Watch out for FLUDD.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Tapestry, Captain Jean-Luc Picard seemingly dies due to having his artificial heart damaged. After his apparent demise, the omnipotent trickster Q gives him the chance to go back in time and stop his brash younger self from getting into the fight which results in him having to get an artificial heart. Picard succeeds, but finds that once he has returned to the present he is no longer captain, but instead an assistant astrophysics officer who holds the lowly rank of Junior Lieutenant. After some investigation, he discovers that by preventing himself from risking his life during the fight in his past that resulted in a near death experience, he never learned to appreciate the fragility of life and take any risks. He isn’t a failure and he isn’t dead, but he’s been reduced to a timid crewmember who stays in the background and doesn’t take any risks. If you’re wondering why I’m talking about an episode of Star Trek during a game review, it’s because Picard in this episode perfectly encapsulates what this game is; It plays fine and isn’t bad by any means, but it doesn’t do anything interesting or new. It just kind of “exists”.
In this game, you indirectly control “Minis”, toy versions of Mario and Co, in a manner similar to the classic puzzle game Lemmings. Using the stylus to build and remove blocks, girders, elevators, pipes, and many other objects, you must guide a certain number of Minis to a level’s exit at the same time, all while trying to collect coins and avoid death along the way. Aside from a few varieties of “Kong”, the enemies in the game are all taken from other Mario games. Despite there being a decent assortment of them, the enemy selection still feels shallow, with a lack of true variety in behavior and function between them. This installment marks a return to operating on an entirely 2D plain, in contrast to its direct predecessor Minis on the Move, which operated on a 3D playing field.
Progression between levels is fairly basic. Tipping Stars is divided into 8 worlds, each featuring 8 levels. Each world introduces a new mechanic in its first level, then over the course of the world mixes it in with previous mechanics, getting you good enough at them to beat the last few levels of a world that require more advanced use of the world’s signature mechanic. Instead of boss battles, the last two levels of the world feature always feature two specific styles. The 7th level features a Mini-Mario holding a key that you have to use to unlock the end-level door first before any other Minis can exit a level. The 8th level has one of the Mini-Marios get possessed by a bizarre mechanical ape, turning it into a foe that will kill any other minis on contact until you’re able to free it using a hammer.
In theory, this all sounds like Good Game Design 101, but the 100% by-the-book level and difficulty progression is a double-edged sword. Nothing stands out as interesting or innovative. This same principle applies to the audio and visuals as well. The Minis and their surroundings are certainly cute, but none of it makes an impression on you. The audio is mainly toybox-style versions of songs from both other Mario games and other Donkey Kong games. Again, these are cute, but nothing you’ll feel the urge to listen to when not playing the game. This all adds up to a game that’s a Junior Lieutenant instead of a Starship Captain.
While the core gameplay is all quite generic, the Tipping Stars does have two distinct features to its name. The first is that it’s the first worldwide cross-buy game from Nintendo on Wii U and 3DS, meaning that purchasing the game on one system lets you download it for free on the other using your Nintendo network ID. The other is the game’s online “tipping” system that lets you tip stars the creators of levels made in the game’s level editor that they have shared. Level editors and online sharing are nothing new to the series, but the titular tipping system is a fresh addition.
When you play a level either in the main game campaign or online, you can earn up to three stars based on your performance. These stars can then be spent on unlocking new parts and pieces for the game’s level editor. The level editor is compentent and easy to use, making level creation quick and simple. Every level in the game’s main campaign can be made using the level editor, so nothing is held back for “developers only”. The caveat is that the total cost of everything within the level editor shop far outweighs the number of stars earnable through just the pre-included game levels. This means that to get everything, you’ll have to both play and post levels online.
You earn one star for each time someone plays your level, and they can also choose to tip you a certain number of stars if they thought your level was well designed. Tipping is encouraged by rewarding players with stamps to use in Miiverse for being generous tippers. Unfortunately, as with other games that have unlockable stamps, they can only be used within their native game instead of being unlocked for general Miiverse use. While I would like to see these stamps be usable for any Miiverse post, the overall idea and structure of the tipping system is surprisingly well-implemented. It gives players added motivation to participate in and explore the online community of the game and promotes a friendly atmosphere. I had fun messing around with other people’s levels and trying to make challenging ones to put out online. One of my levels, titled “Think Fast!”, has been sitting pretty as one of the levels that shows up when you search out “popular” levels.
When I first played the GBA game Mario vs Donkey Kong a few years ago, I was surprised by how much fun it was. It wasn’t something I personally expected to be good, but now I’d consider it an underrated classic. It made an impression on me. While it’s a fun little distraction, Tipping Stars has not left an impression on me the way its predecessor did. The game isn’t bad, and if you’ve run out of puzzle games in your library and are hungry for more to satiate your appetite, this game will certainly tide you over for a bit. However, the only things that even remotely stand out about this game are the cross-buy and tipping features. While I don’t regret playing this game and did have some fun with the level editor and online community, I wish I could see the timeline where this game became a daring Captain instead of a settling for inoffensiveness.