Primer: Collecting Retro Video Games

As the gaming industry develops its technology further to create increasingly realistic graphics and believable AI, the market for its antiquities of its past remains strong. Some games for long-retired platforms are as hotly desired as new releases. For some collectors, the 8-bit era has never gone out of vogue.

It can be a little daunting to enter these waters now. There are great sources hiding in plain sight while the most obvious suppliers – like eBay – can be treacherous to the uninitiated. But the payoff can be just as high for collectors.

Are you looking to start your very own museum of video game history in your living room? Or just looking to relive the treasures from your past sold in some garage sale years ago? Here are some tips for starting your retro video game collection.

Note: “Retro” can be a very misleading term. For the purposes of my blog, I use “retro” to refer to anything from previous generations or platforms, which may not be in production anymore, but the older the game/system, the more fitting the term. It’s a little weird to refer to PlayStation 3 as something retro, but it’s transitioning into this status right now.

1) Set priorities

There are countless options to pursue for your collection, and once you are out seeking items it can be overwhelming. So many games, so little time, so little money!

Your first priority should be setting your priorities. Ask yourself:

  • What platform or series do you most want to collect? Do you want to pull your PS2 out of that box in your closet, or get back the PlayStation you traded in at EB to buy the PS2? Do you own all the games in your favourite series? Start with the favourite system you still own, or the one you never owned.
  • What condition do you want your games in? The market for CIB (Complete In Box) games is particularly strong for older cartridge games from the start of the medium to the N64; many collectors are not content with just the game itself but want its box and manuals as well. Before you collect too much, you should decide how important the games’ physical condition is. Do you need all the physical trappings or do you just want the game itself? Do you care if your games don’t have the original jewelcase slips?
  • How much will I invest in this? In terms of time and money, that is. It can take some time to hunt down that cherished piece for your collection in the proper shape, and it may cost a pretty penny when you find it. It’s also easy to go on a spree when you find a store with a wealth of treasures. Limit yourself early.
  • What do I most want to actually play? For some, it’s enough to collect a library, but the point of games is to play them. The ones you have an urge to play should go to the top of your list.

To illustrate: Let’s say you love the 2D Metroid games but never played the Prime series, and your GameCube library is lacking. You decide to get Metroid Prime and Prime 2: Echoes for GameCube, and you won’t accept the cases if they aren’t original or have reproduced covers. Prime is naturally your top priority, since Echoes is its sequel, and you set aside a small amount of money to pick it up when you find it. Down the line, Echoes or even Prime 3: Corruption for Wii will come to the top of your list.

If you approach this with some clear intents, you may walk away empty-handed sometimes but you’ll have more cash to buy the things you want most later.

2) Find dedicated local stores and events

It benefits you and your community to find things locally. You don’t have to pay exorbitant shipping fees or wait for purchases to arrive, and shopkeepers in your neighbourhood can use your patronage. Online vendors make things easy, but approach them as Plan B – you’ll likely find better bargains the “old-fashioned” way.

In the age of social media, Facebook and Twitter can be great resources for finding these stores, and what can’t be found on Google? Look up “retro video games” (or use “vintage” instead) and you may be surprised at the options hiding within driving range.

Keep an eye out for big events as well, such as swap meets or game tournaments. These are great opportunities to connect with retailers. (Live in Ontario? Then check out the VGCC – they host a fantastic event in Waterloo twice a year, and their website has a directory of stores.)

Don’t underestimate the power of flea markets, thrift shops, garage sales, and sites like Kijiji and Craigslist, either. Many flea markets have dedicated game booths, and some people don’t know how valuable their kids’ forgotten consoles truly are. More people are flocking to online classifieds to get better resale deals than those EB/GameStop offer. All of these help other people in your physical community.

3) Shop around

One of the greatest pros and most frustrating cons of this pursuit is the fluctuation of prices. Some merchants sell popular games at increased prices to capitalize – not much you can do about the basic principle of supply vs demand. Others are more realistic.
This is where the internet is your friend. Start with price guides, or by seeing what the game you want goes for on eBay. Then check out those local shops you found nearby, or try Kijiji, and see how prices fluctuate or compare to the norm.

For example: I went to a familiar price guide and looked up Tomba!, a somewhat obscure cult hit on the original PlayStation and a piece I’d like to add to my collection. Here’s what the guide returned today:

Fluctuating prices are your best friend and worst enemy.

The disc alone runs the gambit from $8 to $50; complete with jewel case and manual, it’s $54-65; and for an incredibly rare unopened-new copy, I’m looking at over $200. And this is all from online retailers, before factoring in shipping rates. When it comes to PlayStation, I just want a proper jewel case with the original manual and covers, and a functional disc – so I know $60 is a relatively fair medium. If I could find it nearby, $80 would perhaps be too much and $40 would be a steal.

You can also use what I refer to as the “Majora’s Mask Test.” Whenever I find a new retailer or visit a different booth at the VGCC’s big swap meet, I look for certain high-demand items – like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on Nintendo 64. It’s a piece missing from my collection, so I’ve had my eye out for it for some time, and it’s one of the first items I seek in this situation. If a store has it at all, I’m impressed – and then the test truly begins. How much do they charge for a game like this, with a strong legacy and a high demand? Something in the ballpark of $50 (Canadian) is average, but most stores are closer to $70, if not $90. Meanwhile I once saw it for $30, and that store immediately earned my loyalty. (Side note: I passed on it that day and have kicked myself every time I’ve gone back since.)

