When Nintendo Goes Into Panic Mode, We All Win

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After a lackluster 3DS launch in 2011, Nintendo took drastic measures in order to make the handheld more palatable for the holiday season. Just six months after its March launch, the 3DS’ inflated $250 price tag suffered a huge $70 price cut, with Nintendo promising free game downloads to early adopters. I was one of said fools, and though I enjoyed the smattering of Game Boy Advance and NES games that Nintendo delivered free of charge, I would’ve just rather had my $70 back. Not long after, the 3DS XL made my launch 3DS obsolete. I vowed never again to buy a console on day one.

The 3DS price cut is notable because of how swiftly it arrived and how deep of a discount it was. Had Nintendo simply sold the handheld for $200 from day one, I imagine they would’ve met with far more success even despite the drought of decent games (which would eventually last for over a year). Instead, they were forced to dip below $200 far too early in the console’s life cycle. Let’s be clear: in this case, the customers were the winners, because $180 is more than a fair price for the handheld. The only people who got screwed were the handful of early adopters, like myself.

So when Nintendo announced that the Wii U would be sold at the exorbitant price of $350 for the full package (the less said about that bastard child of a $300 Basic package, the better), I sighed because I felt they had learned nothing. When their full launch window release schedule was published recently, I shook my head. Once again, they were launching an overpriced console with no killer apps for at least six months. And sure enough, the Wii U didn’t sell amazingly well over the 2012 holiday season. So Nintendo, a company that’s actually been doing a much better job lately of listening to their fans and generally feeling less like a bunch of out-of-touch Japanese suits, went into full-blown damage control mode today, advertising that new Wii U titles would be announced via a special Nintendo Direct stream.

Well, I got up early for said stream, which was extremely hit or miss. The first twenty minutes of the thirty-five minute stream were dedicated to Miiverse, with the adorable Satoru Iwata re-explaining the online service for the millionth time like it was a brand-new program. It’s easy to see why they might’ve thought this was a good idea; nearly every major gaming site has agreed that the Miiverse is as engaging a distraction as they come, and Nintendo has latched onto this praise like a drowning man clutching a piece of flotsam. But this kind of information would only be of interest to the casuals who honestly don’t have the Wii U anywhere on their radar, and they won’t be sitting at their computers with the hardcore gamers watching a Nintendo Direct stream. I think a lot of people could’ve done without the Miiverse crap, but when it finally ended, Nintendo went into full-on “we’re sorry” mode.

After addressing two of the Wii U’s biggest criticisms in its menu/download performance speeds and the lack of Virtual Console, Nintendo began dropping the names, one by one. They glossed over the fact that new 3D Mario and Mario Kart games were on the way, which was wise of them, since everyone expects those anyway and having those be the big game announcements would’ve been truly depressing. They gave up some tantalizing tidbits about the next major Zelda game, and although Aonuma was as vague as can be, it seemed he was hinting that the next Zelda could be non-linear, open-world, and multiplayer. Well, the community wants at least two of those three things in the next Zelda anyway, so this seems to be another occasion of Nintendo bowing to fan demand as regards the future of Zelda (recall how everyone went apeshit when they revealed the realistic, dark art style of Twilight Princess, since that’s what the fanboys had been wanting for years). Could be all right, but I’m a fan of linearity in my games. Oh and by the way, they’ve got an HD Wind Waker remake to tide you over until then, no biggie.

These were all games that I expected to be released for Wii U at some point in the near future, so Nintendo gets checkmarks for reassuring us that they’re indeed in development (a far cry from the days when they’d pretend like every new Mario or Zelda was a privilege and after each game was released, there was no telling if or when we’d ever get another one). I was a little disappointed that they’ve still got nothing to show for Smash Bros. (although they reconfirmed that two titles were in development for 3DS and Wii U, respectively), but at least it’ll be at E3 this year. It’s likely too much to ask for it to come out this holiday, so it’ll probably be late 2014 before we have the damn thing given how slow Sakurai works. A shame, because that game is absolutely a system-seller, and the series is historically evergreen to boot; the longer it’s on store shelves, the more profit for Nintendo, so why not get that shit out on day one? Perhaps Sakurai should’ve been working on this instead of fucking around with a Kid Icarus reboot that no one really needed. Ah well, I can wait. It’s not like my friends and I are going to get tired of Brawl any time soon.

