Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category
We are here, the moment has arrived, the hype machine open Android device for homes known as the Ouya was recently released to the masses. I haven’t heard much from the retail or consumer market yet, but it’s become abundantly clear that tech sites and gaming sites seem to have two different opinions when it comes to the palm-sized silver box. At $100 the promise of an HDMI compliant device on your television that plays games, this Kickstarter funded project has promise, but as far as practicality is concerned it’s far from impressive. The simple question is, “do I want it?” As a retro gamer (and a retro web site) Gaming History 101 is within that niche that can almost without a doubt say “yes,” but before you go running off to buy it, best you know what you’re actually getting first.
My thoughts on the design and innards of the Ouya have already been addressed on this site, so feel free to read about them and come back later. Nothing has changed; this console always was and continues to be an underperforming Android device that is further held back because of the tether to a controller. You cannot pick up the Ouya and download any Android app you want, they need to be reprogramed to support the controller, which the early software library reveals not many have jumped on board for. Furthermore the controller kinda sucks, but this opinion also has a mass split so feel free to try it out for yourself before trusting my judgement. Put it all together and you have nothing more than a lackluster console with a rubbish controller that only plays a handful of games (although some titles like TowerFall apparently help justify the potential). For the typical consumer, like my wife or mother, there’s no reason to get this – everything they want already plays on any Android device and no typical consumer is buying a $100 console for TowerFall.
Then there’s the caveat, the secret weapon, the compelling factor so necessary to the initial success of the Ouya that the creators casually make sure to mention it every time they are interviewed: it’s one hell of an emulation machine. My thoughts and feeling on emulation are quite clear, again feel free to read my detailed article and the more broad podcast on the subject for background, but when you deal with the expense of retro gaming $100 is a banger of a deal for a one-stop shop. In this regard, the underpowered Ouya rises above and emulates almost every video game from 1977-2000 with ease. Not only that, the openware apps that allow for emulation are provided, for free, in abundance, under the “retro” section of the Ouya’s menus. Additionally those unhappy with the controller can sync a Playstation 3 controller to the device with no modification (get the newest firmware) thanks to the bluetooth built into it. Couple that with emulators and you are ready to re-live your past with decent results on a dazzling big screen with a rock solid controller. There’s a flip side to this argument, and exactly why I won’t be picking it up, but for most people this is a great blast to the past on the cheap.
Now for the nerd stuff. Of course elitists in the retro gaming world will have their own opinions, I being one of them, that is a deal breaker. First of all, I feel that emulation was invented because gamers didn’t have a better option. There were times when finding retro consoles wasn’t easy, it was and still is very expensive, and many of the retro games we love never even came out here so fan translations are a must. That is where emulation is beneficial, that is why it’s promoted. By the very definition of what you will be playing (unreleased, rare, and non-English translated titles) you fall under the hardcore retro gamer category. That’s not what most Ouya buyers will want or use it for. Nope, they will download Super Mario 64, Sonic the Hedgehog, X-Men the Arcade Game, and Final Fantasy VII. The problem is that these games are already available in abundance and some people fought very hard to get them released on current platforms. These games are cheap, each one at or less than $10. As a result, using these games on Ouya is blatant piracy, enforceable by today’s laws because the companies that own them paid to get them converted to modern platforms. You aren’t finding a new way to enjoy your games, you’re too lazy to boot up your Wii and pay to download it. That’s a problem. If you were desperate to enjoy Mother, Policenauts, Sweet Home, or even unfinished demos of Resident Evil 1.5 then I’m totally on your side, but I have yet to see an Ouya video showing off these gems.
Then there’s the quirks of the emulation. I don’t particularly care for the framerate that most PCs and now the Ouya generate when trying to adapt to old school scrolling and resolution. Games look blurry, grainy, and have the stutter you see on games without v-sync or framerate locks on. You can literally watch Super Mario Bros. tear as you run from screen to screen. It’s just a reality of emulation, but one I can’t stand. Virtual Console and a few others have managed to remove this problem, but see the above paragraph as to why this isn’t going to be used by Ouya fans. I also see odd glitches, sounds, and the Playstation 3 controller, as nice as it is, is not an NES, SNES, or Genesis controller for those appropriate titles. For a nitpick like me, emulation is too frustrating to deal with (plus you should only play on a CRT, don’t you know people).
While the Ouya has some fascinating potential and tech fans may be keen on the emulation functions all wrapped into a $100 box, I find it to be a limited and niche product. Any PC built within the last 15 years is capable of the same emulation with no problem whatsoever so it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. Furthermore the console has little to offer outside emulation and I have a personal issue with any company that’s willing to basically promote piracy in order to sell what is basically a limited all-in-one Android device. I wouldn’t take such issue with the salesmanship of emulation if the Ouya didn’t make it so damn obvious and user friendly to turn an everyday consumer into a rom-hungry pirate. On the other hand it was built for the tech junkies, hardcore gamers, hackers, and basically anyone who will sacrifice loads of time for miniscule dollars, to which I say have at it. For me it’s the opposite, I have almost no time and plenty of dollars so I’ll gladly pay for something that makes its worth obvious with unique software. At this point it belongs next to all those Hong Kong based devices that play illegal games for small prices you see on clearance at mall kiosks and flea markets. Still, this is a new device and it’s hopefully only a matter of time before a slew of justified personalized software hits and makes this more than the shiny piracy box.
At first glance Game Vault, located just outside the core downtown area of Omaha, looks like another clone of GameStop. Upon entering, you may still feel that way as most of the walls are lined with modern PS3, 360, and Wii titles along with a large flat screen television that is displaying an endless playlist of gameplay videos. It wasn’t until I began to browse the large glass cases and have a brief chat with owner Scott, who was the only employee in his store on this brisk Saturday morning, that I learned Omaha has quite a great local game store.
His featured glass case contained a few instantly recognizable gems of retro gaming, such as a boxed complete copy of Earthbound on the SNES (he also had a loose cart for the more budget-conscious), as well as other SNES classics like Super Metroid, Super Mario RPG, and Yoshi’s Island, all boxed and complete. Rarely have I entered a store that not only provided such care on these holy grails of gaming, a few of my friends have been searching for boxed complete copies of these games for years, but his prices were reasonable. It’s not just the SNES that he has to offer, I was stunned to find everything from a stack of Atari 2600 games to a batch of decent 3DO titles and even a Jaguar game or two. In fact, I don’t think it was possible to name a system this guy didn’t have at least a few games for (including PC games, new and old). He even had an import game section that had a mint copy of Dino Crisis on the PS1 from Japan, as if resting on the shelf just for me. Often times when you see stores like this, I remember one in particular in downtown Chicago and another in New York, that you expect heavily inflated prices. Not the case in Game Vault, Scott’s prices are fair, easily topping most of GameStop’s and eBay’s prices, and he doesn’t require a game club membership or anything to get the best price. All in all, Game Vault is one of the most diverse and well stocked used game stores around. I’m now saddened I don’t live in Omaha.
