Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Games You Missed #514 - Terra Phantastica

Terra Phantastica is a strategy RPG created by Sega in 1996 for Saturn. It's similar in style to Tactics Ogre and other such knock-offs. Funny how there was a glut of these titles on the Gameboy Advance a few years ago, yet when the genre was still new and Sega had the 32-bit playfield all to themseves, they let this one pass.

And Sega declined to release this game in the US why?! You'd think by 1996 they would have realized the folly of competing with Sony directly, and instead play to the Saturn's strengths. Today, I think that would be recognized as a sound strategy. Games like this were all but abandoned in the 32-bit era, but there were many gamers still eager to continue the old ways. Surely these can't be seen as simple or childish graphics.

I can't tell you what the game plays like just yet; I still have to burn it on a disc and try it out. But I was lucky enough to find these excellent screenshots from an ancient (1996) website. I'll definitely have to give Terra Phantastica a try.

My Saturn List - Memorial Day Edition

Let's take a quick look at what games I have on my Saturn right now. Hopefully this list will help you on your own treasure hunting, and maybe you'll see a couple games that are new to you.

Normal Games:

Daytona USA
Grid Runner
NHL Powerplay '96
Panzer Dragoon Trilogy
Pebble Beach Golf Links
Sega Rally Championship
Steep Slope Sliders
Virtua Cop
Virtua Fighter 2
World Series Baseball '98
Worldwide Soccer: Victory Goal
Worldwide Soccer '97

US Games (cd-r):

Albert Odyssey
Baku Baku Animal
Burning Rangers
Bust a Move 3
Christmas NiGHTS
Darius Gaiden
Dark Savior
Dragon Force
Duke Nukem 3D
Fighters Megamix
Fighting Vipers
Galactic Attack
Guardian Heroes
In the Hunt
Iron Storm
House of the Dead
Last Bronx
Last Gladiators Digital Pinball
Legend of Oasis
Magic Knight Rayearth
Marvel Super Heroes
Mass Destruction
NiGHTS: Into Dreams
Nightstalkers: Darkwarriors Revenge
Resident Evil
Saturn Bomberman
Sega Ages
Sega Touring Car Championship
Shining Force 3
Shining Wisdom
Sky Target
Slam 'N Jam '96
Street Fighter Alpha 2
Tempest 2000
Three Dirty Dwarves
Tomb Raider
Winter Heat
Virtua Cop 2
Virtua Fighter Kids
Virtual On
XMen: Children of the Atom

Japanese Games (cd-r):

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Dead or Alive - fighting (no music)
Final Fight Revenge (4M) - fighting
Keio Flying Squadron 2 - action/shmup (scrambled music)
Monster Slider - puzzle
Radiant Silvergun - shmup
Silhouette Mirage - action (scrambled music)
Soukyugurentai - shmup
Strikers 1945 II - shmup
Super Puzzle Fighter 2X - puzzle
Thunder Force 5 - shmup
Touge King of Spirits 2 - racing (scrambled music)
Waku Waku Puyo Puyo Dungeon - action/rpg

Unreleased Games:

Return Fire - capture-the-flag

Looking at the games in the Saturn library, it's easy to see just what the American bosses like Bernie Stolar had in mind for "what would sell." And it's astonishing that so many great titles were rebuffed, only because they were "too Japanese" - a euphemism that really means, "not manly and macho enough." Whatever.

Saturn Swap Trick Demonstrated

Thank goodness for YouTube. This should give you a good idea of how to swap on Saturn. It's not that hard once you get the hang of it. Still a bit of a pain, though, but it's a free option. Enjoy.

Quick Sega Saturn Users' Guide

Okay, kids, what's the deal here? It's the year 2007, and I go out and pay good money - money better spent on vinyl records - on a videogames system from 1994. Aside from nostalgia, you may be wondering just why I chose Sega Saturn over, well, everything else. Or, maybe you're thinking of getting one yourself, and wondering what to do with it.

Well, I have a lot of reasons for getting a Saturn, and the top ones come down to some pretty simple words.

Internet. Imports. Swap Trick.

Am I getting through to you, Mister Beale? See the connection?