And then there’s those beautiful niche games that cater to the 1% of the total gaming population, the freaks like me who love bizarre Japanese crossovers, punishingly difficult strategy-RPGs, and post-cyberpocalyptic pseudo-MMOs. Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem might be one of the most bizarre game announcements of all time, but even weirder is the fact that, being announced on the North American Nintendo Direct, one can reasonably expect this game to arrive on our shores at some point. Possibly without even having to resort to Operation Rainfall II. I lost my collective shit when this game was announced, and sadly, I must admit that Nintendo has me; if this game comes out before Smash Bros., I will buy a Wii U for it. Monolith Soft’s X (which looks to be a spiritual successor to Xenoblade Chronicles, or possibly even an actual sequel if the “X” ends up just being a codename) is just icing on the JRPG cake, really.

Nintendo starts feeling the heat, and all of a sudden they’re forced into revealing pretty much every major title they’re working on for at least the next year, just to prove to fans that, yes, we do indeed have games in the pipeline for our poor, forgotten Wii U. They may not have wanted to show their hand this early (with some footage or screenshots, this would’ve been a damn impressive E3 presentation), but I feel like the fans have benefited from Nintendo’s frantic scramble to showcase the Wii U as a console with a deep lineup of first- and third-party content. Finally, I’m excited about being able to play some Wii U games, despite the fact that I might not see any of these titles until this Christmas. Until now, the prospect of owning a Wii U, ever, seemed up in the air as long as Pikmin 3 was their big 2013 title. But now, things are different, see. Now I need a Wii U because it’s the machine that will allow me to play a Shin Megami Tensei/Fire Emblem crossover and a new Monolith Soft RPG. When those games drop, I will buy a Wii U whether Nintendo’s hacked $70 off the price by then or not.

Map Design and Random Encounters in Retro RPGs

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As recently as a year ago, I would contend that my favourite RPG subgenre would be the turn-based JRPG. While everyone else had moved on to Oblivion and Fallout, I stuck with my Final Fantasy and Pokemon. I liked the sometimes nonsensical, fluffy stories, the patient menu-based battle systems, and even the thrill of random battles. But having worked through Pokemon Black 2, Penny Arcade’s Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, Final Fantasy VII, and now Final Fantasy Dimensions all this year, I suddenly realized that these games don’t hold the allure for me that they once did.

For a lot of ’90s JRPGs and retro-styled indie RPGs of today, this is due to one fatal flaw: a brutal combination of lazy map design and a high encounter rate. In any JRPG of yesteryear, you’re often faced with a choice when dungeoneering: go one way to get the treasure chest, go the other way to progress through the dungeon. A completionist like myself wants to always get the treasure first, then take the other path and inch closer to the end of the dungeon until I’m presented with another forked path. This is the much-vaunted “non-linearity” that people who decry modern game design love to champion as an example of why the old ways were so much better. But when I’m presented with a forked path, nine times out of ten my view of the ends of those paths is deliberately obstructed, making me choose at random. If I find the floor exit, I know I’ve missed out on the treasure, and I have to go all the way back to the other path, then get the loot, then trek all the way back to the exit, fighting random battles all along the way. In a game like Final Fantasy where your party’s health and MP don’t regenerate after battle (even a little), this wears down on your mages, who are constantly struggling to keep the party’s health up without having to resort to expensive healing items. And if there are more than two available paths, that’s just cruel. The game becomes a slog, with what should be healthy exploration bogged down by a combination of too many unknown paths and too many random battles.

When this design pops up in games today, I feel punished for wanting to explore the game world. I want to see every nook and cranny and make sure I haven’t missed any loot or any secret shops/conversations/party members, what have you. But my desire to explore goes down once I realize that means fighting through another series of battles every few steps, which can take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes depending on the game.

I’ve currently sunk 25 hours into Final Fantasy Dimensions and I’m only about halfway through the game, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the game is a deep classic JRPG experience. The dungeons aren’t long by any means, usually only about five or six floors with only two or three forks per floor (one to the treasure, one to the next fork, then repeat), but the game’s taking me so fucking long to get through because I’m fighting a random battle every time I twitch. There’s no way to reduce the amount of random encounters, and running can take up to twenty seconds and allows the enemy to get plenty of free hits in before that. Hell, I’ll just give you the skinny right now: the game is a neverending sequence of forest, cave and mountain dungeons (the mountains are the worst, as you usually go up the mountain and then back down…yeah, no boss battles at the summit in this bad boy) broken up by the occasional town where nothing special happens beyond allowing you to buy new pieces of armour, with the only story progression usually occurring at the very end of each chapter (often after a town-dungeon-dungeon-town-dungeon sequence).

