My Favourite Game of 2017 ~ The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

This game is incredible. As far as I’m concerned, it deserves every bit of praise it’s gotten. It was risky to uphaul the Zelda formula and translate it to an open-world setting, but Eiji Aonuma, Hidemaro Fujibayashi and their team managed not only that, but they also ‘fixed’ some of the problems with open-world games in general.

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BotW impressed me just as much as Link tried to impress Prince Sidon here.

You know that open-world game where you climb a big tower to unlock a section of the map flooded with quest markers, then a million icons show up on the UI? Yes, that one! Well, BotW takes a slightly different approach – you only have 1-4 quest markers on your map at any one time, all pertaining to the same active quest, and you don’t get inundated with extra markers telling you where to initiate side quests, nor do you get told where any shrine is in the game by activating some magic “gimme all the locations” button, as if climbing a Shiekah Tower would give Link magical knowledge of which characters in the vicinity require assistance.

Instead, you garner information in a natural way – Link whips out his binoculars and searches for shrines and other points of interest by eye, which is best done from the top of the tower. Each and every Shiekah Tower is positioned such that it’s visible from another tower, and there’s never any imposing notification on-screen broadcasting the position of the next one – you go to whichever one you want, or to none at all. It’s seamlessly organic. The visual diarrhoea that clutters other games is wiped away here and it’s so refreshing. The most prominent markers on your map will be the ones you place yourself, and they’re only visible in the real world when looking through the scope.

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Twink Link riding a bear.

The soundtrack also contrasts itself with other Zelda soundtracks by forgoing the bombastic Hyrule Field themes found in earlier titles and replacing them with relative silence. Standing in the middle of Hyrule Field in the world of Breath of the Wild, your ears fill with the sound of wind rustling through the grass with the occasional soft piano. That or an aggressive piano riff coupled with angry Guardian laser beams, anyway. Games have historically conditioned us to expect music to play at all times, but the audio design of BotW rejects that idea and the relative lack of music reinforces the vastness of the world far better than any of Manaka Kataoka’s fantastically quiet tunes ever could. I want to state it outright: Breath of the Wild has the best audio design of any Zelda game, maybe any game I’ve ever played. From this point on, I want games to embrace silence where appropriate. This isn’t to say the game is completely silent – there’s still combat music, there are still joyful tunes coming out of towns and there are nods everywhere to Zelda’s unmatched musical legacy when you ride a horse, when you approach a stable or even in Hyrule Castle itself.

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A completely innocent transaction.

The weapon system is controversial, to say the least. I see the merits of both sides of the argument, but ultimately I think I like it more than I see flaws in it. While I think durabilities of weapons could be just a little bit longer, and there ought to be a more granular way of seeing how long your weapon has left besides “it is brand new” and “it is about to vapourise in your hands”, I also commend it for encouraging you to try out new things. It’s still odd that a game that spends all its time saying “yes” to the player’s every idea then takes weapons away from you so quickly, but I feel like you’d be playing this game wrong somehow if you didn’t explore the unparalleled depth of the combat mechanics. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ways you can take down an enemy:

  • Hit them at close range with with a sword, spear or club;
  • Shoot them from afar with a bow;
  • Flurry Rush;
  • Critical hit on their weak point;
  • Airborne attack with a bomb, or bullet time with your bow;
  • Percussive force delivered by horse;
  • A motorcycle to the face;
  • Picking up a Stal-enemy’s head and kicking it into water like a football;
  • Using Stasis on a boulder and flinging it at them;
  • Freezing them with Ice Arrows, Ice Chu Jelly or a Frost weapon and then using a Korok Leaf to blow them off a cliff;
  • Using Magnesis to slam a 10ft metal door in their face;
  • Using a humble pot lid to reflect a beam of pure angry laser energy back at them;
  • Throwing a Cuckoo near them while they are taking a swing so they invoke the wrath of the feathered beasts;
  • Tying Octo Balloons to a raft, then using a Korok Leaf to blow it over an enemy camp, leaping off it and slamming your weapon into the ground to make a deadly shockwave that was so badass, it also killed you;
  • Taking them by surprise with a boomerang backswing;
  • Even better than just a boomerang – catching one in midair and using it to cut up enemies like a supercharged blender;
  • Slapstick comedy, courtesy of the Spring-Loaded Hammer;
  • Waiting for the correct moment in a thunderstorm and throwing anything made of metal at them – guaranteed to shock;
  • Literally tearing their skeletal arm off and playing the old lighthearted playground game, “Stop Hitting Yourself”;
  • Pinpoint deforestation;
  • BEES!
  • Cliché videogame explosive barrels;
  • Turf war

The point here is that Breath of the Wild‘s combat system requires creativity and invention to get the most out of what it offers. And boy does it offer a lot. I’ve heard that, at points during development, the entire dev team put down their tools and just played the game, and I’m willing to wager this is where the emergent behaviour of the combat system stems from.

I might also have added some kind of forging mechanic, in the same vein as the cooking system. I loved cooking and I feel like forging your weapons using the gemstones you find throughout the game for repair purposes, or even to decorate your favourite weapon, could have worked.

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I can hear the cooking jingle in my head right now.

On the subject of cooking, it’s one of the most novel crafting systems I’ve seen. You just throw a bunch of things in a pot and hope it pans out. I often tested new combinations to see what stuck and worked everything out for myself – better grades of meat give you more health back, adding honey makes lots of meals better and sticking a bunch of ingredients with the same buff strengthens that buff. Adding two different types of buff cancels them both out, so you need to carefully consider each addition to the recipe. You’re punished with Dubious Food if your ingredients make no sense. The system gives the player a lot of freedom in trying out new combinations, which fits with the game’s theme of saying “yes” to the player as much as possible.

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You’ll be a big fan of the anxiety-inducing piano riff by the end. I call it Hyrule Syndrome.

