(Q1) Conundrum

Over the past five years, the first quarter of the year has always been a difficult time for me to prioritize anything gaming-related, let alone a social-life. Due to my profession (financial services for a hedge fund company), January through March is our “busy season”, which means 6-day work weeks and 10-hour days minimal. While I’m grateful for the job security and fortunate enough to have held my position during difficult social/economic climates, it has taken its toll on me both physically and mentally. Despite life obligations and all the hardships that come with it, my passion for gaming still manages to burn brightly during the cold winter months up here in the northeast.

To kick-off 2018 with some much needed personality and pizzazz, I decided to reach out to graphic design extraordinaire, Kevin Quigley, and commissioned him to create new banner images for my personal gaming blog. As I mentioned above, my life has been centered around each quarter of the year for quite some time now. With that in mind, I wanted to create unique themes for each quarter of the year that reflect not only the seasonal weather in the northeast, but also the types of games I typically play and how I generally feel. During the months of November, December and well into January, I typically enjoy playing modern Nintendo games or replaying classics such as Super Metroid, Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. For many, including myself, the holidays are a nostalgic time of the year and a reminder of those things we once loved and cherished.

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For more details/information on Kevin Quigley’s work, checkout his website over at https://kevinquigleydesign.com/

As many in the northeast already know, January through March is also primetime for cold weather and snow (hence the wintry mix in the picture). The Zelda-like heart containers (located in the upper right-hand corner of the picture) are half-full which indicates the physical/mental damage I’ve endured during my busy season. Finally, an image of my face peaking-out of the warp-pipe represents a life that’s essentially lived underground as only on the rarest of occasions am I able to poke my head out of from the depths of financial-hell. Collaborating with Kevin and creating these images has been an extremely rewarding experience for the both of us and I look forward to sharing the other banners with everyone as the year moves forward. So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve managed to play for the first quarter of 2018!

Hunting Monsters at Zero Dawn

Monster Hunter: World, the latest installment in Capcom’s long-running beast-bashing franchise, released earlier this year worldwide to much fanfare and praise. While Monster Hunter has always been a popular and well respected franchise in the east, the series never could reach its full commercial potential outside of Japan. Capcom’s focus on releasing major installments on portables hasn’t helped the series in the west, either. Although both the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and Nintendo 3DS have been appropriate hardware choices for the game’s quest-like structure, Monster Hunter has always been a relatively hardcore experience that demands a lot from its players.

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Cross-promotion realness.

Fortunately, with Monster Hunter: World, Capcom has released perhaps the most user-friendly, onboarding installment to date and its sales and positive reception speaks for itself. With nearly 50 hours invested, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the New World. Having just recently unlocked “High Rank” quests and what I believe to be are the final few main story missions, I’ve still got a ways to go before I consider myself an experienced hunter. I played nearly 300 hours of Monster Hunter Tri back on the original Nintendo Wii, yet I can see myself investing the same amount of time, if not more for Monster Hunter: World.

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One of my personal favorite pictures I took with the in-game Photo Mode.

It’s been over a year since launch and I’m still playing Guerilla Game’s Horizon: Zero Dawn. While I haven’t been playing the game consistently since launch, I’ve found myself dipping my toes into Aloy’s world whenever the mood strikes me. For whatever reason, Horizon isn’t a game I can focus on for prolonged periods of time. I’ve been playing the game on the second to highest difficulty, completing as many side-quests and collectables as I can along the way, which may have been working against me as open-world fatigue came hard and fast. According to my in-game percentage tracker, I’m nearing the end of the journey and I look forward to finally capping-off the experience over the coming weeks.

Independence Day

Independent studios have provided a strong showing for the first quarter of 2018, but last year was no slouch either. Although I’m just now playing it for the first time and nearing the end of my first play-through, Image & Form’s SteamWorld Dig 2 is quite possibly their best title to date. The sequel has taken nearly everything great about the original game and has improved all aspects tenfold. The same addictive gameplay loop still consists of mining for materials, upgrading your character and discovering new locations through Metroid-like exploration, but it’s even more rewarding now due to the handcrafted environments, new abilities and other quality-of-life improvements. On top of that, SteamWorld Dig 2’s colorful aesthetic, bouncy sprite-work and wonderful soundtrack makes it one difficult dig to put on hold.

