Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Max and the Magic Marker (demo)

Max and the Magic Marker is a puzzle platformer that allows items to be drawn into the scene to solve puzzles much like in Drawn to Life or Crayola: Colorful Journey. As you might imagine, the art-style and music tend toward the lighthearted and storybook feel. Puzzles usually require a line or two from Max's giant magic marker, manipulated via the WiiMote pointer control, to overcome. Max may accomplish light platforming tasks when controlled by the Nunchuk analog stick.

Max and the Magic Marker screenshot

Prior interest: medium

Recently there have been a stream of games that come out on PC and Mac in addition to WiiWare. Partially the trend reflects the natural affinity between the Wii's pointer control and a computer's mouse interface. But another reason is the introduction of game engines, notably Unity, which target multiple platforms, are low cost, and easy to use. As a result, it isn't uncommon these days to find a PC demo for a WiiWare game. Such is the case for Max and the Magic Marker, which I tried out several months ago. The game impressed me with it's music ("balkan hiphop" performed by a Danish band named Analogik), colorful art style and imaginative puzzles. It was a good experience and left me wanting more.

Odds of purchase: low

Somewhere along the way, the demo code was altered to remove the most interesting puzzle types and what remains is a sort of tutorial level that retains the game's style. Sadly, the PC demo was also changed though it does seem to have a few more levels. In any case, the demo no longer stimulates interest in the full game for me. Trailers and screenshots still appeal to me, but the demo adds very little since the good bits of the game play have been taken away. It's frustrating that adding a demo for the Wii actually took a step backward and reduced my interest in the game. This is not the way to do it.

Frobot (demo)

Frobot is essentially an update of the Wii Play Tanks! game with puzzles and a funky fresh vibe. It involves a story centered around the afro-wearing, disco-dancing, ladies' ... robot attempting to rescue his 5 girlfriends who are hidden behind a variety of traps and robotic guards. The game plays up its '70s art and music style crossed with futuristic death robots to maximum effect. Whatever it is the developer was trying to do, they went all out to do it.

Frobot screenshot

Prior interest: none

I really hate the style of Frobot, so assuming I'd heard of it before the demo announcement, I'd probably not have investigated far enough to discover that it's gameplay style is based on Tanks!, which I really enjoy. I get that it's supposed to be funny and there's nothing wrong with making humorous games, but I really don't like disco. Some people might and they might be attracted to the game, but I'm not.

Odds of purchase: none

For me the demo was sort of a mess. I couldn't follow the story that was exposed via off-putting, slangy dialog between Frobot and his girlfriends. The tutorial introduced a variety of weapons in a competent manner, but immediately they are removed (with more awful dialog) so the rest of the demo is played with just the main gun and mines. Sure it was cool to play with the advanced toys, but it felt like a waste to learn how to use an item that I'd never get to try again. When playing the first level, I did enjoy the puzzles but (probably because I started ignoring dialog) I didn't really know what the goal was. By the second level, I did grasp the goal, but I got stuck on a puzzle and after wandering all over and trying everything I knew how to do (several times), I gave up. When I tried to quit, the Wii locked up and I had to pull the power plug. Not a good impression.

I did find a demo for PC (and Mac), which were somewhat different than the WiiWare version. They retained some of the problems, such as the pointless weapons tutorial, but included more intuitive, yet still clever, puzzles. I wish the developer had just streamlined that version rather than doing something new for the Wii demo.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

lilt line (demo)

The "lilt" in lilt line refers to music—specifically dubstep, a genre with which I was not previously familiar. The "line" refers to the geometric figure you guide through a narrowing and widening path using the Wiimote tilt control. Occasionally, there is a fence (played in this game by a vertical swath of mismatched color) corresponding to a musical beat which must be cleared by a button press or you will lose points. Running into the side of the path or pressing a button outside of a fence region will also cost points and when you lose all your points the game ends. That's pretty much the entire specification document for the game.

lilt line screen

Prior interest: none

The WiiWare demo program has reached the point where new games are released simultaneously with demos, which allows games to be tried out at the same moment they are being promoted. Clearly, Nintendo and WiiWare publishers have found the demo program to be a success. Gaijin games, the creator of the Bit.Trip series and publisher of lilt line, certainly have. Considering the type of game and the publisher, I probably would have looked twice at this particular game, but it sure helps to have the demo to try out since as with Bit.Trip: Beat, "a screenshot just doesn't do it justice."

Odds of purchase: low

Lilt line hits its notes just right: minimalistic graphics match the minimalistic gameplay which is offset by a rich soundtrack. The controls work well as long as you are able to find a button on the Wiimote that you can press without altering its orientation. Hitting a sidewall produces a jarring sound and causes the line to bounce back into the path in a similarly jarring manner. Missing a button press or adding an extra one causes the music to die down as if it were on the radio and you've just driven through a tunnel. Alternatively, hitting the beat causes a sudden flash of color in the background like the visual representation of a hi-hat hit as imagined by Walt Disney1. Scoring amounts to nothing more than losing points for each mistake and ending the game when you run out of the alloted points for a stage. Passing a stage sets the high score, which may be bested later, and opens up the next stage.

However, the minimalism extends a bit far to overcome the barrier of breaking out a credit card and buying the game. Compared to the Bit.Trip series or even ThruSpace, there just does not seem to be enough content to justify the full purchase price. Worse, this seems to be title for which a good demo will also be enough of a taste for many consumers as was the Bit.Trip: Beat demo. While the demo does end in the beginning of a stage, it didn't leave me wanting more2. It's also hard to shake the feeling that while the music was given plenty of love, the graphics and gameplay are minimal not for artistic reasons, but because they weren't seen as a particular priority. As an example, when the music shifts to a more expansive easy-going mode, the path ought to open up and become more forgiving and when the music becomes tighter and more aggressive, the path ought to get narrow and twisty. But the path never seems locked to the music and contains long stretches where nothing much happens. Not that lilt line doesn't show potential. Rather it fails to fulfill it's promise.

1 - See Fantasia.

2 - Except to replay the Bit.Trip: Beat demo.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fluidity (demo)

Nintendo's demo program has finally matured. Now that we have a flood of demos with a seemingly steady flow of demos for a few weeks, I think it's safe to say that on average demos result in better sales. Certainly, I've found that demos have gotten me interested in games that either I'd never heard of or never considered buying. Another factor, which I hope Nintendo considers, is the disappointment problem. In essence, a demo can eliminate the problem of buying a game sight unseen and discovering that, however good the game might be, it's not interesting to you.

Fluidity screenshot

Prior interest: high

Fluidity does interest me. It's a physics-based puzzle game (score: +1) that uses the Wiimote tilt sensor (+2) and features a crisp, storybook-style presentation (+3). You tilt the world (represented as a "magical illustrated encyclopedia, Aquaticus") to direct water through a maze of pipes, aquifers, caverns, ditches, ramps, etc. to find hidden Rainbow Drops. Each level has multiple paths, including some that require specific powers that are revealed throughout the game. (The demo opens a power that gathers your water drops together for a short time and then explodes them across the screen after a few seconds. Not really accurate physics, but fun.) I'm very nearly sold based on the description and screenshots alone.

Odds of purchase: high

To be honest, this demo didn't actually have much of an impact on me. I'm glad to have played it, but I was pretty much sold on Fluidity beforehand. Knowing for sure that the game is exactly the sort of game I love and that it'll be worth the money spent helps, I suppose. But the power of demos comes from introducing a game to someone who has never considered it for some reason. For me, Monster Hunter Tri was an ideal introduction to a genre that I would have avoided without the demo. I'd guess the Fluidity demo will sell a number of copies of the full game, but it will really make a difference to those people who have ignored physics puzzlers in the past. It seems to me that the "Lite" version of Angry Birds on the iPhone got people to try it out and essentially created a market for the game. It's good that Nintendo finally seems to be catching on.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Last edition of Kotaku's most-loved Wii games list

Well it had to happen. Stephen Totilo, who has collected the Nintendo Channel play data for every Wii game listed, has decided to stop after more than a year and a half. It's an impossibly labor-intensive task, but I for one am grateful to him for collecting it (and to Nintendo for making it public). It makes clear the case for the rich library of Wii games that are played and played (and played). Of the top 20 by cumulative time played per player, I have just 5 including new-on-the-list New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

The 20 most-loved Wii game

But I am doubly grateful for bits of data Mr. Totilo tossed into the post such as the total playing time for Metroid Prime Trilogy as of December 12—31:30. Since Metroid Prime 3: Corruption alone is worth at least 20 hours you would expect the Trilogy to show more like 60 hours by this point. Since the game has been discontinued, no flood of new players are watering down the playing time. I submit the problem is that many of the copies that were sold are in the hands of collectors who have already finished the series and only have limited playtime with the Trilogy disk.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cave Story (demo)

Cave Story has itself an incredible story: it started as a side project by a single Japanese developer who calls himself Pixel and released it as freeware. Then a two man team working under the moniker Aeon Genesis translated the game into English. Finally, a small developer/publisher, Nicalis picked up the game, updated the graphics and music, and released it on WiiWare.