I know my local retailers well enough to know that I can go to Retailer A in a flea market and have a decent chance of finding something rare like Majora’s Mask, but that they’ll also charge a higher price for it. I can go to Retailer B and have a smaller chance of finding it but a better chance at a lower price. Or I can try Retailer C in a neighbouring town that has average availability at average prices.

It can take some time to establish this familiarity with your local sources, but it pays off in the end – if you know where to go hunting, and if you know who will give you a better bang for your buck.

Holograms = $$$

4) Use online retailers as a last resort, but be wary

You’ve had no luck finding that perfect copy of Tomba! nearby, and your fingers are itching to play it again. It may be time to resort to eBay or its ilk.

But caveat emptor – by now it’s no surprise that you may not be getting what you pay for online, and the prices stray toward the high end of the spectrum. Many online retailers are the worst sort of opportunists, and you are a faceless sucker to them.

There are many reasons not to overpay for something on sites like eBay; aside from the harm to your own wallet, you’re also feeding the trolls. This is a particular bad time for “scalpers” on eBay, with Nintendo’s under-produced hot items like Amiibos, the GameCube Adapter for Wii U, and the special editions of Majora’s Mask 3DS and the New 3DS itself. Online sharks have been snapping up preorders to resell on eBay at horribly gauged prices – sometimes triple the retail price. People want these collectables desperately and the scalpers are exploiting them horrendously.

Please, for the good of all gamers, DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. If you buy that jerk’s Majora’s Mask Special Edition New 3DS for double the price or more, you are letting him win and encouraging him to continue. Retailers should not be letting people pick up preorders like this, but regardless, you’re “letting the terrorists win” if you buy from them. And after all, is it really worth $800, even $1000, for a $230 console?

5) Have patience!

This hobby/endeavour lives and dies by availability. It may take you a long time to find a copy of that gem you desire at a price you can handle. You may make the trek to your favourite game store only to find they don’t have anything near the top of your priority list. Be prepared to leave empty-handed.

Think in the long term. If you can’t find the items you want on your terms, just put the money you’re ready to fork out back into your wallet and wait for the proper opportunity. Some soccer mom will clean out her basement soon enough and trade an unknown gold mine in at your favourite store, or another gamer will decide to let go of that game you covet.

Consider trading as well. I know of some stores that would rather trade games than take your cash, and swapping item-for-item with other collectors can be the cheapest way to build your library. Just be absolutely certain that you’re not trading away something you’ll regret down the line, or getting swindled.

A sizeable chunk of my own collection.

A few more tips for the road:

  • Prices can fluctuate. When Twitch Plays Pokemon took the internet by storm last spring, the price of every Game Boy and Game Boy Advance iteration of the main series jumped about $20 at stores near me. I recently hesitated on Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for GameCube at Retailer A for about $30, and now it’s inexplicably $100 there. Conversely, the HD Remasters/Remakes that are flooding the new retail market can help deflate the price of the original cartridges. Trends can disrupt prices temporarily or redefine a game’s worth for years to come.
  • Think of storage sooner rather than later. All those game cases and boxes can take up a lot of shelf space, but there are a wealth of ingenious ideas for displaying your collection. You’re doing yourself a favour if you get off to a good start on this early on, before you have a mountain to shuffle around.
  • Test your new games! The first thing you do when you bring a new game home is make sure it works as advertised. The best stores clean, test, and guarantee every item they sell, but it doesn’t hurt to verify the quality of your purchase and make sure it will work on your own system. Check the condition of the case and cartridge and ensure it will actually play, or else you’re the proud owner of a new paperweight.
  • Make lists of games you own & want to own. Maybe it’s just my traces of OCD, but I find it incredibly handy to have a list of my collection and a wishlist on my phone, in this case in a dedicated game collection app. I highly recommend it, if you care to fret over such a thing.

That’s all the advice I can impart for now. What are the gems of your game collection? Who are your favourite  suppliers? What game would you give your life savings for? Let me know in the comments below! Good luck and game on!

Retro Gaming Review: Retron 3 console

The Retron 3 console appears to be a grand slam – it plays Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, and Sega Genesis games, with RGA and S-Video cables, on two wireless controllers or original gamepads. Sounds pretty awesome, right? It is, but it’s also far from perfect.

The basic functionality is there; if you don’t have the time, space, or money to hunt down three classic systems in a sea of potential scams or ripoffs, the Retron 3 is a solid alternative. One machine does the work of three, and you end up saving a lot of space in your entertainment centre. But it sounds too good to be true for a reason.

I’ve had my eye on this system for a while; when trading in a stack of old strategy guides at the local indie store, I got a heap of credit and decided to put it towards one of these bad boys. I own a particularly odd model of NES and it doesn’t work on my modern flatscreen, and I only want a Genesis at the moment for the Sonic games and Ecco, so this seemed an awesome alternative/solution.

After unboxing and setting it up, however, I realized that the SNES slot didn’t work. Switching it out at the store for a second copy wasn’t a hassle, but it speaks to the quality of the product. This is a somewhat complicated piece of technology from a less than big-name company, so it seems some corners were cut during production and/or design. Fair enough, I figured; once I had a fully functional unit on my hands I was appeased.

Now that I’ve sunk some solid time into the system though, I’ve come to a conclusion: if the wireless controllers are the biggest appeal for you in this package, you will be sorely disappointed should you purchase this system. Imagine Nintendo or Sega made a wireless controller for their system way back in the heydays of these systems – that thing would probably be a bit better than the pair of controllers that come with the Retron. I thought, “hey, I can sit on the couch and play some Genesis,” and found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV just like my five-year-old self.

