Thursday, December 31, 2009

Death of the Vinyl Revival and the Technics SL-1200 MkII

I went on a road trip to Duluth with my cousin, who's a DJ and musician, for Christmas. I was shocked when he told me that Technics planned to retire the SL1200. How was such a thing even possible? Isn't this the default machine for every DJ in the world?

Matthew told me that digital has completely taken over the club world. Even though he has two SL1200's - a college graduation gift from his parents - he loves being able to DJ with digital tech. One thing he tells me is that today's equipment looks like you're spinning, like you're creating music. A DJ with a Macbook doesn't look like he's checking his email, and that's a pretty big deal.

He told me that Technics changed their minds about killing their turntables, but it's pretty clear to me that the writing is on the wall. I would love to believe that all DJs and music lovers want to hold on to their vinyl, but the advances in digital technology makes that a more attractive option.

I don't know how long the current "vinyl revival" fad will last, but I'm under no illusions that these machines will exist forever. The SL1200 is 30 years old, as are vinyl pressing plants. The hi-fi market caters purely to the wealthy, where $1,000 is considered a "budget" turntable. Meanwhile, an iPod Nano can be had for $150.

Technics would do well to lower their prices on the SL1200. $500 is still a lot of money for most people. I guess that depends on how aggressively Panasonic would want to sell their product, and what future they see in the medium. I do think the hi-fi market has failed spectacularly to capture the revival fad. Why are all the prices going up? What's the deal with that? A thousand dollars to play music is obscene. That's so far beyond most people's budgets - especially the young people who are fuelling the vinyl fad - that it's scandalous.

I love vinyl records and turntables, so I feel sad at the prospect of vinyl's passing. But DJs will continue to move from analog to digital, and unless turntable can be sold at the mass-market level, comparable to videogames consoles, this fad will pass and remain in the realm of aging nostalgia. If you grew up spinning records, you'll continue to spin records. If you grew up listening to iPods...well, that's different.

If the price of the SL1200 was cheaper, I'd buy one immediately. I would have been giving those out for Christmas presents, instead of Nintendo Wii. I may still buy a couple decks, just to save and preserve for the future. I'll give them out as holiday gifts for my grandchildren in the year 2040. They'll own the last turntables in existence and they'll be thrilled.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Video - Nirvana, "Verse Chorus Verse"

After getting the most severe workout on Just Dance, I need the loud, angry guitars of Kurt Cobain to bring me back down to earth.  No offense to the MC Hammer and Kylie Minogue fans out there, but I'm a Generation Xer at heart.

Back in the day, this song was known as, "Verse Chorus Verse."  It was a phrase of Cobain's, criticizing the stale formulas of rock songs.  This song appeared on the No Alternative compilation CD, which is one of the defining albums of the 1990's, right up there with the Singles and Pulp Fiction soundtracks.

However, with the release of the Nirvana box set, a second song with the same title appeared.  I don't think that second one ever made it past the demo stage, but for whatever reason, the original VCV got its name changed to, "Sappy."  Whatever.  It was "Verse Chorus Verse" in 1993, and that's how I remember it.

So everybody enjoy their Christmas weekend, relax, thrash out to your favorite Seattle rock bands, and dance yourselves silly playing Just Dance Wii.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's All in the Motion

Got it figured out!  Just Dance doesn't track physical location.  It tracks momentum.  The Wiimote's accelerometers are what's being used, almost exclusively.  Subtle movements, slow movements, swift movements.  This is how the scoring system works, and it's quite subtle.  By slowing my movements in half, my scores have immediately doubled.

What's more, I've discovered a nasty little secret about this game: you don't need to follow the dancers at all.  Not one bit.  As long as you keep the proper tempo, and move your Wiimote at the key moments, you can perform any dance moves you wish.  You can even sit on the couch and do nothing but turn your wrist.  That's what I've done just now, in fact.

This has definitely proven one thing: the "hardcore" game critics who bashed this game so mercilessly have no clue what they are talking about.  I doubt any of them even bothered to play more than one or two songs.  If I could crack this nut on the first night, then they should have, too.  They're not even trying.  Frankly, if this is what passes as video game journalism in 2009, then we need to sweep out the whole damned lot.

This also raises the possibility of real improvisation in Just Dance.  The Wiimote is only paying attention to the acceleration.  That means you have far more freedom than Ubisoft has let on.  I suspected all along that this game offered more freedom than the Dance Dance Revolution school of rhythm games.  I think we're going to discover just how much freedom we've got.

Just Dance is the spiritual cousin to Wii Music.  They're poinitng the way to the post-DDR, post-Guitar Hero world.  And that revolution can't come soon enough.  This is easily one of the year's best video games.

Video - Just Dance (Pump Up the Jam)

Having spent an hour or two dancing around, I can appreciate more fully the opinions from both sides of the Just Dance debate.  On one hand, this is as intense a cardio workout as you're likely to find on Nintendo Wii.  It's terrific exercise, and it's also terrific fun.  This game has "blockbuster hit" written all over it, and rightly so.  On the other hand, dance movements do not always register on the Wiimote, and it's a bit of a challenge to figure out just what the game requires.

You are scored for "accuracy," and with practice my scores have improved.  I'm sure with more practice I'll do much better, considering that I have no dance rhythm whatsoever (I can hop up and down and headbang, and that's it).  What's really needed are gameplay videos on Youtube that show high score performances.  Some brave soul out there needs to prove that perfect scores are possible, if just to silence the hardcore gamer critics.

Of course, the "video game" side of me obsesses over such things.  I sincerely doubt most partygoers will be concerned or even aware.  The other benefits of Just Dance - the cheesy-yet-catchy dance hits, the fun and freedom to dance up a storm - outweigh the technical challenges of the hardware.  This game wears its heart on its sleeve, and so will its growing legions of fans.  This has the potential to become dancing's answer to karaoke.  I could see Just Dance becoming huge.  Guitar Hero-styled rhythm games have burnt themselves out, and everyone's looking for the next video game fad.  This could be it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Photos - Wii Music

Christmas is coming, and I'm seriously getting the Wii Music bug.  I still need to replace the copy I lost on the flight to Bogota, and Gamestop has it on sale for $20 (Animal Crossing, too).  There's always a long line of must-buy Nintendo Wii games...why did I believe otherwise?

Oh, and remember that I'm ultimately buying two copies of everything: one for Marcee, and one for me.  And I'm certain I'm not the only one.  There's a reason why Wii Play, Wii Sports Resort, and New Super Mario Bros are flying off store shelves.  Pricey, pricey, kids.

Anyway, since I'm the only video game critic carrying the flag for Wii Music, here are some really terrific screenshots.  I love all the different environments in this game.  Outer space may be the best for ambient sounds, but the black stage with giant video screen can't be beat for style.  Playing at the nightclub is also cool, especially with all the flames and lights.

"We've Had All the Fun We're Going to Have"

Politics is just a game to these people.  I was sure the Republicans were serious about engaging health care reform.  I'm shocked, shocked.

Human Beings Are Funny Creatures

So would this mean that God is a magical genie who mindlessly obeys our every command, or that God is just a really inept hitman?  It's hard to keep track of which enemies you're supposed to smite, what with 100 billion galaxies to manage and all.

Whenever I see big puffy clouds in the sky, I demand that they tell me where they've hidden their secret Mario coins.  Those damn clouds haven't said a peep.  Jerks.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In Defense of Wii Music

I wanted to pass along this short reader comment from another online review of Wii Music.  True to form, the critic was easily dismissive, and critical, and was followed by easily dismissive comments.  The fanboys chirping their disdain in unison, without ever really knowing just what it is they are criticizing.  All they know is that Wii Music has Muppet graphics and public domain songs, and that's all they want to know.

