Sunday 28 February 2016

Worst to Best - Pokémon Generations

So, as we all know, yesterday was a big day - the 20th anniversary of one of Nintendo's biggest gaming franchises, Pokémon. To celebrate, the first games of the series, Pokémon Red and Blue, have come to the 3DS Virtual Console, with hopefully many more to follow.

As a celebration of this awesomeness, let's have a look over the rich history of the series. Here is my ranking of each generation in terms of preference...

#6 - Generation VI (2013 - Present)

In 2013, Pokémon Y became the first installment of the franchise that I played, grew bored with before completion, and eventually traded in at a decent price. I never found it as compelling as it's predecessors, namely due to a lack of true innovation and an uninteresting, lazily rehashed story. It fails to generate much interest and doesn't (ahem) evolve the franchise outside the obvious technical advancements that the 3DS can bring to the table. Everything just feels samey and for a leap to a new console, you'd expect a much bigger upgrade outside of aesthetic changes. The concept of Mega Evolution was a promising inclusion, but perhaps more could've been done with it. Still, as time goes on, DLC is becoming more common and a number of new Mega designs are making their way into the mix - many good, though some bad.

The remakes of the this generation included Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby, based on the Generation III titles Ruby and Sapphire, and their third iteration, Emerald. These remakes blended the 3D updates that the new system had to offer with a refined narrative adapted from the original GBA games, though, again, perhaps more could've been done to accomplish the goal of truly innovating this age old formula. More Mega Evolutions are introduced, the Primal Reversion concept is cool, and it's as addictive as ever when it comes to building up the Pokédex, but still, we need to see a fresh change of pace from here on with the advent of Pokémon Sun and Moon. 

#5 - Generation IV (2006 - 2010)

Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, and the third iteration Platinum, were enjoyable if slightly unremarkable instalments of the series that didn't offer much innovation considering their leap to a brand new system, the Nintendo DS. Standard extras came into effect, including a stronger focus on 3D visuals, hundreds of new Pokémon critters, and online connectivity for the first time, but this isn't enough to outshine the occasional lack of passion injected into the overall experience. Sometimes, things just get a little too bland for my liking; though that's not to say these are bad games whatsoever. They obviously offer the same addictive experience and boast some pleasing visuals and music, alongside a reasonably entertaining narrative, and so while it can be slightly forgettable, it's still great fun for newcomers and dedicated fans alike.

However, this generation shines in a much stronger respect with HeartGold and SoulSilver, remakes of the Generation II games Gold and Silver which were easily one of my favourites of the series. These remakes brought in the same focus on 3D graphics, online connectivity, and expanded game design with the help of the Nintendo DS' beefed up hardware, and thus reconstructed an already fantastic experience in a remarkable fashion. They rank as some of the best that the series has offered in recent times thanks to Nintendo's careful handling to ensure they revamp them in the best possible way, staying loyal to the originals whilst building upon their already stellar success.

#4 - Generation I (1996 - 1999)

The very first Pokémon games - Red and Blue - already earn acclaim for kickstarting such an iconic series, and so they have a legacy that will never fade. Here, players were introduced to Kanto, the first region of Pokémon, where a young trainer ventures out to become a Pokémon master, overcoming numerous hurdles and challenges along the way. Perhaps they haven't aged as well as we all think, mainly due to some laughably bad sprites that barely resemble the official artwork, but their classic retro appeal and innovative nature remain impactful to this day and make them treasured classics that always yield a nostalgic charm.

A couple of years after Red and Blue, Nintendo launched Pokémon Yellow, which featured Pikachu as your starter Pokémon, a different colour scheme, and refined sprites that better resembled the original designs. There was a lot of promise in these changes, but it's bogged down by starting with a Pikachu that refuses to evolve - it seems this was done as a cute reference to the television series, and not as a sensible game design. This is especially apparent when you realise that the first gym battle features rock type Pokémon, which electric Pokémon are useless against. The same great game, but it just gets off to a bumpy start.

