Friday, November 25, 2011

Kirby Mass Attack Review

Kirby Mass Attack (Nintendo DS) Review

OK, so it took longer to get to this than I had planned.  There's a reason for the delay and I'll get to it in the review*.
I'm gonna try to make the review a little more organized this time by using headers for what I consider the 4 main aspects of reviewing a game (Sound, Presentation, Graphics and Gameplay).

Like most Kirby games, the music is very upbeat, light-hearted and enjoyable.  However, unlike most Kirby games, the music is also fairly forgettable.  I doubt many tunes in this game will end up among classic video game tunes like the old 'Green Greens' theme did.
Still, the soundtrack is good and fitting for the game.  Not bad, just not spectacular.
The sound effects used in the game are just as nice, full of character and, of course, Kirby has the typical gibberish voice clips that have become standard for the series (since Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards).

Being a handheld platformer, Mass Attack takes the standard route of having levels laid out on world maps for you to select.  Similar to Super Mario Bros. 3; one of the first games to utilize this type of level-select; some levels become available to play even if you have not completed all that came before them.  However, it is essential to complete every level in order to finish the game (more on that in the Gameplay section).
The premise of the game is simple as you'd expect from Kirby:  The pink hero is magically torn into 10 of himself and you must complete several levels in order to obtain the power to put Kirby back together.
Throughout the game, you'll travel to five different worlds (Pop Star, and Volcano Valley to name 2) and complete a handful of levels in each.  The worlds all have standard themes, with Pop Star being the basic, grassy area as it's the first world of the game.  In Volcano Valley, you will of course find yourself contending with more fiery environments, brimming with lava and the like.
What little story sequences there are are presented with simple images and text describing the occurrences.  Since there really isn't much story to speak of, this is exactly as simple and straight-forward as you could want it to be.

This game is entirely 2D and, seeing as 3D graphics on the DS have rarely looked very good, that fact is much to its benefit.
 In fact, Kirby Mass Attack is about as beautiful as 2D handheld platformers get.  Everything is very vibrant, colourful and lively and just a joy to behold.  Sprites are richly animated, drawing lots of character out of very simple designs.  The boss battles are always a treat to relive just from how nice they look.
Simply put, the game looks great.

As already mentioned, Kirby Mass Attack is a platformer, and it involves Kirby being split into 10 Kirbys.
While admittedly skeptical after my last experience with a Kirby game, I picked up Mass Attack keeping in mind that Kirby's had a very good track record on the DS.  Canvas Curse, for instance, was one of the best launch titles for the system and was an effective proof of concept in how the touch screen could be utilized to improve gameplay.
Mass Attack employs a similar control scheme, using nothing but touching to control the entire game.  Tapping on the screen 'calls' your Kirbys and is your main method of movement through the game.  Tap an area to the left or right of where they are and your team will walk towards it; double-tap and they'll run.  Tap in a spot above them and they'll jump to it.  You can also 'flick' Kirbys; press on one and quickly drag the stylus in the direction you want to flick it and off it goes.  You'll use this to break blocks, push objects and also to latch onto enemies that are otherwise out of reach.
Similar to the main method of movement in Canvas Curse, you can also collect your Kirbys by holding the stylus down on a certain spot and then you can maneuver them through the air by drawing a line that the group will follow.
When starting each world, you will only have one Kirby.  In order to acquire more, you must eat different kinds of fruit, each worth their own specified number of points, in order to accumulate 100 points which produces another Kirby.  When you have the maximum team of 10 Kirbys, collecting 100 points-worth of fruit gives you additional score bonuses.
Every level has a specified minimum number of Kirbys you must have in order to play it.  In most cases, you won't have a problem meeting the quota.
Combating enemies works simply by tapping on them to call your Kirbys to attack.  The Kirbys will latch on to the enemy and start doing damage.  When the enemy is defeated, they slam it into the ground, awarding your points and fruit.  The number of Kirbys in your team is directly related to how much damage you can do in one go.  Many enemies are weak enough that only a few Kirbys can take care of them with no problem, however some larger enemies will be able to shake your team off even if you have all 10.  In these cases, you simply need to try multiple times to defeat the enemies.
Boss fights are mostly different in that causing damage to them usually involves some very light puzzle elements; figuring out what you need to do to get them in range of attack.
All in all, it's a very simple but still very enjoyable combat system.
*Some moderate replay value can be found in the Medals, hidden Kirby-faced coins in every level.  Most of these are gold-coloured and unessential to completing the game.  Unfortunately, every non-boss level prior to the fifth world also has one rainbow-coloured medal; all of which you must get in order to progress to the fifth world.  This is why it took me as long as it did to get to this review and is also why you must play every level in order to complete the game.  Some of the medals are quite a chore to track down and, in a parallel to Wind Waker, make this an annoying late-game fetch-quest that can really kill the fun.
This is the one glaring flaw in the game's design and about the only thing I'd really say is bad about it.  All in all, the title is still quite good.