If you’ve not played this game yet, discard the idea that the game has dungeons all together. Well, almost. It’s far better if you assume it has none and treat the four Divine Beasts as intricate, oversized Shrines as opposed to small dungeons. That way, you’ll be less disappointed. Not that I think the Divine Beasts are bad at all! Their approach to dungeon puzzle design hinges on a different core mechanic based on the movement of the Beast, a concept I really hope gets spun out, expanded and refined in the next Zelda game. On top of this, the shrines make fantastic use of Link’s Shiekah Slate runes, the replacement of key items. From the time you leave the Plateau, Link has every key ability he needs to do every single Divine Beast and every shrine.

My favourite Shrine, or rather, my favourite Shrine Quest, is Eventide Island, as many veterans of the game will proclaim. This quest strips Link, quite literally, of all his hard-earned gear and tasks him with collecting three orbs hidden around a remote island, which acts as a vertical slice of the whole game. Presuming that you’ve made quite a bit of progress in the game to get here, as you’ll need a lot of stamina to fly all the way, it’s refreshing to return to basics and experience everything you felt in the first couple hours of the game on the Great Plateau. You’ll scavenge weapons and dodge enemy attacks out of necessity, as your defence is near-zero, and you’ll have to find a way to distract a dumbfounded Hinox long enough to sneak away the orb it’s guarding. It’s a welcome breather that reinforces all that you learned at the very beginning.

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Twink Link tries his best to sway an unsuspecting young man, and fails.

Now allow me to make a complete 180 on what I just said: Hyrule Castle. Oh my god. So many entrances, so many paths, so many secrets and so much of it is optional, but the whole thing is a treat. It was my favourite area of the entire damn game! The imposing music track blends together Ganondorf’s leitmotif with Zelda’s Lullaby and a healthy dose of the Zelda Overworld Theme, but with a marching beat and a strange 5/4 time signature that dips into 6/4 for some parts. Rarely does a theme set the mood so brilliantly as this one does. There are a couple terrifying moments where you get trapped in a room with a Lynel and your only escape is beating it to death; I used a lot of arrows in these sections. When you do finally reach the top, you’re met with this dude:

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I love Calamity Ganon’s spidery, scorpion-y design.

On top of the base game, there’s the Expansion Pass DLC pack. There’s a few goodies in here – a bunch of nostalgic gear, a real neat map extension that tracks your ENTIRE journey and an extra difficulty – but the main two things are the Master Trials and the bonus Divine Beast. I’m too bad at the game so I’ve not got round to actually finishing the Master Trials, but your reward is changing the Master Sword from foam to actual metal. However, the DLC Divine Beast and the amazing boss fight that follows was great fun; I think it’s best played through when you’ve already finished the game and put it down for a couple months, as the second DLC content feels like a victory lap around some of the game’s best aspects.

This is a game where you can ignore the four Divine Beasts and 116 of the shrines and just go and punch Ganon in the face, if you’re not catapulted out of Hyrule Castle by a volley of Guardian lasers in the process. You can glide off the Great Plateau and start the bulk of your adventure in any direction. Moblins will pick up their fellow Bokoblins and throw them at you in the absence of other weaponry and a lightning bolt will down the toughest foe, so launching your weapon into an enemy camp just before a thunder strike is a viable tactic. These are all things that surprised me when I first saw them in game. Rarely has a Nintendo game handed so much freedom to the player; it trusts that you’ll be able to navigate the treacherous path ahead, even if you’ll see the game over screen several times. After all, the narrative of the game is about Link overcoming challenges and preparing for the final fight against Ganon.

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A friend who is supportive of Twink Link’s choices.

One of the criticisms levelled at the game is that “it’s empty”. I fully disagree. What Nintendo didn’t do here was whip out the terrain-making software, add a few hills and crevices and them throw down Videogame House Model #2, Videogame NPC #17 etc. They made a world. Look deeply into the game’s locales and get lost in the forests, the lakes, the mountains, the volcano, the wilderness. There’s a section that’s permanently subject to thunderstorms. Did there need to be? Does it serve a purpose? Are there any NPCs there? No. But it’s there! And it’s there because it’s interesting that it’s there – areas like that add flavour and make this world feel like a real, varied landscape. Knowing that no two hills in the game look exactly alike, coupled with the sheer size of the overworld, just blows me away. Finishing all of the game’s main and side quests ensure that you get a look at a decent chunk of the world. And getting all 900 Korok seeds makes you touch every pixel of the Hyrulean landmass.

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Twink Link bringing some spice to an ailing honeymoon.

I didn’t intend to write overtwo thousand words about Zelda, but as I thought about how to sum up this game in a paragraph, I realised I couldn’t. A game this vast needs space to breathe and I couldn’t possibly capture my thoughts in such a small space. The first week I played this game filled me with a child-like glee that no game has done in years, and if anything, it’s filled me with hope for gaming’s future. We need more games like this, where the designers throw out the established playbook and go back to basics. THIS is how you reinvent a franchise.

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This game is almost as majectic as THIS beast.

Most importantly, as you might have guessed by now, I’m a big fan of the wardrobe they gave Link. Also, Link can fight Ganon in his boxers, so it’s automatic game of the decade.

Verdict: Fuck me, it might be my favourite game ever.

2017 Games in Review

After I wrote last year about every single game I played in 2016, I feel it’s time again to delve deep into my mind and recall every game I played in 2017. Between university work and social commitments, it’s sometimes difficult to find time for gaming. But with the launch of the Nintendo Switch, I’ve been able to sandwich in about half an hour extra a day on the bus.

Fair warning: my mini-reviews might contain spoilers for each game, so if you’ve not played any of these then close your eyes while reading.

Nintendo Switch

Nintendo is back, as so many news sites and bloggers have proclaimed! You know, because they fell off the Earth’s surface the moment the Wii U was announced. The Switch, and its first-year lineup, choosing not to compete with its rivals in terms of raw power, and instead adopting a Blue Ocean strategy with a home console you can chuck in your bag and take with you anywhere. As someone who commutes onto campus every day on a bus, I’ve been milking the portable aspect of my Switch when I’d otherwise be staring out the window. It’s like the system was tailor-made for people like me! The concept of splitting a pair of Joy-cons works exceptionally well for a university Nintendo Society, and hell, even cheesy launch game 1-2-Switch is a decent ice-breaker for newcomers.