#3 - Generation III (2002 - 2006)

Generation III featured Ruby and Sapphire, and Pokémon Emerald. Over 130 new Pokémon were introduced in the Hoenn region, where a young trainer once again ventures on his first quest to explore the Pokémon world, coming into conflict with Team Magma and Team Aqua in the process. These evil teams wish to awaken the legendary beasts known as Groudon and Kyogre to rid the world of land or sea respectively. In a narrative sense, this generation is surprisingly thoughtful and complex - and, without a doubt, incredibly exhilarating. The narrative evolves into something truly epic as it approaches a major climax, making it undeniably one of the most entertaining of the entire series. It's also got all the staple trademarks that we've come to love over time, including some fab new Pokémon designs, superb visuals and music, and an equally addictive gameplay experience.

Pokémon Emerald built upon the successes of it's predecessors with some extra gameplay features and aesthetic changes, notably animated sprites, which became a standard practice for the series from here on. It also includes the Battle Frontier, a competitive landmark littered with numerous arenas that host unique battles with a number of tough trainers, truly putting players to the test once the main quest is completed. As a result, it's certainly the best of the three. This generation also featured FireRed and LeafGreen, remakes of the generation I games, which boosted their appeal with updated graphics and music, as well as an opportunity to catch Pokémon from the Johto region and trade with the Hoenn games to expand your Pokédex in them both. Thanks to this, generation III easily becomes one of the best in the franchises rich history.

#2 - Generation II (1999 - 2002)

Generation II introduced players to the Johto region, the neighbouring area of Kanto, and a world home to 100 new Pokémon. The story features the protagonist journeying as usual to become the best trainer possible, though along the way he comes into conflict as the evil Team Rocket make their return from the previous game and begin to conduct another sinister plan. It may sport a nostalgic appeal that somewhat overpowers the fact that it is slightly dated, but Pokémon Gold and Silver remain personal favourites of mine and have always been dear to my heart since the very day I began playing them.

Everything from the colourful visuals, vibrant music, excellent new Pokémon designs, and thoughtful, highly entertaining narrative make for one of the best retro portable experiences that any fan can ask for, and one that comes highly recommended to those who have yet to give it a go. It manages to feel a lot different from it's predecessors, thanks to fresh updates and suitable improvements. The third iteration of the series, Pokémon Crystal, brought even more new additions including updated, animated sprites and some new twists in the narrative, which made for the ultimate summary of one of the finest generations the franchise has yet demonstrated.

#1 - Generation V (2010 - 2013)

Generation V marked the first time that two Pokémon generations would span the same console, with Pokémon Black and White making their way to the Nintendo DS in 2010 in Japan and 2011 elsewhere. They brought a number of new updates to the formula that helped to refine it whilst keeping the same gameplay we all know and love. Battles became fully animated with consistently moving sprites, and even more varied with the advent of rotational and triple battles, which aren't always as fun as they sound but still unique in terms of strategic elements and design. There's also a much stronger emphasis on 3D visuals as a whole and a gargantuan lineup of new creatures - with 156 new Pokémon, Black and White introduced far more than any other generation, even the very first.

There's a stronger focus on story as the main character comes into conflict with Team Plasma, an interesting take on the classic evil team concept; these guys aren't out for world domination, but actually to free Pokémon from the control of humans, feeling they should be able to roam free without being forced into conflict. Strange thing is, they actually have a very good point - so fighting against them can make the narrative a little awkward at times, even though it is still an interesting, fresh take on the subject. As a whole, these games brought in just enough innovations to refresh an already fun (yet eventually slightly repetitive) gameplay style, and managed to exceed expectations in many other respects as well. I never got round to playing the sequels, but Black and White are enough on their own to make this my favourite generation to date.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday 20 February 2016

Worst to Best - Paper Mario: The Thousand Year-Door Chapters

My favourite game of all time is without a doubt Paper Mario: The Thousand Year-Door, for many, many reasons. If I was to name them all, I'd be here till the end of my life - and that's certainly not going to work out very well.

The story of the game is split into eight chapters, each one home to a unique locale and narrative thread. Let's take a further look into them as I rank each one in terms of preference...

Spoilers lay ahead. If for some reason you've not played this game, stop reading, turn the computer/phone off, and go and play it.

