The X Button - Toad to Victory

by Todd Ciolek,

I probably should address Thanksgiving this week, but it doesn't look like anyone, from department stores to pop-cultural commentators, wants to bother with it. That's OK with me. We'll move on to Christmas and its surrounding video game releases. One of the most seasonal releases of December is Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker. Some people may wonder what makes it appropriate for the winter, as Treasure Tracker is full of verdant scenery and sunlit ruins and general summertime atmosphere. Well, those people haven't seen the "Koopa Klaus" episode of the old Super Mario Bros. Super Show. They're better off not seeing it or any other episode of the cartoon, so I'll explain.

Every low-effort cartoon of the 1980s and 1990s attempted a Christmas fable if it lasted long enough. So the Super Mario Bros. Super Show fashioned a humdrum story about Bowser, known then as King Koopa, kidnapping Santa, freezing his workshop solid, and ruining the whole holiday. Toad, being the least mature of the good guys, has a lesson to learn in all this. As the episode begins, he's being downright selfish and cares less about the fate of the North Pole and more about a snowboard given to him by Princess Peach (known then as Princess Toadstool). Will he realize the true meaning of Christmas?

Of course he will. Santa's stockpiles of presents and cheap elf labor are frozen solid and Christmas is doomed, and Toad offers his precious snowboard so that Santa will have at least one gift to dispense. Santa is so moved by this act of mushroom-man selflessness that he radiates a nuclear joy that thaws out the North pole, and Toad gets to ride in Santa's sleigh. So there's the reason behind Treasure Tracker's holiday release: Toad once saved Christmas.

NEWS

ETRIAN ODYSSEY V COMES WITH A FREE CROSSOVER
Dungeon-hack fans debate the merits of Persona Q, and most of them agree that it's not quite the same as a full-blown Etrian Odyssey foray through vicious dungeons and F.O.E. duels. It might be better if you like Persona more, but it isn't the same. Well, they can stop fussing. Etrian Odyssey V is on its way, and it's not alone.

Granted, Etrian Odyssey V is also rather vague at this point. We have a website and a trailer that mentions an adventure in a “new world” and the subtitle “potential for disaster.” Fans, given as they are to speculating, are intrigued by the artwork of the grand Yggdrasil tree sprouting off of the planet, perhaps even into space. But that's getting ahead of things.

Etrian Odyssey gets another crossover as well, and it's not with Persona. Etrian Odyssey X Mystery Dungeon combines the dungeon-hack series with Spike Chunsoft's long-running adventure series. Both names are known for grueling ordeals: Etrian Odyssey favors the first-person view and menu-driven battles of a typical old-fashioned RPG, while the Mystery Dungeon games show characters from above and play out a little more like action-RPGs. The crossover looks a little closer to the Mystery Dungeon method, as big-headed Etrian characters march through dungeons, and enemies move when they do. Still, there's plenty of Etrian Odyssey in the staff: composer Yuzo Koshiro, monster designer Shin Nagasawa, and class designer Yuji Himukai return, and Shigeo Komori's the producer. Directing duties seem shared by Etrian Odyssey IV art director Yukari Yokoro and Mystery Dungeon veteran Seiichiro Nagahata. Kaoru Hasegawa is supposedly doing the character art, though Himukai's character illustrations appear throughout the trailer.

With either game come to the West? Etrian Odyssey V is a safe bet, and the crossover is a little shakier. Mystery Dungeon games and other top-view dungeon runs typically don't fare so well over here (remember poor Izuna?), so it's up to Etrian Odyssey to carry their partnership. Yet there's plenty of time for a publisher like Atlus to squeeze in both titles. Etrian Odyssey X Mystery Dungeon comes out March 5 on the Japanese 3DS, and Etrian Odyssey V seems farther away.

HATOFUL BOYFRIEND MAKES SOME AVIAN MOTION TOWARD PS4 AND VITA
It amuses to no end to see people talk about Hatoful Boyfriend. Hato Moa's pigeon-filled dating simulator is weird in all the right ways, and its recent Steam release put it squarely back on the radar. Now it's headed to the PlayStation 4 and Vita, and that gives me another reason to run images like this.

