There’s a place in Lexington, Kentucky, called Doodles, that serves really good brunch that can be ordered while you wait. The one time I went there, I got a bowl of shrimp and grits, but I was jealous of the plate of beignets that my sister ordered. Beignets have always been special for me, not only because they’re tasty but because I first learned about them in the Sierra On-Line game “Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers” (hereafter GK1)
Gabriel Knight: Then and now
Much like my travails with “Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier,” my experiences with GK1 were trying. I played it on an early 1990s IBM PC, running Windows 3.0 or 3.1. Many of the game’s puzzles stumped me, plus its macabre subject-matter was a little much to take in as a 9 year-old just getting acquainted with computer games.
There were three games in the original “Gabriel Knight” run. I didn’t play the third one, but enjoyed the radically different designs of the first and second installments. Whereas GK1 was one of the pinnacles of the point-and-click VGA formula that Sierra perfected between 1990 and 1994, the second one, called “The Beast Within,” encapsulated the era of Full Motion Video.
It took up a full 6 (!) CDs, at a time when having a game on a single CD-ROM was considered cutting-edge. Sierra’s games may not have been action-packed, but they were frequently on the technical frontier, whether it was FMV in GK2, voice acting in “King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow” (it came out in 1992 and had more lines of dialogue that most films made up to that point), or open worlds in the original “King Quest,” all the way from 1984. Even SQ6 was philosophically ahead of its time, with its look at the early structure of what we now call the Internet.
Maybe the best of Sierra’s adventure crop – GK, SQ, KQ, Quest for Glory, Police Quest – were so far ahead of their time that they were waiting all along for the emergence of phones, tablets, and the MacBook Air as their ideal platforms. They were never served well by the hulking gaming PCs of the late 1990s, the rise of which neatly coincided with the decline of the adventure genre, which had no real need for graphical flair or processing power. Now that PCs as a whole are in decline and gaming PCs confined to a niche audience – with gaming itself having become radically democratized across many user demographics – it’s a perfect time for adventure games to reemerge, and so they have.
GK1 recently got a stunning makeover for its 20th anniversary. Here’s a comparison of the original PC version with the new 2014 version:
The new coat of paint is nice on the eyes, although I still love fuzzy pixelated graphics sometimes. The biggest upgrade is probably to the UI, which is not simplified into just a few primary buttons rather than a crowded task bar.
The GK1 revamp is more ambitious than some other adventure game revivals in recent years. The “Broken Sword” games, for example, were mostly faithful in their iOS/Android ports from their 1990s PC originals. But even with the extra content and graphical upgrade, it still runs without a hitch even on a minimum specs MacBook Air that, for context, can’t reliably handle the online trading card game Hearthstone.
So about those beignets
The titular character encounters a beignet vendor in Jackson Square. The sweet foodstuff itself is an important item in the game, an example of how Sierra game designers often made silly, seemingly insignificant items pivotal (the rotten fish in SQ6, which is used to defeat the final boss, is probably the best example) to the plot.
My family visited New Orleans in 1998 and that trip remains the only time I’ve been to the city. We didn’t have time to get a beignet while there, so in ensuing years i’ve settled for versions at Taste of Chicago and various restaurants.
My fascination with these fried donuts continues on though, due to a 20+ year-old gaming puzzle that I now get to experience. Replaying the GK1 remake, the game has aged well thanks to this quirky touches of humor, strong writing, and a tuneful and moody soundtrack. Replaying it on my laptop, like replaying Broken Sword II on my Nexus 5 last year, seems natural, since processing power and graphics aren’t what matter or what ever mattered. Gabriel Knight is reborn, beignets in tow.
It feels like I have played nothing except Shovel Knight and Mario Kart 8 the last few weeks. After finally getting three stars on each Grand Prix cup, here are a few tips I discovered that were helpful:
- The horn power-up is one of the best items in the game, if only because it can neutralize the blue shell. If you get one early on and you’re not far from the lead, it’s worth trying to get into 1st and just holding onto it to fend off anything that comes your way – “the speed horse” strategy.
- If you’re in 1st, getting new items doesn’t matter unless your current item is a coin, in which case you should use it right away. If you have a banana or a green shell (the typical fare for someone in 1st place), hold onto it! Countless races have been lost because someone thought that it was clever to shoot a green shell backward or lay a banana on the final turn before the finish line. When you’re in first, all items are defensive items – you will need that banana or shell to block a red shell or snipe someone who tries to overtake you at the death.