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Unofficial prequel to SteamWorld Heist…?

Celeste, developed by Matt Makes Games, looks like any other retro-inspired, sprite-based 2D platformer on the surface, but it’s actually much, much more than that. At its heart, Celeste is a hardcore precision-based platformer. Like many games of its ilk, the player can run, jump and dash their way through the environment. The fundamental difference here, however, is that Celeste’s Omni-directional dash is limited to a single use and it can only be recharged by landing on a horizontal surface. At first-glance, some may be reminded of Super Meat Boy, but the overall structure is very different and the narrative much stronger.

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I died A LOT for those Strawberries.

Celeste is about one girl’s personal struggle with their own anxiety and depression. The mountain that Celeste climbs is more a less a metaphor for life’s hardships and the difficulties that come with living inside one’s own head. It’s a beautifully crafted story that feels genuine and heart-felt, to say the leastt. Besides its strong narrative, Celeste provides challenging, yet well-crafted stages that lends itself to the age-old “just one more try…” design philosophy. I completed the game and nearly collected all of the Strawberries. There’s a ton of additional content, however, some of which is even more difficult than the main game. If I had to recommend just ONE indie platformer to play this year, look no further than Celeste.

Joakim “Konjak” Sandberg (known for his cult-classic, Noitu Love 2: Devolution) released Iconoclasts, a 2D action/adventure Metroid-like earlier this year. As a fan of Noitu Love 2: Devolution’s sprite-work and Contra-like gameplay, I was excited to play Iconoclasts as it was not only a more ambitious title than his previous works, but also a passion project for the creator which took many years to fully realize. Although I’m nearing the halfway-point and enjoying my time with the game, there’s something off about Iconoclasts that’s quite hard to describe. Whether it’s the overly-chatty dialogue, religious undertones or low-key soundtrack, I find myself incapable of playing the game for prolonged periods of time. Much like the overzealous religious organization from the game, I’ll pass my final judgment on Iconoclasts when I finish the journey at a later date.

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An unexciting photo taken just to have an image ready for my blog post…

EA’s independent studio branch, EA Originals, released Fe, a game developed by Zoink! Games. Unlike their previous PC-like adventure games, Fe is a minimalistic 3D platformer set in a world where its creatures communicate with each other in order to survive. From what I’ve gathered, alien-like monsters are out to enslave the inhabits of the world and it’s your job to set them free. The story is told through visions, flashbacks and tribal-like murals that are scattered throughout the game’s locales. Crystals (the game’s main collectable) are also hidden throughout the various interconnected Metroid-like environments. When enough are collected, the crystals grant the player with abilities which allow him/her to progress to new areas. Fe is a relaxing, low-impact experience that I look forward to completing soon.

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The big guy in the background is friendly… I think?

Mulaka, developed by Lienzo, a development studio located in Chihuahua, Mexico, is a 3D action/adventure game based on the stories, myths and legends of the Tarahumara (or Raramuri) indigenous tribe. It’s inspiring too see indie games developed from around the world, but it’s even better when they’re not just another 2D, sprite-based throwback to the 8/16-bit era. Mulaka’s low-poly, minimalist aesthetic invokes the PlayStation 1 era and it’s honestly a breath of fresh air among its contemporaries.

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Reverie under the moonlight…

The levels in Mulaka are semi-open world and are littered with arena-like combat sequences, simple puzzles and exploration elements. The player also earns transformations over the course of the game which can be used both in battle and in the environment in order to solve puzzles and obtain hidden items. Mulaka, at times, feels like a low-budget Okami, which is a wonderful feeling to have and an amazing game to aspire to be. I’m nearing the end of the journey, but I’m looking forward to finishing the game and completing everything there is to see and do in the weeks to come.

