The Allure of Tokyo Jungle

In the last decade, I’ve played a lot of Grand Theft Auto. I put countless hours into the Playstation 2 entries in the series, and for a while I put a bunch of time into Grand Theft Auto IV. Part of the fun was regaling to my friends the countless stories of my madness inspired runs through the in-game landscapes. As I’ve said before, I don’t really have much of a mean streak when it comes to gaming, especially when it comes to realistic interpretations of people. As a teenager, that didn’t stop me from having crazy adventures in Liberty City. I don’t get those sort of gaming adventure stories that often anymore, but upon playing a bit of Tokyo Jungle, I realized this is the sort of game I’ve been waiting for for a long time now.

On my first real run, I roamed the streets of Shibuya as a small pomeranian ankle-biter. Humanity is long gone, and the animals are left to pick up the pieces. Similar to a run in Grand Theft Auto, it is your job to survive by any means necessary. You’ve gotta fight for territory amongst the rest of the wildlife. Everything from rabbits to giraffes to velociraptors(!) could stand in your way. Food is a necessity, along with a capable mate to carry on your legacy. It’s a real jungle out there.

I started my Pomeranian claim to power, marking my territory around the Shibuya district. I managed to make the area my own, and happened to attract a mate to carry on my legacy. We found a nest and started a family of four pups to take on the reclaimed streets. My four pups went on to explore the area further, hoping to reclaim more of Shibuya from a large gathering of cats. For a while, food became scarce. I had to be very careful with the paths I was taking. Due to the lack of food, two of my pups were lost to hunger. I was sad, but the remaining two had to carry on.

We found the gang of cats, and started to make a push to reclaim the Shibuya suburbs. We made a little bit of headway, but it wasn’t the cats that ended my spree; it was the curse of aging. My near thirty year legacy came to an end after the last of my pups succumb to old age without starting a new family. I was a little crushed, but for my first real try, I called it a success.

This game is low budget, and doesn’t look as amazing as a big budget title might, but unlike a lot of games, it oozes personality. These sort of games don’t come around that often anymore. The huge jump in budget requirements between generations has caused a lot of this sort of bizarre creativity to fall by the wayside. In Japan, Tokyo Jungle was a retail disc release. It was released yesterday in the US as a PSN download, but I’m just thankful this game actually managed to come out here. These are the sort of weird games I’ve been missing for a while.

My favorite kind of games are ones like these that something unique to offer. In a world where more and more games are becoming homogenized and railroaded into become these bland, linear experiences, Tokyo Jungle comes as a real breath of fresh air. I really like this game, and I’m really excited to put more time into it.


Digital Woes: An Inner Monologue Where I Talk Myself Out of Spending Money

A little while back, I decided it was time to drop some of my video game console load. I realized I hadn’t played my Xbox360 in months, and that was a pretty good sign that I didn’t need it. I started whittling down my game collection, replacing multi-platform games on Steam or PS3 where applicable. Because of the vast platform overlap, it was easy to make a fairly clean split: Japanese developed games would be purchased on the PS3, and Western developed games would go to the PC. Aside from a few exclusives, I really wasn’t losing anything by getting rid of the Xbox. I sold off everything, save for my collection of Cave games and the other danmaku shooters I had purchased. I couldn’t bear to part with them, and I kept them in the event that I may actually buy another Xbox, something I’ve actually been considering lately. I had an older model, complete with the expensive WiFi adapter to go with it, and if I ever bought another one, I want the more hassle-free experience of the newer slim model. Built in WiFi, 250GB of hard drive space, and a much lower failure rate sounds pretty good.

The thing is, if I ever venture back down that path, I want to do it differently. I won’t be buying a lot of games for it because I have a capable gaming PC. If I pick up a another Xbox 360, it feels like my best option is go to entirely digital. No more disc based games around to take up space. I want a clutter-free experience with it. I want the satisfaction of turning it on, and having all my games at my disposal. I really do love the idea of that, but of course a few problems stand in my way of going for it.