- Still, always go through the item squares if you’re in 1st place, even if you don’t need one. You never know if there’s someone on your tail that would lose the race if denied a critical item.
- Know where you can chase the lead – not all courses are created equal. The following courses are extremely difficult to come back on if you fall too far back: 1) Donut Plains 3 2) Rainbow Road (N64 version) 3) Dolphin Shoals and 4) Water Park. On the other hand, it’s not hard to make a huge comeback on Piranha Plant Side, Toad Harbor, and Bowser’s Castle.
- Be wary of 2nd and 3rd place CPUs that are directly ahead of you with red shells. They will often fire them backward (which make no sense, but it happens). It’s useful to have a green shell on hand to fire forward and block the red one.
- Banana sniping it a thing. If you’re in 2nd or 3rd, it’s worth it to throw a banana forward since CPUs or even human players won’t always be able to move in time to get out of the way. Throwing bananas backward or using them defensively makes no sense unless you’re in 1st, anyway.
- Mushrooms are often misused. It’s usually not a good idea to just burn them while on a straight stretch of track. They’re most useful for: 1) boosting through a patch of slow territory (grass, stone, etc.) to get to a shortcut, such as on the first turn at Thwomp Ruins or near the end of Piranha Plant Slide 2) recovering right away after hitting a banana or getting hit with a shell 3) making a big turn, when many other players will brake or drift for too long.
- If you see a blue shell heading for the 1st place racer while you’re in 2nd or a near 3rd, use the brakes (slight tap on B). The explosion radius is wide and getting caught in it is as bad as getting hit directly.
- Sometimes there’s nothing you can do in the face of a blue shell. If it is about to hit you, use up any items you have on you since you’ll lose them afterward. Also, if possible, try steering yourself near to a booster strip. That way, once you start up again, you can get up to speed as quickly as possible.
- Drift wherever possible. Beginners often struggle with turns and making comebacks; drifting is the best way to address both of these issues.
- Use the jump button to get a boost when going over a ramp or precipice. It also doesn’t hurt to jump or quickly drift to change course when you see that a red shell is coming up from behind. Red shells can miss for all sorts of reasons, so it’s a good idea to make life as hard as possible on them.
- If you’re in the lead near the end and fear that someone is tailing you, vary your direction a bit so that you don’t create a slipstream from everyone behind you.
- Remember that you if you brush up against someone holding a mushroom(s), you get a free boost.
- The fireball power-up is unwieldy, but it’s devastating if you’re in the middle of the (closely packed) pack coming around a turn. Unleash it and watch the entire field go spinning.
If exclusive original content is Nintendo’s bread, then proprietary hardware is its butter. Just as the stereoscopic 3D of the 3DS has enabled unique experiences such as the lush landscapes of Phoenix Wright Dual Destinies and the unique puzzles of Pushmo/Crashmo, the Wii U GamePad has opened up new possibilities for both Nintendo’s own games and third-party titles.
Broadly, the GamePad has reduced on-screen map and menu clutter. Even mass-market, cross-platform games such as Batman Arkham City and the Assassin’s Creed series have benefited from having a second screen onto which to offload boring but necessary design. The TV itself is then freed up for continuous gameplay, with no more pop-up spam or map micromanagement.
As the Wii U gains commercial traction through blockbuster titles such as Mario Kart 8, there has been renewed focus from Nintendo and other developers on doing more with the GamePad. The controller’s unconventional design has also been a point of contention with industry observers trying to explain the console’s tepid reception pre-Mario Kart 8 – it surely adds to the Wii U’s price while seemingly being unnecessary (top-notch games such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze don’t even use it).
Still, the GamePad has been well-utilized so far. Perhaps it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves because of the Wii U’s slow uptake. Here are some of the games and apps that make hay with Nintendo’s tablet controller.
Shovel Knight is a Kickstarter project that became an immensely satisfying send-up of 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System gaming. From its limited palette to its soundtrack, Shovel Knight nails the 8-bit era’s distinctive aesthetics.
In my review, I praised Shovel Knight for being pitch-perfect while adding latter-day touches such as theatricality through animation and cutscenes. It also makes better use of Miiverse than any game I’ve played so far for Wii U.
As you move from room to room, the GamePad automatically updates with Miiverse posts (categorized as “Diary”) that include comments and tips about the current room. Some are just peanut gallery schtick about how hard/easy the boss is, but others provide info such as how many hits it takes to defeat the mini-boss and where the hidden passage is located.
