Monday, November 07, 2011

Stop Crushing Your Music!



I cannot fathom what is wrong with the geniuses in the music industry who conceived of the Loudness Wars.  It's what you get when corporate idiocy collides with rock-star egos, who also just happen to be deaf.  I know!  Let's hyper-compress and crush our music to death!  Then people will get ear fatigue and stop listening to our songs...and then...profit?  The collapse of CDs can't be blamed solely on internet downloading.

I know the topic of the Loudness Wars has been harped on endlessly, so I'll keep this little sermon short by presenting a couple of waveforms as examples.  The first waveform is my needledrop recording of John Coltrane's Sun Ship LP.  I recorded with a peak volume of -3dB, which means three decibels below the maximum volume of the CD format.  The second waveform is Megadeth's "Public Enemy No.1," from their newly-released CD, Thirteen.

It's pretty hard to appreciate music when it's literally crushed into a cube.  And there's really no reason for it.  It's especially frustrating because so many musicians and bands have recorded amazing-sounding music in decades past.  For example, I've finally heard some vinyl recordings ("needledrops") of Megadeth's 1990 LP, Rust in Peace, and it sounds amazing - loud, crunchy guitars, a fully three-dimensional sound, solid vocals.  It's really a jazz fusion album, in case anyone bothered to notice, and it shames today's brick-walled wrecks.

And Coltrane, well he's God's Gift to Mankind.  Everything Trane recorded was miraculous.  Wouldn't we all like to go back to that?  Return to music that is recorded and mastered properly?  Hi-fi music...what a concept!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Namco's Go Vacation for Nintendo Wii



Hey, the Nintendo Wii actually gets a good video game this year!  Remember the Wii?  It was extremely popular at one time.  Then Nintendo got bored and quit.

Ahem, heh heh.  Anyway, here's Namco's Go Vacation, by the makers of Family Ski and Snowboard.  I've had my eye on this title for some time, and it's looking terrific.  Yes, I know, I know, this appears to be yet another mini-game collection, for a console swamped with lazy, get-the-investors-off-our-back mini-game collections.  But Namco is dead serious.  They're gunning for Wii Sport Resort's crown.

The game features dozens of sporting events centered around a large island, which you are free to explore on land, sea or air.  Four players can participate at once, although I'm not entirely certain if they can play different activities (which would be cool).  Right now, my guess is that everyone has to play together, and that's perfectly fine by me.

This highlight reel shows a number of events in Go Vacation, like horseback riding and whitewater rafting.  As I mentioned earlier, this is the same software team responsible for Family Ski and Snowboard, which is one of the more enjoyable family games on the Wii.  Thank goodness that we can always trust Namco to deliver the goods.  Now, if we could only get them to apologize for abandoning the Sega Dreamcast - where's my Tekken, ya jerks?!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ni no Kuni (PS3) Videos at Tokyo Game Show



At The Ghibli Blog, I promised to show more gameplay videos of Ni no Kuni from the Tokyo Game Show, and these two videos are absolutely perfect, and quite lengthy, too.  I'm interested in hearing your impressions.

The game follows the old school RPG formula, with a few interesting wrinkles like day/night.  When I see that, I'm obviously thinking of Minecraft.  Will players have to battle monsters at night?  That would be cool.  I wonder if I could chop down those trees and build a house?  Yeah, then I could build a train station and lay down some tracks, so I can get to....ah, whoops, wrong game.

The combat looks very interesting.  This is an area where RPG game mechanics haven't changed in 25 years.  It appears that instead of directly fighting, your characters can send pets who will do the fighting for you.  Shades of Pokemon, but also the great Phantasy Star Online, and it does raise a lot of possibilities.  Will you have to train your pet?  Can they be bred and grown?  Can they evolve into new forms?  I think this could be the key element that could enable Ni no Kuni to break out from a very old and tired genre.

Yes, I know that Ni no Kuni has already been released for the Nintendo DS in Japan, but I haven't seen it, so I'm choosing to follow the PS3 version as a new video game.  I'm looking forward to the surprises.  Until then, I have Saturn, Dreamcast and Minecraft to keep me happy. But, hey, that's me. Enjoy the videos!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Happy Sega Dreamcast Day!


Happy Sega Dreamcast Day, everybody!  On September 9, 1999 (9-9-99), Sega released the Dreamcast in the United States to a massively successful launch and rapturous welcome.  It appeared, for a short time, that Sega was back on top after years of self-inflicted wounds crippled the company.  Sadly, it would not last, and only 18 months later, Sega would exit the video game hardware business.  Sega and video games have never been the same ever since.

I remember September 9 perfectly.  I was working at my college job, waiting tables at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut, and when business was slow, I had one of the delivery drivers take us down to the nearest Target.  I purchased a Dreamcast, a second controller, a Virtual Memory Unit (these were cool), and a stack of games.  Which ones?  Let's see...Soul Calibur, NFL 2K, Ready 2 Rumble Boxing, Hydro Thunder and Trickstyle.  All games were fantastic, except for Trickstyle, which was a clunky, half-completed mess.  I later returned it for Sonic Adventure.

Today, the Dreamcast is hailed as a classic, arguably the last true arcade videogames system.  The game industry was pushing relentlessly into the domain of cinematic games, all in a mad pursuit of becoming Digital Hollywood.  Add in an absurd amount of Playstation 2 hype (to this day, I still say DC was better), and the king-maker status of EA, and Sega was just not able to staunch the bleeding from years of financial mismanagement.  It's really unfortunate, and you just wish there was a little more time.

I am a bit surprised to see that Dreamcast never really took off in Japan.  Perhaps it was too similar to the Saturn, which was far more successful over there.  Heck, Sega infamously killed off the Saturn version of Virtua Fighter 3, which was completed and  headed to the pressing plants, because it was superior to Genki's somewhat lackluster DC version.  And while the library of games was stellar, it really wasn't that much different from the Saturn, especially where shoot-em-ups and fighters were concerned.  Also, I'm sure the Sony hype was just as deafening in Japan as in the West.

In any case, you can score a good-as-new Dreamcast and a stack of fantastic games like Soul Calibur and NFL 2K1 for the price of a single $60 retail video game today.  That is a bargain, my friends.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sega Saturn Shooter Roundtable Vol I

Instead of writing single posts for every Sega Saturn title that grabs my attention, I've decided that I should group several short reviews together in a single post, so that we can speed through the system's extensive video game library more quickly.  For this installment, we'll look at five titles from Saturn's most popular genre - arcade shoot-em-ups!




Dodonpachi - Cave for Saturn - 10/10

Oh, Yeehhhh!  Dodonpachi, Cave's manic, bullet-hell masterpiece.  The heaviest, loudest, fastest, most intense shoot-em-up ever created.  It's such a wild ride, so gloriously and insanely over-the-top, so wildly colorful and luminous.  This is the video game equivalent of Red Bull and Jolt Cola.  And it's just about the most exciting game ever made for the Sega Saturn.

I don't even think you conquer or master Dodonpachi so much as survive.  The very act of cheating death is a massive rush.  How the heck did I escape that?!  Literally every pixel on the screen is moving, flashing, firing, or exploding.  And you're always caught in smack in the middle.  This feels like a video game that begins where all the other shmups ended, and instead of retreading the same ancient cliches of the genre, cranks all the dials to maximum, gleefully reveling in the beauty of pure chaos.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bulk Slash - Sega Saturn



Bulk Slash is a 3D robot arcade shoot-em-up for Sega Saturn that feels like the classic 2D shooters of the 16-bit era, fused with the 3D platforming paradigm of Super Mario 64.  It's fast and smooth, sharp and clear, brightly colored, packed with futuristic cities and tanks and robots and massive explosions.  Here is a game that embraces the magic of "replayability," almost like NiGHTS with guns.  Here lies a textbook example of what makes the Saturn so great.

Oh, and Bulk Slash was also created by Technosoft.  Sort of.  Hudson formed CA Productions, the software studio, by stealing away members of Technosoft's staff for the twin PCE/Turbo-CD shooter classics, Gate and Lords of Thunder.  I learned this recently, and it felt like a light clicked in my head.  I had a nagging suspicion that Bulk Slash shared some secret connection to Herzog Zwei, in the robot that transforms into a jet, in the way enemy targets are protected by armored units.  Turns out my hunch was right.  I strongly suspect some members of the Herzog Zwei team were, in fact, involved in this game.