First of all, the big deal is a matter of pricing. Digital distribution of console games doesn’t exactly lend itself to Steam-style sales. I really wish they did, as it would push me to go all digital a lot sooner. Even a more scalable pricing structure would be greatly appreciated. I got really excited a little while back when Microsoft did a big sale of 360 Games on Demand titles, which was eliminated immediately once I saw all the titles on sale were basically launch fodder that was still more expensive than a physical copy would cost me. It was fairly disarming. I don’t need a copy of Kameo or Perfect Dark Zero. If Microsoft wants to push their Games on Demand titles better, they need to alter the pricing structure, and be more willing to run sales in a similar fashion to their XBLA offerings.

Second of all, I guess I just have a lot less faith in furthered support of these games. The same could be said for any other platform besides Steam, but even Sony is pushing the Cross-buy idea a lot more. Buy a PS3 game and get the Vita version with it? That’s cool, I can do that. That sounds like an awesome idea. I can download PS1 games on PSN and have them play on just about anything. That actually gives me a lot of confidence. It’s reassuring at least to know that these platforms are being preserved and made functional on new hardware. Only being in their second console generation, I don’t really have that sort of confidence in Microsoft to keep that level of support. They also don’t have a handheld division, so I guess I don’t expect them to really try and push their games to another platform like that. I still really like dedicated handhelds, and they are actually platforms I’m far more willing to jump into digital distribution with.

Finally, another thing stopping me from wanting to buy another Xbox is Microsoft’s handling of their platform. It’s frustrating to me to pay for their platform and still have the dashboard covered in ads. Not only that, but I do get a little worried when they start trying to cater their ads to me. I don’t give a shit about Call of Duty or any games like that. I grew out of the idea of getting called a faggot on Xbox Live by 13 year-old kids. Microsoft is making a big push towards their system being an all-in-one multimedia device, something I don’t really need. The new dashboard layout is slow and cumbersome, their Netflix application is a broken, glitchy mess. This is actually a big reason I quit playing the console in the first place.

You know, the more I write, the more I actually think that maybe I won’t buy another Xbox. As I write this, I’m quickly remembering why I lost interest in the platform to begin with. I’ve said before that I’m not actually that big on multiplayer gaming that isn’t local. No, Sony’s XMB user interface isn’t the most social or inviting, but as someone who primarily plays single player games, I don’t mind it at all. I have enough social networks, and most of the time I don’t really care what other people are playing. I don’t care about trophies or achievements, but it seems like Xbox users make it out to be a much bigger thing. Trophies seem far more understated in comparison. I just want to play games, and I guess I just want to be left alone while doing it.

I don’t think it’s a bad console. Quite the opposite, actually. I think for online focused multiplayer and Western third party support, it’s excellent. Unfortunately, as I’ve said, these are things that I guess just don’t interest me all that much. I had some amazing experiences while I owned the console, but many of those games also exist on PC. Of course with all exclusive titles, I have to choose my battles. I like the Halo games, but they aren’t enough to hinge and entire experience on. I guess with that in mind, another Xbox is no longer in my future.

I want to go fully digital on a home console, but finding a place where I feel completely comfortable doing that is proving more and more difficult. I can keep doing it on a PC with no regrets, but for some reason I still find it hard to do elsewhere. Digital space versus physical space is less of a concern now, especially for a platform I might not buy a lot of games for. Not only that, but in my current living situation, bandwidth constraints are less of an issue for digital downloads. Not everyone is so lucky in that regard. I’m realizing I made the right decision in getting rid of the Xbox to begin with.

The current generation is nearing an end. It’s been long and (mostly) fruitful, so I guess it really is a mistake to go all digital in an existing platform that isn’t going to be relevant that much longer. It’s far more enticing to wait and see. Investing in a digital future sounds better than investing in a stagnant, digital present.

A Blurb About Super Metroid

When I find a game that I truly love, I will do whatever I can to dig further into it. I have certain titles in my collection that I understand on an academic level. I can tell you all about the people who worked on it, why certain gameplay mechanics are the way they are, and usually, I can tell you how to break it. I don’t have very many games that I have this intimate knowledge of, but the ones that I do have, I know way too much about them. I’m currently working my way towards this sort of understanding with Bayonetta, but the first game that I threw myself this far into was Super Metroid.