#8 - Chapter 1: Castle and Dragon

The first chapter of the game is certainly enjoyable, but naturally more simple than the later chapters in order to help newbies get into the flow of the game. It's got some nice scenic design both in the vibrant town of Petalburg and the humorously ruined Hooktail Castle; however, due to such simplicity, it isn't as memorable as it's successors once over. Hooktail is an entertaining boss battle, and quite a clever one given that you have to locate her weakness beforehand, though the newbies may find her abnormally difficult if they're not used to the gameplay style and aren't fully aware with how to find the hidden item that makes battling her miles easier; not an ideal trait for the first boss of the game. But regardless, while this isn't the best chapter, it's still good fun - not any part of this game is bad. No way.

#7 - Chapter 2: The Great Boggly Tree

The second chapter takes place within the monochrome Boggly Woods, where Mario must help a band of small creatures named Punies save their home, the Great Boggly Tree, from the evil X-Nauts. The design of the woods is largely without colour, making it both calm and strangely bittersweet, and the relaxing music is a beautiful compliment to the visually resplendent backgrounds. The tree itself is just as pretty on the inside, and there's some clever puzzle solving throughout it's many passages that slowly help to advance your skills.

The main annoyance is those bloody Punies, which Mario must eventually guide throughout the tree to safety. It's not so frustrating when it comes to moving them across gaps and through passageways, but there's some exasperating times where they get stuck in absurd places or scatter all over the place when enemies appear. It isn't a game breaking issue when you get used to it and take it as a good challenge, but it can be a bit too frustrating now and then. In terms of the boss battle, that's a huge plus, as Magnus von Grapple is without a doubt one of the best in the game, with some superb music and a challenging appeal. A good chapter, and another entertaining step forward.

#6 - Chapter 7: Mario Shoots the Moon

Chapter seven takes a while to get going as Mario must find the wealthy Goldbob and the elusive General White to have their approval to, of course, blast Mario to the Moon in an almighty cannon at Fahr Outpost, home to a number of Russian Bob-Ombs. Finding General White is funny in hindsight as you must run around to several locales, only to discover you just missed him; however, when you play the game, this eventually gets tiresome and brings the narrative to an awkward halt.

Once this is resolved, Mario is shot up to the Moon, and from there infiltrates the X-Naut Fortress in order to try and rescue Peach and defeat the villains once and for all. There is a strong emphasis on puzzle solving as Mario must navigate between various floors in the base's elevator in order to acquire numerous card keys and access codes to unlock new routes and proceed further onward. Nothing is easily laid out to the player directly, so this is where you're really put to the test as a newcomer; and an even harder boss battle awaits in the form of Magnus Von Grapple 2.0, a hefty upgrade of the original chapter two boss, who boasts much higher stats and some destructive new abilities. Less of an action packed chapter and more of a thought provoking one, this certainly succeeds as a worthy penultimate phase to the overall narrative.

#5 - Chapter 4: For Pigs the Bell Tolls

This time Mario journeys to the dark and dismal Twilight Town, which is under a horrific curse that sees the locals being turned into pigs whenever the haunting sound of the bell tower is heard. Mario journeys to the haunted Creepy Steeple to uncover the culprit, who turns out to be an obnoxious prankster named Doopliss, a Duplighost who has the ability to copy the appearance and abilities of his foes. A clever plot twist soon awaits - once Doopliss is beaten, the chapter initially seems to be completed, but this is all red herring. Doopliss takes the form of Mario and makes off with his friends, while Mario is left a featureless shadow who must recover his identity before time runs out.

This plot twist later leads to Mario teaming up with former foe Vivian, whom we bond with further upon realising her abusive relationship with her wicked sisters. On an aesthetic scale, everything is spot on - the haunting, dim visuals of Twilight Town and the jet black appearance of Creepy Steeple create a perfect scary atmosphere, complimented by the bitter, dark music. Doopliss himself is a little too easy as a boss, but as a character, he makes for an entertaining, humorous villain, and finding the right path to recovering Mario's identity is a real brain teaser (in an entertaining way), even if it is sometimes a bit too vague. That aside, this chapter is one of the most creative, and certainly one of the most enjoyable from beginning to end.