A constant line of sight is required for the controllers to function, and from a relatively close distance too. Everytime my cat walked by, the signal was disrupted; hell, even when I tilted the controller idly I found it unresponsive. You might as well cross “wireless controllers” off the list of features or benefits on this package. I highly recommend using the original corded controllers – at least you don’t need to maintain an awkward hold to keep playing. To boot, swapping batteries is a pain, there’s no way to manually sync controllers to a system, and there’s no way to remap the buttons, which are particularly awkward on SNES games that utilize the shoulder buttons (ie. Super Metroid). 

But again, this is a small-time company we’re dealing with. It’s impressive that they put this system together at all, let alone with two wireless controllers (shoddy though they may be) for a fair price. Swapping between inputs is a breeze, and S-Video is a nice inclusion (for SNES and GEN only; NES games shit their pants when they try to output to that space-age technology).

When it comes down to it, I can overlook or work around the Retron 3’s flaws. Just heed my advice before you take the plunge: it’s worth your time to invest in at least one controller for each system, and to test all three system slots as soon as you get it set up to ensure they work properly. It’s not perfect for today’s completely wireless setups, but the novelty and convenience of having the three original great consoles in one device on one input on your TV truly is worth a little inconvenience.

[EDIT: Since I originally wrote this review, Hyperkin released the Retron 5, which appears to be leaps and bounds beyond the 3 – it plays the same systems’ games, as well as Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, Game Boy Advance, Famicom, and Super Famicom games. Its biggest selling point in my books is its HDMI compatability, which allows you to play original NES carts on modern TVs that don’t support old connections. There’s a new Home menu and improved (Bluetooth!) controllers, among other features. However, this model runs near $200 at many retailers, and the Retron 3 remains an affordable solution for many retro gamers. If you still have some original controllers and only care about 8- and 16-bit games, the Reton 3 may be the better choice.]

[Official page]

RATING: 3/5

Originally posted on Tumblr, 2013/08/04

Romancing the Apostate: Love in Games & Dragon Age

I was a little tardy to the Dragon Age: Inquisition party last winter; my priorities were elsewhere, and while a couple of my friends were saving Thedas I was Smashing away. When I did finally dive in, I quickly understood why my friends were so insistent that I was missing out. Inquisition is a return to form for the series after the step back that was Dragon Age 2, and it’s great to be playing a true avatar of my choosing again.

My friends – let’s call them Ned and Nyx – are particularly taken with the cast, and one party member in particular, Dorian. The player’s companions are arguably one of the best aspects of the franchise and Inquisition did not disappoint. Nyx was smitten with Dorian from the get-go and lamented that she could not seek a romance with him, living vicariously through Ned when his Inquisitor fell in love with the dashing mage

Dorian is one of the best game characters in recent memory. For one, he bears the honour of being the first truly homosexual male romance option in the series (if not all of gaming), alongside the bawdy Sera for female Inquisitors – to this point, romance options were hetero or vaguely bisexual, and it’s about time the representation was balanced, to see a character truly dealing with his sexuality in the fantasy world. Dorian feels like a very authentic representation. He hails from Tevinter, a place we’ve yet to visit in the franchise, from which most of the villainy in the game originates – so he has particularly useful insight, if you can keep other members of the Inquisition from despising him. Most of all, he’s just well-written; he’s charismatic and funny, and I found myself seeking him out for new conversations every time I returned to my home base after a mission, just as I did with Varric in DA2.

Funny, charming, powerful, with insight on your enemies - what's not to love?
Funny, charming, powerful, with insight on your enemies – what’s not to love?

My approach with the first playthrough of games like Dragon Age, generally, is to play close to my own personality, so in terms of romance I was left to choose between Cassandra, the stern Seeker, or Josephine, the Orlesian diplomat. After some flirting with Josephine (and Dorian – the flirting conversational options were just too fun to miss), I set my Inquisitor’s heart on Cassandra, which required some persistence and old-fashioned chivalric romance. Considering her conviction to murder me at the very start of the game and her no-nonsense personality, it was a bit of a challenge to open her heart – but I have experience doing this in the series.

Seeing Ned and Nyx so smitten with Dorian, her despair at complications in her own romance with Blackwall, and my pursuit of Cassandra, I was constantly reminded of Morrigan from Origins – and not just because I was anticipating her eventual arrival in Inquisition‘s story.

Whenever a game allows for love and marriage – games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fable, and so on – I always dedicate a little time to pursue a virtual love interest, partly for the inevitable Trophy for committing and partly for the benefits it might impart. My wife watched me wed and bed a different woman in each city in Fable III, for no other reason than because it was an amusing option that provided me a small boon when I returned to those homes, and rolled her eyes. I took partners in Skyrim mostly for the convenient store options, and the buff from sleeping at home.

Romance isn't fully developed in most games that include it.
Romance isn’t fully developed in most games that include it.

Dragon Age has always been different for me. I’m actually compelled by its characters; I genuinely enjoy the conversations and don’t exhaust the dialogue options just to unlock any possible quests or benefits. I don’t befriend or romance them just for the Trophies (though I still grin triumphantly when I earn them). I wanted to get Cassandra to open up, to put aside her righteous anger and show a little humanity, and the scene where she reveals her taste in literature was a great reward

The characters in Dragon Age are very well developed; you have to earn their trust and friendship, and they won’t put up with your shit if you keep choosing options that they don’t like. They gradually tell you more about themselves, revealing flaws and insecurities and troubled pasts. By successfully navigating conversations and completing the quests they entrust you with, you are rewarded with their true companionship. They’re some of the most well-rounded and realistic video game characters I’ve ever encountered.

