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Masterpiece: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island



Update, Sept. 6, 2020: It’s Labor Day Weekend in the US, and even though most of us now also call home “the office,” Ars staff is taking a long weekend to rest and relax. For many, that includes gaming on titles new and old. We planned on resurfacing a few pieces from the archives to keep the lights on over a holiday, so it seemed only right to select one honoring an all-time classic that turns 25 this year. Our Masterpiece essay on Yoshi’s Island originally ran in September 2012 and it appears unchanged below.

Back in 1995, I thought I knew what a Mario game was. Running left to right (or maybe down to up). Jumping on things. Eating mushrooms to get big. Flying, sometimes. You know the drill. Then Yoshi’s Island came along and showed that Mario games could be about a lot more than that.

Yeah, you were still running through levels and jumping on things, but the myriad ways Yoshi’s Island expanded on the Mario formula made it feel like an entirely new game. Yoshi went from an occasional helper in Super Mario World to a permanently controllable character in Yoshi’s Island, tasked with protecting a near-helpless Baby Mario riding on his back. Yoshi’s oversized tongue let players slurp up enemies and transform them into projectile eggs that could be fired in any direction. What used to be a run-and-jump series was now run-and-jump-and-slurp-and-shoot game, and the Yoshi’s Island designers built levels that catered to these new abilities wonderfully.

But the true key to Yoshi’s Island‘s appeal, to me, is the flutter jump. If you continue to hold the jump button after the peak of Yoshi’s arc, he’ll kick his feet in the air to first slow his descent and then start floating upward again, achieving a new, slightly higher peak. If you have enough elevation, you can flutter multiple times before eventually floating to the ground. This new feature added a crucial, extra bit of post-jump precision to the standard Mario jump, and allowed for a lot of platforming challenges that required mid-air direction changes or extra-long flutter leaps. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never played Yoshi’s Island just how right it feels to trace a series of gentle, perfect curves through the air with a well-timed executed series of flutter jumps.

Gameplay footage from this stone cold classic.

Then there’s the way the game looks. Mario games have always been bright and colorful, but Yoshi’s Island brought a hand-drawn aesthetic that really captured the game’s sense of childlike wonder. From the gentle pastel backgrounds to the stark black outlines of the primary-colored characters and enemies, there’s the slightest bit of imperfect sloppiness to the visual design that evokes a grade schooler’s dream world more than a pixelated game system.

A lot of people don’t realize that the 2D sprites in Yoshi’s Island were backed up by a version of the polygon-pushing Super FX chip—the same one that powered early 3D SNES games like Star Fox and Stunt Race FX. This allowed for massive bosses that could stretch, rotate and move with a smoothness that was unknown in games at the time, but also provide subtler effects like the way Yoshi’s head compresses a little bit when he bonks it against the ceiling. The Super FX powered character animation carries a level of detail that makes the characters seem much more lively than the keyframe animation of previous Mario games.

Avoiding enemies is still important in Yoshi’s Island, but getting hit one or two times usually isn’t an instant death, as in previous Mario games. Instead, you can just quickly recapture the floating Baby Mario and continue on with the level. It’s an important change for a game that marks a transition point of sorts from the simpler “get to the end without dying” Mario games that came before to titles that focused more on exploration and secondary goals.

Yoshi’s Island doesn’t have a time limit, allowing players to search out the five giant flowers and 20 hidden red coins in each level to their heart’s content. Finding these bonuses isn’t necessary to beat the game, but searching out a perfect score on each level provides a great excuse to go back and really absorb all the nooks and crannies of the excellent, puzzle- and secret-filled level design. Plus, finding all the secrets on each level unlocked a series of six extra-hard bonus stages. You know a game is good when you’re excited that the reward for playing well is that you get more levels to play.

That’s because every new level in Yoshi’s Island showed more originality and imagination than the entirety of many other platform games of the day. There are enemy monkeys that spit watermelon seeds at Yoshi and try to run off with Baby Mario. There are giant, screen-filling Chain Chomps that try to chase Yoshi down (before inevitably falling and chipping a tooth on a cement block). There are items to transform Yoshi into vehicles ranging from a helicopter to a submarine. There’s a spike-proof dog that serves as a barely controllable transport. There’s the infamous level where Yoshi gets high (sorry, “dizzy”) by inhaling floating spores. You never know what to expect when you unlock a new level in Yoshi’s Island, and that expectation of new content keeps you going at least as much as anything else.

