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Animal Crossing ::: Pixel Perfect

While some are most content stood on the beach, fishing rod in hand, willing the illusive sharks to take a nibble of their bait, I’ve been very happy honing my skills in Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s image editor. Though only a tiny grid of pixels it allows villagers to craft a whole host of custom accessories. From tiles to dot around town to designer wallpapers for your home, a one off haute couture to silly scribbles for your standee, your pixel art talents can be shown off to all who visit.

New Leaf may be chock full of a host of customisation options already but most operate within a set collection. Within the hundreds of furniture options there will no doubt be something that suits a player’s style but with a little work it can feel far more personal. For me it was a chance to place a handful of my favourite things into the town. Starting with unearthing the secrets lying under Buneaton.

From a young age I’ve loved dinosaurs and so need little excuse to shoe horn them into any of my projects. Of course Blathers and his ever expanding palaeontology exhibit help satiate this but I decided to blow his tiny owl mind with a slightly larger excavation. Taking up six tiles and inspired by the opening scenes of Jurassic Park we find a Deinonychus (the pedant in me won’t allow it to be mislabelled as the tinier Velociraptor) ready to be transported to the museum.

Elsewhere, in the clothes shops on Main Street, we find more contemporary items. Inspired by Marvel’s Avengers the Able Sisters stock a line for you and your friends to dress up as your favourite superhero. The Pro Designs, which allow you design front, back and the sleeves independently, are a great addition to Animal Crossing and offer far more creativity than seen before.


There’s a relaxing joy I gain from spending time poking pixels. Taking the real world concepts and turning them into a tiny stylised version can lead me to lose hours as I play dress up with my tiny virtual dolls.

If you like what you see, use the QR code reader found in Mable and Sable’s and fill your village with fossils and superheroes. And, of course, we’d love to see what you’ve made.

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Animal Crossing ::: Review

During the three weeks since its release, I’ve thought of little else. In body I may be at work yet my mind continually drifts back to Buneaton; to its colourful residents, its sandy beaches, and to the community that I’m building there. I think of the circle of trees I’m nurturing around the standing stone we recently unearthed, the letters I need to write to thank my kind neighbours, and the projects I should execute as Mayor to move the town forward. It is all consuming.

All consuming, and yet unassuming. When it welcomes you in with its bright colours and big heads it’s easy for the uninitiated to wonder where the draw could possibly be. How could a game that looks like it could be a candidate for a CBBC show see grown men and women setup whole Facebook groups dedicated to what fruit each other are growing in their back garden?

Well, it begins with a train journey to a far off town.

Upon arrival you’re welcomed by the townsfolk, an enthusiastic collection of colourful creatures, they crowd around you excited to greet their new mayor. There’s been a case of mistaken identity but they won’t hear your protests, such is their eagerness to make you feel at home. But before you can take it all in, your new mayoral assistant Isabelle has whisked you away to Town Hall for a meeting with property mogul Tom Nook to break ground on your official residence.


A whirlwind introduction to the town sees you scurry back and forth between your home, the shops, and your office, catching fleeting glimpses of meandering rivers and groves of fruit trees as you rush by. They at least hint at the sense for the idyllic country life you’d originally signed up for. Thankfully the last piece of paperwork is soon signed and you’re left on your own. From the solitude of your tent it feels a lot like being on holiday; despite an exhausting journey there’s a sense that you should be out doing something but you’re not sure what.

A quick stroll, maybe, round down to the beach, possibly with a touch of shell collecting. Turn those in at the local shop for some bells – the local currency – and you get a fishing rod, leading to a trip to the riverbank. There you may pick some fruit so plant a few trees, discovering a world of insects in the process. But what’s that, a fossil? Scamper off to the museum to get it checked out. And now the curator suggests you donate one of everything you find to him, better get fishing again… it’s a series of constant distractions.

Such is the aimlessness of it all some could wander around and lose interest, but equally the discovery can easily draw you in. A few inquisitive paces in one direction or another could be all it takes as you start to unearth your village’s treasures. Shaking a tree here or talking to a fellow resident there, this is where Animal Crossing starts to bite. I envy those discovering strange marks in the earth or floating presents for the first time as there’s a wealth – quite literally in some cases – of distractions that can pull you this way and that. It may not be the fully realised world of a Fallout or Oblivion but there are just as many treats that will cause you to forget where you were running to and pull out a fishing rod.

