Thursday, May 31, 2012

Project Phoenix Launch Titles - Sega Dreamcast

We come at last to the third and final segment in our "Project Phoenix" launch title series, with the star of the show, the Sega Dreamcast.  This theoretical project is really all about the white box, giving it a shot of steroids and new powers, with the added ability to play Genesis and Saturn games (although the Saturn is the actual hardware).

I've thought and reflected on the devotion Dreamcast still holds among fans.  There have been cries for "Dreamcast 2" ever since Sega quit the hardware business.  The $64,000 Question becomes, "What sort of DC2 do you really want?"  Do you miss original, surprising, quirky games that Sega seemed to conjure at will?  I'm on the same page.  Or are you really interested in more sequels, another Jet Set Radio, another Shenmue, another Crazy Taxi, another this and that.  If that's the case, well, your wish has already been fulfilled in the Xbox and Playstation.  Many Dreamcast 1 games have found new homes, come to think of it.

And so the question remains, what sort of Dreamcast 2 do you really want?  Project Phoenix is my answer.  Let's have a look at my picks for "launch titles" for our proposed super-system:

Phantasy Star Online

One of the biggest challenges with Project Phoenix is what to do about online.  Online gaming has evolved by leaps and bounds since 2001, so it just didn't seem plausible to pursue in the age of Xbox Live and PSN.  Then I started reading about (censored) and considered the idea of (censored), and that really grabbed my attention.  Then last night I started a new character in Phantasy Star Online.

Screw it, we're bringing back the Dreamcast servers.  We'll find a solution somehow, but PSO absolutely has to come back.  It has to be a launch title, and it has to be online.  This may be Sonic Team's final masterpiece.  The atmosphere of that futuristic world, the endless monsters and surprises, that absolutely haunting music.  Even when playing offline, PSO is fantastic.  We absolutely need this game.

Soul Calibur

My favorite Dreamcast title, Namco fighting classic hasn't aged a day.  I think this is a perfect illustration of what Phoenix offers - Soul Calibur 5 may look sensational on PS360, there's no doubt about that, but when it comes to gameplay, wouldn't you rather play the original?  It was a better video game in 1999.


Here we come to my other "favorite" Dreamcast game, and here's where our challenges really kick in.  Thanks to EA and the NFL's exclusive licensing arrangement, we can't bring back 2K football.  Is that fair?  Hell, no.  This is a textbook example of why Sega was stronger with a hardware system to support.  What are the odds that we can convince the league to relax their licensing to more publishers?  Heck, I'm not even thinking of creating a new NFL2K game (let's tilt at one windmill at a time, please).  I just want this one specific title.

I'm also including the NBA 2K series because, obviously, it's a terrific series.  Even the Saturn original (NBA Action 98) was a great sports game.  And as I've said repeatedly, Phoenix needs sports games. Everybody does.  There needs to be a hell of a lot more sports video games on the market.

San Francisco Rush 2049

Next up on my must-have list is Atari Games' futuristic racing classic, and my personal favorite Dreamcast racing game.  In addition to the terrific racing mode, there's also an incredibly addicting stunt mode, and a battle mode that plays like Atari's classic Roadblasters on steroids.  This is a great multiplayer game with an endless amount of replay value.  Remember that phrase, "replay value?" Yeah, it's back, baby.

Crazy Taxi

Crazy Taxi is one of those obvious picks for the fans.  It was extremely popular back in the day, and promises to be a big Phoenix hit.  One gameplay alteration I would make, though, and that's to randomize the customers and their destinations.  That way, every game plays different.  Also, we'll need new music because the major record labels are greedy bastards.  Kurosawa's advice: "Find hungry samurai."

Jet Grind Radio

Once again, "Find hungry samurai."  One of Sega's most iconic and inventive games, currently headed to PS Vita, XBLA and PSN, this still belongs on the Dreamcast's true successor.  I'm wondering if we can make the jumps a little less floaty, but we don't want to mess with the gameplay too much.  Should we make new tags, too? That's an interesting idea to consider.

Virtua Tennis

It's almost embarrassing how the Virtua Tennis series has fallen in stature over the years; the original is still the best, and remains one of the best four-player games anywhere.  Terrific for sports gamers and the more casual party set.  We're keeping the four controller ports, btw - did I mention that yet?


Shenmue, one of Dreamcast's defining video games.  As you can see, I'm really top-loading the launch lineup, but this is currently based on the idea that we'll only have that first holiday season to win over the public, and make Phoenix a hit.  I would prefer to move Shenmue's release back a bit, just because it's a flagship title (this is like network progamming, isn't it).  This title deserves the "special edition" treatment as well.  I also want to get Yu Suzuki on the phone.  We want Shenmue 3 as an exclusive.

Typing of the Dead

I do want the light gun games, but there aren't very many titles to choose from, so the release of Virtua Cop and House of the Dead 2 should be pushed back a little.  In its place, one of those great, quirky titles that Dreamcast was known for.  We'll also include a simple USB adapter so people can use their computer keyboard.  See, I'm saving you money!  Think of it as "reverse-DLC."

Space Channel 5

Here's a hit with rhythm-music fans and female gamers alike.  Space Channel 5 probably arrived a bit early to receive the attention it deserved, but in the wake of Guitar Hero and Just Dance, that may finally change.  We need more social- and dance-oriented games like this one.

Power Stone

I think we need one more fighting game to round out the launch lineup, and Power Stone is unique enough not to crowd out any of the other titles.  It was one of the standouts of Dreamcast's 1999 US launch, and I'm happy to see it on television screens once again.  Graphics are clear, colorful and sharp.  Gameplay is simple, direct, immediate, and always fair.  Let's rebuild the Power Stone fan community.