This authenticity and depth is part of what drew me to Morrigan in Origins. It’s hard not to be drawn to her when you meet her near the start of the story. I found her conversations enlightening about the game world and my current quests, and entertaining to boot. My Warden saw the human beneath the mystique her mother laid upon her and wanted to help her break free of Flemeth’s yoke, to show her she could love. It took some dedication (and some shiny gifts) but in time Morrigan opened her heart to me, and it seemed a bigger victory than besting the Archdemon in the final battle. The inevitably sad conclusion to the romance in Origins and the Witch Hunt DLC was all the more powerful for my personal involvement – and I was determined to follow her wherever she ran in said epilogue. In the shoes of my Warden, I had a real connection with her.

Witch Hunt nearly broke my virtual heart again.
Witch Hunt nearly broke my virtual heart again.

Knowing Morrigan was set to return in Inquisition, I was eager to delve into the story after importing my past decisions via Dragon Age Keep – and was rewarded with a happier ending than I expected. I’ve only just encountered her and haven’t yet progressed any farther in the story, but in talking with her in the gardens of Skyhold I learned that the fate of my Warden and his love was not as bleak as Origins had painted it. That I could still be so invested in a character I played six years ago is a testament to the series’ craft and integrity – I’m not one to truly connect with video game characters on a personal level, outside of my literary engagement with the medium.

In hearing Nyx and Ned recount stories of encounters with Blackwall and Dorian, and getting genuinely invested in courting Cassandra, I realized what it is about the Dragon Age games that I love: truly roleplaying. RPGs are my favourite genre, but it’s in Dragon Age that I really put myself in my avatar’s shoes and get drawn into his interactions with the people and world around him. For me, the game is more about the conversations and decisions than the actual battle mechanics (which are good, don’t get me wrong, but if I go a whole session without drawing my weapon I’m not exactly disappointed).  It sets a bar of quality that more games should aspire to meet, that I’d like to meet in my own writing.

5 Reasons to Localize Final Fantasy Explorers

Today’s post is over at Final Fantasy Union – a piece on why Square-Enix should stop dragging their heels and bring their new 3DS game Final Fantasy Explorers to English audiences.
Never heard of Explorers? Take the classic Final Fantasy formula and apply it to Monster Hunter – then season it with allusions and tributes to the series’ history, and you have this Japan-exclusive.
Check out the trailer below, then head over to Final Fantasy Union to read my article. While you’re there, check out their podcast – which just celebrated its hundredth episode!

Growing Pains: Pitfalls of Internet Dependence

After a year of anticipation and saving, I finally obtained a brand new, shiny Playstation 4 this past Boxing Day. I reverently set it up, powered it on, and waited to be blown away… only to be undercut by Sony’s downed servers. Without being able to connect to the PlayStation Network servers, I couldn’t access my profile from PS3, update the games I’d bought, or redeem the voucher for LittleBigPlanet 3 included with my console. Nor could I check out Destiny, or start a worthwhile game of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I couldn’t import my World State from EA’s save date transfer service. The thrill of my new console was quickly quelled when half of its functionality was inaccessible.

It’s not Sony’s fault they were hacked – I won’t touch on the motivations of the attack, but it wasn’t their choice to have their servers down as the biggest annual influx of new console owners arrived. However, the incident did illustrate to me a major problem with today’s gaming industry: internet dependence.

Hard as it may be to process, the internet is still a fairly new aspect of our lives. Fifteen years ago it was a luxury item or curiosity at best; the majority of North American civilization may be dependent upon their smartphones for many major aspects of their daily lives, but those same people were at least born in a day where these wondrous devices were nothing more than science fiction.

And of course, the gaming industry has embraced the technology with open arms, as it should. It’s a natural progression as the medium grows – like the jump from two controllers to four, expanding the number of potential players from four people playing on the same local system to four strangers playing from four remote systems makes sense. These features have enriched and revitalized many franchises, and draw new players.

There are a handful of ways in which online multiplayer is currently bogging down games and, in a way, the industry as a whole.

Problem #1: Shoehorning
Some genres and games stand as online-only – MMORPGs, MOBAs, etc. These games, like World of Warcraft or League of Legends, are designed from square one as online games and arguably wouldn’t thrive if they had offline modes. There’s room in the industry for them.

But not every game needs an online multiplayer mode, let alone a multiplayer mode of any kind. Let’s use Assassin’s Creed as an example. The third entry in the series, Brotherhood, introduced an online multiplayer mode. On paper, it seemed bizarre; the first two games had been excellent single-player endeavours with no obvious room for such an addition. How could you translate Desmond’s experience reliving his ancestor’s accomplishments via the Animus into something 2-16 players could experience simultaneously?

To Ubisoft’s credit, the concept of the online mode was novel, if not ingenious: they put players in the shoes of the villainous Abstergo’s recruits as they used the Animus to become footsoldiers worthy of countering the Assassins. But the gameplay did not hold up as well. It was jittery and nervous, watching every generic character to see if one was behaving like a real person and not an algorithm, trying to find the person you were to kill and avoid the person trying to kill you. It was almost like rock-paper-scissors while suffering a panic attack. After a couple rounds, the concept was spent for most players. The gameplay was shallow, despite the wealth of unlockables and improvements to be earned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players who stuck it out and hit the level cap were just completionists hunting the exclusive Trophies.

In Brotherhood, this was an oddity; in the years that followed, it was a detriment to Revelations and ACIII. ACII and Brotherhood are commonly seen as the high point of the series, while III is widely reviled as a disappointment or outright failure. Had the resources that were put into including multiplayer in those two games been reassigned to improving the core campaign, would these two entires not been the faltering point of the series?