Those who do wish for a more directed sense of progression can look towards their Mayoral duties. Up until this point in the series Nintendo has let you simply live in the world, enjoying all it offers but with minimal ability to guide it. In New Leaf you can now direct how the village grows. This may be as minor as installing a park bench, as useful as building a new bridge to cross the river, or as fulfilling as constructing a new wing to the town’s museum, and with each opportunity it feels a far more personable experience. Many of the stalwarts of the series are hidden behind this urban renewal too, causing you to squeal with glee as names from the past are hinted at by Isabelle as she hands you the proposed list of projects. This already has caused Animal Crossing to have a far longer tail than before. The need to work for old friends – or even discover new ones – is a huge draw, and keeps you playing the turnip market in the hope of a huge profit and the ability to pay for the coffee shop that you know will herald your favourite pigeon’s return.


Be it a beverage serving bird or the red tree frog who lives next door, the characters you meet play their part in keeping you hooked. They may be dim enough to continuously try and walk through trees but the personality their little AI possesses causes you to remember them, to seek them out for conversation or even to wish they’d leave you in peace. It’s like true village life as you hope for gossip and exchange pleasantries, even if the undercurrent of all your interactions is secretly hoping your “friends” will hand over presents if you’re nice enough.

Large portions of Animal Crossing are wrapped up in the ideal of community and conversation. Even basic operations such as character creation and heading online are disguised as normal chats, the latter hidden behind a train journey metaphor. At times this wordy approach can be draining as you just want to get things done speedily, but to reduce it down to a simple menu wouldn’t be half as charming. It’s part of the Nintendo ideal and here the clunky nature pays dividends.

What is also surprising is how fluidly the online integration works as four villagers can meet together for fun and frolics. An area set aside from the main town is dedicated to simple mini-games based around day to day activities, and if that’s too much you can all just potter round one another’s houses, critiquing the décor, and hitting each other with spades. It’s the epitomy of New Leaf as you’re as much the creators of the entertainment as Nintendo.

In a world of Dark Souls and The Last of Us, this is the ultimate retreat. A casual affair that allows you to dip in and spend some time cleansing your mind of demons and the collapse of mankind as you stand on the beach fishing as the sun sets behind you. Cynics may look too deep, past its charm and relaxing nature and question it, but not everything has to be a mentally taxing or rewarding feat.

As ever, it’s easy to dip in short stints during the train ride to work, but it also rewards those that want to put the time in and invest in their town. The rewards may not always be immediate but they’re subtle and plenty. New Leaf will coax you in and encourages you to stay.


Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon ::: Review

I may be the exception to the norm when I say I prefer Luigi to Mario. If given the choice I’ll pick the green over the red, the lanky over the stout, and the underrated over the show-off. To me Mario is full of himself. Talented he may be, but he knows it, and that’s not an attractive quality in anyone. So when it was announced that Luigi would once again be starring in his own ghost-busting adventure, I was overjoyed. It was time once again for the younger brother to take his turn in the spotlight.

Little has changed in his decade away, too. So little in fact that the setup for Luigi’s Mansion 2 tries to carry directly on from the GameCube original: simply put, Professor E. Gadd is again experiencing paranormal issues and abruptly teleports Luigi into his lab to help. As plot contrivances go it’s not subtle, and it sets the standard for a rather perfunctory tale. Citing a mysterious crystal only known as the Dark Moon, the usually friendly ghosts are now running amok. Having amassed a sizable property portfolio since you last met, the professor insists on sending you in to each of his mansions in turn to rid them of the squatting ghosts and to unravel the crystal’s secrets.

However the story presents itself, the upside is that there are now multiple haunted houses to explore. Though Luigi may have tentatively explored just one originally, now he can tiptoe through old clock factories, icy retreats and flourishing greenhouses. The separation allows far more exploration of the different themes and at points our hero will be slipping up a snow-covered drive or examining a botanical garden surrounding a swimming pool, all showing off the graphical muscle of the diminutive handheld. Though it’s not just the special rooms that get all the attention, as each comparatively mundane area is filled with incidental items. The inclusion of dressers topped with knickknacks and workbenches covered in tools presents each room as being as important as the last, and ties together a mansion’s feel.

All the time we’re admiring the surroundings my favourite plumber bumbles about, giving the distinct impression he’d rather be anywhere but there. Given that you’ll be staring at him for great periods of time, Nintendo have rightly spent a great deal of care and attention on his animation and he’s full of surprises and exudes as much character as his surroundings. From nervous glances when first entering a room to chattering to the professor on DS, or even humming his own theme tune, he takes full advantage of his turn in the limelight. Nowhere is this more obvious than when he’s taken unawares by secret passages. On more than one occasion the poor fellow takes a moment out to sit on a plush chair or lean on against an innocent wall only to trigger a rotating door that sends him crashing to somewhere new.