With the Nintendo DS on its way out, we probably won't be seeing a whole lot of new games on it from now on.  Kirby Mass Attack is the latest, and probably last, outing for the pink puffball on the DS and it's a quality title that should warrant at least a rental if you're a fan.
Kirby games on the DS have been consistently good and Mass Attack has retained that reputation, utilizing older gimmicks that proved themselves, and adding new tricks to how you play.  Even if you don't see it the whole way through on account of the annoying Rainbow Medal fetch-quest, it is still a very nice experience.
In the end, it's not a revolutionary title by any means but if you want one last title to add to your DS library before the system is all but forgotten by developers, Kirby Mass Attack will work just fine.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dang, So Close

So, I've put nearly 20 hours into Skyward Sword now and today, for the first time since starting mind you, I did have to re-calibrate the MotionPlus.  It wasn't even for the swordplay, which was oddly still working just fine.  Instead, the issue came up when I attempted swimming under water (an ability acquired a little while after completing the third dungeon).  Just like riding on your Loftwing, swimming underwater is controlled by tilting the remote in the direction you want to move.
The first time I submerged, I found myself looking at Link in disapproval as he inexplicably constantly spiraled downwards.  One quick calibration and all was right.
Considering the amount of times I had to calibrate the MotionPlus in Red Steel 2 and other MotionPlus titles, this one time in nearly 20 hours of the game is still an absolutely colossal improvement.  Nonetheless, I'm still a little sad that I can no longer say that I've never had any real problems with the motion controls in Skyward Sword.  Oh well.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword First Impressions

It is upon us.
So, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, perhaps the last significant title to come out on the Wii, has now been released.  Of course, I did grab myself a copy.  I finished a 3-hour (give or take) play session with it earlier and got a good feel of where the game is going.
Much like Twilight Princess, the game does take a while to really get started.  There's ~20 minutes of playtime before you even get your first sword.  Following that, there's still a handful of things to do before the story gets moving.

The motion controls are damn near flawless.  Occasionally, you'll want to re-center the MotionPlus (which can be done by simply entering first-person mode; press C; and then pressing Down on the D-Pad).  Those occasions are pleasantly rare.  This is, by far, the best motion-control swordplay the Wii has to offer.  Red Steel 2 was on the right track but, admittedly, the MotionPlus needed re-calibration too frequently.
Speaking of first-person mode, in this game you can actual move around while in first-person.  You can actually control Link like you would your character in an FPS game.  However, you can't really do anything besides move while in this perspective so don't expect to play the entire game this way.

The game looks great too.  It's certainly among the best looking games in the Wii's library; right along with Metroid Prime 3, Sonic Colors, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  That's not just because of well-done models or the art direction either, the character animation is fantastic as well.

As has been noted by a few of the major review sites out there, this is the first game in the series to have orchestral music as part of the soundtrack.  Most of the music sounds great but there have been a couple tracks that I've found pretty annoying.  I turned the volume down during the 'Wing Ceremony' race as I really disliked the music for that part.