The GamePad also provides inventory management. Overall, the GamePad provides nice 21st century differentiation for a game with its head in 1988.
The best of the Wii U launch titles, ZombiU is a fiendishly hard first-person shooter/survival horror hybrid. It took me months to finally clear the normal campaign, and I have yet to try survival mode (in which the game ends for good if you die once; I died 55 times in my first successful playthrough).
ZombiU uses the GamePad like a Swiss Army Knife. It can be held up to the TV as a scanner for clues and enemies. It serves as the scope for the sniper rifle. It is also the interface for entering passcodes and breaking locks.
Ubisoft made the GamePad an indelible part of ZombiU. Even in asynchronous multiplayer mode, it serves as one player’s map for dispatching zombies.
Lego City Undercover
Open world games stir up a certain anxiety in me. It’s probably why I never got into Minecraft and why I have always struggled to stay engaged with the Assassin’s Creed installments. It took Lego to win me over.
Lego City Undercover is an open world Wii U exclusive, sort of like Grand Theft Auto with Lego. You play as a police officer tasked with patrolling Lego City. The GamePad is your stand-in for your character’s communicator.
As such, the GamePad serves as the main screen for communications with headquarters. Plus, it doubles as an evidence scanner. I wouldn’t expect any less from one of the Wii U’s best exclusive titles.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This game has been ported to a gazillion different platforms, and its stark futurism and realistic violence aren’t exactly Nintendo hallmarks. All the same, its Wii U incarnation is the best available due to the GamePad perks.
Deus Ex HR is filled with menus, lists, maps, logs, and to-do lists. The GamePad is the perfect medium for all of these features. It helps you manage the finer details while not losing sight of the gameplay.
The Wii U version also features enhanced boss battles so that you can scrape by even without a first-rate weapons arsenal. The extra content between Hong Kong and Singapore is also includd.
Not a game obviously, but Netflix shows how the GamePad can be useful in other contexts. Netflix is one of my (and many others’) most used non-game Wii U app, and it takes advantage of the hardware.
The Netflix Wii U app is hardly a paragon of performance and reliability, but the GamePad options make up for these shortcomings. The GamePad screen shows you the title of the film, its Netflix community star rating, the cast, the blurb, and how much time is remaining.
If anything, the Netflix app could probably go further, much like how Shovel Knight turned Miiverse into something worthwhile and useful. Reviews, links to cast and other details in IMDb? All of that would be welcome.
What’s the appeal of pixelated 8-bit graphics and linear gameplay? Well, maybe they’re an escape from Internet-only dystopian shooters (seriously, how many of these can the average gaming bro play through). A respite from “free-to-play.” A break from “Read Phone Status” permissions. They’re decisive proof that progress isn’t something that just moves forwards. It goes backward all the time (see also: the move away from albums and toward standalone singles and streaming music).
I mean, this says it all. And I would remiss to mention that I am so looking to Shovel Knight for Wii U/3DS at the end of this month.
Until then, I’ve been tiding myself over with Mutant Mudds Deluxe for Wii U. “8-bit” is a monomer here, though, as the game draws inspiration from the SNES’s color palette (plus the blonde haircut and glasses of protagonist Max is more than a little reminiscent of Jeff from Earthbound).
Mutant Mudds Deluxe sets out to do just a few things and it does all them all as well as Scrooge McDuck bounces on a cane. Max has a jetpack and a water cannon. His jump never feels quite high enough, weirdly – maybe it’s the sheer necessity of having to jetpack-blast your way up through all the CGA-Lands (cute IBM reference) that makes the normal jump seem unimportant to the game. In this way, the game resembles 8-bit classic Bionic Commando, with its deemphasis (well, downright obviation) of jumping in favor of claw grappling.
There’s unlimited ammo, as you would expect from a golden/silver age Nintendo platformer. Difficulty is sufficient – tricky moving/disappearing platforms, weirdly positioned enemies – but not back-breaking like Castlevania III or Defender (or as latter-day gamers call it, Flappy Bird).
You can tell that this game began on the 3DS (sans the “Deluxe” moniker). Its usage of depth-of-field effects is clever, but feels awkward on Wii U, where there’s tons of real estate that feels wasted by shrinking Max into the background. But the widescreen effect does bring some major improvements over the mobile version, which would often not show enough of the screen for you to avoid having to make a blind jump.
At only $10, Mutant Mudds Deluxe isn’t cheap compared to the F2P garbage out there. But like the astonishing Out There, it feels like a bargain for how much craftsmanship is crammed into it.