Hindsight was a TV series that ran from January to March 11, 2015. Three months, ten episodes, and its life was cut abruptly short thanks to changes in control over at VH1. Even worse - it ended on a cliffhanger. My wife and I were devastated. Every Friday night that was 'our show.' If you never saw that one, it was about a girl who is about to get married but has cold feet. She steps into an elevator and when she gets out... it's the 90's. It was a comedy-drama and sure it was capitalizing off of a certain demographic's nostalgia. But we were totally that demographic, and the show had a certain sincerity to it rather than just hitting you over the head with "hey, remember Oasis?" references. And it was fun! Hang in there because I promise this is going somewhere by the way.
So after three months of watching Hindsight every Friday night and then having that taken away, we decided it might be fun to watch an actual 90's show on Friday nights. As chance would have it my wife had found the first season of Beverly Hills 90210 at yard sale and grabbed it for funsies. So we started watching that - both of us having watched at least some seasons when we were younger. It was fun and funny and silly and nostalgic. One season turned into two, and two turned into nine. And after that I suggested my favorite 90's teen drama - Dawson's Creek - to my reluctant wife. I reminded her that Kevin Williamson co-wrote the Scream movies. She gave it a shot and it soon became the standard by which all 90's teen dramas should be measured.
And so for the past three-plus years our Friday night ritual has been to binge-watch SOME 90's teen drama thing. It's been a blast. These sorts of shows are most definitely like soap operas with radical soundtracks, but they're a great way to blow off steam from a stressful week. We've done Party Of Five and My So Called Life and even managed to seek out the elusive Dawson's Creek spin-off Young Americans which only received one mid-season run. We snuck in a season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer at one point - and while this show is still fantastic, it's lacking in the melodramatic drama that makes this ritual fun. Which brings us to our current show: One Tree Hill. We were iffy on this one, but it turns out that it shares a lot of DNA with Dawson's Creek. Oh, and One Tree Hill is also a lot about basketball. See? I told you I was going somewhere.
Yes, if anything One Tree Hill is sort of a cross between Dawson's Creek and Friday Night Lights. We're only in the middle of the second season right now, but high school basketball plays a big role in this show. For weeks now I've been in the mood to play a basketball game because of this damn show. And then it hit me: I could make the character "Lucas Scott" in NBA 2K18's player creator and use him in the single player mode. This was somehow hilarious to me. I mean honestly, I realize how stupid it is, but it cracks me up because - besides me - who would even want to do this? I was sitting on the couch next to my wife and I looked up from the Switch and said "look, I know this will be the weirdest question I've ever asked you, but what color are Chad Michael Murray's eyes?" And so I went off and started "My Career" in 2K18 as Lucas Scott, #3 from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Incidentally, both Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill were shot in Wilmington. Just saying.
Okay, so now about the game... I think the last game I played in the series was 2K12, so it's been a while. But I've played many entries over the years going all the way back to the original 2K. However this is the first time I ever made my own player and bothered with the single player campaign. I've always just picked a team (The Celtics) and played through a season. Controlling a single character is a totally different experience for me. It's a really interesting way to play this game. For instance the campaign starts with Lucas Scott in his first NBA game which means spending a fair amount of time on the bench. Watching the game from this first person view from the bench is surreal. I mean it's a really bad view of the action, and you're not doing anything at all. But it adds drama. It made things feel tense when I was finally called into the game. It made me feel like I had something to prove.
The audio presentation is insane. I should be used to the progressively advanced commentary throughout the series, but I'm still finding myself impressed. I'll be honest, my mind was slightly blown when the announcer said "this is Scott's first points in his NBA career." I mean, he knew to say the name "Scott." I'd probably be less impressed had I created my own character in the past I guess. But either way, it was awesome and again really added to the intensity of the simulation.
So the NBA 2K18 story starts like this: Lucas "DJ" Scott was some great basketball wunderkind who decided to quit playing ball to pursue an ill-advised career in DJing. Which isn't really explained all that well because he must have been successful considering this young kid's loft that he lives in has a basketball court inside of it along with some very fancy furnishings. Oh, and it looks bigger than my house. But then he must not have been successful because everyone's like "oh you're that kid who tried to be a DJ... thank goodness you came to your senses and are back to playing basketball!"