Cave Story screenshot

But the game has essentially remained the same underneath each new coat of paint. Loosely speaking, it is a platform adventure with some of the trappings of a shmup. As you kill enemies, they drop power-ups that can be collected to boost health, upgrade the current weapon and later obtain missiles. Different weapons are better able to take out specific enemies and solve different platforming puzzles. Cave Story tells a simple, touching tale about a village of rabbit-like creatures called Mimigas who are being targeted by an evil "Doctor" for some terrible purpose. It's also a stiff challenge—especially the boss fights.

Prior interest: high

Cave Story's original graphics, sound, story, and gameplay are topnotch for a commercial product much less a free, hobby release. And it isn't like a lot of really good "indy" games that take some sort of unusual element and riff on it until it no longer seems unique or even interesting. Rather it grabs a bunch of established elements and mixes them in unique and interesting ways that would be impossible with a large team. Finally, Pixel seems to have gone over his work hundreds of times until each bit is perfectly placed. I'm excited that all that work will finally pay off.

Original graphics

Odds of purchase: high

Cave Story's demo covers all the bases. The updated assets look and sound great on a big screen with a decent stereo. You can also try the original sound, graphics or both which are not so much a step down as different. It's easy to see how Pixel used technology limitations to his advantage much as a good artist can create something special with crayons in the place of a full paint set. What can't be seen trailers is the port's wonderful control schemes. Cave Story can be overwhelming using the keyboard. On my PC I'm stuck on Monster X in part because I can't seem to control my jumps and fire my weapon at the same time without getting confused. In the demo, you can test out using the NES-style Wiimote, Classic Controller, and, delightfully, the GameCube controller. If you're like me, you will find the experience improved in all aspects and well worth the added costs.

Anatomy of a system seller

It's a truism in the technology world that software sells hardware. Besides Apple, the exception that proves the rule, I don't know of any counter examples. Now not all software sells hardware on it's own and those that do are called killer apps or system sellers. Recently Monster Hunter Freedom 3 became a system seller for the PSP in Japan. Here are the top five games by unit sales:

Media Create Sales: November 29, 2010 - December 5, 2010

01. / 00. [PSP] Monster Hunter Freedom 3 (Capcom) {01/12/10} - 1.950.717 / NEW
02. / 00. [PS3] Tales of Graces F (Bandai Namco) {02/12/10} - 215.187 / NEW
03. / 03. [WII] Mario Sports Mix (Nintendo) {25/11/10} - 59.007 / 143.991 (-31%)
04. / 00. [NDS] Mario Vs. Donkey Kong: Miniland Mayhem (Nintendo) {02/12/10} - 57.474 / NEW
05. / 01. [PS3] Gran Turismo 5 (SCE) {25/11/10} - 55.682 / 486.389 (-87%)

Getting to a million units sold is pretty much the definition of a blockbuster in Japan. The latest Tales of Graces game might make the cut sometime in the next few months, but Monster Hunter Freedom 3 has very nearly doubled the number in less than a week. Even for a hit series like Monster Hunter (in Japan) it's an impressive start. What's more impressive is the hardware sales chart:

|System | This Week | Last Week | Last Year | YTD | Last YTD | LTD |
| PSP | 325.528 | 77.364 | 42.648 | 2.291.127 | 1.909.470 | 16.034.215 |
| NDS | 78.526 | 56.457 | 111.532 | 2.313.272 | 3.331.138 | 31.592.352 |
| WII | 56.095 | 41.267 | 46.673 | 1.286.265 | 1.312.870 | 10.891.464 |
| PS3 | 41.760 | 68.840 | 46.558 | 1.354.075 | 1.284.059 | 5.855.442 |
| 360 | 3.497 | 4.329 | 3.685 | 194.399 | 341.943 | 1.404.071 |
| PS2 | 1.440 | 1.332 | 2.057 | 76.593 | 195.156 | 21.686.770 |

Unlike the rest of the world, Japan has bought a fair number of PSPs in part because of exclusive series such as Monster Hunter. Nintendo's DS handheld still has outsold the Sony handheld by nearly 2 to 1, but it would be fair to say the PSP is a success in Japan. It's also interesting that DS sales are starting to fade, in part because of the imminent release of the 3DS. But the story for this particular week is the huge sales of the PSP. There can be no other explanation for selling 248,164 more systems this week compared to last except that roughly 12% of the people buying Monster Hunter Freedom 3 bought a PSP at the same time.

Since this is the third Monster Hunter title on the PSP and that a special version of the hardware was released in concert with the game, the audience for PSP titles probably hasn't expanded much, but there is no denying that Monster Hunter sells systems (in Japan).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Metroid Prime Trilogy: Introductions

Recently I picked up a used copy of the Metroid Prime Trilogy. Not having played any of the titles, I was excited to try them out. In fact, I played through the introductory (tutorial) sequences of each game one after another. Here's what I thought.


Metroid Prime Trilogy Screenshot

At the time of release, Metroid Prime was considered a bit of a risk as it wasn't clear how the traditional 2D platforming adventure would translate to a first-person perspective. Clearly, Retro Studios and Nintendo decided to script the first sequence in a way that would gently introduce the game to Metroid veterans. For one thing, it introduces controls and game mechanics in a straightforward (but also exciting) way. So you start by shooting locks, scanning things, transforming into a morph ball, shooting injured Space Pirates navigating mostly linear maps, and so on. In typical Metroid fashion, the introduction feels lonely: a sensation that will intensify as the game progresses.

It also borrowed almost directly the opening scenario from Super Metroid. Samus Aran walks though a research vessel slowly uncovering a mysterious plot to exploit Metroids once again. Upon reaching the center of the ship, you are confronted with a boss battle that triggers the ship's self destruct mechanism. Then you have a few minutes to fight your way back to your own ship and escape. Perhaps it's because I'm playing the Trilogy version—this game looks and controls exceptionally well. From the first screen to the chaos of the escape, everything pulls you into the action. By the time you land on Tallon IV the urge to get out there and explore turns out to be overwhelming. In terms of creating and controlling the mood, Metroid Prime exceeds the efforts of any game I've ever played and all but the best movies I've seen.


Metroid Prime Trilogy Screenshot

Echoes does not worry too much about getting the player up to speed on the controls. After the first Prime, players should have a pretty good feel for what they need to do. Instead, players are thrust into the action right from the start. Unlike the first title, which begins with a fairly relaxed atmosphere and gradually adds a sense of danger, the second game begins with an ominous feeling and becomes more menacing from there. For one thing, Samus' ship has crashed so there's no leaving Aether until it's fixed. A bit later your path is blocked by a shear cliff that prevents your return to the relative safety of the ship for some time. Then in place of dead and dying Space Pirates, who are somewhat comic figures in the series, you find Galactic Federation troopers: first lifeless bodies and then reanimated walking dead. Finally, just before the usual lose-all-abilities-to-gain-them-back-later sequence, Samus must enter another one-way gate to the major theme/game mechanic of Echoes: Dark Aether.

Later the atmosphere becomes a bit lighter with the introduction of a new ally: the Luminoth. Even so, the overall feel is far more of a horror game than other Metroid games. (Though through the right lens all of the games seem to have some element of horror embedded in them.) It's not just the more psychologically impactful enemies, such as possessed human corpses or a "Dark" version of Samus herself—it's also the constant need to enter the nightmare dimension of Dark Aether which wears away health and is home to the most dangerous and terrifying enemies. Even the Space Pirates, who have been possessed by the demonic Ing, are more threatening in this mode.


Metroid Prime Trilogy Screenshot

After the much darker tone of Echoes, it's a bit refreshing to start Corruption (after a short dream sequence) in the comfort of Samus' ship. Once again the introduction doubles as tutorial for the controls because the game makes use of a number of Wiimote gestures to perform tasks such as pulling levers, pushing buttons and twisting knobs. Having landed on Galactic Federation Ship Olympus, the tutorial continues with instructions on aiming, movement and so on. There's no hurry to get where you're going so you can chat with military personal, scan random objects, and do a little target practice to take in the thoroughly modern voice acting, sound effects and graphics. Upon reaching your destination, the story is told through a series of non-interactive cut scenes complete with techno-babel and a surprise plot twist, which turns out to be Space Pirates boarding the Olympus. At that point, the pace of the game jumps into high speed as once again Samus must make an escape to her ship. Note that it is a cut scene that precipitates the change in tempo.