Zeboyd’s retro JRPGs (Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, Penny Arcade 3) are prime examples of this kind of map design, except their branches take even longer to find out whether you chose the treasure path or the exit path than in Final Fantasy Dimensions. However, one large plus is that after you fight a set number of random battles in each dungeon, the random encounter rate will drop to zero and require you to manually enter battles via the menu screen. This allows you to explore to your heart’s content without fear of getting jumped by a bunch of slimes, while simultaneously acting as a levelling tool (once you hit the max number of random battles, it’s suggested that you’re done grinding in that area, and you’ll have a chance against the boss). Penny Arcade 3 does away with random battles entirely, placing enemies on the map in scripted positions and regenerating your party’s health completely after each battle; progressing through the dungeon is more like clearing away barriers in the form of enemies until you have a clear path to the exit/treasure. I like the latter more than the former, but both are acceptable alternatives to traditional JRPG design, and the former in particular is kind of innovative.

Nowadays, I think I’m losing my patience for JRPGs that have this kind of design. I find myself gravitating more toward stuff like the Tales series, where the enemies are visible on the overworld map and avoidable, there is no penalty for running, you get a small amount of health and TP back after each battle, and you can usually explore to your heart’s content without fighting an endless series of battles. Or even stuff like The Last Story, where every battle is scripted and there are no random enemies whatsoever. Or, hell, even Western RPGs, where combat might not even be broken down into discrete “battles.”

Too Late For Pandora’s Tower?

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Like most hardcore gamers who own a Wii and like JRPGs, I was beyond incensed when Nintendo shot down Operation Rainfall, stating they had no plans to bring Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, or Pandora’s Tower stateside. I hadn’t really looked into any of the games beyond Xenoblade, but I had been starved for good JRPGs for a long time, and for some bizarre reason I had just assumed these titles would be summarily localized. But no, it took almost two long years (compounded by the agony of watching Europe get all three games much earlier than us) for Nintendo to finally cave in and squeeze out a few copies of Xenoblade. Xseed Games stepped up to the plate and published The Last Story, and they did right by their fans by printing a second run and dropping the price a few months after launch (Nintendo did no such thing with Xenoblade, which currently goes for like $100 on Ebay). Finally, I had the two games I wanted; I was never much interested in the strange action-RPG gameplay of Pandora’s Tower.

And yet, today Xseed announced it picked up Pandora’s Tower for a North American release. And I’m scratching my head as to why.

Pandora’s Tower was always the black sheep of Operation Rainfall, the one that most people (including myself) could live without as long as they got the other two games. While Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story constantly make appearances in conversation about the Wii’s best RPG (with the former even being considered by some to be the best JRPG of the generation), no one’s talking about Pandora’s Tower, which IGN has admitted is “no classic.” It’s possible the game is too repetitive, too strange, too shallow for its own  good. Pandora’s Tower will be forever linked to Xenoblade and The Last Story because of Operation Rainfall, and sadly, they cast a large shadow of critical acclaim that the slightly-above-average Pandora’s Tower may never be able to escape from.

Even if we’re going to ignore the quality of the game itself, I feel it’s going to be an enormously tough sell in today’s market. Unlike the well-pedigreed Xenoblade and Last Story, Pandora’s Tower was made by Ganbarion, a studio I had never heard of before, and certainly not a trusted name in the JRPG world. It’s easy to generate buzz by marketing a game as “from the creators of Xenosaga” or “from the creator of Final Fucking Fantasy“; “from the creators of One Piece: Unlimited Adventure” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The timing is also of concern. The industry is currently in flux as everyone waits for the next gen PlayStation and Xbox to drop. Meanwhile, new consoles like the Vita and Wii U struggle to break new ground and attract customers, while the 3DS seems to be finally settling in and establishing itself as the new dominant handheld, while outdated consoles like the DSi continue to chew up additional market share. So where’s the Wii in all of this? Well, it outsold its own successor last holiday season, but it’s definitely on its way out. Xseed admitted that the odds were stacked against The Last Story, and many in the company didn’t want to spend money localizing a $50 Wii game in an unpopular genre (for the American market, anyway) for release at the end of the console’s life cycle. Its August 2012 release gave it a few months of leeway before the Wii U bit into Wii sales, and against all odds, it became Xseed’s bestselling title to date. But can they pull the same thing twice with Pandora’s Tower, which lacks the critical acclaim, developer pedigree, community buzz, and advantageous timing of The Last Story? If the Wii had one foot in the grave in August 2012, I shudder to think of what console sales will be like by the time Pandora’s Tower gets released in Spring 2013. The Last Story also suffered numerous delays before finally being released in August, so it remains to be seen whether Xseed can actually get the thing out the door by March-April. Sooner would be better than later.