Reader "Wariostro" responds with the following rebuttal.  The third paragraph is especially insightful:

I've debated this so many times that I'm becoming a broken record, but I can't resist at least joining in a little here: while your post seems to be aimed more at humor and inciting the flames, I have to say that Wii Music is, indeed, a much better game for musicians.

I enjoy Rock Band with friends, but no one should have any illusions about it: it's Dance Dance Revolution for the physically lazy, coupled with the added fantasy of being in a band. It's fun to play the little mindless button game while listening to music, and more fun with friends, but it doesn't have much of anything to do with musicianship.

Wii music lets you play with actual musical ideas: not only combinations of instruments, but how, for instance, to elevate the chorus of a song, play with a familiar melody or chord progression in such a way as to tease something new out of it, experiment with different percussive strategies, etc. It's damn hard at first to produce something great, but that's no excuse for most of the gaming world to give up and call the game shallow. It's only their own musical skills that are wanting.

Activist Judge Cancels Christmas

Aha, I was wondering what happened to the War on Christmas.

The Best Video Game of 2009

At least one experienced critic will be stepping off the movie-game bandwagon and take a stand for good ol' arcade games. Hands down, this is the most fun video game you will play this year. You will have a fantastic time playing, laughing, and exercising with friends and family, boys and girls, young and old.

At some point, I suppose I'll have to go into detail on my favorite sporting events in Wii Sports Resort. It doesn't matter, really. All 12 events, with their many variations, are masterful, enchanting, and endlessly fun. Ask any number of Wii owners for their favorites, and you'll hear different answers from every one. Someone might like Swordplay the most. Another may choose Table Tennis. Still another will champion Frisbee Golf. Grampa and Grandma will swear by Bowling, and dream of a Heaven where 100-pin bowling is a reality. And the exercise buffs will stand by Canoeing and Biking.

That old saw, "Something for everybody," had never been more true. All I can say is, Thank God for Nintendo.

Somewhere along the way, the games business decided they didn't want to be bothered with making videogames anymore. They wanted Hollywood glamour, fame, and the validation of "high art." Nintendo has remained the last defenders of games as games. Games as social enhancement. Fun for the sake of fun.

There's almost nothing on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 that interests me. It's just a wasteland. No doubt such words are blasphemy to the "hardcore gamer" clique, but that's what I honestly feel and it has to be said. I'm not looking for a game to enrich my life with "art." For that, I have my music, my painting, my creativity. I have my beloved stereo system and large collection of LPs. I have my books and my movies. I have my friends and family. And, my brightest joy of 2009, I have the friendship and love of my future wife.

I think Sony and Microsoft want to consume your life entirely. I don't want that. As a member of the Atari Generation, I still enjoy playing video games. The key word is "play." I enjoy video games because they help to unleash our imagination. They help keep us in tune with our inner child. They bring us together. If you take away that social aspect, if you take away the laughing and cheering and playing together, the young and old, side by side, then it just isn't worth it.

This is the great debate that is now taking place in the video game world. It's a consequence of the great disruptors of this decade - the Internet, Facebook, Apple, Nintendo.

All of which brings us back to Wii Sports Resort, the best video game of 2009. It's fun, it's happy, it's clever and rich with subtlety. It will add color to your lives and bring smiles to your faces. And it may inspire you to take up these sports in real life. Nintendo had the right message all along: We Play.

Have I said that before? Whatever. It's a good line and it bears repeating. Life is far too short and we need to play.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Vdieo - Wii Sports Resort (Table Tennis)

This is a video of the championship match in Wii Sports Resort's Table Tennis.  Kudos to Nintendo for not simply porting over the original Tennis event for the sequel.  It must have been a difficult choice, considering how masterful Bowling and Golf play, but Table Tennis is more than a match.  At higher levels of play, it's even more intense.

The 6-point mode is challenging enough; just wait until you play Table Tennis in blazing fast 11-point mode.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Photos - We Cheer 2 on Nintendo Wii

A few screenshots from Namco's We Cheer 2.  This has moved up my "buy" list, since I have absolutely no coordination for Dance Dance Revolution, yet still want a great workout.

If Bandai-Namco were smart, they would create a martial arts game for the boys, one that utilized the same gameplay mechanics.  Heck, get Jackie Chan and have him beat up bad guys and perform crazy stunts.  The possibilities are endless, and I'd love to see more games of this type.*

*Without the fake, plastic Brittney-pop, please.  Can we do a Soundgarden version instead?

Just Dance - Metacritic User Comments

I won't be so bold to call this a gender gap, but there is something of that nature happening in the American video game scene.  I'd like to share some user comments from Metacritic on Ubisoft's Just Dance for Nintendo Wii.  Typically, you will always devoted fans of any game, no matter how terrible.  That's just human nature and everyone has the right to their opinion.  But that's what we're observing here.  If we look closely, we can see something deeper, moving just below the surface.

I've read similar comments around the web, on review sites and especially on Amazon.  We're seeing the same kind of arguments on both sides play out again and again.  Hardcore reviewers (boys) on one side, devoted fans (girls) on the other.  Of course, there are women critics at the major sites, and boys who are fans of the rhythm dancing and music games, but that gulf is very wide and very real.

This is what I'm thinking of when I speak of women as a new force in the video game world.  This is an emergent community, they have their own expectations and needs, and they are now stepping forward to demand them.  Women are the driving force behind Wii Fit and the fitness genre, as well as the rhythm dancing titles.  And I'm sure you've noticed how many Wii and DS games on the shelves are aimed exclusively towards girls.

"The Girls of Gaming" has moved from an uncounted niche into a serious force.  Their influence and power is growing and will continue to grow in the coming years.  And these women are going to be heard.  The games industry cannot survive on the backs of 30-year-old males, and everybody knows it.

Here are some of the Metacritic user comments for Just Dance:

Toch Take: Great game if you play with friends. Only hardcore gamers with no friends don't like it. Video game change! at last!

Erin Z: I love this game a lot! It's so much fun to get together with friends and dance. Make sure to have enough room to move. The only thing I wish was better about this game was the scoring and accuracy. I also wish it had some tutorial modes for the dances so you could take your time and go at your own pace.

Talia S: Shake your groove thing and shake it hard! This game is better than the reviews give it credit for. User reviews are very good, why are the “official” reviews so bad? I’m thinking that the reviewers are reviewing a game in a genre that they don’t enjoy. For dance game fans, this game is a cut above just about any other dance game on the market. If a reviewer doesn’t like dance games, they should not review dance games.

Sendhini G: Thank goodness for games like this in a world full of shooters, action and puzzle games, all of which are great but it’s nice to have something creative and different that gets you moving. The only games besides dancing that get you moving are fitness games, and I just don’t like those. For every good dance game there are several bad ones, so it’s with great joy that this particularly good game exists. I love this game a lot, and I think anyone interested in dancing will love it too.

Georgie D: This game makes me feel free. That’s a rare feeling in games. Even games I love usually have some kind of constraint (you must do this before you can do that and so forth). This game lets me just put in the disc and have an immediate and gratifying experience. What an appropriate title! In the best possible way. I’m free to just dance. I like it.

D Wheeler: I'm just going to have to stand up and defend this game. In the uk its only £17.99 (best price) so its perfect for that - only going to play a few times but great to get out when friends are around genre. Its funny, the tracks are great (with 1 or 2 exceptions Baha what where you thinking) and everyone wants to get involved. Dump off you shyness and give it a go the more effort you put in the better!! My only real critisims are that there is no unlockable features and the scoring could be sharper but at this price point who can complain!!

