Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
With Halloween around the corner and the Super NES’ catalog back in the spotlight thanks to Nintendo’s latest mini console, I’ll be spending some more time with a spooky retro game that I’ve always meant to play through: Demon’s Crest. It’s the third entry in a series that spun off from Capcom’s Ghosts ’N Goblins, telling stories about one of those red demon assholes who’s always swooping at Arthur in those games. It plays like a pretty typical jump-and-shoot platformer, the big twist being that you can cling to walls and fly around horizontally. Firebrand, the power-seeking demon you play as, can also change into a few different forms that you unlock over time, giving you new abilities for battling and exploration.
Where Demon’s Crest excels far beyond most Super NES releases is atmosphere. This is a deeply morose and macabre game that creates a surprisingly strong sense of place. Its outdoor environments are set against beautiful backdrops—cliffs and forests and distant towns all reaching out into darkness and draping everything in shadows. The boss monsters you fight are either Firebrand’s svelte gargoyle brethren or strange messes of spikes and teeth and eyes. And it’s all held together by a chilling, if limited, soundtrack that leans heavily on moody choral and organ arrangements. As far as Gothic adventures on the SNES go, I’ll take this one over Castlevania IV any day. Since it was tragically passed up for inclusion on the Super NES Classic, you can currently grab it on the Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console, or you know, through whatever means you play old video games. [Matt Gerardi]
Etrian Odyssey V
I’ve been waiting more than a year for the latest entry in the deliberately throwback Etrian Odyssey series to make its way from Japan to the U.S., even going so far as to abstain from other JRPGs so I wouldn’t prematurely burn myself out on its pleasantly crunchy turn-based combat and semi-obsessive mapping. The latter is the series’ big hook, allowing players to use the 3DS (and the DS before it) and their bottom screens to sketch out the walls and notable features of the games’ various monster-filled labyrinths. It’s a vital tool for survival—I’m currently bouncing off of a boss that would be murdering my team even worse if my map hadn’t shown me how to block off some of its minions with moving walls—but it’s also a ritual I’ve come to crave over my years with the series. Take a step, draw a wall. Take a step, draw a wall. I was too young to ever really sink my teeth into games like the original Wizardry, which demanded mapping as a requisite for progress. But there’s a palpable comfort in the meticulousness of the drawing process itself, and in the knowledge that even if my party gets wiped out—thanks, you goddamn acorn-throwing trees—the map will persist, the knowledge it represents safeguarded for my next attempt. [William Hughes]
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is far from a perfect game. The difficulty spikes are cruel, the story scenes are unfunny, the escort missions are, well, extant. The name itself is a travesty, somehow combining both an unconventional ampersand with a colon subtitle into a graceless marketing cross-pollination. And yet I’ve found myself utterly enchanted by the game over the past few weeks, thanks in large part to this very scrappy weirdness. To the game’s endless credit, it never attempts to act like it makes any sense, jamming universes together and delighting in the surrealist mayhem it creates, with Mario’s iconography blasted through a wormhole and rendered comic and macabre. Of all its variations on the tactical strategy genre—which, again, what the fuck, how is a Mario and Rabbids crossover somehow the heir to X-COM—perhaps its most daring is to have all the battles occur within a consistent, linear world, populated with exuberant dadaist monuments like a massive toilet and a floating pair of underpants.
I picked the game up shortly after finding a Switch blessedly available at a local store and because I had a couple of flights to endure last weekend. Let me be clear: I hate being in an airplane and contend that the only reason anyone would think otherwise is because they have not stopped to consider how insane being in an airplane is. You’re trapped in a smelly metal tube full of strangers hurtling over the earth; it does not matter if it’s “safe.” A healthy supply of doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals is the only thing that keeps me from leaping off of it mid-flight.
Well, that, and (deep breath) Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. You could even say I enjoyed those hours aloft, with only a few moments of panic-inducing clarity peppered among my absorbing traversal of the game’s candy-colored worlds. A big part of this is, yes, the strangeness of it all—it never gets old seeing Mario whip out a cannon and shoot someone, or Luigi pilot a remote-controlled bomb at someone—but note should also be paid to the polish with which Ubisoft designed its riff on tactical strategy games. Squad composition, map scouting, and careful deployment of special abilities is as important here as in X-COM or Fire Emblem, and the tactile chunkiness of the maps provide a spatial clarity rare in the genre. Indeed, even though it was made by Ubisoft, it takes aesthetic cues from Nintendo games like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Super Mario 3D Land, and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, with characters that practically pop out of the Switch’s screen. But the game’s most interesting and enduring aesthetic flourish, I think, is its programmatic cut scenes, which lavish attention on individual jumps, hair-trigger shots, and daring runs through enemy territory with the sort of luscious animation we’ve come to expect from Nintendo. It’s one area in which the game vaults past any of its peers in the genre.
The word “charming” is used too often to describe video games, particularly Japanese ones with childlike color palettes and writing, but it’s hard to imagine a more apt term for the hairy mix of influences that is this game. It waves its freak flag proudly, a creation of low-key perversity that manages to consistently absorb an hour or two every time I power it on. It got me through at least two patches of turbulence unscathed, and I can think of few higher recommendations than that. [Clayton Purdom]