Be it treasure or hidden passages, most of the rooms hide a secret and the majority are unearthed by your trusty Poltergust 5000 (vacuum cleaner) and stroboscope (torch). It’s amazing what you can do with a Dyson strapped to your back as canvases are sucked from frames and curtains are ripped from their runners; no material is apparently safe from your nozzle. Conversely to that destruction, your torch can reveal items that were otherwise hidden, patching pipework and repairing bridges.

The controls are simple enough but the lack of a second analogue stick means that paying attention to anything above or below your normal arc is a tad awkward. Holding down X will cause Luigi to tilt back, which may sound simple enough but marry that with pressing A to shine your light and the right trigger to vacuum and you have the makings of cramp. Whilst serviceable, it’s awkward and frequent enough that it desperately cries out for a right stick to replace the buttons.

Not everything you discover when sucking and blowing your way around the houses is treasure, however, and many times you’ll disturb the ghostly residents who don’t react kindly to your intrusion. Though not quite as varied in size and shape as in the Gamecube outing, what they lack in diversity they make up for with props. Often you can spy them through holes in the wall having pillow fights or caught painting portraits of one another, and when cornered they’ll be surprisingly resourceful. Some may don sunglasses to protect themselves from your stunning torch or carry makeshift shields to resist the Poltergust. All have their little patterns that you can break through relatively easy, and once you do it’s just a case of grabbing on, hoovering, and then pulling in the opposite direction until you’ve worn them down enough to be reeled in. Imagine a paranormal Sega Bass Fishing.

Despite their best efforts none prove particularly challenging, though it’s easy enough to fall if outnumbered and cornered as the tight rooms mean it can be hard to dodge successive attacks. When you do, the first of the chinks in its haunted armour begins to show. Luigi’s Mansion has a very old school approach to death and it’ll dump you right back at the beginning of the level. For a game that is relatively casual for the most part this seems like an extreme punishment as levels average at between 20 and 30 minutes long.


The level structure as a whole sits uneasily as for a portable game, such relatively lengthy slices – with no mid-level save – seems odd. A far better option would have been a more open and flexible mansion. As it is each level resets the respective mansions to a specific set of locked doors and primed monster closets, but I feel it would have been a far more enjoyable game if the whole mansion was available to explore from the off and E. Gadd just directed you about from afar. Currently the continued return to his lab for some mindless wittering simply breaks the flow of your ghost-busting. Especially early on the staccato nature of your missions almost undermines the strengths of the game, with the strong draws of the exploration and glorious originality in each room dampened by the repeat visits and restrictive objectives.

The balance is that this regimented structure is perfectly suited to the online mode. An enjoyable affair where four players head off about a set a rooms to rid them of ghosts before heading to the exit. It’s surprisingly easy to play given Nintendo’s track record with online, though sadly lacks the voice chat required for proper coordination.

For a game that I have waited a decade for, it leaves me with mixed feelings. Though overall the game is a light-hearted, enjoyable, and charming affair that keeps the spirit of the original alive, it has moved backwards in other areas. Namely the open mansion being replaced by levels, and the uniquely themed ghosts giving way to a series of generic spectres with novelty hats.

That may be the weight of my expectations speaking, yet what is evident is the charm and character that both Luigi and the environments bring to every aspect of Dark Moon. More so than any other character in the Mario series, Luigi in this setting is given a chance to display his distinct personality. The continual vacuuming of abandoned cupboards and dusty corners may grow a little repetitive by the end, but to see what is in the next room and how Luigi will bumble through it will always bring a smile to your face.


Luigi’s Mansion 2 – Dark Moon ::: Hands On

Who ya gonna call? How about a lanky plumber with a love of the colour green? Join us as we take Luigi and his vacuum cleaner through the spooky corridors of a haunted house.

Does it still have the charm of the GameCube launch title? How does the 3DS handle the controls of a previously twin-analogue game? How many times will James get eaten by a plant in the first three minutes? The answers to this and more within.

Paper Mario Sticker Star ::: Hands On

Very pleased with the cradle he made to capture Wii U tablet footage, James returns and creates a harness for his 3DS.

Join him as he takes you on a tour of the latest in the Paper Mario series. Wielding his trusty hammer, Mario sets forth to save the Mushroom Kingdom is this quaint, 2D RPG. Just make sure you stick it on straight.