There are many, many games that I would want to release on Project Phoenix, and with a successful launch, we would have the ability to do so.  The goal is to arrive boldly, with confidence, and hit running out of the gate.  We must establish our place in the market as a video game system for families, for lapsed gamers and new gamers.  We want to become The Criterion Collection for games, a cheerfully defiant last stand for traditional, arcade video games.

So what do you think of the software lineup?  What would you change?  Which favorites would you recommend?  What would get you off the couch and support Project Phoenix?  Feel free to share your ideas and insights.  Or you can laugh at me for tilting at windmills, either way is fine.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Video - Steep Slope Sliders (Saturn)

Yes, children, people still play Sega Saturn in the year 2012, and games like Steep Slope Sliders deserve to be played.  Cave's snowboarding classic is magical, beautiful. The fluid, immediate controls, the ease of performing stunts, the fantastic level design, the sheer purity of it all - zen perfection.

You do not race for trophies or seasons or celebrity endorsements.  There is not plotline or backstory.  There is only the act of snowboarding.  You race for time and points, and nothing else.  Take your run.  Pass the controller.  Unlock a few more boarders and make another run.  Maybe I'll play the green space alien on this one.  Yeah.

There should be a Criterion Collection for video games, a system that cannot be made instantly obsolete every four years, but a permanent home for the true classics.  Either this medium is a form of artistic expression, a means of bringing people together and expanding our imaginations, or it has no future.  Our lives must stand for something, aspire towards something.  And our creations should not be so easily disposable.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Despite All Your Rage, You're Still Just a Rat in a Cage

Here's a funny and emerging meme - the modern video game as Skinner Box.  It's silly and more than a little creepy at the same time.  First, this whip-smart piece on Cracked, and now the latest Game|Life podcast.

Mash the button, get your sugar pellet.  Don't get electrocuted.  Rinse, repeat.  This is what government, corporations, and the entertainment industry thinks of you - a brainless lab rat with a credit card.  You're being bred and conditioned into an existence as a machine, straight out of Huxley and Orwell.  You should be concerned about this.  You are not a lab rat.  Stop behaving like one.

Project Phoenix Launch Titles - Sega Saturn

Continuing our discussion on "Project Phoenix" software titles, let's now take a look at Sega Saturn games that would launch with the hardware system.  The Saturn is a key element of this Sega super-system, offering a vast library of games that were seen in limited numbers in the West, or never left Japan at all.  To be fair, this includes a mountain of arcade shooters, fighting games, and tactical RPGs, but there are many quirky and inventive titles as well.

There are a lot of great Saturn games that we can release, and thanks to our low retail price points ($10-$20), I think audiences may want to take a chance on something different.  So let's take a look at our Phoenix Saturn launch games:

Panzer Dragoon Saga

A legendary game in its own time, Panzer Dragoon Saga is best known as a late-era RPG classic that now commands a small fortune on Ebay.  This is one of the two or three games most likely to get the hardcore gamers off the couch.  This is just about the best game ever made for the Saturn, thanks to some stellar programming skills from Andromeda.  I'd like to present PDS in a "deluxe special" package, with postcards, posters, and added extras.

Dragon Force

Since we're starting with RPGs, let's also highlight this strategy-RPG classic, another one of Saturn's best.  Command large armies in battle, adjust tactics in real time, travel to distant lands, meet interesting characters.  When was the last time you saw a video game like Dragon Force?  Never, that's when.  And were you aware that a sequel was released for Saturn in Japan?  Victor Ireland, where are you??

Nights Into Dreams (w/Christmas Nights)

Yuji Naka and Sonic Team's finest achievement?  One can definitely argue the case.  I couldn't stand the 2008 Wii sequel, which tried so hard to be a cheesy cartoon.  The original Nights is a thousand times better.  A surreal fusion of platform action, racing, and exploration, with an Artificial Life program to boot.  We'll also include the famous Christmas Nights demo, which has never been seen outside the Saturn.

Virtua Fighter 2

My favorite Sega Saturn game?  Of course!  VF2 was a technical marvel and a masterpiece of programming when it was released in late 1995, and pretty much single-handedly saved the Saturn in Japan.  Thanks to the high-resolution graphics and 60fps, it still looks terrific.  The gameplay remains fast, extremely deep, always addicting.

Sega Rally Championship

Saturn's finest racing game, and one of the most entertaining driving games ever made.  I'm amazed at how well these cars handle, at all the minor subtleties of racing on dirt, mud, sand, concrete.  Two player games are intense and blazing fast.  We need lots of great arcade racers, and Sega Rally is one of the best.  And let's not forget the great music...Game Over, Yeeaah!!

Daytona USA Circuit Edition

The US Champion Circuit Edition was rushed to market; this is the Japanese version which was refined and perfected.  The steering is much improved, graphics are sharper and more solid, and the original Daytona USA music is available.  Do we really have to pay Eric Martin for his crummy song?  Can we put the original title song back, please?  We need Daytona USA, and this is the best home version.

Steep Slope Sliders

Another one of those late-era Saturn games that fell through the cracks, Cave's snowboarding game is a masterpiece of the genre.  The environments are varied and full of surprises, there are many unlockable characters, and the Saturn's internal clock is put to good use.  This is a really great game that deserves to be seen and played.