Nintendo also made the intelligent decision to stagger their big hitters throughout the year rather than saturate the launch and holiday periods, as is common for platform holders. They knew that Breath of the Wild would grab headlines, and that Super Mario Odyssey would fuel the Christmas period – why cannibalise yourself and release more than that? It remains to be seen if the momentum will continue, but with a handful of releases primed for next year and main-series Pokemon and Metroid confirmed for Switch, it’s unsurprising that it’s on track to outsell the Wii U’s entire lifespan in just one year.

That’s 2017’s major hardware release – now let’s talk about the games. I’ll be saving my favourite game of the year for its own blog post (subtle hint: it’s Zelda). These are in approximate chronological order.

Fast RMX (Nintendo Switch)

With Breath of the Wild being the largest title at launch and the choice being otherwise limited (I ain’t buying Super Bomberman R for £50), I picked this up to see how the diddy new Joy-con controllers fare in a multiplayer environment, alongside Snipperclips. It offers a rip-roaring, fluid racing experience in F-Zero’s vein, with a buttery smooth framerate. Some of the tracks feel kind of similar to others, but there’s also enough variety here to keep you interested for a while. It doesn’t have the depth and “family-friendly” factor of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but it’s still a solid racer.

Verdict: Fast.

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Snipperclips (Nintendo Switch)

I was surprised to learn that this game wasn’t developed in-house at Nintendo; it was built by London-based indie studio SFB Games and merely published by the Big N. There’s the sort of polish and charm you might expect from a first-party Ninty game – and it’s clear that Nintendo gave its support and guidance to this title.

snipperclipsImage courtesy of Nintendo.

The core concept is simple: each character can ‘snip’ shapes out of the other characters to form buckets, hooks and even egg nests to solve a range of puzzles. Sure, it won’t take you long to see everything it has to offer, but this bundle is well worth the asking price as an entry-level game that near enough anyone can enjoy and it’s a nice example of how split Joy-cons can be used effectively. Even one of my non-gamer friends bugged me to try it out!

Verdict: Charming.

1-2-Switch (Nintendo Switch)

I didn’t purchase this game due to the absurd price tag, and I feel it may have worked better as a pack-in title (I know I’m not alone in this regard), but I appreciate its value as an ice-breaker game and something that acts as a tech demo for the features of the Joy-con controllers.

1_2_switchImage courtesy of Nintendo. I wouldn’t sully my screenshots folder with this!

It’s the sort of game you’d pick up for a few quid in a bargain bin and bring it to a party, play one or twice with a large group of friends, then probably leave on a shelf as a dust magnet. It’s shallow as shallow gets, but it’s pretty good at doing what it set out to do. Just make sure you don’t spend more than about five pounds on it.

Verdict: Milking your wallet.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Nintendo Switch)

I owned and loved Mario Kart 8. Right up until launch, I was on the fence about buying this one, but the improved battle mode (read: it now has a battle mode) and character additions were enough to sway me. Plus, it’s Mario Kart 8 – on the go! It still looks exceedingly pretty, and seeing as it’s out so early on in the console’s lifespan, I’m holding out hope that Mario Kart 9 could be a Switch game.

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The battle modes are varied and alone warrant the upgrade from Mario Kart 8 if you have people to play with (I always find these games are best with local multiplayer). This too is a great icebreaker title for groups of people. I still find it rather impressive to compare handheld MK8D to Mario Kart 7 to see how far handheld gaming has come since the Nintendo 3DS.

Verdict: The best Mario Kart game yet.

Magikarp Jump (Android)

This is allegedly a video game. This mobile tribute to Pokémon’s weakest character was initially amusing – watching my Magikarp flop up meters into the air before falling back to Earth and smashing a hole in the ground made me laugh the first time I saw it. But it soon devolves into mindlessly dragging your thumb around the screen to sweep up berries and stressfully hammering your phone to skip the same menus and training animations you’ve seen a hundred times already. It gets so frustrating to advance anywhere and has all the trappings of your typical mobile game pay-to-win system. On the plus side, if you get tired of your weakling fish, it can get eaten by a Pidgeotto or blown up by a Voltorb. It’s cute, but it’s also a classic trashy mobile game.

Verdict: Totally pathetic, unreliable.

This one doesn’t even deserve a screenshot. It’s Magikarp. You know what Magikarp looks like.

Persona 5 (PS4)

I didn’t play this one, but I watched a playthrough and loved it. The game is so good, even the user interface has personality in abundance. It tells a solid story about a bunch of kids who are sick of corrupt adults getting away with, well, anything. You use an app on your phone (because 2017) and hunt down these people’s ‘shadows’ in an alternative sub-world that coexists with ours. Beating the living snot out of a shadow causes the real-world equivalent to have a ‘change of heart’ and repent all their terrible deeds. It’s an uplifting reminder that we all have the power inside us to bring about societal change, even when things look bleak.

persona_5Image courtesy of Atlus.

However, I had a couple of gripes. First of all, the plot reeeeeeally drags on this time around – I feel it had said all it had to say well before the closing credits, and beyond that were a couple of pointless plot twists and revelations that ultimately didn’t really matter. Second, the game hints at, but never truly explores, the idea that mob justice isn’t the answer and that the Phantom Thieves –  the protagonists – could be considered no better than the awful people they’re punishing. After all, while their intentions are noble, they often act out of a lust for more popularity. I feel the cast sweeps aside the notion that they’d be seen as criminals a bit too quickly, and I’d have liked for the idea to be explored further.

Despite all that, it’s a solid RPG overall. Last Surprise is the catchiest battle theme on Earth and as I mentioned, the battle interfaces have style and substance in spades.

Verdict: Stylish.

Minecraft: Nintendo Switch Edition (Nintendo Switch)

I’m fairly convinced by now that more people on the globe have access to a copy of Minecraft than clean water. So, it was inevitable that a Switch version would be coming, and it holds its own against the other console versions, albeit with smaller world sizes and draw distances. There’s not much else to add to the conversation about Minecraft that’s not already been said, but I did spend 250 hours over Summer playing a game I’d already played to death so it must be worth a look! It’s hands-down the best portable version of the game and the Better Together update, which adds cross-play between the Xbox and PC versions, is slated to come to Switch… at some point.