The magic of Yoshi’s Island has proven hard to recapture. I’ll never forget the feeling of disappointment I felt when I bought Yoshi’s Story on the N64 only to realize it was a pale, simplified shadow of the game that inspired it. Years later, Yoshi’s Island DS did its best to expand on the SNES classic, but everything from the controls to the level design just felt the tiniest bit off. The Game Boy Advance rerelease of the original Yoshi’s Island might just be the quintessential version of the game, featuring six new unlockable stages that feel perfectly integrated into the larger whole.

The radical experimentation of Yoshi’s Island holds up amazingly well even nearly two decades after its first release, and stands as a testament to how even the most well-known and beloved series can be tweaked and expanded successfully.

Previous Masterpiece articles

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Blizzard offers refund for nerfed $25 Hearthstone card



Enlarge / Shine bright like a diamond.

Last month, Hearthstone broke a long-standing precedent by selling a single cosmetic card upgrade for a whopping $25 (or a similar amount of in-game currency). Now that the expensive card’s power level is being scaled back, Blizzard is offering a generous refund to players who made that purchase—and it’s letting them keep the ultra-rare card, to boot.

Drek’Thar has been an extremely popular Hearthstone card since its release in December alongside the Fractured in Alterac Valley set. Thanks to the card’s ability to draw and summon two minions from your deck whenever cast (if your deck is constructed correctly), Drek’Thar was showing up in upward of 20 percent of all competitive decks this month, according to statistics, and decks with the card were winning more than 60 percent of the time.

A diamond is forever

For months, Hearthstone players could find a Legendary Drek’Thar in regular packs, craft a copy by using in-game dust gained from excess cards, or earn a “free” Golden copy by completing various in-game quests. Starting April 5, though, Blizzard added a way to obtain a new version of Drek’Thar: pay $25 (or 3,000 in-game gold) to purchase an ultra-rare “Diamond” upgrade.

Diamond cards were first introduced in a late-March Hearthstone update as a purely cosmetic modification to existing cards. The ultra-rare Diamond versions, which come complete with custom animations, are targeted at hardcore collectors who want to show off the rarest and prettiest versions of their cards.

For the most part, players could obtain Diamond cards by completing quests on the game’s Tavern Pass Reward Track or by collecting full sets of other Legendary rarity cards. Drek’Thar was the exception, though; the only way to get the Diamond version of that card was to buy it with in-game gold or cold, hard cash during his April sales window.

Many players weren’t happy about that sales tactic, as exemplified by a popular Reddit thread full of complaints about perceived greed on Blizzard’s part. “It’d be one thing if you’d get multiple diamond cards, but for a single card, it is not even close enough to be worth 25 USD,” user prplehuskie13 wrote in a representative comment.

Sorry for the nerf—have some gold

Fast forward to Thursday, when Blizzard’s Hearthstone update 23.2.2 scaled back Drek’Thar’s in-game power level. Now, instead of summoning two additional minions, the card only summons one when cast. The change has led to an immediate reduction in Drek’Thar’s usage and win rates, according to HSReplay.

These kinds of nerfs are pretty common when a card becomes too dominant in the Hearthstone metagame. And when they happen, Blizzard offers affected players refunds in the form of in-game dust that can be used to craft other cards (while also letting players keep the newly nerfed cards in their collection).

For players who spent money on Diamond Drek’Thar, though, Blizzard is going the extra mile with its refund. “Any players who own Diamond Drek’Thar at the time that the patch goes live will automatically receive 3,000 Gold when they log in as a refund,” the company wrote.

That’s enough gold to buy 30 packs of cards, which would usually cost $35 to $40 if purchased in various bundles. And that refund is on top of the nerfed Diamond Drek’Thar itself, which players will get to keep as evidence of their conspicuous digital consumption.

While Blizzard stopped short of giving actual money back to players who spent $25 for a Diamond Drek’Thar, the in-game gold is a pretty generous bonus for those who made the investment. And who knows—maybe it will make those Hearthstone whales even more willing to throw money down on a single cosmetic card upgrade in the future.

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A time paradox births a “freaking Kugelblitz” in Umbrella Academy S3 trailer



The third season of The Umbrella Academy will debut in June on Netflix.

The Hargreeves siblings return to 2019 only to find themselves caught in an alternate timeline where they were never adopted by their wealthy father in the official trailer for The Umbrella Academy S3. Instead, they must confront their alt-timeline counterparts, the Sparrow Academy, and ward off yet another apocalypse as they try, once again, to return home.

(Spoilers for first two seasons below.)

For those unfamiliar with the premise, in S1, billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven children out of 43 mysteriously born in 1989 to random women who had not been pregnant the day before. The children were raised at Hargreeves’ Umbrella Academy, with the help of a robot “mother” named Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins) and became a family of superheroes with special powers. But it was a dysfunctional arrangement, marred by the tragic death of one of the children, and the family members ultimately disbanded, only reuniting as adults when Hargreeves died. They soon learned that they had to team up to prevent a global apocalypse.