His inventory aside, owner Scott O’Dell knows what makes a good store run. I know this because I saw it firsthand. He’s not an elitist gamer, nor is he a socially awkward super nerd; he’s just a regular guy who is proud of his store. From talking with him and his friendly regulars I was able to discern that he had spent at least a little time at GameStop, but as a responsible business owner he had nothing negative to say about the chain. Instead he focuses on informing his customers of the many benefits, including price, that his store offers. Customer service is one thing, but he also knows his stuff. We chatted for a short time about all kinds of topics from the crazy things he sees come through his doors that people want to sell to the attack of popular games. Scott doesn’t care if you’re there for Call of Duty or Panzer Dragoon Zwei, he just wants to make sure you get what you want. We talked about things like the elitist retro gamer, the massive increase in value of 8-bit and 16-bit era Nintendo carts, and of all things his excitement for Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. During our entire conversation he never lost sight of the fact that he has a store to run and customers to attend to, politely ducking out of our conversation to help those that came in. That’s good to see because lately I feel that game stores have become the hangout for gamers with no money and lots of time. Employees seem like they would rather chat up nonsense about gaming with non-customers instead of a person like me who is seconds away from dropping $100. It’s the comic shop dilemma, managing your regulars that spend lots of time and little money, with your random customers that could wind up dropping major cash if the circumstance fits. He does the same at the register, chatting up his customers for a brief few moments while the process takes place, then making sure to assist anyone else waiting to check out immediately following. It’s refreshing to meet an owner that is a balanced hybrid between gamer and businessman.
In the end I spent a total of 90 minutes in his store, probably far too long for the amount I spent, and managed to pick up several great items I don’t think I would find anywhere else. Scott recommended Syberia on the Xbox as I discussed my negativity towards retro point-and-click adventures for contemporary players, and I managed to rummage plenty of things I wanted myself. I picked up the aforementioned Japanese Dino Crisis on PS1, an interesting book on the history of Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) for a mere 25 cents, Iron Soldier on the Jaguar, and a copy of Halo: ODST without the multiplayer disc at a heavily discounted price. I noticed he also had tabletop games, which are quickly making a comeback, and after a few minutes of debate as to whether or not to pick up Settlers of Catan, I decided not to on account of the fact I would have to travel with it. Upon checking out Scott mentioned that I had perhaps the most eclectic selection he’s ever seen leave the store, which sums my taste in retro gaming quite nicely. I’m pleased I decided to Google “retro game store omaha” that morning, otherwise I never would have stumbled upon this great brick-and-mortar game store.
This article is my personal impressions of a retro game shop I found while out of town on vacation and is not in any way affiliated with Game Vault or any type of sponsorship. As an avid game collector, I always want to expand my knowledge of game shop locations, especially the ones that get it right, a practice few sites do. If you’re in the Omaha area and want to check out Game Vault, the information on the store is below:
6307 Center St, Suite 102
Omaha, NE 68106
Ron Gilbert, known mostly through the retro circles as the creator of Maniac Mansion and various other games that ran on the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine, said it best way back in 1989 when he wrote his rant entitled “Why Adventure Games Suck.” In it Gilbert attacks the myriad of tropes and issues he foresaw with the very genre that made him famous. It’s quite an impressive read and I suggest you all check it out because there are things he mentions within that piece that are still true today.
All snark aside the point-and-click adventure genre, which saw its largest degree of popularity in the mid-late 80s and early 90s, was always doomed to fail. Not quite a game, not quite a movie (Gilbert is the apparent father of the term “cutscene” because of script he wrote in Maniac Mansion referring to scenes you were forced to watch as “cut-scene”), and despite its general solid writing definitely not a book. It spins a yarn and in many cases tosses in some comedy as one of the only gaming genres that can still control timing without forcefully restricting the player. In concept the genre seems perfectly suited for being a form of interactive fiction and one who hasn’t played these titles may wonder why it performed so poorly and had such a short shelf life in the industry. This is because you haven’t played an adventure game. As enticing as the chuckle-filled story may seem, point-and-click adventure titles were still video games and thus had to adhere to certain rules. No one has quite found the balance and I do believe nostalgia is to blame for the reason anyone still likes these games, because the balance between telling a story and making a game has never found its happy medium. Before you kill me, let me explain.
If you’re going to get started in the point-and-click adventure genre it’s probably best to begin with Gilbert’s first, and probably best, title Maniac Mansion. In it you will select from a series of teenagers sneaking into a house to find the jock’s girlfriend who was abducted shortly before the game begins. As you progress you will encounter various items within the house from the over-sexual Nurse Edna to a tentacle randomly sticking out of the floor (and it talks). Each scenario is more absurd than the last and upon completion of the game, regardless of which ending you get, the impression it leaves is unforgettable. That is, unless you’ve never played it.
If you haven’t then you may have nothing more than a series of turmoil and annoyance at the limited tropes of gameplay that if you don’t give up the game will block progression for you. Maniac Mansion is one of the first titles in a slew of games that had fail states, missed items or scenarios that prevent you from moving forward in the game, hidden clues, impossible puzzles, and plenty more to complain about. Did I mention that when you hit most of these problems you’re never alerted to that fact? Yeah, you can screw up and get stuck in the dungeon for the rest of time but no matter how many hours you spend there the game will never tell you that your attempts are futile. Nope, it’ll let you roam the dungeon, stuck, forever. Perhaps you want to pick up a walkthrough – those are quite popular with the gaming crowd returning to the past. Nope, that won’t help you much either because in trying to figure out where you went wrong you’ll have to read through a step-by-step scenario of how to complete the game, including many actions you may have never encountered or had no idea about, and have all the good parts spoiled for you. Oh yeah, and you still may not be able to pinpoint the mistake that proves you’re stuck for good. This is just Maniac Mansion, I’m not even getting into forgetting to pick up that one item in King’s Quest II that will prevent you from beating the game many hours later or Gabriel Knight 3 that for some reason wants you to copy a driver’s license picture by adding a mustache to the guy on the DL and yourself without so much as a hint. Bulls**t, right?
So why do some people still play these games? As I said before: nostalgia. Either you’ve played the game a million times and you know when to grab that glass or find the key in the envelope, giving those that have never seen the solution and question your logic nothing more than a slight shrug as you do so, or you’ve played so many of these games you’re acutely aware of the tropes. That latter is often still not a sufficient enough asset to justify taking on some of these titles.
Okay so you’ve figured out that your audience needs a little support have you. Perhaps a hint system to get them through or the removal of death states so as not to waste tens of hours as your player fails time and time again. Then you find yourself with the complete opposite problem: it’s boring. Nothing really happens and you never get the satisfaction of solving any puzzles because that stupid hint button is so large and in your face that after a few minutes of frustration you push it. Let’s face it, even as hardcore gamers we only stop ourselves from cheating because there’s no easy way to do so. Near the end of this genre in the 90s, the first game that comes to mind being Phantasmagoria, a horror-esque title from King’s Quest creator Roberta Williams. If you feel the need, and many will, you can literally let the hint system walk you through 90 percent of that game without so much as a single intelligent thought. You might very well need to because adventure fans tend to think themselves above a game like this and those looking for an interesting new computer game weren’t ready for the confines of the genre.
Even nowadays with the resurrection of the point-and-click adventure with pioneer Telltale Games it’s nearly impossible to fail and almost every solution is all but explained to you. This explains why I can’t seem to complete any of the developer’s games (sans the most recent, The Walking Dead) without getting incredibly bored. I feel like I’m just going through the motions, which isn’t satisfactory even when the game is a beloved franchise like Back to the Future. It’s too detailed and long to just walk through it but the “game” part just isn’t all that fun.
Contemporary Adventure and Things to Come
Full disclosure, The Cave, Gilbert’s newest title that promises to re-invent the point-and-click adventure and “get it right” came out today and I have yet to play it. With that in mind, I’m going to proceed with my next comments about the current state of this genre with the caveat that it doesn’t include The Cave.