Deliliah K: Honestly, why didn’t someone think of making this game earlier? The Wii is all about accessibility, and Just Dance is easy enough to control for anyone to pick up right away and tough enough if you want it to be for gaming and dancing veterans alike. This game just screams “perfect for the Wii”, this is why I bought this machine in the first place. If we had more titles that were as good as this one, everyone would buy a Wii.

Video Game Critics and the Post-Arcade Scene

I don't know if this website is the same Diehard Gamefan as the Dave Halvorson prozine from the '90s, but Alex Lucard's scathing critique of Just Dance sparked this interesting exchange. First, a reader's comment from an unidentified "Me:"

I work up a good sweat playing this game, I don’t really care about the score. You only get out of this game what you put into it. The pictures scroll to let you know what move is next, that move is repeated until the next move scrolls by, that’s pretty obvious if you use your brain.I was a dancer and I have very good musicality, I do very well on this game, however I’m mostly concerned with having fun and playing something my daughter can enjoy with me. I think if you want a fun game that friends and family can play with you this is a great game. If you are a boring, competitive person don’t play it, no sore pusses for this game. Relax and live a little dude, don’t take things so seriously.

Lucard responds with the following post:

Dude – that’s not the point of being a reviewer or a critic. The point is to review a game based on its technical abilities, of which Just Dance fails miserably because it doesn’t work properly most of the time.

The pictures also don’t always scroll to let you know what move is next and are often out of synch with the actual moves by the dancer on screen by anywhere from one half to a full beat. That’s shoddy programming.

No, Alex, you’re wrong. What “Me” was writing is exactly what critics do. There are many ways to look at things besides the “technical” side. That’s just a worn-out convention of videogame reviews, where everything is filtered into Graphics-Sound-Gameplay-Overall.

I haven’t had time with Just Dance yet, so I can’t make any judgement calls on the responsiveness of the controls. And I’m very well aware of how frustrating sloppy or sluggish controls can be in a game (I still feel the hand cramps from Atari 2600 joysticks). So I can certainly sympathize.

That said, I don’t think Just Dance is wrapped around conventional arcade gameplay. It seems to avoid it altogether, the way Wii Music avoids arcade conventions. I think the focus is on dancing with friends and having fun. Most people are self conscious when it comes to singing and dancing, so the arcade rules of risk/reward would scare them off. It really wouldn’t work. You want the player to feel free to play and improvise and goof around.

A great example I use is the castle in Super Mario 64. You could just run around the yard and do cannonballs into the lake, and have a really great time. Notice that there were no rules, no dangers, no goals, no time limits, no penalties. And yet, here we were, in 1996, having a blast running and bouncing Mario around.
It’s the same thing with Wii Music (absolutely spectacular game, btw) and it’s the same thing here with Just Dance. You’re not playing for high scores or medals. You’re playing for the satisfaction of playing.

I think we’re seeing the emergence of the post-arcade video game. Risk, reward and judgment are out; creativity and improvisation are in. Nintendo had the perfect name all along – “We Play,” indeed.

Video - We Cheer 2 on Nintendo Wii

I could say We Cheer 2 is one of the best-kept secrets on Nintendo Wii, but the truth is that Namco's rhythm-dancing series is a great hit with videogame's newest and most fervent fans: females.  Mothers, sisters and daughters have emerged as a real force, thanks to the success of dancing and fitness games, and, of course, the spectacular Wii Sports.

The gaming press - dominated almost exclusively by boys and stubborn defenders of the "hardcore gamer" clique, have thrown their hardest punches against games like Wii Music, Just Dance and We Cheer.  But that's their problem, not yours.  Speaking as Generation X male who grew up on Atari and Pac-Man, I can assure you this hostility will pass.  Women will become accepted in the gaming community as equals, as peers with their own interests and desires.

Watch this video closely.  Have you noticed the Pac-Man arcade attract mode playing in the background?  Namco has littered their We Cheer series with references to Pac-Man.  The hardcore Comic Book Guys won't understand or care why that is, but I'm here to tell you it's very, very deliberate.  Back in the 1980s, Pac-Man was most popular with...who?  Women.  It was the first great video game crossover hit, which grew into a pop culture phenomenon.

By name-dropping the greatest arcade video game of all time, Namco is staking its claim with We Cheer.  These are not throwaway "casual" games for girls too dumb to know better.  These are arcade games, just as much as any violent boys' game.  We Cheer is planting its flag and declaring its right to exist.  God Bless the Females for listening.

Ubisoft's Smart Let's Dance Viral Campaign

This is just bloody brilliant.  Ubisoft is going viral to promote their newest release, Just Dance.  The main website is completely filled with videos, nearly all of which are Youtube videos of players dancing away, looking goofy, and having the time of their lives.  People can also submit their own videos for weekly $1,000 prizes, beginning January 2010.  It's a terrific design and a smart idea.

I get the impression that Ubisoft is very confident in this title.  You can see it in the bold cover design, with the game's visual style, and with these viral Youtube videos.  The challenges facing third-party developers on Nintendo Wii are widely known, and it's especially challenging to design games for the new Expanded Customer market.  Who are these people?  Are they kids or parents?  Have they ever played video games before?  Should the game follow arcade rules or risk/reward, and focus on high scores?  Is that important?  Or should we focus on just having fun?

Notice that none of these videos show professional dancers, or the kind of celebrities you find on "So You Can Think You Can Dance?"  We're seeing everyday, ordinary people, young and old.  Most of them can barely keep a beat, and most of them would never "win" any traditional video game.

None of that matters.  Everyone is having the time of their lives.  Everyone is cutting loose, dancing like children, laughing, playing, and sharing their lives with one another.  This is the experience that Just Dance promises, no more and no less.  And by these videos, it's a rousing success.

This is the very reason Nintendo Wii exists.  It brings us back to the very roots of video games, to that bar where Nolan Bushnell debuted Pong in 1972.  He wanted to create something that would bring friends and lovers together.  That's why Pong only had one spinning knob to play the game; the video game would never dominate your lives, but enhance it.

I think Ubisoft has found a winning formula in Just Dance.  I very nearly bought this game for Marcee for Christmas, and I was only stopped because I had to buy Wii Sports Resort and New Super Mario Bros. first.  As soon as I get some spare money, however, watch out.  Everyone I know who has a Wii is getting one.

Friday, December 18, 2009

War is Over (If You Want It)

Amen to that.  Another reason why The Daily Dish is among my favorite political blogs:

Perhaps it isn't worth keeping drugs illegal if the cost is the corruption of our border agents, murderous turf wars in our cities, billions of dollars spent jailing non-violent offenders, children of non-violent offenders growing up without their parents, the rise of paramilitary drug cartels destabilizing multiple Latin American countries and capable at any moment of using their smuggling channels to help terrorists, no-knock raids in American neighborhoods that regularly terrify innocents and sometimes kill them, and addicts who overdose more than they would if dosage and quality were controlled.

Politicians from both parties use the failed War on Drugs as a cheap way to appear tough and macho, and to beat up their opponents as weak.  It's basically Nixon, 1968, and we're still beating up hippies to prove our manhood.  It's a sick, useless joke, and sooner or later, we must get beyond this childishness.  I remember another empire that refused to change its failed policies, for fear of appearing weak.  It was called the Soviet Union, and now it is dust.

If you truly want to smash the drug cartels, bankrupt the terror groups, stablize the region and transform Latin America, then it's time to end this farce.  We can win the War on Drugs with the stroke of a pen.  And we do that by making the products they sell worthless.