Coincidently, I played the first level of the original Halo on a friend's Xbox a while ago and while playing the start of Corruption, I couldn't help but be reminded of that game. The parts I've played after the introduction seem more like Metroid and less like Halo, but there's an undoubted commonality between the two. It's as if Retro Studios decided that Metroid on the Wii needed to be the console's Halo franchise. Only, for some reason, it removed the one thing the Metoid Prime series had previously shared with the Halo series: multiplayer.

I'll be back in a while with fuller looks at these three classic titles.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

ThruSpace (demo)

ThruSpace is an action-puzzle game in the vein of Tetris, or rather it's often overlooked successor, Welltris. The object is to guide 3D polyominoes (called keydrons by the game) through gaps in walls that block the hallway the pieces are being propelled through. Keydrons may be flipped, twisted, turned and shifted in all directions and the gaps are designed to require all of these manipulations to pass the walls. According to the promotional information, the game features three different modes of play and you can earn higher scores by collecting crystals within gaps, performing tricks (covering all squares of a gap with the keydron's shadow) and accelerating toward the corridor more quickly. These scores are tallied on a global leaderboard.

ThruSpace screenshot

Prior interest: low

That screenshot pretty much tells the story. WiiWare has a surplus of interesting and stylish puzzlers including, of course, Tetris, Dr. Mario and the Art Style series. Because of it's size limitation, the service has plenty of graphically simple puzzle games. It's just a lot easier to squeeze this sort of game into a handful of blocks1 than, say, an RPG. In order to stand out from the crowd, a game needs to do something unique. Groovin' Blocks incorporates music into the structure of gameplay, for instance. ThruSpace has... well it has a demo now. Honestly, I wouldn't have taken a second look at it otherwise.

Odds of purchase: low

So the demo turns out to be a tutorial followed by a small taste of the timed mode with two keydrons. In my first run-through I used the NES-style Wiimote controls, which don't fit into the brain very well. With any 3D world, it's hard to map the freedom of movement to any human understandable control scheme. Generally controls (both in real life applications and games) reduce the freedom of movement to some manageable amount. You don't, for instance, directly control every twist and turn of a 3D platforming character. Rather you control movement direction on a horizontal surface and have a jump (or similar) button to give your character a short vertical acceleration. It turns out controlling all possible movements (pitch, yaw, roll, and translations along the three axes) requires 12 distinct inputs. ThruSpace only allows acceleration in the direction of travel and not decceleration, so it requires just 11 inputs. But the Wiimote only has 10 inputs (including + and -, but not the power or Wii Menu buttons). So the control scheme simplifies the rotational movements to one direction, which means if you over-rotate you need to cycle through the other attitudes.

With the Nunchuk (and Classic Controller), all six rotations are possible and the buttons are mapped slightly better than with the Wiimote alone. Even so, as I explained when discussing And Yet It Moves, some of the rotation buttons are mapped the wrong way around from how I'm most comfortable. Unfortunately, the game does not allow rearranging the controls so I'm stuck doing a lot of trial and error to get the keydron lined up just so.

There are things to commend the game for: catchy music, appropriate sound, functional visuals, responsive controls (modulus rotational confusion), plenty of modes (apparently), interesting choices (to go for tricks, crystals or time, etc.), arcade-style accessibility and challenge, and all around high production values. But I feel the game falls short of its potential in many ways. More interesting visuals and better control configuration would have been welcome as I've already alluded. It seems like the tilt controls and/or pointer would have been useful and intuitive (see And Yet It Moves). But the game as presented by the demo lacks inspiration. Maybe the full game has it, but if so the demo fails to show us through a tedious tutorial and truncated timed mode.

Doing some research on this style of puzzle, I discovered Blockout, which was released in 1989. It's also very similar to ThruSpace in that the focus is on manipulating polyominoes in a 3D space. Unlike ThruSpace's racecourse analogy, Blockout works like a box filling exercise. Even so, I felt a sense of urgency in the earlier game. Perhaps the difference comes from the relative lack of consequences for sub-optimal play in ThruSpace—if you can make it through a gap, there's usually enough of time to play the next gap perfectly no matter how poorly you set yourself up. It makes me wonder how the demo would have come off if the game had a multiplayer race mode.

1 - ThruSpace almost seems like a metaphor for the WiiWare service itself. Apply clever transformations to get an object through a confined location.

Jett Rocket (demo)

Jett Rocket is a 3D platformer that seems inspired by Super Mario Galaxy. The hero, imaginatively named Jett Rocket, must protect the planet (Yoroppa) from an environmental terrorist organization (the Power Plant Posse) or something. He's equipped with a jet pack and rides jet skis, parachutes, and snow boards. But let's be honest, the real hook is that Shin’en has managed to cram what looks like a full retail game into a mere 40Mb, a fraction of a DVD's capacity. That and the low WiiWare price pulled the title from certain obscurity of discount bins in terms of publicity.

Jett Rocket screenshot

Prior interest: low

Everything I saw about the game before I tried the demo was taken from the first world which is a tropical atoll that looks very much like the Beach Bowl Planet from Super Mario Galaxy. It's hard to shake the idea that Jett Rocket is a poor-man's Mario and the game was designed to fit into the space between major releases from Nintendo. If so, the release schedule coming a month after Super Mario Galaxy 2 could hardly have been worse. Every time I saw a trailer or screen shot of the game, I could not help but think it was an attempt to ride the coattails of Mario.

Odds of purchase: low

On the surface, this demo seems like a great idea: a hidden gem given a chance to shine even in the shadow of a massively well-reviewed series. But I feel like the demo fails along the same lines as the publicity campaign—it does nothing to distinguish itself from Mario. Only one level from World 1 is playable in the demo and it's a very basic climb-to-the-top-of-a-mountain style level. While there are objects (solar cells) to collect and achievements to pursue, it's not a very challenging experience.

It's a shame too since the developers clearly put a lot of work into making the game look, sound and play just right. Flying with a jet pack feels intuitive and satisfying as does the motion-controlled attacks. Technically, the game literally gleams with a vast array of graphic effects: heat shimmer off the jet pack, highly reflective metal surfaces, leaves softly blowing in the sea breeze, water spray, and so on. Music and sound add to the bouncy and lighthearted mood of the game. All in all, there's no reason this shouldn't be high on my wish list. If only another level or two had been added to show off varied locations and gameplay, maybe the demo would have sold me.

Friday, December 3, 2010


BIT.TRIP FATE, like BIT.TRIP BEAT last year, really needs to be played in order to be appreciated. In fact, the entire BIT.TRIP series bends the conventions of gameplay too often to be fully grasped with a trailer or screenshots. For this iteration, the base concept arises from shmups with an on-rails twist1. Commander Video may move back and forth along a single path with the analog stick and shoot in all directions with the Wiimote pointer. It's an inversion of the standard side-scrolling shooter forward firing/free-ranging movement. It also shares a very similar art and music style with the rest of the series.

Prior interest: high

The BIT.TRIP represents everything right about WiiWare. Limitations in download size actually push developers to think about how to make a great game that doesn't lean on cut scenes to keep players engaged. Reaching back to classic arcade genres, sprucing them up with stylish music and graphics, and throwing in a curve ball has been the not-so-secret formula to Gaijin Game's success. And since shmups are under-represented in my library, I was really looking forward to this installment.

Odds of purchase: medium

Unlike the BEAT demo, after finishing FATE I wasn't satisfied with the slice of gameplay. I enjoyed myself, wanted to play more (the demo ends just before the second boss), but my interest level still dropped. Part of the reason, I suppose, is that the first few minutes of FATE are much easier than BEAT. To compensate for the limited range of movement, enemies don't fill the screen with bullets (at least in the demo). It's a bit of a challenge to find the part of the path that will be safe in the next fraction of a second, but I rarely had an issue with planning. More commonly I found my thumb trying to push up or down rather than left or right when the path became more vertical. Eventually, I compensated, but it seems needlessly restrictive to railroad the player.

A deeper problem springs from the integration of the music and gameplay. Given the masterfully dovetailed sound and movement of BEAT, I'd hoped that the music would enhance the feel of playing the game. But even with the path restriction, there's no way to predict when the player will take down an enemy or pickup a power-up, so the rhythm of the music doesn't link up with the rhythm of the game in quite the same way. Not that I have any idea how such a thing could be done.

Still, this is a game that will reap the benefits of having a demo like few others. It's right at the top of my wishlist and I look forward seeing more of the series showcased in demo form.

1 - It's an bullet-hell, on-rails shooter so to speak.