I love the variety of environments, missions, goals, and surprises in Bulk Slash.  Early levels involve flying through cities, smashing everything in sight.  Later levels involve escort missions, bombing runs, and run-and-gun missions through fortresses.  Power-up weapons are hidden around and require you to march around carefully, instead of flying and blasting everything in sight.  There's even a bit of a dating sim (a video game genre strangely popular in Japan), where you choose a young woman as your navigator, and proceed to impress her with your flying and shooting skills.  Oh, and you have to actually find these women, too.  I get a laugh whenever my navigator starts nagging me every time I get shot.  I'm trying to fight a war over here!

It's interesting how the PCE and Saturn were the two great "lost" video game consoles, condemned to failure in the West, while thriving successfully in native Japan with mountains of great games.  Thank goodness for the internet, I say.  How many of these "lost" classics would remain lost without Youtube, message boards, online retailers and downloads?  There are so many good Saturn games that you'll probably lose count, and if you're a collector, you'll likely never own all the titles.  Make sure Bulk Slash is near the top of your list.  It's a terrific video game and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Dezaemon 2 Video Showcase


Twin Dog's Heroes [Saturn Deza2] by RayonDePixel

I promised to show some examples of the many user-created shoot-em-ups created on Athena's 1997 Sega Saturn title, Dezaemon 2.  This is a magnificent construction program, very detailed and thorough, yet easy to comprehend.  If you can read Japanese, the 60-page instruction book will be immensely helpful.  You may also want to track down Athena's official guide book, which became a valuable tool for the devoted Deza2 scene in Japan.

What about English-speakers?  There is a guide on GameFAQs which is very helpful (though incomplete), and all the controls and features can be understood fairly easy.  In fact, I'm openly wondering why Athena (if they're even still in business today) hasn't released a deluxe Deza package for PC and Mac, allowing you to import graphics and audio.  Imagine that you could create your own arcade shmup, and then sell it on iTunes.  Deza2 is that sophisticated!

If you want to get into Deza2, you'll need a backup memory cartridge for the save data (games take up a whopping 1500-2500 blocks).  This presents a challenge for Saturn owners who rely on Action Replay's 4M Plus.  You may want to shop on eBay for a Japanese Saturn.  Fortunately, they're just as cheap and readily available as the American Saturns, in the $40-$60 range.  Let's face it, if you're playing Sega Saturn in the year 2011, you're already in an exclusive club of old-school videogamers.  Spring for the white box!

Anyway, as promised, here is a selection of actual shmups created on Deza2.  More videos after the jump!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Photos - Hyper Duel (Saturn)


I felt that Hyper Duel deserved a second post, so here's a collection of screenshots to enjoy.  All of these hail from the game's Saturn mode, which boasts refurbished graphics and gameplay additions like a lock-on for your Mech.  This is a great-looking video game.  And thanks to the internet, you can download this game, burn it to disc, and play it on your Saturn tonight.  I wouldn't even consider buying a retail copy until the prices come down to reality.

It's really a pity Technosoft didn't similarly revamp the graphics to their other arcade shooter, Blast Wind.  Even better yet, Saturn remakes of Herzog Zwei and Thunder Force II through IV.  Heck, why not do that today?

Technosoft's Hyper Duel on Saturn



My current go-to game on Sega Saturn is Technosoft's excellent 1996 shooter, Hyper Duel.  I played the arcade version on MAME a few years ago, but was slightly disappointed by the experience.  The Sega Saturn version, however, is a completely different story.  Of the three spaceship shooters on the system - Hyper Duel, Blast Wind, Thunder Force 5 - I think Hyper Duel is my favorite, which, of course, makes it my favorite side-scrolling arcade shoot-em-up on the Saturn.

In the arcades, Hyper Duel looked flat and even a little sickly; far too many greys and greens in the color palette.  On the Saturn, Technosoft completely revamps the graphics, adding light and contrast, and bringing a vivid saturation to the colors.  Explosions are a fiery red, enemy ships have a metallic sheen, stars and galaxies in the background look stunning.  It's a testament to glorious pixel-art; Hyper Duel now looks like a proper Technosoft game.  If only Herzog Zwei and Thunder Force III were remade with these graphics!  Ah, I can only dream.

You can tell that Technosoft came from a console background, because their arcade games are relatively simple and straightforward by comparison.  Hyper Duel (and Blast Wind, their vertical-scrolling shooter) doesn't have the winding, unpredictable level design of Thunder Force III and IV, a design that owes its allegiance to 2D platformers.  Instead, it's much more direct and tightly focused, and the levels are fairly short before you have to battle the giant bosses.  It's also very challenging, which meant pumping in lots of quarters at the arcade.

Oh, and have I mentioned that you pilot a spaceship that turns into a robot?  You can also call upon extra fighters or mechs to attack the enemy.  Shades of Technosoft's masterpiece, Herzog Zwei, no doubt.  You can choose among three spacecraft, which move at different speeds and have slight variations in weapons (even though they're basically the same).  And two players can fight together, a terrific addition that should have been included in the Thunder Force games.

Like all of Technosoft's Saturn games, Hyper Duel never left Japan, and it's an extremely rare game that currently sells for a king's ransom - $200 has been the going price at eBay for some time.  I can't fathom why you'd pay that kind of money for a single videogame, especially when you can download and burn to disc for free.  Bragging rights, no doubt.  The Saturn has become a highly prized collector's item among old school and shooter fans; it's a badge of honor for the true hardcore gamer, and Hyper Duel is one of their most prized trophies.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

DX Jinsei Game - The Game of LIFE



When going through my latest stack of Sega Saturn discs (thank you, internet), I found this entertaining little gem of a game.  It's DX Jinsei Game, or The Game of LIFE (1995), by Takara for Sega Saturn.  This is the third title in a very long and popular series that has appeared on most game systems from Gameboy to Playstation to Wii.  Do you remember the tropical island board game from last year's Wii Party?  Well, probably not, judging by the lackluster sales.  But DX Jinsei is kinda like that.

I don't know if The Game of LIFE is different in Japan than the US, because this video game version is quite different from the board game I played as a kid.  The basic premise is still there - you drive a car and move through a winding pathway, earning degrees, getting married, making money.  Takara's version is quite a bit different, adapted both for Japanese culture and the video game medium.  I really enjoyed this, because it kept me on my toes.  It felt like a new discovery for me.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

EA Kills Stereoscopic 3D

The kingmakers have now spoken.  Stereoscopic 3D is out for video games.  And in this business, whatever EA wants, EA gets.  Just ask Sega and Visual Concepts.

I can't imagine Nintendo surrendering 3D just yet.  They're heavily invested in the idea, and in fact, 3D is an obsession that goes back decades.  They have always been convinced that a 3D display is the future of video games.  Unfortunately, they've failed every time they tried it, whether it was Rad Racer on the NES, or the Virtual Boy, or the 3DS.  Their hope was that the technology only needed to come around, and then the massive push by Hollywood towards 3D movies no doubt convinced Nintendo that era had finally arrived.  Unfortunately, such an era has not arrived, and may never exist.

Does Nintendo have a contingency plan to remove the 3D display from their 3DS handheld?  I would have to think they do, if they're sound businessmen.  There has to be a Plan B.  But I can't imagine they would pull the trigger anytime soon.  As an admission of failure, it would be enormous, and the investments incurred to develop the 3D technology will be lost.  It would be seen as a major retreat, and it would probably cost Satoru Iwata his job.  But I think Iwata dooms himself and his company the longer he waits.  When Sony enters the market with the PS Vita, Nintendo will be assaulted on two fronts (with iOS attacking from the other side).  They lose "casual" gamers to $.99 iPod games, and they lose "hardcore" gamers to Sony.

How does a manufacturing company - and this is the kind of company Nintendo truly is - survive the transition into world without physical media?  It's all going away, cartridges, discs, poof.  The terrible irony is that it was Nintendo who proclaimed the coming changes five years ago.  This is why they radically changed course with the DS and Wii.  Unfortunately, as Nintendo raced back to the top, their old arrogant ways returned as well.

Again, I have no idea how Nintendo escapes from this trap, but I do know that sterescopic 3D and the Wii U tablet are doomed ventures.  Eventually, the company must face that grim reality and deal with the consequences.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Nintendo Made Their Myth, Now They're Trapped

The true crisis for Nintendo lies in how Apple has successfully disrupted their business model with iOS downloads. Nintendo true business isn't really video games, but manufacturing cartridges. That's where the real money comes in. Apple has now completely demolished that model with 99c downloads. And how can you compete against that? How low can you drive the price on a cartridge game and still turn a profit?