With some software on your PC, you can start downloading and burning Saturn games and play them immediately. You grab all those favorites from years ago, maybe some that you missed here and there. And then you start on the imports. That's where the real gold lies. There are so many great Saturn game in Japan, you'd have to wonder of Bernie Stolar, the man in charge of Sega of America's operations during the Saturn era, wasn't still on Sony's payroll. There has to be a conspiracy somewhere.

So here's what you need on your computer. This is just what I use, and everything can be found easily from various websites. Racketboy is especially useful. Go there.

Nero Burning Rom
Alcohol 120%
Bin2Iso (.bin to .iso)
MP32Wav (.mp3 to .wav)
Oggdrop XP (.ogg to .wav)
Sega Cue Maker
Saturn Region Patcher
Pro Action Replay

Again, this is just what's on my PC. First thing to do is to unscrew your Saturn, pop the lid, and find that part that the top door connects to. It's a little lever that tells the Saturn when the lid's open or closed. All you have to do is tape that lever shut with some masking tape. Now you can keep your lid open without any problems. Understand? Good. Put everything back together and put the screws back.

What this does is enable what's called the Swap Trick. This is so you can play CD-R's on your Saturn. Here's what happens. Put in a CD-R and turn on the power. After a few seconds, the laser eye will shoot over to the edge of the disk. It makes a loud sound - SKRRRRK!!

When you hear that sound, pop out your disk and replace it with a normal Saturn game disk. I'm using Virtua Fighter 2 because it's handy. The Saturn will click and whirl for a few seconds, and then the laser eye moves a second time - SKRRRRK!!

Swap the disks again, putting the CD-R back in. If you time it right, the game will run. Congrats! Now, don't be discouraged if this doesn't work the first time. The Saturn is very picky about this, so the timing is pretty precise. You may have to switch the power off and try again a few times before the game runs. Just be patient. Everything works fine.

Except for all of those coasters you'll burn trying to get the damned games to work. Dammit.

Like I've said before, imports are where the real Saturn action is. Radiant Silvergun, Silhouette Mirage, Soukyugurentai, Grandia, Symphony of the Night - those are only the most obvious finds. You'll find lots, lots more, especially if you're a fan of 2D games and shmups. And why would you bother with Saturn if you weren't? Needless to say, Saturn is the finest 2D games console ever made.

You use the Saturn Region Patcher to change the region on the Japanese or European games, and burn those in Alcohol 120%. You can use Nero for American games, but the funny thing is that Nero thinks your region patch is a problem - and removes it. Nice, jerk. So you have to use Alcohol for that.

Oh, and did you know some folks rip Saturn games and turn the music files into .ogg files? Did I wander into a Monty Python sketch?

If you're getting tired of swapping disks, you can get a mod chip, which runs about $30 and needs some soldering. Racketboy sells 'em. Then your CD-R's can play like any normal Saturn game.

The only other addition you'll need is a Pro Action Replay, a multi-featured cart that includes backup RAM and the 4MEG ram upgrade. You'll need that for a lot of later 2D games like Street Fighter Zero 3 and Metal Slug, yadda yadda. That runs another $25, and you can use the swap trick with it.

There ya go! You'll find lots of annoying, baffling problems down the road, but rest assured that I'm just as lost as you are. I'm adding the websites I frequent to the Links section, so be sure to visit those. And, of course, there's always Google. Happy hunting!

Powerslave on Saturn

My my my. After all the bad press (mostly deserved) about the Saturn's inability to properly handle 3D, it turns out it was the best console for First-Person Shooters. Go fig. It seems the very thing that hurt Sega - rendering polygons as quadrilaterals instead of triangles - enabled for better FPS worlds. There's a trio of excellent titles that demonstrate this wonderfully, and they all were made by the same coding team, using the same graphics engine. And that all began with Powerslave.

Powerslave (aka Exhumed) was the work of Lobotomy Software from across the pond. You can see the screenshots above, and it's a terrific looking Saturn games. In motion it's even better. Why the hell didn't I get this game back then? I think I was too skeptical of the claim that Lobotomy had finally cracked the Saturn and made it work. By then there were too many lousy, sloppy, and horrible 3D Saturn titles for me to believe otherwise. Well, kids, count me wrong on that count. Powerslave is the real deal.