Not too much else to say right now without just explaining controls or spoiling the story.  Right now, it's pretty good.  If the whole game continues along this path of steadily piling on the fun, it should be great.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

10 Questions Atheists Can't Answer Well Answered Well By An Atheist

So, some time ago, I addressed the website and it's Evolution Test.
I discovered that website and the test through a biology student, fellow atheist and friend.  Now, he's stumbled upon another 'quiz' that I've decided to tackle.  These questions were originally posted way back in 2005, but they were recently (2010) re-posted by the same author, on his new website, exactly as they were before.
You can find the re-post here:

For the sake of convenience, I'll quote each question as is in the aforementioned link; complete with spelling and grammatical errors; before each answer.

1.  "Where did life and humanity originate?"
We don't know where the very first instant of life occurred.  Mathematically speaking, there are almost certainly other planets out there that are inhabited and many have been around for a lot longer than Earth.  The very first life probably went extinct eons ago on some very distant planet.
As for humanity, it originated on Earth of course.  Are you sure you didn't mean to ask how human life originated?

2.  "Why is there suffering, sickness and death?"
This is a pretty easy question to answer in the context of real-world factors.  Sickness is caused by viruses/harmful bacteria/what have you.  Death occurs when vital organs fail, be it through force (e.g. murder) or 'natural' causes (e.g. cancer).
This question is, in fact, much harder to answer if you assume there is a god that cares about us because...well, why does he let such things happen?

3.  "What is the cure for man's suffering, esp. his existential lonliness?"
Well, this is entirely subjective.  If somebody is suffering from, say, depression, an upbeat cartoon might cheer them up.  However, if somebody is suffering from hunger, then you wouldn't have them view the same cartoon and expect to cure their suffering.  There is no single cure.
As for existential loneliness, again this is still subjective.  I don't feel existentially lonely at all.  I certainly don't see why being an atheist should make me feel existentially lonely.
Previously I mentioned that in mathematical terms, aliens are practically confirmed to exist; that simple fact may stop some particular individual from feeling "existentially lonely" but may not do the same for another.

4.  "How does an atheist assign meaning to human activity?  Is all meaning subjective, or do some activities have self-evident and objective worth and meaning.  If so, what are these activities and how do you arrive at their value?"
We have conscious thought and instinct; both of these are playing factors in the actions we take.  You could say meaning is subjective in a sense.  I like to choose the course of action that benefits the human race because I sincerely care about our species and would like to see it thrive and better itself.  That path is, in my mind, the correct path.  Others may not agree; they may think humankind should go extinct for the sake of other species or the Earth itself. The latter view may seem ludicrous but there are many people in the real world who do think that way and that has to mean that these things are, in fact, subjective.
Even subjective context doesn't remove self-evident worth though.  Again, I want what's best for the human race as a whole.  I donate to charity every time I go to a fast food place that happens to be doing a charity drive.  With my desires in mind, the action of donating to starving and/or sick children has a clearly self-evident value; because our economies revolve around money and donating money to charity is going to help those in need.

5.  "Are humans of more intrinsic value than animals?  Why or why not?"
I would say yes, but that's subjective for reasons I already covered in my last answer; there are many people who would disagree with me thus confirming subjectivity.
I, not as a spokesman for atheists (as I'm not one, nor is anyone really) but as an individual, think humans are more intrinsically valuable than other animals (and I say 'other' because humans are, in fact, animals themselves) because we are the most cognitively capable species on the planet.  We have the highest standard of problem-solving ability, intelligence, productivity, etc.
Because of this superiority, we are the most capable species on our planet of achieving great things for our planet and for each other.
As much as I love cats, I would sooner kill a cat than another human being.  Thankfully, I doubt I'll ever have to make such a choice.