Nowadays the point-and-click genre is picking up steam again and bold promises come from all around. Telltale is improving, impressing me greatly with last year’s The Walking Dead, and both Tim Schafer (creator of Maniac Mansion‘s sequel Day of the Tentacle) and Ron Gilbert have games on the way. All things considered it’s looking good for fans of the genre but I have yet to see anything that speaks to many of the problems demonstrated here or in Gilbert’s aforementioned essay. The Walking Dead earned game of the year from Spike’s VGAs and yet I still argue it’s not really a video game. Sure, it’s a great title that easily has 2012′s best story, but it’s a lackluster gaming experience at best. It still suffers the tropes of getting you stuck with no idea what to do but also removes any setback of dying and thus can make for some aggravating moments when stuck. Not only that, it’s completely linear, forcing players in a smoke-and-mirrors world where choice seems like an option but the outcome always remains the same. It’s not bad by any means, but it still proves to be tied down to the limits of the genre. These gaming greats of adventure’s past are promising to overcome those obstacles – and my prayers are with them because I personally believe these limitations cannot be overcome due to the nature of the genre – but as it stands this has yet to be accomplished. In the end it’s a lot of promise and a ton of faith with the hope that someone can best a concept that has been around more than 20 years and still can’t find a decent balance.
Perhaps adventure games are not dead. Perhaps they don’t suck. Perhaps there’s some kid out there that can pick up Maniac Mansion tonight on SCUMM VM and after a few hours be changed forever. Somehow, though, I doubt that’s a common case. It just seems like an alternative to the hybrid nerd that loves both literature and gaming – they get a chunk of what they’ve always wanted out of either. Until you see literature buffs pick up a controller or gaming buffs pick up a book as the result of these titles, I’m still not convinced. Oh well, either way, adventure gaming is a thing and there’s a strong loud fan base that will take offense to this blog post ever being written. As for me, I still can’t manage to stomach any title in the genre that I haven’t already beaten back when I was a kid and remember every step required like the muscle memory of riding a bike.
I know it seems like a cop out, but I would like to state for the record that despite my criticism that these titles have not succeeded in the goals they wish to fulfill, that these are in no way poor games. In fact, when compared to many of the time period they were released, they stand out in the group. This also says nothing for the innovation that has been integrated into every genre moving forward from the shooter to even the fighter. Unfortunately this integration has seemed to only limit further the need for the genre overall. There’s a place for adventure games, but it’s a tight niche.
Happy Halloween to all of our lovely retro readers. All month we’ve been chatting about horror gaming, ominous dark rooms, and I’ve been spending one moment in Silent Hill and the next running from the Slenderman. I thought it might be fun to finally offer some retro Halloween gaming for the timid, nervous, screaming little scaredy cats out there. Yep, you read that correctly, here’s a list of fun Halloween videos games that aren’t intended to scare you.
Maniac Mansion (Commodore 64, NES, PC/MAC, iOS/Android)
Way back in 1987, veterans to the industry Ron Gilbert and Tim Schaefer created a little point-and-click adventure game about a group of teenagers that break into the old mansion of Dr. Fred Edison to get back protagonist Dave Miller’s missing girlfriend. Although set in a haunted house that comes complete with blood on the walls, skeletons in the basement, and a hyper-sexualized nurse Maniac Mansion is all in good fun. There are no actual scares and you’ll be laughing hysterically way before you get an opportunity to be scared. Not only was this late 80s PC title a great game to play, but it also was responsible for the creation of Lucasfilm’s infamous “SCUMM” engine (standing for, say it with me kids, Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) that would be utilized in all Lucasfilm adventure games from then on. With a surprising decent port on the NES, plenty of PC ports, a recent enhanced graphics fan re-release, and full compatibility with SCUMMVM on your iOS/Android device, this is a game not to be missed. Unfortunately it has never been (and probably never will) re-released in any way so almost any way you play this game will have to be found by nefarious means, but even creator Ron Gilbert has said that if that’s the only way to play, he’d rather you pirate it than not play it at all.
7th Guest (PC/MAC, CD-I, iOS)
Okay, now I know that this is a horror tale and I know that it’s slated as scary, but in truth this haunted house puzzler is anything but. Consisting of large amounts of cutscenes that re-tell a tale (and even regarded as a FMV title by some), you basically solve a puzzle and get a movie as a reward for a total of 21 puzzles. In fact, the scariest part of the game is trying to figure out the more complex and asinine puzzles at the end, but don’t you dare consult a FAQ, that ruins the whole point of the game. As a scary game the 7th Guest fails on all fronts, and frankly it’s heavily dated even by my tolerably low standards, but there’s still plenty of game to appreciate here and the game is anything but broken. It has recently been resurrected via OS X’s app store for MAC/iOS and all others can pick up the Win XP/Vista/7 compatible port on Good Old Games for $10.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES, Sega Genesis)
I’m going to get a bit controversial here because everyone I talk to proudly claims that the SNES port is the better game. While I have to give it to the SNES for presentation, actual gameplay still rides in the hands of Sega’s double speed “blast processing”. Full disclosure: I was a Genesis kid growing up and I always prefer violent versions of games over pretty ones (Mortal Kombat only had blood on Sega consoles as did this title) so I’m sure there’s bias buried in there one way or another. Either way, the games are identical save for some graphical differences and every version is wonderfully great. The premise is to take a brother and sister combo, drop them into a world that has seen the apocalypse via cartoony versions of horror movie characters, and have them fight through the hordes to rescue their neighbors. You start off with 10 people to rescue in each level, with a total of 50 levels (55 if you count the bonus ones), and any victims lost remain missing on future levels. From there you basically need to survive (you are given limited lives) and prevent all your neighbors from being killed, it’s as simple as that. I like this game because like other LucasArts titles it takes a basic premise from the old arcade and Atari 2600 days and adapts it to 16-bit consoles for a fun and addicting co-op title. No one is going to be scared by this title, but it will make your nerves stand up on end once you enter those last 15 or so levels – oh, and did I mention no continues and only 5 passwords throughout the whole game? Every time I see this game online or at retro shops it’s just around $10-$15 and you Wii owners can nab it on the Virtual Console (SNES version) for $8.
Haunting Starring Polterguy (Sega Genesis, PSP)
In one of the zaniest Electronic Arts releases I’ve ever seen, Haunting is a thought-provoking game that puts you as lead character Polterguy, a “hip” dead teenager not unlike every mascot Sega ever saw on its Genesis console, in charge of scaring the daylights out of the Sardini family. It’s an isometric haunted house simulator except that you are generating the scares. The goal is to scare all of the family members out of the house before your ecto meter (this title’s version of a timer) depletes and without being seen by the family dog (drains ecto meter and removes fear from family members). The two player mode is interesting because you trade off turns with scares and then go into a dungeon level where you compete for ecto and get to a finish line. If either player dies during the dungeon areas the other player will continue the game in single player. Not a title that most will see the end of, but definitely a fun and amusing game that has a surprising level of violent content and for those that make it to the end an amusing twist. This game is a relatively rare but inexpensive ($10-$15) Genesis cart and a re-release on the EA Replay collection for the PSP that’s roughly the same rarity and price.
Night Trap (Sega CD/32X CD, 3DO, PC)
We have done plenty of coverage on this cult favorite, complete with a full game playthrough, so I’ll just revert you to the article here if you haven’t seen it.
And there you have it! Five solid games for you to run out and pick up (or download) for your retro console of choice this Halloween. It’s not all about scares and trick-or-treat, sometimes horror games can be enjoyed by the whole family, even the house wuss. Any you particularly liked that I haven’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments below.