I've long felt that Nintendo's greatest strength is its legacy, and the Virtual Console should be the heart of their strategy. But that would require them to sell VC games for 99cents or less, on all formats. This is a bit of a problem, as we have seen how everyone within six degrees of Kevin Bacon wants their cut. The original developers, the original publishers, the original console owners – everyone wants a cut. And Nintendo wants the biggest cut of all. The end result are VC titles that sell for outrageous amounts, leaving the door wide open for iOS and Android to drive a truck through.

I honestly don't know how Nintendo gets out of this fix. The 3DS is a disaster of a handheld; it's not even a noble failure like the Sega Saturn (an immensely better console now that we have all those amazing Japanese games). If I were in charge, I would get rid of the 3D display entirely, get rid of the analog thumb-thing, fix the two screens, get the price under $90, and open up the complete Virtual Console and Ware libraries immediately. Oh, and all downloads are 99c or less. Fat chance on that.

But I don't think even that could help at this point. You still have the problem of selling expensive cartridges, and the rising development costs ensure that prices cannot come down anytime soon. If you could bring carts down to, say, $15, maybe you would have a fighting chance. Maybe. You would still have to deliver the kind of games that would justify that high price in the face of the iPod.

And while I'm at it (before security has me thrown out), I would immediately kill that stupid Wii U tablet and recommit to the Wii Remote, and fulfill all those promises that NIntendo made back in 2005. Unfortunately, they've neglected the Wii's expanded audience for so long, they may be lost for good. Ah, but what do I know? I'm the one guy who thought Wii Music was genius.

Anyway, there's no question at this point that Nintendo is the victim of the very thing - Disruptive Innovation - that they championed in 2006.  It's a nasty situation and things are only going to get worse.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nintendo 3DS Price Cut to $169.99

This is a shocker.  Nintendo isn't usually given to dramatic moves, like cutting the price of their latest system by nearly a hundred dollars. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and the 3DS is struggling badly.  More shocking: Nintendo will now incur losses on each sale.  They have never done that before.  They have always managed to sell their hardware at a profit; indeed, this is how they were able to thrive during the N64/Gamecube eras.

I still believe that the main problems with the 3DS handheld is 1) the headadache-inducing 3D display, 2) the enormously high price, and 3) the lack of any good games.  The price cut will definitely help.  Nintendo still has to address the 3D and software issues, and that's going to decide whether the system lives or dies.

As always, the 800-pound elephant in the room that nobody wants to discuss is Apple.  The iPod/iPad is becoming a formidable system, thanks to the easy touch-screen controls (people are intimidated by 14-button controllers) and the low price for games.  In our permanent recession, there simply isn't any play money to throw around.  If I can have a really great videogame for only a couple bucks, then that's a win for me.  People simply cannot afford $40-$60 game titles, especially when those games are nothing more than franchise copies of sequels of spinoffs of revivals.  Snooze.

At this point, I don't think even Mario Kart and a new 3D Mario is going to help.  I've already shelled out enough money for the same video games.  I want something new.  I don't see why that's so difficult.  The current game scene is dreadful.  I'm having far more fun burning another 200 or so Sega Saturn games, and, frankly, the Saturn games are far better than the overpriced schlock on store shelves today.

I think Nintendo had better change their strategy and fast.  The problem is...I have no idea just what their current strategy even is.  This is not the same company who gave us the DS and Wii Remote.  They had better find a way to rekindle that lost magic before it's too late.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Digital Pinball: Necronomicon



How many video pinball titles are there on Sega Saturn?  Seven.  Isn't that crazy?  Kaze's Digital Pinball series is easily the best, with their two games: Last Gladiators, which was released in the US, and Necromicon, which stayed in Japan.  Each game presents three different pinball tables, each with compelling physics and gameplay, music by Dream Theater guitarist John Pertrucci, and super-sharp graphics utilizing the Sega Saturn's high-res graphics mode.  This game looks terrific on a big screen, and plays a mean game of pinball.

Necronomicon is commonly regarded as the best pinball title on the Saturn, and it's another excellent addition to your gaming library.  One of these days, I'll start seriously collecting Japanese Saturn games, and this will be near the top of my list.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Three Dirty Dwarves



Three Dirty Dwarves is quintessential Sega.  It's clever, inventive, funny, visually dazzling.  It aggressively pushes the envelope for 2D video games, with graphics that would melt down a Sega Genesis.  Nobody else could create renegade gems like this; not Microsoft, not Sony, and sure as hell not Nintendo.

Ah, but times change, and in the 32-bit era, the video game public was becoming increasingly tired on all things Sega, and dashing to their new infatuation, the Playstation.  And they had no patience for 2D video games.  If it were released in 1991, Three Dirty Dwarves would be hailed as a masterpiece, right up there with Sonic and Toejam and Streets of Rage.  In 1996, it was all but ignored.  No polygons, no mas.

Today, 15 years later, it's the 3D polygons that look horribly out of place, roughshod, slapdash, and the 2D sprites shine gloriously.  Perhaps this is because Saturn was the last true 2D games console, where the art form was pushed to its absolute limit.  Notice the fluid animation, the quirky humor, the dazzling 3D effects.  How surreal that three dimensions appear more inspired, more dazzling, when they are tricked by 2D sprites?  I'm certainly not suggesting that we throw away modern graphics completely (although bringing color back would be nice).  Perhaps I'm jaded about 3D the way I once felt jaded about 2D.

Another thing that greatly impresses me today is how original this game is.  Sega was struggling badly against Playstation in 1996; if they had any chance of holding their ground in the US, that was the year.  And they did not rely on sequels and franchises and Genesis nostalgia.  There was no Streets of Rage, no Revenge of Shinobi, no Toejam and Earl, no Comix Zone, no Vectorman.  Instead, quirky and original games like: Three Dirty Dwarves, Mr. Bones, Virtual On, Bug Too!, Baku Baku Animal, Dark Savior, Worldwide Soccer '97.  That is a stellar lineup, my friends.

Anyway, this is not to slight the Playstation (which deserved its success), or to exonerate Sega (which deserved its meltdown).  The die for the 32-bit generation was already cast.  Fortunately, we now have the luxury of enjoying all of these old video games without dealing with the horse race politics.  Saturn and PSX are now in a nursing home and they're the best of friends.

DJ Wars - Sega Saturn



When it comes to Japanese Sega Saturn games, most of the attention is aimed towards 1) Tactical RPGs, 2) Arcade Shoot-Em-Ups, and 3) Fighting Games, mostly 2D.  It's only after you explore those veins that the search for the real hidden gems can begin.  And that's where you'll discover DJ Wars.

DJ Wars is essentially a free-form rhythm-music game, without the strict control of, say, Dance Dance Revolution.  This seems to be much closer - interestingly enough - to Nintendo's Wii Music.  The game sends you, an aspiring DJ, to various clubs to impress the dancers and show off your skills.  There are no guidelines telling you exactly what to do and when to do it; you really have to discover the flow and learn what each crowd likes.  In that sense, it's much more of a DJ simulation than anything.

There are 50 tracks available, and you can bring 7 LPs (take that, digital!) to your gigs.  You can mix two tracks, use faders, add samples, and if you're really good, add in some scratching.  Just like real life, you'll be spending most of your time practicing in your bedroom and honing your craft before heading to the clubs.  My roommate, Nate, happens to be a successful DJ, and that's exactly what happens at the house.  Whenever he's not working his day job at the University of Minnesota, he's practicing for the next show, and loud thmp-thmp-thmp beats shake through the walls.

Like many of the late-era Saturn games, DJ Wars never left Japan.  The software studio, Spike, has been very successful over the years with the modern consoles, including a lot of sports and racing titles.  They're also the developers of Madworld on the Wii, which got a lot of attention a couple years back.  DJ Wars appears to be their first full-on video game.  I wonder why they haven't brought it back?  Certainly there was a window during the rise of Guitar Hero and DJ Hero.  Perhaps the need for actual licensed music would make such a project far too expensive.

Once again, spiraling production costs have made daring, inventive, quirky video games an impossibility.  When publishers are gambling $50 million on a single title, they're going to be very, very conservative with their money.  This is why I miss Sega's consoles.  Sega was a true home for renegade gamers who wanted something different, something new.  And this is why Saturn and Dreamcast are so beloved by dedicated gamers today.

Choro Q Park - Sega Saturn





I only played Choro Q Park once, a few years ago when I was burning a giant stack of Sega Saturn discs, and I wasn't very impressed.  The graphics were very colorful and solid, but the pacing was a bit slow, and I really couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do.  Now I'm revisiting the game again, thanks to Youtube, and I'm finally able to see what all the fuss was about.