What amazed me the most is that the game graphics have hardly aged at all. It still looks great, even with what we have today. It's just far enough along the Doom-Duke-Quake timeline to fit in as nostalgia without showing its age. Quite a lot of the 32-bit era's games look terribly dated now, but it seems the best ones hold up admirably. And quite a number of them are Saturn games. Go figure that one out.

Lobotomy later handled the Saturn versions of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake, and the graphics are even more impressive and detailed. Thankfully these games play like a dream, too. They remind you of the good old days when an FPS could appear on a games console without any sneering and snickering in the room from PC nerds.

Wait, what am I thinking?! There's nothing but FPS' on games consoles today. FPS, EA Sports, Grand Theft Auto, and auto racing. Ugh. That's just the monotony I ran away from when I scored a Saturn. Never liked the whole GTA sex-and-guns schtick, can't stand EA Sports, and now I've got Powerslave on Saturn. At this rate, I'll never buy a new system again.

You should definitely check this game out if you ever get a chance. I understand it's even better than the Playstation version, which would be a rare victory for the black box.

Monday, May 28, 2007

High Velocity - Touge King of Spirits

Way back when I owned my first Sega Saturn - I'm on to Saturn the Third now - there was this really great racing title that practically disappeared through the cracks called High Velocity. It's the American title for a Japanese racer called, in that weirdly Japanese way, Touge King of Spirits.

Anyway, this racer was completely ignored by the prozines except for the faithful fanboys at Gamefan. It's times like this that you really appreciate what they did, in spite of all their problems. They focused endless attention of Japanese videogames that were either destined to remain there, or be translated for a Western release and immediately forgotten. For hardcore gamers, Gamefan was a valuable resource for your fix, especially when you needed something a little off the page. And that pretty sums up any Saturn fan.

High Velocity is a 1-on-1 driving game, featuring moutain and city roads around Japan. The driving took me a little to adjust too - it's a bit too much traction and not enough grease - but it was endless fun. This was also the game to turn to once you were finished killing time on Daytona and Sega Rally and Wipeout. What else was there to play for a racing fix? Nothing. It was so bad that I was forcing myself to like Time Warner's lazy rendition of Virtua Racing, and not cringing at all the developers' struggling to come to grips with Saturn's hardware.

So this game easily filled a void. I think High Velocity features some of the best polygon graphics on Saturn at the time. Everything is very solid, great variety in textures and color, and hardly any popup that I can remember. There were only 3 racetracks, which was pretty much standard in those days, but they were immensely long and varied. I can't think of another driving game wit so many hills.

That's one of the great things about 32-bit racing games. Drawing distance was a constant issue, so in order to combat the ever-present threat of pop-up, designers would create complex, swerving racetracks. This made for some great driving games. Then the technology improved, and now we're all stuck driving name-brand cars (which can't even be scratched) driving down endless straightaways. Booo-ring.

High Velocity has one real weakness, and it's always stuck me. It's a 1-on-1 racer. There are never any more cars on the tracks, just the two. I thought this was a terrible shame, especially when one of the racetracks shamefully echoes Ridge Racer. You need swerving and weaving and reckless violence, and it's not here. I guess this is really meant for friends to play against each other. Still, I'm surprised that wasn't remedied in the sequel - which, as you'd expect - stayed in Japan. Another day in the life for the Saturn fan.

Oh, and where do I have to go to find a copy on the internet?! And somebody find me a working copy of Wipeout while yer at it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Back Online!

Okay, I'm finally back online at the new apartment! And with wireless, too. Installing was a pain in the ass - there's an experience I never want to endure again. Thank goodness I found one tech person who actually knew something about computers.

So now I'm free to write whenever I want on my blogs, I have a new Saturn sitting in the living room...let the downloading begin! Burn, baby, burn!

Cross your fingers, kids. Hopefully I'll be playing Guardian Heroes in a couple hours.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Virtua Fighter 3 on Saturn

I discovered these screenshots at the IGN message boards, and they come from a person who says they were given to him by someone who worked at Sega years ago. So, here were are, folks - screenshots from the Sega Saturn version of Virtua Fighter 3.

VF3 was, according to reports at the time, very far along and near completion before Sega abruptly cancelled the project in order to focus all their attenion on their new console, which became the Dreamcast. Oddly enough, Sega didn't even handle the DC port of Virtua Fighter 3, instead passing it off to Genki, without even being given proper development tools or a final hardware spec. Again, this is absolutely baffling that Sega would treat its consoles and its biggest franchise - in Japan, at least, where VF still reign supreme - with such carelessness.

