hyperspace, so they could easily be at another star system (Tatooine) when next caught by Vader. While that fixes one hole in the plot that Episode 4 proceeded minutes after Rogue One, there’s still the problem that Leia was clearly not on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan. She’d need to be on drugs to expect Vader to believe that. The best case scenario is at some point earlier she was on the way there to meet Bail Organa, before being diverted to help at Scarif. Let’s also give credit again for the outstanding finale itself. In the trailers Jyn was seen running with the Death Star plans along the beach and obviously she made it off the planet. Then what – killed by Darth? That would have been unjust. Jyn and Cassian were such gallant and worthy heroes that they deserved the dignified ending they got. As did all of Rogue One.

Do I increase the rating of the film? Noting I had it about the same level as Return Of The Jedi, which I ranked fifth best overall of the 6 released at that time (see link above), yes, it’s definitely better. In fact, I raise it above Revenge Of The Sith. Not that that assuages the flaws that do exist with Rogue One – particularly the patchy first half. After all, it should not be a requirement see a movie four times to gain a full appreciation of it. The ambivalence on the initial view was real and relevant, and must be considered overall when ranking the movie in the Star Wars pantheon. With all these sequels, the balance between mainstream appeal and satisfying rabid fans is always tough. Risk boring one or leave the other unfulfilled? They’ve leant to the side of the fans, and wisely so, to deliver the most authentic Star Wars movie since the original trilogy.

Rogue One Viewing

00:01 15 Dec 2016 – 3D
17:30 15 Dec 2016 – 3D
15:20 28 Dec 2016 – 2D
18:00 07 Jan 2017 – 3D IMAX

Star Wars Ranking 

1) Ep5: The Empire Strikes Back
2) Ep2: Attack Of The Clones
3) Ep4: A New Hope
4) Ep7: The Force Awakens
5) Rogue One
6) Ep4: Revenge Of The Sith
7) Ep6: Return Of The Jedi
8) Ep1: The Phantom Menace