Worldwide Soccer 97
World Series Baseball 98

I'm grouping the sports games together.  I'm undecided on whether to launch with Worldwide Soccer, or the '97 edition.  Both are great games, although the first title is a simpler, arcade-style sports game, while WS '97 is a stone-cold classic.  Same for the World Series Baseball series.  ESB '98 is the baseball video game ever made, full stop.  But we can begin with WSB2, instead.  And NBA Jam TE...hey, it's NBA Jam.  Who doesn't love this classic?  It's arcade perfect and allows four-players.  We need sports games!

Street Fighter Alpha 2

We're going to release as many Capcom fighting games as the market allows.  I'm eager to get all the 4Meg brawlers, like Street Fighter Zero 3, but some translation work will need to be done.  Let's launch with Alpha 2, a terrific fighter with wonderfully fluid 2D graphics.  The Saturn version includes an extensive gallery mode, which was absent from the PSX release.

Radiant Silvergun
Guardian Heroes

Treasure must be represented on Phoenix.  Radiant Silvergun is the obvious choice, thanks to its legendary status as a Saturn shooter and a pricey collectible.  Guardian Heroes is another classic that should be included - 2D pixel art, multiplayer, beat-em-up action.  Between this and Final Fight CD, the genre is well represented out the gate.  Vic Ireland, we need you to work on Silhouette Mirage next!

Saturn Bomberman

The king of multiplayer party games, and the best Bomberman game ever.  Single-player mode is fun, but the real action lies, as always, in Battle Mode.  Up to 8 players compete on 32 different boards, and 10 players in the famous high-resolution, "Hi-Ten" mode.

Bust-a-Move 2
Baku Baku Animal

As I wrote on the Genesis launch post, we need lots of puzzle games for families and social gamers.  Bust-a-Move 2 and Baku Baku Animal are two great offerings.  Who doesn't love Puzzle Bobble?  And Baku Baku has those great big animal heads.


We need one or two more arcade shoot-em-ups.  Dodonpachi gets my vote just for its wild, out-of-control chaos.  It's the definitive manic bullet-hell shooter.  Please support this title, so that we can continue to release more.  I want to unleash as many Saturn shooters as possible.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Project Phoenix Launch Titles - Genesis, Sega CD

Alright, until common sense returns to me (aka, the Memorial Day weekend ends), and you kind readers finally lose patience with me, I'm going to share my picks for Project Phoenix launch titles.  These are by no means a complete list, as there are literally hundreds of quality software titles to choose from.  Even if we're choosing to release the best of the best, the true classics, we could reach a library of 500 games without breaking a sweat.

For this post, we'll take a look at the Project Phoenix pack-in game, which is always crucially important, as well as the launch titles from Genesis and Sega CD.  Let's have a look at our presents:

I. Pack-In Game - Sonic Jam (Saturn)

Sonic Jam is clearly the best choice.  It offers the four Sonic the Hedgehog games from the Sega Genesis, plus a wealth of extra gameplay modes, a 3-D polygon area to explore, movies, commercials, and instruction manuals in English and Japanese.  This game was not emulated, but instead reprogrammed entirely by Sonic Team in 1997.  It was only released on the Saturn, which makes it unique.  This is very useful as a sales point, since Sega has released the original Sonic games on multiple digital download formats, as well as numerous "fami-clone" hardware systems.

With Sonic Jam, people will have a wealth of entertainment value right out of the box, at a very affordable price.  This will be aimed as the perfect holiday present, and hit all the crucial buttons - families, kids, older gamers, lapsed gamers.  To the hardcore gamers, Sonic Jam demonstrates our dedication to Sega's legacy.  We're going to be mining the archives for the true classics.

II. Sega Genesis + Sega CD Titles

Herzog Zwei

Yes, we're bringing Technosoft back, and we're starting with the 1989 arcade-strategy game that inspired the Real-Time Strategy game.  I think Herzog Zwei will be much more successful the second time around, and do very well.  So if you want the Thunder Force games, kids, pick this one up so we can afford the license fees.


One of the Genesis' best shoot-em-ups, and since it's currently available on the Virtual Console, that makes it an easy pick.  Gamers will be thrilled to own a physical copy that no longer sells for $200 on Ebay.  That alone makes it a deal.  It's a fantastic, frenzied arcade game full of action and surprises.  Compile worked their hearts out on this one.  I think kids will love it.


Capcom and Sega had a wonderful working relationship, and Strider is one of the very best Genesis titles.  This game oozes style and atmosphere, filled with memorable moments.  The music is also spectacular, one of the best showcases for the Genesis' Yamaha sound chip.

Ghouls N Ghosts
Revenge of Shinobi

I couldn't decide between Ghouls N Ghosts and Revenge of Shinobi, so I'm taking both.  We need some fast and challenging arcade games on the Phoenix, and these are two early Genesis masterpieces that belong in every gamer's library.  I envision Phoenix as a "Criterion Collection" of classic video games, and these two titles are always near the top of my list.  Oh, and who do I have to pay to put Godzilla back into Shinobi?  I'll fold on Batman and Spider-Man, but we need Godzilla.

Castlevania Bloodlines

I want Konami on board for Project Phoenix, and I want Castlevania as a launch title.  End of story.  This is a terrific game, full of moody atmosphere, always challenging, a number of impressive visual effects, and some of best music in the series.  This is a critical title that we really need.

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse

Number One on my developer "must" list is EA.  Right below that is Disney.  One of my key demographics for Phoenix are families, and especially kids (this is why price is so critical).  You can see how important Disney games are to the system's success.  Castle of Illusion is the first of many games that I want to release on our system, with the other Disney Genesis titles to follow.  Now how about porting the 3DS Epic Mickey 2 to the Dreamcast?