Saturn VF3 used a special cartridge which contained extra memory and boosted the power of the system. You can see the results for yourselves. Core was even interested in making Tomb Raider 2 for the Saturn (as they had for the original), using the "Black Box" cart.

Perhaps market conditions by 1997 meant it was too late for Saturn to go anywhere in the US, where it was mercilessly killed before its time, but I'm reminded of Donkey Kong Country, which similarly pushed the Super Nintendo to unseen heights, after that console war was seemingly over. You can just imagine what attention Saturn VF3 would have generated.

Just put these screenshots on the shelf next to that Shenmue footage and weep.

Rave Culture and Missing Links

A nice little discovery when playing Steep Slope Sliders last night, and it's not one you'd really expect - the sound test. Head over to the options screens, and find the sound test, and you are given a collection of ten hyper-kinetic psychedelic screens that play to the music. It's not even slightly, Yoshi's Island-style psychedelic. It's a full-blown trip on the Salvia express.

The ten different environments consist of box rooms and tunnels. One features heavily trippy lights while polygonal Buddhist phrases scroll on by. Oh, and have I mentioned that you can control the direction, rotation and speed of these trips? Everything is set to some impressive club music.

It's interesting to see just how Cave aimed beyond just another sports game. They tried to capture the snowboarding rave culture. They intended to evoke the mood of the sub-culture itself. This is, again, something that Neversoft really ran with on Tony Hawk Pro Skater, which, I remind everyone again, appeared one year after Steep Slope Sliders.

One of the great mysteries of the games business is how a small development studio, best known for churning out a second-rate Playstation shoot-em-up starring Bruce Willis - if that doesn't set off alarm bells, then nothing will - managed to forge one of the most concise, self-contained, revolutionary videogames of all. Tony Hawk wasn't really an original at all; it's genius was in the way it deftly stole from the right games, in the right amounts. It's a witches' brew of sports, racing, and fighting games, with a heavy dose of Super Mario for good measure. But there's still an ingredient missing, a missing link still on the loose. Well, not really on the loose. Unless I'm really off the mark I think we've found our missing link.

Which reminds me of one related question I think I addressed in the previous post - why haven't there been any good snowboarding games lately? It seems like there were only five or six snowboarding games ever made. What's the deal with that?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Videogame Classics - World Series Baseball '98

While we're at it, I thought to myself I should conjure a couple words on Sega's World Series Baseball '98, which was basically the excuse I gave myself for getting another Saturn. Again, for all the Sega faithful, it's all old news - you already know the score. For everyone else, here's just why I think this was the best baseball game ever made.

I know, I know, I should actually spend time with the latest round of console baseball games before spouting off childish "best ever" hype. For all I know, World Series '98 has been passed up and lapped a dozen times over. Somehow, though, I doubt it. Developers had more than enough time to figure things out by the time Dreamcast died, and still nobody bothered to learn a damned thing.

Like most of the Saturn games you'll play in the 21st Century, you're going to have to make your piece with the squarish polygon look to everything. Hey, it had some charm back in '97. It actually looked nice. And let's be fair, most of the games from the 32-bit generation haven't aged too well. You just have to sort of let it go, which is fine since the gameplay is really the thing that matters anyway.

More specifically, World Series '98 comes down to that one element that seems so difficult to recreate in a videogame - the batter/pitcher duel. You'd think this would be the main focus of research, since the fielding aspect of video baseball hasn't changed a drop in 20 years. You could have never played a baseball title since the original RBI Baseball on your old Nintendo, and still not miss anything. So you'd expect the batter/pitcher duel to be exciting in most baseball games. Wrong.

I think this is why most baseball games have bored me to tears. It's just simple target practice, a mere formality on the path to....what, exactly? That's only 90% of the game of baseball.

It took Sega's development team, whoever was responsible for the World Series Baseball series in the first place, three tries on Saturn before finally getting it right. And they succeeded by completely ignoring the tired cliches and recreating the quiet tension of the game.