#4 - Chapter 3: Of Glitz and Glory

Chapter three has Mario flying up to the vibrant city of Glitzville, which is home to the renowned Glitz Pit, a fighting arena for the bravest and strongest of souls. To get the Crystal Star, seemingly visible as the prize for the champion, Mario enlists as a fighter and works his way up the ranks to win the title; but while doing so, he must also solve a mystery that includes a number of disappearances and strange threats from an unknown culprit. This chapter provides some of the most opportunities to rack up experience points and add tons of new foes to your Tattle Log; the higher up you go on the league table, the harder and more interesting the opponents become, and this all leads to a satisfying conclusion with a superb boss battle.

The unnerving backstory behind this entire Glitz Pit mystery also leads to more gripping twists and some bittersweet sub plots, although sometimes the cutscenes are a little too long, throwing novels of text at you without mercy. With that aside, a host of memorable characters, witty dialogue, and a tense atmosphere benefit this chapter in a narrative sense, while the plethora of new enemies, stronger emphasis on fighting, and unique moments of exploration benefit it even more so in a gameplay one.

#3 - Chapter 5: The Key to Pirates

This chapter takes place on the remote island of Keelhaul Key, and inside the Pirate's Grotto; a layer of caverns that lead to the treasure of the ghost pirate Cortez. Before the chapter begins, one must find Admiral Bobbery within Rogueport and convince him to sail the seas again - and this already kicks off a compelling sub plot as we learn Bobbery's tragic past, and watch as he overcomes it to face his fears once more. The chapter features a band of interesting new supporting characters, namely Flavio, who brings a lot of comic relief to the table. In terms of gameplay, while it is occasionally frustrating to have to go back and forth through the island jungles so many times, it's still an equally testing experience and one that allows you uncover all sorts of new pathways and secrets.

The final act takes us into the Pirate's Grotto, and is certainly one of the finest moments; the atmosphere is tense, the enemies are tough, and the variety of puzzles make for a wave of new challenges. Cortez himself is one of the most creative bosses in the game thanks to his battle being segmented into three rounds, with him altering his form, and consequently his attacks, in each one. The anticlimax of him handing over the Crystal Star is comic gold, and even when he's beaten, it's not quite over; one must then pummel Lord Crump and his attempts to destroy the cove and steal the star, which makes for another interesting boss battle and a gripping finale.

#2 - Chapter 6: Three Days of Excess

The sixth chapter plays out like an Agatha Christie mystery novel, with a traditional detective story taking place on the renowned Excess Express as it journeys to Poshley Heights. The three day journey begins as normal, but soon enough, many strange events unfold; items are being stolen, threats are being made, and a general sense of unease floods each carriage. The main supporting character is Pennington, a wannabe detective who strives to solve the case alongside Mario, who brings a lot of charm and witty humour to the table.

It's both atmospheric and humourous, with beautiful music covering the day, dusk, and night periods of the train journey, as well as the calm Riverside Station. The station itself has an eerie atmosphere as Mario navigates within it to find a hidden switch, encountering strange creatures in the process that end up being the chapter's boss battle, Smorg. The boss itself is an epic fight on the roof of an out of control train that's both challenging and entertaining; in fact, in summary, all of this can be said for the entire chapter itself.

#1 - Chapter 8: The Thousand Year-Door

The final chapter is a stellar and worthy conclusion to a beautifully written story, bringing together everything for an explosive finale full of challenge, thrills, and some major plot twists. The Palace of Shadow is an unnerving stage, exuding a traditional gothic horror vibe with classic scary artefacts and dimly lit corridors. The palace is split into three phases, and numerous bosses are present throughout; from the ferocious Gloomtail to good ol Bowser to, of course, the Shadow Queen herself. The Tower of Riddles, the second part of the level, is a particular favourite of mine, thanks to it's thought provoking puzzles and ambient, haunting music.

You'll also encounter numerous tough enemies as you proceed, so this is where all the experience built up over the past chapters is truly put to the test. Puzzle solving, tactical fighting, and facing your fears are crucial parts to overcome what is easily the hardest yet most compelling part of the entire game. A thrilling climax for both the story and overall gameplay, and certainly a fantastic conclusion for one of the best games ever made.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday 14 February 2016

Orca vs. Great White

Orca vs. Great White? You're truly desperate for blog posts now, Andrew!

I know, but whatever I'm truly into at one time, I like to write about. Call it hypergraphia, my friends. Marine biology has always interested me, and despite conflicting decisions over whether or not to study it and develop it as a career, I always enjoy looking at the latest facts regarding aquatic life.