As a retro gamer, it’s inevitable that you have to acknowledge games from other countries, especially Japan. Why? Because many of the foundations of gaming began in the land of the rising sun and lets face it, there’s just something intriguing about integrating completely foreign languages and concepts to a domestic gaming collection. Well and there’s that whole thing about a long list of amazing games that we never saw on our shores. It wasn’t until this console generation that gaming started to go region free (unless you’re talking portables, which ironically just recently started segmenting by region after decades of being region free), and even now it’s really only the PS3 and 360 with plenty of exceptions. Before that games were segmented into different regions for distribution, licensing, and localization, resulting in a diverse list of releases from country to country. On a macro level your release decisions were segmented into three major regions: North America, Europe, and Japan. Import gaming skates an odd line in America because Europe has the common language (English) but a completely different broadcast standard (covered here) that requires special modifications and/or hardware to play games on. Japan has a language many Americans can’t understand (and more importantly in retro games, read) but has similar broadcast standards making most games essentially plug and play. As a result you’re more likely to import a Japanese game than a European game, most likely choosing an action platformer or fighting game over, say, a high-end RPG. But limiting yourself to just those games means all you’re going to play are licensing titles from the Super Famicom like Ultraman or PS1 games like Dragonball Z. That’s where this guide comes in – it’s a cheeky, sarcastic look at the elitist gamer that thrives on Japanese titles and gives you starting hints at how to pretend you are a Japanese gamer in the know. Those of us who love Japanese gaming are guilty of at least a few of these in our lives and who knows, maybe it’ll even give you the starting point you need to enjoy Japanese gaming.
1.) Always reference Japan instead of America
There is no more NES, Super NES, and you’ve no longer even heard of a Turbografx-16. Nope, instead you know them as the Famicom (or Family Computer), Super Famicom, and PC-Engine. The Genesis is the Mega Drive and you never played an Atari VCS/2600, you had an MSX (Microsoft Personal Computer). Everything came out earlier than you know, like the Famicom’s 1983 release and Legend of Zelda coming out in 1986 along with Dragon Warrior (we got it in 1989). In fact, there is no Legend of Zelda or Dragon Warrior, they’re now Zelda no Densetsu and Dragon Quest, but we’ll get to the names of games later on. This is the first step in becoming a true Japanese gaming genius: reference only Japanese console names and finish every fact based on a game with “in Japan” so that those listening are aware you know exactly what’s up.
2.) Know the Games
This is a twofold requirement because you not only have to know the proper names of titles in Japan (including how to pronounce them), but also knowing the coveted list of “secret best” games we never got in America. As I hinted at above, games aren’t necessarily called the same thing in Japan as America and in many cases Japan had more sequels than we did. Final Fantasy didn’t just have a single release on the Famicom, Japan also got the lackluster Final Fantasy II and decent Final Fantasy III, which are not the same as the American counterpart. The US release of Final Fantasy II is actually a dumbed down shortened version of Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy III is Final Fantasy VI – no longer can you refer to Final Fantasy II or III as 16-bit games, they are now permanently IV and VI to your savvy Japanese-centric mantra and you refuse to call them anything else, even if it confuses your friends (what do they know). Many games in Japan have shortened names for ease of reference that are different from America. Dragon Warrior is actually Dragon Quest in Japan (it was later changed here with Dragon Quest VII), but it’s DraQue (pronounced “draw-kw-ay”) for short. Additionally Super Mario Bros is SuMari (“sue-ma-ree”) and of course Seiken Densetsu (the Mana series) is SeikenDens (“say-ken-dens”), so you are also no longer allowed to pronounce the full name of this and many other games, nor should you ever explain discrepancies like the fact that SeikenDens 2 is Secret of Mana. On that note, always reference only the Japanese franchise and pretend the American version doesn’t exist – no longer does Castlevania, Gradius, or even Street Fighter Alpha exist, they are known as Akumajo, Nemesis, and Street Fighter Zero. It’s also important to know that in Japanese “L” is pronounced like “R” and visa versa, so be sure and do this every time, even with games like Gradius, which are still pronounced with the “R” sound in Japan (although you shouldn’t have that problem since it’s now Nemesis, right?).
In addition, it’s important to know many of the hot topic games that retro/import gamers will consistently reference when discussing the titles that we so desperately missed out on in America. I must note that these games are actually quite remarkable for most players, but almost all of them can be played in a fan translated version via emulation with ease (and for free), assuming you can handle the loose interpretation of the law that comes with it. First and foremost is the first game in the Earthbound series, which is Mother in Japan, and often referenced as Earthbound Zero by gamers. This fully translated but never released NES game has a strong cult following in both America and Japan, making Mother top of the must-own titles for the import gamer (it’s a bit slow-paced though, so perhaps you should opt for the Japan-only GBA collection that includes Mother and Mother 2, which we got in the form of Earthbound in America). Mother 3 also never saw our shores so despite an easily found translated version online, you should instead proudly announce you have the imported Japanese version. SNES had a massive bunch of games we never saw over here, but the biggest ones have to be Final Fantasy V and despite a few translated releases in America it’ll only be valid if you have the original Japanese one, as well as Seiken Densetsu 3, which is the sequel to Secret of Mana that we’ve never seen here (but was fan translated). The list goes on and on but without reference another batch you’ll want to mention casually to show you know your import games are Zero Wing (Mega Drive), Monster World IV (Mega Drive), Radical Dreamers (Satelliview), Policenauts (micro computers, 3DO, Saturn, PS1), Sin & Punishment (N64), Shining Force III (remind the naysayers that US never got parts 2 & 3), etc. Google searches for “best” and “import” plus the game title will net great results and it’s a safe bet that anything with a fan translation has a cult following. In many cases when talking to others you don’t even need to know what the game looks like, just know a tidbit like the fact that Radical Dreamers is a side story to Chrono Trigger or Policenauts is the only Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear Solid fame) game not released in America. When you hear these names just nod, make slight noise, and kinda reel your head back like you just had a fresh swig of some good coffee, that’s all there is to it. I did omit Persona 2: Innocent Sin because we just got it on the PSP.
3.) Know the Significance
It’s also important to know which import consoles are worth your time. The Saturn was a completely different console in Japan and Nintendo is known for tons of unnecessary add-on consoles (the Famicom Disk System, the Satelliview, the 64 DD) that failed just as bad as the Virtual Boy. Embrace the never-released Gameboy challenger the WonderSwan and its updated Gameboy Color competitor the WonderSwan Crystal. And there’s no PC-Engine without the Super CD add-on, especially with the vast library of games it opens up like Rondo of Blood from the Castlevania series and many of Falcom’s hits like the Ys series. Oh and apparently no one in Japan has a portable Nintendo system without a paddle add-on for old school arcade-style games.
All snarky kidding aside, there is a lot to be learned and appreciated from our pioneers in the East and given the (debatable) slip in game design from Japan more and more gamers are appreciating the past. If you truly are interested in Japan’s games and knowing a lot of the 8-bit and 16-bit roots of titles, there’s a great series that airs in Japan known as Game Center Cx that can be easily found, translated, on YouTube (I have found literally over 100 episodes) and offers incredible insights to Japanese gaming of the past. If this just isn’t the thing for you, hopefully you’ve come across the import gamer I’ve listed above and a smile crossed your face while reading this.