War is Over...if you want it.

Just Dance - Some Screenshots

Oops, I forgot to post a couple screenshots from Ubisoft's Just Dance on Nintendo Wii.  You should probably have some idea what this is all about.

Just Dance is sold out at the downtown Minneapolis Target.  I'll have to see how it's doing in other stores, but I wouldn't be surprised to see similar results.  This is something that is perfectly designed for word-of-mouth.

Just Dance

Oh, I really shouldn't let Marcee's gay friends find out about this one.  This dance game could become the ultimate Charlie Bait, heh I right on that, sweetheart?

There are many fitness, exercise and dance games on the Nintendo Wii, and it appears this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.  It's the one area where third-party software developers have created solid titles for the Wii's Expanded Audience (I'm stealing Sean Malstrom's phrase here).

Just Dance has been building a buzz online, and if Amazon and the local Target is any indication, this newly-released game may become a hit.  It will also drive another wedge between the self-proclaimed "hardcore" gamers who write for the videogame press, and the Expanded Audience.  This really isn't much of a video game at all; it's an excuse to cut loose and have some fun.  And this game openly proclaims this - Just Dance!

Finally, we have the video game's answer to the iPod commercials.  That's all it really is.  You hold the Wii Remote and follow along to the crazy dancing on the screen.  Ubisoft proclaims that professional dancers were consulted during development, and the videos look terrific.

"Hardcore" gamers would point out that all you're really doing is shaking your Wiimote in various positions.  You don't really need to be swinging your arms and shaking those hips.  But, then, that's the whole point.  Konami all but created music rhythm games with their Dance Dance Revolution series, but those have always been arcade games at its core, with all the conventions of classic arcade video games - high scores, combos, ramping difficulty, risk and reward.  That's necessary for a machine that runs on quarters, and this is how the competitive nature of games evolved.

But those conventions are not necessary in the home, where you own the game for life.  Such arcade trappings may feel restrictive to those outside the scene, especially women and girls.  Boys want competition, conquest, and achievable goals.  Girls just wanna have fun (or is that, "girls just wanna have lunch?").  And as the Wii market continues to expand to females, we will see more pure gaming experiences - the training wheels will come off the bike.

There's no need to squeeze dancing into an established set of rules; you can just dance and have fun.  This is the same spirit of immediacy that Nintendo brought to Wii Sports and Wii Music (especially Wii Music), and we're seeing this emerge in the fitness titles.  There's no reason why this spirit cannot continue to spread.

Just Dance - is there a more perfect and honest title in a game?  Ubisoft can be frustrating in their games so much of the time, but once in a blue moon, they get it.  They just get it.  Maybe the software community needed some time to understand the new audiences; they didn't know who these people are or what we want, so we were hit with a snobbish, Comic Book Guy slur - "casual" gamers.  The result was a pile of terrible, C-budget games that entertained no one and tanked at retail.

I think in regards to the fitness games, the developers are finally starting to understand, and we're getting much better games.  We're also getting new games, new kinds of games, new expressions.  Why can't you just splash around in the pool outside Mario's castle?  Why can't you just jam on musical instruments and create your own songs?  Why can't you exercise like you do at the gym?  Why can't you have fun for the sake of having fun?  Just Dance.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Helix on WiiWare - A Great Dance Fitness Game?

This week, I've been researching the growing number of exercise and fitness games for the Nintendo Wii.  Physical exercise is one of the great strengths of the Wii, even when you're only playing Wii Sports with some friends.  So I'm happy to discover a WiiWare budget title like Helix.

This game comes with recommendations by the Nutwiisystem Blog, which has chronicled detailed reviews on every Wii fitness title.  Helix is ranked #8 in the Top Ten list, so that gets my attention.

This appears to be a music rhythm game in the style of Dance Dance Revolution or Samba De Amigo.  You hold the controllers and move your arms to mimic the character on screen.  The selection of dance music sounds terrific, and everything is presented in classic arcade video game style.

The great thing with WiiWare games is the low price, usually around $10.  I find my expectations are much more generous at that price point than something like, say, $50.  Budgets are always tight, especially at the end of the year, so you will want your money's worth.  I'd say Helix might be worth a try.

Wii Controllers are too Expensive

I'm busy shopping around for a Nintendo Wii for Marcee this Christmas, trying to see what I can find within my budget.  Obviously, I'd like to pick up an extra game or two, but when I crunch the numbers, this becomes problematic.  One major expense completely consumes my budget before I've even begun....the game controllers.

The Wii Remote sells for $40, and the Nunchuk for $20.  You pretty much need a second set at the beginning, since Wii Sports is a multiplayer arcade title, so that's a requirement.  Getting four controllers as quickly as possible is another requirement, especially once your circle of friends have become hooked.  Believe me, Wii Sports Tennis is spectacular fun with four players.

With the arrival of Wii Sports Resort, however, there's a third piece of hardware that you need, and that's the Wii Motion Plus.  Thank God one comes packed with the game, but for a very short while there were two, and that would have made our lives much easier.  Now we will have to buy the WM+ seperately, at another $20 a pop.

This month, the new black Wiimotes became available, and they come attached with WM+ at a price of $50.  All of this means that each set of Wii controllers will set you back at least $70.

Third-party software developers complain mightily about their difficulty in selling their games on the Wii, but one possible reason I've never heard anyone discuss is the controllers.  When you have to spend $70 for the second, third, and fourth player, that cuts very deeply into your gaming budgets.  All that is left now is enough for one more $50 game.  By this point, I'm feeling very conservative with my dollars.  I want the maximum value, something that we'll be playing for a very long time.  And that means I'm only going to consider first-party Nintendo titles.

If you're only going to buy one extra game for the Wii, then you should make it Wii Sports Resort.  It's a masterful followup to Wii Sports with a dozen different events that will keep everybody happy for a very long time.  It's one of the year's best games, and it is destined to become one of the console's greatest hits.

But you can see where this is headed.  I'll need to get a second Wii Motion Plus, and that automatically adds $10 or $20 to my bill.  And that means the end of the gaming budget, so no more games.  I might consider Wii Play, which has become immensely popular because it comes packed with a Wii Remote, but that also kills the budget, which means no more games.

That means I can't get EA Sports Active, I can't get Muramasa, I can't get De Blob, I can't get Boom Blox Bash Party.  Heck, Super Mario Bros 5 and Mario Kart Wii are waiting in the wings - those games are must-haves.

Sometimes, this hobby feels painfully overpriced.  I realize Nintendo isn't running a charity, and they're entitled to make as much money as they can.  They earned it.  But I would greatly appreciate if those controllers were more reasonably priced.  And I'm sure the software community would feel the same way.  If you want to boost Wii sales, this is your smartest move.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mega Man 10 Coming to WiiWare

You really have to have grown up with early 1980s video games to appreciate cover artwork like this.  It's so perfectly cheesy and retro, a throwback to the days when games were made by a single person, usually a teenager or early twentysomething.

I haven't downloaded Mega Man 9 yet, but I enjoyed the return to the original 8-bit style which is where the series was at its best.  I never really could enjoy all the 16-bit sequels and spinoffs; Capcom never succeeded in capturing that perfect feel of Mega Man 2 and 3, and when the Super Nintendo arrived, they never even tried.  The whole series was burned out by then.

I know I'm being a bit greedy, but I do hope the designers of Mega Man 10 create some good graphics.  There's "retro" for the sake of kitsch, deliberately cheap and simple, and then there's "retro," where the color and brilliance of NES-era games truly shine.  Mega Man 2 still has excellent graphics as far as I'm concerned.  It's just a matter of knowing how best to use your limited supply of paints.