There’s a certain pressure to include online multiplayer in the age of Call of Duty, but outside of the FPS genre, should developers really bow to it? Did the Tomb Raider reboot or Dragon Age: Inquisition really need this addition? They were excellent games in their own right, and the absence of multiplayer would not have condemned them.

Problem #2: Future Functionality
Another angle to consider is how games will hold up over time. The retro gaming niche is stronger than ever these days, as collectors heap piles of games higher and as parents introduce their children to the games they played when they were that age. You can easily find an old functional NES, pop in a Super Mario Bros cartridge, and take a nostalgia trip. (Of course, this is getting a little more complicated as technology advances, but there are still workarounds like the lineup of Retron systems.)

Will this be the case for the past two generations of consoles? Someday a man who was raised on the multiplayer of Modern Warfare on his 360 will dust off his console and try to show his son what he spent so much time playing as a kid – and will he find functional servers to play on? Highly unlikely.

This has already affected things like Nintendo’s servers for the Wii and DS. Last year they were taken offline and suddenly a host of games like Pokemon, Smash Bros Brawl, and Mario Kart lost a chunk of their features. It’s happened with a host of PC games in the past. How big will the outcry be when the 360 and PS3 lose their functionality?

There needs to be something there that can stand when the scaffolding of online features is kicked out from beneath us, something that can survive the test of time. It’s the same reason I can’t fully endorse e-reading – I’ve studied history, I know how important it is to have some kind of archive future generations can access.

Solution: Pass the Gravy?
Game developers should be treating online functionality as gravy – a little added flavour to the meat of the single-player campaign, or in certain dire situations, something to enrich a dry piece of meat and help slide it down your gullet.

I’m going to use Nintendo as an example here. They’ve stumbled to create a cohesive online platform for their systems, which Sony and Microsoft both did so easily at the start of the last generation – they still use an archaic Friend Code system, and there’s still some nuisances with their eShop when you own multiple systems, but they’ve made strides in the last year with the Wii U and Miiverse.

But look at the online features of their first-party games. Super Smash Bros has a robust competitive environment and the functionality is in place for players to compete against random strangers – but it’s just one of a host of options available from the main menu. It’s no different than setting up a battle with CPUs or your buddies on the same couch. It wouldn’t have been a huge demand on the developers’ time; unlike AC:Brotherhood‘s multiplayer, it wasn’t an entirely unique game within their game that required a whole host of its own assets. It’s the kind of mode Sakurai could have added later in development. Online play is the gravy to the main game’s roast beef – there if you want it, but the entree itself is so delicious you may not need it at all.

Mario Kart 8 is a similar situation. Online play is there at the main menu, but there’s no obligation to try it and it didn’t detract from the development of the main game modes. You’ll be able to pop the game into your system twenty years from now and get the full experience.

The Pokemon games on 3DS are a great example of the enrichment online play can bring. There’s a whole menu on the bottom screen for interacting with other players, which can really help you access Pokemon you might not have been able to find otherwise, or at least make accessing multiplayer features so much easier than in previous games – you can do these things at any time outside of battle or conversation instead of detouring to the nearest Pokemon Center. Without features like the Global Trading System or Wonder Trade, you aren’t really missing much, but with them you have one more neat little trick at your disposal.

There seems to be too much emphasis put on online functionality in today’s industry – to continue the metaphor, developers are spending too much time on the gravy, putting too much on the meat of their games. If it needs to be present, it needs to be on the side, there if you desire it but not smothering your meal.

5 Must-Play Nintendo 3DS Titles

Last week Nintendo finally announced the North American and European release of their updated New 3DS system, alongside the hotly-anticipated remake of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and a host of other first-party titles. Maybe this news has finally convinced you to check out the handheld, or perhaps dust off that system you got years ago; or maybe you’re a StreetPass warrior like me who takes their Ambassador 3DS everywhere. Whatever the case may be, the 3DS has a great catalogue of titles worthy of your time – and if you’re wondering where to start, or if you’ve missed the best experiences it has to offer, I’m here to help.

Honorable Mention: Super Mario 3D Land (2011)

A Nintendo system without a Mario? Madness.
A Nintendo system without a Mario? Madness.

Can you imagine a Nintendo console without a main Mario title? These are mandatory experiences – you can’t own a NES without Super Mario Bros, a SNES without Super Mario World, etc. I can’t necessarily claim these are the absolute best experiences on their respective consoles in every case, but the fact remains that each Nintendo system has a Mario game worth at least a chunk of your time. In the case of the 3DS, Super Mario 3D Land is the one to try, superior to its followup, New Super Mario Bros 2 and its coin gimmick. 3D Land includes all the best features of the franchise and a lot of depth for completionists and perfectionists alike.

Honourable Mention: StreetPass Plaza (2011)

Shallow, perhaps, but a completionist's dream pre-installed.
Shallow, perhaps, but a completionist’s dream pre-installed.

This built-in feature from day one is simultaneously six games in one, and yet not a full game in its own right. It’s a glorified encouragement to carry your 3DS when you go out and about, to activate StreetPass and anonymously tag strangers without any effort. It offers two mini-games (and four others you can purchase), all of which take only a couple minutes to enjoy. StreetPass is a great way to spread some good karma and have a little fun – and it’s built-in to the system, so you might as well give it a try.

5) Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2013)

Never has simulated debt been so much fun.
Never has simulated debt been so much fun.

