Six years ago I bought into the hype and backed Unsung Story, then touted as a spiritual sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics. I loved the latter title for its gameplay, music and character designs — especially Agrias, as I have a thing for women in plate armor — and I hope that maybe this might capture some of those old feelings. With people like Jason Schreier hyping it up, I felt like it wasn’t a bad place to throw my $20 at the time.
How wrong I was. The anticipated release date slipped rather quickly, but that didn’t bother me much — after all, the same happened with Broken Age, which ultimately turned out fine. Where things started to go sideways was when then-developer Playdek attempted to pivot the title into a PvP battle arena game, a far cry from what I and many others had backed. It was ultimately a relief when Playdek announced they were out of money, though upsetting that I and many other backers may never see a return on our pledges.
The project was eventually picked up by a developer Little Orbit in 2017, who were upfront about the fact that the money was gone, as were many assets from the Playdek years. The company started mostly from scratch, but attempted to fulfill the original vision for the game, drawing from the original design documents from FFT designer Yasumi Matsuno.
After playing the game’s recent build for backers though, it is… not what I expected. Little Orbit went for a glum Western art style instead of the anime aesthetic that was so charming in Final Fantasy Tactics. However, I figured, since I hadn’t bothered to keep up with the project and besides, this is better than the big fat nothing I previously had. I started up a new game and went through the character creator, annoyed that this early version only allowed male-bodied avatars. It still seemed fairly robust in terms of skin tones and hair, and I poked at it for a few minutes before realizing I really didn’t care what I looked like in the game, I just wanted to know how it played.
Honestly, I still don’t know. After the character creator, the game just crashed on me. I reopened the program, hit continue and got to watch a narratively-dense cutscene that my machine struggled to render before failing once again. And so it has been every time I’ve loaded the game — even when I skip the intro scene, the game crashes. I’ll just have to keep waiting for a build my laptop can handle.
So, let’s talk about Mario Party instead.
Yes, Mario Party. I hear you groaning from here. I’m not a huge fan but, when someone says “hey let’s spend the next hour playing this incredibly capricious and nonsensical board game,” I don’t object. I just pick my character — usually a princess, which is probably one of the few times I’d pick an overtly girly avatar — and just let it happen. Because after all, the points don’t matter in Mario Party. Dead last? Here, have a star!
I probably haven’t played a Mario Party title in close to a decade, skipping the Wii U installment entirely — but it hasn’t really changed much with 2018’s Super Mario Party for the Switch. Or at least, not in concept. There are plenty of bells and whistles added, and it’s certainly a nicer-looking game now. But the core of “here’s a bunch of weird mini games and maybe if you’re lucky with your dice rolls you’ll get a star” is still there. I was a bit drunk when I played (safely) with friends, and checked out rather quickly, to the tune of “I’m going to land on the bad luck space on purpose.” I lost a bunch of coins and I didn’t care. I was just in it for the camaraderie.
The games we played were a mix of familiar and new — there was one where I had to draw shapes in cooperation with another player using a piece of string on a peg board, and another where I was piloting a pod that the other players shot darts at. But the last we played was the best, and I’m seriously wishing it was an entire separate game: Slaparazzi.
In this mini game, all of the players are inside a ring surrounded by small stools upon which Koopas will randomly climb up on to snap a photo. Your objective is to be the subject of these pics, by getting as up front and center as you can, slapping the other players out of the way in the process. The game will show you each photo as it is taken and score you on your placement in the frame.
The photos are hilarious. They’re never good by conventional standards, with characters blocked off or blurry or caught at awkward angles. But it’s those awkward angles, the players caught mid-slap or being slapped, that make the entire thing a delight to behold. It’s just wonderfully trashy in the way that reality shows and tabloids can be, and it turns out I am very, very good at knocking people out of the way to vamp for the camera. It was the only mini game I won the entire time my friends and I played.
I’ve always loved the photography mode in games like Spider-Man and Final Fantasy XV, so of course I loved Slaparazzi. And as you can imagine, the reboot of Pokémon Snap for the Switch can’t come soon enough for me.
Except of course, this is the year where I learned to wait. I can wait for a new Snap, and for Unsung Story to get out of alphas and betas into something more finished, for the right mini game in Super Mario Party, for Cyberpunk 2077 to work out its issues and for spring to come around again in Animal Crossing to catch the fish I’m missing. Earlier this week I wrote about how 2020 was the year of the casual gamer, and these two titles — Unsung Story and Super Mario Party — have shown me it’s not just the games that are casual, but me as well.