Portable Pal

Do you know what the best piece of software that you can get on the 3DS is? Do you know what digital reason makes it a permanent feature in my bag whenever I go somewhere? It’s not the sublime Super Mario 3D Land, which I still play with regularity and glee; it’s not the collect-athon that is Pokemon (I haven’t played one seriously since Yellow); and it’s not the always-pleasurable-yet-stupidly-named Mario Kart 7. What it is, is built directly into the hardware.

When it was first announced, StreetPass came across as something I could give or take. The Wii’s strange attempt at online friends and its Connect 24 that promised to pull content down from the ether if you left it permanently plugged in had failed to impress. Nintendo’s seeming inability to pull through with any level of connectivity or simple, intuitive content delivery left me believing that whatever appeared would be far from the promises. I had visions whereby this seamless hand-shake between two passing 3DS’ would only be so if you considered menus three layers deep and the need to write down something akin to a phone number as your definition of “seamless”.

So when it launched and not only worked but surpassed expectations with its discreetness I was pleasantly shocked.

As long as it’s enabled, all two handhelds have to do is pass by each other and a surprising amount of data can be passed between the pair. I’ve collected StreetPasses across supermarkets, from offices upstairs of my own, and even from passing trains. Ok, they were just pulling off, but it was still a train and it was definitely passing no matter how slow it may have been travelling. All bad memories of the DS Internet dongles have now been banished.

Though what I have been equally shocked at is also how it hasn’t just been a fleeting novelty. The initial wave of StreetPass enabled games included Pro Evolution Soccer and Street Fighter, both allowing players to pit teams of player and fighters against each other respectively in a virtual match. It meant that in each you were constantly dabbling with line-ups to make sure that you were not only beating the AI but setup to ensure you weren’t embarrassed by random strangers. It was like 3DS’s equivalent to an Xbox Live Quick Match, but with less rage quitting and swearing American teenagers.

Elsewhere there were Pokemon trading games and a cute little Mario and Sonic Olympics card swap game, but it was the return of the plumber that once again stepped up my admiration for StreetPass. In Mario Kart you swap ghosts with other racers, so as you walk round you are effectively getting slapped with a white glove and challenged by complete strangers. I don’t know about how others take this but I am somewhat affronted and will take them down even if it takes me the best part of the next hour.

Whilst on Super Mario 3D Land you gratefully find that your StreetPass visitors are not there to call your talents into questions but rather help you. When the little light goes green whilst bouncing around the Mushroom Kingdom, your guests will pass you power-ups. A free super mushroom or fire flower is a most welcome sight the further you get into the game. With these two examples Nintendo not only show us how the feature can be used to keep you playing their games; not simply by getting you to rejig a team roster as in the early days, but really draw you in to the content itself and experience the core of the game. Without StreetPass I think my expeditions into both would have been much reduced.

Though with all these positives, there are strange creatures who don’t own such games. There are those out there who seem fine in owning a 3DS’ and classing them as Lego or Nintendogs machines, unaware of what they’re missing out on. You can’t StreetPass with a game you don’t own, for fairly logical reasons, and so comes the true reason I will not leave home still without my pocket-sized console: StreetPass Quest and Puzzle Swap.

Contained within the firmware itself these tiny games are simple but addictive. Puzzle swap is the modern day Panini sticker album and with each person you meet you can exchange tiles to build up 3D pictures of games and characters from Nintendo’s history. StreetPass Quest on the other hand is a surprisingly well thought out RPG where groups of Miis head down into the dungeons and slay their way through a variety of ghouls and monsters.

What is so lovely about both however is that there’s an immediate sense that you’ve “played” with another Nintendo fan. No action is passed off as a simple data transfer, instead your Mii’s meet, smile and exchange pleasantries. Tile pieces are swapped as you both gaze up at your collected work, and each Mii warrior goes to face the evil forces of darkness with a sword in their hand and a steely determined look in their eye. Seeing your friends, or even complete strangers, help you out in some fashion is completely endearing.

I admit it may not be the most social form of gaming – after all there’s not real way of ever getting in contact with these Miis again – but getting little snapshots of others is compelling. Knowing that I passed Bobby from Canada and he helped me slay a dragon, that at some point I crossed paths with Mattio whilst shopping and he’d just been playing the new Mario game, or that Rekop has a hat made out of a Japanese Famicom is wonderful. Random people, seemingly random actions and yet adding such personality into a device. Minor factoids about who you met and where they’re from make me stop and try and see I actually saw them; were they them?

I’m sorry, Vita. You may have had a reprieve after a good showing at Gamescom but it’s not just my worry of breaking your analogue sticks that stops me from slinging you in my back pocket when I go out. With my 3DS I get to make friends and influence people.