A Vita port makes perfect sense. The handheld is successor to the PSP, which pretty much drowned in dating simulators and visual novels stocked with handsome men. The PS4 version also makes sense, as you'll want everyone around you to know you're playing a dating sim set in a world dominated by birds—not bird-people, but actual pigeons, button quails, and rock doves. You can do that on the PS4 and Vita in the second quarter of 2015.

GUILTY GEAR XRD GETS A DEMO, AND IT TALKS
Guilty Gear Xrd will slip out just before the end of the year, and the PlayStation 4 has a downloadable demo for PS Plus members right now. The play mechanics seem sturdy enough so far, though I admit I [aid a little more attention to how it looks and sounds. I am a big ol' nutjob for Guilty Gear, and I have specific ideas about what a fancy 3-D recast of the game should entail.

The animation's very slick, of course. It's built with 3-D models on a two-dimensional plane, and it does a darned good job of mimicking an actual cartoon. Only one thing irks me: the characters' mouths all look flat and yappy when they speak, as though they're from a student's faux-anime test reel or that RWBY show. The voices aren't too bad for fighting-game banter that's barely comprehensible even to the Guilty Gear faithful, but they don't have the same oomph that comes from hearing RIDE THE LIGHTNING yelled in Japanese. That, and Axl Low has a cheesy Brit accent, even though Millia doesn't sound Russian. Nor does Ky sound French. You should be fair with your stereotypes, Guilty Gear.

THE TALE OF TOAD

Nintendo follows very simple rules when it comes to Mario and his associates. Mario is the hero, cheery and determined and usually successful. Luigi is his brother, goofier and less courageous but still helpful. Princess Peach varies from an active heroine to a kidnapping victim, yet she's normally as upbeat as Mario. So it goes with Yoshi, Wario, Bowser, and other Mario characters that Nintendo is smart enough to avoid developing too deeply. And then there's Toad, a mushroom-hatted little creature who's gone from major Nintendo staple to an amorphous collective of fungus-themed citizens. Among a lineup of consistent icons, Toad is a mystery.

Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. set standards for an entire world of video games, and Toad was there. Technically. In seven of the game's eight castles, Mario found a Mushroom Retainer, whose apologetic chatter about a princess being in another castle is firmly lodged in a generation's Collective Unconscious. The Mushroom Retainers looked like Toad, though the save-the-princess context and the Super Mario Bros.: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach movie imply that they're girls. What's more, none of them was called Toad just yet. That would come in Super Mario Bros. 2.

Nintendo declined to bring Japan's Super Mario Bros. 2 to North America. It was a glorified expansion pack, anyway, and someone had a better idea: take a game called Doki Doki Panic, recast it with Mario characters, and release it to the burgeoning American NES market. Nintendo had four slots to fill with the game's heroes, and Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach (then Toadstool) were obvious choices. The remaining spot went to Toad. Super Mario Bros. 2, in its American version, would be Toad's biggest role, and the NES generation came to know him as the little mushroom guy who couldn't jump very high but compensated by picking up things quickly. He was handy in the desert stages.

Super Mario Bros. games formed the seat of the Nintendo Empire in the late 1980s, and Toad was a part of that. In Valiant's licensed comics and a Nintendo-backed Super Mario Bros. Super Show cartoon, Toad was a plucky sidekick, a vaguely childlike fixture in the bizarre surrogate Mario family. He often ended up captured alongside the princess, but that fit his origins.

In other respects, though, Toad never had the same place as other Mario fixtures. Evidence came with Super Mario Bros. 3, where any singular Toad character gave way to a kingdom of cursed mushroom-kings and their panicked subjects. A Super Mario Adventures comic from Nintendo Power supplied a heroic Toad as an elite commando, but again it was unclear if he was the Toad or just a Toad.

Toad retained his supporting role in other ways, however. When the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie turned Nintendo's cute, essentially plotless games into a surreal and embarrassing grimy fantasy, Toad had a small but memorable part. Played by hilarious rockabilly satirist Mojo Nixon, Toad appears as a normal man with a bizarre haircut in an alternate evolutionary world ruled by Dennis Hopper's King Koopa. Toad is arrested for his subversive protest songs and, as punishment, de-evolutionized into one of the film's creepy, tiny-headed versions of the Goombas from Mario games. Yes, it's a bizarre movie. At least Nixon made out better than many others involved with the box-office flop. In a 2010 interview, he mentioned that he copyrighted Toad's brief anti-Koopa songs, earning him modest royalty checks from the movie.