X Gon Give It To Ya

I haven’t given my Xbox One as much love as I should have been, but having recently invested in an Xbox One X, I decided to finally play some of the exclusive titles that I’ve been neglecting for quite some time. Gears of War 4, developed by The Coalition, has been an underwhelming, yet comfortable experience. As someone who played 100s of hours of the original Gears of War back on the Xbox 360 and enjoyed its sequels for what they were worth, I expected Gears of War 4 to be more of the same with a nice new, slick presentation.

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Binary Domain sequel please and thank you!

The biggest surprise to me was how the early chapters of Gears of War 4 reminded me of what a new Binary Domain (one of my favorite 3rd-person shooters from last generation) could have been. The robot-like enemies are extremely satisfying to destroy and the setting was a slight departure from the earlier titles. I’m currently on Act IV, playing Solo on Insane (which has also been a huge mistake) and the latter half of the game has been an all too familiar territory, unfortunately. I haven’t disliked my time with the latest Gears of War, but I’m hoping the next installment perhaps brings a much needed change of pace to a formula that’s starting to feel dated.

Super Lucky’s Tale, developed by Playful Corp., is a throwback to the mascot-driven 3D platformers of yesterday. While the genre is slowly making a comeback (due to the success of the recent Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Super Mario Odyssey, for example), it’s great to see newcomers enter the foray, even when they’re not as appealing or exciting as the aforementioned titles. Super Lucky’s Tale is a stage-by-stage linear platformer that doesn’t try to do too many new things. Lucky can swing his tail, dig underground and double jump his way through the various themed locations, avoiding obstacles and hazards alike, finding collectables and coins along the way.

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There’s an achievement for 99,999 coins! *looks at my current count…*

It’s as by the books as a platformer can be, yet there’s something endearing about its simplicity; comfort-food for those who grew up with the mascot-era platformers of yesterday. It’s also a nice palate cleanser, so-to-speak, in-between other more challenging games. Earlier this year, the developer released a new DLC expansion, Gilly Island, which also came with a set of new achievements. While it’s essentially more of the same existing content, it’s certainly well-crafted for the asking ($5) price. Although I’ve completed the main game at 100%, as a completionist, there’s a surprising amount of unrewarding grinding to be had in order to achieve its full Gamerscore potential, unfortunately.

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There’s a hidden achievement on this screen I’ve yet to unlock…

I rounded out my brief New Year’s Xbox stint with Fullbright’s Tacoma. Taking place on an abandoned space station in the near-distant future, the player takes on the roll of Amy, a contractual worker sent to confiscate an extremely confidential AI onboard a now ghostly vessel. The crew that once inhabited the orbiting station is gone and only fragmented, digital shadows remain which are presented visually by an augmented reality-based infrastructure. By retracing the steps of the passengers previously stationed here, the player unravels political/corporate agendas and conspiracies between the diverse crew members. It’s a well-paced first-person adventure game with a cliffhanger ending that’s well worth playing if you’re a fan of the genre.

Give ’em HAL

HAL Laboratory, Inc. (known for Kirby and BoxBoy) have released their first game, Part Time UFO, under their mobile division (HAL Egg). Part Time UFO is a full-featured, one-time purchase mobile game for iOS/Android devices. The concept is simple; a UFO lands on Earth and helps people complete mundane jobs/tasks (such as fishing, moving cargo and gathering ingredients for a recipe) in order to earn cash and make a living. Part Time UFO is essentially a crane-game, yet instead of capturing prizes with a claw, the UFO assists citizens with their menial tasks in various physics-based scenarios.

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Delicious!

Mechanically, for those old enough to remember arcades, the game functions similarly to a real crane-game and the two touch-screen control schemes are highly intuitive. Each stage contains optional medals to earn based on particular criteria which increases the replay value, too. Money earned from the various jobs can also be used to unlock new hats for the UFO which grants the little alien passive abilities. It’s a fun, super polished, mechanically-sound mobile game that offers a lot for the small asking price. Support good mobile games!