As I’ve written previously, S1 ended on a cliffhanger, after Vanya (Elliot Page) rediscovered his powers and destroyed the Moon with the acoustic energy he accumulated playing the violin in a concert at the Icarus Theater. As the Moon’s fragments rained down on Earth, marking the start of the apocalypse, Five (Aidan Gallagher) offered to bring his siblings back with him in time so they could once again try to avert the destruction of the world. The S1 finale ended with the group’s time jump.

Enlarge / (l-r) Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Viktor (Elliott Page), Luther (Tom Hopper), Five (Aidan Gallagher), Diego (David Castaneda), and Klaus (Robert Sheehan) returned to an altered timeline in 2019.


But that jump didn’t go smoothly. The siblings landed in the early 1960s, but they all arrived at different times between 1960 and October 1963 in Dallas. Five landed on November 25, 1963, just in time to witness nuclear annihilation linked to the fact that history had been altered when the assassination of President John F. Kennedy did not occur. Five managed to travel back to 10 days before the nuclear apocalypse and track down the separated siblings, all of whom had built new lives for themselves.

The Umbrella Academy had to figure out how to avert the apocalypse while negotiating a deal with the Handler (Kate Walsh), head of the Commission, so they could return to their original timeline. They were also being pursued by a trio of Swedish assassins determined to wipe them out. And we learned that their adoptive father, Reginald Hargreeves, was actually an interdimensional being with some pretty devastating super powers of his own.

The siblings ultimately managed to travel back to 2019, only to find that the timeline had been altered. Hargreeves was still alive in this timeline and had adopted five different “gifted” children who made up the Sparrow Academy—one of whom was their deceased sibling Ben (Justin H. Min), who appeared in the first two seasons as a ghost who could only communicate through Klaus (Robert Sheehan). In the new timeline, Ben is very much alive and remembers nothing about the Umbrella Academy or his original siblings.

Their dead sibling Ben (Justin H. Min) is very much alive in this timeline and part of the rival Sparrow Academy.
Enlarge / Their dead sibling Ben (Justin H. Min) is very much alive in this timeline and part of the rival Sparrow Academy.


That’s quite a setup for S3. Per the official premise:

After putting a stop to 1963’s doomsday, the Umbrella Academy return home to the present, convinced they prevented the initial apocalypse and fixed this godforsaken timeline once and for all. But after a brief moment of celebration, they realize things aren’t exactly (okay, not at all) how they left them. Enter the Sparrow Academy. Smart, stylish, and about as warm as a sea of icebergs, the Sparrows immediately clash with the Umbrellas in a violent face-off that turns out to be the least of everyone’s concerns. Navigating challenges, losses, and surprises of their own—and dealing with an unidentified destructive entity wreaking havoc in the Universe (something they may have caused)—now all they need to do is convince Dad’s new and possibly better family to help them put right what their arrival made wrong. Will they find a way back to their pre-apocalyptic lives? Or is this new world about to reveal more than just a hiccup in the timeline?

We know that Vanya will come out as a transgender man, Viktor, in S3, mirroring Elliott Page’s own real-life transition. And it looks like Ritu Arya will be reprising her role as Lila, the late Handler’s adopted daughter (and Diego’s love interest) from 1963, who can mirror the powers of other gifted people. Ben’s fellow Sparrows in the new timeline are Marcus (Justin Cornwell), Fei (Britne Oldford), Alphonso (Jake Epstein), Sloane (Genesis Rodriguez), and Jayme (Cazzie David).

It's Pogo! The super-intelligent chimp is Reginald Hargreeve's closest assistant.
Enlarge / It’s Pogo! The super-intelligent chimp is Reginald Hargreeve’s closest assistant.


The trailer picks up where S2 left off, as the Umbrellas confront Reginald, who insists they don’t belong there, leading to the reveal of the Sparrows and Ben. “When we jumped here we created a time paradox,” Five explains. “Our little paradox brought forth the freaking Kugelblitz.” In physics, a kugelblitz is a black hole formed from radiation rather than matter. In the series, the Kugelblitz is a glowing cube that seems to be some kind of powerful weapon. It might just be turning into a black hole (if it isn’t one already), since it seems the paradox is swallowing everything up. That’s right, we’ve got another looming apocalypse on our hands, and only four or five days to save the world.

It’s good to see that the wry humor that raised S2 above its rather more dour freshman outing is intact. There’s the inevitable battle between Umbrellas and Sparrows, but perhaps they’ll decide to combine their gifts and work together, because apocalypse. There’s a great scene where Viktor tells Marcus that he’s not better than him. “I ended the world twice,” Viktor says. “And you? You’re just meat and spandex.” Burn!