In any case, the cover artwork is terrific.  Makes me wanna throw on some old Van Halen records and rock out.

"Scientology Has Literally Taken Over the Police Force and Part of the Navy in Colombia"

This is very, very dangerous.  Colombia cannot allow their nation to be taken over by a criminal religious cult.  I cannot imagine that a Catholic nation would allow for such a thing, if the people knew.

It's times like this when I really wish I could become the mayor of Bogota.  The Colombian people need to understand just what Scientology is about and what it represents.  And the Uribe administration cannot allow such a cancerous infiltration to occur.  Colombia's newfound prosperity must be preserved at all costs.

I know it's funny to laugh about Super Adventure Club, but this is not a benign organization.  It is an authoritarian cult and must be treated as such.

P.S.  Oh, by the way, I've just had my name legally changed to "Rupert Murdoch."  "Daniel Thomas" is just a fake pen-name.

Daniel Thomas Vol. 4

I've been tinkering around with the blog today, making some changes and additions.  The title is the biggie - "Videogames of the Damned" is out.  "Daniel Thomas Vol. 4" is in.

I began writing a games blog at Digital Press several years ago, just a little something for kicks.  Eventually, I moved over to Blogger in 2006 and wrote intermittently.  As these things usually go, my interests in the greater world found their way into my blog, and the content expanded into politics and music and whatnot.

"Daniel Thomas Vol. 4" is a title I've kicked around for a long while, as I've wanted to publish my online writings into one or two books.  That plan is always kicked back, as I never feel I have enough quality content, so I might as well use the title here.  No real harm anyway; hardly anybody reads this blog.  I don't promote it all that much, certainly in comparison to The Ghibli Blog.  But I'll work on that.

I realize that blogs and websites must remain focused on specific topics to find an audience, but I've always wandered too much for that to ever work.  This is a journal of my thoughts and ideas and experiences, and I'll go wherever the interests lie.  Hopefully, I'll find a few dedicated readers, but this site will likely not build the solid community you find at The Ghibli Blog.  But one can never predict how such things evolve.  I just have to focus on my writing, and hope my ideas are inspired enough to spark some discussions.

Thanks, as always, to everyone who visits.  It's well appreciated.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Just Light a Pile of Money on Fire and Call it a Day

Just my damned luck.  I brought my Nintendo Wii with me to Bogota to share with Marcee and her friends, and I happen to lose my CD carrying case on the plane.  That case just happened to store all of my DVDs and Wii games...naturally.  So now we´re stuck with MST3K: The Movie and Wii Sports.

What games were lost?  Get ready to cringe.  There´s Wii Sports Resort, New Super Mario Bros Wii, Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Music, Boom Blox Bash Party, and De Blob.  Ugh, just great.  Of all the times to get clumsy and lose things.

I might as well just set a pile of money on fire and call it a day.  I really should just stick to reading books.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Spaceball: Revolution

Oh, I really wish I had my Spaceballs DVD with me right now.  Merchandising!  Merchandising!

This game really looks interesting.  It's being released on Nintendo's WiiWare download service, which is becoming fertile ground for inventive, new games from upcoming indie designers.  The prices are also very reasonable, anywhere from $5-$15.  Contrast to to the $50 sticker shock for most retail titles, and you can see the value in a game like Spaceballs Revolution.

This game appears to be an arcade puzzler and promising to be quite challenging.  I do hope there are enough puzzles to keep our interest, but I'm sure the multiplayer mode will help prolong its life, and it appears that the developers have left the door open for future downloadable levels.

Blood on the Tracks

I was reading this report on game earnings at GoNintendo, and this quote struck out at me:

Perhaps most disconcerting is that Take-Two management does not believe that the company can turn a profit at the $1.2 billion revenue level. The company they inherited had earned a profit on exactly that revenue level in FY:05, and yet management appears reconciled to the fact that this cycle is more costly, and that it cannot turn a profit from its quite impressive lineup.

When your business is raking in a billion dollars, and you still lose money, something is seriously wrong.

The video games industry has been in a technology arms race ever since the beginning.  We've always been pushing for stronger hardware, more features, and better graphics.  But with each generation, production costs have risen higher and higher.  The costs are now astronomical, and would probably shock the average person if they knew.  Those flashy games on PS3 and XBox 360 spend over two full years in development, with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars.

Take Two's budget for Grand Theft Auto 4?  Sit down.  It was over one hundred million dollars.  $100 million for a single video game.  I can't even wrap my head around that number.  And yet, despite the vast success of the GTA brand, with over a billion dollars in revenue, Take Two cannot turn a profit.

This business model is doomed to extinction and everyone knows it.  There's absolutely no way the present situation can be sustained forever.  And then when you consider that these bloated-budget HD games are the ones squarely aimed at the shrinking 18-34 market*, and all you can see is blood on the tracks.  This business had better discover some more affordable options if they want to survive.

I hear Nintendo has a popular games console.  Maybe they should put some effort into making some real games for it.  Oh, and Apple has this gadget called an iPhone that's really popular with the kids.  Somebody should look into that.

* I should note, as a 36-year-old myself, that I still enjoy playing video games, just as my peers do.  We just have other priorities in life, from careers to families.  We're not going to be in front of the couch at all hours of the night, and we are not paying full price for every game that comes out.  We have to be more discriminating in our choices.  Also, some of us still prefer the classic games we grew up with, and some of us want to share our games with the kids.  Focusing on the single 30-year-old as your "hardcore" market is suicide.  Take Two is learning this lesson now.

Spoiled Rotten Brats

I think it's probably because I always root for underdogs that I picked up a Nintendo Wii instead of the Sony or Microsoft consoles.  That's a strange notion, since Nintendo has completely dominated the video game world with Wii and DS.  But among the "prozines," the gaming magazines and websites, Wii is routinely treated as second-class.

I think we have a very serious problem with the way the gaming press is run.  Perhaps it's just because the more "hardcore" gamers migrate towards that profession, but there has always been a sneering, holier-than-thou attitude among the prozines.  There are great guys and gals in the press, especially people like Chris Kohler who grew out of the '90s fanzine scene with me.  But far too many writers and reviewers come off as Comic Book Guy.

I also think we are long past the point where graphics in video games are an issue.  Take a look at that photo above.  That's from the newly-released Shawn White Snowboarding: World Tour on Nintendo Wii.  I remember when all we had was the Atari 2600 VCS and Intellivision.  Heck, one day I visited a kid's house, and he had a!!

If you handed us kids from 1983 a game like Shawn White, our hearts would burst for joy.  It would be beyond our wildest dreams.  Seriously.  Back then, I thought the movie Tron was the greatest you could ever imagine.  And here we are, in the Year of our Lord 2009, and Tron has been surpassed by leaps and bounds.

What fool in his right mind would complain about graphics in games like Shawn White?  Are you kidding me?  Yes, I am fully aware that Playstation 3 and XBox 360 are more advanced than Wii.  This is no surprise and was openly acknowledged at the very beginning.  Leaving the technology rat race was Nintendo's plan years ago, and it's far too late to whine and moan about it now.  Frankly, anybody who complains about video game graphics in this day and age is spoiled.  Spoiled rotten brats.