The story is hilarious in that it often doesn't make a ton of sense. Like, the little local tournament that I played in at the beginning known as the "Proving Ground." So, my team lost all three stages of that tournament and yet there's a scout from The Celtics who wants me come try out? Really? The best is the parts of the story that the writers outright decide not to bother explaining. The aforementioned loft for instance. Or your roommate whom you tell your agent is staying just temporarily because... IT'S A LONG STORY! Ha.
But whatever. The sub-par writing actually helps to make this feel like a silly soap opera so it's all good. It actually adds a bit of unintentional charm. So does the random instances where players' faces are graphically distorted. I saw one dude at the Celtics tryouts who looked like he was wearing coldcuts on his face where someone might have a beard. It was horrifying. And slightly baffling given that the game requires a 16GB download on top of the cartridge install. But I can't really complain about all that because honestly there's far more moments where I'm really impressed with how well this game looks and runs on the Switch. Loading screens aside.
I will say that shooting is actually challenging in this entry. There's a new shot accuracy gauge thing and I'm having trouble adjusting. Obviously I need more practice. I spent some time doing just that (and was pleased to be able to emulate Ray Allen's jumpshot style in a menu), but I'm considering shutting the little shot gauge indicator off altogether and just going by "feeling." I don't want to overthink things and I feel like the gauge is throwing me off.
Anyway, my agent just got the word that The Celtics are offering me a one year contract, so now it's off to training camp. A bummer though, Lucas can't keep his #3 as it's a retired number so he was reassigned #43 instead.
So training is done pretty well. Basically between games you get to pick three skills work on, and then based on how well you do there you sort of level up your primary and secondary perks. It's slow progress, but it does actually feel like "training" y'know? Like I'm personally still having some trouble getting used to the timing of releasing the ball, so I've been working on three pointers. Doing so not only is helping to slowly improve that perk in-game, but it's also helping ME - the player - get better at feeling comfortable with the controls. It's good stuff.
So far The Celtics are 0-2, losing first to The Cavs and then to MN. Both games were super close, so it was frustrating but interestingly I'm finding myself less worried about the team's record right now and way more on my own player's advancement. In the first game I only got to actually play for a combined total of like three minutes. The second game was probably more like five. Now you can easily skip all the parts of the game that you're not playing to speed things up, but for now I'm enjoying WATCHING the game while I'm not in it. It's sort of like why I don't like fast-travel in Skyrim or Breath Of The Wild - it's as if the journey outside of the exciting bits actually makes the exciting bits better. Which is to say that the build-up of anticipation created by watching the game from the benches makes the moments I'm called in far more 'real.'
Oh, and shouts to KG who did some commentary on this most recent game. It was awesome to hear him ruminate of his time with The Celtics. I don't know, him just naturally dropping anecdotes about Rondo and Pierce and Posey... that just really brought me back and put a smile on my face. As he's talking I'm looking around TD Garden from the virtual benches and thinking that I've lost count of how many games I've watched inside of that building.
I used some points to unlock the Paul Pierce jumpshot animation which seems a bit easier to get the timing down on shot release versus the Ray Allen one. Plus, Paul Pierce is one of my favorite players of all time, so there's that. Shooting (well) is honestly the most frustrating thing about this game. I don't mind that I have to pay dues starting out and will only get minimal minutes in a game. But shooting well is really difficult, and I think that a part of that is because you need to spend time training and earning XP to up your stats. That's both cool in a sort of authentic way, but also frustrating. Either way, I'm still having a lot of fun here.
And that's how it's been going. NBA 2K18 is a blast. It's a game that I've taken to getting in a few games throughout the week - much like I've been doing with Paladins (again). The story is nothing amazing, but it has its charm. More importantly there is a total loop that sucks you in as you slowly make some progress with your character. I've never played a sports game like this - that is using just a single player. So for all it's worth, my lost season of One Tree Hill has been a lot of fun. Ha!