Takara's Choro Q series is based on tiny racing cars, better known in the US as Penny Racers.  The Saturn version was made in 1998, which puts it in that glorious "Late Saturn" period when most developers had finally cracked the beast and were churning out the console's best games.  Unfortunately, it was too late to make a difference, as Sega was about to introduce the Dreamcast in a desperate last stand.

Once you get moving, this is a really terrific little racer.  It's obviously the Saturn's answer to Mario Kart, and - dare I say it? - Choro Q Park's racetrack designs are better than Mario Kart 64.  Of course, I'm one of those gamers who felt disappointed by Mario Kart 64 (SNES, DS, and Wii versions are all superior), but it's still an impressive achievement for a relatively small outfit like Takara.

The idea in Choro Q Park is to collect Penny Racers, and there are 80 cars in all.  During a race, you can switch between four different vehicles on the fly, which is pretty cool, and once you're able to move up to the faster cars, this game really does take off.  Watch these Youtube videos and see for yourself.  Very nice!  I really enjoy the winding pathways, hills, and jumps in these racetracks - here is a perfect example of why track design peaked during the 32-bit era.  Developers were forced by short draw distances to create winding, weaving tracks; today, everything is just a straight line, and it's like driving through traffic.

I've long believed that the Sega Saturn needed another good year before retirement.  There were so many great games from Japan in 1997 and 1998, and they couldn't come to the US or Europe because, frankly, it was too late.  This would have been a welcome hit for Western Saturn fans.  This, and the other 400 or so Lost Saturn Classics.  Is this the most underrated videogame console of all time?  I've never seen a console's reputation completely turn around like the Saturn.  It's become the Captain Beefheart of video games.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dezaemon 2 - Sega Saturn's Best Kept Secret?


Back in EA's early days, they created a fantastic do-it-yourself computer game called Pinball Construction Set.  It was a game that allowed you to create your own pinball game, using a wide variety of parts and building tools, then save to disc and share with your friends.  It was just about the greatest toy for any kid in the 1980s, and spawned an industry of user-created titles over the years.

Here is Sega Saturn's answer to Pinball Construction Set - Athena's Dezaemon 2.  You get to create your own arcade shoot-em-up, vertical or horizontal scrolling, with an almost limitless array of effects, options and features.  It's almost stupid easy to create using templates, or you can create your own graphics and compose your own music from scratch.  And I don't mean that you can create a simple, rudimentary shooter that resembles some old BASIC program from 1981.  I mean that you can create modern shooters that give commercial games a run for their money.

Deza2 continues to have a small-yet-dedicated fan following in Japan, where the game was released back in 1997.  Yes, this is yet another of the 400 or so "Lost Sega Saturn Classics" from Japan, and it's among the very best.  Heck, if I was ten years old, I would swear on a stack of holy books that this is the single greatest video game ever made.

I'll have to post some Deza2 Youtube videos, just to show off the amazing variety and skill in some of these user-created shooters.  I'll also have to spend more time with it, hopefully without becoming absorbed for hours (hey, the weekend is short).  This is the sort of thing that hardcore gamers lived for 20 years ago.  Where did all the construction games go?  I'm guessing that in this day and age, you're probably better off creating an actual indie game for real and putting it on iTunes.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Just Dance Summer Party Limited Edition


 Now this is a pleasant surprised.  Ubisoft is pressing all of their Just Dance 2 downloadable tracks to disc and selling the package for $30.  This is just about the only thing happening on the Nintendo Wii this year, so it's definitely worth grabbing.  I do hope the Christmas medley (offered as a free download back in December) is included, because that's probably my favorite.  Oh, and Funkytown with a big green alien...good times.

Just Dance 2 was easily the best Wii game of 2010, and I expect Just Dance 3 to retain the crown for 2011.  I'm honestly not sure what happens to the series after this year; the arrival of Nintendo's Wii U will mark a dramatic shift away from motion controllers, and I fear the dance/fitness games will be left to die in the desert.  I don't know if there will be a Just Dance 4.  We should probably enjoy this party while it lasts.

Also, I wouldn't at all be surprised if this release really is a "limited edition."  Ubisoft makes far more money selling individual downloadable songs for three dollars a pop.  Snap this up while you can, kids;

Monday, June 27, 2011

Super Monaco GP on Genesis



Last weekend, I found a copy of Super Monaco GP for a whopping $3, which is a colossal steal.  My Sega Genesis is very happy indeed.  Super Monaco is easily the best series of racing games for the Genesis.  The first game was released in 1990 and quickly became a beloved favorite.  A sequel appeared in 1992 and featured the endorsement (and design assistance) by Ayrton Senna, and it's more refined and fine-tuned.  However...it didn't have the swimsuit model.  Teenage males pay attention to things like this.

Most racing video games from the 8/16-bit era age terribly, so I'm quite happy to see how Super Monaco GP retains all the skill and charm.  It was a watershed title for home consoles, far closer to the simulations on the PC, while still retaining the immediacy of the arcades.  In the world championship mode, you weren't really expected to win any races, but rank high enough to win the respect of rivals and teams.  Only after joining the right teams would you have a car powerful enough to compete for the checkered flag.

The 16 racetracks are all based on the 1989 formula-1 season, another landmark for home video games..  Each course has its own feel, and at least one really difficult turn.  Competing drivers are always breathing down your neck, and it's a constant fight just to hold your place.  Graphics are actually quite sensational by 1990 Genesis standards.  There's a lot of information on the screen, including that giant speedometer (very stylish).  Your rear-view mirror is essential for heading off rival cars, and the main driver-seat view is terrific.  I'm very impressed with the sense of speed in this game, and the smooth scrolling of road and objects.  This was a game that proudly boasted it's "16-bit Power!"

This really is a perfect video game.  I can't find a single credible fault with it.  Yes, the passwords are hideous, but we somehow learned to cope back in the day.  If you can find this game for five bucks or less, grab it immediately.  You'll be amazed.

Photos - Gunstar Heroes #1


This weekend, I found a copy of Gunstar Heroes for the Sega Genesis at one of the local shops.  They were asking $15, which is a bit pricey for my liking, but I'll probably be back next weekend with money in tow.  It's just about the best Genesis game ever made, blazing fast, explosions everywhere, always challenging, visually stunning.  Treasure struck the perfect tone in gameplay, technical effects, and outright weirdness.

Back in 1994, I didn't expect that I'd still be playing these games 15-20 years later; I probably expected that I'd have grown up and embraced a better hobby, or I assumed that video games would continue to grow and evolve.  Unfortunately, the shift to 3D polygon graphics meant abandoning the classic arcade paradigm, and embracing, well...something different.  Mostly cinematics.  Snore.  For all this technological greatness, video game design seems hopelessly stuck in the Playstation 1 era.

Thankfully, we have seen a revival of 2D video games in recent years, and there has been a decent attempt by some parties to return to the old-school arcade paradigm.  It's sobering to realize how most of those design skills have just vanished.  Designers and programmers honestly can't remember how to create a great arcade video game.  Strange.

And so I find myself returning to Sega's magnificent old consoles.  The best deal in videogames today is a Sega Genesis and a stack of cartridges, all of which could be had for the price of a single modern game.  Now that is a bargain, friends.  Show me a PS360 or Wii title that can compete with Revenge of Shinobi or Thunder Force III or Gunstar Heroes.  Nothing on the current scene holds my interest, apart from Minecraft and the Just Dance series.  Seriously, if you love video games, get yourself a (model 1) Genesis.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Videogame Classics - Super Mario World


 
Super Mario World
Nintendo
Super NES
1991

Nintendo fans will argue among themselves as to which Super Mario game was the absolute best, but everyone agrees that the golden period ranged from 1990 to 1996, from Super Mario Bros 3 on NES to Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island on the Super NES, and Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. That's the absolute peak of Shigeru Miyamoto's playful genius.

For my money, Super Mario World is the best one. This was where Mario was his most expressive, his most colorful, his most inventive. It can be easy to forget, as games lumber on from one franchise sequel to the next, that there could be a game where practically everything in it is new, or at least novel. Eventually, the games cater more and more to the demands of the fans, like middle-aged rock stars who surrender their creativity and just play their old hits.

I think that's the feeling I'm finally stuck with by the time I finished New Super Mario Bros on Nintendo DS. That game was little more than a sugar-coated nostalgia circuit, a videogame greatest hits album. The early thrill gave way to a weary sense of disappointment, a feeling of going through the motions for the sake of going through the motions. This is why I'm not a fan of high school reunions.