So everyone’s been buzzing about that new Ouya console that managed to raise its $1 million Kickstarter goal in only 8 hours! At first glance this console looks way too good to be true especially with backed support from none other than former Xbox creator himself, Ed Fries (he also made Halo 2600 for you neo-retro fans). Ouya promises to offer a full catalog of Android-based software, online capabilities (wired and wireless), a controller, recently announced OnLive support, free games, and at only $100. All that’s missing is an “act now and you’ll save $5 off the price!” Oh, but wait, that’s exactly what they did for the first 1,000 Kickstarter donators. They even came back and said this would easily support old school gaming via emulators, opening up the possibility for even more games and essentially makes this the catch-all console for anyone not interested in contemporary console titles. Obviously we here at Gaming History 101 were going to weigh in on this and I just want to forewarn you that after I get through all the smoke and mirrors you will not only know why all of this is possible but also what they’re really selling. I may break some hearts here, but it’s all in an attempt to inform the consumer.
There’s a lot of marketing double-speak woven into the sordid tale of manufacturer Boxer8′s little console – but I must admit the cube-like design looks slick. In the past gaming consoles have been non-existent, like the appropriately named “Phantom” console, or try to do too much and failing at everything, hello N-Gage. That’s not what the Ouya is though, which is why it doesn’t seemingly make the mistakes these other failures have. I don’t believe the Ouya will be a failure, in fact I expect it to sell many consoles provided they can iron out the manufacturing plans, but I think this is going to be a useless gadget that most consumers will buy and eventually forget about. You see, the Ouya is nothing more than an Android-compatible cell phone without any of the cellular communication. It boasts a strong NVidia Tegra 3 quad-core ARM processor, 1 GB of RAM, 8GB of flash memory, HDMI-out, USB in, wired ethernet port, wi-fi and bluetooth connectivity, and a controller. You’ve heard many of these specs before, they mirror most of your Android phones, and that’s why all of these components, if purchased on a mass scale, can be combined to make a console that will turn a minor profit for $100. It’s like a computer, or even more closely related, the Wii, which was able to be manufactured and sold for a small profit margin.
So how can it do so much? It really isn’t built to do all of that, it’s just capable of doing these things. It runs Android operating system 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and has specs equal to today’s top cell phones, so yeah, of course it can run Android games. You know how Square Enix just announced that Final Fantasy III (which was a longtime Japan only release on the Famicom)? Guess what – Final Fantasy III just hit the Android store for the “low” price of $15.99 - and it runs on almost any Android device, so this console can support it and thus it’s an “Ouya game”. Same goes for previous announcements of Angry Birds, Dead Trigger, Grand Theft Auto III, and the list goes on and on, they’re just re-iterating what is on the Android store (known as Play). Most of the people who haven’t caught on are iOS users, at least among my circles, so it doesn’t surprise me that they can’t see the connection right away. I will admit that the good news about this is the controller, which will make controls on many of the games better but mind you that’s only if the developer supports controller inputs. That emulation thing that everyone is going nuts over, not that big of a deal either. The freaking Gameboy Advance was capable of playing NES games, the DS can play almost anything up to the 16-bit era, and the PSP/iOS/Android phones can run 32-bit games with ease. They just noticed that there were a ton of emulators on the Android store and decided to use those as a selling point and if you know how to root your phone (which I think this console will already allow root-like access out of the box) you can easily use free alternative versions of these emulators by simply copying program files to the memory. They also make mention of free games, which is another use of smoke and mirrors to explain a majority of things on the Android store: they are either free or have free “Lite” versions (just like iOS devices). And finally OnLive. Really? The OnLive micro console was cheap and required nearly no components and OnLive runs on any web browser, surely this comparative computing powerhouse can stream a game remotely. As you start to think about it, the gusto fades away and you now see how this console can do all these things: because your phone has been able to do them for years. It’s just a new way to market the non-communication features of your cell phone, whether or not that’s a useful device is up to you.
I can go on and on with all their bullet points and tear them down. “1080p video”, yeah yeah, it has an HDMI port and all HDMI devices are capable of 1080p resolution, even if the game looks blown out to hell and crappy. China already makes much cheaper looking versions of this thing (yes tech junkies, I know, not nearly as impressive internal components) for like $40-$50 that will play emulator games and pirated Android/iOS games downloaded on the net – they are manufactured to look like PSPs, PS2s, Xbox 360s, and more. So that’s what you’re getting with the Ouya, for better or for worse. Now you may be reading this and thinking, “so, what’s wrong with that? That sounds great.” Excellent, then you are now an informed customer who knows what they are purchasing and will appreciate a new device on your home TV. In fact, heavy Android users will have massive libraries of both free and paid content right out of the box if you sink your Google account to it. The only thing that threatens this console at this point is the manufacturing deal. At the time of this post, only a prototype of this device has been developed and with the massive response on Kickstarter, there is fear that even if they can make a working design, that they’ll never be able to create the 200,000+ consoles they have already pre-ordered, but also future consoles for the mass market. That’s a time thing, I guess we’ll see on the proposed release date of March 2013.
With all this talk of consoles that may or may not exist, I think it’s best to point out my top 5 consoles that either didn’t come out or failed miserably to deliver what it promised:
- The Phantom Console: Phantom Entertainment came to E3 2004 with a prototype of a console that would play video games via downloaded content instead of discs or carts. At the time this was a very ambitious undertaking, especially when you consider that download speeds at that time didn’t come close to today and the inherent fear that downloading a 4GB game would take a week (which it probably would). Phantom even hired DirectX founder Ty Graham and Xbox development liaison Kevin Bachus along with 220 other engineers and developers to work on the console, which still sounded too good to be true. Not only that, it was due to release in January 2005. Then March 2005. Then in the summer, Phantom was a no-show at E3 2005, the only ray of hope was Kevin Bachus hinting at a Fall 2005 release alongside the Xbox 360. To no one’s shock it didn’t come and in February 2006 it was indefinitely put on hold due to lack of funding. The console finally disappeared altogether on August 15, 2006, never to be seen again. Now in annuls of history it serves as an ironically fitting name for the never-released console.
- ActionGamemaster: Active Enterprises was a company you love to hate. As a responsible gamer I scoff at those “300-in-1″ DS carts, knowing they are the seed of piracy and cheap components from China, but to the general public they are an end to purchasing video games. Active had already released 52-in-1 carts for NES, SNES, and Genesis, but unlike many other collections they did not pirate a batch of existing games and opted instead to create original (read: horrible) games. The most popular among them is a rough action platformer known as Cheetahman, which also got an unreleased sequel available on the net for emulation. At CES 1994 Active announced the Action Gamemaster, a catch-all 16-bit portable system that would sport a rechargeable battery, DC adaptor, 3.2″ color LCD screen, and adaptor carts that allowed it to play NES, SNES, Genesis, and PC CD-ROM games. Sound too good to be true? Yeah, it was. We never even saw a prototype.
- Gizmondo: We’ve already covered the Gizmondo in our history of portables but this nearly non-existent portable only saw the light of day for a few thousand European early adopters and a handful of US gaming press. In fact, if you find the console in the wild it will always be set up for Europe and requires you to turn off all the communication devices (such as cellular and GPS) to run games without stuttering horribly. After the apparent failure of the company Gizmondo it was discovered that executives, including known criminal boss Stefan Eriksson, were using the company purely as a front to launder money. In its wake the all-in-one device that promised to be a cell phone, e-mail server, GPS, and portable game device had a handful of games and a $400 price point legacy. Still, there was a game that never released called Colors, which had a scene where you could go to prison and perform sexual acts on your bunkmate to avoid getting beaten, perhaps an internal development joke on the future of the executives?