Here's how batting and pitching works. For the batter, your strike zone is broken up into four quadrants. One option is to focus your attention on one quadrant, by hitting the X, Y, A, or B button. You're betting on where the next pitch will fly. If you guess correctly, you have a clear, unavoidable shot at the ball. If you guess wrong, you can still move your cursor, but it's almost a lost cause. You're scrambling to hit a ball which is almost certain to end badly.

Option number two is to wait for the pitch and aim with your circular cursor. More old-fashioned, yes, but here's the catch - the hits won't be nearly as possible. You could get a base hit, or throw it into the outfield, but you're not going to score that homer. The cursor is larger than if you use the quadrants, so that helps to balance things out.

From the pitcher's perspective, it's a mix of old and new. You have different pitches, depending on the pitcher's skillset, all the usual fastballs and curves and sliders and changeups. After choosing, you can aim a bit during the windup, but that's only the initial aim, and you can't move the ball once it's in the air. So, no RBI wiggling.

The great thing with this is that, while there's a small circle showing your aim for all the world to see, the batter won't know which pitch you threw. The batter cursor won't light up unless it's locked on, and this is where all those curves and changeups kick in. They all go in different directions.

Som after a couple pitches, you can see just how far this little ballet can go. It's a great dance of tension, of patience, and of trying to psyche the other player out. Swinging at every pitch is suicide. Make the pitcher throw pitches. Make him throw to you on your terms. Or, on the other side, keep that sucker behind the plate gasping for air.

In practice, this becomes a true duel, a battle of wills unlike anything ever seen before in videogame baseball. Whoever cooked this one up deserves a medal. Throw in a league full of actual players, with the apropriate stats to match - and all kept in that perfectly arcade-style symbolism that Sega does so well - and, well, as far as we're concerned, this is the first real video baseball game ever made.

The Saturn has the reputation among classic and hardcore gamers as the Console That Got Royally Screwed. That's not really true; that honor goes to the Dreamcast. The Sega suits did enough damage on their own to seal Saturn's fate, and nothing really was ever going to stop Sony's Playstation from dominating. It just wasn't gonna happen. But Saturn's cream of the crop - now, that where the real action is, the real creative breakthroughs. There's probably ten games on that console that can wipe the floor with the best of today, but, of course, hardly anybody ever knew it. About damned time someone in this business learned, especially anyone making sports games not named EA.

Videogame Classics - Steep Slope Sliders

Steep Slope Sliders - Cave for Sega Saturn - 1997

Ah, yes, I knew I'd forget one of 'em. Steep Slope Sliders. I picked up a couple Saturn games at this game shop in Edina's Southdale Mall (trivia note: America's very first indoor shopping mall), and, since there was a buy-two, get-one-free deal, I picked up Winter Heat. Then I was told that game was lost, so I went back to the shelf and took Steep Slope Sliders. Imagine my luck.

There probably aren't too many gamers who have heard of this game, even the dedicated Saturn fan, since it was released in the States at the very end of the console's lifespan, just when Sega's Bernie Stolar made the impressibly incompetent decision to kill Sega's 32-bit console in favor of the Dreamcast project (which wasn't anywhere near finished yet). And, of course, as these things turn out, this was just when the Sega Saturn was finally hitting its stride, churning out one masterful masterpiece, or near-masterpiece, after another. Great timing, guys.

Steep Slope Sliders is a snowboarding game meant to compete with UEP Systems' popular Cool Boarders series on the Playstation. Another example of one game that was good for its time, and another that seemed destined for the ages. What's the deal with that, anyway? The best Saturn games are practically the best games ever made for their respective genres - how many can you name? Guess the most and win a prize.

Okay, I'm kidding. There aren't any prizes.

Anyway, back to the snowboarding. Sliders was released in 1997, which was one year before Tony Hawk Pro Skater was dropped and completely revolutionized the whole realm of punk/slacker/raver/extreme sports games. At that point, Tony Hawk became the gold standard for how to pull off a sports game with lots of cool stunts.

Did Neversoft have a Saturn tucked away, with Sliders in tow? This is the thing that immediately grabbed me - this game controls just like Tony Hawk. One button for jump, one button for grabs, one button for flips, shoulder buttons for rotations. Combos are built up from mixing and matching tricks. You know the drill by now; it's been burned into your brains a hundred times over. Well, kids, turns out Steep Slope Sliders was actually the first to pull this off.