6.  "How does an atheist determine what is moral or immoral, right or wrong.  Is there any objective standard or principles?"
No, there isn't.  Again, I've covered that already.  If there is no god, and I do not believe there is, then our morals must have Earthly origins and since morals can change drastically from one person to the next, morality is thus undeniably subjective.
And again, I try to derive my morals from a sincere desire for doing what's best for the human race.
I can't tell you how all atheists determine morality as I am not all atheists.  I am one atheist.
As for the origins, I would contest that there are 2 factors that have, for lack of a better word, 'caused' our morality to exist.
The first of these factors is the evolution of instinct.  Throughout history, humans have tended to live in societies that benefited from their inhabitants bearing the traits of a good samaritan.  The inhabitants themselves also benefited from those traits.  Thus instinctual morality, such as empathy for human suffering, can be explained by this.
The second factor is the emergence of consciousness and, in turn, conscious reasoning.  With the ability to reason, we have the ability to choose our course of action based on our own criteria.  Many of us choose to reason based on factors that are, subjectively, moral.

7. "What type of government does atheistic philosophy translate into?  How does it understand the relationship between man and government?  What type of government structures flow from an atheistic world view?  Does it merely rely on someone else's system of thought, like the assumptions of naturalistic science?"
At this point, I can conclude that you do not know what atheism is.  Atheism is not a philosophy, nor is it a worldview.  Atheism is simply a lack of a faith-based belief system.  In fact, the components that make up the word 'atheism', the prefix 'a-' and the root word 'theism', together literally mean "lack of belief system".
Atheists do not universally agree on what government philosophy is right.  They do not have a universally identical worldview.
Let me give you an example:  Penn and Teller are atheists and hardcore libertarians.  I am an atheist and I agree with much of what Penn and Teller have to say on political philosophy, but I don't agree with all of it.  If I had to choose an existing political term to describe my stance, it would be 'libertarian' but I do not consider myself to be 100% libertarian; I have points of contention with that ideology.  TheAmazingAtheist on YouTube thinks, and I quote, "libertarians are idiots".
So in that example, we have 4 atheists who, even though they are all atheists, do not share identical philosophies.

8.  "How does atheism view religions and religious faith?  What about metaphysics?  Is atheism purely materialistic and naturalistic?"
Why do all of these questions assume that the one atheist answering can speak for all atheists on the planet?
Remember, atheism itself is the 'lack of belief'.  Atheism does not 'view religions and religious faith', it lacks them.
As an individual who is also an atheist, I personally view religions and religious faith with extreme skepticism and moderate contempt respectively.
Atheism is not purely materialistic and naturalistic because, yet again, it is not a philosophy or worldview.  Myself on the other hand, I am fairly materialistic.  I like having things, it makes me happy.  But that has absolutely nothing to do with atheism by definition.

9.  "Who are the authoritative writers/books of atheism?  What are the central tenets of atheism, and if they have a "greatest commandment," what is it?  For example, arguably, Christianity's is "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.""
Before I answer, I just want to mention that it was really hard to resist making fun of the horrendous grammar in this question.
Just like it is not a philosophy or worldview, atheism is not a doctrine either.  There are no authoritative writers.  There are no rule books.  There are no commandments.  Atheism itself is simply not having faith-based beliefs.
There are people who write books about atheism, such as Richard Dawkins and his book 'The God Delusion', but they are not our leaders, nor are their books our doctrine.  The people are just that:  People.  The books contain those people's thoughts put onto paper.  Nothing more, nothing less.