There's been a lot of talk of this new Switch Online service lately. People seem to be underwhelmed with the idea of paying for online access on a Nintendo console. And the Netflix-style catalog of old games included with the service? Nobody seems all that impressed. Except me. I'm totally the kind of dude that this service is made to excite. See, the last Nintendo console I had bought was a Wii. And I the closest I had to retro games on that thing were two Virtual Console games (Super Mario Bros. 2 and Sonic The Hedgehog - the Master System version!) along with the Kirby compilation. So what I'm saying is that for me it's been a long time since I've really dabbled in classic NES games. For me it was really back when Nintendo was reissuing their back catalog via the Gamecube's Animal Crossing NES games, or the GBA's various ports of NES and SNES classics. Y'know the crazy of these new mini plug-n-play consoles that come preloaded with a bunch of games? Not for me. I hate the idea of a bunch of extra hardware with limited functionality that I'd have to swap in and out of limited HDMI ports. But I love the idea of a growing catalog of old Nintendo games to revisit - ones that now have save states, online multiplayer, and the ability to play them portably!
I'm going to say that my first taste of Super Mario Bros. 3 came the same way as probably the vast majority of Americans at the time: The Wizard. Yup that 'classic' road trip movie starring Fred Savage is often referred to as a ninety minute commercial for Super Mario Bros. 3 (and the Power Glove). But I mean... at the time Super Mario Bros. 3 was pretty much the biggest game in the world, right? I mean look at the fucking graphics! This was a game released in 1990. It is still shocking to me to realize that we went from Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Bros. 3 in the course of just five short years. This was all on the same hardware - and yet the advancements are mind blowing.
I was the second person I knew to actually get a hold of a copy of the game if I recall correctly. The first was this girl down the street from me who had the infamous "uncle who worked at Nintendo." I'm not making this up. I mean, I have no idea if she really had the uncle, but that was the story. What I do know is that she had this game MONTHS before the rest of us did. Although, I say months... who knows. Time seems to work much differently when you're a kid. I managed to get my copy also through an uncle. See back in 1990 games were still kind of considered "toys," so street dates weren't really a big deal. And stores would just get a copy of a game whenever they got it, not necessarily on a specific release date. "Sonic 2sday" in 1992 would be the first time I can remember being aware of a release date. Then we had "Mortal Monday" in 1993 and after that it just seemed commonplace. Anyway, there was this store called Bennies - a chain of very small department stores in New England - and my uncle was friends with someone who worked there and asked that they call him as soon as SMB3 arrived in stock. It seems funny looking back that I obtained such a classic game from a store that was basically where you'd go to buy things like leave bags or bicycle pumps.
Anyway, back to Nintendo's new Switch Online service which was announced during a Nintendo Direct to be launching the following Tuesday. I was excited. I put that shit on my calendar. I KNEW for a week in advanced that okay... next Tuesday night I'll be playing some NES games. Again, this probably meant more to me than dudes who currently had other consoles beyond an Xbox One and a Switch. But my desire to simplify the hobby in recent years meant I was selective about the hardware that I'd buy games for.
So Tuesday came and... crickets. Finally it was announced that the eShop would go down and update along with the system firmware with a projected launch of around... eleven o'clock at night! What? How is "an hour before midnight" even a Tuesday launch? Why not just push it back an hour and call it a Wednesday launch? Ugh. I was annoyed. But I kept trying randomly throughout the night, and magically found that the NES games were working around ten o'clock instead. So I was able to play for about an hour before bed that night. The first game I fired up? Super Mario Bros. 3!
But full disclosure: SMB3 is not my favorite of the series. If we're talking the old 2D games then Super Mario World is hands-down my favorite. If we're limited to just the NES games then I'm one of those weirdos who things Super Mario Bros. 2 (Doki Doki Panic) is the most fun. But I decided to start with SMB3 because it's iconic. If I hadn't really played an old school Nintendo game in a decade then a Mario one seemed like the one to go with. And certainly I'd pick 3 over the original. Also, I had been just recently reading through Game Informer's Top 300 games issue and SMB3 was the #2 game on the list (and highest ranked NES game), so hey why not?