Verdict: The best portable Minecraft.

minecraft_mansionMy modest home.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo 3DS)

I bought this game in 2014 and, for whatever reason, flung it on my shelf straight away and never actually got round to playing it. Before summer rolled round, I made a resolve: I’d get through the unplayed 3DS (and DS) games I still had lying around in my collection. It’s a goal I did actually manage to fulfil! I’ve never played A Link to the Past (I know, I’m going straight to hell for that), but I gotta say – I was surprised by how much I loved this one. It feels very much like a retro throwback (because it is one), but it’s so expertly crafted that it feels like a modern title.

lbw_maiamaiSqueak! Squeak! I can hear them all now.

The game is extremely easy (I never saw the game over screen once), although increased difficulty doesn’t really do anything for me so I’m pretty neutral about that. Link’s signature new mechanic of superimposing himself on a wall results in inventive puzzles spanning Hyrule and Lorule, and I felt compelled to collect every last collectable for the first time in a Zelda game (no, I’m never getting BotW‘s 900 Koroks). I can’t pinpoint exactly why I found it so addictive to explore the overworld, but it’s certainly one of my favourite 3DS games. It was an absolute joy to play. Plus, the Maiamai are cute and I want a hundred of them.

Verdict: Squeak.

Splatoon 2 (Nintendo Switch)

When it was first announced, and when the Global Testfire was launched, I was worried that this might be far too similar to the originals. And yes, this sequel isn’t exactly a departure from the first Splatoon, but I think it’s fine to play it safe when the franchise is so young. Taking the same approach as Splatoon did with regards to updates – having a constant schedule of free content – is very welcome. Splatoon 2 continues to add new weapon classes, maps and even a new mode recently, and if it continues at this speed then by the time the 16th Splatfest rolls round, it’ll feel more like a sequel, albeit with a core experience that’s mostly unchanged from the first game. Essentially, the format isn’t broken or tired yet and the Switch is capturing audiences that the Wii U couldn’t. Why change things too much?

Verdict: Woomy.

splatoon_2_game3I had no screenshots of team-wipes to put here, unfortunately.

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright (Nintendo 3DS)

I’ve only played two Fire Emblem games – this one and The Sacred Stones, courtesy of the 3DS Ambassador Program – and I very much enjoy the core gameplay of the series. However, as an entry that lives and dies with the quality of the story (after all, this game is split into three games pretty exclusively to tell the same story from three angles), I was bitterly disappointed (warning: there are spoilers coming up). It starts off strong, and barring a couple instances of the party going to off-the-beat locations because reasons, I felt it was building itself up to be a memorable and enjoyable story. Until Lilith died. A character that had not been with the main party since an early chapter, with no indication she’d be anything but an NPC inhabiting your home castle, suddenly shows up to do the whole “character jumps in front of would-be fatal blow to the main protagonist and sacrifices self” thing.

I bloody hate it when stories kill off characters for the sake of killing characters, especially if it’s just for the shock/tearjerker factor, but this one was pretty unforgivable as Lilith wasn’t even travelling with the party, she literally flies out of nowhere. How, then, do you think I felt when the game did the same thing later with Elise? Granted, she’d at least been travelling with the party, but there’s no reason for her death either and I just don’t buy it that Xander would accidentally strike her instead of the main character. C’mon guys, you already used up your deus ex machina quota.

Also, Chapter 21 can go die in a fire (it’s ironic, because it’s a lava level). You have to activate statues with your main character to clear a path, but picking the wrong side floods the arena with lava, slowing you down and spawning extra enemies. On top of that, you can’t clear the path for a few turns. There are three of these statues, and I got caught on all three of them, as it wasn’t obvious to me which side I had to pick (looking it up afterwards, I figured out it was the side of the statue holding an orb, but this wasn’t communicated properly). All taken into account, it’s undoubtedly the worst level of a strategy game I’ve ever played and it almost made me stop playing the game entirely.

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You don’t say? I thought it was the field of daisies right over there.

Needless to say, I won’t be picking up the other two editions of this game. I wouldn’t play through that fucking lava chapter again if you paid me. The final fight with the big bad guy and the ending (well, 33% of it) redeemed the game slightly, but ultimately, the bad parts are too plentiful for me to really recommend it.

Verdict: Disappointing.

Pokémon White Version 2 (Nintendo DS)

When I played through Pokémon White back in 2011, it felt fresh, despite retaining practically all of the hallmarks of the series. It was like someone had sprayed the series with Febreze for the first time since the early 2000’s. I think it was the new batch of Pokémon and the reticence in using older generations of Pokémon that solidified it for me; for the first time, I didn’t encounter a gen 1 wild Pokémon every ten steps. Furthermore, it had a plot I genuinely felt engrossed in.

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Pokémon White 2, then, is a less fresh Pokémon White with a few more bells and whistles. That’s certainly not a bad thing, and it helped that I didn’t jump into this right after playing the first. Playing this after the slicker 3DS entries was somewhat strange, but not as jarring as I expected. I do wish I’d played this at launch though; between this and Pokémon Sun last year, I’m a bit burnt out on the series, so I probably won’t get round to Pokémon Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon for a while. I’m ecstatic that they’re bringing the series to Nintendo Switch, though.

Verdict: Just more Pokémon White.

Sonic Mania (Nintendo Switch)

I’m not even a fan of 2D Sonic games and I don’t know why I bought this. I played it for a bit and encountered a soft-lock glitch at the end of an inventive boss fight I loved, based on Dr Eggman’s Mean Bean Machine, because of course they stuck Puyo Puyo in this 2D Sonic game. Then, I reached an autoscrolling boss fight, got a bit mad with the inexplicable inertia on Sonic’s jump movement during that section, and put the game down. It’s a well-built game and I don’t wanna rag on it, as I can tell a lot of love and effort went into it, but it’s probably just not for me. At least I didn’t buy Sonic Forces instead.

Verdict: Faster than Fast RMX.

sonic_mania_softlockLook! A soft-lock! In a Sonic game! How surprising.