I’ve played every AC game since the GameCube original and I still struggle to define its concept or its appeal. On one level, it’s a life sim (or a debt sim, depending on your outlook): you move to a new city populated by anthropomorphic animals and are gently pushed to do certain mindless tasks to earn money to buy new items or repay your mortgage. New Leaf takes a better approach to the formula than its Wii predecessor, City Folk – this time you are made mayor of your new hometown (a fitting decision, since in previous games you do more to improve your town than the actual mayor). This brings a handful of new features that enhance the core gameplay instead of detracting from it.

This is perhaps the finest iteration of the franchise since the original. It adds new features that enhance the game in a way the other sequels didn’t – it makes gameplay more intuitive like Wild World (DS), and incorporates a retail district to every town in a more organic way than City Folk. Animal Crossing is truly at home on a portable system, since it’s so dependent on daily gameplay.

With Play Coins you can get random Nintendo pieces and let your fanboy flag fly. This was the beginning of the Nintendo museum in my basement.
With Play Coins you can get random Nintendo pieces and let your fanboy flag fly. This was the beginning of the Nintendo museum in my basement.

And yet, I still struggle to encapsulate what makes the game so fun. It would be easy to see the game’s tasks as menial and pointless – doing a host of chores daily, fishing, interacting with villagers that possess one of a small handful of personalities, collecting items, repaying massive debts on virtual homes… A pessimist could have a field day decrying the shallowness of the gameplay. But if you visit your town daily and sink 30-60 minutes into the game, you’ll be surprised by how much fun you can have. Suffice it to say: I got the game when it launched in June 2013, and didn’t miss a single day until October, when Pokemon X/Y came out.

4) Bravely Default (2014)

Alternate title, Final Fantasy: Bravely Default
Alternate title, Final Fantasy: Bravely Default

It may not be printed on the box, but this is a Final Fantasy game in every way. You’ll recognize the class system, the item names, and a host of other features, especially if you’ve played early FF games. In what I deem one of their biggest flubs in recent history, Square-Enix opted not to call Bravely Default a proper Final Fantasy game, but this did nothing to detract from its success.

Bravely Default is a more traditional JRPG – in my opinion, the best of its ilk on the platform, if not the best made in the past five years. You take your four-person party from city to dungeon to city, gaining experience and improving your items to progress further in the story. You know what to expect from the genre and Default delivers, but it doesn’t toe the line of cliche and unoriginality. Its story and gameplay throw enough curveballs at you to reinvigorate the genre standard, and man, is it ever a challenge sometimes.

The art style adds an even more whimsical layer to this traditional RPG.
The art style adds an even more whimsical layer to this traditional RPG.

Instead of simply selecting “Attack” or “Magic” from the battle menu, you need to make more tactical decisions using its Brave Point system – each action requires a certain amount of stockpiled BP to perform. You can unleash that big attack that costs 4BP on your first turn in battle, but that character will be forced to stand idly by until they regenerate back to 1BP; or you can stockpile from turn one by defending, and unleash hell on turn four. It’s a simple system that brings a lot of depth and tactical thinking – you need to budget your actions in battle as much as you need to plan your party outside of battle.

There’s also a host of features utilizing the hardware. You can call in your friends from the system proper or from StreetPass to help you out in battle, or even impart abilities on your party. For example, if you StreetPass with me early in your game, your Agnes will be able to borrow abilities from my much stronger version of Agnes from later in the game – and if you really get stuck in a nasty boss battle, you can tag me in for one particularly useful ability.

3) Resident Evil: Revelations (2012)

Let's be honest, a Nintendo library could use some Mature-rated games.
Let’s be honest, a Nintendo library could use some Mature-rated games.

As Bravely Default was a reinvigoration for Square-Enix and Final Fantasy, Revelations is a much-needed return to form for the Resident Evil series. A lot of fans, myself included, have been turned off by its recent deviations from the classic survival-horror formula of dark environments and dwindling supplies. Revelations brings all that back, minus the traditional zombies, and provides perhaps the most true Resident Evil experience since RE3: Nemesis.

You play as classic characters Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, along with a couple of newcomers who fit the franchise well, and explore a boat drifting at sea while fighting off the bizarre creatures who have overrun it. The enemies are zombie-like but unique, a nice return to form without recycling old ideas to death (or risking racial insensitivity like RE5). I was having flashbacks to RE2 and RE3 as I backtracked and scoured for ammo.

Inventory management and maps on the bottom screen, plus moving and shooting - a godsend for the series.
Inventory management and maps on the bottom screen, plus moving and shooting – a godsend for the series.

Granted, Revelations has since been ported to PS3, 360, and Wii U, but I think it works best on its original platform – the smaller screen enhances the sense of claustrophobia, and the optional gyroscopic features are natural with the handheld. And then there’s the StreetPass features, which provide unique missions in familiar environments and reward you with better items.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it is to move and shoot in a Resident Evil game. It’s a little wooden because Resident Evil, but my god, it was such a thrill to experience that for the first time.

2) Fire Emblem: Awakening (2013)

As in "Awakening to find you've played until your battery is dying."
As in “Awakening to find you’ve played until your battery is dying.”

Fire Emblem is perhaps the most under-utilized of Nintendo’s under-utilized franchises – like Metroid and F-Zero, it wasn’t brought to North America at all until the Game Boy Advance era, and thus most fans in the region had only been exposed to it via Marth’s inclusion in the Smash Bros games.

Awakening was perhaps the highest profile game in the series prior to its release, and was a tremendous success for the platform. It’s the same proven gameplay the series has boasted since the NES with modern sensibilities like flashy combat animations (which can be disabled or fast-forwarded, thankfully), and a deeper customization system. Its story may be a little derivative from other JRPGs or animes, but its the gameplay that will keep you truly enthralled.