10.  "What happens after we die?"
This is probably the most competent, if most often repeated, question on this list.
The truth is nobody can say for certain.  It's an impossibility for anyone to know for certain what's going to happen to them following their death.  However, the same can be said for just about everything of our perceived reality.  Nothing is truly a 100% certainty.  Even scientific laws are concepts that have such a high percentage of certainty that they may as well be 100% certain but really aren't quite.
With that in mind, I can tell you what I would say happens after we die because it is something I am so close to certain of that I may as well be certain.
To start, let's just make sure to establish the fact that when we die, our organs shut down.  This is a confirmed part of dying and an important factor for this answer.
I do not believe we have "souls" that supersede our living body.  My body is me, organs and all.  My thoughts, personality, preferences, etc. are all controlled by my brain.  My brain, being one of my many organs, will shut down when I die just like everything else.  As it goes, so will its functions that control and establish my persona.  Thus, I will simply be gone.
I will no longer have a consciousness to speak of.  I will not drift into a void of nothingness, I will not go to an afterlife.  I simply won't be.
It will be just the same to me as the time before I was born was.
People who aren't me will, of course, continue on, but not as far as I'm concerned because I'll no longer be capable of perceiving anything.
I will eventually decay and deteriorate, as corpses do.
And hopefully my family will be intelligent enough to not spend thousands of dollars on my funeral, trying to ensure comfort that I'm not physically capable of experiencing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Dragon Ball Z Release Guide

Alright, so here's something I figured I'd try to write up because I'm still seeing a lot of people on forums and YouTube who are confused by all of the different releases of Dragon Ball Z (and understandably so).  I'm going to try my best to clarify the difference between FUNimation's 'Remastered Season Sets', the 'Dragon Box' release, as well as the home video releases of Dragon Ball (Z) Kai.

Part 1:  FUNimation Remastered Season Sets, AKA 'Orange Bricks'
These sets contain footage remastered by FUNimation with a filter process.  The process sharpened the image and cleaned up much of the film-grain from the film masters that FUNimation was originally given to produce the English dub of the series.  The video has been reformatted into a widescreen format; a controversial decision; which crops off the very top and bottom sections of the picture but has also increased the amount of picture seen on the sides (this is because of how 'TV cutoff' works differently with fullscreen and widescreen ratios).  The filter process also causes 'breakage' in the pictures during shaky sequences; in scenes where the Earth is quaking, you'll often see the outlines on characters get broken up.
These sets contain 3 audio tracks; A Japanese language track with optional subtitles, an English language track with the Japanese OST; compatible with surround sound, and an English language track with the US broadcast soundtrack (composed by Bruce Faulconer).  The English subtitles can be turned on with any track but they are solely a direct translation of the Japanese audio and do not often match up with the English dub.
As can be seen in the image above, this release of the series is split into 9 seasons of varying length.  They range between 26 and 39 episodes.
The final disc of each set contains a 'Special Features' menu.  Most of these are just trailers for other shows licensed by FUNimation.  The first season, however, also contains a featurette about the remastering process.
The sets contain guidebooks with character bios, episode guides and some modern art of the characters.
These sets are often referred to as the 'Orange Bricks' by the fandom.

Part 2: Dragon Box Sets
The Dragon Box sets contain footage remastered by Toei Animation in Japan, in a frame-by-frame restoration process.  The picture is sharper than that of the Orange Bricks and there's no breakage in shaky scenes, however the film-grain is more apparent.  The picture is also slightly darker than that of the Orange Bricks.
Originally intended as a Japan-only release, Toei had the series split into 2 Dragon Box sets; both quite pricey due to the amount of material each would contain.  After some-odd years*, Toei finally agreed to allow FUNimation to do a western release of the Dragon Box.
FUNimation's Dragon Box release was instead split into seven boxes; all with similar styling to the two Japanese boxes (i.e. yellow blocks with modern art of individual characters).  The Toei remasters were left entirely intact; FUNimation added an English language track as well as, again, some trailers for some of their other shows.
The sets contain small guidebooks called 'Dragonbooks' with character bios, episode guides, family trees, some modern art of the characters and some of Akira Toriyama's concept art.
These sets contain only 2 audio tracks; a Japanese language track with the Japanese OST and optional subtitles, and an English language track with the Japanese OST.  Bruce Faulconer's musical score is not present in the Dragon Box release.
Dragon Box-styled releases were done in Japan for the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z movies, the Dragon Ball series and the Dragon Ball GT series as well.  FUNimation has not, as of yet, announced any plans to release these other sets in the western world.