Museum Embraces New Technology

Last week I was in the city of love and culture, Paris. My wife and I had decided to head to the French capital for a few days for a break away from the office and a chance to take in sights and sounds of the city. Fear not though, faithful reader, I’m not about to walk you through our holiday snaps, instead I want to tell you about what I found at The Louvre.

The Louvre is the most visited art museum in the world, with 8.5m visitors each year. It holds nearly 400,000 objects, including the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside of Cairo, and with that kind of scale navigating its galleries can be interesting. Some tourists may opt for the traditional paper map, but I tried their very modern alternative.

Almost a year after the launch of Nintendo’s depth loving console, I was wandering round the hallways of France’s premier museum with a 3DS strapped round my neck, listening as the narrator filled me in on the grave goods associated with the Upper Nile. A tap of the screen here and I’d get a further titbit of knowledge, a swipe there and I’d be able to check where a certain exhibit was, my inner Nintendo fanboy was grinning inanely.

At first I was simply taken in by the novelty of the proposal: using a portable games console instead of an audio guide. The more I used it however the more it became apparent that this was more than just an interesting promotional tie in. There are similar apps for other museums for the iPhone and alike, but the unique properties of the 3DS made this particular app a little more special.

The dual screen for one was fantastic. As per normal for many adventure games on the system, one screen was a dedicated map for the most part, keeping track of which gallery you were in. The other then highlighted the various exhibits of note, allowing you tap for further information and images. It may sound silly that the guide would show you images of what you were already looking at, but given the sheer quantity of objects on display I treated this that I was indeed being told about tableaux X rather than Y.

Also, the local wi-fi constantly updated your position, meaning you were never lost and more importantly always meant your machine was showing you what was in front of you rather than a few rooms back. This same network was also apparently updated on the fly, blocking out rooms that were closed for maintenance and offering guided tours of temporary exhibitions.

It was an extremely lightweight app and very intuitive, showing what can be achieved when you keep a clear goal and don’t over complicate matters. For all museums and galleries attempting to update their multimedia projects, this goes to show that often simplicity is key. Just because your device has extra gadgetry and spare capacity does not mean you always have to use it, as most of the quality came in the content that it presented.

Mario Kart 7

In an age of cloud saves, drop-in-drop-out co-op, Xbox Live and Steam, to be amazed that a game simply handles online match-ups competently is definitely an oddity. Ever since I first hit Quick Match eight years ago on Moto GP II on the original Xbox I have been used to an online experience that doesn’t require me to juggle IP addresses to get online. In this always-on era, a button is the only thing separating you from a world of opponents.

Usually, anyway. Nintendo have always been the exception with a mixture of per-game friend codes and DS dongles that has painted a picture of a company that refused to move with the times. Every step in the right direction feels more a begrudging need to tick a box than give their patient customers what they’ve been waiting for.

The less-than-catchy Mario Kart 7, however, could be the turning point. Sign in to the Nintendo Network and a literal world of challenge and competition await you in a way I previously thought could never exist on a Nintendo platform. There’s support for friends and recently met players, options to create your own clans, and even hoppers catering for some much specialised race parameters.

All are laid out simply and pretend to be yet another game mode, breaking down any preconceptions or barriers that could linger about facing others online. Get through to your preferred race option and there you sit on a starting grid with a septet of racers from around the globe. As a further pleasing touch, should you join mid-race there’s no static menu screen waiting for the current race to run its course; you’re provided with a track side seat to watch the current race and see just who you’re up against.

And it is as such a spectator that I pinned down just why I felt so strongly for this multiplayer update: these are real people you’re racing against. You’ve no predetermined rival selected at random by the AI, each racer has their talents and foibles that will make each outing unique and usually lead to a far harder fought contest. Each cc level has its place, but taking on a series of programming routines is no replacement for taking down your fellow man.

Underpinning the experience is still the classic Mario Kart styling that has prevailed ever since the SNES. Eight racers boost and slide their way round a variety of Mario-inspired race courses, firing off power-ups at each other with gay abandon. The traditional roster of projectile shells, boosting mushrooms and invisibility-granting stars have been topped up with a trio of new additions: the Tanooki suit, Fire Flower and the mysterious Lucky Seven.