Whales and sharks rank amongst my favourites, and arguably the most famous of each species are the Orca and Great White, respectively. The Orca is a remarkably intelligent, powerful beast that ranks as one of the strongest predators in the ocean, whilst the Great White is a much feared, infamous creature that garnered a reputation as a ferocious man eater after the release of the 1974 novel Jaws and it's 1975 film adaptation.

So, in another random blog post that just serves no purpose other than to write stuff that interests me, let's do a farfetched yet interesting comparison between two mighty beasts of the sea.

Flying sharks? No thanks.
The key difference is that Orca's are marine mammals (under the cetacean genus) whilst Great White's are, of course, fish. They look similar on the outside, but when it comes to their anatomy and behaviour, there are many massive differences. As we all know, cetaceans cannot breathe underwater - they lack gills, which fish use to filter oxygen out of the water so long as they keep moving. Cetaceans, on the other hand, have blow holes on their heads, which are connected to their lungs inside. These blowholes are used to inhale fresh air and allow the animal to maintain oxygen levels whilst swimming. Cetaceans need to hold their breath when diving for prey, which Orca's can do for up to 15 minutes, but they seldom submerge for more than five. Some others can manage much longer, notably Sperm whales, which can hold their breath for as long as 90 minutes.

Another noticeable difference between whales and fish is the tail - fish have a vertical tail whilst whales have a horizontal one, and this all relates to the evolutionary history of these animals. Mammals have always evolved to flex their spines in an up and down motion to move, which is why a horizontal, flat tail is far more beneficial for whales to navigate this way within the sea. Fish, including sharks, evolved from seabed creatures that slithered along the ocean floor, hence why their side to side movements require a vertical tail. Sharks rely on their fins for balance and movement, with the main pectoral fins helping with directional movement and the dorsal fin controlling overall stability when rolling and turning. Orca's have similar dorsal fins, but their frontal fins are known as "flippers", though they basically have the same function as pectorals.

Let's face it, as kids, we all thought that was it's actual eye.
Orca's are far larger than Great Whites, with adult males reaching up to nine meters and weighing up to four tonnes; their dorsal fin alone can exceed human height at around two meters. In contrast, the Great White usually gets to six meters upon reaching adulthood, and the average weight is usually just over one tonne, though some significantly larger specimens have been reported. Great Whites are solitary creatures, seeking prey in a stealthy manner and usually conducting surprise attacks to make quick, easy kills. They are commonly seen leaping upward to snatch unbeknownst victims, such as seagulls and seals, from the surface, in a dazzling act known as breaching. They are responsible for many unprovoked attacks on humans, further worsening their reputation as man eaters, and have also been known to resort to scavenging when the opportunity arises.

Orca's hunt in groups, communicating with a number of complex verbalizations and "clicks", unlike sharks which have no organs to produce sound and so remain silent but deadly in any situation. They typically feed on seals and, in rare cases, have even been known to hunt and kill Great Whites. Using their remarkable intelligence and problem solving skills, these whales have been seen pulling off all sorts of tricks to capture even the most stubborn victims, meaning there is little escape for those who are trapped. Such tactics can vary from making waves to wash prey off of ice flows, to literally throwing their victims sky high via their tails, sending them plummeting back down to a grizzly death. It's not easy to watch, but demonstrates a seriously admirable level of tenacity and skill.

Is it weird that I actually find their neutral expression kinda cute?
Great White's have never survived in captivity and cannot be accommodated by any aquarium, with the many experiments having the shark survive for a matter of weeks; most have ended with the shark being released back into the wild before it's too late. Many reasons for this have been explored: they require so much space as they naturally swim hundreds of miles a day, yet they will need a sizeable tanks all to themselves as they will kill any other animals who share it with them. They also refuse to be manually fed, are extremely dangerous to handle for even the most experienced people, and often become very depressed and weakened if aquarium water is not at the correct chemical balance or if their tanks, as previously mentioned, are too small to accommodate their lust for freedom and exploration. This in turn leads to self harm by headbutting their own tank walls and a severe loss of appetite.