Back in the realm of video games, Nintendo would not give Toad another starring role until the NES bowed out in 1994. Wario's Woods was the system's last Nintendo-released game in North America, and it saw Toad chucking bombs and monsters in a Tetris-style challenge. Less a vehicle for Toad and more a showcase for the rising antihero Wario, the game remains little more than a minor collector's curiosity.

Later Mario games continued to blur the distinction between Toad the sidekick and the entire Toad race. Super Mario RPG gave Toad a singular role, but other games, the trend-setting Super Mario 64 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii among them, stuck him with indistinct cameos. Spin-offs like Mario Party and Mario Kart had Toad, now given a piercing squawk, but the central Mario games marginalized him. Toad, like Luigi and Princess Peach, was sidelined by Nintendo's reluctance to give Mario games any playable characters besides Mario. It wasn't until Super Mario 3-D World that they'd return to truly distinct multi-character lineups.

This may explain why many of us are so excited about Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker. It's the first Toad-centric game in a long time, and it plays to Toad's humble abilities and plucky disposition. Even if Captain Toad is a new take on the character, he's Toad in every way we remember. The game also led to producer Koichi Hayashida revealing that Toads, as a species, aren't male or female. They're technically not fungus, but Toad and co-star Toadette apparently just take on whatever gendered characteristics they choose. That sets an interesting example.

Did Nintendo sell Toad short? He (as Toad seemingly identifies) never had quite as much merchandise as Mario or Donkey Kong, and there's an unexpected market for mushroom-themed mascots. Funghi, the mushroom assistant from the Touch Detective games, became an unexpected mass-market star, with ample knickknacks and commercial appearances to his name. All of those cell-phone straps and heated slippers could have been Toad's.

Perhaps that's the idea. Just as Disney cycled movies in and out of the home video market and Jim Davis schemed to prevent Garfield overexposure, Nintendo might have downplayed Toad for years in the hopes of staging a big comeback. Regardless of how Captain Toad turns out, we'll be glad to see Toad back in the spotlight, just as he was in those arid Super Mario Bros. 2 levels so very long ago. And if it's a scheme, it seems to be working on us.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

CAPTAIN TOAD'S TREASURE TRACKER
Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Release Date: December 5
He Can't Jump: But That's OK
MSRP: $39.99

As detailed above, Toad's starring roles are few. Super Mario 3D World remembered him, though. It trotted out an entire mini-game based around the Captain Toad persona. The levels were short little challenges where a ground-bound Toad wandered around and collected stars. That was enough to inspire an entirely new game, and Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker is it.

Like most of the good Mario games, Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker isn't bogged down in preamble; a large bird named Wingo absconds with a star and either Toad or Toadette (as in Costume Quest, you indirectly choose who's abducted) sending the remaining mushroom-hatted explorer off on a rescue mission. It leads through large 3-D stages full of rotating platforms, revolving compartments, shifting floors, elongated piranha plants, patrolling Shyguys, and other clever arrangements of obstacles and Mario enemies. Toad and Toadette cannot jump, but they can pluck vegetables for tossing, swim better than a lot of action-game heroes, and grab a pickaxe that turns them into momentary machines of destruction much like a hammer-clutching Mario or an invincible Pac-Man. Some of the challenge lies in knowing just where to look: the player can view a stage from any angle, all the better to spot hidden passages and obscured items. Toad and Toadette also hop into minecarts to snag items and pelt foes with vegetables, and the player uses the Wii U's touch-screen controller to aim.

Most importantly, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker looks astoundingly cute. Toad and Toadette nap on park benches. Goombas paddle around in life preservers. And our hero and heroine shriek in their scratchy little voices. Levels range from sunny Mario groundwork to canyons, temples haunted houses, passenger trains, and lava dragon lairs. So it's a complete game as well as a fine vehicle for the second-best supporting Mario character. The best, of course, is Porcupo.