Stardew Valley (Nintendo Switch)

Life sims are the most dangerous kind of game. The number of real-world days I’ve wasted on games like Animal Crossing is unreal, so buying this was like signing up for a home delivery cocaine subscription service. It’s a good job that Stardew Valley is the most homely gaming cocaine on the planet. I love the characters and locations, and while the days initially felt short, I’ve learned to take things slow and complete tasks at my own pace. Farming is addictive, completing Community Centre bundles feels infinitely rewarding and forming bonds with townsfolk fuels their character progression in the form of special cutscenes.

stardew_valley_sebby

Also, I married the shy, cute guy and made him feel loved in a town where he felt invisible. Aww, this game is adorable.

Verdict: Homely.

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)

A system that launches with a game that gets 97 on Metacritic doesn’t usually need the help of other super-heavyweight titles to sustain momentum, just a few solid titles to tide it over into the next year. Nintendo disagreed and decided to release another game with a Metacritic score of 97 to round off the year. It’s not often that two games of that calibre come out in a single year, let alone two from the same developer. And Super Mario Odyssey deserves all the praise it gets.

smo_new_donk

After collecting all the Power Moons that matter, and getting some pretty stellar scores on some of the minigames (I’m modest, I swear), I’m still taken aback at how well-polished this game is. The Cappy captures are varied and immensely fun and moving Mario around the environments has never been more slick. Only Nintendo could pack so many gameplay features around a single mechanic – throwing Cappy – and only a Mario game could relentlessly throw idea after idea after idea at the player without feeling completely overwhelming.

smo_seaside

As anyone will tell you, New Donk City is the pinnacle of the experience. It’s a three-dimensional labyrinth of movement opportunities. Getting from A to B in this level gives you a billion different options, and, barring your first arrival in the city, the streets are completely free of enemies. It’s just a playground for you to test out Mario’s stunning new abilities by jumping between pretty much any pair of buildings.

I feel as if some Power Moons are so trivial that the diminish the accomplishment of obtaining the harder ones. If I had designed them, I’d have had two classes of moons – something like Mini Moons which litter the world, and the full-fat Power Moons for your harder challenges, especially some of the post-credits challenges.

mario_odyssey_pokio

I’m praying that Nintendo has Super Mario Odyssey 2 in development as we speak; while I’d love some kingdom DLC for Odyssey, I don’t think that cuts it for me. I’m gonna have to be a greedy bastard and demand that Nintendo makes me a no-holds-barred, premium, full-fat videogame steak with Mario and Cappy’s beaming faces on the cartridge. If I have to become a Nintendo shareholder and fly myself out to Kyoto for every shareholder meeting to force them into making it just to shut me up, then so be it.

Also, if you get more than 471 on the New Donk City skipping rope challenge, I’ll duel you on the top of New Donk City Hall at sundown.

Verdict: Super Star.

Awesome Games – Super Hexagon

Super_Hexagon

I’ve been using this blog mainly as a place to shout about my game, so today I’ll switch things up a bit and talk about an indie game I’ve not been able to put down for days – Super Hexagon.

What the heck is it? Looks mighty colourful!

Super Hexagon is the brainchild of Terry Cavanagh, the same sadistic motherfucker who brought us VVVVVV. You play as a small triangle thing, possessing only the ability to rotate around a hexagon, with the aim of not getting hit by incoming shapes. Then, throw in the fact the whole level itself spins round, changing direction occasionally. The shapes coming at you get weirder, faster and harder to avoid. By this point your fingers are probably wrapped around your controller or keyboard, jackhammering buttons in a futile attempt to dodge the malevolent shapes, all to the mesmerising wub-wub tunes of Chipzel. That’s Super Hexagon.

So shapes come flying at you. So what? Is that all there is?

Initially, yes. On the first level, named ‘Hexagon’ and with a warranted difficulty level of ‘Hard’, all you’ll really come across is simple shapes to start with, then the level eventually turns into a pentagon, then a square, switching things up a bit and reducing the time you have to react. On the second level, Hexagoner/Harder, the level starts getting a bit faster, throws more weird-shaped mechanics at you, and now the level stays hexagonal. But by the  third level, Hexagonest/Hardest, the difficulty level ramps up hugely, as the movement sensitivity increases to an insane level, and the game throws shapes at you like there’s no tomorrow, mixing the hardest stuff from the other levels whilst adding its own tricks. If you beat it, I take my non-existent hat off to you.

What about unlockable stuff?

When you reach 60 seconds on any given level, you reach hyper mode, where the stage changes colour and the speedometer goes off the charts, because it’s not impossible enough already. Once you’ve done that, then you’ve unlocked the hyper mode version of the level, with difficulties aptly called Hardester, Hardestest and Hardestestest. Those names are accurate, however. I’ve reached 60 seconds and beaten the first five levels, but I’m still stuck at a measly 16:38 seconds on Hexagonest hyper mode – it’s friggin’ impossible and I’m 99% sure I got THAT far by accident.

The game has been the subject of many rage quits videos on YouTube, such as this one:

For me, what’s so special about the game is that, however hard it gets, however frustrating it is that I died by *that* much, I never get angry. I just have another go, then another, and another, then before I know it, an hour’s passed. Then another hour. The soundtrack provides an incentive to try again, so I can hear another of the amazing songs again, however briefly. Then I can go grab a few friends and challenge them, try to beat their best times for each level. If you’re interested, my best times for each of the six levels currently stand at 212:42, 151:25, 64:10, 197:37, 92:00 and a pathetic 16:38, in that order. Try and beat them, or if you already have, post your own times below!

Where do I get me some Hexagon action?

The game’s available on most platforms, such as Steam, but you can also grab it DRM-free on desktop platforms from the Super Hexagon website. If you’re a fan of frustrating yet highly addictive games, outstanding music and chasing your own high scores, then this is the game for you.

-Daniel

Game Development Software: Unity Free

I’ve decided to do more in-depth reviews of the software I use. I’ll start by detailing the various features in one of my favourite pieces of software I’ve used so far, Unity 4 Free.

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What is Unity?