I don't think New Super Mario has one tenth the inventiveness and brilliance of Super Mario World. Just run through all the cool moments that have become standard Nintendo lore. Yoshi the dinosaur. The Yoshi eggs. The Ghost Manor. The Big Boo. Switch palaces. The hidden keyholes. The star world. The extra-secret star world. The shortcut to Bowser's castle that almost skips through the entire game. The Superman cape. Flamethrowing dinosaurs. Flying dolpins. Rotating cages. Sunken ships.

There's that world map that can be skipped about from one place to the next, provided you can find the secret exists to star world. For that manner, there are all those secondary exits from the stages. You don't need to find them; it's just all part of the fun of wandering around and having fun for fun's sake. That's the real joy of Miyamoto; his childhood thrill of exploring and discovering. It's a great tribute that all the best exits require your most agile skills to discover.

There's another moment in Super Mario World that became one of the most-copied standards of modern videogame. It's the very first level with the Superman cape. You can hop down a pipe and go to a secret place, a wide area with nothing but coins in the air. The purpose is to teach you the new skill of flying with the cape. There must be several hundred coins up there, and it takes you some time if you want to grab them all. Eventually, you learn the subtlety of flying, which is an essential skill for finding all those secondary exits and keyholes.

Every videogame since then gives you the chance to learn a new skill and practice it out before it's fully called into service. Every game. It's probably the greatest contribution to game design since, well, the original Super Mario Bros.

Also, I should also point out my all-time favorite Mario secret. It's the prize you win once you've completed the second star road, eight stages of hardcore gaming hell. Damn, those are hard levels to get through, but get through them you can, and when you step back into the real world...well, if you've never played through this game, it'd be horrible of me to spoil it for you. I really think this is the point where the psychedelics really kick in. Miyamoto's Magical Mystery Tour.

Oh, and I love the ending to the game. The final battle against Bowser's far better than the anti-climactic finish to Super Mario 3, and we are treated to one of the all-time best endings. And what's with all the ragtime music? Who thought up that? Genius.

I think Shigeru Miyamoto knew that he reached a peak with this game that could never be surpassed. That's why he started his period of grand experimentation, of veering into stranger and stranger directions. Yoshi's Island is an entirely different beast, the electric kool-aid acid test of the Mario universe. Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy, indeed. And Super Mario 64 (and its 3D children) inhabits its own universe, a different realm of reality. There wouldn't be a proper, 2D Mario game for fifteen years. I never could have imagined that, as I was discovering the final, masterfully psychedelic secrets, that Super Mario World would be the last great trip.

Hopefully, the blockbuster success of New Super Mario Bros DS and New Super Mario Bros Wii (aka "Super Mario Bros 5") will encourage Nintendo to embrace this 2D series once again.  I only ask that future games not recycle the same old formulas; instead, reconnect to that wild, zany, psychedelic spirit that made Super Mario World so memorable.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Wii Game Proposal #2: Super Manta Racing



What a cool title for a video game: "Super Mantra Racing." Nintendo games don't have "Super" in their titles anymore. They should fix that. Everything sounds better when it's Super. And it has manta rays...that race!

This is a video of the manta ray racing world from Super Mario Galaxy. It was probably my favorite part of the entire game, and like many of you, I expected that Nintendo would quickly follow up with a full racing game. It's one of the most obvious ideas for a Nintendo Wii game, right up there with motion-control sports and lightsabers. Strange how this has never happened.

There's a lot to like about the Wii, but despite Nintendo's great success, the console feels, well, incomplete. The Dreamcast has a more complete game library than the Wii. How bizarre is that? The possibilities of the Wii Remote have yet to be exhausted; heck, they've only barely been scratched, and now Nintendo is shuffling off to play with their next set of toys. Meanwhile, I could have a dozen killer Dreamcast games and never want for anything again.

In any case, the water racing level from Mario Galaxy should be expanded into a complete game, using the Mario Kart engine, and featuring all manner of fish, dolphins, sharks and whales. That would be pretty cool. I don't think a fish racing videogame has ever been made. That would be a completely new idea. Four-player split-screen is a must, as always, as is online, and skilled designers should be able to come up with lots of cool ideas for racetracks. I'd probably aim for something closer to Hydro Thunder than Wave Race, but you'd probably want to keep it fairly close to the Mario Kart formula.

Oh, and I'd try to work in at least one surfing level. I've been playing Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer on Gameboy Advance lately, and I love that game. I'm probably the only person on the planet who knows that game ever existed...whatever. It's a classic and every California Games fan will agree with me. What kind of stunts would a dolphin or manta perform? You have to have stunts. But surfer slang is optional.

Ferrari 355 Challenge at Sega Dreamcast's Wake



There's something special about a Sega console.  They define arcade video games better than anyone, except perhaps Atari.  When the Dreamcast died, you knew that everything would just turn into mud.  Admit it.

Ferrari 355 Challenge was probably the last great achievement in Yu Suzuki's long and storied career.  I really have no idea what he's been doing for the past decade.  Sega restructured itself as they shrunk and morphed into a soulless publisher of bad Playstation/Xbox games.  Oh, and bad Sonic sequels.  Lots and lots of bad Sonic sequels.  Sigh.

I think Ferrari 355 has the best graphics of any Dreamcast game, and it was a spectacular demonstration of the console's strengths.  It would have been interesting to see how far it could be pushed, to see if Sega's remarkable string of hit games would continue.  Sigh again...isn't it funny how every discussion about the Dreamcast turns into a funeral wake?  Maybe that's nostalgia talking, maybe we're all getting old.  But it seems that video games themselves are fading away, becoming pop relics of the past, just like those '80s arena rock tunes playing on the Ferrari's radio.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Old School and New School

It seems to me that video games are being divided into two major camps, the Old School and the New School.  As I'm sure you can guess, I'm a defender of Old School video games, and I was thinking about this while window shopping local stores, as well as listening to some Terence McKenna lectures on James Joyce and Marshall MacLuhan.  I'd like to take a look at a couple of Youtube videos that demonstrate, for me, at least, the distinction between these two different theories and why I prefer one paradigm over the other.




This first game is Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's HAWX 2 for the Nintendo Wii.  It's an air combat game that was released late last year to a cool reception, and pretty much died at retail.  I see that it's now a $20 title, which grabbed my interest, since I'm such a big fan of airplane combat games.  Unfortunately, the game is wholly a product of the New School, with all the unfortunate baggage that entails.

The problem with New School games is that they are trying to be something they're not.  They're trying to be movies instead of video games.  This has been a particular obsession ever since the rise of CD-ROM, but really took off with the rise of Playstation and became dominant around the time the Dreamcast died.  Now, games are designed entirely around the "cinematic experiene," with cut-scenes, voice acting, dramatic camerawork, and so on.  The problem is that we are trying to graft the "hot" media of film onto the "cold" media of video games.  It cannot work.  Print is not radio.  Radio is not television.  Video games are not film.

Observe the HAWX 2 video.  Note how long this video plays before we even see any actual gameplay.  We have to watch the introduction, with military quotes and credits for the voice actors.  We have to watch the movie scenes, which strangely play out like Hot Shots taken seriously.  Everything is coated in Hollywood "military" music.  After a small eternity, we finally get to the game, like a candy buried under a dozen wrappers...and it's a forced tutorial sequence.  Why do all these modern games have forced tutorials, and such pointless ones, at that?  Whatever happened to the instruction manual?

The key is that we are observers, not participants.  We are passive, not active.  I may be watching cut scenes on a game console, but I'm not playing a game.  I'm just watching another movie clip.  And once I do get my turn to play, the rules of the game are structured completely around the movie scenes.  Everything is done in service to character and plot, not the immediacy of emergent gameplay.  Perhaps this is why New School games rely so heavily on puzzles.  Puzzles can be scripted, their outcome is predetermined.  There is no room for surprise, no room for improvisation, no room for free will.  It makes for a pretty lousy video game.

To me, that's very unfortunate, because I really want to like a game like HAWX 2.  It's clear that a great amount of work was put into its creation, the development team is extremely talented - the graphics are astonishing for any kid who grew up on Atari - and Heaven only knows how difficult it is to eke out a living in the video game industry.  I want these programmers, designers and artists to succeed.  I want the medium itself to succeed and expand.  But I don't believe success lies within the New School paradigm of cinematic-oriented games.




Now let's move on to the Old School.  This second video needs no introduction - Sega's Afterburner II.  Yeeh!  This is one of the greatest Old School video games ever created.  This is a perfect illustration of what arcade games do best - fast thrills, exciting action, narrow escapes from sudden death.  There is no dawdling around, no claims of artistic greatness.  Game designers and programmers didn't have that luxury in the past, because their arcade game has to compete against 30 other arcade machines for the players' attention (and money).  This is not a realm of pontificating and philosophizing.  This is the realm of the iconic now.

