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;