And Yet It Moves (demo)

As they did last year, Nintendo has authorized the release of demos for new Wiiware games. Like last year, I'm looking at these demos as marketing tools not strictly as games. After all, it wouldn't be fair to rate full games on 20 or so minutes of play and they aren't being released for our amusement, but to sell us on the full product. Unlike last year, the demos don't automatically end with a trip to the Wii Shop Channel. Instead, you get to choose to replay the demo, go back to the Wii Menu or go buy the full game. It's a nice customer-friendly change that will not likely alter the sales totals.

And Yet It Moves takes the atmospheric, puzzle-platformer slot that was occupied by NyxQuest last year. The twist1 this time is that the entire world can be spun 360° around the hero. Other than rotating left and right (and possibly upside down), the game restricts the plater to moving left, right and jumping. In the first level an impassible tunnel becomes a deep well to fall into with a 90° rotation. It's a limited verb set that brings the platform genre to the absolute essentials much like Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV. In fact, entire levels can be completed with the world rotation mechanic alone if you don't let the little man touch anything before reaching the exit point.

And Yet It Moves showcases a simple art style inspired by paper collage. The main character appears a crudely drawn paper puppet, though he is in fact expertly animated. Background, foreground and platform scenery has been clipped from much larger images of rocks, logs, flowers and so on. To match the minimal art, only occasional ambient sounds and light sound effects are played: there's essentially no music. In contrast to the simple presentation, the gameplay exhibits an intuitive and sophisticated physics system. You can feel the puppet's mass, velocity and acceleration as you fall to limb-shattering doom.

Prior interest: low

It turns out I'd already played the PC demo of this game and while I did enjoy the premise, it didn't work for me. For some reason, my brain wants to press exactly the opposite buttons than the game requires of me to rotate the world. It's a problem that I run into a lot—my Y-axis always needs inverting. I was ok in the first level, which could be managed mostly on foot, but the second level demanded almost constant acrobatic world rotation that my Pooh brain would not perform. I see now that there is an option to swap the meaning of the left and right arrows, but back then I didn't bother to find it. Needless to say, the game was dismissed long before it came out on the Wii.

Odds of purchase: medium

As with the truly excellent World of Goo demo, the Wii controls implemented for AYIM are a revelation. On the PC, rotation must conform to discrete 90° or 180° turns, but the WiiWare version allows a turn to end at any convenient angle. Facilitating the variable turns are four2 accurate analog control schemes: NES-style Wiimote, key-twisting Wiimote and Nunchuk, pointer-dragging Wiimote and Nunchuk, and Classic Controller. My favorite control is turning the Wiimote sideways which maps walking to the D-pad and world rotation to tilt controls. It's automatically more intuitive than any button-pressing scheme and puts the title back on my definitely/maybe list. This game is why demos exist.

1 - See what I did there?

2 - Well at least I assume they are all accurate and analog. I don't have Classic Controller to test.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Looking back at Super Mario Galaxy

Having found 106 out of 120 stars in Super Mario Galaxy, I've come to the realization I may never finish the game. Of the 14 remaining stars, I have a reasonable shot at maybe 4 of them. Any forced scrolling or timed level will be difficult for me. Maybe someone with faster thumbs will have pity on me so that I can start over with Luigi. Someone like Super Guide.

On the other hand, challenging game play can result in a huge feeling of success when finishing a tricky bit. For me the peak moment of euphoria was after I beat the Bouldergeist, which is commonly understood to be the most challenging boss in the game. Before entering the Bouldergeist arena, players are given their choice of either a 1-Up or Super mushroom. If you take the Super mushroom, you are granted 3 extra hits. Until you learn the boss's patterns and weeknesses you need every last hit and still expect to lose lives. The 1-Up turns out to be a bit more useful, since it you take run after run at the section.

At any rate, I finally beat the boss after trying many many times. Then I noticed a Daredevil comet in orbit around the Ghostly Galaxy, which requires Mario to tackle a portion of one of the normal levels without taking a single hit. Sure enough, the challenge was to take on the Bouldergeist once again. I figured my best shot was to try then and there as I had just conquered the level. To my shock, I bested the Bouldergeist on the first try. It would be impossible to describe my exhilaration. This is why people love hard games.

Galaxy has been criticized for having a story that is both too conventional and too unconventional—sometimes in the same review! The main story, represented by cut scenes and which drives game play is the familiar plot of Mario rescuing Princess Peach from the comically sinister Bowser. But the game also periodically unlocks a storybook that recounts the back story of Rosalinda, a new character in the Mario universe. Douglas Wilson sees book, which is formally separated from the rest of the game, as an example of good storytelling. At any rate, I will praise the inclusion of the storybook since my son spent a few minutes the other day reading through it. Encouraging literacy is always a good thing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mario Kart Wii

A while ago, the question reverberating around the internet was: "Can games be art?" One of the more interesting subquestions was: "What games would be best to show someone who doesn't play games to convince them they can be art?" My top five suggestions are:

  1. Tetris
  2. Civilization
  3. Earthbound
  4. Mario Kart
  5. World of Goo

I'd guess that most gamers could get onboard with this list except for Mario Kart. It just doesn't look like an arty game.

Mario Kart Wii Various

In fact, Mario Kart looks like nothing more than Yogi's Space Race with Nintendo characters. Tetris defines abstract beauty, Civilization celebrates the grandeur of world history, Earthbound tells a story of a boy who is more extraordinary than he appears, World of Goo oozes with atmosphere worthy of a fantastical film, and Mario Kart is the professional wrestling of motor-sports. One of these things is not like the others. It meets the accessible criteria, but is it art? Besides the hurdle of being lowbrow, Mario Kart seems less artistic since it is focused wholly on being an utterly pragmatic game, which is to say: fun.

From the moment you pick up the WiiWheel, which eerily resembles the feel of an actual steering wheel, to the winner's circle ceremony you'll find yourself laughing, groaning, cheering and basically having a good time no matter how poor you are at the game. For each additional player in the room, that fun doubles. And it's all because of the first level of art: craftsmanship. Cave paintings, such as those at Lascaux, are considered art largely because of the painters' skill at representing their world. On a basic level, you know a game is well made when you are having fun playing it. (Occasionally, people suggest unfun games as art, which seems like suggesting Jackson Pollock as an example of skilled painting. Yes, he was skilled, but it's difficult for non-art enthusiasts to see why from his work.)

Mario Kart's goal is simple: get around the track three times faster than everyone else, but this isn't just a racing game. It's a game about making decisions: which character (it makes a difference), which vehicle, which track, when to rev the engine at the start, what line to take, when to use an item, and so on. Some of these decisions are clear (rocket start between 2 and 1), but most are balanced, which is to say reasonable people can disagree about which choice is best. For example, holding items until the perfect moment can be amazingly effective, but the longer an item is held the more likely another racer will force you to drop it. Like bluffing in poker or a sacrifice gambit in chess, the decision forces an estimate of risk versus reward.

Which brings us to the second level of art in games. Chris Farrell writes on board games:

To be grossly general, to the extent that we're willing to call games art, they are the art of decisions. Music generates feelings and emotions through sound. Literature is the art of words. Painting is visual art. Games create their impressions, feelings, and emotions through the decisions they ask you to make. Every complaint people make about games ultimately boils down to a problem with the decision-making (i.e., too much luck = my decisions don't make enough of a difference; too much downtime = I make decisions too infrequently; brain-burner = the decisions are too hard; the theme is a paste-up = the decisions I make don't seem authentic; and so on).

Mario Kart breaks down as overly luck-dependent for most serious players. Not that there isn't skill involved, rather items tend to level the playing field such that no driver can remain far ahead of the pack for long. Most infamously, the Blue Shell seeks out and destroys the current leader, which always seems to happen within sight of the checkered flag. Luck becomes particularly aggravating in the higher levers of the single-player Grand Prix mode where the computer AI can use all the game's speed-boosting abilities to perfection. The Wii edition seems not to feature "rubberbanding AI", but the most useful boosts are unavailable to the lead driver (slipstreaming, mushrooms, stars, thunder clouds, and especially Bullet Bills).

On the flip side, there are a number of modes that remove luck as a factor almost entirely, such as Time Trial (which comes as close to a standard racing game as Mario Kart gets) and VS. Mode (which allows players to turn off item boxes altogether). In fact, the game seems to bend over backwards to provide the player with as many amusements as possible: local multi-player, internet multi-player (world, region and friends variations), two Battle modes, semi-regular tournaments that challenge players to unusual races and battles, online leader boards, and ghost characters to download and race against in simple time trials. Reviewers of the game only lamented the loss of free-for-all battle mode. (Pro tip: the game does tally individual scores and shows them at the end of each battle and series.)