The really weird thing is that these complaints come from adults....grown adults.  They hurl out words like "arceade game" or "kid's game" as though it were some form of insult.  What?  Did I miss something?  When did the video game business become obsessed with chasing after adults?  Let me explain this to all the Comic Book Guys out there....listen closely....Video games have ALWAYS been meant for kids.  Pac-Man wasn't created to amuse college graduates.  Super Mario Brothers was not being played by thirty-somethings.  PhD candidates were not discussing the merits of Sonic the Hedgehog.  These are kids games.  They always have been, and God Willing, that's how it shall stay.

I can't help thinking that so many of the troubles in today's video game industry stem from this Peter Pan Syndrome.  We have "hardcore gamers" and software developers desperate to legitimize this hobby as high art, as something serious and deep and meaningful.  The games business wants to be in the movie business.  What they seek, ultimately, is validation, for a hobby that has consumed a large portion of their short lives.

A video game is not a movie, and it's not a book.  It's a game.  If it's anything else, then it's a lucid dream, or psychedelic trip.  But above all, it's a form of play.  I don't believe there's any shame in that, regardless of your age.  Everyone should hold on to their inner child, no matter how long they live.  Childhood is the birthplace of our hopes and dreams, the place where imagination runs free.

Hmm...I hope this discussion hasn't been hijacked.  I really just wanted to point out how silly it is that game journalists complain about "kiddie" graphics in the 21st Century.  But this is a subject that leads us down the rabbit hole, and we as a community really should explore those deeper themes.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Best Super Mario Game Ever

I've been having the time of my life with New Super Mario Bros Wii, and now that I've finally reached the ending and defeated Bowser, I can confidently report that this truly is the best Mario ever.  The game is absolutely smashing fun from start to finish, deeply layered and richly textured.  The graphics are beautiful, warm, colorful, everything you ever wanted a 2D side-scrolling videogame to be.  Truly, this is the Super Mario Bros 5 we've demanded for so many years.

And then there is multiplayer.  4-Player Super Mario Brothers?  I know enough from my own experience with friends and family, and watching others play on Youtube, to know that your sense of fun doubles with each player that joins in.  This game manages to achieve an impossible challenge that has always haunted game design - how do you make a game that is equally challenging for single and multi-player?  New Super Mario Bros nails it perfectly.

While I have reached the ending, I am by no means finished.  I still have two whole worlds to explore, and many Star Coins to collect.  You will know when you have truly "beaten" this game - in addition to a congratulatory message, you will have five sparkly stars next to your name.  And unless you are an expert gamer, you'll have to play through Super Mario all over again from the beginning to reach that status.

And I couldn't be happier with that.  This is a game that is meant to be played endlessly, for months and years, just like the original Super Mario games on NES and Super NES.  The kids who first played Super Mario on their Nintendo in 1985 are now parents.  We can now share the excitement and the discoveries with our own children.  Nintendo has truly become a family tradition.

Can somebody please tell me why Sony and Microsoft are exclusively targeting 30-somethings?  The video games business cannot survive without generating new customers.  We were all kids when we were first playing these games.  And many of us would like to share that tradition with our children.  When I see the crowds of children at Nintendo's weekend mall attraction at the Mall of America, I can't help but be amazed.  Nintendo has those kids all to themselves.  And those kids are going to grow up to become lifetime fans.

As long as Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo can churn out games like Super Mario Bros 5, they'll have a license to print money.  They'll own this industry, if they don't already.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nintendo Wii and the 2D Renaissance

Has anybody noticed the Nintendo Wii lately?  This year has seen a bold renaissance of 2D video games.  What's more, these are not simple retro nostalgia trips, but modern games, with state-of-the-art graphics and skillful art design.

The XBox 360 and Playstation 3 deliver spectacular high-definition graphics - I mean, just mind-blowing to someone like me who grew up on Atari - but without any innovation or cleverness in the design, what's the use?  This is why I picked up a Nintendo Wii, instead of a 360.  It's just about the only place where anything interesting is happening in games.

Most of my criticism against the "HD Twins" (great shorthand for XBox 360 and PS3) is the relentless push towards more and more Hollywood-style theatrics.  They aren't interested in making videogames anymore; they want to make summer movies.  They want to make the next Transformers movie.  They don't want to make the next Pac-Man.

I think this has spurned a gaming counterculture on the Wii platform, and it's bearing fruit now.  This is a good thing, because Nintendo cannot sustain their momentum on Wii Sports forever.  The expanding audience has to come not just from parents and relatives who never play, but those of us who did, and left the current scene.  What happened to the NES and Sega Genesis games I played when I was a kid?  Yeah, the new Modern Warfare 2 looks fantastic, but where did Revenge of Shinobi go?  Where did Thunder Force 3 go?  Where did Sonic 3 & Knuckles go?

Where the heck did the video arcades go?  Remember those places?  Two dozen arcade machines packed together into an Aladdin's Castle, with classic pinball machines tucked in the back?  Ah, those were the days.  And those were great games.  They had to be great, because the competition was fierce and unyielding.  Designers had to create videogames that were immediate, that hooked you in, that dispensed with theatrics (laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair bombed) and got straight to the point.

I shouldn't sound as though I'm piling on the current blockbusters on the HD Twins; if videogames are to evolve, diversity is key.  We need as many mutations in the gene pool as possible.  But the game industry cannot turn its back on its history, nor can they discard every possible audience, past or present, until only the hardcore fanboy clique remains.  This business cannot survive on the backs of Comic Book Guys, especially when production budgets for single games soar into the tens of millions.

There needs to be more diversity and there needs to be some better options.  And there needs to be some better ideas.  I think Nintendo gets that.  They don't "get" everything, and every dedicated gamer will have their list of complaints.  But Nintendo does get this.

Just within the last six months, we've seen the following 2D games on the Nintendo Wii: Klonoa, Muramasa, A Boy and His Blob, and New Super Mario Bros.  A similar revolution is brewing on the online WiiWare service, including the all-new sequels to Mega Man, Gradius, Contra and Castlevania.  And those are just the classic titles; wait until you see the new games, Lost Winds and World of Goo and Swords & Soldiers.

I'm playing through New Super Mario Brothers now, and it's absolutely smashing.  It's brilliant and wonderful, everything that ever made 2D Mario fun and compelling.  It's a grand statement for the 2D videogame, of everything it is and could be, much like Ponyo was Hayao Miyazaki's grand statement for hand-drawn animation.

It's about damn time that other software developers figured this out.  Leave the $30 million "interactive movies" to the handful of corporate giants large enough to absorb them.  Let the rest of us have real video games.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Deep Thought

I'm thinking to myself that if I want more traffic, I should write about topics that actually matter to other people's lives, and less about a year-old videogame nobody likes.  Unfortunately, I follow the beat of my own drum and I'm too stubborn to change.

Still, it would be nice to get some attention on this blog once in a while.

My Wii Music Songs - Ode to Joy

I quickly wrote this thrash assault on Beethoven's Ode to Joy. It's something I've been scheming and practicing in my head for a week, and I'm thrilled that it came together.

This "Metallica" version of Wii Music features Cliff Burton on drums, bass, rhythm and melody. Tempo is set to "5." A few retakes on bass and drums was all I needed to find that great opening, and then the drums go crazy, heh heh. The fastest tempo setting enabled the drum sound I wanted. I don't have a Balance Board, so precise drumming is harder.

As you can see, I have a lot more fun completely tearing the Wii Music songs apart and creating entirely new mutants. The incredible depth in arrangements and improvisation enables this, and it's revolutionary for music games. Don't like the song selection? Create your ow

Playing and creating songs in Wii Music is much harder than it appears. This isn't the simplistic button presses of Guitar Hero. You need to practice, you need to communicate with your bandmates, and you have to know what you're doing.