I remember this video arcade in downtown Duluth back in the 1980s that would hand out free game tokens for every A and B you scored on your report card.  It was a terrific motivation.  They had an upright Afterburner II, and it really was the coolest thing ever for a 14-year-old.  Graphics were packed with color and detail, large airplanes exploded in bursts of flame, and we were barely dodging enemy missiles and spinning barrel rolls while firing back.  This is exciting.  This is fun.  I like to imagine that I'm a daredevil pilot, cheating death and saving the world.

Is Afterburner shallow?  Yes, most definitely, and that's a very good question.  But all Old School games don't have to be that way; there is tremendous room for variety and depth.  The freedom of improvisation that is given to the player is given to the programmer and designer as well.  We must be careful not to follow the wrong path in the pursuit of "depth."  Depth and complexity are found in the content of the gameplay, not the storyteller's vision.  "Shallow" and "deep" are more complex than they seem.

For me, a New School video game like HAWX 2 is more shallow than Afterburner II.  I feel like I'm being led by the hand down a straight line.  I feel like I have no freedom, no room for surprise.  Whenever I get hit by the Creepers in Minecraft, it's always sudden and unexpected, and I jump out of my seat with my heart in my throat.  And it's a fantastic rush.  Creepers can put the zap on you anywhere, anytime.  Planes and missiles can strike from any angle in Afterburner.  Pirates can steal my crystite in MULE.  My quarterback can get injured in John Madden '92, and then the ambulance runs over all the players.  For me, this is the stuff of life.  This is fun.

Simply put, I don't want to be a passive observer.  I want to be an active participant.  I want to be a player.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Photos - Herzog Zwei


I didn't want the tone of this blog to become purely negative and critical, so here are a few screenshots of Technosoft's legendary Herzog Zwei in action.  This arcade-strategy video game is considered by many to be the grandfather of the Real-Time Strategy game, although it bears few similarities to Dune 2, Command and Conquer, and other such staples of the genre.  It's really very unique, a lightning strike in a bottle, always very fast, always very tense, perfectly suited for multiplayer.  And the music absolutely kicks.

Herzog Zwei is the best game ever made for the Sega Genesis, and remains one of my all-time favorites.  I'm not kidding when I say Sega should bring back their 16-bit console.  Jack Tramiel brought back the Atari 2600 in the midst of the NES boom and made millions.  There's no reason that couldn't happen again.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Get Up Stand Up

Cracked recently published a provocative and, well, very depressing look at future trends of the video game industry.  "The 6 Most Ominous Trends in Video Games" is certainly a must-read, and I feel like I should go through all the bullet points in detail, Malstrom-style.  But, like I said, it's very depressing.

Here's what I don't understand.  If the game industry is becoming little more than a three-card monte at a subway station, why is anyone putting up with it?  Why can't these "hardcore" gamers stand up for themselves and demand some rights?  There's no reason to shovel tons of money at crooked game companies who only want to nickel-and-dime you to death.  DRM, DLC, Cloud Gaming, Pay-to-Play...Fer crying out loud, people, show a little backbone.  Stop giving these crooks your hard earned money.

Video games have been around for over 40 years.  We have dozens of game consoles and computers, and literally tens of thousands of video games.  If the entire enterprise disappeared from the Earth tomorrow, we'd be fine.  Our grandchildren would be fine.  Isn't this the real reason why this industry doesn't want to grow?  The small and shrinking clique of "hardcore" fanboys will always shovel out money on cue, receive nothing in return, and beg for seconds.  At this point, they're little more than domesticated pets.

Hardcore Gamers Will Never Embrace Nintendo

And so it begins.  We all knew it was a matter of time before the so-called "hardcore gamer" crowd found some reason to not embrace Nintendo's next console, the Wii U.  What is that reason?  The analog circle pads aren't proper thumb sticks.  Yep, guess that means they'll be sticking with their PS360s.

This is one of those "Lucy and the football" events.  The hardcore gamers are a small minority, but they're very loud, and they also happen to be the ones with the magazines and websites.  They whine and whine and whine for Nintendo to give them complete and total attention, and then never deliver the goods.  It's very infantile and, frankly, embarrassing for both sides.  The hardcore clique should grow up, and Nintendo should learn to ignore them.

Nintendo has been spending the past couple of years focused almost exclusively on the hardcore clique, to the point of alienating and nearly abandoning the Wii's true core market.  Take a look at the games released in 2010 - Super Mario Galaxy 2, Metroid: Other M, Sin & Punishment 2, Samurai Showdown 3, NBA Jam, Goldeneye, Call of Duty, etc etc.  I even remember Kirby's Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns being heaped with hype and praise by the gamer press last year.

So where did all these gamers go?  None of these games were successful at retail.  Galaxy 2 was a moderate hit, but still managed to sell a quarter as many units as Super Mario 5.  Nearly everything else just tanked.  They just don't deliver the goods.  Time and again, they make a lot of noise, but never deliver the goods.  Notice that the 3DS isn't going anywhere, despite the ridiculous hype.  The Wii U will meet the same fate, I assure you.

Maybe we shouldn't call this crowd the "hardcore" gamers.  They're really "industry" gamers, with all that implies.  The video game press has always been in the industry's back pocket, and there was a shining moment in the mid-90s when it looked like that would change, but the moment passed.  It's too bad.  I really miss Kunkel Katz Worley and magazines like VG&CE.  Those guys knew how to respect their readers and be honest.  The video game media today is full of fluffers and lapdogs.

Anyway, I don't mean to be grouchy.  I'm acting enough like Grampa Simpson, and I doubt this is being helpful.  I'm still too young to be shaking my fist as passing clouds.  The bottom line is that Nintendo really must stop trying to cater to a game industry that will never accept them.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

This is Why Video Games Are Dying


Today's video game industry is in decline, and in Japan, the decline may be terminal. This decline has been obscured by Nintendo's spectacular success with the DS and Wii, but now that they are planning to move away from the growing markets responsible for that growth, the decline will become all too obvious.

So why are video games dying? Simple. The people who work in this industry don't want to make video games. They don't want to be thought of as toy makers or nerdy computer programmers. They want to be seen as artists. They want to be movie directors, rock stars, celebrities. In the pursuit of this goal, the rush for ever-more powerful hardware has sent budgets skyrocketing to over $50 million per title. That's fifty million dollars to make a single video game. This is total madness.

The average age of today's gamer is 35. That means these "cinematic experiences," or whatever the hell they're called, are consumed largely by aging Generation Xers. I shouldn't have to point out that this strategy is certain suicide; frankly, it's amazing that my generation is still spending money on video games. But real life will force itself upon us, as we increasingly deal with marriage, raising children, taking care of aging parents, burying grandparents. We have to seriously focus our free money on our homes, our retirement, our health care (thanks to the USA's third-world "bah humbug" system). If you're still harboring fantasies of playing Xbox games until 2am when you're pushing 40, lemmie tell ya, it ain't gonna happen. Wake up.

Video games have to be video games, not movies, not television shows, not art school projects. This is not about the "creativity" and "vision" of the game designers. This is not about a pampered class of prima donnas who wish to be paid to sit in their chairs and lounge around, all while their horribly overpriced cinematic movie games fail to stop the decline of the market, or even turn a profit. Nobody asked for these stupid video game "movies." It's embarrassing, like watching a grown man playing with dolls. That's what comes to mind when I see something like Mass Effect 2 (shown above). This is where the obsession over "video games are art" ends. This is how bloated industries decay and die.

At some point in the future, even the most gullible of the "hardcore gamers" will get sick and tired of consuming the exact same gun games again and again. Is Microsoft really making a Halo 6? Notice how they're deliberately mis-numbering the upcoming title as "Halo 4," hoping that you'll forget the last two Halo sequels. Is this all we'll ever get? Good Lord, there's even a Batman gun game on the horizon. And let's not get me started on the newly-released, long-awaited Duke Nukem Forever. Nothing but hand-holding manipulation to lead you from Bad Movie Cut-Scene A to Bad Movie Cut-Scene B. Yuck!

I think the dirty little secret is this: most 30-somethings only continue to buy video games out of habit. That, and nostalgia. It's just something that we've done since childhood, and we always believed that video games themselves, as a pop-culture force, would live on forever. But that just isn't the truth, and it hasn't been the truth for a long time. It's about time that we honestly acknowledge that fact. Today's game industry is a slop factory churning out plasticine, digitized horseshit. And for that, I am truly sorry, because compost has given us so much.