Mutant League Football
Mutant League Hockey
John Madden Football 92
NHL Hockey

And here's our Number One, Electronic Arts.  This is so obvious that no comment is necessary.  People crave sports video games.  The modern game industry is not supplying that need.  Let's release the classics and see what happens.  I'm also quite interested in releasing the entire EA Sports Genesis library on our system.  A new classic Madden and NHL Hockey every 6-8 months?  And as an exclusive?  Fantastic.

Super Monaco GP

We also need some racing games, another popular genre that has been starved by the industry.  Here is the Genesis' best racing title, Super Monaco GP.  Chock full of depth and gameplay, precision controls, and some great vintage digitized graphics.  I suspect licensing is an issue here, which is why this game has yet to see a digital release.  We need to solve that little problem.

Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine

We need more family and puzzle games.  Mean Bean Machine (Puyo Puyo 2) is easily the best choice.  I'm sticking with the US version because of name recognition, nothing more.  In any case, it's a great puzzler that's challenging and easy to play, offers multiplayer, looks terrific.  Somebody get to work on more puzzle games!  Get me Tetris on the phone!

Ms. Pac-Man

Ah, how could I forget Ms. Pac-Man?  We need family games, we have one of the most beloved and enduring video games ever made.  This is the Tengen version, which was a big seller on Genesis.  Securing copyrights will be a challenge, but it's just a matter of money.  Pay somebody off.  We need this game on store shelves.  Hmm, I wonder if we can add in the option to play as Pac-Man?  That would be perfect.

Sonic CD

Obviously, Sonic CD is another essential must-have, and it's a guaranteed hit.  One reason why I chose Sonic Jam as the pack-in was to free up space on the sales charts for everybody else, lest customers only choose to buy Sonic the Hedgehog games.  For that reason, I'm willing to push back Sonic CD's release date a little, to give more space to everyone else.  You know it, you love it.

Final Fight CD

You'll notice that I've omitted Streets of Rage from the launch window.  It's only because I want to give more attention to this fantastic brawler, the definitive home version of Final Fight.  All the arcade action, including multiplayer, and that fantastic CD audio soundtrack.  This title was little seen in its day, but I think it will have a new life on the Phoenix (ack, pun alert).  Everybody needs a beat-em-up in their library, so let's begin with Capcom's arcade classic.

Eternal Champions: Challenge From the Dark Side

Here's one for the hardcore gamers and old-school Sega fans - the definitive version of Eternal Champions.  This Sega CD version is really a semi-sequel to the Genesis cartridge, with more fighters, new moves, and a wealth of gory finishing moves that would make Mortal Kombat blush.  Really, this game was made by psychos, and I'm astounded that Sega has yet to re-release it anywhere.  Good for us, because we need exclusives.

Will Digital Downloading Replace Physical Media?

No, says Nintendo.  Here are a few remarks from Nintendo of Europe's MD of Marketing & PR, Laurent Fischer in 2011:

"We have never seen any link between growth in the mobile gaming market and decrease in the normal software market. It's two different markets, two different topics. We couldn't find any evidence of those two markets being linked.  There's always going to be requirement for a business of our size and scope to have a physical medium.  To think everything will be downloaded in two years, three years or even 10 years from now is taking it a little bit to the extreme." 

This is the critical question for Project Phoenix.  We can create the hardware, design the controllers, open dialog with software developers and publishers, and take the idea to venture capitalists and Sega.  The first thing they will say is, "Why would anyone buy a packaged title when they can download the digital version?"

Indeed, Sega is currently rolling out a series of "vintage collection" compilations for $800 on XBLA.  All three Streets of Rage titles for eight bucks?  That's a very good bargain.  I remember paying that much just for Streets of Rage 2 on Nintendo's Virtual Console two years ago.  How, then, can I persuade you to buy the physical Phoenix version?  How can I persuade you to buy a packaged version of, say, The Revenge of Shinobi on Genesis, or Guardian Heroes on Saturn, or Crazy Taxi on Dreamcast?

What is the appeal of the physical video game?  Is it the packaging, the artwork, instruction manuals, posters and maps?  Is it the tangible quality of holding something in your hands?  Is it the freedom to share, trade and even sell your game to others?  Is it the security of knowing that you own this game, not the publisher?

We could have this same discussion over music.  In an age when you can download MP3s to your smart phone for 99 cents per song, why are so many young people turning to, of all things, vinyl records?  Why is the Cheapo Uptown stocking cassette tapes?  People are choosing physical media over digital, and they're doing so in large enough numbers to make businesses profitable.  Why is this?  How can we observe this?  And how can we persuade people to make the jump from XBLA to Phoenix?

I don't have the answers, mostly instinct, a gut feeling.  I believe people have an emotional attachment to these old video game machines.  There are many people out there who love Sega, with the same devotion as Apple's legendary cult.  "Bring back the Dreamcast!" they say.  Independent developers work tirelessly to create new Dreamcast games!  Imagine that.  They should be making those video games for the iPhone, not a machine that's been dead since 2001.

All of this brings us back to the central questions: why should anyone want to buy "classic" video games, and why would they choose a retail package over a digital download?  As a business enterprise, this is going to be our biggest challenge.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Talking Street Fighter x Tekken Blues

So Capcom released Street Fighter x Tekken, a mediocre, buggy fighting game, into a market they themselves over-saturated, then attempted to nickel-and-dime the fans to death by locking away content behind a paid firewall. Game fails to reach sales goals. Company bosses are baffled and confused when said game fails to sell millions of copies.

