Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Blowing Off Steam:
Digging a Hole With Shovelware

The Nintendo Wii and DS are next-gen systems just like the 360, PSP and PS3. They are revolutionary pieces of hardware that create new ways to play, new genres and games yet to be even thought of. They're fun for all ages, they're easy to pick up and play and appeal to hardcore gamers and casual audiences alike. The Wii is sold out everywhere. They currently hold titles for best selling console and hand held system worldwide. So why do the majority of the games look and play like crap?

Today we suffer from Shovelware. Useless pieces of software that have been taking up store shelf space ever since the days of the Atari 2600 (a moment of silence for E.T.). These games are low budget and underdeveloped. The DS is best example with so many games that only sell for the movie or kid's show they are based upon. The Wii hasn't even been out two years and it's safe to say that more than half of the games were rushed to the system solely on the premise that the system sells well and therefore people will buy cheap games. And they do. So they make more horrible games. And the vicious cycle continues.

During the days of the original NES we saw some of the greatest games ever made. These games were timeless and so good that we are still seeing sequels, remakes and spin-offs of them to this day. Of course the NES had it's share of Shovelware, but with so many classic games how did Nintendo keep in check the quality of games from third party developers? It's a great idea and a great invention from the daddy of good ideas: The 10NES chip. An authentication code for NES game console. The system consisted of two parts -- a computer chip in the NES that would check the cartridge in the system for authentication, and a chip in the cartridge that would give the 10NES code upon demand. If the cartridge did not provide the authentication, then the system would not boot up. Pure diabolical genius!

So the crash of 1983 is over. The world is excited about video games again and it's Nintendo at the head of the pack. The system is selling like crazy and game companies want a piece of the action. Well, they're at the mercy of Nintendo. So what does Nintendo do? Limits each company to five games a year. Sounds crazy, but what happens? Developers are forced to only release the greatest and best developed games they have. So what do we get out of this deal? Konami gives us classics like Castlevania, Contra, Gradius and Metal Gear. Capcom graces us with legendary games such as 1942, Bionic Commando, Little Nemo: Dream Master, Mega Man, Snow Brothers and Strider. Let's not forget Tradewest who brought us Double Dragon and Battletoads. And of course Tengen (AKA Nintendo's arch enemy -- Atari, who will later steal the patent and make unlicensed games) gives us Fantasy Zone, Gauntlet, Pac-Man and even Shinobi.

Those were the days when the Nintendo Seal of Quality meant something. Nowadays it would be the Seal of Quantity. While Nintendo makes some of the greatest games for the DS and Wii that will someday be called classics, we are flooded with third party trash. Capcom is one of the few that sometimes continues it's proud tradition of great games (but not always) and develops games like Okami, Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles, Pheonix Wright and Zak & Wiki. Other "developers" will give us let downs like Cruisin', Monster Trux Extreme: Offroad Edition, Ninjabread Man, Wing Island, Chicken Shoot and many many many more. I'm not saying graphics are everything (case and point: No More Heroes), but there are N64 games that look (and play) better.

One reason for so much Shovelware could be because no one knew the Wii would be so popular and therefore didn't make any games for it. The development kit it far cheaper than 360 and PS3, so instead of making quality games they rush out some low budget kids games while the iron is still hot. Well the Wii isn't going anywhere. If Nintendo wants to stay on top they need the software to back it up. With so many first party killer aps for the DS and Wii, it's about time for Nintendo to get its Grand Theft Auto or Halo. Something that gets everyone excited. Something Nintendo didn't make. Something Shigeru Miyamoto didn't have a hand in. Something that looks amazing, is original and plays great without the feeling of tacked on motion or touch controls.

The light at the end of the tunnel could be the dawn of WiiWare. Downloadable games developed exclusively for Wii. Some developers are actually leaving Microsoft and switching over to WiiWare. It seems like it could actually dethrone the goliath that is Xbox Live Arcade. Why? Well, the biggest difference is also the smallest. It is the simple division of Virtual Console games and WiiWare games in the Wii Shop Channel. Even though it is very insignificant to the common consumer, companies see this as a solid boundary line. Instead of new IPs being lost in the shuffle of remakes and touched up classic arcade games they are set apart and put in the spotlight. It would seem like developers are excited again about making new games. Now major, independent and unknown companies have a chance to do something good. Something fresh.

Frontier Developers are taking a step back from games like Thrillville to give us a breath of fresh air called LostWinds. Luc Bernard & Partners left Microsoft to put the highly anticipated side-scroller Eternity's Child onto WiiWare and has now started work on Rose Princess; a mature rated 2D Castlevania-like/Disney style/Victorian era adventure game featuring a robotic cross-dressing, drug-addicted rabbit (huh?). Telltale games is helping to make the internet sensation of Homestar Runner into five interactive "webisodes". World of Goo, from 2D Boy, looks like one of the most original puzzle games in a long time. Blobber Team gives us Last Flight; a bloody cel-shaded horror survival title set aboard a zombie infested plane which, hopefully, will look as good as it sounds. It looks like WiiWare might force retail console games to be good again if they want anyone to buy them. Why spend $50 on garbage when i can get a quality $10 WiiWare game?