Orca's are polar opposites in many ways, and have become both an enjoyable and controversial product of captive life. As we all know, SeaWorld is home to a collection of Orca's under the stage name of Shamu, which perform all sorts of shows alongside their trainers in front of hundreds of guests. It's truly impressive to watch, with the talent and strange sense of humour they show off continuing to remind us how much we take animals for granted when it comes to their mental abilities. However, these practices are also the subject of severe backlash - many deem it cruel and undermining to capture such exotic creatures and force them into performing tricks for entertainment, which is an understandable argument, and one that was further supported with the release of the 2013 documentary film Blackfish. Orca's have, on some occasions, attacked and killed their trainers, either on purpose during aggressive phases or while playing with them and not realising their own strength. 

But this is equally as cute to be fair.
Comparing them in terms of a head to head fight is both crude and pointless, but if you were to match up their stats, generally Orca's have a significant advantage. They are larger, stronger, more agile, and also much more intellectually equipped. Whilst both are considered apex predators, the Orca is noted by some to be, on rare occasions, the only predator of the Great White. The Great White has a monstrous bite force of over 600PSI, the strongest of any predatory fish, while the Orca's has yet to be officially measured. Some estimates, based on incidents with captive specimens, predict an absurd PSI of over 19,000 - which rivals that of the T-Rex, hence why such a figure is often debunked as a myth for beyond obvious reasons.

The conservation status of Orca's is referred to as Data Deficient, meaning that we do not know enough about their overall habitat, breeding status, and population to assess their natural wellbeing and security. In contrast, the Great White is listed as Vulnerable, mainly due to a history of shark finning that has grossly affected many other species as well. This involves capturing sharks and slicing off their fins before tossing their mutilated yet still conscious body back into the sea, where it dies from either suffocation, blood loss, or consumption by other predators. Slowly but surely, more countries are banning this practice, and many restaurants have been forced to remove Shark Fin Soup from their menus after aggressive protests and boycotts. Great Whites are also vigorously protected in some countries, mainly New Zealand, where the unlawful killing of one can result in a $250,000 fine and up to half a year in prison.

So leave the little guys alone.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday 7 February 2016

Mario on Gamecube

Nintendo's much loved mascot Super Mario has starred in some of the best games across all the company's game consoles since his inception in 1985 on the NES. The Nintendo Gamecube, first released in 2002, is no exception - some of the most entertaining, varied titles on the system you can thank Mario and his legacy for.

Let's take a quick browse over some popular hits for the console, regardless of their actual quality, featuring our much loved Italian plumber...

Mario Smash Football (2005)

Known as Super Mario Strikers in the US, Mario Smash Football is a fun little sports package that has a variety of positives and negatives. It's nowhere near as complex as the sport that inspires it; which is a no brainer for a Mario title, and indeed yields it's own charm. There's no referee, the pitch is smaller, the teams are smaller, and we have no infamous offside rules; you can violently slide tackle and ram your foes into a deadly electric fence all without as much as a yellow card. With controversial referee decisions instigating tons of player and fan abuse, it's no wonder he preferred to stay out of this violent madness.

The gameplay includes Mario trademarks of items and special moves to make the experience all the more chaotic; super strikes can be performed by your team captain and unleash devastating power if done correctly, also giving you two goals in the process. There's some severe difficulty spikes, rendering the AI unrealistically fast and almost impossible to beat at higher difficulties (especially the out of place, stupid Super Team), and I myself prefer to switch all the items and special moves off, but this is still an appealing title that's especially fun in multiplayer tournaments.

Mario Party 4 (2002)

The Mario Party series reached it's tenth installment just last year, and thirteenth if you include the portable instalments. Evidently, things are slowly going downhill, with many losing interest from a critical and commercial perspective. Back in 2004, Mario Party 4 became the first entry to the series to be on a next gen system, with it's predecessors being exclusive to the Nintendo 64. In the long run, while far from a masterpiece, what Mario Party 4 lacks in terms of true depth it makes up for with it's addictive multiplayer modes.