Released in 1994 on the SNES, this game is easily one of my top five titles of all time. On certain days, I’d go as far as saying it is my favorite video game ever. Everything it does it does well. It doesn’t bog you down in story, and unlike the majority of Nintendo titles developed nowadays, it doesn’t treat you like you’re stupid. When you start playing, that’s it. You’re thrown into this world, and it’s your job to find you way out of it. The controls are responsive and precise, and the world is designed in such a way that there can be multiple ways to traverse the terrain.

As I said before, this is the first game I learned how to “break.” By that, I mean over the years I’ve learned the little tricks that people have discovered to bypass entire sections of the game altogether. I’ve used these maneuvers to get items far earlier than I would previous be able to. Because of this, it makes the game an incredibly great title to speed run through. With various glitches, the game can be completed in less than half an hour. Even with 100% completion, the game can be finished in less than an hour if you know what you’re doing. For a while, a couple friends and I dedicated a lot of our free time to knocking seconds off our time in hopes of establishing a respectable speed run. While we never set any record times, this sort of gameplay led to us understanding the game on this higher level.

At a certain point, merely playing through the game isn’t enough. We started eliminating certain items to raise the challenge level. The obvious candidates at first were the grappling beam and the space jump. It was completely feasible, and I did it. After a while, even this wasn’t quite enough. For a laugh, I attempted to beat the game without the varia suit, an armor that reduces damage and provides protection in heat sensitive areas. As it turns out, this is completely possible, and I managed to do it. Between the limited health and the lack of heat protection, I had to be very careful. Not a single second could be wasted in the heated caverns of Norfair. Of course, getting the gravity suit in the wrecked ship negates the need for the varia suit at all, but up until that point, it helped bring new life to a game I thought I knew everything about.

Fairly early in the game, you fight an enemy referred to as the Spore Spawn. It is this dangling, plant monster that swings around the room while it attempts to kill you with small projectiles. When it opens up, you attack the core and eventually it is defeated. The reward for the fight is the super missile upgrade, and upon receiving it, many new doors are open to you. By using some of the gameplay exploits, this entire sequence can be bypassed. This shaves a good few minutes off of your time, and it changes this early stage of the game quite a bit. You’re far more powerful than you’re supposed to be, and for a little while, you’re just tearing through everything that comes your way. The same can be said for an early room in the Norfair zone where you’re supposed to have the speed booster to run through a corridor with rapidly closing gates. If you can make it through, you have access to a new beam, and it helps you continue your path through the game in a very linear fashion, reducing the amount of backtracking, and giving you more of an edge for the rooms that will follow.

While you can choose to play the game this way, it does a great job in convincing you that maybe you should pick up everything. There’s even an x-ray scope item you can get that will beam through walls and help show you where hidden treasures lie. After spending so much time bombing every square of every screen on the Legend of Zelda, this comes as an amazing surprise. While many items are hidden in fairly obvious places, some of them in plain sight, a good lot of them are hidden in random ceiling or floor tiles. The x-ray scope makes all of this much more bearable, and gives you incentive to really explore every inch of this lonely world you’ve been tossed into.

There is also an attention to detail present that I don’t think modern Nintendo games really have. Along with the non-linear ways to approach terrain traversal, one of the bosses has a subtle, hidden way to defeat it. In the water zone of Maridia lies a giant shrimp-esque creature that you must defeat. On the walls of the room, there are a lot of little cannons that you should destroy to help make the battle a little easier. After destroying this, there is still an amount of power surging through them, making them dangerous to run into. If you get grabbed by the boss, it will swim around the room and while in its clutches, you can use the grapple beam to latch onto the electrical field, sending the electricity through you and into the boss, gradually frying it until it finally dies. Of course, you lose health while this is going on too, but that’s to be expected. Nowhere in the game does it tell you you can do this. It’s just something that can happen. I really do miss these sort of ideas, especially in the Metroid series.