I shot these videos with my digital camera, pointed at the old tv set in the dark. It's cheap and old-fashioned, yes, but it gets the job done.

My Wii Music Songs - American Patrol

I wrote this song on Monnday, 11/23/09. This is one of my most recent original compositions for Wii Music, and I'm really happy with it. The bass is spectacular, and the song sounds absolutely nothing like the original.

Cliff Burton slams down some killer bass and Eddie Vedder rips on guitar. I'm playing turntable in the back. A Muppet provides some added percussion. Tempo is set to "5," the fastest setting. The beats were recorded first, then Cliff's growling bass, which only required a few takes. Eddie Vedder's electric guitar leads required about 20 or 30 takes to really get right.

This is a great example of discovering the music as you are playing. I always wanted that chorus, but the short guitar leads at the beginning were discovered on the many takes. I wanted a "verse" sound that fit in with bass, and eventually I just followed Cliff to the chorus.

Wii Music does a spectacular job of capturing the immediacy of improvisation, and the sense of surprise - music is never created as much as it is discovered.

My Wii Music Songs - Chariots of Fire

This week, I recorded a number of my songs from Wii Music with the trusty digital camera, and posted them on Youtube.  Obviously, I'm going to share them all here on my blog.

This may be my favorite composition yet. I began with Chariots of Fire, set Tempo to "1" - the slowest setting. Turntable DJ supplies the beats, and two galactic horns play bass and rhythm parts. My ever-bending guitar leads became more haunting with each take. In the end, all the parts came together, and I'm more than proud.

As you can see, my song has practically nothing to do with Chariots of Fire. There are some chords that drift in and out, to keep my guitar centered. But I never paid attention to that. I wanted an original work that still had a good melodic hook. I'm astonished that Wii Music allows me this degree of freedom.

I hope you enjoy this, and that it inspires your own Wii Music jams. Spread the word, pass and share!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Videogame Classics - Wii Music

Wii Music is spectacular, incredibly rich and deep, and arguably the most revolutionary videogame since Super Mario Brothers. In time, it may well be seen as Shigeru Miyamoto's "lost masterpiece."  It's difficult to describe it accurately to someone at first, and there is a learning curve until you "get it." It helps tremendously if you are a creative type. But this is perfectly normal and to be expected; this is not a "music rhythm" game at all, but the next evolutionary step in the Music Game.

I think you definitely need to sit someone down and show them what Wii Music is really about. The Wii Sports graphics and motion controls give the impression that you're dealing with a simplistic child's toy, a glorified baby rattle. The reality is about as far from that stereotype as you can imagine, but that tremendous depth is hidden below the surface. It's kind of like the original Super Mario Bros in 1985. At first glance, it just looks like another side-scrolling arcade shooter. But then some curious or lucky kid discovers hidden pipe rooms, coin boxes buried in the walls, 1UP mushrooms, minus world, and warp zones. The game then becomes a completely different experience.

It's the very same with Wii Music. This is a game about live performance, about learning music theory, about composition and song structure, about group dynamics, and most importantly, about improvisation. This is the revolutionary break, and it affects absolutely everything. The 60 instruments can be mixed and matched in any combination. Songs can be played in any number of styles. You can change the tempo of the songs. And you can play the instruments any way you wish.

Think of it as multiple skill levels. Level 1 is just shaking the Wiimote on Improv mode, banging at the cowbell for kicks. Level 2 is learning to play the songs perfectly, matching the beats and rhythms like the old rhythm music style. Level 3 is learning to improvise, learning to create solos, leads, learning to hold and bend notes, and working together as a group.

I think if you make it to Level 3, you've done very well. You will have learned a lot of music theory, especially if you take the music lessons. And it takes a lot of practice to become skilled. Just like real music. Pretty soon, you'll start wondering what will happen if you swapped instruments around, or changed the tempo. Should I use a beatbox and rapper for percussion on the Animal Crossing theme? What can I use with steel drums on the Super Mario theme?

Then you start re-arranging the parts. You add in pauses and breaks, space for the drummer to play four beats after the verse, space in the middle for that trumpet solo you've been practicing for. I think I'll play the F-Zero theme with a guitar solo, and then cut out and bring in the rapper. Or maybe three singers for the classical songs.

Finally, you dig deep enough and reach Level 4 - Wii Music Nirvana. Now you are no longer playing and improvising the existing songs. Now you will rip out the parts, reinvent the beats, and create a completely new song - a strange mutated beast. Now you're in the Wii Music Minus World, my friend. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" has been turned into space techno with galactic trumpet. "Ode to Joy" has been turned into Sgt. Pepper. "Frere Jacques" has been turned into Radiohead trip-hop. "F-Zero" has been turned into some fusion of Miles Davis and Metallica. And everything has been turned into Public Enemy.

Wii Music is not random waggling. There is nothing random about Wii Music. There are, in fact, two competing musical scales for every song. There are the "official" notes for the melody, harmony, rhythm, and bass (two percussion spaces fill out the six tracks). Then there is a second set of notes, the "improv"scale, for all four parts. You can weave back and forth on your instrument at will, sometimes weaving between chords and notes.

And then there are the drums. The drum kits are based on the song's "official" rhythm when using standard controls. If you just want to follow the beat, you'll get a good sound. Now add the Wii Balance Board...and the drums are now opened up to you. I don't mean you get more beats or rhythms. I mean that you have a complete virtual drum set, and you have complete freedom to create whatever the hell you want.

The old rhythm music genre has just been smashed to bits. Wii Music lets you goof off, play songs, remix, mutate, and improvise. Your imagination is the only limit. Rock Band lets you press buttons. Guitar Hero lets you press buttons.  The next generation of Music Games will allow you to create.

If you're still skeptical, that's perfectly alright. Come to Youtube and I'll prove it. Watch Wassi JJ's videos. Watch Alasted's videos. Watch Tirelat's videos. Watch 3GAAC's videos. Shigeru Miyamoto is universally hailed as the world's greatest videogame designer for a reason, kids. He has revolutionized the medium countless times. It's what he does.  Yes, Wii Music is Shigeru Miyamoto's latest vanity piece.  I will not dispute that.  But don't let vanity stand in the way of greatness.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

We're All in Mario's Castle Now

Behold!  Another master of Wii Music emerges!  Wassi JJ completely reconstructs songs into strange, spacey, melodic creations.

Just sit back and contemplate this for a long moment.  Wii Music is intended for anyone who wants to create, regardless of musical skill or talent.  At the entry level, it is so simple as to appear simplistic.  But underneath this surface lies a deep, dark secret. Improvisation.  Everything can be improvised, altered, remixed, and deconstructed.  There is no right or wrong, no lives lost, no timer counting down, no Pavlovian judgment - only the pure joy of discovery and creation.  This may be the most gleefully anarchistic videogame ever made.

We are no longer among the denizens of the music rhythm genre.  That ancient fad has peaked, and now it seems like a mirage, an illusion.  Guitar Hero promised the fantasy of being a rock star, and that's what it delivered - a fantasy.  The music rhythm genre cannot create music, and so it fails and dies.  In its place stands a new creation - the music game, a true music game.

This is a game where a child can play a hundred perfect renditions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (of course the music is iconic; all paradigm shifts are iconic), a note-by-note copy.  Or he may abandon the melody and create a new one.  In time, he will learn to smash the song to atoms, then reconstruct new worlds.

And below all of these layers, at the very deepest core, Shigeru Miyamoto's greatest achievement: he has smashed all the ancient conventions of the arcade video game.  No more time limits.  No more credits.  No more Pavlovian risk/reward systems.  The video game is not a movie, it is not art.  It is play.  In Super Mario 64, he constructed a castle garden for players to run, jump, and swim in freely, without any rules or goals or threats.  We are all in Mario's castle now.