No thanks, count me out. I will not become a mindless, willing lab rat, pulling levers and running mazes just to get my sugar pellet. I would much rather treat my fans with dignity and respect. I'd rather build communities instead of mindlessly exploiting them. True gamers know better than to be used.

My thinking is this: if you're going to flood the market with fighting games - and I'm a big Sega Saturn fan, so I love fighting games - at least make them affordable. Heck, I'll sell you Capcom's 4-Meg Saturn fighters for $10. That's a fair price, I think, not $40-$60. But it's easy to talk that way with vintage catalog titles; newly-developed ones are a different story.

How many copies of Street Fighter x Tekken does Capcom have to sell, at $60 a copy, in order to break even?  How many copies of a "Project Phoenix" fighting game, at $10 a copy, do I have to sell in order to break even?  Now ask yourself this: what is going to happen when the kids figure out the $10 game is functionally identical (or better) to that $60 version? 

Here's the key to understanding our situation:  Street Fighter x Tekken required a budget of millions, a staff of dozens (if not hundreds), and the latest technology, including 1080HD, online play, and DLC.  Meanwhile, Project Phoenix games were produced and released eons ago.  The finished games are now collecting dust in warehouses.  Capcom has no interest in a classic game like Street Fighter Zero 3 on Saturn (shown above), certainly not in the PS360 era, and so it becomes lost and forgotten.

All I am doing is dusting off an old fighting game, pressing it to an SD card, and selling for the price of a movie ticket.  Clayton Christensen calls this "crappy products for crappy customers."

Generation 8 - The Hard Sell

This comment from a recent essay on Gamasutra about the looming eighth generation of video game consoles leaped out at me for its brilliance, and how it captures the sense of apathy from many gamers:

What made me excited about a new cycle of consoles was that I was going to see a new wave of killer games, some new, and some based on my old favorite IPs and brands, as if the software that I loved and cared about was going to grow up along with me.

This generation, I'm not so sure. Something I noticed is that up until this point, I always felt like the diversity of software available for my console hardware was steadily growing until the past half-decade or so. I remember stumbling into game stores and finding PS2 games I had never seen or heard of, plopping down twenty bucks cash for it, and having a blast when I got home. There were still newer entries in older IPs and brands that I really, seriously enjoyed, whether it was Final Fantasy, Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, et cetera...

I guess the vibe I'm getting is that the way things are going, at least in the console space, we're going to see less software with lower quality, and certainly fewer risks being taken. It seems like the days of going out to my local retail store with twenty bucks in my pocket and returning with Katamari Damacy are not only long gone, but are never going to return.
This is the best comment from that thread, and I agree completely. There's little incentive to be excited about video games when everything is narrowed down to a handful of franchise titles that, frankly, haven't changed at all over 10, 15, or 20 years. What's strange is this continued push for more power, more graphics, when the consequences are narrowing genres, a loss of variety, and budgets spinning out of control.

I honestly don't see the point in throwing away a video game system, with its library of software titles, just to buy the "super system" that offers the exact same titles all over again. What's the point? Zelda 12, Call of Duty 9, Grand Theft Auto 11, Halo 8, Madden 22, Final Fantasy 18...why should anyone be surprised by declining sales numbers?

I was playing Soul Calibur and NFL2K1 on my Dreamcast last night, and I was amazed at the glorious graphics and fluid gameplay. In a sense, they haven't really aged at all, even though the technology, naturally, has leapfrogged the Dreamcast a hundred times over. That's not an issue for me. I have an idea of what a "video game" looks like, and I suspect most people feel the same way.

Games like Wii Sports and Wii Play and New Super Mario Bros Wii were really aiming back to the video games of the 1980s, and they were hugely successful because of it. iPhone games like Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, and Tiny Wings follow this approach, too, and they're also very popular games. People Love Video Games, not "cinematic" experiences by frustrated wannabe movie directors.

If you enjoy First-Person Shooters and sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, I'm sure you'll be thrilled and dazzled by the next generation. The rest of us? Shrug. Not so much. 

Notice the final sentence, which I emboldened for emphasis.  "It seems the days of going out to my local retail store with twenty bucks in my pocket and returning with Katamari Damacy are long gone."  The writer is lamenting not only today's runaway video game prices, but the collapse of diversity.  These are poisonous to the medium.  A video game should be like a good pop song: short, infectious, social, and as affordable as possible.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

PS Vita Cases and "Project Phoenix"

Am I just a freelance consultant now?  Is that what I'm do for a living, perform as the all-purpose "ideas" guy?  Ah, well, t

It's a pity that Sony's PS Vita has essentially crashed and burned since its release.  It's a sophisticated portable game system with lots of promise (but they need to lose that back-side touch pad), but nothing that could be solved with some quality software titles.  Unfortunately, Sony seems lost and clueless, and the poor Vita is being overwhelmed by Nintendo's resurgent 3DS.  Funny how that's turning out.

That said, my favorite feature of the PS Vita is something one wouldn't expect - the software cases.  It's a terrific design, compact and snug, just the right proportions.  I am mindful that the days of physical media for video games are numbered, as the game industry pushes towards a "service model" of digital downloads you will never really own, so I enjoy the idea of cartridges and game cards and plastic cases.  The collector in me enjoys these things.