As with the recent Super Mario 3D Land, the Tanooki suit pops a racoon tail onto your racer. Sadly, unlike the plumber’s platforming outing, no flight powers are granted here; rather the tail whips around the kart deflecting incoming items and upturning other racers. The Fire Flower is more straightforward, allowing a stream of flaming balls to be hurled, whereas Lucky Seven simply hands you a bag of seven power-ups. Needless to say, the latter is usually only seen when lurking around the back of the grid given the armoury it suddenly deposits. The three fit well into the existing collection of power-ups, adding some extra restrained variety whilst not feeling overpowered.

The 16 brand new tracks also feel right at home, too. Some riff off of known environments, such as Bowser’s castle, Mario Circuit and DK’s jungle, but all are well put together with sweeping curves that will endear themselves to long-standing karters. The more surprising inclusion is that of Wuhu Island, the location for both Wii Sports Resort and the 3DS’ Pilot Wings. Almost becoming a Nintendo icon in its own right, the island foregoes laps and instead hands two very compelling point-to-point races that takes you up, round and through its heartlands.

The original tracks are all very strong and 7’s repertoire is reinforced by a further 16 classic tracks pulled from all six previous releases. From Mario Circuit 2 on the SNES through to the more recent Koopa Cape on the Wii, all of Mario’s racing history is on show here. There are very few duds on the roster; still, your feelings for each will no doubt be as based on nostalgia as much as anything else. I’ve been a stickler for the SNES and handheld Mario Karts, considering recent console releases to not reach the high standards previously set, and so always frown when a GameCube course appears.

These are no straight imports, either. Each has track has been given a large amount of spit and polish and brought up to modern standards. For the early SNES levels this includes real jumps, proper 3D and, in the case of Rainbow Road, shock waves from the impacting Thwomps. All updates successfully keep their nostalgic value intact, whilst also feeling part of the modern whole. So much so that even the new glider and submariner features of your kart fit seamlessly.

Rather than plonk into the sea when taking too wide a line on Koopa Beach, underwater you’ll go, a propeller emerging from the back of your ride as forcing you on through the water. Similarly take a jump that throws you high into the sky and a glider or parachute will pop out from the chassis and allow you control over your decent. Especially with the glider, the extra dimension that this can hand to racing is splendid. Launch yourself into the blue and its all about how skilfully you can control your flight, whether you should for go a long, steady glide to cut a series of s-bends or plant yourself quickly back on terra firma and pocket the speed boost that your rapid descent will bring. Even more remarkable however is that it seamlessly fits into the racing experience, at once becoming a part of the Mario Kart framework. Seeing a host of racers take to the skies and start bustling for position or launching shell mid-air is a lovely sight, and the verticality granted to the new tracks is a great addition.

At the end of it all, however, I return online. I plundered the single-player experience to unlock as many tracks and drivers as I could but now, should time allow, I leave the CPU controlled automatons to one side and head to where I know everyone who beats me is a real person and not a preset rubber-banding drone. Even online you can still collect coins to unlock further vehicle upgrades so you’re still progressing personally, my only wish is that you could have done the same with the tracks too.

With communities set up for friends with specific race conditions, or the prospect of a crazy bomb-only race with randoms, Nintendo has finally relented and allowed players the freedom and ease to experience one of the finest racing games online. Some may say that it’s about time, although I would hasten to add that some things are worth waiting for.

Super Mario 3D Land | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

This week, there’s been a phrase that I’ve used to describe Super Mario 3D Land to anyone who is foolish enough to catch my eye for more than a fleeting moment: “understated brilliance.” Compared to the testosterone and bravado of the Modern Warfare trailers, the thumping baseline of the Saints Row push, or the high drama of Assassin’s Creed’s cinema promotions, Mario has the quiet assuredness of a man who knows that quality will speak for itself. Quite how this dumpy plumber continually bucks all the current trends of what’s hip and happening must baffle a great many marketing executives, but spend five-minutes with him and you will see that quality shouts loudest of all.

From the opening moments running and jumping around that very first level, you should begin to sense that yet again Nintendo have found the mark with their prize mascot. From the tightness of the controls that you’ve come to expect from the Italian, to the presentation of the world about you, everything feels comfortable and right.

Stroll through the green pastures of the Mushroom Kingdom and all that you find has been placed explicitly for you to enjoy and play with. Gombas readily waddle over, almost eager to be squashed; platforms and ledges form an ever-enticing series of stepping stones that need to be traversed; whilst recesses hide warp pipes and conceal treasures. Indeed, World 1-1 has all this, luring you in to a microcosm of what to expect as a whole.