KINGDOM HEARTS HD 2.5 REMIX
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: December 2
Most Wanted Cameo: Balthier
MSRP: $39.99/$99.99 (special edition)

Hey, kids! It's your old pal, Square Enix! We know you like Kingdom Hearts and that you probably can't wait to play Kingdom Hearts III, but it's a long way off. Fortunately, we decided to make sure that you're absolutely ready for it by putting Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep Final Mix, and the cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts Re:coded into one last ultimate we-swear-it's-final bundle called Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix.

Kingdom Hearts, for those just joining us, is an action-RPG blend of Disney icons and Final Fantasy cameos, framed by original characters whose keyblades and big shoes signify the fusion of the two series. It leans toward the Disney side of things, as the central games star Goofy, Donald, and protagonist Sora as they skip between realms pulled from various Disney classics, ranging from Hercules to Steamboat Willie to Winnie the Pooh. Yet there's an elaborate backstory to the whole collision of worlds and lost memories and characters who are the Heartless and Nobody incarnations of other characters. It's all complicated, and any newcomers should start with Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, which Square Enix released last year.

As the definitive compilation for now, the 2.5 Remix includes prettier versions of two games. Kingdom Hearts II follows right from the first and introduces a new lead character in Roxas, though Sora's still around. This'll be the first time the expanded and tweaked Final Mix version of the game comes to North America, and that's a big deal for many fans. Birth By Sleep, previously available on the PSP, takes place ten years prior to the original Kingdom Hearts, and it features separate storylines for its lead characters, keyblade wielders Terra, Aqua, and Ventus. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, a DS entry set just after Kingdom Hearts II, isn't fully in this collection, but you'll get a synopsis of it in a three-hour movie, about two-thirds of which is supposedly new material.

Is it worth it for dedicated Kingdom Hearts fans? I suppose it's not a bad way to catch up if you skipped Birth By Sleep or Re:coded, but there's not much new in 2.5 Remix apart from extra cutscenes, boss battles, and weapons. Still, the dedicated Kingdom Hearts fan can't be underestimated. Square Enix has a Collector's Edition with soundtracks, an art book, and a big stuffed Heartless demon.

ULTIMATE NES REMIX AND NES REMIX PACK
Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS (Ultimate) / Wii U (Pack)
Release Date: December 5
Missing: Devil World
MSRP: $29.99

Many label the NES Remix series as official ROM hacking—that practices of messing with an existing game's code to humorous or useful effect. It's largely the province of fans who like to translate Japanese titles or make everyone naked in Crystalis, but NES Remix is Nintendo's attempt to put new spins on old classics. The Remix series dices up familiar NES games into minor challenges, whether they're faithful to the original or blended with other titles. You might be dropped into a Kid Icarus bonus room and forced to dodge enemies, just as you would in the regular game. You might play mirrored Super Mario Bros. levels as Luigi or guide Princess Peach to rescue herself in the last boss battle of Super Mario Bros. 3. But you'll do it all in little time-attack pieces instead of tackling the full games.

The Wii U's NES Remix Pack contains the first two Remixes, previously released as eShop titles. It runs the full gamut of NES offerings, including the Mario trilogy, The Legend of Zelda and its sequel, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Dr. Mario, Ice Hockey, Excitebike, Golf, Balloon Fight, Donkey Kong in several forms, the original Mario Bros. , Ice Climber, Wrecking Crew, Tennis, Pinball, Wario's Woods, Punch-Out! , NES Open, Kirby's Adventure, and even little-loved outliers like Clu Clu Land and Urban Champion. NES Remix 2 also has an unlockable Nintendo World Championships mode. It's not the same thing that awaited so many hopeful kids at the real NWC meets in 1990, but you can still shoot for high scores on the online rankings.

Ultimate NES Remix has the same idea. It offers only 16 of the Wii U bundle's games, but they're the more interesting ones—no Clu Clu Land here. Disappointment may arise for anyone who mistakes this for a full collection of games. After all, Nintendo wouldn't sell that for thirty bucks when they could dole out old NES titles one by one on the Virtual Console. Still, it's a new way to take on ROM hacks with Nintendo's seal of approval.


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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