The PS Vita cases, in fact, would be perfect for our Sega "Project Phoenix" console that I've been raving about this week.  That's the proposed super-system that would combine the Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast under one roof, sold for $99.  The games would sell for $10-$20 and come on small cards, like Nintendo DS and...Sony's PS Vita.  And those compact game cases would be absolutely perfect.  The design is attractive, yet affordable, and in this business venture, cost is everything.

Imagine these Vita cases with our favorite Sega classics on the cover - The Revenge of Shinobi, Herzog Zwei, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Final Fight CD, Soul Calibur, NFL 2K1, Phantasy Star Online.  With the right cover illustrations, and the proper layouts on the back, Phoenix games would look amazing.  Packaging and presentation is 9/10ths of this business venture, and it's the key to making the "classic video game console" a success.

I really like the blue color of the Vita cases.  It's keeping in line with Blu-Ray, which is smart branding.  The interior is very simple, and even if the back of the Vita covers are too cluttered with text and legalese, the front covers are clean and elegant. They're inviting, even when I know the games aren't any good.  I'm looking at you, Ridge Racer, ya cheapskate.

Now somebody tell the Sony bosses that video game systems need games to actually work.  The Atari Jaguar had better support than this.

Anyway, let's get back to the topic of game packaging and our Project Phoenix.  One of the great appeals to me in this project is the opportunity to correct one of Sega's most notorious blunders - those awful US covers.  Here's Genesis Strider (1990) as an example, the Japanese cover on left, the US cover on right.  The Japanese design effectively captures the spirit of the arcade game, is visually complex, detailed, and stylish in that anime/manga sense.  In 1990, however, "Japanimation" (as it was called) was still perceived as a strange niche in the States, so the original inspired design had to go.

In its place, a more traditionally Western, "Flash Gordon" illustration was used, which probably baffles today's kids.  Western video games in the 1980s took their cues from fantasy and science-fiction, so this kind of hero, who resembles a college athlete from the 1940s more than anything.  There was also the need to embellish with the cover, to charge the players' imaginations, since, weren't that good.  Look at the wonderful cover illustrations to Atari 2600 VCS games.  It was necessary for the suspension of disbelief.

With the arrival of 16-bit technology, graphics were becoming less abstract and more natural, so this sort of cover embellishments were no longer necessary.  So we really didn't need to pretend that Strider was really the captain of the varsity football team.

From a design point-of-view, the US Strider cover is also overly cluttered with stickers and logos, oddly composed, and never quite captures the spirit of Capcom's arcade classic.  The logo is mad cool, which is nice, but all this does is remind me of the NES Strider cover, which was crazy cool.  Hmm...Sega really screwed up on this one.  What were they thinking?

So if we're going to bring Strider to Project Phoenix - and it's a must-have title for me - we're going to need a new cover illustration.  I'd rather commission new artwork, instead of using the old Japanese Megadrive design, if only because it helps to sell the "new-yet-retro" game system.  But I would definitely use Japan for inspiration.  And I would also pursue a classic illustration design for all the software titles - no CG Photoshop covers this time!  We need to capture the spirit of the Golden Age of Video Games, and pull that spirit into our new century.

Photos - Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited (Saturn)

Once in a while, I get an itching for championing lesser-known video games that deserve to be "classics."  Here, once again, is one of Sega Saturn's best and most intense fighting games, Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited.

It's fun to imagine and speculate about a "Sega Phoenix" super-system, that would combine the Genesis, Sega CD, Saturn, and Dreamcast into one console.  And one of its appeals is the idea of sharing the vast software libraries to the world at an affordable price ($10-$20).  Is there much of a demand for Japanese anime girl fighters in the year 2012?  No, probably not, that's just hubris and nostalgia talking.  But a game like Asuka 120% just screams "cult classic," and I can imagine it drawing a fan base.

Aren't you just tired of seeing the exact same video game franchises over and over and over?  Exactly how many Street Fighter games do we need?  Do you really need a Call of Duty 9, a Halo 8, a Zelda 13, or a Madden 22?  How hard would it be to come up with something different?  This is where $50 million game budgets leads you, to a wasteland of dull, derivative boredom.  I miss the joy of being surprised by a new video game, a quirky and out-of-left-field video game.  We really don't get those moments anymore.

Ah, well, Fill-in-Cafe was a little guilty of this bad behavior with their Asuka 120% series.  It's less of a franchise than an endless series of revisions and improvements.  But there's little chance that you'll ever play any of the earlier versions, so it's the Saturn "Limited" or Playstation "Final."  Naturally, Asuka's perfectly at home on the Saturn, looks terrific, plays fast and loose, and just quirky and different enough to feel unique.  It's an addicting contest of never-ending, spectacular beat-downs, with a very simple control scheme and combo system.  I don't feel as though I need to take night classes to figure it all out.  I like that.

Again, bringing this back to the "Sega Phoenix" theme, I'd definitely release Asuka 120% on the super-system.  It deserves its cult status, and would offer a welcome alternative from Franchise Sequel Spinoff #3,452.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Questions on the "Sega Phoenix"

After posting my essay on my proposed "Sega Phoenix" video game system, which combines Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast into one unit (plus some improvements), I posted it on my Gamasutra blog.  William Johnson offered his insights on the idea:

Why would Sega need to release a system to rerelease their old games. They've been more recently flooding Steam and the iOS App Store with their old school titles, and they've already released quite a few on WiiWare, and there were the Sonic Mega Collection on the XB360, and PS3. I don't understand how having their own system would make this any better or easier.