The broad appeal of Mario Kart counts against it's credentials as Art since we are used to art being inaccessible to the masses. Shakespeare, for instance, requires sophistication and a monumental vocabulary to be enjoyed. Only, of course, in his own time when The Globe hosted standing-room-only crowds of people who could only afford a penny for an afternoon's entertainment, Shakespeare was seen as uncouth by the Elizabethan equivalents of Roger Ebert. Now Mario Kart isn't Hamlet, but it might be The Merry Wives of Windsor.

I don't think Nintendo looks at what they do as creating art. Over and over, the Iwata Asks column addresses practical design decisions to the exclusion of aesthetic or artistic concerns. However, like a Leonardo da Vinci sketch, Mario Kart observes the fundamentals of the racing game genre with style and precision. The secret seems to be the collection of tracks which deftly evoke the feeling of Formula One or rally racing or a movie car chase or demolition derby or, of course, kart racing. Add in fantastical space settings and inventive dashes through gigantic trees, and you have a masterpiece of imagination.

In a world that acknowledges Andy Warhol as artist, it seems odd to exclude Shigeru Miyamoto. The difference seems to me that the former's canvas is, well, canvas and the later's is pixels on a TV.

Entertainment value: Collection of arcade racing cabinets set on freeplay.

Friday, August 27, 2010

How game retailing really works.

In what appears to be a growing trend, Penny Arcade has taken a position on the used game "controversy". As the comic points out, used game customers are customers not of a game publisher, but of the retailer. What it doesn't point out is that new game customers are also customers of the retailer alone. Only if the publisher happens to sell games directly can an end user be a customer of the publisher.

Here's how it works in general terms for the packaged game industry:

  1. A development company creates a new title. Sometimes they are funded by a publisher and other times they build on spec.
  2. A publishing company begins marketing the title. Sometimes a developer will handle their own marketing and distribution, but most developers are divisions of or partners with larger publishing companies.
  3. The publisher works with manufacturing and distribution subcontractors to get copies of the game to retailers.
  4. Publishers and retailers begin negotiations to how they will work together to sell the title. While there has always been some partnership between publishers and retailers in the video game business (going at least as far back as the Sears branded Atari 2600), the relationship has become more elaborate in recent years. Consider the coordination required to develop pre-order bonus DLC for instance.
  5. Retailers purchase copies of the title in order to stock their locations. These purchases are far more complicated than simply filling out an order form, but the purchase transfers risk from the publisher to the retailer in general.
  6. End users purchase the game from the retailer.

Notice that for these sorts of games, the customer sits at one end of the supply chain and the developer sits at the far end. Along the way, each party takes a slice of the profits and a slice of the risks as well. The more risk a company takes on, the more money they stand to make or lose. In particular, a developer who builds a game to spec risks losing everything if they can't sell it to a publisher, but also stand to make more than usual if the game sells well. On the other end of the chain, a retailer may see their profit vanish if they can't move copies of a game they invested heavily in.

Now it isn't talked about much these days, but there is also a risk for the consumer. Once the seal is broken on the game package, no retailer will take it back no matter how garbage the game in question turned out to be. The industry seems to be doing its level best to get consumers to take on more risk through tactics such as pre-orders and DLC. Fortunately, there are remedies a consumer can take in order to reduce risk. Two of the simplest are buying used and selling unwanted games to retailers who sell used games. Used games provide consumers with an outlet to take risks on games that might otherwise have a harder time selling.

Ironically, one category of games that has no true used market is annual sports titles, such as the one that kicked off this round of controversy. Smackdown vs. Raw 2011's shelf-life is about one year, which is not really enough time for a robust used market to develop. Unless the game is total garbage. Since there is always a newer edition right around the corner, used copies of sports games begin gathering dust within weeks of a game's release.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Used games don't cheat publishers

Some executive for THQ apparently said, "I don't think we really care whether used game buyers are upset because new game buyers get everything. So if used game buyers are upset they don't get the online feature set I don't really have much sympathy for them." The thinking here seems to be that consumers who see a used copy on a retailer's shelf or on eBay will buy it, take it home, discover they only received half a game and conclude they should swear off buying used games. A tiny bit of analysis of human psychology reveals that most consumers will instead blame THQ who is holding the other half ransom. Most people won't feel shamed or chastised, but cheated.

Speaking of which, he also stated, "That's a little blunt but we hope it doesn't disappoint people. We hope people understand that when the game's bought used we get cheated." Now this is a bold claim that can be evaluated on strictly objective standards. I believe the publisher feels cheated because a used sale represents a customer who does not directly provide income to the publisher. The retailer makes 100% of the profit, so the publisher gets nothing from that sale. Seems pretty straightforward.

Unfortunately, the reality is often more complicated. Publishers, especially large publisher who handle their own distribution like THQ, have lots of options when it comes to selling games. There are dozens of huge retail channels that a publisher can choose from including selling from their own online store, as THQ does. Direct online sales allows publishers to pocket the share that retailers normally extract from each sale. That means publishers are in direct competition with the handful of retailers who sell used games. As it turns out, the retailers who offer used games are among the heavyweights of the industry: GameStop, Amazon and now Toys R Us. Other large retailers who have dabbled in the used market are Best Buy and Walmart. Retailers are attracted to the business since they avoid paying publishers their pound of flesh which, despite the added cost of managing inventory, results in good profits.

So this is actually a squabble between publishers and retailers with consumers caught in the middle. If publishers really wanted to end used game sales, they have a number of tools to make it happen including refusing to sell physical copies of games. But most big-name publishers can't afford to give up physical-media sales because they represent too much of their sales and profit. While times are changing, consumers still see disk-based games as a good value in part because they can be resold on the used market. So in a slightly round-about way THQ and other publishers benefit from the used market.

Contrary to intentions, this whole "new game buyers get everything" probably hurts new game buyers as much as it helps. For instance, eventually used game buyers will catch on to the scheme and refuse to pay the usual discount for games which means new games will have a smaller resale value than usual. Also, problems with the one-time-use DLC will hurt new game buyers disproportionally as they will be the prime users. If by chance the online mode fails, tech support will naturally assume the problem is that the game was bought secondhand. If your gaming machine gets stolen, can you be sure that you'll recover your DLC without a hassle? Meanwhile, used game buyers get access to the core game for an even cheaper price than normal.

As usual, I think the best advice from developers who think they are getting cheated is to go out of their way to treat the customer well. Sure it's counterintuitive, but look how the strategy pays off for Nintendo. They have games that remain in the best-seller lists for months because customers feel they are getting exceptional value. There's no need to worry about a few used game sales when new games are selling as fast as you get them to the store.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Groovin' Blocks

Groovin' Blocks combines a match three game with a rhythm game in a very predictable way. The basic game clones Columns, which was Sega's answer to Tetris. Columns (and in more advanced levels, squares) of individually colored blocks fall into a pit one after another. If you arrange for three or more blocks of the same color to settle orthogonally, the blocks are cleared and potentially start a chain reaction as other blocks match three colors in a row. There's definitely skill involved, especially in pattern matching, but also a fair amount of luck in getting the right combination of colors and finding the biggest chain reactions.


While you can enjoy the basic game on it's own, you'll need to play the rhythm portion as well to rack up high scores earning stars to unlock new song sets and powerups. Dropping blocks on the right beat will start filling up a multiplier meter. Dropping on not on the right beat clears the meter and multiplier, but letting blocks settle on their own preserves any multiplier and progress. Powerups (such as bombs and scoring bonuses) are only primed if dropped on rhythm and later cleared. Finally there are "Super Beats", which temporarily double the multiplier if hit.

On the "Casual" level, I found the gameplay combination relaxing and interesting. Songs last about four minutes and tend to have plenty of beats, which makes for a pretty satisfying way to fill time once in a while. With playtime limited by the length of the song, it's fairly easy to get the satisfaction of beating each stage. The "Experienced" level ramps up the challenge by raising the score to earn stars introducing four-block squares and making the pieces fall faster. What tends to happen for me is either A) I focus on the match-three game and don't score enough points to earn stars or B) fail out of the song by dropping pieces before they are set to make combinations. In other words, when the game falls apart, it splits exactly on genre lines.

I can't help but be reminded of my initial experience with Tetris. On the surface, Tetris rewards neatly packed tetrominos and clearing lines as quickly as possible. But as you clear levels the pieces fall faster and faster until it's literally impossible to move pieces into place before they hit the stack. No matter how good you are, the game cannot be beaten. So you need to adjust to the goal of getting a high score, which rewards actions like hard-dropping pieces and clearing four lines at once (getting a "Tetris"). To me, building in such a way that deep pits form in order to drop an I tetromino appeared the antithesis of packing pieces properly. For years I gave up my Tetris addiction rather than change my play style. Playing the more advanced levels of Groovin' Blocks requires an equivalent paradigm shift. In this case, you must drop blocks more or less randomly on beat to build a multiplier and then capitalize on it by clearing blocks more or less methodically.