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You have no idea how bothered I am that I left my percentage at 79%…

Speaking of Hal Laboratory, as a huge Kirby fan, I enjoyed Kirby: Star Allies, just maybe not as much as the more recent titles on 3DS. More couch-coop driven than any other entry in the franchise, the game is meant to be played with friends/family. Playing the game solo is an incredibly easy experience and the AI is almost overly competent. It’s still a super polished title and the art, music and charm are present in full spades, just as they always are. I completed the game with nearly everything collected, but the real challenge (like in most Kirby games) begins with the post-game boss-rush modes and the like that are unlocked upon completion. With a few free title updates planned, I’m hoping Nintendo continues to support this entry as it’s already sold extremely well.

Washed-up Wombats and Hedgehogs

Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back, developed by Black Forest Games, is one of the worst, most offensive platformers I’ve ever played. As a 2D/3D platformer enthusiast, a part of me can’t help myself from certain morbid curiosities. As someone who also grew up with various Bubsy titles, I just HAD to check it out. After having tortured myself (begrudgingly) 100%’ing the game, Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back is nothing more than a re-skinned Giana Sisters (same developers), yet somehow worse. The level design is amateurish, the controls are unpolished, and the bosses are horribly lacking creativity. What could have possibly gone wrong? Well, nearly everything! The publisher/developer also had the audacity to release the game near Super Mario Odyssey’s release date! Stay far away unless you’re a masochistic genre enthusiast like myself!

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Please don’t come back…

Despite the huge success of Sonic Mania, a proper 2D Sonic title developed by a fan no less, one would think the momentum would continue for the little old blue hedgehog. As someone who finds modern-day 3D Sonic a guilty pleasure, I picked-up Sonic Forces expecting at least something as good or slightly better than Sonic Team’s previous efforts on Sonic Generations or Sonic Colors. Unfortunately, although it’s not as bad as say Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, it’s much worse than its previous 3D affairs. Something about the way Sonic controls just doesn’t feel right and for a franchise that has always struggled in 3D (but nearly “got it right” with Generations and Colors) it’s hard to understand where things could have gone wrong. One also has to wonder if Sonic Forces was developed with the Switch in-mind, as the stages lend themselves to quick pick-up & play sessions suitable for a portable device.

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The Sonic franchise is hanging for its life! Someone give this bear a hand!

The levels, while extremely short, require multiple replays in order to collect everything. The story is as nonsensical as it ever was and all of Sonic’s stupid friends are back, too. Sonic Team’s sound team usually produces great soundtracks, but Force’s music isn’t as strong as other titles in the franchise. Despite how lackluster the whole game feels, I do still enjoy blasting the through stages, finding all of the routes and hidden items. I also love the dynamic camera work that’s been present in a lot of the more modern-day 3D Sonic games. Zipping around rails, loops and boost-pads still treats the player to beautifully detailed backgrounds. I completed the main game and did my fair share of the extra content, but I’m in no hurry to go back for the Platinum Trophy. Hopefully, Sonic Team hands the franchise off to a more competent studio going forward. If not, it’s back to the drawing board, once again!

I’ll Take a 3D Platformer, Sunny-Side Up!

Despite some questionable drama surrounding the game’s developer, A Hat in Time is one of the best 3D platformers I’ve ever played. It’s a super polished, creative and competently made throwback to the N64/PS2-era adventure games. A Hat in Time’s premise is simple, yet very strange. A spacefaring girl’s ship parks above an unusual planet. The vault of hourglasses onboard her vessel is suddenly opened and scattered to the planet’s surface below. The earth’s inhabitants, consisting of mafia members, owls and otherworldly creatures aren’t so willing to give-up their newly confiscated time capsules, however. It’s a weird, yet surprisingly fulfilling journey, to say the least.

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Would do it all over again (well, maybe not…).