I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard of this already – just a quick Google search for “free game engine” will return it as the top result. Unity is a 3D game engine that’s designed to speed up and streamline the development process, while providing all the powerful features you’ll find in similar products. While some features are restricted to Pro (such as realtime lighting and post-processing effects, I’ll be talking about these later), the free package contains most of the features you’ll need. So don’t be put off by the fact that a Pro licence costs $1500 in one payment or $75 a month, just go download the free version to see if you like it.

The Unity Editor

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The Unity editor, your window to making the games of your dreams.

The editor itself was designed with customisation and workflow in mind. You can see a load of windows in this screenshot, each of which can be freely docked on any side of the screen, or even pulled into a separate window if need be. Each window has a specific function:

-On the left is the hierarchy pane, which lists all the GameObjects (this is what Unity calls any old object you lob into the level, which are called scenes). GameObjects can be stacked (or ‘parented’) onto other GameObjects, in a hierarchical manner, hence the name of this window.

-On the right is the Inspector view, which frees up all of the variables and components attached to the active GameObject so they can be changed easily without having to delve into the source code and change variables directly.

-On the bottom is the Project pane, which lists all the assets available for your game, which can be dragged and dropped straight into the level.

-Most importantly, in the centre is the Scene view, where all the action happens – this is where you’ll be moving around all the GameObjects in the scene to build up your level. Here you can see the currently selected object, my player, and the gizmos that represent some of the components on the player, for example the blue sphere is an audio component, and the white cone is the main camera’s field of view. Once you’ve finished building the level the way you want, you’ll want to test the level –  in Unity, this is a breeze, as all you have to do is click the play button at the top-middle of the screen, no waiting screens, no lengthy compiling required, just an instant transition from the Scene view to Game view, where you’ll play the game as if it were a proper build of your game.

Scripting with Unity

Unity provides the functionality to program with your choice of three programming languages, C#, Javascript and Boo, and a script in one of these languages can communicate seamlessly with a script written in either of the other two. A plethora of classes are available for manipulation from the start, giving you complete control over any GameObject and all the components attached to it, the physics engine, the inputs used in your game, everything. Unity provides comprehensive documentation on all aspects of scripting with Unity, just take a look at the Unity manual and look at all the classes along the left-hand side to see just how much of the engine is under your control. And if you’re completely stumped at how to start programming with Unity, there’s a whole playlist of tutorials on Unity’s official YouTube channel, plus Unity provides Live Training on its website every so often, the archive of which can be found on their YouTube page too. Unity ships with MonoDevelop, an IDE (Integrated Development Environment), which is very handy as it’ll error-check and auto-fill everything that’s specific to development with Unity. Also, it’s important to note that the Javascript used in Unity is a slightly modified version called Unityscript, although it functions much the same as conventional Javascript.

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This is MonoDevelop, the IDE that’s provided with Unity.

If you don’t like MonoDevelop, or just prefer another IDE, then you can set another default program by going to Edit->Preferences->External Tools, then change the external scripting editor by browsing for its location on your computer.

The Asset Store

Having trouble modelling a character? Need a few more ambient sounds for a dark alley in your level? Completely stuck and need a completed level to use as a starting point? Then someone’s bound to have done it already on the Asset Store, an online marketplace foe everything you’ll ever need in Unity. From editor extensions to particle effects, models, animations, textures and even complete projects available on the store, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something that’s not on here.

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The Asset Store will be your go-to place if you’re looking for something to use with Unity.

There’s plenty of stuff that’s completely free, plus there’s occasional sales, giving you a lot for a reasonable price. If you’re going to be developing with Unity, then a good free package to start with is the Sample Assets package provided by Unity Technologies themselves, which gives you a fully rigged and animated character controller called Ethan, multiple vehicles, and many other assets to help you out at the start.

In-game lighting and lightmapping with Beast

Unity has built-in support for the Beast lightmapper, a powerful tool that will bake static shadows onto your level, cutting down on the realtime impact of calculating shadows every frame. You can set how detailed and how strong the shadows are, which lights will be casting shadows and which objects will receive these static shadows, then click bake and Beast will automatically create very detailed lightmaps for you in a relatively speedy process. Back in the editor, there are four different types of light – point lights are like light bulbs and provide light emanating from a point in space which falls off with distance, directional lights act like the Sun and provide uniform light in one direction across the whole level, spotlights are self-explanatory and provide a cone of light from a point which falls off with distance like the point light, and area lights which are Pro-only, so I have no idea how they work. One massive drawback to Unity Free is the lack of realtime shadows – only one directional light is allowed to produce realtime shadows in Free, but no point lights or spotlights will cast realtime shadows, a truly disappointing omission, but not one that’s so huge as to prevent you making a good game with Unity Free.

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This is the sort of result you’ll get after creating lightmaps. These are the plastered on top of your game geometry to simulate lighting.

Nvidia’s PhysX Physics Engine

Unity uses the PhysX physics engine developed by Nvidia. It’s a very comprehensively constructed engine, handling collisions between objects, applying forces and gravity to them, and moving objects realistically due to the acceleration produced by these forces, all while allowing complete realtime modification through scripting. I use this functionality a lot while developing with Unity, so having so many functions available is helpful. Not only can forces be applied to objects in one direction, but explosion forces can be applied from a point in space to all nearby rigidbodies (physics-affected objects have a Rigidbody component applied), object’s masses or drag can be modified directly to affect motion, and collisions can be used to initiate events in-game. The physics engine supports the use of joints too, such as hinges or springs, and it works in both 2D and 3D, with dedicated components and functions available for both.

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Explosions, just one of the effects you can achieve with the physics engine. And yes, this is my game, which you should be following by now.

Shuriken Particle Systems

Particles are important for applying a final touch to a game. Whether the particle effects are just debris from a gunshot or something much larger like a collapsing bridge, they add a lot to any game. Unity uses its own particle system, Shuriken, to handle particle effects. This is completely customisable as with everything else in Unity, allowing you to modify the speed, direction, rotation and size of individual particles, and change these over time too. Then you can change the force applied over time, the colour, transparency and lifetime too, as well as the particle texture which can be a spritesheet as opposed to a single texture, allowing a lot of room for creating the effect you desire. The particle themselves can simply be billboard textures, so they always face the camera, or a mesh, so physical 3D objects are emitted by the system, and they can even handle collisions, with different levels of quality to preserve performance if needed and the option for collision callback messages to be sent to scripts, so you can make events occur when a particle hits a surface. If you don’t have the time or resources for this, there’s plenty of particle systems on the Asset Store.