If you like 8-bit or electronica music, the set list is solid but short. After beating my head against particular songs, my enjoyment of the music started to drop off. Now that I've breezed through the lowest level, I'm stuck on the first set of songs in the middle level. Unlike most puzzle game that can be muted, in Groovin' Blocks you are competing against the music to pass a particular level. Turning off the sound deprives you of a key clue toward getting a high score. On the other hand, the visuals provide enough cues (rolling beat bar and pieces flash to the rhythm) that playing muted is (barely) possible. Also deserving mention (and commendation) are the calibration and colorblind options, which ought to be standard for rhythm games, but aren't.

I should point out that I was given the game code via the developer, Empty Clip Studios. There's very little chance I'd have bought it with my own money and I don't think I'd recommend anyone else paying for it unless they absolutely love the soundtrack (which can be sampled via Google). If you think you can handle hearing these tracks as many times as it takes to crack the scoring goals needed to move forward, then I'd recommend the game to you. (I should add that I did not try the multiplayer mode, but it seems unlikely to have potential to sway my opinion.)

Entertainment value: a short sudoku book with a chiptune soundtrack.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Least played Wii games

Kotaku has balanced their most-played list with a least-played list of Wii games. Sadly, I own two of the least-played 25:

13. Samba De Amigo - 4 hours, 16 minutes
2. M&M's Kart Racing - 2 hours, 5 minutes

Samba de Amigo Various

Low playtime on Samba de Amigo suggests that few people had the patience to learn the controls or that they just gave up based on (unfair) negative reviews. Oddly, I could not find any screenshots of people failing the game until I searched for the Dreamcast version. Perhaps the game was commonly bought or rented by people nostalgic for the original version who didn't really intend to spend serious time with it. Maybe it was brought out for parties and not touched otherwise. Whatever the case, this entry saddens me.

M&M's Kart Racing truly stinks up the Wii's library. My copy logged about 2 hours just so that I could verify that it was as awful as it seemed. I didn't want to review it unfairly. Unlike the rhythm game, this kart racer looks and sounds terrible. Clearly the bulk of the games development budget was spent on the box art, which seems to have paid off commercially if not critically. It was well-designed to be bought by a loved one as a hated gift.

And for the most part the rest of the list probably could be categorized with one or the other of these game: high presentation games that didn't play well and terrible games with great box art. These are a virtual rogue's gallery of bargain-bin denizens. While there are plenty of terrible games with terrible box art, they just were not successful enough to rack up 50,000 total hours of playtime. Even the worst of the worst that don't quite rate 2 hours per registered user would need to have been put into over 25,000 different Wii systems since their release. That's a pretty impressive number of unit sales.

Given my positive experience with Samba de Amigo, I'd be willing to try out a few of the less-iffy seeming games on this list:

25. Donkey Kong Barrel Blast - 5 hours, 1 minute
22. Cooking Mama World Kitchen - 4 hours, 41 minutes
21. Blast Works: Build Trade Destroy - 4 hours, 40 minutes
20. We Love Golf! - 4 hours, 39 minutes
17. Top Spin 3 - 4 hours, 35 minutes
11. Wild Earth: African Safari - 4 hours, 12 minutes

But only if:

24. The Price is Right - 5 hours

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Wii Menu 4.3

My Wii's blue disk slot lit up the other day to let me know about Wii Menu 4.3. As usual, the update removes "unauthorized modifications to save data or program files". I don't actually use any homebrew software, so it should be fine to update, right?

Actually, no (or at least not yet).

In my day job, I manage a complex computer system that needs to work all the time. We have tons of systems which need to be regularly patched in order to protect against exploits, add features and correct bugs. Every patch must be evaluated by weighing the risks of implementing it against the risks of not implementing. Make no mistake, every patch carries a risk.

So the problem with this patch is that Nintendo didn't tell us what it actually does. The only place to begin to get a clue about what it contains is from Homebrew enthusiasts. Besides removing various bugs and homebrew files, the patch seems to a) enable USB camera code currently used by one game and b) do something with SDHC. So it basically offers me nothing. (And encouraged me to poke around the homebrew community, which I've mostly avoided in the past. Thanks Nintendo!)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

How many games do you need?

Every now and then I read an article that compares the ratings of games on various consoles. Usually, the analysis is something like: "almost one in four Wii games in 2008 were utter, utter crap". Which sounds pretty bad until you remember Sturgeon's Revelation.

But there's a deeper problem with this analysis: most people are at least somewhat picky about the games they buy. For instance, if you look at the best-selling Wii games on Amazon. While there are a few game rated less than 4 stars (Wii Play, Wii Music, Super Paper Mario, etc.), none are rated below 3 stars. Most of the best selling games are also critical successes and loved by customers. The percentage of Wii titles that are shovelware doesn't matter as long as there are enough good games to keep you happy.

Which brings us to the question of how many games does a console need in order to be worth the initial cost of the system? First, let's assume that going to a movie is the standard for measuring the price people are willing to pay for an hour of entertainment. In 2009, the average movie ticket price in the US was $7.50. It's probably $10 or more in Southern California where I live, but let's just go with the national average. By general rule-of-thumb, the average movie length is 120 minutes, so the standard hourly rate for entertainment would be around $3.25 an hour (or $5+ in LA).

The 20 Most-Loved Wii Games

Now the Wii currently costs $199 and includes both Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, which is a pretty amazing deal. Divide the cost by the standard entertainment rate, and it works out to about 61 hours required to break even (or less than 40 where I live). According to the Nintendo Channel, Wii Sports averages just under 38 hours of play per console connected to WiFi. Wii Sports Resort averaged almost 19 hours by December, 2009. That means the current bundle is already likely to be worth the cost without considering any other games.

But let's say you don't think you'll play the Wii Sports games that much. Super Smash Bros. Brawl very nearly makes up the initial cost of the Wii all by itself (75+ hours). Don't forget that each game adds to the total cost of ownership, which means the extra $50 adds another 15 hours or so to the break-even-time. I'd also have to guess that a significant percentage of Smash Bros. game time is in multiplayer, so you need to add in the cost of extra controllers. (This applies to the Wii Sport titles as well, by the way.) On the other hand, each hour spent on a multiplayer game is worth one hour times the number of players. Compare taking a family of four to a movie ($30 or more) to spending an evening playing the Wii. You only need to make that choice half a dozen times to break even.

I can also tell you that between Wii Sports, Super Mario Galaxy and Lego Star Wars, our family has easily recouped the total cost of our Wii setup. So the answer to how many games you need is as few as one, if the game is good enough.

But to go back to the original complaint with the Wii library, one of the reasons's there are so many bad games is because it's relatively cheap to develop and publish a title for the low-powered, widely-owned system. That means publishers are far more willing to take risks and green light more projects. But the flip side is also true: consumers can take a risk and buy unknown or marginal titles since the standard price of Wii games is $10 (or about an entertainment hour) cheaper than PS3 and 360 games. What's more, it takes a lot more to recoup the cost of the more expensive consoles (and potentially more expensive TVs and sound systems to go with them). In fairness, we probably need to shift the baseline from a regular movie ticket to an IMAX ticket ($3-$5 extra).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Monster Hunter Tri (Demo)

Monster Hunter Tri is the third console iteration of an incredibly popular series from Japan. As far as I know, this is the first Monster Hunter to be actively marketed in the US, so a demo seems like a really good idea. Unfortunately, Capcom chose to distribute the demo disk through GameStop rather than directly or digitally. I walked into a local store a few weeks ago and spotted the display box filled with disks behind the counter. There were a couple of guys with name tags hanging out in the front of the store, but they professed ignorance of the game and demo. So I waited in line while the other two workers were selling the membership program to other customers. When I finally got to the front of the line, the pimply adolescent loudly announced his manager would only let him give out the disk to people who pre-ordered the game. That makes no sense since I wanted to get a demo in order to find out if I'd like to buy the game later. If I was ready to buy the game, why would I care about the demo? Like an idiot, I put down $5 to get the demo and then came back a few days later to cancel the pre-order. The strange thing is both times the clerk asked me to fill out a survey. I think he gets credit whether the feedback is good or bad.

Monster Hunter Tri Screenshot

Prior interest: Low

Until recently, I had a very vague idea of what Monster Hunter was all about: big in Japan, characters wield comically large weapons, "monsters" are a cross between dinosaurs and dragons, online is important for some reason and so on. Exactly why the Japanese pay for online services and sink hundreds of hours in the game isn't immediately clear from the description. Screen shots and gameplay videos reveal the graphics are exceptional, but the action seems very deliberate and the spaces somewhat limited. If ever there were a game that could benefit from a demo, this would be the one.