Also, judging by how much money Sony and Microsoft have lost this generation, I can't possibly understand how it would be a good idea to enter a market where you are pretty much guarantied to loose money. Sega really hasn't even been doing very well financially. So I'm pretty sure they don't have the capital to do something like this.

What I think might make more sense is if Sega could bring back the arcade scene. That is where they use to do really well. But I really don't know if the arcade scene can ever make a come back in the states. 

Well, in addition to playing the classic games, there would also be new games. For example, did you know there is a thriving indie scene for the Dreamcast? There have also been a couple of excellent RPGs for the Genesis.

You bring up a very good point - why bother when these games are available as digital downloads? This is the first question investors would ask before writing any checks. I think a Sega "Phoenix" would have several advantages. First, there is something tangible to having physical media, when everything is becoming a digital "service" that you, the consumer will never own. I have a number of downloaded games on my iPhone, and Virtual Console games on my Wii. I also have all the major retro system emulators on my PC. Access is not an issue. And yet, I still prefer to play my Sega games on the actual system, connected to a television. It just feels better. It's an emotional appeal, I know.

Second, as I suggested, there would be NEW games created, and I would fully embrace the indie scene. That's a source of new inspiration, and this industry badly needs new blood. This also provides an outlet for developers who cannot afford the money to create AAA titles, or wish to create something outside of the "cinematic gun game" paradigm.

Third, cost. It shouldn't cost you anywhere near $50 million to create a Dreamcast or Genesis game. Development costs will be far more sensible and far more sane. The system will also force designers to create video GAMES, and not "cinematic experiences." In other words, it's a different scene and a different market.

Fourth, and I know that this is another silly emotional appeal, but "greatest hits" packages suck. All of them. Whenever I see a "greatest hits" CD or video game release, my brain just goes, "Cheap, cheap!" This is not to say that I don't appreciate the many retro game compilations on the modern systems, I enjoy them very much. But, once again, I find myself going back to the original DC or Saturn or Genesis version. I'd rather listen to one of Miles Davis' albums than just his Greatest Hits CD.

Fifth, Sega's "greatest hits" discs have only scratched the surface, and hundreds of titles have been overlooked. There's little incentive to pick anything beyond the biggest hits, because, well, it's a greatest hits package. This leaves out countless titles that are excellent and deserve a fair chance.

The Japanese Saturn is the best example of this. There are so many fantastic game titles from Japan that were never released in the West, it's astounding ("Don't give in to wonder," sayeth the bard McKenna).

The biggest challenge for retro video games is licensing, and that is a serious hurdle. There's no doubt about it. And it's very unfortunate, because it means either losing many classic games (NES Batman, for example), or cutting out music from the disc (Crazy Taxi, or Tony Hawk). As the video game medium matures, this will become more important as an issue, so it needs to be addressed. One cannot have an art form without a history, and you cannot build a medium on instantly-disposable throwaways. Such is the path to extinction.

With digital downloads or greatest hits releases, there isn't much incentive to deal with these issues. Perhaps with the investment of a hardware platform, there will be more pressure to resolve these issues and make them work. And let us not forget that the Sega Phoenix would NOT be competing directly with Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo. EA could release John Madden Football '92 (the one with the killer ambulance) without fear of cannibalizing sales of this year's Madden.

I believe that you can make money on a business venture like the Sega Phoenix. I think there's money to be made, and a sizable market to be tapped. There are "lapsed gamers" who quit playing video games years ago. There are "non gamers" who have rarely, if ever, picked up a controller. And there are families who want to play together, child and parent alike. If you offer a product of sufficient quality, and if you offer it at a low enough price, and if you can appeal to these markets, you can have a success.

Video games are now old enough where these generational issues are emerging. To expand the game market, you need to expand your audience. Here is an audience that is being neglected, and will continue to be neglected (Sony and Microsoft's next machines will be multi-media set-top boxes, not games systems exclusively). And remember the mantra - People Love Video Games.

This idea can work. The Sega Phoenix can make money. It can appeal to this market.

Thanks a lot for reading, William. You make a lot of excellent points and you were very inspiring. I appreciate your insights.

P.S. I should also point out Sega's current financial situation.  They're struggling, and they're probably headed for extinction, along with most of Japan's video game industry.  But that's another reason for releasing the Sega Phoenix.  You've got terminal cancer and you're going to die, anyway.  Might as well go out fighting with one last, heroic gamble.  The Sega of old were big-time gamblers, which is what made them Great.  And they haven't been Great since the Dreamcast died.

Sega, Come Back! Release the Super-System!

This is exactly why Sega needs to come back.  Sonic 2006, the most embarrassing video game ever made.  Yuck.  When computer programmers and designers decided they wanted to be movie directors, the quality of video games crashed and burned.  Arcade skills and social fun were swept aside, replaced by bad scripting, poor cut-scenes, and a rehashing of the worst movie cliches.  And the people are simply going away.

I can't believe we're still having this discussion in 2012.  Nintendo settled the argument, once and for all, in 2006 with the Wii Remote and the DS, and the return to classic social arcade games.  Unfortunately, Nintendo, like the rest of the industry, is run by prima donnas who are only interested in amusing themselves, not the public.  Yoshio Sakomoto wants to make Italian horror films.  Eiji Ounuma wants to make banal puzzles for the puppet theater.  Shigeru Miyamoto, well, he has the attention span of a hummingbird.  Ooh, a flower!  Now I'm bored.

The result of this is the sharp decline of the video game market.  If you grew up with an Atari, an NES, or a Sega Genesis, you're not welcome anymore.  Today's game industry is interested only in themselves and their egos, and how many ways they can nickel-and-dime their dwindling "hardcore" fans to death.  And so the rest of us take the hint...and walk away.