I’ve rarely had this much fun pouring so much effort into training and retrainiing. Each unit is essentially a blank slate for you to paint as you please with enough proper training and a touch of breeding. You can pair certain party members and built their relationships until they wed and you earn a child unit with the best of their parents’ abilities – in fact, I could describe my party-planning process for my third playthrough as little more than eugenics, picking the perfect partner for each unit until I had a team of uber-powered super-soldiers.

There are so many ways to pair your characters and create super offspring, even if it is a bit of a contrived mechanic story-wise.
There are so many ways to pair your characters and create super offspring, even if it is a bit of a contrived mechanic story-wise.

Like many, Awakening was my first experience with the franchise, having missed the installments on GBA, DS, GameCube, and Wii, and it inspired me to see what I’ve missed – and yet I can’t bring myself to try the others, as Awakening’s features are so awesome that I can’t imagine playing the series without them. Things like the enhanced partnership system, which allows you to pair two units together for mutual stat boosts, or the Casual game mode where units don’t die forever. One of Fire Emblem’s hallmarks has always been permadeath – if your best archer falls in battle, it’s gone forever. Awakening is one of the first instalments to offer a bit of mercy on this front, and without it I couldn’t personally enjoy the game fully. I tried Classic and was punished too harshly to continue, but this may float your boat. Regardless, Awakening is an excellent strategy RPG with a ton of replayability and depth, well worth your time.

1) Pokemon X/Y (2013) or Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire (2014)

Fuel for the "Pokemon is out of gas" argument: mascots designed after letters.
Fuel for the “Pokemon is out of gas” argument: mascots designed after letters.

The eternal quest to catch ’em all continues on the 3DS in fine form. This is one of my guilty pleasure franchises, and I have to say, these are the finest entries in the series.

First, a note on the different games: X and Y are the proper main games of the series’ Generation VI, introducing a new batch of collectible monsters in a brand new region. ORAS, however, is a remake of the Gen III main games, Ruby and Sapphire, taking place in a familiar region but with all the modern features. I recommend playing XY first, as ORAS refines some of the new 3DS functionality, and I personally prefer the Y and Omega Ruby installments.

Tell me Groudon wasn't based on Godzilla.
Tell me Groudon wasn’t based on Godzilla.

Anyway. You know what to expect from a Pokemon game by now – you play a young person who embarks on a quest to see the world, catalogue its indigenous creatures, thwart the plans of a cliche evil group, and become the champion of the region’s Pokemon League. Storywise, neither game is doing much to shake up the formula – you’re still limited to your region, your enemies are still incompetent, you’re still going to encounter the legendary monster depicted on the game’s box. The same checkboxes are going to be checked.

What the game attempts instead is a shake-up of that checklist, especially in ORAS. You aren’t pushed as heavily to take on the Pokemon League; in a way, the story becomes open-ended once you best the Legendary creature, and the NPCs tell you you’re free to do what you want from there on – “do contests, take on the championship, fill your Pokedex, do whatever you want, see if we care.” Of course you haven’t truly beaten the game until you beat the League and then complete the epilogue chapter, Delta Episode, but for once you’re given a sense of freedom, even if it is illusionary.

For the first time in the main series, battles take place in full 3D – a feature formerly reserved for spin-off console games like Stadium. It’s hard to go back to even the most recent games like Gen V’s Black 2 after this jump forward. Speaking of 3D, the games make smart use of the hardware’s potential. Only battles and certain special environments are rendered in full 3D, if you have it activated at all, reducing the battery drain. It’s a smart decision and a nice touch.

Both games make full use of the 3DS’ hardware, except for the cameras, which are shoehorned in to a sub-feature within the StreetPass functionality. The dual screens are utilized well (even if they lack a bloody clock in the corner) – organizing your party and your storage boxes has never been more efficient thanks to the proper incorporation of the touch screen. Online features are a couple of touches away – no more need to boot the game up with these shortcuts activated as in Gen V, or to scurry back to a Pokemon Center anytime your friend wants to trade as in the first four generations, or travel to a certain location to use the Global Trade System. Special “apps” make training your party’s potential or bonding with your little monsters easier than ever, and ORAS adds handy tools for navigating or for collecting all the Pokemon in your current location. Your top screen is all spectacle, and the bottom screen is all utility – it’s a perfect synergy between hardware potential and fun gameplay.

Full 3D exploration and easy access to online features, but they couldn't sneak a little clock in there somewhere?
Full 3D exploration and easy access to online features, but they couldn’t sneak a little clock in there somewhere?

If there’s one feature criminally underused, it’s StreetPass. I expected being able to battle with people you pass, or at least being able to see what those people are using in their parties. Instead you get practically nothing but an additional form of currency with a horrible redemption rate for certain useful and rare items. So many games make such smart use of this cornerstone feature, it’s disappointing to see it reduced to so little in Nintendo’s most lucrative franchise.

Series veterans can, with the use of two separate apps from the eShop, transfer their banked creatures from the previous generations to the modern era. Some will even be updated to the brand new element/type, Fairy, which has done a lot to redefine the core gameplay – a long overdue rebalancing of the type matchups that gives some underused types more use and another overused type a big counter. Another franchise-rattling addition is the Mega Evolution system. Certain fully-evolved Pokemon, after a certain point in the story, can hold special species-specific items to “mega evolve” during battle, for the duration of that battle, into a new super-powered form. For some species, this opens up entirely new strategies, and for others it enriches current approaches. If nothing else, it’s a flashy new touch and a shakeup of existing formulas – many fans have long called for new evolutions of these established creatures, or for a “fourth evolution” level, and Mega Evolutions provides this without totally revising the franchise’s history.