Forgoing his recent astronautic tendencies, Mario returns to terra firma and takes his cues from a mix of the NES’s Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World on the SNES. Aesthetically this means large, colourful blocks creating a backdrop and the meat of many of the levels. If this seems like a step back from the comparatively thematically driven Galaxy and Sunshine, where each location formed the very core of the experience, you need not worry. The return to an era where power was measured in bits places Mario in a world where the abstraction benefits the experience.

Many of the finer levels in his recent Wii releases have been the through the strange, floating constructions in space that brought to the fore his rasion d’etre. Here too, levels are foremost concerned with how fun or challenging they are, built with the sole purpose to please and leaving the worry about tying the visuals together until later on. Blocks float in space or span from tiny islands but are so carefully placed that each of the dozens of levels on show appears to be a master class in design.

This is also not to say that the overall appearance is shabby, either. Whilst the priority may be on your trip through the world, each is brought to life with characteristic Mario themes. From the classical, open, verdant lands through to Bowser’s brown brick castle, each are decorated with bold colours and shapes, complete with extra touches. Snow covered coin blocks shed their frosty load once disturbed, dandelion seeds scatter with the wind as you run past, and the night sky fills with the stars of Super Mario Bros. 3.

Each theme is used sparingly and all are mixed in together. Ghost house could follow desert, then on to a floating cloud before squeezing in a spot of diving off the Kingdom’s coast. Similarly, the variety of the very levels themselves continually changes, the whole package working together to keep you interested and engaged.

With mere platforms being no match for Mario’s talents, a slew of new obstacles have been brought in by Bowser. Among the variety of collapsing causeways and bouncy blocks a few stand out. The first of these is a platform split into two, whereby only half of it at any one time is usable, and that half alternates every time you jump. It’s a clever trick of using Mario’s own skills against him, and means that thought has to be put into every move that you make.

Likewise, there’s a panel on rails that trundles forward or back, depending on which half you stand. This contraption is usually found high above the ground, your handiness at its controls the only thing preventing it from derailing and plummeting earthwards. So many are apparently there to thwart you, but a little consideration before you leap and by the end of each heroic endeavour you’ll feel empowered to believe that there is nothing beyond the ability of this portly chap from the Bronx.

The strengths of the 3DS also added into the melting pot of ideas. For the most part the camera is fixed, watching you scroll along the level, and to its credit not once does it feel as though its framing needs to be tweaked; a rare property in 3D cameras. At times, however, it will switch, shifting to shoot down the length of the scenery as though recreating early Crash Bandicoot, or pan upwards and stare towards the floor to frame what a drop of seemingly several kilometres that Mario has to then brave. Each time the 3D effect is subtle but effective, never overburdening the eyes but handing you a fresh challenge to overcome. Running down a tunnel out of the screen whilst a large fish chases you, jaws gnashing, is a moment that definitely sets the heart racing.

Further refugees from SMB3 can be found in the form of the Tanooki Suit and the Koopa Kids. The latter return replete with compulsory floating pirate ship, whilst the former becomes the title’s go-to power-up. Though the fire flower or boomerang suit have offensive benefits, the freedom that comes from turning Mario into a flying racoon is unmatched. Hold down the jump button and he’ll glide, legs frantically pumping and tail waggling, across great stretches of the world. Whilst making some of the more tricky platforming slightly less stressful, it also serves to allow exploration, expanding your range and giving you that piece of mind that should the worse happen you can always float back down to earth safely.

Undeniably this extra sense of exploration is what elevates this handheld Mario from his previous DS outing. There was a certain degree that he played it safe last time, again hitting that quality bar but not really pushing himself. Here, the forking routes, the hidden treasures and the sense that you’ve been handed as much a playground as a level in many instances makes New Super Mario Bros. pale by comparison.

There is very little to fault at all with Super Mario 3D Land. Even those elements that I have tried to – such as the typical Mario time limit on each level – are only because I want to stay in the world and carry on cavorting. Each level is a short burst of pure gaming joy, refined to the point where no gimmicks or tricks need to be pulled to ensure that you feel good about what you’re doing; the levels themselves see to that.

As cynical as I can be with Nintendo at times, they have utterly delivered with what should have been a launch title. From the nostalgic nod to Marios of old, the impressive camera, and the sparing but effective use of 3D, all have been brought together to form the reason to own a 3DS. In short, Super Mario 3D Land is simply understated brilliance.

10 /10

3DS Firmware | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Most hardware releases rely on the strength of their software catalogue to reinforce the “bigger, faster, harder, stronger” message that polished marketing executives have been pumping out over the preceding months. From the sublime Mario 64 to the surprise of Halo, big hitters can kick-start a generation.