The really weird irony is that Neversoft eventually branched out into a snowboard title - trying to recapture the Tony Hawk magic in every stunt sport - and it didn't capture the freedom and speed of the skateboarding original. And most snowboarding titles, from Cool Boarders to SSX to 1080, seem obsessed with this idea of crouching down and building up strength to hop into a move. Who the hell was responsible for that stupid idea? Hold down A, then press in a certain direction, while still riding on the ground - then hop into the air and release for the stunt? What the hell is that?!

Here's another bit of wisdom the prozines will never be polite enough to divulge, kiddies - that's a crappy way to make a videogame. And all the aforementioned snowboarders suffer as a result.

So the only ones to get it right was Crave, that little team responsible for a couple thousand arcade shooters, and Neversoft one year later. And the Neversoft crew got all the credit. Another reason to hogtie and hurl tomatoes at the Sega execs. Great timing. Friggin' losers.

Enough wandering off the reservation. There's this snowboarding game on Saturn you've never seen called Steep Slope Sliders. It's only a one-player game. You only race on one course at a time. There's no tournament mode. But it's damned near the best snowboarding game ever made, and it played John the Baptist to the greatest extreme sports game ever made.

If you need more needling, there are a large number of extras, stuff like hidden courses and bonus boarders. I think there's a UFO or a dog in there somewhere, continuing the slightly warped tradition of the Daytona USA racehorse. Oh, and the music kicks, too, and the graphics are detailed and solid in that way that Saturn games never were in 1995, when it mattered most. Pity that it took everyone three years to finally crack it, but that black box could sing. Have I mentioned that the suits were dumber than a sack of hammers? Are we sure Stolar wasn't still on the Sony payroll? There's something oddly Dick Cheney-ish about him; can't put my finger on it.

Somebody oughta throw up some gameplay videos of Sliders in action, just so you see what the fuss is all about. Add it to the Lost Sega Saturn Classics pile over there, on top of all the others.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bought Another Sega Saturn

Okay, okay, I finally went off and did what I told myself never to do again - I picked up another games console. This time it's a Sega Saturn; my third, if memory prevails. Ah, well, it's not like I seriously expected to not get another system again. Who was I fooling?

So, anyway, it's good to have Saturn around again, and to be able to throw in a match of Pebble Beach Golf Links or World Series Baseball '98. I have a decent little stable of titles at the moment, good enough to keep me happy until I can grab some blank disks and start burning. Burn, baby, burn!

Let's see...this is off the top of my head, but I'll see if I can't list the games we currently have for Saturn. See if you can spot your favorites:

Daytona USA
Grid Runner
Panzer Dragoon Trilogy (yep, all three!)
Pebble Beach Golf Links
NHL Powerplay '96 (scored for 99 cents!)
Sega Rally
Virtua Fighter 2
Worldwide Soccer (Victory Goal)
Worldwide Soccer '97
World Series Baseball '98

I think that's it. I didn't expect to pile up on so many sports titles, but these are the cream of the crop. You can't pass them up. I think the only other sports game worth getting is the followup to NHL Powerplay. Again, I grabbed the first one for 99 cents, so I'm fine for now.

The next crucial step, of course, is getting the console modified for CDR's and imports. Oh, and there's the matter of the 4M RAM cart, and a couple zapper guns. But let's not get carried away just yet. Once the cable is hooked up, downloading will be the first big priority. I already paid for a lot of these games before, a decade ago. I've already paid my dues, as far as I'm concerned.

I'd be curious to learn just how many others out there are turning to older game consoles for their gaming fix. With the outrageously high prices of the PS3 and XBox 360 (don't get me started on the Elite), getting an original Saturn or Playstation seems like a real bargain. Throw in a Dreamcast and you've really got a sweet deal.

Food for thought - the local games shop is selling Saturns for $40, and Dreamcasts for $30. What's with that? I nearly walked out with the DC, and would have if the internet was running. Just throw in a couple emulators, and especially the MULE emulator, and I'm fine. Good thing Saturn games were so damned cheap. The only downside - as you can gather - nothing but sports games. Whatever.

We'll end up with half a dozen consoles hooked up to the television before long. Ugh. I really oughta be playing guitar.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Give Me Some New Games, Already!

