Welcome back to Punished Notes, where I rattle off a bunch of random thoughts that aren’t deep or concrete enough to warrant their own blog posts. In Vol. 20, I’m trying something a little different. Included in this edition are lightning round-style notes divided into four sections: Recent AAA Releases, Nintendo Switch Online, Indies, and Random Junk. Enjoy some blathering on Halo Infinite, Forza Horizon, Star Fox 64, Sable, Dune, and more!
LIGHTNING ROUND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (AAA Edition)
-To no surprise at all, Forza Horizon 5 is a glorious driving sim, one that raises the bar for an already-excellent franchise (one that, in my view, has no bad entries). Cruising through the gorgeous beaches, deserts, and mountains of Mexico is a constant visual treat, and the wide variety of events and challenges makes for a gameplay experience with no dull moments. The showcase events may not be quite as bombastic as they were in Forza Horizon 4, but the added focus on story challenges gives the player so much more to do than simply stress over having the right care or nailing each drift. FH5 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but elevates just about everything from prior series entries and sets a new standard for racing games.
-I think one of the reasons I’m so drawn to Forza series is that I can’t legally drive myself and become stricken with intense anxiety every single time I’ve attempted to take the wheel in real life. Part of that fear probably comes from trying to learn how to drive in New York City (and not in places where having a car would actually be useful), but I’m also generally timid around any type of vehicle (I’m awful at bike-riding and have failed every attempt at skateboarding).
The Forza games (particularly Horizon) offer me all the thrills of pseudo-realistic driving without any of the stress or danger, since there are no pedestrians at risk and the driver can’t die in a collision. I can drive a Lamborghini through the desert without worrying about damaging a priceless car, and I can drift with the biggest off-road vehicles without obliterating my tires or blowing out the engine. Even the highest-stakes races in FH5 feel oddly therapeutic, as the speediest and bumpiest sojourns take place in captivating worlds full of life and beauty, where there are no negative consequences—just joy and excitement.
-The recent remaster of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is exactly how I remember the 2004 title, and not in a good way. Sure, the textures are smoother and the character models have more definition, but the game still can’t run at a consistent frame rate, the driving mechanics haven’t meaningfully improved, melee combat remains terrible, and having to hammer the A button constantly to run continues to be a grating endeavor. The upgraded shooting controls are nice, and the story and world remain compelling, but what was the point of remastering these games if the experience wasn’t really improved much?
–Halo Infinite’s multiplayer beta has so far been an incredible breath of fresh air. The fluid movement, crisp gun play, and nearly seamless online connectivity have made one of the most anticipated games of the year live up to the hype. More importantly, the beta nails an essential part of what I look for in multiplayer games: Even if I’m getting totally wrecked in a match, it’s still a blast to play. I’ll reserve my larger thoughts for when the full game launches this week, but so far Halo Infinite is a definite hit, and revives a franchise that really needed a shot in the arm. (That said, the customization menu needs work and I wish I could just play Slayer).
-I returned to my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island for the first time in nearly eight months to see all the new free content, like the ability to grow crops, cook meals, build a vendor co-op, and travel to new islands with Kapp’n. Amazingly, I didn’t miss a beat: It only took me a matter of minutes to get reacquainted with the game, establish a new routine, set reasonable daily goals, and enjoy my peaceful island life again. Everything feels just as pleasant as ever, and the new content really underscores just how lovely and engaging this game can really be.
-I’ve only played a little bit of Happy Home Paradise, the paid DLC for New Horizons, and so far it’s been a nice little treat. Sure, you don’t get an actual grade for each vacation house you decorate, and the lack of a strong set of goals and rewards may make everything seem pointless, but helping cute little animal people have the vacation home of their dreams is a delightful endeavor in its own right.
-The hype around Back 4 Blood has been puzzling to me. It’s a perfectly cromulent zombie shooter, and I know people love the Left 4 Dead series. But is this really what everyone wanted so badly? Is there an inherent brilliance in just shooting endless hordes of zombies that I’m missing? Don’t we have enough games like that (Days Gone, State of Decay, Dead Rising)?
LIGHTNING ROUND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (NSO Edition)
-Let me get this out of the way: $50 a year for Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack—which includes the Happy Home Paradise DLC, a collection of Nintendo 64 games, and a collection of Sega Genesis games—is not an ideal price point. The emulation quality of some N64 games has been subpar to say the least, there aren’t that many games available for either console yet, and you can’t remap buttons at all, making some of these titles extra challenging to play.