I'll bet you were thinking that modern games were about you, the player and consumer? Sorry. These "cinematic experiences" aren't for you, grampa. They're for the arteests who are gracious enough to bless us with their wondrous presence. Oh, thank goodness for these geniuses and their wonderful vision! Why should I even watch a real movie, or read a book, when I have the wonderful brilliance of Duke Nukem and Mass Effect and Alan Wake and Modern Warfare? Truly, we live in a golden age. I'll go set fire to my Sega Genesis at once.

If video games, as a cultural force, truly die, then it's because it deserves to die.

-------------------



Where the hell are the investors? That's what I want to know. Where are the business tycoons? Where are the cold-heared capitalists who care only about making money and adding new customers? These are the questions rolling through my head this week in the wake of Nintendo's disastrous E3 conference. Nintendo had no games for DS, no games for Wii. They did show a tablet controller, aimed at attracting industry support so you can play the same stupid gun games you already have on the PS360. They showed a tablet that resembles an iPad, only with 14 buttons and a primitive touch-screen. They have a handful of gimmicky demos that appear to be nothing more than existing Wii titles, but with a silly gimmick tacked on at the end.

Did anybody ask for this? Did anybody think to themselves, "Gee, Wii Sports is fun, but what I really need is a bulky tablet to put on the ground so I can see my golf ball?" Really? I mean, really?? Any such customers exist only within Nintendo's imagination. It's kind of like that Simpson's episode where Marge tells Homer to steal a car. Homer completely imagines it, of course, but it's good enough for him. Let's-a go! Wii owners have been frustrated about one issue: a lack of games. We want more motion-control and old-school video games. We never asked for a tablet.

Nintendo is a unique case of insanity. They carefully build a successful brand (Wii) and business strategy, and then turn completely around and abandon it. They build the Wii Remote, a remarkable device that returns video games to its simple 1980s roots, and then refuse to make any games that use it. They continually roll out trinkets and gadgets, use them once or twice, then throw them away as their superstar game designers become bored. How many ridiculous gadgets has Nintendo punched out over the last decade? There's the Wii Remote, the Balance Board, the Steering Wheel, the Wii Remote Plus, before that there were some bongo drums, a cable that connected a Gamecube to a Gameboy Advance, the E-Reader...am I missing anything?

"The Wii Remote is the foundation of this company. Period." That's the only thing I want to hear from Nintendo's top brass. Instead, all I hear is about Shigeru Miyamoto's personal whims. He doesn't want anything to do with the Wii because it's "old tech." He can't be bothered to follow through the spectacular success of Wii Sports and Wii Play and Mario Kart and Super Mario 5...he just doesn't feel like it. But he did have time to create a personal vanity project instead, called Wii Music. Wii Music was a disaster at retail, a miserable failure...and I'm the one guy who actually liked that game.

Did you ever seriously believe that when Nintendo announced its successor to the DS handheld that most of Nintendo's software titles would be warmed over leftovers from the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube? Zelda Ocarina, Starfox 64, Animal Crossing, Luigi's Mansion...Yes, Luigi's Mansion, the launch game that sunk the Gamecube. Why is it being made? Because Miyamoto wants to do it. End of discussion.

Will we get a new game that uses the Motion Plus? How about a sword fighting game? How about more old school 2D games like Super Mario 5? How about a New Legend of Zelda (going back to the NES originals)? How about Ice Hockey, or Ice Climber, or Rad Racer, or RC Pro Am, or Gauntlet, or Contra, or Life Force? Why can I come up with more ideas for Wii games in 30 seconds than Nintendo could in the last three years?

"No, no, no, no, no. I don't want to do it. I want to play with my new trinket instead. Until I get bored."

Notice that neither Miyamoto nor anyone else at Nintendo suffers any penalty when their vanity projects crash and burn at retail. Yoshio Sakamoto all but buried Metroid with Other M, a bloated (wait for it) cinematic stink burger. Eiji Aonuma has all but ruined the Legend of Zelda series with one gimmick-laden puzzle game after another. Does anything happen to these so-called "gaming gods?" Of course not. Despite making a train wreck of one beloved franchise after another, Nintendo keeps these men dutifully employed and overpaid, with no change in direction, and no enforcement from the executives at the top. They continue, unabated, with their own personal "visions" of artistic greatness.

Perhaps the blame needs to go to the top. Does Nintendo President Satoru Iwata have any clue what he is doing? Did he ever have a clue? I'm beginning to believe the Wii was as much a surprise to Nintendo as it was to the rest of the game industry. It's not everyday that your press conference ends with more questions than when it began. Wii U? Well, which is it? We, or You? Is the tablet the controller, or the system itself? Why do multiplayer games require the Wii Remotes instead of more tablets? Does this console use only one controller?

In answer to the last question, yes. The Wii U only allows for a single tablet controller per console. Imagine that. The extra players can still use their Wiimotes, which pretty much makes the whole tablet concept useless. Imagine if Nintendo released the N64 with only a single analog controller, and then refused to sell any more at retail. "Don't worry, you can still use your Super Nintendo controllers." In other words, go pound sand. Miyamoto is busy waxing poetic about his "experiences" and "imagining the possibilities." You go play in the corner by yourself with your little pretend tablet.

Do these people not believe in capitalism? Do they just not want to make money? Frankly, it's a miracle the company's stock only fell 10% in the wake of the U's unveiling. Nintendo's stock price is now back to where it was before the Wii was launched in 2006. Iwata has lost all the money. This is why video games are dying.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Wii Game Proposal #1: Wii Sports Baseball


As I'm sure you can gather by scanning this blog, I'm a little frustrated with Nintendo at the moment.  However, I don't wish to be negative or critical without offering some positive solutions.  The lack of quality games for the Wii is a problem that can be easily solved.  There's still nothing wrong with the Wii that couldn't be solved with some excellent multiplayer arcade and motion-control games.  Yeah, I know, it'll never happen.  But we can dream.

Here's my first Wii Game Proposal - Wii Sports Baseball.

This is one of those ideas that seemed so obvious, so inevitable back in 2006, that it feels slightly surreal that it's never happened.  The idea is this: Expand the sporting events in Wii Sports into full games.  See?  It's easy.  This idea wouldn't work with every sport - bowling and tennis are already perfect as they are - but it definitely works with baseball, golf and boxing.

The trick is to keep things simple and iconic.  Wii Sports is, at its heart, a collection of early NES sports games, and you need to stay focused on that simple, arcade approach.  Professional sports licenses aren't necessary, nor are mountains of stats, nor simulation-heavy ideas like injuries and trades and salary caps.  The most important thing is to create a very fun game of baseball.

Fielding

Thankfully, the fundamentals in Wii Sports Baseball are already perfect.  The batter/pitcher duel is 90% of the sport, and it's very satisfying to play.  Fielding is the only major addition, and thanks to the Wii Remote's d-pad, it should be very easy.  Just hold the d-pad in the direction of the base you wish to throw, and swing your arm.  The speed of the ball depends on your throw, either a lob or a bullet pass.  A bullet throw will get the ball to your baseman more quickly, but it should also increase the odds of a dropped pass.  This could add a little drama when runners attempt to steal an extra base.

The biggest challenge would be control of your fielders.  Personally, I've always been terrible with manual control.  I never have enough time after throwing the pitch to respond to the ball, determine which fielder I'm controlling, or reacting to the change in camera angle.  When I play World Series Baseball '98 on Sega Saturn (my all-time favorite baseball videogame), I always choose "automatic" fielders.

For these reasons, I propose that fielding in Wii Sports Baseball be automatic.  Arcade games aim to capture the essence of the experience; think of the automatic running in Wii Sports Tennis.  This is the key difference between arcade and simulation games.



Bunting and Baserunning

Now let's look at offense.  Swinging the bat is already a lot of fun, but use of the Wii Motion Plus would enable a more accurate and complete experience.  Do you realize the Motion Plus was unveiled three years ago?  At what point is Nintendo actually going to use that thing?!  I swear, they have the attention span of a mayfly.

Anyway.  Bunting should be enabled by holding the Wii Remote sideways and holding down the A or B buttons, similar to going into "guard stance" in WSR swordplay.  Aiming the bat should affect the angle of the ball.  Standard videogame stuff.