I think this thing’s gonna tank, personally. It’s too late in the Wii’s life cycle, there’s no buzz, most Operation Rainfall protestors have already been mollified by the releases of Xenoblade and The Last Story (for Americans, both in the last year), and Xseed’s own Last Story localization is currently filling the Wii JRPG market through its second print run. I’m hoping Xseed found some way to release this cheaply, because since the company has like six employees, one expensive bomb could mean the end of this tiny localization studio

What’s With All The New Consoles?

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This unusually long console generation has left consumers chomping at the bit for new consoles, but they’re not stupid, either. Just because there’s a dearth of fresh technology in the console market right now doesn’t mean that they’re willing to pony up an unreasonable amount of cash for a new system, as the recent lackluster launches of the overpriced 3DS, PS Vita, and Wii U all proved (Nintendo eventually remedied the 3DS situation with a drastic $80 price cut; at $170, the system experienced a sales resurgence in 2012 and became the money printer it should’ve been from day one). With no official word yet on the successors to the Xbox 360 and PS3 (though they’re rumoured to be dropping in 2014, which makes perfect sense to me), other hardware developers have been coming out of the woodwork to grab a piece of console market share. First there was the OUYA, the tiny Tegra 3 console with the tiny price point to match; after CES last week, Razer, Nvidia, and Valve all unveiled new consoles, and unsurprisingly, I’m skeptical of all of them.

Razer’s Edge is a tablet with controller handles on either side of it, and it basically looks like someone duct-taped two Move controllers to an iPad. To be honest, this one’s less of a brand new console and more of a “gaming tablet” (Razer’s even marketing it as such), but what is probably going to sink this thing is the price. Tablets aren’t cheap, and game consoles have been getting more expensive, but at $1000 the Edge is a very tough sell. To me, it seems like a target audience mismatch: who are they going after with this tablet? Anyone who wants to play Starcraft II properly will do it on their high-end PC, not on an underpowered, overpriced tablet. The best tablet games are the ones that truly take advantage of the touch screen and deliver an experience that you can’t get with a joystick or a keyboard/mouse combo; adding traditional control options, while a nice touch, seems superfluous, not to mention not worth the huge leap in price compared to the iPad. The Edge is a tablet for the hardcore gamer, but gamers have long since decided that tablets aren’t worth their time, and that’s only partially due to the awkward touch controls of the handful of high-profile ports that make their way to Android and iOS. Who will spend the time to port games to this thing, given how fragmented the mobile market currently is, and given that only the Edge has the horsepower and controls to deliver a mobile gaming experience comparable to a console one? You’re essentially making games specifically for one tiny niche of the mobile market. You can port Temple Run to every mobile device under the sun (including the Razer Edge), but there’s only one device you can launch Starcraft II on, and it’s sure as hell not gonna be the market leader, so why bother?

Nvidia’s Project Shield prototype is just about the ugliest console I’ve ever seen in my life. I know, I know, it’s still in development, but the damn thing currently looks like someone duct-taped an iPhone to a 360 controller (yes, yes, I love the duct tape analogy; years of watching Red Green have rubbed off on me). It’s little more than another handheld Android device about to fragment the market even further, and it seems like it was dreamed up solely to hype up Nvidia’s new Tegra 4 chip. Of course, announcing the Tegra 4 for Project Shield has the effect of already making the OUYA look outdated, but with the latter launching in two months, they’ll have to stick with the old SoC. It seems like a lot of new hardware makers are buying into Google’s pitch about how well-established the Android market currently is, their userbase totals blah blah blah up year-by-year, but Android hardware is quickly becoming as varied and nonstandard as PC hardware. Not all Android devices are created equal; getting an app to work on every Android phone or tablet is difficult, and definitely much harder than trying to do the same thing for iOS. I wonder if developers will be willing to make software for these high-end Android devices when the majority of the market is using cheaper, underpowered smartphones and tablets.

Valve’s Steam Box/Piston thing with Xi3 follows Gabe Newell’s recent obsession with getting people to boot up Steam on their television (I personally haven’t used Big Picture mode yet, but I imagine I will when it comes time to run through The Walking Dead with my mother). This thing is basically a Linux-based computer that runs Steam games through your TV (for, you know, all those Linux games currently on Steam. Sigh). I can’t imagine the use of this thing in a world where Steam exists, HDMI cables exist, and Big Picture exists, but I guess clueless parents could buy it for their kids who want “a new game console” for Christmas. Word on the street is that this thing is expensive as hell though, so I’mma stick to my good ol’ PC, thanks. Compared to the Edge and Project Shield though, Valve’s hand-sized Piston is a sleek, tiny, unobtrusive cube that could easily fit within any entertainment deck. Here’s hoping for a Companion Cube skin.