People love video games.  Most people, regardless of age or skill, love video games.  It was true in the days of Pong and Pac-Man, and it's just as true today.  Look at the success of the iPhone and games like Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Tiny Wings, Gridrunner, Forget-Me-Not, and so on.  Look at the Wii's spectacular success, thanks to Wii Sports and Wii Play, and later fueled by the return of 2D Super Mario.  The Wii system was sold out for over two years!  Nintendo was selling 800,000 hardware units a month!  People still love video games.

Anyway, I don't wish to be negative or complain.  But my point is that 1) the video game business has lost its way, and 2) there is still a great interest in these "TV games."  And that leaves the door wide open for Sega to return to their roots.

Be honest.  You had more fun playing your Sega Genesis.  You have a huge stack of Saturn games downloaded off the internet.  You miss those nights of pizza and beer and Dreamcast from the year 2000.  Herzog Zwei, Thunder Force III, Revenge of Shinobi, Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage 2, Toejam and Earl, Gunstar Heroes, Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally, Daytona USA, NFL 2K1, Soul Calibur, Virtua Tennis, San Francisco Rush 2049.  Great fun, great times.

I've been playing a lot of Genesis games lately, because I'm working on a couple possible projects for iOS apps, like my old Herzog Zwei Strategy Guide and Video Game Classics.  I am aware that age and nostalgia fuels much of this - I also collect vinyl LPs and cassette tapes, and recently refurbished my 1977 Marantz stereo.  It's a part of life to cling to the connections to your past, to preserve your own history.  One day, you'll reach that age where all you talk about is "the good old days," as your memories stretch back to a world that has vanished.

That said, I do believe my love of Sega isn't simply nostalgia.  These video games are still fun, they're still entertaining, they still bring people together.  They still have value, not as "monetized" corporate scams or bad CGI movies, but as games.  And nobody could make great arcade-style games like Sega.  Bring back the Dreamcast, say a lot of gamers.  Heck, bring back the Saturn and the Genesis!

When Jack Tramiel took over Atari Corp, he repackaged and sold the Atari 2600 as a $50 "starter" system against the mighty NES.  The 2600 Jr. sold millions.  It never came close to Nintendo's dominance, but it did sell (it outsold the Sega Master System).  Even though technology was advancing rapidly, there was still a demand for those simple, retro video games.  Nobody cared if Yars' Revenge looked as good as Contra.  Gameplay Over Graphics - remember that mantra?  It's always been true, and it remains true today.  In the 21st Century, Graphics completely dominate, and Gameplay is virtually non-existent.  Gameplay only gets in the way of the movie scenes.

Sega needs to come back.  Which system should they bring back - Genesis, Saturn, or Dreamcast?  Ideally, all three.  They should create one system that plays all three.  Make it look like the Saturn, only smaller and sleeker, with a disc drive and cartridge slot.  With today's technology, any classic game console can be put onto a single microchip.  Add in the old Yamaha sound chips for the audio.  Pump in a ton of RAM. Enable S-Video, Component and HD output. Encourage developers to support the Super-System with classic and new titles.  Embrace the vibrant indie scene - did you know that Genesis and DC games are still being made?

Sell the Sega Super-System for $100 or less.  Sell the games for $20 or less.

If discs are too much trouble, then use game cards like Sony's PS Vita or the Turbografx.  I'd like to keep the disc drive and cartridge slot so you could play your existing games, but I'd be willing to sacrifice in order to save money.  In that case, I would lean hard on developers - I'm looking at you, EA - to release their classic Genesis, Saturn and Dreamcast games.  Yes, bring back Madden, NHL Hockey, NBA Action, FIFA, and PGA Tour Golf.  Heck, the games have already been made, so all you have to do is put them on the game card, and pay for the licenses.

I really like the "PS Vita" card idea, especially with those plastic cases.  Video games need cool cases, and who wouldn't be thrilled by the sight of John Madden Football '92, or NHLPA Hockey '93 on store shelves?  Imagine that you could play all the great Japanese Saturn titles, like Capcom's 4-meg fighters.  Three words: Panzer Dragoon Saga.  Three more words: Phantasy Star Online.

The beauty of a Genesis-Saturn-Dreamcast console is having a mammoth library of software titles instantly available.  The hard work has already been done, now all you need to do is print out the game cards and packaging.  This allows for a very low retail price - $20 or less - that is being completely ignored by today's game industry.  They charge $60 per title, then charge extra for online access or DLC, all in a desperate attempt just to break even.  As a business model, it's beyond absurd, and as the $50 million game becomes the $100 million game, this becomes a recipe for suicide.

The door is wide open for disruption, as DS, Wii and iPhone demonstrate.  Sega has a unique opportunity to capitalize on this moment, and if they strike fast, they would have an immense success.  Every true gamer wants Sega to "come back," but what does that really mean?  Modern cinematic games like Sonic 2006?  Or does it mean the old-school Sega, the arcade Sega?  It's the Sega of Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast.  The fans are still there.  People still love video games.  They're only waiting for someone to deliver.

One final thing: we need a name.  Is "Sega Phoenix" a bit too obvious?  It does have a nice ring, and it does capture the idea of the system easily.  What do you think of my crazy idea?  Thanks for listening.

PS: I just remembered that we'll need to include the Sega CD, if only for Final Fight and Sonic CD.  Also, every video game system must have Dragon's Lair and Mad Dog McCree - that's pretty much a tradition by now.