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These are some of the many variables you can choose from when making a particle system. The grey bars can be expanded to give even more variables and many can be disabled if not needed.

Terrains

Unity also has a terrain generation feature. A terrain is simply a large mesh that will make up the majority of the ground of your level, with a terrain collider attached to it and the ability to add multiple textures to the surface to represent realistic ground. To create a terrain, you can go to GameObject->Create other->Terrain, then you’ll need to select its size and height. If you select something a little too big then that’s not a problem, you’ll just have to improvise and construct your world so some areas are blocked off, but make sure it’s not too small or you’ll have problems, because it’s a bad idea to resize a terrain you’ve already shaped and textured (something I’ve found out the hard way multiple times in the past). Initially, you can carve out the shape of your terrain using the raise, lower and smooth terrain brushes, which have options for the opacity and size of the brush, then you can paint the terrain with multiple, blend-able textures. It’s an easy-to-use but powerful feature, and is highly optimised so it should even work well for mobile projects. You then have the ability to add static meshes to the environment, such as trees, rocks or grass, which will be ‘batched together’ for increased performance. If that wasn’t enough, Unity has a very detailed tree editor, allowing for the randomisation of trees so a variety of shapes and sizes will be distributed across the environment.

unity-terrain

This terrain is from an old, abandoned project of mine. The trees are very slightly different from one another to mimic natural deviations in tree shapes and sizes.

Speed of development

Unity really shines when it comes down to speed. The instant playtesting feature is so useful when you’re prototyping and squashing bugs, or when you’re trying to find the best amount for, say, an enemy’s attack stat – just tweak the variable in the editor using the Inspector view, instantly play the game, then tweak it a bit more, even while the game is still running, so you can see the result straight away. Unity also has a genius Prefab system, whereby you can create one item for your game with a load of components and variables associated with it, or even child objects too, then you can turn this item into a prefab, which can then be dragged and dropped into the game as a perfect copy of the first item. Plus any changes to the source prefab will then affect any GameObject that’s associated with it, so it saves having to edit tens or hundreds of individual objects in your scene. This makes creating your game world easy and efficient.

Exporting to many platforms, plus your toaster

Unity supports publishing to so many platforms with little to no tweaks needed to your code it’s ridiculous – the same project cam be published to, hold your breath – PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Windows Phone 8, Blackberry 10, all major web browsers, and even Xbox 360, all recent PlayStation consoles and both Wii and Wii U. Of course, the consoles require licences from the respective companies, and publishing to iOS requires an add-on (which costs $1500, but a hit game on iOS is well worth the initial cost), but this is still a massive array of publishing options. The Unity Web Player itself is a fantastic platform, as you can deliver your game on all major web browsers with a few clicks, while the game itself will be so highly compressed that the user won’t need to download gigabytes of data to play it, allowing for instantaneous streaming of your game. The number of available platforms grows over time too, so you’ll never be short of a prospective audience.

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All. These. Platforms.

What’s missing in Unity Free?

A few major features are missing from Free but present in Pro. Firstly, as mentioned before, there’s only one realtime shadow in Free from one directional light, but in Pro you can have as many realtime shadows as you want, which can sometimes be the difference between an alright game and a fully immersive experience. Plus Pro gives you area lights, but I still have no idea what they are. Pro also utilises occlusion culling to increase performance, whereby objects that are obscured by another won’t be rendered at all. This isn’t to be confused with ambient occlusion. Think of a wall, with a small cube behind it. In both versions of Unity, the back face of the cube and wall, and perhaps some side faces depending on what angle you’re looking at them from, won’t be rendered as they’re facing the other way, but with Pro’s occlusion culling, the cube won’t be rendered at all because it’s obscured (or, occluded) by the wall. This saves your GPU lots of work with minimal CPU overhead.

Pro also gives you the ‘render to texture’ feature, which allows you to take a camera’s view and make it into a texture for use in, say, a TV screen, or to take screenshots. It can also be used for mirrors, or reflective water surfaces, so it’s a very powerful feature when put to good use. Pro also has a profiler bundles with it, which shows you where resources are being used in your game, for the detection of bottlenecks. It’s a helpful tool for increasing the performance of your game.

While Unity Free has a pathfinding tool built-in, Pro expands upon it massively, allowing more control over where characters using the pathfinder can move, and how they transition from area to area.

Another large feature missing from Free is post-processing effects. The ability to take a frame then add effects such as anti-aliasing, glow, bloom, motion blur and colour correction enhances your game graphically. This sort of feature is present in the free versions of other game engines, so it’s a feature I’d like to see in Unity Free. Also, games published with Unity Pro don’t have the Unity watermark when started up.

Summary

Unity Free is a very powerful, giving you a feature-set that will allow you to make very complex games. The sheer amount of help online from Unity is astounding, plus the comprehensive Unity manual, which can be viewed offline, explains every part of Unity very clearly. The community is extremely helpful too, with forums accessible for those with questions on any part of Unity, and for people to show off their work, completed or in-progress. The speed of development of games with Unity is above that of most other engines, and the sheer number of platforms you can export to means that your possible audience is as big as possible. There are many built-in features provided to aid you in making all genres of game, such as terrains, particles, physics, lighting and lightmapping, and even pathfinding. With Unity 5 just around the corner, now is an exciting time to be a game developer with Unity. However, the free version suffers from some missing features, such as realtime shadows, post-processing effects, the profiler tool and render-to-texture, some of which are found for free in similar game engines such as Unreal Development Kit or Source. If you’re an indie developer and you’re looking for a fast but powerful tool to fuel your game, then this is a brilliant place to start. Unity is a game engine you won’t regret downloading.