- ApeXtreme: Apex, the company that developed super cheap DVD players for sale in Wal-Marts and RadioShacks in the early to mid 2000s (some of which were graciously region free), was also at the infamous 2004 E3 alongside Phantom to show off their conceptual console. As you can see the prototype model looked sleek enough and flaunted a realistic $300-$400 price tag depending on the model. What did it do? Simple. Put a media disc (CD/DVD) in it and it would play whatever the content was. Mind you, it wouldn’t play console CD/DVD games, but as for PC, it would play any game, read any DVD, read any CD, and even play various new and old media types like MP3 and VCD. Honestly most of Apex’s $30-$50 DVD players already did most of this (including MP3 support), but the idea that you could put any PC game into it and it would run it instantly without installation and spec management raised an eyebrow. Of course it never came out and Apex was all but forgotten after big companies like Sony started selling DVD players for $50.
- N-Gage: Ah Nokia’s N-Gage, the taco phone/console. Like the Gizmondo, it promised to do almost everything – cell phone, e-mail, web browsing, gaming – and unlike the Gizmondo it actually came out. Yes friends, if you have a GSM cellular service (T-Mobile, AT&T) then you can, even today, have a working taco phone to walk around and look cool with. The only problem with this device is that it sucked at being a phone and it equally sucked at being a portable. It had a bunch of ports, but they were pathetically inferior and its original games still make reviewers of the time tremble in the night (just as Jeremy Parish). So neither the gaming or cell crowd even touched it and nowadays its just a waste of money in many pawn shop display cases. I chose this as the top example because it comes the closest to matching what the Ouya is, only just the opposite. Here’s hoping that portable devices brought to the home and TV work out much better than home and TV devices brought to portables.
Fred Rojas from Gaming History 101 and the B-Team podcast is joined by Josh “Colm” from the T4 show and Rob “Trees” from EZ Mode Unlocked to discuss the games in G4′s recent top 100 games of all times. We start by discussing some of our issues with the games in the list and then hit the ground running talking about our personal experiences with many of the great games on the countdown. Due to time constraints this first part covers games 100-60 with more to come in future weeks. Check it out!
Yesterday it was announced by Beamdog’s co-founder Trent Oster that the anticipated Balder’s Gate: Enhanced Edition would not be making a trip to the Wii or Wii U. Some thought that because of Beamdog’s decent port of MDK2 on WiiWare that they might also bring the newest project to Nintendo’s next console. Oster went on a bit of a tweeting rant to Eurogamer that included the following statements: “We don’t do Nintendo development. Our previous experience with Nintendo was enough to ensure there will not be another.” Many assumed that this was in response to the experience Beamdog’s Overhaul Games had with MDK2 that was further backed by his continued statements: “My problems with Nintendo are: requiring 6000 unit sales before payment, a certification process that took 9 months and a 40 mb limit.” This is nothing new, Nintendo has historically been known to screw over 3rd party developers and include rules and business practices that net no risk to Nintendo while also reaping the benefits of successful titles. I may discuss that more in a future article but what struck me was Oster’s final statement, “[Wii] is a toy, not a console.”
It’s not a unique thought, many developers have griped about the Wii and compared it to everything from a toy to a re-creation of the problems of the Atari VCS that eventually led to the video game crash of 1983. I just found that to be quite ironic because Nintendo introduced the Super Famicom (obviously renamed to the Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1985 as a toy, which it wasn’t, and not a video game, which it was. Fast forward to 25 years later and Nintendo has come full circle with the Wii touting it as the next video game console, which it kind of is, and not a toy, which is more likely what it is. Don’t believe me? Let’s put basic definitions and marketing tactics under the microscope to reveal just how toy-like the Wii actually is.
Almost every game on the Wii has a gimmick that unfortunately has to do with a new plastic accessory. Unlike other consoles of the past and today, Wii accessories aren’t necessary to play a given title and add nothing to the experience. Your Wiimote can be hooked into basically any cheap piece of plastic to allow kids (and probably adults too) to believe it’s something else. So far it can fit into various plastic sporting items like golf clubs and tennis rackets, gun peripherals, steering wheels, dolls, swords, shields, and plenty of other items I have yet to name. These items are what make the Wii a toy. Gamers have controlled all of these items in the past and whether it was a button push or a swing of a motion controller, we never required the controller to look like an item. Decorating items for playing is something we do as kids to assist in imagination, but on video games the imagination is done for us and we do not need to swing a physical lightsaber to control it. The only time we use items like that is when we’re playing with toys – adults use it instead of imagination and kids use it to develop imagination. Either way, turning your remote into anything but a device for which to interact with a console makes it a toy.
How it is Marketed
In many cases the success of the Wii and its versatility to intrigue the masses suddenly removed it from the limelight of the gamer. It ceased to be for us the moment that we realized Twilight Princess would be virtually alone as a true video game for nearly a year. Fortunately there were tons of stupid minigame collections, shovelware, and gimmicky crap for kids that parents bought in droves. Combine that with the aforementioned toy accessories and the Wii suddenly entered every household as more of an interactive toy than a video game. Once it was there, the inclusion of Wii Fit meant that this console had gotten into the minds of every mom in America, by hook or by crook. It was at that time I saw things that dropped my jaw – a Wii in Dick’s Sporting Goods. It wasn’t a video game, it was an exercise device. I saw it in the toy aisle of big box retailers because suddenly it was perceived as durable and suitable for anyone over six. In fact, for a short time I could find it in basically any area other than the video game section because stores were so desperate to remove that “gaming” stigma that held back many parents.
Gamers Didn’t Want It
We all love the Nintendo first-party titles, but whether Nintendo would like to believe it or not, the strength of a console lies in strong third-party as well. Nintendo was busy playing around in its 40 million unit testing ground by launching huge commercial success stories with Zelda and Mario Kart along with some stinkers like Wii Music, but in all external marketing and in-store displays Nintendo controlled the fact that Nintendo titles were above all others. This meant that when traditional developers attempted to create titles marketed to hardcore gamers – on-rails shooter Dead Space: Extraction and brawler MadWorld come to mind – it was swept under the rug by Nintendo and retailers because it tarnished the family friendly namesake of the Wii. Games such as these, which had celebrated success on other consoles, pitifully died with 10,000 or less units sold and it appeared Nintendo couldn’t care less. Neither did gamers, for the audience of these games had dried up long ago and even random releases had that negative stigma about them that the intended audience wasn’t there. It only took 2-3 years but the Wii doesn’t exist to many gamers or they have these classic “dust off the console” stories. Now the Wii finally has a stride with some strong releases for hardcore gamers like Xenoblade and digital releases like Gradius ReBirth and MDK2. Doesn’t matter, though, the audience isn’t there so it’s left as niche titles to the few people, like me, who don’t throw anything away. Had I been a gamer that trades in used games, though, I would have dropped my Wii long ago.
Massive Quantities of Unsold Games
It may have been a long time for many of you, but have you checked out a toy store lately? While the products come and go, the basic layout hasn’t changed. All the new, hip, popular toys of the moment get big displays and aisles with eye-popping signage and encouragement from the staff to pick up this hot item. Call up a store and ask for something popular and you may find it’s sold out and that eager moms have purchased meager re-stocks before the manager has arrived for the day. On the other hand, there are the less fortunate: the clearance toys. They don’t reside on shelves or storefront displays, they are discarded in metal and plastic containers that look more like decoration than a display. No organization exists, it’s just tag ‘em and toss ‘em and as a consumer you rummage through a sea of crap with hope of finding that hidden gem. Most of these toys were so popular you couldn’t find them last Christmas but the new hot items made them invisible only three short months later. Instead of a normal price tag, it has a bright orange or red sticker that includes a 20-60 percent discount and no one is coming in to find any particular item these bins contain. That’s exactly what the Wii market is like – nothing but discounted white plastic cases as far as the eye can see. My Walgreens has an entire end cap of unsold Wii titles that will remain there until they are finally tossed out, each with a $4-$10 price tag that intrigues no one. It’s the toy cycle and it’s the side effect of shovelware and big companies trying to throw anything they can at a wall to see what sticks.