Because of all of these things, Super Metroid is a game that can forever remain relevant. Due to its design, it really can be a non-linear experience. This may require some slight bending of the rules, but the reward is always worth it. I’m just barely scratching the surface of why I love this game so much, but really digging into this is going to be a story for another day. I still play through it on a regular basis, due to it being a game that can be finished in about an hour. Or not. It’s up to you. You can take your sweet time and just explore the world of Zebes at your leisure.

Bayonetta 2, or Nintendo as the One Who Knocks

I have a proposal for you. Have you ever considered what it might be like for the core gaming fanbase to join together and support one another, regardless of console allegiances? Say for instance, an awesome exclusive title came out for the Microsoft or Sony platforms and you didn’t have the specified console, but your friend did. Your friend invites you over to check it out and play it with them, in the same room… you know, the way friends do. They might jab you a little bit playfully, talking about how they have this awesome exclusive for their platform of choice, but they don’t mean it as anything but that. You both have a good laugh over it, and get back to the business of playing games. Gaming is a leisurely activity. It isn’t something to get upset over, especially in the name of longstanding console allegiances. Just because some interesting, inventive exclusive lives on some platform you don’t throw money at isn’t a valid reason to get so angry. They’re just video games, after all. It’s no different than when you were a child and were sitting in front of your TV in your room, playing your favorite games while waiting for mom to bring you that awesome grilled cheese sandwich she makes. Of course you now have a bigger TV, and at some point you have to make that grilled cheese sandwich for yourself, but you are playing games to recreate that same feeling of wonder and joy of exploring a world foreign to your own.

I want to live in that world. I want to exist in that space where gamers don’t throw fits over exclusivity announcements. I lived through the SNES era, an era where nearly every major third party title was an exclusive. Sega and Nintendo had vastly different libraries of games, and to truly get everything there was to offer, you would have to get both. For many, it was a case of choosing their battles. As game budgets inflated, third party exclusives became a rarity. The majority of big games that come out now on the Xbox360 and the Playstation 3 are the same on both platform. The only real exclusives are first party titles. Nintendo quit playing the power game, and yield their own array of exclusives, both first and third party. The Wii had a bunch of interesting third party games that gave it a solid library that was different than the competition, and I liked it that way. Of course, the main reason for this happening was the large difference in hardware capabilities. Third parties are no longer interested in true exclusivity because it’s too expensive. Game development and marketing budgets are too high to make platform exclusivity a viable option for hardly anyone, so Nintendo lives in their own world, coasting primarily off of the success of their first party titles while Sony and Microsoft ride the waves of third party multi-platform hits. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if this generation didn’t come with the idea that if your game doesn’t sell four million units, your studio gets shut down because you cannot recoup the expenses of development. It’s horrible. This shouldn’t be happening to anyone. I realize this is a business, but because of this happening, games are becoming less and less unique, and more focuses on being big blockbuster titles.

People like to hate on Nintendo. It’s been that way for years, and it doesn’t seem to be changing at all. The “hardcore” gamers like to throw fits about it because they claim that Nintendo has always had “inferior hardware,” when the Wii was the only actual instance of this happening. They don’t like the “family friendly” image that Nintendo carries. Most of all, they don’t believe video games are for everyone. Parents and small children aren’t supposed to enjoy games. They are all supposed to be “visceral, cinematic experiences that dabble in heavy, adult themes.” Games can never imply that they aren’t “edgy.” They can’t just be fun. Fun is for babies. Hardcore gamers can’t have fun, it’s against the rules! I understand these feelings aren’t going to change, so I do what I can to ignore them. The people getting upset over this aren’t worth getting upset over.

I grew up playing video games that were fun, and Nintendo still offers that to me. I might be a horrible, negative person a lot of the time, but even I can’t help but smile after watching the newest New Super Mario Bros U trailer. It reminds me of what I loved about the medium to begin with. The games knew they were games, and didn’t try to be something outside of that. They’re just fun experiences I can share with other people. Who could really get angry at that?