But, one of the most surprising companies to do a 180 is High Voltage Software. From the days of White Men Can't Jump for the Atari Jaguar to 50 Cent: Bulletproof, HVS doesn't have too good of a track record. With the recent announcement and trailer of the title The Conduit, they proved that Nintendo isn't the only ones who can make good looking, quality games for the Wii. They are actually developing a brand new Wii specific engine called Quantum3 and they're ultimate goal is a beautiful 60 FPS. They have stated that "With Conduit, we are trying to make a Wii game that looks like a 360 title." If that wasn't enough, they have also tapped into WiiWare with Animales de Muerte, a top down shooter where you kill zombie zoo animals, and Gyrostarr, which is a F-Zero/Tempest hybrid.

With the recent addition of the Nintendo Channel, gamers like you and me can submit feedback about titles which will hopefully be taken seriously by the game companies out there. I highly doubt the average Shovelware buyer would even care (or even know) about this feature. Poor THQ will never know how good Bratz: Movie Starz is! The universe will slowly unfold before our eyes!

I could go on forever and there's plenty more points that I couldn't get to. But, I believe a company can make just as much money with one great game as it could with ten bad ones. Spend the money you would have on the next Hannah Montana or Petz game and advertise your good games. Sadly, you'll never see a commercial for gems like Okami or No More Heroes. It's a shame so many games become sleeper hits and only people like you and me know about them. While we will never see an end to Shovelware, lets hope that developers realize that it's not supposed to be the quantity of games they can put out. Let's bring back the days of quality!


Friday, May 16, 2008

Suprise,suprise...GTA IV.

So,Grand Theft Auto IV.Where do I start with this game? I feel almost obligated to an extent to discuss this game,and while everyone has their opinions on it already,I still feel as though it needs to be touched on here at least once.After all everything deserves a fair shake right?The launch hype of the game is done and over with as well so there's no time like the present I suppose.

Grand Theft Auto is a long running series that among other things asks the player to shed his or her morality and engage in family-friendly activities such is murder,arson,soliciting prostitution,shooting up city blocks,and the titular grand theft auto just to name a few.In early titles we were offered a top down view of our world ala Micro Machines.It wasn't until Grand Theft Auto 3 that we were introduced to the 3d world we've grown accustomed to now.Seeing the cars we had to steal,interacting with the people of the city on a whole new level.It was incredible.Subsequent sequels expanded on the ideas and added new elements including new cities to cavort in,richer character development,more weaponry,and crazy new vehicles like Jet-packs.

From GTA3 to GTA:San Andreas the game matured into a full experience.Including stat development for your character,a simple but effective respect system,and a HUUUUUGE playable area.At this point Grand Theft Auto IV sounds INSANE."How will they expand on San Andreas?" I thought.So they day is fast approaching and pictures and videos of the game are being released and as I read about this I seethe since as opposed to expanding on San Andreas things are being REMOVED.So going into this game I had the worst of expectations.I reluctantly take it home and fire it up...

Already the game has been streamlined even in the loading screens.We are introduced to the new art-style,it takes on a more serious,realistic tone as opposed to the generally comic look of the previous trilogy.Immediately we are introduced to our main protagonist,Niko Bellic.An illegal immigrant from eastern Europe thats lived a harsh life.Promised a life of wealth and luxury from his cousin,Roman Bellic,he comes to find anything but upon his arrival to Liberty City.

Already you can see the overall environment is more detailed than any other entry in the Grand Theft Auto series.In fact everything is more detailed than previous installments.Shoot a pedestrian in the leg and they will hobble,clutching their wound in agony.Run over a person and you can see the dent they made in the car and the resulting blood spray on your hood.In some cases people implore you take them out of their misery,really ramping up the overall creepiness factor.

All the changes aren't violent,bloody ones though.The main emphasis on Grand Theft Auto IV is being social.On top of taking jobs and doing missions for the denizens of Liberty City's underworld,you can go out to get drinks with them,catch a standup show,shoot some pool along with other cool mini-games and activities.This isn't just some distraction however,keeping a healthy social relationship with these people can net you rewards like free taxi service,car bombs,and other perks.It replaces San Andreas' mentality of "improve yourself through training" with a "Get more connections" sort of feel.This way when you move up in the ranks,you really feel as though you are moving up.Calling people up on your cell,making deals and getting work,it all feels very authentic.