This is only a problem because like a toy, the Wii is just a fad, and my friends the time for that fad is over. Everyone knows it, especially Nintendo, which has no plans for another title on the console after the release of last November’s Skyward Sword. It’s a big issue for gaming because the console that put video games back into consumers’ minds and brought the hobby to the forefront again is now synonymous with wasted potential. No typical household that entered video gaming with the Wii will purchase the Wii U and gamers that were burned will avoid the console completely. Not only that, it doesn’t look that different from the Wii aside from some technical specs that the mass audience of the Wii never cared about to begin with. What they will care about is the rumored $400 price tag that takes it off the table for most parents. Nintendo missed a few opportunities to avoid making the Wii a failure but in the rare cases that they did anything it was all too little too late. Face it guys, the Wii is a toy and if Nintendo doesn’t watch out the 3DS and Wii U will face the same fate. I don’t want Nintendo, its properties, or its games to disappear but unless it does a better job of protecting the third-party companies that helped build its empire in the first place, it will fall.
Okay so the title (pronounced “suck-wells”) is a tad unsophisticated as is the concept it implies, but frankly I’ve had it up to my ears in recent sequels that don’t even remember what made their predecessors great. Congratulations gaming, you’ve now entered into the same dangerous realm Hollywood has where production budgets are so great that the slightest tweak can result in a hit or miss product. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a new problem – ask anyone who was around for the crankfest that was the Mega Man series on the NES and they will tell you that it peaked at either Mega Man 2 or 3 and then tapered into oblivion. Don’t misunderstand me, though, these games aren’t bad by any stretch, they just can’t live up to the quality of the previous game. I know what you’re thinking, you’re wondering how one goes about topping Uncharted 2 within the same series or competing with the achievement of Legend of Zelda. In short, perhaps you don’t. Maybe its high time that publishers, because they are the boss, understand that some games run their course. On the other hand God of War 2 was definitely the apex of that series but thanks to a console generation between the second and the third, it was refreshing to receive a sequel that looked so much better. There’s a formula that works, so stop worrying about your own personal issues or listening to too many focus groups and do your best to capture the magic of the property. Please keep in mind that like the mantra of Scream 2, trilogies are not considered sequels in my eyes and thus are awarded certain liberties as a result. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to rip into the entire trilogy once the third releases if obvious oversights weren’t dealt with.
Lately I feel that no developer out there understands this. It may be because they’re too busy trying to trump the previous title that they make unnecessary changes and break the formula. It may also be that the new title is way too similar to the previous title and thus leans on story to get through, but for whatever reason those writers don’t deliver. Perhaps the developer is no longer interested in making a sequel, but thanks to the long arm of the publisher that holds all the money, they have no choice but to make yet another title in the same series. The reason is irrelevant, there’s no excuse for creating a game that isn’t self-aware of the issues found within. It’s not rocket science, these issues are apparent to every fan of the series so there’s no reason to believe that the developer doesn’t also notice it. Here are some examples of sequels I’ve recently played this year that either felt too rushed or missing the point of what that series is all about.
What Happened to the Rest of the Game?
Sequels are a great thing, especially when they are for games that didn’t celebrate the commercial or critical success its fans hoped it would. Perfect examples of this are The Darkness, Alan Wake and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Whether you’re trying to get better review scores or prove that your game has merit, why in the world would you cut corners? Each of these games have caveats, or rather excuses, that developers and publishers alike can make for the stripped feel of the second title. That’s great when they’re trying to back simple decisions or cover their own ass, but as a gamer I feel like they don’t even care about my beloved franchise. For starters, the second game of all of these is not only shorter, but feels incomplete. I won’t go into spoilers, but The Darkness II is a 4-6 hour campaign on a good day, strips multiplayer (not that it should have ever had it in the first place) and gives you almost no reason to justify the $60 purchase. Are you trying to fail 2K? The fact we even got a sequel is a good thing but not at the expense of giving the message that 4-6 hours is worth $60 in the market that offers Skyrim and Call of Duty for the same price. Oh and mild side note, don’t offer a choice at the end if one of them offers no ending, no achievement and strips out the final level. The Force Unleashed II didn’t even feel finished. It was about the same length as Darkness II and half of the game was one single location; at least the lackluster original title had different worlds to visit. I’m guessing the publisher figured that all Star Wars fans are mindless robots that will purchase anything in the series, after all they did move 3 million+ copies of the so-so original. American Wasteland, the follow-up to Alan Wake, made a little more sense as a download title and a 3-5 hour campaign, but my big issue is that of the nine stages/levels, it’s really only 3 environments recycled three times each. For an original game that was criticized for its lack of unique enemy encounters, the fact that the next game doesn’t learn this lesson and instead largely recycles environments is just disappointing. So basically these publishers/developers have decided that my weekend is worth about $135 plus tax (that’s what all 3 games would cost at MSRP and with a total completion time of 11-15 hours the average gamer could easily do this in a weekend).
Why in the World Did They Do That?
By the time a game is on the third or later installment of the series, especially if I’ve enjoyed the others, there’s this calm anticipation for the next title. You’ve seen the original and an improved sequel helps reassure you the developer has a firm grasp on the property, then a late addition comes out and it’s got some jarring flaws. This was the case for me with Uncharted 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Assassin’s Creed is the easier series to pick on, so I’ll start there first. AC had everything – an amazing character (Ezio) that didn’t come until the second game, a three-game side story that we all accepted (and coughed up the cash for) and muliplayer additions that were a benefit instead of a detriment. Why, then, did certain decisions in Revelations happen? It added a horrendous tower defense that could be so easily avoided it seemed the developers themselves understood no one was going to play it. The campaign was short and half of the missions had you dashing all over a city, retracing your steps and uncovering almost no new plot. Furthermore, Ubisoft was too busy killing some of the only likeable characters and giving a half-hearted easy end to the best character the IP has spawned. It’s almost ironic that we were staring down all speculative at Brotherhood and once that was a strong title we allowed the scant next iteration of Revelations to skate by with critical and commercial success. Uncharted 3 is a bit more subtle about its lack of quality. First off, the writing was still rock solid and although I have some minor qualms with how it wrapped up, which to me felt a bit like a story rushed into production to meet a holiday release schedule, I was pleased. For some reason they decided to go back to the combat function of the first game, but now they made it so that you can be shot when you enter a combat scenario. This is a big no-no for a game that has brawling and shooting – either you make the character invulnerable to random bullets while they battle in a quicktime event (QTE) or you allow them to run from the combat in order to avoid the bullet fire. In Uncharted 3 not only would you die cheap deaths because of this, but the developers actually programmed scenarios based around getting you into a battle sequence while the distant gunmen easily picked you off. Not only that, the stealth was nearly impossible for me, and I’m a hardcore stealth player, to the point that I just gave up. Not only that, these guys could pick off a specific hair on your head from 500 yards once you’re spotted. Tsk Tsk Naughty Dog. It also had epic events where you would be running to or from crumbling buildings and cliff tops with no idea where to specifically go. Sure, you might get lucky enough to pick the right path, but essentially it was all trial and error.