A Look at My Mii's

Here's a look at my collection of Mii's on my Nintendo Wii.  I'll have to add more pop culture figures when inspiration - and my next visit to Mii Characters - strikes.  The plaza is already resembling the album cover to Sgt. Pepper.

Row 1 (front): C-3PO, Me, Garfield, Ice Cube, Jesus
Row 2 (mid): John Lennon, Lando, Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Burger, Orson Welles
Row 3 (back): Spider-Man, Weird Al Yankovic

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wii Music - One Song, Three Different Takes

Because Wii Music is rather difficult to explain, I thought this would prove an effective example.  What we have are three different takes on the same song.  The song, K.K. Blues, comes from Nintendo's Animal Crossing, Wild World on Nintendo DS.  It's one of several video game songs that can be performed on Wii Music.  It's a pretty straightforward blues number with a catchy melody.

Listen closely to these three performances.  There are many similarities, and that's to be expected, since they're reading from the sheet music.  But take notice of the differences, not only the instruments, but the arrangements.  Pay very close attention to the improvisational bits, little bits here and there that bring each unique performance to life.

I should also point out another key point that won't be noticed by casual observers - this is a lot harder than it looks.  Even when following the musical cues perfectly, and overdubbing all the parts yourself, it's a serious challenge to bring all these parts together in a good song.  It's very easy to rush through and miss beats or melodies, and the result can be a lot of noise.  But that is true of music in real life, and it's a testament to Shigeru Miyamoto's genius that he makes it all seem so much...well, so much fun.

Tirelat's Wii Music - Sgt. Pepper's Ode to Joy

"Tirelat" is a master at Nintendo's Wii Music.  He has been posting videos to Youtube on an almost weekly basis since the game was first released last year.  For all the doubters and skeptics of this much-maligned music game, all I can say is: Watch Tirelat's videos.

This is his latest creation.  It's Beethoven's Ode to Joy, played by The Beatles, and rearranged to sound like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  It's really quite remarkable how closely he matches Sgt. Pepper's rhythm in the verse.  The closing verse returns to Beethoven, playing to the same rock beat.

You see, this is what Wii Music is really about.  It's a music program that inspires you to create music.  There is a genre of videogames called "music rhythm," but there's nothing truly musical about them.  Shigeru Miyamoto has crafted another groundbreaking masterpiece.  Not many people realize this yet, but these things happen.  Give it time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is coming to the US this weekend (it's already out in Australia), and it is looking spectacular.  The big innovation is 4-player action, which turns Super Mario into a chaotic party game.  This is going to be soooooo much fun!

The multiplayer Coin Battle looks especially fun.  This might just become required for future drinking games.

Giant Bomb has a long (37 minutes) video, taking us through Super Mario Wii, showing several worlds, the ghost manors, the boss castles, and the warp cannons.  Four players are jostling and laughing the whole way through, and it seems Shigeru Miyamoto's dream of cooperation has gone up in smoke.  Cutthroat Mario is much more fun.

I think it's a safe bet that Super Mario Wii will be a blockbuster smash.  I say it sells 20 million copies, easy.  Nintendo is going to have a spectacular Christmas.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Improvisation in Wii Music

Improvisation and the sheer fun of playing music lie at the heart of Nintendo's Wii Music. It's too easily lumped into the "casual games" ghetto, but there's a clever impishness below its surface. This is a far deeper and more rewarding experience than many people realize. Hopefully, these Youtube videos will show you what all the fuss is about.

In these freestyle jams, the backing players will jump into a rhythm to support you, and they'll match your own tempo, but it still takes some effort for the music to gel together. But that's part of the magic of creating music.

Wii Music - Playing Group Songs

Playing songs in a group setting is a main feature of Wii Music. You can even make your own records and videos. This is where playing with family or friends really pays off.

You can see the diversity in musical instruments and styles; it's almost overwhelming at first. There are even some "joke" performers like a cheerleader, or a person dressed as a cat or dog! Hah! Yeah, they even bark and meow to the songs.

If you pay close attention, you'll hear moments of improvisation in these songs. The players are following their own musical cues, but there are opportunities to be creative. The fourth video, playing the song from Legend of Zelda, even includes a scorching guitar solo! How awesome is that?

These first four videos were all created by the same Youtube user - 3GAAC. He recorded all the parts by himself, seperately, in "one take." Very impressive.

The final video is one I had to cram in somewhere, before I overwhelm this humble blog with video clips. It's called, "GhostFace Rap," and it's an excellent moment of hip-hop bliss. The band includes DJ, beatbox, rapper, singer, and dog. When the rhythm kicks in...ooh yeehh!

In Defense of Wii Music - Swan Lake Version 2

This Wii Music video was posted by a dedicated fan who wrote the following message:

The reason I have posted this video is that I believe that Wii Music is much better than many reviewers give it credit for. I think that Nintendo has a pretty good engine in this thing that allows a novice to do some interesting improvisation. NONE of the reviewers out there have discussed this technology in depth. The reason for this is that it will take a long time to figure out just how effective this technology is. This video is my attempt to show that Wii Music has more under the hood than most reviewers give it credit for. My hope is that other fans of this game will do a much better job than I have, and prove these reviewers to be WRONG.

On a personal level, having completed this video and a few others, Wii Music has already payed [sic] itself off for me.

It's fairly difficult to explain just what Wii Music does.  Its premise is easy, yet murky at the same time.  But it fits in perfectly with Nintendo's current obsession with creating new expressions, and finding new audiences, in video games.  They're embracing the very idea of "fun" in whole new ways, and if you haven't been paying attention these past few years, you'll miss it.

Who would have guessed that Nintendo would become avant-garde?  They were the buttoned-down conservative types years ago.  Now they've embraced a surreal brand of anarchy and Warhol Pop.

Dork Band

Hah hah hah hah....Here is another hilarious fake ad from NeoGAF.  These guys are really creative with their Photoshop skills; and true to my character, I prefer the viciously funny ones.

Wii Music has become one of those defining love-hate games.  You either click with its fun sense of group improvisation, or walk away disgusted with a simplified gameplay.  I'm sure the Guitar Hero phenom plays a part in this, too.  Both music games couldn't be further apart.

Still, you can afford to have a good laugh at Wii Music's expensive.  It's not a game that takes itself seriously, anyway.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Greatest Videogame Ad of All Time

Okay, this isn't a real print ad, but it should be.  This comes from a running thread on NeoGAF.  Find more here.

I shrunk this down because it uses some naughty words, and some of you might not care for that.  If you're fine with the language, then just click on the photo to see it in full size.

Poster - R-Type

Here is the original Japanese arcade poster Irem's R-Type.  R-Type is unquestionably the most influential side-scrolling shoot-em-up ever made (Gradius would be number two).  Every arcade and console shooter for the next decade looted and pillaged freely.  Some stole a little.  Some stole a lot.  But in the minds of hardcore shooter fans, Irem's original remains the king.

The best games managed to build upon Irem's original ideas and move the genre forward.  The best example would probably be the TOZ unit in Telenet's Gaiares on Sega Genesis.  The TOZ unit could be fired on enemy ships, where it would steal its weapons like a virus.  Your own ship was barely armed with a pea shooter, so strategically stealing the correct weapon for each scenario was key.

This is a terrific poster for a classic videogame.  The H.R. Giger designs continue to stand out, and the art direction is superb.  And R-Type is a tough game, damned hard.  Games in the '80s were really hard, weren't they?