This is probably a rehash of similar themes throughout this games blog, so hopefully I won't be repeating myself too much. But with a new apartment and dreams of a nice, big, flat-screen tv on the wall, I'm toying with the idea of getting a new games console one of these months. And there's really not much out there that interests me.

I've read about bell curves as they relate to pop trends and cultural movements, how a pop movement will go through definite stages of birth, growth, creative fertility, then a slow regression into irrelevence. In the end, you're only catering to a dwindling number of hardcore supporters who make greater and greater demands. Their demands are pretty simple - don't change anything.

This happens to everything in our culture, from movies to the theatre to literature and the arts and popular music. It even affects videogames.

Think of this bell curve as a flower that grows, blossoms, then wilts and dies. It's all part of the cycle of life, and in order to continue, that flower must spawn offspring and usher in the rebirth. It's the same thing with the creative arts. You need new ideas, new innovations, new blood. Otherwise, everything becomes stale, old, irrelevant.

This is where I think videogames have been for a number of years. Perhaps it's just because I'm now in my thirties, and this really is just a diversion for kids. Perhaps. But, then, I still find myself enjoying the classics, piling up an impressive number of emulators on my computer. There's something about the original Legend of Zelda, MULE, Robotron, and Mario to keep me coming back, and I don't think it's just nostalgia. I still enjoy games, but I'm not finding anything in today's libraries to be compelling.

I often sing the praises of the Sega Dreamcast, and say that was really the last games console worth owning. I think Dreamcast was kind of the final hurrah, the last great concert before Elvis finally left the building. This was the last time we had a good supply of really cool games. You know, the ones that everyone wants to try out, not just the hardcore nerds. My coworkers and I had a lot of fun playing multiplayer rounds of Virtua Tennis and Chu Chu Rocket and Soul Calibur and Ready to Rumble and San Francisco Rush 2049. NFL 2K and NFL 2K1 dominated most of our time.

I'm looking back at the libraries of games for the Xbox and Playstation 2, and, dammit, I can't come up with ten must-play games between the two of them. Out of how many hundred titles? Let's see....there's Halo on Xbox, obviously, and that groovy version of Outrun and NFL 2K5. On the PS2? Hmm....Ico still stands out for me, as does Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution and maybe that last Resident Evil. The fourth one? Can't keep track of all those sequels.

Hah, there's the problem, kiddies. Everything is a franchise now, and these aren't new franchises. We're playing yearly - or nearly yearly - upgrades to games we were playing a decade ago. Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Tony Hawk, yadda yadda. I guess Grand Theft Auto 3 could be considered a new game, even though it was really a 3D polygon upgrade to two older sequels from way back. Besides, that train has already run out of steam, its designers drained out of any new ideas to scare or offend us, without coming up with anything, gameplay-wise, that was truly new.

So you can beat up hookers. Good for you. Your parents must be proud. Enjoy your bachelorhood.

As development costs have soared, publishers and developers have relied heavily on the same name-brand titles to bring back the devoted fans. But what about the rest of us? Those of us with lives? I don't want to watch Videogame Puppet Theatre, the latest slog through bad Hollywood cliches. I don't care what happns to the Metal Gear guy. Why not do something about that guard who couldn't talk? You know the one - the "I feel asleep" guy.

So your Barbie Dolls have even more cleavage. Good for you. You're not hiding the fact you're 30-years-old and still a virgin.

Then, of course, there are all the cash-ins, the movie games, the tv show games, the cartoon games, the cereal box games. Don't you just feel used? You paid top dollar for a fim-witted platformer just to hear some cheap audio clips from your favorite show? So they hired some top writers. That's nice. I remember the stuff the writers cooked up for Pac-Man and Asteroids.

Nintendo, I think, seems to have the most games that I want to try out. I'm not saying that the titles on GameCube and DS and Wii are great, but they have a definite hook to them. There's nearly always that level of quality in each title. There's a reason it takes them five years to crank out another Mario or Zelda. But then we come back to that earlier problem with the franchises.

Shouldn't we be looking forward to something besides the next Super Mario, the next Metroid, the next Mario Kart, the next Animal Crossing, the next F-Zero? If this is all the Wii library will offer us by 2010 - name-brand hits, commercial tie-ins, cheap ports from the other machines - it will have failed miserably.