My first hour replaying Super Mario Bros. 3 that night was great. I was actually slightly amazed at the muscle memory. It's like I totally KNEW these early levels inside and out even though I hadn't played them - or even thought about them - in quite a few years. I can remember playing SMB3 on GBA back in like 2009, so we're talking about a decade or so now, and yet I was flying through the levels in the first two worlds. On a nostalgia level, I found myself on the verge of tearing up at the "Kings" music that plays before and after taking on a Koopa Kid. That might be the prettiest music in the whole franchise in my opinion.
Thank goodness for save states (or "suspend points") by the way. It's amazing to me that this game wasn't released with a save option of some sort back on the NES. I'm not sure how a game of this length would be expected to be ran through in one sitting honestly - speedruns aside. I played a bit more over the next night, and still found myself feeling pretty familiar with the levels for the most part. I was still having a blast with the little card matching games and Tanooki suits and frog suits and P-Wings and the whole nine yards.
Then I got to World 7 which is either known as the Plant World or the Pipe World. I'm too lazy to be certain, and it really doesn't matter - you know which world I'm talking about. Anyway, the thing is that I feel like the difficulty spikes hardcore in World 7 and stays that way through World 8. It all came rushing back to me. When I was a kid I must have been way more patient than I am now. I also used warp whistles, haha. But thing is I was running into levels where I'd actually run out of time just trying to remember how to complete them - this after breezing through the first six worlds with very little difficulty. So I don't know, it just kind of doesn't feel like something I feel like continuing to play right now. It's as if I squeezed out all the fun parts, and now I'm all set. Not to mention that my Switch still has nineteen other NES games on it right now that I could be messing with instead. So at the end of the day, my opinions still seem to hold: SMB3 is a great game, but I find SMB2 way more fun, and I still think SMW is the best.
For some reason I was really optimistic about SNK Heroines. You might look at a game like this and wonder why. But I was. Part of it was just that hey - there's a new SNK fighting game coming out on the Switch! That's pretty rad, right? But the way more important thing was that a new SNK fighting game made up entirely of a roster of the women of SNK was basically a long awaiting sequel to the Gals Fighter on the Neo Geo Pocket Color. That sounded fantastic. I kind of HAD to support the release of this game. Oh sure it looked campy and fan-servicey, but... Gals Fighter 2!
Here's the thing, though. Gals Fighter was a far more robust fighting game than SNK Heroines. At least that's how I feel right now after my initial time spent with the new game. Gals Fighter was on a tiny screen that you had to hold in just the right light to even be able to see. It was on a handheld with only two buttons. And it felt way deeper than this.
There are a lot of things I don't like about SNK Heroines. The small roster I can deal with. I mean I'd love to see more fighters, but I can deal. The simplified fighting system is good... and bad. Okay so basically the entirety of the fighting is two buttons here (a throwback to Gals Fighter?) and the direction that you push while hitting those two buttons determines special moves. I guess that's sort of like Smash Bros, right? Some might call this overly casual, but I think it's kind of cool and inviting. My problem is that pushing Back does not block, and while you can crouch there are no low (versus high) attacks. It's either a hit or not. So you lose all the strategy of mixing up high and low attacks. Shallow!
Then there's the issue of the tag team system. Again, it feels like a wasted opportunity. See, both fighters share a lifebar. This might be part of why matches end in seconds. Seriously, the loading screens between matches tend to be longer than the matches themselves. Anyway, the second fighter is like a support that can toss you items, ugh. My real issue is that you don't win by getting your opponent's lifebar down to zero - you win by getting it low and then landing a finishing blow. It seems like an unnecessary - and stupid - requirement. Do you know how many times I got the last boss' health down to zero in story mode only to see him dodge the finishing blow several times and whittle me down? I hate it.