*The first Dragon Box was released in Japan in 2003.  The first Dragon Box set released in North America came in 2009.  Thus it took 5-6 years before FUNimation was able to acquire the rights to release the Dragon Box and, in the meantime, did their own remastered release in the form of the Orange Bricks.

Part 3: Dragon Ball Z Kai DVD's/Blu-rays
I know more savvy fans may wonder why I wanted to address Kai as well since it's technically not the same show; and that's exactly why I wanted to address it.  Dragon Ball Kai, known as Dragon Ball Z Kai in North America, has caused incredible amounts of confusion since its premier in Japan in 2009.
I have seen claims to the effect that Kai is just Dragon Ball Z being shown again with a new name, that Kai specifically refers to a new English dub of Dragon Ball Z, that Kai has the violence extremely edited, among others.  These claims are all false; some more than others.
So first off, let us clarify what Dragon Ball Kai is.  Dragon Ball Kai is, effectively, a director's cut of Dragon Ball Z, produced in Japan.  The idea behind Kai was to edit out the 'filler' to make a more coherent and faster paced version of the show which would also be more true to the Dragon Ball Z manga.  This means that much of the 'staring contest' and 'powering-up' scenes have been cut down or removed.  The Garlic Jr. saga has also been entirely removed as it does not exist in the manga.
In addition to the cutting/trimming of scenes, Toei Animation also did a new remastering process for the sake of Kai which included colour-correction and reformatting into high definition.
An entirely new musical score was composed for Dragon Ball Kai.  However, as I covered in a post several months ago, much of that score has been retroactively replaced after a lawsuit.
On the note of edited violence; yes, Dragon Ball Kai has been subject to stricter censorship than Dragon Ball Z.  Broadcasting regulations in Japan have become stricter since Z first aired.  For example, when Goku and Raditz die, it is no longer possible to see right through their torsos.  The holes have been replaced with dark patches.  Nudity such as Gohan's genitals has also been edited out or covered in some fashion.
This censorship is rather mild at best and the implications remain entirely intact.  The claim made by some that the editing is extreme stems from editing that exists exclusively in the North American television broadcast version of the show.
Currently, Nicktoons and CW4Kids are broadcasting Kai in North America and, since both are meant as very kid-friendly names, the violence is far more edited.  CW4Kids is particularly notorious for extreme edits to the show.
However, these edits do not appear on the home video releases nor have they ever appeared in Japan, either on TV or on DVD/Blu-Ray.
In Japan, Kai was broadcast on television in a widescreen ratio, however the fullscreen ratio of the original series was left intact and used for home video releases.
FUNimation is once again handling the English dub of the series.  Rather than reusing recordings they had already made for Dragon Ball Z, they opted to dub Kai from scratch.  Much of their original Z cast returned along with a handful of recasts.  This time around, FUNimation has made a strong effort to keep the English dub very true to the original, Japanese dialogue.  FUNimation also retitled the series Dragon Ball Z Kai in an attempt to lessen confusion...yeah, we can see how well that worked out.
In North America, you can find releases of Dragon Ball Z Kai on both DVD and Blu-Ray.  Similar to the Dragon Box release, these contain the Toei remasters (the ones made for Kai) along with 2 audio tracks:  Japanese with optional subtitles and the English dub, both using the same soundtrack.
These releases contain special features such as interviews with FUNimation voice actors and directors.
Something to watch out for when picking these sets up is whether you want the 'Part' releases or the 'Season' releases.  As the series has been going, FUNimation's been releasing it in 'parts', each containing ~13 episodes.  Recently, they've begun releasing seasons.  Dragon Ball Z Kai Season One is now available and contains the first 26 episodes (making it a compiled version of parts 1 and 2).

Phew.  Let's hope that can clear things up for some people.