Getting it Right
I can’t believe that after all was said and done, my favorite sequel from last year was actually Resistance 3. With the massive amount of sequels to solid titles I hoped for sure something would resonate – mind you, I never got the chance to play Arkham City or inFamous 2 – but this was clearly the year to rush a holiday release. This may just be the mindless rant of a guy who made too much out of the little tweaks of new games, but for all the complaints about Call of Duty never offering something new I sure seem to be more pleased with those annual releases than what I saw last year.
Portable gaming has been around almost as long as gaming as a whole. Since the first moment bleeps and bloops could be captured on a screen, engineers have been hard at work trying to recreate the same experience on the go. Now with both the Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS this goal has, for the most part, become a reality. While neither is quite on par with the likes of their HD gaming counterparts, there’s no doubt that the smaller screen does make the distinction difficult. Having personally played Resident Evil: Revelations, Super Mario Land 3D, Wipeout 2048 and Uncharted: Golden Abyss, I admit that I feel these games are nearly identical both in gameplay and graphics to home console titles. This is nothing new, in fact many would argue that the Playstation Portable was nothing but a slew of PS2-style titles both unique and ported. Unlike the PSP, though, it appears that the gaming public claim this is what they want. The sales, of course, tell a different tale.
Building a Foundation
This very site’s Gaming To-Go series helps explain the apparent necessity and strength of portables: they are inexpensive experiences for when you are away from your console. Today’s market is a different place than it was when the Gameboy premiered in 1989, but even back then it’s important to note that at $89.99, it was only $10 less than the NES at the time. This may not sound like anything significant at first, but when you consider that Gameboy cartridges were usually $30-$35 when compared to the NES at $40-$50, the gap can begin to widen. Couple that with the SNES, premiering in 1991 and having early games like Street Fighter II retailing for $69.99 or more at launch and eventually large titles like Final Fantasy III hitting the $100 mark, the difference is huge. Then there’s the television factor – you don’t need a TV to play a portable game. When the home console is attached to the main television for the household, it can be difficult to find the time to play in an American house of 3-5 people. With the advent of the portable, all you needed was a place to sit and mind your own business.
Lower prices, no need for a television and the amusement factor make the portable gaming system a temptation for a house with kids. While we would all like to pretend that kids should share one Nintendo DS for today’s household, this is simply not the case. Thanks to multiple children and the rough nature in which they treat the portable, it’s not uncommon for the typical household with two kids to eventually purchase three, four or even more of the same console in a life cycle. It’s still a rarity, even for gamers, to have multiple copies of the same home console – I get weird looks when I mention I have three PS3s in the house. This type of market created inflated sales, but as any 3rd party developer on these consoles will tell you, thanks to piracy and lack of demand your sales numbers can be one percent or less of that market.
A Taste of Things to Come
We saw this most recently in home consoles with the Wii – the attach rate for the console teetered between 1-3 games. This meant that for every console sold, only 1-3 games would be purchased with it. There are literally millions of households in America that only have one or two titles for their Wii, and usually those are Nintendo first party. This makes any impressive game that releases without Mario or Nintendo all over it will be ignored based on bias, not content. The same can be said for the portable and has always been the case. In the Gameboy era, many kids in houses with multiple Gameboys would be limited to Tetris and maybe one or two games from the initial purchase. This is why the earlier a title releases on a portable, the more common it is to see on the used market. Even the great and untouchable Call of Duty franchise has seen failure in the eyes of the Nintendo DS, resulting in portables rarely being considered for future ports. Sure, those games have compromises, but then so does every portable port.
That’s another change that has been brought with this new generation of portables – no more compromises. No longer do you have to get the dumbed down or stripped version of a game, now you can get the whole package. Street Fighter IV 3DS is a rock solid port that comes pretty darn close to its console counterpart, complete with online play. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Rayman Origins are already being touted on the Vita as alternatives to purchasing the home version. For titles like this it’s the concept that in the race for your attention, these titles can’t compete at home but perhaps they hold a strength as your “lunch break” game of choice. We already saw popularity in the classic RPG/JRPG on the portable front – I’ve been able to complete Final Fantasy VII and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on portables in the same amount of time it took to complete half of Chrono Trigger on home gaming time. Now it’s time that you decided not what game to get, but whether you want it at home, on the go, or both.
Apples to Oranges
When you strip it away, the Vita (and to certain extent, the 3DS) is just another console that happens to be “portable”. It costs about the same as a Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, it has many of the same games, it has online patches/DLC and lets not forget an online community. At a retail price of nearly $300 (even if you go wi-fi, a memory card or accessories get you there with little effort), this is not the portable you buy multiple copies for to appease your children. In fact, the 3DS and Vita will most likely be nowhere near the hands of the average kid. Not only are they more expensive, they just look like something that’s dying to be destroyed in the hands of the young. I’m pretty sure my Gameboy and even my DS would give me a concussion before I ever dreamed of hurting them, especially with the clam shell closed. Games have raised in price, most of them sitting in the $40-$50 range against the $50-$60 range of modern titles and I feel it’s only a matter of time before market tweaks result in identical pricing. No, nowadays if you want a strong little device for your kids to play on you’ll most likely get them an iPod touch or a DS for like $100.
This is why the apparent lack of sales for both consoles early on shouldn’t be feared, especially if 3rd party titles do well on the console. There’s no doubt that from a hardware sales perspective that the 3DS and the Vita will most likely not compete with their predecessors, but it’s important to remember that the hardware is rarely responsible for the profit margin to the manufacturer and definitely not to the publisher. The hardware is merely a vehicle to create a market for the games that release. In the case of most portables it’s a sea of unsold software – I purchased Contra 4 on DS for $4.80 at Target and Final Fantasy III on DS for around twice that – which benefits no one. What’s the point of having 100+ million consoles if your penetration rate is pathetic? Despite so many DS systems in the world, to break 500,000 units sold is a crowning achievement for any non-Nintendo developer. Is a goal of any 3rd party title to receive a 0.5 percent penetration rate a good thing? Imagine if only half a percent of all drivers purchased gas, that would dry up the gas station business at a staggering rate. This doesn’t happen because a car essentially needs gas to be valuable, which is not the traditional view of the portable gaming market.
With any luck we will see benefits from having a smaller market; perhaps we will now see more dedicated customers who can add value to development that has been all but abandoned on portables in return for first party market control and vaporware. There may only be 10 million Vita’s in gamers hands by the end of 2012, but if any 3rd party title can break the coveted million unit sold mark, I don’t see why anyone should be concerned. This all comes at a price, though: portables are competing with home consoles as an option, not a supplement. The Gameboy was you “on-the-go” option for the NES, but I don’t know that it would have been as popular had it been and actual handheld NES. In addition, developers may be shooting themselves in the foot. If all the Vita gamers that purchase Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would have eventually purchased the game for Xbox 360 or PS3, what was the point in developing it? You’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is the big issue I currently have with the Vita, it doesn’t have any console-specific software driving me to it yet. Building on that, why wouldn’t any unique Vita title also release on PS3 since they’re so similar? It’s a double-edged sword for the console in terms of getting me as a customer (but then, I’m a retro gamer, so of course I’m fine with DS and PSP titles, right?). Furthermore, they haven’t ironed out all the issues with PSP/PSOne titles and until it can at least replace my PSP I’m even less likely to consider a purchase. Here’s hoping it all gets worked out and we are seeing the portable equivalent to the hiccups of a console launch.
What about you, fellow gamers? Is the Vita the next evolution in portable gaming that you have been waiting for or does its lack of original options hold you back from taking the high price plunge? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.