It’s also great to see an indie developer not only offer a 3D experience in an ocean of 8/16-bit tributes, but also completely knock it out of the park on their first try. If you’re a fan of Super Mario 64/Banjo-Kazooie, do yourself a favor and play this game. Amongst its peers like Yooka-Laylee, Poi or even Super Lucky’s Tale, A Hat in Time stands-out as one of the better 3D platformers to have released as of late. I managed to 100% the game and obtain its Platinum Trophy and I’m eagerly awaiting to see what the developer, Gears for Breakfast, does next!

Portable Progression

Despite having an insanely large portable game backlog/library, I haven’t given much love to any of my on-the-go devices. As someone who’s always preferred gaming on a TV, I’ve found it difficult to incorporate portable gaming into my daily routine. This year, however, I’ve made a stronger attempt to devote time to some of my portables (the 3DS in particular) and I’d like to think I’ve made some (minor) headway into the depths of my collection.

Ever Oasis, developed by Grezzo and created by the legendary director, Koichi Ishii (most notable for Secret of Mana), is a 3D action-RPG with town-building elements. Displaced by the chaos that is enveloping the world, a seedling must reconstruct its home (or rather, an oasis) for the wealth and prosperity for not only himself, but also for the remaining tribes of the land. Ever Oasis walks along many familiar paths and at times feels like a combination of both The Legend of Zelda and Dark Cloud. Its visuals, aesthetic and general gameplay-loop sets it apart from the games it clearly has drawn inspiration from, however.

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Admiring my oasis.

Ever Oasis is one part action-RPG, two parts town-simulator, as more often than not, the player will find themselves managing the oasis and its numerous inhabitants more so than the game’s numerous field/dungeon offerings. Although the combat mechanics are rather basic, Ever Oasis incorporates layered systems in the way of simple yet rewarding crafting/quest systems. There’s also various resource gathering methods (such as farming or sending out NPCs on expeditions for materials) which helps ease the grind. The dungeons contain Zelda-like puzzles which are solved by utilizing particular character abilities, too. I believe I’m halfway through the game and I’m looking forward to restoring the Oasis to its full potential!

Both Gunman Clive and it’s sequel, Gunman Clive 2, are old-school 2D side-scrollers developed by the one-man Swedish indie studio, Horberg Productions. The two Gunman Clive games are minimalistic, stage-by-stage, point A-to-B games. Stages provide the usual run & jump hazards/obstacles and the player can collect power-ups (such as a Contra-like spread-shot) in order to gain the upper-hand. Each “world” also culminates in a boss encounter which offer a decent challenge compared to the rest of the game. Gunman Clive 2 is more or less similar to its predecessor, yet offers additional playable characters from the start and a more colorful aesthetic to boot.

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Hard-to-see record screens.

There’s nothing too exceptional about either title, however, they’re competently made run & guns that are worth playing if you’re a genre enthusiast. Both games offer multiple difficulty levels and “speed-run/no damage” bonuses to pursue which increases the replay value. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is rather dull in both games and the sound effects don’t quite have the proper impact/feedback. I completed both games this year with the default characters on their respective Hard difficulties and earned a handful of the “speed-run/no damage” bonuses for various stages.

Liberation Maiden, developed by Grasshopper Manufacture and part of Level 5’s Guild01 3DS compilation (for those who remember), is an arcade-like shooter similar to the likes of Ace Combat (or the free-range stages from Star Fox). Liberation Maiden is primarily played with the stylus as the player must lock-on to enemies/objects on the bottom-screen in order to shoot down their foes. Stages are short and the objectives don’t really change over the course of the brief campaign. The game offers replay incentives in the form of multiple difficulties and achievements, however. I found myself content after my initial play-through on Hard, though.

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Try to read that high-score font. Yikes!

Fluidity: Spin Cycle, developed by Curve Studios, is the sequel to the original Wii Ware title, Fluidity. Although the developers decided to abandon their Metroid-like structure from the original game, each stage feels more compact and focused now due to its portable nature and chapter-based presentation. Maneuvering the liquid and solving the various physics-based puzzles is as satisfying and rewarding as ever, too. The game’s main gimmick is the ability to rotate the 3DS on its side or upside-down which creates interesting scenarios. I’ve had the game since launch, but I decided to start over from scratch this year. I’m currently on the second world with everything collected/completed up to this point.