Nintendo announced Bayonetta 2 yesterday. A lot of people are upset about this because it’s a Wii U exclusive. The backlash over the internet has gone from fanboy ragefests to tweeting death threats at the developers. That’s totally uncalled for! Do you realize that you’re getting angry over the platform a video game is on? Do you realize how insignificant this is outside of your little gaming bubble? This game wasn’t going to exist otherwise. Nintendo resurrected it from the grave and they have faith in it. Fans should be happy about this! This isn’t something to get angry about at all. A lot of the vocal minority on the internet would rather this game not exist than be on a Nintendo platform. They don’t want to buy another box to put under their television for this one game. They grew out of Nintendo’s games because they weren’t “edgy” enough, and the majority of what they want are regurgitated shooting sprees available on the Sony and Microsoft platforms. Games with colors are not allowed. If it’s not brown and full of blood, they don’t want it, which is appropriate, since as it stands right now, the gaming industry has blood in its stool.

Nintendo quit playing the graphics game a while ago, because they understand that this market trend isn’t sustainable. As a company that solely makes video games and video game hardware, they know it isn’t their place to compete. With that in mind, they went back to the drawing board and wanted to find new ways to get people into gaming. With the Wii, they did just that. They got their little white box into a lot of living rooms, and supported it with a variety of great first party software. Third party support for it dried up when first party titles were the only ones selling. The big challenges were the difference in programming architecture and the limitations of the hardware, so the big titles couldn’t come to their system.

The Wii U puts Nintendo in a very interesting position. The majority of large third party titles are developed by Western studios for multiple platforms. A lot of these studios had never made a proper console game before the current generation, primarily sticking to PC where hardware limitations have always been less of an issue. These companies don’t have a history with Nintendo, and because of this, they aren’t as willing to work with them. Nintendo understands this, and I’m wondering if the announcement of Bayonetta 2 is the start of a trend. If the next Sony and Microsoft platforms continue to be driven by the Western developed games they are now, Nintendo can position themselves as a haven for Japanese development. Games that might not have a real place or audience with the other consoles might be able to live comfortably on a Nintendo platform. As someone who doesn’t play a lot of Western developed games on consoles, I want Nintendo to pick up all the Japanese support they can. Japan is their homeland, and if they can give these smaller, mid-tier studios a place to make something great, I’m all for it. I want the Wii U to succeed, and I want Nintendo to help cultivate an array of Japanese developed games and studios. They brought Bayonetta 2 back from the grave and are giving it a chance to do well. They also happen to have the means to give it a proper marketing push that the original title lacked.

By announcing Bayonetta 2 as a Wii U exclusive they did something they’ve needed to do for a while: They got people talking about the Wii U. It might not be the most positive of conversations from the “hardcore” audience, but it got people talking. That’s the first step to building this infrastructure for third party development. When the game comes out, they need to give it a proper push so that it does well. Platinum Games deserves a real commercial success, something they never got with Sega. Between Monster Hunter and Dragon Quest, Nintendo already has Japan on lock down. They just need to find a way to push these sorts of games in the west. If they can make a success story out of Bayonetta, then other Japanese third party studios will follow. American gamers might not care so much about Japanese games anymore, but Nintendo has a chance to help give Japan the unifying push it needs to “catch up” and push their game development back to the top. It’s not that I don’t want Western games to succeed, it’s just that I want a diverse market that consists of both Western and Japanese developed titles across a variety of platforms.

As far as I’m concerned, the Nintendo I saw yesterday was determined. After the misstep with the 3DS, they aren’t willing to make that sort of mistake again. Nintendo has been a company for over 100 years. They aren’t stupid. If they keep making decisions like Bayonetta 2, giving these sort of games a real chance at success, then I see a bright future for them. If they can’t have the existing Western market, Nintendo seems willing to build their own. Nintendo is setting out to be the one who knocks, and I’m ready to watch them do it.