Could this be an alt-timeline take on the comics' Hotel Oblivion?
Enlarge / Could this be an alt-timeline take on the comics’ Hotel Oblivion?


We might meet the alternate versions of the Umbrellas in this new timeline, since even though they weren’t adopted by Hargreeves, they should still exist. And what should our originals do when they meet those other selves? Diego wants to kill that self, and Klaus wants to sleep with his counterpart. (“Oh, come on, as if you wouldn’t climb Luther Mountain,” he says when Luther objects.) Avoidance is the wisest course of action, which probably means nobody will take it.

And is that the Hotel Oblivion making an unexpected appearance, renamed the Hotel Obsidian? In the comics, the hotel is a tower on another planet, built by Hargreeves, that serves as a prison for all the criminals captured by the Umbrella Academy. It’s briefly mentioned in The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite and plays a major role in 2019’s The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion, in which a supervillain named Perseus X breaks out all the prisoners in 1980. We’ll have to see how much, if any, of this storyline will find its way into the series—it doesn’t look like the hotel is on another planet, and the name has been changed—but its presence here in an alternate timeline is intriguing.

The third season of The Umbrella Academy drops on Netflix on June 22, 2022.

Listing image by YouTube/Netflix

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Multiversus hands-on: Finally, a compelling Smash Bros. clone



Enlarge / Yes, we’re as surprised by this game being good (at least in its closed alpha state) as you are.

Warner Bros. Games

Starting today, Warner Bros. Games is taking the formal veil off its worst-kept video game secret in years: Multiversus. When we saw the leaks about this upcoming free-to-play PC and console game, which stars various WB and Time Warner intellectual property in a cartoony, Smash Bros.-style arena fighter, we had our reservations. Was WB seriously trying to compete with Nintendo’s biggest fighting game by pitting Arya Stark against… Shaggy from Scooby-Doo? Whose dream cartoon face-off is that?

A few days ago, WB invited us to go hands-on to see for ourselves what the game is like ahead of today’s launch of a closed alpha test to address those kinds of questions and more. So far, we’ve come away impressed and surprised. In a world that didn’t necessarily need another Smash Bros. clone, the devs at Player First Games have seemingly cracked the code—and made something that could neatly coexist with Nintendo’s massive hit, if not surpass it. (Even better, at first blush, the F2P stuff seems tolerable!)

Less blocking, more cooperating

Just a normal, everyday mash-up of WB intellectual property.
Enlarge / Just a normal, everyday mash-up of WB intellectual property.

WB Games

Most of the “arena fighter” genre basics, as established by Smash Bros., are accounted for in WB’s latest fighting game. Instead of wearing down an energy bar à la Street Fighter, Multiversus players try to “ring out” their foes by racking up damage and setting up knockout blows. Movement is pretty Super Mario-like in terms of dashing and jumping between floating platforms, and players have a range of basic and special attacks that don’t require complex joystick and button combos.

Reindog, the "brand-new" character who joins a bunch of familiar WB faces in <em>Multiversus</em>, can use its tether to not only boost allies but also yank them back to safety. If you can imagine jumping off-screen to punish a foe in crazy fashion, then having your ally yank you back, you can begin imagining where <em>Multiversus</em>' co-op appeal begins to shine.
Enlarge / Reindog, the “brand-new” character who joins a bunch of familiar WB faces in Multiversus, can use its tether to not only boost allies but also yank them back to safety. If you can imagine jumping off-screen to punish a foe in crazy fashion, then having your ally yank you back, you can begin imagining where Multiversus‘ co-op appeal begins to shine.

WB Games

The biggest differences in Multiversus come from the game’s focus on two-on-two fighting, as opposed to the one-on-one and free-for-all combat traditionally seen in Smash clones. Most of Multiversus‘ current cast members have at least one maneuver in their arsenal that will benefit a teammate, though these moves also function as fine solo-combat options if you don’t team up with someone. Wonder Woman can generate a shield for allies; Garnet from Steven Universe can throw a bolt that both harms foes and boosts allies; while a new game-specific creature dubbed Reindog can fake like the Medic from Team Fortress 2 and connect a power-boosting line to a teammate.

The rest of the game’s mechanics have been shifted from the Smash Bros. archetype to nudge players into using their special co-op powers. For one, shields don’t exist; you can’t stand back and hold a shield button down to block incoming projectiles, and you can’t tap a “perfect block” at the right time to counter a melee attack. Any team that has a defensive or shielding ability available will want to lean on that to some extent. A default “grab” button doesn’t exist in this game, either; certain characters have grabs as special abilities instead.

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