What the 3DS presents us with, however, is somewhat of a surprise. Its most impressive collection of software sits not alongside it in plastic, cellophane wrapped cases, but rather unassumingly comes preinstalled. Just as with Wii Sports, the packed in games are there to show off all possible features of Nintendo’s new hardware. This goes beyond just the 3D, too, as the stereoscopic cameras, the gyroscope and the much trumpeted Streetpass each receive top billing in their own little showcase.

Most likely to impress both technophiles and technophobes alike is Augmented Reality. By simply placing a branded playing card down on a flat surface, the 3DS can turn your tabletop into anything from a shooting gallery to a petting zoo for your Nintendogs. Worktops can open up to reveal deep target-rich chasms, mountains can rise up, or a fishing lake can appear as if from nowhere.

The truly impressive trick here is turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. If this were any other shoot ‘em up or Sega Bass Fishing knock off you wouldn’t give it the time of day, but given the fact you not only can see the real world morph in front of you but you are also given the chance to move around it, experiencing it from any angle you wish, lifts the experience beyond the expected. Don’t underestimate the ability to plant a gaming world on your desktop.

Though there is a heroes’ parade, able to render many memorable Nintendo characters into your home, and the virtual graffiti, the highlight is the shooting gallery. Initially laying a series of basic targets around your designated plane, it soon evolves into creating pits and secreted nooks in your tabletop, with each new hidey-hole causing renewed consternation at what is possible.

Rather than a fully fledged game, each AR mini-game is more akin to a toybox or a a feature you will call on time and time again to show off your 3DS. Though in equal amounts they are also the stand-out experiences that will see you too return just to remind yourself what wonders can be achieved with such a simple piece of kit.

For those seeking more long term satisfaction, Faceraiders is at hand. This again uses the cameras but this time takes photos of friends’ faces and implants them in an almost Gradius style game that will have you spinning on the spot. For though you may have played titles where you must defend yourself from wave after wave of oncoming foe, they have never attacked you literally from all sides before.

Gyros and cameras work overtime, displaying the scene seen before you but overlaying it with the floating heads of your friends, who seem intent on launching marbles of doom in your general direction. They’ll appear behind you, above you, and in formations that are as humorous as they are frantic as you spin around launching tennis balls in a bid to repel them.

The lovely incentive here is that the more faces you collect, the more the variety of your games increases. Though newly scanned friends will be the “boss”, images scanned weeks before may crop up as bonuses in the background. And it’s not just normal faces; my 3DS is packed with BAFTAs, Spartans and Piñatas, all mixing in and amongst office-mates.

What rounds Faceraiders off nicely is that it offers a real challenge. So often pack-ins are wrung through User Testing and Market Research so frequently that become insipid, tasteless affairs, but here some teeth still remain. And as such the best advice I can offer for later levels is a sturdy, well oiled, office chair.

But as impressive as the AR maybe, and as fun as spinning round and round on work’s furniture proves, the trump card of the 3DS is possibly the least flashy: Streetpass.

This is the Pokemon of the real world.

Pop your 3DS in your back pocket when you go out and about and should you pass similarly minded folk then you’ll trade Miis. Sometimes they’ll pop up in Nintendogs to walk their pooch down your road, or challenge you to a duel in Street Fighter, but every time you’ll find them waiting to enter your Streetpass garden, lining up to greet you with a friendly smile and little titbit about themselves.

For those not wishing to partake in virtual dog walking or fisticuffs, newly discovered Miis can be put to good use in the built in sticker album and RPG. The former allows you to trade stickers in order to create classic Nintendo scenes, whilst the latter has the potential to become an obsession.

Refreshingly your Mii is not the star, instead they are locked in a tall tower with your many visitors battling through the many ghosts and ghouls that hold them prisoner. Each time they visit they’ll level up and become more effective, slicing through lesser opposition with ease.

Initially the concept seems extremely simple and almost achievable through grinding alone, but the ability to hire wandering heroes and combine any of the dozen magical talents soon unlock unexpected depth. It’s still not Dragon Age but a compelling dungeon crawl is not quite what I had expected to see top my Most Played list (data courtesy of the inbuilt Activity Tracker).

If truth be told, I have spent far more time lost in the many small time-wasters that can be instantly found on the 3DS “dashboard” than the three full games I have picked up since launch. A mixture of variety, innovation and, let’s be honest, novelty, should mean that those who eagerly await the second wave of dimension popping releases should be able to bide their time by earning special Mii hats through Street Pass, collecting faces in Faceraiders and watching relatives faces contort at the uniqueness of AR.