There are many games that either offer a great experience or make full use of the hardware’s potential, and both Pokemon pairs do both exceptionally.

And really, this is just the cream of the crop, in my opinion. There’s a host of other options, from Nintendo staples like Zelda (including an original title and a Ocarina of Time remake, plus Majora’s Mask next month) and Kid Icarus to third-party gems like Kingdom Hearts. Whether you’re jumping on the bandwagon with the New 3DS or hopping back on, there’s a wealth of great experiences waiting for you on this platform. Few systems today can offer so many deep experiences and quality, unique titles in one place.

And for the record, here’s a taste of my most played titles:

Did I mention I've played this system a lot over the past four years?
Did I mention I’ve played this system a lot over the past four years?

Are Amiibos Worth It?

Since they launched alongside Super Smash Bros for Wii U back in November, Nintendo’s line of Amiibo figurines have been flying off store shelves as quickly as they can be stocked. (In fact, within three weeks 710, 000 units were sold, and for some retailers they’re outselling Skylanders figurines – an established, multiplatform series.) Dedicated collectors are shelling out crazy amounts of money for rare units like Marth or Little Mac, and the next wave of figures in February includes retailer-exclusive characters that sold out as soon as preorders opened.

It’s hard to refute that the Amiibo line is already a success for Nintendo, but are they nothing more than collectibles? What about their in-game use? Should you bother hunting down an army of plastic mascots? I’m here to walk you through it – ask yourself these questions:

Strangest army you'll ever see.
My current lineup of Amiibo soldiers.

1. Do you have the consoles and games that support them?

Currently only three Wii U games support Amiibo features – Super Smash Bros, Hyrule Warriors, and Mario Kart 8 – and of them only Smash utilizes the entire line in a real capacity. This number will quickly increase and include 3DS titles as well, but you’ll need to invest in either a portal for your old 3DS/3DSXL/2DS or a brand new New 3DS to that end.

2. Does the Amiibo-related content interest you?

In Smash, you can train an AI-controlled version of the character you’ve purchased to fight as your ally or your enemy. It’s a very comprehensive process, done right, and one of my favourite aspects of the game. By training and sparring against my quartet of plastic combatants, I think I’ve improved greatly as a Smash player (but still nowhere near the skill of tourney players). But what about the other games?
You can use Amiibos to get materials daily in Hyrule Warriors, especially with the four figures from the Zelda franchise (Link or Toon Link will unlock an exclusive weapon at first; Zelda and Shiek yield rarer materials). That’s the extent of it. If you’re collecting figures for other purposes and still playing Hyrule Warriors (for which I would not blame you – man, that game is deep), you’ll prosper, but I’d be surprised if anyone invested in a $14 figure just to get some materials in one game.
The Mii costumes you unlock by scanning an Amiibo into MK8 (once) are awesome tributes to the characters – but only a handful of figurines from prominent Nintendo-central franchises are included. All you really need is a friend who owns those particular figures to come by and tap them against your Wii U gamepad and you’ve achieved all you can with them.

Which figures work in which games, and what they net you.
Handy compatibility chart by Twitter user @moldyclay

3. Is there a character you like/use enough?

At launch, I grabbed Link because he’s one of my Smash mains and compatible with the three main titles so far. Samus followed a couple days later. Next was Pikachu, who is my wife’s favourite character, because I wanted to train an ally for her to help balance the scales when she obliges me and plays. And when I saw a local listing for a Little Mac figure, I snapped it up for rarity’s sake, and again, because I enjoy playing him. I’d love to do the same for Lucario, but chances are slim with its exclusivity.
All that said, I’m not interested in many of the figures – the Kongs, for example. I don’t use them in Smash, and the Donkey Kong franchise is one of my least favourite of Nintendo’s staples. (Don’t get me started on how much attention he steals from Samus.) There’s no incentive to get them in my case.
So ask yourself – are my mains in Smash Bros included in the Amiibo lineup? Do I yearn to race as a Mii version of myself wearing Captain Falcon’s trademark helmet? If you only use Bowser Jr and you’re not an obsessive-compulsive collector, Amiibos probably don’t have much to offer you right now.

4. Are the figures you want available?

This may be the biggest hurdle for many people: supply. There’s a reason Marth sold out quickly – his fan base, thanks to the tournament scene, is far bigger than the number of Marth Amiibos produced. Retailer-exclusive units like Rosalina and Lucario will be incredibly difficult to come by. You’ll have to rely on outlets like eBay to get the rare figures at this point – and please, for the love of the industry, do not oblige the scalpers and pay too much for these things. Frankly, as much as I like this new system, the figures are not worth much more than their retail cost, and scalpers are out of hand with all of Nintendo’s recent supply-and-demand shortcomings.

Allow me to illustrate. Below is the most expensive single item auction I could find on eBay for Marth at the time of this writing. By the Canadian prices, you could buy about 33 Amiibo figures for the same price as this single rare figure – and there are currently only 29 announced.

Seriously, fuck scalpers like this.
This little guy is selling for more than the retail price of all three waves of figures. Scalpers are a plague on the industry.

Mainstream, recognizable characters are readily available though, like Mario, Luigi, Link, Samus, Kirby, and so on. They may not be the top choice of tourney champions but they may be the characters who bear the most nostalgia for you.

If you answered yes to all four questions, I wish you luck in plucking your figure(s) of choice from the horde of rabid shoppers – and enjoy!