The game allows up to 4 players to take part in lengthy board games, as is standard for the series, where characters can compete in teams or in an all out rivalry. Everyone rolls the dice to move spaces, the type of space you land affecting the outcome of your turn, and well over 40 minigames are featured to bridge the gap between turns. The minigames themselves are creative and great fun, and while some of them don't meet their true potential, they all add up to a great multiplayer experience. The game simply isn't fun in single player, however, thanks to an unavoidable lack of involvement and AI that are absolutely dreadful in every way, even when set to their hardest difficulty. That aside, when you've got some buddies to game with, this is certainly a harmless and entertaining (albeit slightly dated) little package to get stuck into.

Super Mario Sunshine (2002)

As a successor to the universally adored Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine was always going to have some trouble finding new ways to innovate an already beautifully established formula. The path Nintendo chose to take was original and creative, and whilst it didn't please everyone, it certainly makes for some engrossing platform gaming.

Mario dons a small water device dubbed FLUDD, which allows him to spray water to defeat enemies and solve puzzles; FLUDD also comes with numerous other nozzles that allow Mario to briefly hover, launch upward, and burst into a high speed dash. The game differs from the aesthetics of other Mario games by taking place on Isle Delfino, a vacation resort far away from the Mushroom Kingdom, which allows the creators to come up with all sorts of fresh locales, from sandy beaches to vibrant theme parks to bustling harbours. The landscapes are spacious and full of depth, making exploration a fun pastime itself to break from the main quest. This all adds up to create a challenging, aesthetically fantastic, and thoughtfully designed experience, and certainly another fine entry to the Mario canon and undoubtedly one of the Gamecube's best titles.

Mario Power Tennis (2004)

The Mario sports titles have covered an array of events, and Mario Power Tennis is the series' second visit to the classic racquet based competition, after Mario Tennis for the Nintendo 64. The premise is simple enough - just tennis, played on vibrant courts that adopt all sorts of aesthetics from Mario's rich history, from the Mushroom Kingdom to Bowser's sinister castle. The gameplay structure is easy to get to grips with, and thanks to a simple control setup and helpful visual guides, it becomes very accessible to newcomers - however, there's still plenty of challenge to test you, especially in the harder cup battles.

They key "gimmick", for a lack of a better term, is the addition of Power Smash special moves - after a series of combos and shots are performed flawlessly, your racquet is charged up and can be used to unleash a special shot that is themed specifically to each character, that also vary based on whether the ball is in front of you or on the other side of the court. For example, Mario unleashes a huge hammer and slams the ball viciously if the ball is close, whilst Luigi whips out his classic vacuum and pulls the ball to safety if it is about to speed out of play. They can be turned off for those who want a simple, raw challenge, but they still add up to some chaotic matches, and don't feel as cheap as the super strikes in Smash Football. It's not perfect, but for the most part, Mario Power Tennis is an approachable and entertaining game for gamers of any age and experience.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year-Door (2004)

Easily my favourite video game of all time, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year-Door is the sequel to the original Paper Mario which hit the Nintendo 64 in 2000. The Thousand Year-Door sees Mario travelling to the derelict town of Rogueport after Princess Peach finds a map that could lead to a magical treasure. However, when a band of alien villains known as the X-Nauts kidnap Peach for a sinister purpose, it's up to Mario, along with a host of new companions he meets, to rescue her, whilst pursuing the goal of collecting the Crystal Stars, which house the power to control the Thousand Year-Door, in order to contain the evil within it.

As is the case with the original, Paper Mario 2 is much different to other Mario games not just on a gameplay level, but on a visual one. As this all takes place outside the Mushroom Kingdom, the designers have crafted fresh ideas for each locale (similar to Sunshine), developing various themes which include floating, upbeat cities, monochrome forests, and eerie, mysterious towns. The gameplay is both easy to grasp and extremely complex, with a return to turn based battles that require plenty of skill to master, and allow gamers to utilise a variety of tactics, special moves, and items to conquer their enemies. The paper style builds upon the original with the improved Gamecube graphics, allowing a stronger focus on 3D enemies, all cleverly modelled with paper structures, to make for an improved visual pallette. The gameplay brings back the partner system from the previous game as well, bringing a host of loveable characters to the already beautiful narrative, which is told with wit and depth - extremely different from the relatively simple storylines most Mario games adopt. Put it simply, this is one of the best games to date, and one that I'll always treasure for years to come.

Man, talking about this makes me wants to play it again. I'll wrap it up here guys, cos I gotta play some Paper Mario.

Thanks for reading!