Odds of purchase: Medium

Besides the disk, the demo came with a huge, color instruction sheet for all the different weapon controls. For instance, if you pick the lance, the Z button initiates a charge, but it charges up a whirlwind maneuver if you are using the giant hammer. While you are certainly free to jump right in and learn the controls by trying them out, examining the control sheet is highly recommended. Only the Wiimote and Nunchuck controls are listed, so if you want to play the demo with a Classic Controller you need to look around online or make good guesses.

Monster Hunter Tri Screenshot

During the loading screens, Capcom warns that there might be differences between the demo and the final game. Other than slight wording changes, I can't imagine what they would change since the game has been out in Japan for half a year. That means it's hopeless to dream the final version will include GameCube controller support. The demo consists of two quests: the one star Great Jaggi and a three star Qurupeco. Both are limited to 20 minutes, so there's some pressure to get right to work attacking the quest monster. As I'll mention in a minute, it's worth your time to explore the Deserted (or Solitary) Island, where both quests are located.

Monster Hunter Tri Screenshot

In contrast to the limited choice of quests, the demo opens up all the weapon types and even offers multiple versions of some. There's also a wide variety of armor choices and both genders. The costumes seem mostly, well, cosmetic, but the different weapon choices force different approaches to battle. Sword and shield allow quicker attacks at the cost of damage per attack. The three classes of bowguns trade slower developing attacks for high potential damage. Trying out all the possibilities turns out to be a major draw of the demo.

After you've made your choices and waited through a stylish loading screen, you are dumped into a hunting camp on the island with no clear clue what's going on. There is an area map with the quest monster clearly marked. So the natural thing to do is to navigate to where it's prowling around. On the way, you'll encounter some more loading screens and a dynamic environment. There are mushrooms, herbs, grazing herbivores, smaller carnivores and odd, tool-using cats. While you can interact with these elements, there's no point to it in the context of the demo as everything goes away after 20 minutes.

When you finally do confront the quest monster, you'll probably find yourself unceremoniously dumped back at camp if you try charging in and hacking away. For one thing, attacks are slow and difficult to aim. For another, monster attacks cause significant damage and are often chained. So if you get knocked down, you'll barely have time to get up before getting assaulted again. You are equipped with plenty of health potions, but you better learn to put away your weapon and use the sprint button to get far away from predators or you'll loose as much health as you gain. Once you learn to read a beasts pattern and develop an appropriate counterattack (involving plenty of evasive maneuver), you'll have an easier time taking them down.

With some luck and practice, you will start dealing out enough damage to see your prey change behavior. There's no status bar, so you just have to observe the monster to know when you are getting close to a kill. The first time I saw the Great Jaggi limp out of the area, I got a sudden adrenaline rush and sprinted after him only to be slaughtered a few minutes later because of over-aggression. It took several more tries to master the patience needed for delivering solid blows without receiving any. When I did complete the first quest (with switch-ax), the exhilaration I felt matched the time I'd spent.

So the demo provides a taste test of the meat of Monster Hunter Tri: hunting monsters. If you look hard enough and ignore the quest, you'll also find a limited sampling of the game's side dishes. For instance, you can kill some cow-like Aptonoth, carve them for their meat, roast it on your BBQ spit, and eat the cooked meat for added stamina. But there isn't much point to doing it since your hunter is already equipped with well-done steaks at the start of the quest. There's a distant sea cave you can swim to that features giant mosquitoes called Bnahabra and a pile of bones to dig through. Clearly the place means something, but with no in-game help, who knows what these things are called or why they exist. Apparently, the full game features a story mode that serves as a sort of tutorial for the game, but the demo dumps you right into the action. And of course, the demo leaves out all online features.

So as a demo, it gets the essentials right: give the prospective customer a taste of the game so they can get excited about it. Unfortunately, the demo focus on a portion of the game that's an acquired taste and leaves out the bits that are likely to be appealing to a broad audience. Fortunately, the rest of Capcom's marketing effort is directed at filling in the gaps. But next time, why not make the demo a free download? Just a thought.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga

Lego Star Wars was the game that prompted me to buy a Wii. I even bought the game before I bought the console.1

The first video game I played was a home version of Pong. I don't remember much about it, but I do recall waiting for the TV to warm up so we could play a few games of Pong before Dukes of Hazard or some such came on. It's a simple game and after a few plays you are ready for something else. One of my friends had an Atari 2600 that got a lot more play from us since it had Breakout, Combat, Indy 500, and especially Space Invaders. I vividly remember spending entire afternoons trying out the various game modes of Space Invaders—the 2600 version had 112 including invisible enemies and moving shields.

Then a series of events pulled me away from home consoles for many years. We moved away, my parents got rid of our old TV and bought a Tandy 1000 SX home computer. So I missed out on the NES, the 16-bit consoles, the PlayStations, and the various other gaming systems that connect to a TV screen. Instead I played tons of PC games from Sopwith to IL-2 Sturmovik. As you might imagine, I also spent tons of time and money upgrading my computer so that I could play the latest PC games. It was sometime after I got married and before our son was born that I got burnt out and gave up on upgrading my PC. A few years later I picked up a Jakks Atari TV game out of nostalgia, but I figured I'd outgrown video games.

Time for a short history of video games digression. Video games exist in three distinct zones. The first is arcade games which reside in public locations such as bars, pizza parlors, movie theaters and, of course arcades. Second is home consoles, which are attached to family TVs in the living room or den. Lastly are computer games that played in the home office or den. As a result of these zones, each type of game has developed it's own distinct traits. Arcade games are bright, inviting, technically advanced, fast-paced, public, and unforgiving because they are designed to eat quarters. On the other end of the spectrum, computer games tend to be darker, complex, technically limited, contemplative, individual, and deep since they reside on the same machine that is used for word processing and spreadsheets. Home consoles sit between the extremes.

Initially, consoles were just cheaper versions of arcade machines that could be experienced in homes. But somewhere around the end of the Atari era and the beginning of the NES era, consoles began to assert a separate style of gameplay that was a little more relaxed than their arcade cousins. Donkey Kong did its best to kill you off in the first minute or two, but Super Mario Bros. gives you a lot more rope to keep playing. Console games could afford to offer a deeper experience without the pressure to cycle through players as there is at the arcade. On the other hand, they were restrained from becoming as complex as PC games since they relied on a public resource (the living room TV). Over time, console games drifted closer to the PC style as more gaming systems were attached to TVs in bedrooms and game rooms. By the time I started looking into consoles again, they were a far cry from the Atari I grew up with.

A few Christmases ago I visited my brother who has an Xbox 360 and a copy of Lego Star Wars, which he fired up between events. It looked fun so I asked to play and he handed me a second controller and I dropped in. We worked together for a while solving puzzles and beating up battle droids. Then he needed to go do something and dropped out for a while. As we played through the story, other family members (including non-gamers) sat around to watch the goofy cut scenes between levels. Gameplay is so accessible almost anyone can start playing (and make progress) moments after picking up the controller. In essence, the game was a lot like the family, living-room, arcade-style games from the Atari and NES eras.

LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game  Various

When I first heard the concept of the game, I couldn't get my head around it. How do you make a game based on both Lego toys and Star Wars? I assumed there would be lots of building with bricks and that didn't seem to fit with the action-oriented movies. And the developers seem to agree since game uses Lego environments mostly for the sake of destruction. Pretty much everything that looks like it's built out of Legos can be destroyed. Besides being fun to smash up the environment, the game scatters studs (Lego currency) everywhere to be collected for buying bonus features and characters later. Building is included for solving puzzles, but it's somewhat abstract as you'll find a pile of bricks, hold a button and your character starts to assemble some useful object. (Often you can turn around and destroy it again, which is therapeutic.)

LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy Various

As for the movies, I've seen the original trilogy dozens of times and, as good as it is, I've gotten a little numb to the story. As for the prequels, they seem to take themselves too seriously and I actually fell asleep during the most recent one. Lego Star Wars manages to fix both issues at the same time. All the dialog-y bits are presented in pantomime cut-scenes that usually feature some sort of twist. For instance, the dramatic credit scene from Empire gets a gag where Luke's robotic hand jumps off his body and wanders around Thing-like. Then you get to play through all the action scenes which are greatly expanded from the movies. The game manages to capture the feel of the movie action sequence such as firing blasters at Stormtroopers while a droid works to open a blast door. Maybe not groundbreaking, but it feels just right.

LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy Screenshot

After you finish a level in Story Mode, you unlock the option to play again in Free Play mode. In addition to using different characters, you can also find all sorts of hidden objects the second time around since different character classes are required to open up certain areas. There's just so much content and attention to detail it's hard to take it all in. Even in the overworld (Mos Eisley Cantina) you can easily amuse yourself getting into brawls, breaking up furniture, solving mini puzzles, and so on. By the way, get the Complete Saga version that includes levels from the first two games plus a few little extras.

By nature these games are cooperative. If you play alone, the computer takes over the other character, but it's not as fun. Either the computer will basically solve puzzles for you or will refuse to do their part causing you to switch from one character to another in a frantic attempt to do everything. After you've seen how to get through a section, it doesn't hurt to replay it on your own, but don't start off that way. Two player mode has it's own problems. Since there's only one camera, players can't wander where they please. It's not uncommon for one person to press ahead while the other wants to hang around and find secrets. Until one or the other caves in, this results in a frustrating fight for control of the camera that leaves both players stuck at the edge of the screen.

The other serious issue comes from the platforming elements. I don't know what it is about 3D platforming, but it's hard to judge jumps and the camera loves to move at the exact moment you need to pick a direction. Lego Star Wars exacerbates the problems by making the edges of the platforms mushy so you tend to slip to your doom when you get too close to a bottomless pit. If that weren't bad enough, you always respawn in the exact same spot and if you don't take action right away you'll fall in again and again. A stupid trick to play with a "friend" is to push them over a cliff and not move so they fall over and over. The computer loves to do that. (For an example of how to do this the right way, look at New Super Mario Bros. Wii.) Thankfully, death doesn't cost anything but studs, but this is a completely avoidable problem.

Another problem, especially for younger/less-experienced gamers, comes from the complex and layered nature of the levels. Often there will be a little hint that something is hidden behind a wall or a puzzle to be solved, but these are sometimes premature in Story Mode—they require characters that are unavailable. Even for me, it was sometimes hard to figure out what needed to be done to get through some levels. Particularly frustrating are the vehicle levels which seem to go on and on without giving any indication of how to proceed. In addition, they are the least cooperative sections of the game and even encourage competition.

And cooperation really makes this game special. It's a game that my son asks to play with me and then I get to be his hero by fighting off the bad guys and he gets to be the hero by finding the key to some puzzle or the direction to take next. And then my wife comes along and we switch to Wii bowling for a while.

Entertainment value: All 6 Star Wars DVDs edited by Steven Spielberg and a pile of Star Wars Lego sets.

1 - The reason I bought it before a Wii was that I wanted to get a copy of "The Complete Saga" for my brother who only had Episodes I-III. Unfortunately, I didn't know that XBox game boxes are green and Wii boxes are white. So I returned the game and bought it again about a year later.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Facts over flash

So I realize the recent IGN Editorial: Blinded by Mario is designed to get attention. Mission accomplished, I guess. But it's a textbook example of making an argument with flash, calling it opinion, and obscuring the evidence that contradicts an author's conclusion. Let's take a look at the facts.

The subtitle of the article is "'Splosion Man vs. New Super Mario Bros. Wii: which is really the better platformer?" Unfortunately, it isn't practical to evaluate these games firsthand. The first is available only on XBox Live Arcade and the second is only available on the Wii. Since I only own the Wii platformer, I'm somewhat biased toward Mario's game. But there are objective measurements of each game's quality. At this moment, Metacritic lists New Super Mario Bros. Wii at 87 with a User Score of 9.1. Splosion Man boasts the same User Score and has a very good Metascore of 84. Looking at Game Rankings produces similar numbers (88.50% vs. 85.74%). The wisdom of the crowds suggests Mario has a slightly better game.

Other games mentioned in the editorial also earned high Metascores. For the sake of comparison, here are the top platformers released in 2009 according to Metacritic:

Game Metascore
---- ---------
Braid (PS3) 94
Braid (PC) 90
Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time 87
New Super Mario Bros. Wii 87
LittleBigPlanet (PSP) 87
PixelJunk Eden Encore 86
LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias 86
Splosion Man 84
Trine 83
NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits 82
Patapon 2 81

Braid was originally released on XBox360 in 2008, so it really should be out of consideration for 2009. Splosion Man does not show up in the Metacritic search as it's listed as "Action, Adventure". In any case, Splosion Man does not stand out in any particular way.

Now there are problems with simple review scores. These are vastly different games. One could argue NSMBW gets an unfair advantage since it's a MARIO game. Actually reading some reviews shows that being a Mario game has hurt it's review scores. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the game could be reskinned as a new set of characters in a new world. (How about Jumpman Rescue Team?) Meanwhile, Splosion Man clearly earns extra credit for it's a) lower price, b) independant developer, c) original character, d) platform (which is fairly light on platformers), and e) edgier content. Of these, price is the only variable a Mario title can really change.

So let's talk price. Like any consumer product, software must follow the laws of supply and demand—higher demand and lower supply result in higher prices. But unlike most goods, software supply is virtually infinite. Therefor software companies, such as Nintendo, artificially control supply by setting prices. All other variable the same, lower priced games sell better than higher priced games. Since the goal of game developers is to maximize profits, games tend to be priced as high as possible without killing demand. When demand starts falling, game prices start falling as well. Since New Super Mario Bros. Wii is the best selling title that doesn't have "Modern Warfare" in it's title, it's fair to say the price is right for consumers. No matter what any particular consumer feels, those are the facts.

While we are at it, comparing the price of a retail game to a downloadable game is staggeringly naïve. For one thing, manufacturing and packaging cost an extra $3 or so. Distribution costs are substantially higher for physical media and may be more than the full price on an online game. From the perspective of consumer value, physical disks add real value that may be transfered either through the used market or simply by being available for loan to friends and family. On Amazon, you can sell your copy of New Super Mario Bros. Wii for about $30. In addition, retail games may be rented for less than the price of an online game. Since downloadable games are priced much lower, they may be a good value if you intend to keep and play the game for the life of your console. Otherwise, you may be better off with the traditional distribution model. In either case, price tags can not be compared directly.

One advantage of disk-based games is they have far more room for graphical and auditory content. From screen shots, Splosion Man seems take place in a single environment:
Splosion Man Screenshot Splosion Man Screenshot

New Super Mario Bros. Wii does not feature shifting perspective, but does contain many more environments:
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot
New Super Mario Bros. Wii Screenshot

Now we can look at the three "Exhibits" the editorial lists:

Exhibit A: 'Splosion Man is more original

Certainly Splosion Man is a new and very original character compared to Mario who has been jumping around for 28 years. However, originality does not equate with quality. If anything, the Mario brand has become a reliable indicator of quality that few other franchises can match. He has certainly not followed the path of Sonic in this game. How many games does Splosion Man have in him before his act gets old? And while we are on the subject, doesn't Splosion Man remind you of someone else:
Earthworm Jim Screenshot

Exhibit B: 'Splosion Man does four-player online co-op

While this is certainly true and I haven't actually played Splosion Man, multiplayer in New Super Mario Bros. Wii seems a different beast altogether. For one thing, each of the levels may be played solo, cooperatively or competitively using one of two scoring systems. Levels in Splosion Man are divided between solo and co-op levels. From what I've seen and read, all players of the XBox game need to be experienced in order to make it through the co-op levels. Common to many Wii games, unequal players can have fun playing as Mario, Luigi and the Toads. Certainly "Exhibit B" is a point in favor of the newcomer, but only if you care about playing online and don't care to play with non-gamers.

Exhibit C: 'Splosion Man offers more content for a fraction of the price

We've already dealt with the price to an extent, but I find the statistics very misleading. For one thing, all 77 levels in the Mushroom Kingdom are playable by 1 to 4 players. I've played through Level 1-1 dozens of times both alone and with others and I'm only now losing interest in it, even when I'm watching others play. Later levels are even more clever, challenging and entertaining. Only half of the levels in the Big Science Labs are playable single player and the other half are strictly multiplayer. No doubt it's exciting to speed run the levels, but I'm pretty sick of watching Splosion Man wall jump. Honestly, I have a very hard time imagining Splosion Man offering significantly more content than New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Level counts only work if the levels have more or less equal depth.

The dig at the Wii's technical ability is totally gratuitous. Hopefully I don't need to explain why that bit of flambait ought to be ignored.

I can see where journalists come from when they declare Nintendo lazy or cheap. Many of the features nearest and dearest to them have been left out of the most popular Wii titles. Features that mean nothing to them have been substituted. It's a bitter truth, but Nintendo no longer needs to cater to the HARDCORE in order to sell games. For better of worse, these gamers have outgrown Nintendo after all these years. If you are listening: please don't try to rob the joy the rest of us are experiencing from the current lineup of Wii games.