People are going to dislike the cheesecake here, and I get that. Though I do think that the sleeze here is done in a tongue-in-cheek way. I mean, they go out of their way in the story to make the dude who put them in these costumes look like a creep. And watching him watch them on little TV's makes the point that maybe the player is the creep afterall. It's sort of fourth-wall breaking voyeurism that's a little campy and a little pointed at the same time. And luckily you can unlock some less revealing outfits.
Having said all this, I'll hang on to my copy of SNK Heroines for a couple of reasons. First off, I have the feeling that future patches will bring new characters and possibly we'll see some changes for the better. I'll give SNK a chance to make this game better. But also because I feel like the simplified fighting system could at least be fun to my wife whose past fighter experience has been Dead Or Alive or nothing - she never did care to learn those button combos in things like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. So there's some promise here. Then again, maybe Blade Strangers would have been the better purchase.
There's been a lot of talk about Dead Cells lately. Some of it was actually oddly peripheral due to some controversy surrounding plagiarism in reviews. But no press is bad press as they say. And so people were talking about Dead Cells. And then more and more they were talking about how damn good this game was. I don't know. I felt a bit burned out on these kind of one-man passion projects lately. Celeste was a pretty big disappointment for me this year, so I was reluctant.
But man all that talk was saying some things that I found intriguing. I know that the whole Rogue-like thing is slightly played out these days. But it does still appeal to me at times - mostly because of that year or so I spent obsessed with Spelunky. I guess there's a part of me that's always looking for "another Spelunky" just so I won't go back to playing Spelunky again. So you take that element and mash it up with a game that looks and plays a bit like Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night and now we're cooking with fire. I kind of HAD to try this game.
I'll tell you this... I expected to LIKE Dead Cells. I figured I'd have some fun with it and that'd be that. I did not expect to LOVE Dead Cells. But I do totally love Dead Cells. The best way to describe it is that my initial impression was sort of "oh, this game seems pretty good." And then I looked at the clock and realized that two hours had FLOWN by in what felt like twenty or thirty minutes. It's exactly that kind of game that does the "just one more game" thing so solidly that you forget how many one-more-games you've played.
Progression works well in Dead Cells. Your early runs will be very difficult, but slowly you'll start to unlock some global perks that will stick with you in later runs, making the experience a bit easier to get through. You might unlock the ability to keep some of your gold at death, or the ability to hold extra potions that refill your life. There's also weapon blueprints scattered around that will eventually give you the option to unlock those weapons in game. This game definitely handles its Rogue-like inspirations quite masterfully.
Those weapons and perks eventually become sort of second-nature to how you'll approach them. For instance I've never bothered to unlock a shield because it makes no sense to my play style. I prefer using a lot of projectiles and just keeping the best sword or knives I can ready for up close action. If I can help it, I'll always have a wolf trap and some kind of projectile turret that I can put down as secondary weapons as well. It makes progressing further down a level easy when you can drop this combo to help clear out the floor below you. But that's just me. There's also scrolls you will find throughout levels that will give you extra damage or health perks based on the color of your weapons. Oh, and there's mutations (temporary perks) you can add between rounds. OH! And there's also modifiers you can buy for weapons. To put it lightly: the game offers a shitload of depth that becomes further evident the more time you spend with it.
Soon enough I found myself not just trying to make it out of a level, but rather hoping to explore every inch in an attempt to find the best gear and kill enemies to grind for cells (which is how you unlock all those other perks). And now I'm finding that runs that would take me ten minutes at first, and then maybe twenty after a while, are now taking me upwards of an hour. As such, it's clear that I'm making progress (and possibly getting better). It feels good. It's also extremely exciting to find something new in a run - maybe it's some hidden area or maybe it's finally seeing a new level for the first time.
I've played a lot of Dead Cells since it was released, and I don't see myself being 'done' with it any time soon. This is just one of those kinds of games that you'll want to keep chipping away at for months. I'm not obsessed the way that I was with Spelunky - but that's a rarity anyway. What I can say is that Dead Cells is easily in my top tier games released this year. And I really wasn't expecting that at all.