Already on Xbox 360 and PS3, there isn't anything besides the same three existing genres that have been on shelves for years. What is there to look forward to that's new? Show me something that I've never seen before. Give me something that's accessable, that's catchy and original. Don't stick me with yet another 3D platformer. Those just feel like the old overhead games like Gauntlet and Commando and Alien Syndrome. I never liked those.

The 360 has Live Arcade, and Wii has Virtual Console, but doesn't this just reinforce the point? Videogames have run out of steam, and your only real thrill comes from pulling out the old classics. What's stopping anyone from making a new classic? Goodness knows developers have more money than God to spend on these damned things. How many of the "greatest games" were created in some kid's basement or garage for chump change? Warlords cost how much?


Right now, as far as consoles go, I'm leaning heavily towards Wii, which at least is promising some new innovations with the controller. I have no clue whether anyone - even Nintendo - is going to fulfill the promise of that new control scheme. This might end up as another console like Saturn or GameCube or Dreamcast - one that offers ten really great games, then just collects dust. So what if I don't like racing games or movie games or platformers starring plastic dolls? Am I just out of luck?

Where is the new blood going to come from? Where' s the new talent? Where are the new games, already?!

You know, I could just keep spending my money on vinyl records. I could use a set of drums, and a cool girl who plays bass.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Harbinger of the Future

I stopped by a nearby Gamestop this afternoon, and while they had the usual boxes for new games consoles, they also had several boxes for used Nintendo Wii - $229.

Didn't bother to ask if those boxes meant the store actually had some in stock, but I think it's a good harbinger of things to come. One of the smarter reasons for waiting out the launch window of a new console is that, eventually, those kids who were first in line are going to become bored with their new toys, and sell them off as soon as the novelty - and the thrill of the hunt, which is what it's really all about, kids - wears off. That means you can score some good stuff for a cheaper price.

Since Nintendo is literally raking in more money than they can handle, a Wii price drop isn't likely anytime soon. Depends on what Sony and Microsoft have planned, of course, and how long Wii can keep its momentum. But for right now, finding a used Wii at a Gamestop or similar retailer is your best bet. If this hasn't already begun in earnest, it will, and very soon.

Now, if we could only convince Nintendo to seriously drop the price of the VC games....

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

So What's the Deal With Nintendo WII?

I haven't owned any game consoles - unless you count the Nintendo DS - since the Sega Dreamcast. Maybe I was just getting tired of having my game machines stolen (I lost a DC and an N64 this way), maybe the games themselves didn't appeal to me anymore. But I've always had my eye on Nintendo Wii. Whatever it's strengths or faults, it has the hook, the "give me a shot" quality.

It appears that I wasn't the only one. Turns out Wii is still sold out nearly everywhere. I don't plan on getting one in the immediate future - I just moved to a new apartment, so all my money is going to be spent on furniture and stereo speakers and whatnot - but it's still the only new games console I'd want to buy. Maybe two or three months from now, after I've saved up enough for that big-screen tv. Maybe.

But I'm still amazed that the darned thing is still sold out everywhere. Nintendo clearly didn't anticipate this level of demand. No one did. But is that a surprise? The games business has been steadily focused on that smaller and more fanatical group of hardcore nerds who obsess over the minute details that most normal folks never care about. You end up with games that cater to them more and more, while leaving the rest of us out. Whatever happened to, you know, videogames? Remember those? The ones you put quarters into back in the '80s? The ones you could play for five minutes, and then go on with your life? Yeah, those.

Perhaps we were wrong to criticize early Wii titles like Wii Sports for being too simplistic. You'd almost need to be, considering the control scheme which reinents everything. 20 years of game design are wrapped around the concept of a controller with more and more buttons. Now you'll need to rethink everything from the ground up, rethink the whole idea of interaction. That means simpler, more intuitive games that grow in complexity and subtlety over time.

So I don't really mind the Wii library at this point, nor do I worry about that post-launch dry spell that affected every games console in existence. Except Dreamcast, of course, which wasn't allowed to live long enough to have a dry spell. There's already more than enough good games to try out, enough games that take advantage of the controls, even if they're the likes of Wii Sports and Wario Ware and Elebits. Fine.

Tell Nintendo to delay Mario and Metroid as long as they want. Give me quality. Give me something new. But don't give it to me now; I can't afford it. I can't even find the damned thing in stores yet.