If you have any opinions on Unity, then I’d quite like to hear them. Maybe you also have some other great engines you’ve used that you’d like to suggest to people starting out with game development too? I hope you’ve had fun reading, and have fun with Unity if you choose to have a go at it!

Thoughts For Today

I was playing Animal Crossing earlier and I was lucky enough to catch myself a shark. But I found something about the experience to be rather odd.

HNI_0097Do you see it yet? Yeah. The player is roughly the size of the shark, which is around 18 feet long from head to tail. Why am I 18 feet tall? Who knows. Maybe some kind of nuclear testing that turned DanTown’s residents huge? That would explain the fact everyone’s an animal too. Creepy.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Four-and-a-half-th Week

I know I said I’d be doing a weekly update on my animal crossing journey, but recently I did a little rejig of my A-level choices and swapped out Geography for Further Maths, an option that will be more useful for a Computer Science degree I hope to do at Cambridge, if I get accepted (fingers crossed on that one). As a result, I’ve had a ton of further maths piled on top of my workload (well, the whole AS, nothing too strenuous .-. ), and I’ve only found time to work on my blog now. So enough of my life, let’s see how my virtual life is going!

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This is Club LOL, which I mentioned in my last post. K.K. Slider, a returning character, is the DJ you see in the background and each night after 8 pm, he puts on a DJ set. In the afternoons before K.K. starts performing, you can bring any piece of fruit to Dr. Shrunk, who will proceed to hop on stage and tell one of his world-class ‘jokes’. This will allow you to use a new facial expression using the touch screen menu. On Saturday nights, K.K. Slider will play an acoustic set of one of his songs, and will give you a physical copy for you to either hang on your wall or play on your stereo at home. You can also request any song you want, although you can only get one record to play each week.

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This is the Dream Suite, a public works project that becomes available seven days after you become mayor. It allows you to upload your town to the Internet once a day for other players to play around in without actually messing up your town; they ruin a copy, so don’t worry. In turn, you can visit other player’s towns if you have their Dream Town Code. I have not yet used this feature, but it looks to be a great feature.

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Two other noticeable changes have happened in Main Street: firstly, the shop has been upgraded to Super T&T, which stocks wall-mountable items as well as more wallpaper, flooring and tools, and secondly the hair salon, Shampoodle, has opened above the Able Sister’s shop. The former is unlocked when you’ve spent at least 25,000 bells in the shop, but also it’s been 10 days since T&T Mart opened and also 10 days since the garden center opened, and the latter when Kicks has been open for at least 10 days and you’ve spent 10,000 bells in both Able Sister’s and Kicks combined. I like my hair how it is (even though my Hero’s Cap covers it completely) so I’m not going in there any time soon.

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Another public works project I’ve completed is the second story of the museum, which will become available after you’ve donated 20 items to the museum with at least one donation in each category of items then talked to Blathers. The second floor allows you to purchase exhibition rooms from Celeste, the owl you see here, for a fee of 10,000 bells; this allows you to display whatever items you want in an 8×8 space. You can also purchase items from the small shop you see here, including some of the silver tools.

I will continue to build public works projects, and hopefully next week I will have progressed more and will have more to show, but I hope you enjoyed reading.

-Daniel

Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Second Week

This week I have continued my Animal Crossing adventure, and have progressed quite a bit. Firstly I’ve unlocked a couple new shops: a shoe shop, and an upgrade to Nookling Junction.

animal_crossing_14The shoe shop, called Kicks, opens up after you spend 8000 bells in the Able Sisters’ shop and if it’s at least 10 days after the town was created. It’s run by a skunk called Kicks (surprisingly) and there’s shoes and socks for sale. On the other side of Main Street, an upgrade to Nookling Junction has appeared, after they were closed for a day on Wednesday; it is called T&T Mart, and it sells much more than the smaller shop. One notable thing is that this shop actually sells slingshots, which is helpful after playing the game for two weeks without and watching dozens of balloons fly past my town. Apparently you can hit balloons with your net as they pass the edge of the cliffside near the beach, but I never found an opportunity to do that. Ah well. The store also has wallpaper and carpet, one more set of furniture for sale, three tools per day rather than two and two fortune cookies, as well as medicine and the all-important catalog, accessed through a machine in the corner.

animal_crossing_15Somewhere in the English translation the sun got lost it seems, as it always seems to rain in Dan Town, at the end of June. But that’s what umbrellas are for, I guess. I’ve been customising my house a little too, and I’ve not really decided a theme, but I’ve changed my roof, fence, door and exterior to look a bit better (or maybe worse, depends on your opinion).

animal_crossing_16I’ve also met Dr. Shrunk, who will appear outside your house and ask you for the signatures of six of you neighbours to build a new facility called Club LOL. He’ll appear when you’ve upgraded your shop to T&T Mart and if you have a 100% satisfaction rating. If you’re able to build public works projects, you’ve done this already. Now that I’ve got the signatures I just have to wait until it’s built. K.K. Slider plays here on random days, and Dr. Shrunk can teach you new facial expressions with his “comedy”, so I look forward to seeing this built. I’ve also paid off enough home loans from Nook to be able to build a second story for my house, so I’ll be able to properly theme my house now.

animal_crossing_18I’m starting to concentrate on my town’s appearance more too, as I want to improve citizen satisfaction (apparently everyone hates my town, according to Isabelle). In this game, it also seems that flowers grow super quick, which in a way is good, but now parts of my town are overflowered. If that’s a word.

animal_crossing_17Like this. Flowers are good but this looks ugly, so I think I should move some of them into bare areas. I’ve started a new public works project to build the Dream Suite, which is pretty near to completion. This allows players to travel to another player’s town and play around without repercussions, and you can upload your own town to the Internet so others can visit it. This allows the trading of custom designs, but one odd feature is that you can’t take any items back with you. I suppose this is to prevent cheating.

One thing I forgot about last post was the Happy Home Academy, which replaces the Happy Room Academy from Wild World. When you StreetPass someone, a model of their home appears in the Happy Home Showcase north of Main Street, which you can enter and even order furniture from via the catalog. It’s great for finding that last chair or table you needed to complete a set. I hope to do an update on my AC journey every week if possible, so stay around!

-Daniel