That said, we’re talking about a $30 per year bump from the standard NSO price. This is the equivalent of buying a Diet Coke at a restaurant instead of a corner store: Yes, it’s more expensive, but if you’re at the restaurant and you want a Diet Coke, you’ll pay for it. I want to play N64 games on Switch, and I’m not going to get bent out of shape over the cost. $50 over the course of a year, in real world terms, is not a lot of money, and it’s weird to see people react as though it is.
-Looking at the actual game selection on the service, the N64 title that seems to have aged the best by far is Star Fox 64. I’m not saying it’s my favorite N64 game, but it plays like it could have come out yesterday. The controls and general layout of each level remain silky-smooth, and the consistent frame rate keeps the action moving at just the right pace. It’s incredible that this game is nearly 25 years old.
-I obviously replayed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Switch, and surprise: It’s still the greatest game ever made. The world, characters, and story remain enchanting and heartbreaking, the dungeons teem with clever puzzles and delightful mystery, and the synergy of gameplay and narrative remains extremely tight. I definitely noticed more of the game’s flaws in this replay (particularly the wonky camera, firmly inverted aiming, and at-times awkward swordplay), but I still love Ocarina of Time to death. I will never adore any game quite the same way.
-Other titles on the N64 side of the service, including Mario Tennis, Mario Kart 64, and Dr. Mario 64, also hold up fairly well, but that’s not all that surprising.
-Looking at the Genesis collection, I’m blown away at how much I’m enjoying Contra: Hard Corps. The gameplay is thrilling, sharp, and extremely challenging. And yes, I’m not afraid to admit I’ve been using NSO’s rewind feature liberally for this one.
LIGHTNING ROUND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Indie Game Edition)
–The Artful Escape serves as a terrific example of how a game can tell a linear, on-rails story without neglecting the player’s wishes to express themselves. The ability to choose whether to shred on your effervescent guitar while advancing through various colorful locales underscores the title’s focus on creating one’s own destiny and purpose.
–Sable’s world oozes with charm, and its story about earning one’s identity warms the heart. That said, I just didn’t find much of the actual gameplay experience particularly compelling. Though the art style is visually stunning, the limited color palette makes everything feel repetitive, and the scarcity of verbs outside of travel and speech means boredom lurks around every corner. I respect and admire Shedworks’ attempt at tapping into the best parts off Breath of the Wild’s exploration and at creating a unique presentation, but the overall experience felt lacking.
–Rain On Your Parade is one of the more surprisingly fun experiences of 2021. In this delightful indie, you play as a rain cloud tasked with wreaking havoc in various scenarios using weather patterns. The levels start out as pretty plain challenges (e.g., ruin somebody’s outdoor wedding) and evolve into using your various abilities to start a zombie apocalypse or take down evil sun-like creatures in a Doom knock-off. Rain On Your Parade is this year’s Untitled Goose Game—i.e., the creative, funny, and charming indie that allows the player to have fun making everyone’s day worse.
LIGHTNING ROUND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Random Junk Edition)
-I started reading Dune after watching the recent Denis Villeneuve film adaptation (which is great, by the way), and I’m starting to understand why this story is so incredibly difficult to translate into another medium (and why David Lynch’s 1984 attempt failed so hard). The book does not concern itself with the power of surprises (meaning certain events are “spoiled” for the reader before they actually occur), and each chapter focuses heavily on the internal thoughts and musings of the characters. Modern cinema struggles with both of these ideas, which is why I understand (and largely support) the recent film’s edits to the story, because otherwise it probably would have just been another flop.
–The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest movie, is a brilliant love letter to magazine journalism, the artistic nature of good non-fiction writing, and the power of creative storytelling. Structurally and visually, the film is Wes Anderson at his most Wes Anderson, so if you’re into that, you’ll like it; if you’re not, you probably won’t.
-We currently live in a media-consuming environment where hype (and contempt) for a piece of popular media can reach astronomical levels so quickly that it can be difficult to discern what’s actually good from what’s just popular. That said, I can safely confirm that Ted Lasso and Squid Game are both great shows that (mostly) live up to the massive following they’ve drawn. They’re not The Queen’s Gambit or Tiger King, or any other vapid nonsense whose popularity outpaced its quality.
-Despite what a certain founder of this very site may think, Succession remains the best show on television and the deliberately slow pace of season 3 perfectly highlights the series’ strengths in character building, creating tension, and exposing the inherent absurdity of wealth and power. (Founder’s Note: In fairness! I watched S3E6 last night, and I’ll admit… show’s still got it.)