Speaking of the phone,it will be the most central part of your adventures in Liberty City.From calling up friends and contacts to get more money or go out ,dialing up 911 to 'acquire' a police vehicle,finding out the name of a song,and changing up your appearance in Multi-player modes or starting a Multi-player game in general.The cell phone makes for some hilarious moments too,like getting phone calls from Roman in the middle of gunfights.

Being a fan of the Radio stations in the previous entries one of the first things i did was check out the sounds.The soundtrack is as diverse as ever,from staples like Talk Radio to European Rock it's definitely a treat.Joining the Radio in the media ensemble is the Television and the Internet.The game's irreverent humor reaches into these realms as well,providing hilarious TV spots and short shows as well as fake websites that spoof popular internet pages all laid out authentically(you can even use your USB keyboard to type).The attention to detail is definitely there.

The game offers you tons but like any story,without a strong lead character it falls apart.Grand Theft Auto is known for it's charismatic leads and Niko is no different.He shows emotion and feels regret.You are often put in situations that dictate whether or not characters live or die.The gravity of these choices along with the character's history lends him a feel unique to the players actions.Is Niko a lost soul living life with a 'do what you gotta do' attitude?Or is he a cold-blooded killer that lost his remorse and kills without mercy?

Truly,Grand Theft Auto IV is an experience that is unique to the player,which is a first for the series.And while it lacks the inner depth of San Andreas,it has a social feel to it all it's own so you feel more attached to the living,breathing city.Even if you loathe GTA you owe it to yourself to sit down and play this game.

Friday, May 2, 2008

First Impressions:
Mario Kart Wii

I've been playing Mario Kart Wii for a couple weeks now. I've finished all of the 50cc and 100cc races and I'm starting to whittle down the always infamous 150cc. I've played a pretty good amount of online races and time trials. I haven't done too many Vs. battles yet, though. So without going into the whole history of Mario Kart, I would say that, overall, this latest installment is a solid one. It makes a good first impression with a solid single player, some fun and interesting new tracks and some touched up classic ones and (by far) the best online experience the Wii has to offer so far (sorry, but you have to agree with me on this one brawlers!). Although, as we dig deeper, it seems we've always had to take the good with the bad on this long running franchise.


» Adding Friends: Nintendo is finally starting to get their act together. Friend codes are easier to get because you can send an invite to your buddy as long as you have exchanged Wii console codes. Hopefully they continue this trend in future titles.

» Controls: In the same vein as Smash Bros., you can use four (technically five) different control schemes. I've been playing mainly with the Wii Remote by itself (yes, the elusive fifth method -- the Wii Wheel did nothing for me) but I've been meaning to try the Classic and Nunchuck attachment variations.

» No "Snaking": I'm sure people will find a way around this, but for now let's enjoy it.

» Online Play: Opponents can be regional or worldwide and are found almost instantly. All the single player modes are included. You can even catch (in real time) the last minute of the previous race before you join in the action. After voting for a track the race begins in no time. Makes you wonder if they learned their lesson from what happened with Smash Bros.

» Unlockables: 14 additional characters and 19 more karts and bikes become available in a pretty good series of progression. Including Miis is a nice touch for added customization.

» Graphics: Although not too much better than it's GameCube predecessor, everything is bright, crisp and clean. Seeing all your Miis while driving through Coconut Mall is fun and distracting!


» Overabundance of Powerful Items: It seems with every new Mario Kart they increase the frequency of killer items like squid ink, lightning bolts and blue shells. It's pretty ridiculous the amount of these that CPUs get during even just one lap. The game sometimes ends up requiring more luck than it does skill.

» Controls: It seems we have a double edged sword here. Tilt control is tight and works great until you hit something, then things sometimes go a little wacky and unresponsive. Doing wheelies with the bike will drive you into walls if you don't snap straight back. Power slides are hard to do without the over sized B button of the bulky Wii Wheel.

» "Rubberbanding": It seems no matter how far you get ahead of the CPUs, one hit with a shell with send them whizzing by you before you can get back up to speed. It keeps the game very challenging and very frustrating!

» Graphics: The game looks great at 60 FPS, but if you're playing with a 3 or 4 player split-screen it gets downgraded to 30 FPS. Boo.

So should any of these cons deter you from purchasing this latest installment? Of course not! Mario Kart is a beloved title we expect to see in every generation of Nintendo's consoles. With so much to do it'll keep long time fans busy and introduce newcomers to blue shell madness! It's almost a no brainer for the Big N to cash in on one of their oldest and best selling franchises. It's sure come a long way and I'm sure we'll see another one in a few years time. Whether it's portable or not, we'll have to wait and see. While the obvious choice for the next racer would be F-Zero, I think we have quite a ways to go before seeing it hit shelves. To nail down those ultra high speed precision turns is going to take a while to perfect with tilt control. And I'm willing to wait for that. So until then, throw back a red shell or two and enjoy the chaos that can only be found in Mario Kart!