The flood of new console announcements is notable because none of them are truly “new consoles” in the traditional sense. This isn’t like Microsoft clawing market share away from Nintendo and Sony with the release of the Xbox in 2001; Razer and Nvidia are releasing tablets with built-in gamepads, while Valve is releasing a PC. It’s tough to even see whether these things will be in direction competition with the Big Three. Valve’s Piston might, since it’s gonna be connected to your TV and all, but the Edge and Project Shield seem more likely to be going after Apple and Samsung than Nintendo and Sony. At any rate, they’re all probably way too niche to make a splash in their respective markets, and I would be genuinely surprised if any of them become household names.

Getting Parents Into “Hardcore” Games

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For the past few years, my mother has been coming into her own as a gamer. At first, it was just Wii Sports (which I suspect she maybe played just to have something to do with her son) and Wii Fit Plus (which she actually did enjoy, as she became something of an unstoppable force in the snowball fight minigame). My completion of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was delayed by several weeks because every time I booted it up, she heard the game’s familiar starting tones and asked if she could go fishing for a while. Craving a deeper experience, she switched to Fishing Master and, well, mastered it. We completed Super Smash Bros. Brawl‘s Subspace Emissary together in 2009, and since then, she’s been playing Bejeweled (admittedly casual), Plants vs. Zombies (sort of straddling the line between casual and “hardcore”), and Animal Crossing: Wild World (definitely “hardcore”). I’m proud of her for actually surpassing my skill level at these last three games (for Animal Crossing, she’s far ahead of me in her mortgage payments), and most of that was with a minimum of help from me. Bejeweled she actually found all on her own, as she was experimenting with the minigames in Plants vs. Zombies one day and came across the “Beghouled” riff, and then mused out loud that she wished there was an actual standalone “Beghouled” game. I nudged her in the right direction, but the initial discovery of match-three glory was all her own.

Of course, Animal Crossing and Plants vs. Zombies aren’t “hardcore” games in the traditional sense. I call them “hardcore” because I feel they present deeper player experiences than minigames like Bejeweled, and I think they require greater levels of skill and core gameplay design to really “get” everything out of the game. So how, then, do I get non-gamers like my mother interested in games that are ostensibly targeted toward hardcore twentysomething gamers like myself? The answer, I think, is to give them an experience as close to other forms of media that they’re more familiar with, like film and literature.

Because I secretly already had every game I wanted, I challenged my sisters to find me a new game for Christmas that they would enjoy watching me play (our traditional roles: I play, they watch and absorb the story). I gave them no criteria whatsoever and they came back with Alan fucking Wake, of all things. I have no idea how they chose this game, but when we were all home for Christmas break we played the crap out of it, and we got pretty engrossed in the story. My mother came up to check on her children, and to her surprise, she got hooked on the story too. Soon she was spinning conspiracy theories about Alan’s misfortune along with the rest of us, and when she discovered that we had a play session without her, she demanded to know the story details she had missed. “It’s just like a TV series,” she told me when I asked her why she liked it. Of course, that was Remedy Entertainment’s whole point; to make a game that both closely emulated a thriller serial and wickedly mocked it.

My mom said she still likes playing her all-ages Animal Crossing and Bejeweled games, but she confessed that she really enjoys watching me play Alan Wake because it has a mature storyline that wouldn’t feel out of place in a movie. It’s an odd type of media-crossover-appeal, I suppose. Of course, she won’t play it herself, and I wouldn’t expect her to; Alan Wake requires a near-instinctive familiarity with gameplay standards common in the hardcore games of today but which likely feel alien to anyone who’s never played Uncharted or Gears of War, and it relies heavily on acutely timed button presses for the near-essential dodging mechanic. Alan Wake has a combat system built on panic, and she likes being able to take her time to decide where to go (ala Animal Crossing) and to have a safety net built up in case something does go wrong (Plants vs. Zombies).

So now that I know she likes the stories of hardcore games, if not the gameplay, it has really opened up the types of games we can play together. I recently bought Telltale’s The Walking Dead since she’s a fan of the TV series, and the intention is that since the sisters are away again (thus unfortunately preventing us from making any progress in Alan Wake), we can play this new episodic series together. It really is the perfect game for her: she has a soft spot for zombies, she already understands the lore (better than I do, actually; I missed all of season two and half of season one), it’s broken up into easily digestible episodes (and further subdivided into smaller chapters), it’s a cinematic game that’s almost entirely story-focused, and it’s won an ass-ton of awards. Should be a blast.