Base running is slightly trickier.  The default action would be to stop at the next base; that's what would happen if you did nothing.  To continue running to the next base, shake the Wiimote.  This could either be thought of as a "running" motion, or a coach "waving" the runner along.  Hmm, now that I think about it, shaking the Wiimote up and down should make the batter sprint.  I like a lot of action and movement, so I can see this as a chance to work up a sweat.  To retreat to the previous base, you should just hold down the A or B button.  This is consistent with the bunting motion, and fits with the overall design.

Now here's the tricky part.  Should you be able to advance all runners at once, or should you move them one at a time?  This has always been a design dilemma in videogame baseball.  I can see the merits of both styles.  Wii Sports Baseball aims for a simple, iconic design, however, so I think we should move all the runners together.  Base running has a strategy all its own, but we don't need it to become complicated.

Pitching/Fielding Extras

The pitcher should be able to bean the batters with the ball.  No real reason, other than a cheap laugh.  The knockdown animations (yeah, more than one) should be really funny.  If you could hit batters in Home Run on the Atari 2600, you should be able to do it today.

Also, I want to be able to swing my bat down on the plate when I miss a pitch.  I do this every time in Wii Sports almost by habit.  It's another throwaway gesture, but it adds a bit of color and humor to the game.


 
Gameplay Modes and Leagues

Now that we have the gameplay established, refined and polished, we can work on the gameplay modes.  I think we all know what to expect here - Exhibition, Season, Playoffs, Home Run Derby.  In season, you should be able to select the number of total games, and certainly nothing near a full 160 games.  Too exhausting!  I should probably fire up some NES sports games so I can see how the experts used to do it.  Protip: All video game designers should have an NES handy for quick reference.

For Home Run Derby, I'd like to see some extra features added, like having to hit targets.  How about a variation on Breakout where you have to smash down a giant, multicolored wall?  How about a cameo by the ducks from Duck Hunt?  Wouldn't that be cool?  You could hit the ducks with the ball and win a surprise cameo by the dog!  Now that would be terrific.  Protip: Every good videogame deserves Easter Eggs.

Now onto the league.  Because Wii Sports Baseball aims back to the NES era of sports games, we don't need any licenses.  No logos, no team names, no players, no nothin'.  I'm amazed that nobody remembers sports games before EA.  Heck, the first three Maddens on the Genesis didn't have any official licenses; those also happened to be the best ones.  Coincidence?  Hmm.

How many teams should we have?  Good question.  I think it's best if the number if proportional to the length of the season, but it should be a healthy number.  Should there only be teams in US and Canada, or around the world?  I'm suddenly having visions of that cool globe from Wii Party.  It would be really fun to watch the home team plane fly across the ocean for some baseball.  Yeah, let's do that.

Create a Team

Naturally, the whole point in playing Wii Sports is to see all your Mii characters playing along.  A Create-a-Team option is an absolute must.  You would choose characters for set positions, like, say, The Count at first base, Fat Elvis at right field, Janis Joplin at shortstop.  Charlie Brown at pitcher.

When you select your pitcher, you would then be able to choose that player's arsenal of pitches.  Remember that Wii Sports Baseball lets you throw four different kinds of pitches.  In this full version, you can select from a list.  What kinds of pitches should we use?  The usual suspects - fastball, curveball, slider, screwball, changeup.  There should also be some gag pitches, like, oh...Whiffle Ball?  We also have to include "Fat Pitch" as an homage to Accolade's Hardball, one of the great videogame sports classics.  Video games today should honor its heritage, and there should be more humor; this business takes itself far too seriously.

Finally, there should be teams based on classic videogame systems.  The players will have the console on their uniforms, maybe these should be regional championship teams, like boss characters?  Atari would be in the US, NES would be in Japan, Genesis would be in Europe, Neo-Geo would be in S. America.  You get the point.  Now that sounds like a lot of fun!  I want to play this game right now!

Final Extras

Instead of playing a national anthem at the start of the game, we should get some classic video game chiptune music.  Remember Blades of Steel?  Or Ice Hockey?  Those games had terrific arcade music.  Everything in this game should shout "FUN" in giant crayons.  People should want to play with a smile on their faces.

There should be fireworks displays when you win a night game.  Oh, yeah, we should have day and night games.  Perhaps each city should have its own stadium with unique features, keeping in spirit with the location, but nothing too slavish.  Maybe there should be classic game themes in some stadiums?  Duck Hunt Stadium, here we come!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the full and complete Wii Sports Baseball.  Tell me you wouldn't rush to the store to buy copies for you and everyone you know.  Tell me this wouldn't be the most fun you'll have all season.  Now copy this essay and send it to Nintendo's top brass and demand that it be made.

Nintendo Stock Watch

Nintendo's stock fell 5.7% yesterday, and is currently down anothet 5.2% today.  Pay very close attention today and tomorrow. If there isn't a rebound by the close of Friday, things will get very interesting.

Nintendo has two serious problems that need to be resolved before stock prices can rebound: 1) Prima Donna game designers who only work for themselves, and 2) Executives who refuse to discipline them.  This company has no direction, no focus, no plan.  Everything depends solely on the whims of Miyamoto.

The Wii will continue to be the company's flagship system for the next 18 months; it needs quality games and it needs them now.  Nintendo needs to address the 3DS situation quickly, and move aggressively against Sony's PS Vita, which is gathering a lot of positive buzz at E3.  They also need to resolve the problem of game controllers for the U console; only one tablet per system, really?!  Splitting multiplayer control between tablet and Wii Remotes will prove disastrous for developers.  Most will simply eliminate local multiplayer altogether.  And we haven't discussed potential lost revenue from the lack of accessories at retail.

Miyamoto's assertion that players could simply use a 3DS as a second tablet controller - a $250 portable! - is beyond outrageous.  The last royal figure who said, "Let them eat cake" lost her head.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Simple Prop to Occupy My Time


So Nintendo has finally revealed their new controller and next console, dubbed the Wii U...and investors responded by sending the company's stock price to its lowest level in five years.  These investors are smart.

If anything, they're a year late. Nintendo has fallen back into their selfish, lazy ways, lost in daydreaming and personal vanity projects, while deliberately ignoring (if not starving) their Wii market. The E3 presentation did a poor job of selling the new controller, and only left us with more questions than answers. And despite what everyone may wish to believe, the demo games shown will become retail games next year. It happened with Wii Sports and Wii Play in 2006, it happened with the 3DS' "augmented reality" demos last year.

Nintendo has shown that they are selfish and lazy. No support for the Wii...why? Only one newly-announced game for the 3DS...why? A sequel to the failed game that sank the Gamecube? Really? And are we really going to get barely-updated versions of Wii Sports and Wii Fit with tablet features no one ever wanted? Mii characters cut and pasted onto a hacked rerun of Super Mario 5?

Nintendo is also building a reputation for being unreliable and undependable. They build a new gadget, use it only once or twice, then throw it away and move onto the next little trinket. Where are the Motion Plus games? Where are the Wiimote's motion-control games? What about the Wii Balance Board? Remember the Gamecube-GBA connector? Remember the E-Reader?

Nintendo promises a new world of innovative videogames, then they quit and walk away after one or two pet projects because they just can't be bothered to put in any effort. Here's a sequel to Luigi's Mansion that nobody asked for. It was a miserable failure on the Gamecube, and it will be a failure again. But Shigeru Miyamoto makes it beacause that's what he wants. Building on Wii Sports and Wii Play? Can't be bothered. They're through with motion controls. He can't even be bothered to come up with new games for the Wii U! These new versions of Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Super Mario 5 are what the kids call "hacks." Hmph. Pretty much sums up the company, too.

What reason is there to believe that Nintendo will show any more support to their tablet controller? They'll come up with a novel use or two, publish a couple of early launch games, and then walk away. We're done! On to the next trinket! To hell with what the market demands and what the fans demand. Miyamoto will only do what HE wants, and on his schedule. And on your dime.

Last year, the Wii got Wii Party (from the makers of Mario Party) and Kirby. This year: another Mario Party and another Kirby. And the latest Puzzle Zelda that has been sitting on a shelf for over a year. It will do just about as well as the last three or four Puzzle Zeldas. How about a 2D, 4-player New Legend of Zelda? How about a new Ice Hockey, or Rad Racer, or RC Pro Am, or Gauntlet? How about something like Wii Tanks? How about a Wii sword fighting game? Why don't I have a damned lightsaber game? Who the hell's legs do I have to break to get something done around here?!

Nintendo absolutely refuses to fulfill their promises or provide the market what it demands. Meanwhile, the Wii's core audience - the fans who turned the Wii Series, Mario Kart, Mario 5, and Just Dance into megahits - are seething and frustrated. There's a lot of anger bubbling under the surface.