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!