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. 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
Super NES

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 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.


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.

The "Hardcore Gamer" is Not Nintendo's Core Audience

Nintendo needs to understand that their Core Gamers are not the so-called "hardcore" gamers who huddle around 10,000 versions of the same gun game on PS360. "Core" and "Expanded" audience is relative to each platform. For Nintendo, the Wii's Core Audience is Wii Sports, Wii Play, Wii Fit, Mario Kart, Super Mario 5, and Just Dance. That is the crowd Nintendo needs to keep happy, and it's the crowd that will decide if Wii U is successful or not.

I get tired of pointing this out, but Nintendo has been bending over backwards to provide the "hardcore" set with the games they wanted - Galaxy 2, Metroid Other M, Sin & Punishment 2, Goldeneye, Epic Mickey, NBA Jam, yadda yadda. Despite all the hype and all the whining, do the PS360 gamers show up? No. They never bother to lift a finger.

Meanwhile, Ubisoft's Just Dance series is now earning nearly a third of the company's total earnings. The company is still losing money overall, thanks to hideously expensive, "hardcore gamer" titles. At some point, the investors must get tired of setting piles of money on fire, when there's much easier money to be made.

I honestly have no idea what the hell Nintendo is doing. They're completely abandoning the Wii, even though it will continue to be the flagship console for the next 9-16 months. It also appears that the Wii is once again the top-selling console worldwide. You'd think Nintendo would want to make some money while waiting for their new investments to pay off. Ah, but that would require effort.

Again, let me repeat my main point. Nintendo's Core Audience are the new and lapsed gamers who have flocked to the Wii Series, Mario Kart, Super Mario 5, and Just Dance. It would be really nice if Nintendo would bother to notice this fact.

Nintendo's New Tablet - Not We, Just You

Hoo boy, am I feeling agitated about Nintendo's new videogame console.  This will take a few posts to completely vent, so let's start here...

CVG reports that Nintendo has said the U tablet will not be sold separately. There will be only one packaged with the hardware. Nintendo is "considering their options with maybe two controllers."

This has just baffled me. I'm not even angry or upset, just...baffled. Have these people lost their minds? What's going to happen when the controller breaks? What's the plan when the kids spill chocolate milk all over the touch screen because they want Mario to take a drink? What's the plan if the buttons are faulty? What's the plan if you just drop the thing? Well, what?

Now the name of the system takes on a new, cynical meaning: You. Not we. Just you.

And how much do you wanna bet that the Wii Sports clip from the debut video will become a launch title? It won't actually be a new Wii Sports, but the 2006 game with tablet control as an added gimmick. Same goes for Super Mario Bros Mii. What exactly is Nintendo doing, anyway? No games for Wii or DS. Only one new game for 3DS. Nothing but cheap demos for U. Droppo, you're the laziest man on Mars!

This is going to be a long year for Nintendo.