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I think I need to revisit how to upload/share portable pictures…

Steel Empire, developed by Mebius, is a side-scrolling shoot-’em-up that originally released back on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive home consoles in 1992. This old-school arcade shooter was later ported to the Nintendo Game Boy Advance in 2004 and finally to the Nintendo 3DS in 2014, which is where I first played it. Steel Empire is a short and sweet shooter, comprised of 7 stages and a cool steam-punk aesthetic. The standard power-ups and high-score chasing applies here, but there are also a handful of difficulties to choose from and numerous in-game achievements to earn. I 1CC’ed the game on the default difficulty (which means beating the game with no continues used) and I will likely replay it a few more times to earn the rest of the rewards.

Point N’ Click Your Way To My Heart

PC-style adventure games (Point n’ Clicks) have never been a passion of mine. Over the past few years, however, I’ve grown to appreciate the more narratively-driven titles (such as the aforementioned Tacoma), or what some in the community have deemed as “walking simulators”. Firewatch, developed by Campo Santo, is one such game in an ever-growing genre that’s been around for quite some time. It’s more than just another adventure game, though. Firewatch is a story about life and the choices one makes and the circumstances that are presented to us, sometimes for better or worse. As a gay man, it’s also the first fictional video game character that I developed feelings towards and also somewhat identified with.

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Woof!

Although the main character, Henry, left his home and ailing wife for a fire-lookout position in the Wyoming Wilderness, a lot of the dialogue choices and player responses are left ambiguous and open-ended. Unfortunately, although I enjoyed Firewatch’s emotional rollercoaster from beginning to end, the PlayStation 4 version was riddled with glitches and save-corrupting bugs, which ultimately soured my experience. I hope their next game, In the Valley of Gods, spends a little more time in the oven, especially considering that they’re now under Valve’s all-mighty umbrella.

Old Man’s Journey is a short and sweet PC-style point n’ click adventure game about an old man revisiting the locations of his youth. The landmarks he visits triggers memories (for better or worse) as the player solves simple puzzles involving the manipulation of the environment. It’s a touching game with a sad, yet hopeful ending. Well worth playing if you’re looking for a relaxing morning/evening to cleanse the palate.

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So relaxing.

Finally, there was Gorogoa, developed by Jason Roberts and published by Annapurna Interactive, which is another short, but unique experience that’s difficult to describe. Gorogoa is essentially a 2D, picture-sliding puzzle game. Much like Old Man’s Journey, there is no spoken dialogue and perspective is used in order to solve the game’s puzzles, which are often very cryptic.

Ready Player One

Although I tried PSVR prior to owning one myself, Moss is the first major VR game I’ve had the opportunity to play from beginning to end. With that said, it was one of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve had all year. While Moss is a relatively short and simple action-adventure game, the screen-by-screen nature of the game, its camera angles and player perspective makes it feel like you’re poking around/investigating miniature diorama-pieces. The simple fairytale-like setting/narrative is charming and the little mouse’s animations, including Quill’s usage of ASL (American sign-language) are beyond adorable. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen and it’s a must-play for anyone who is fortunate enough to own the hardware.

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The little mouse that could…

The End of an Era

With Nintendo closing its doors on the original Nintendo Wii Shop Channel on January 31, 2019, I decided to add as many points as I could in order to legitimately purchase/own any must-have titles I may have neglected over the years. Although I added way more points than I should have, I downloaded a handful of Virtual Console titles and Wii Ware exclusives that I’ve been meaning to play, one of which was Super Air Zonk. Super Air Zonk is an old-school arcade shooter based on Hudson Soft’s Bonk series. Comprised of 7 relatively short stages, Super Air Zonk is a colorful and lighthearted “shmup”, compared to its contemporaries. I managed to clear the game on Normal with a single credit, too!

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Goodbye, sweet prince!

See you next time at the end of Quarter 2!

-Matty

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