The Justice in Murder: A Story About Fallout 3

Games where I am offered moral choices are always difficult for me. Not because of the difficulty of the dilemmas presented, but more for the idea that I don’t exactly have a mean streak. I really don’t like hurting fairly realistic interpretations of humans unless absolutely necessary. I always to try play the hero, and usually that’s what the game expects of me. Even when I’m playing a chaos driven game like Grand Theft Auto, I don’t set out to kill innocent pedestrians, and to an extent, I follow traffic laws. Part of that helps with the immersion of the world, and part of it is because sometimes my emotions get the best of me and I take it a little too serious. I’m not the biggest fan of open world style games for this reason. As I said before, I just don’t have the mean streak that a lot of these games expect you to have. Video games are typically designed as a god simulator of some type, where you are the all powerful deity and it is your duty to smite everything in your path for the sake of saving whatever world you are a part of. Games with moral alignment systems seem to have rewards built in depending on what your idea of “right” is. When something in there goes wrong, it gets complicated. When I played Fallout 3, it got complicated.

I only ever played through Fallout 3 once. I didn’t need to experience another ounce of that glitchy, broken world. In the time I spent there, I did nearly everything. I wandered the wasteland, found all the weird vaults and bizarre human settlements. I discovered the Republic of Dave, and I stumbled my way through the psychotropic drug trip that was Vault 106. All along I set out to play the role I was destined to play. I wanted to be the honorable, noble one. I chose not to blow up the town of Megaton, and I built quite a career for myself as a hero. I wanted to give these people something to believe in. Most of all, I just wanted to figure out where my father had gone. His departure left our vault in near anarchy, and it was never the same afterwards. In my quest to be the savior of the wasteland, I wanted to right all these wrongs that were presented in front of me. A major one that stood out though, was the case of Tenpenny Tower.

Tenpenny Tower was a gated haven for the last remnants of society’s elite. It exists as one of the few, mostly undamaged locations in the wasteland. Upon its discovery, Allistair Tenpenny set out to restore it as well as he could to a state it resembled before society died. To keep out the riffraff, a large concrete fence was built around it. In the barren ruins of the capitol wasteland, Tenpenny Tower stood tall as a monument to a world that no longer existed. For the right price, you could get in, and have access to one of the only places in the area with a regular amount of purified water. The people who could not get in, however, were the mutated ghouls of the underworld. Tenpenny had a known prejudice of the ghouls, and wasn’t about to let any of those types into his tower.

Being the hero, it was my goal to set things right.

The ghouls wanted access to Tenpenny Tower, and certain members of the rich elite that resided within the tower were perfectly fine with it. Some were even welcoming of the idea of letting new people in. Tenpenny wouldn’t have it. I set out to form a contract between the two factions, hoping to come to some sort of agreement. After a lot of work, I’d finally done it. I’d managed to convince the right people to let the ghouls move in. I had done the right thing. Another portion of the wasteland had been made slightly better because of my actions, and the game rewarded me with positive karma for doing my duties. With this in mind, I left the area to return to my primary quest at hand.

For some reason later on, I came back to Tenpenny Tower, and immediately noticed that something wasn’t right. All of the humans were now missing, and the place was a wreck. Upon asking some of the new inhabitants, I find out that the human tenants had all been killed due to a “misunderstanding.” I managed to find my way to the basement, and found the corpses of the former residents, stripped of their belongings. I’d caused this. This was all my fault. Some of them might have been prejudiced assholes, but they didn’t deserve to die. Not like this, anyway. It wasn’t fair. I did the right thing. This was my reward for being the hero? There was no justice in what had happened here. I had to do something.

Killing people was never my style when it could be avoided. It just wasn’t the example that I wanted to set. I always wanted to find the nonviolent solution to as many of my problems as possible, but this was too much. I went back up to where the head of the ghouls resided, and I killed him on the spot. The local ghouls became hostile, but it had to be done. While I didn’t believe that there was justice in murder, the head of the ghouls had to die. My character had reached a crucial turning point in my playthrough of the game, and this was his breaking point. Of course, I understood that in the wasteland, rules were subjective. Trusting anyone at all was dangerous, but sometimes you could never know this until it was too late. I played through the rest of the main story, trying as hard as I could to continue being the hero, but I now understood that sometimes that just couldn’t happen. My character knew this, and was no longer afraid to take a life if the situation came to it.

Being the hero is usually what is expected of you in most video games. An evil force needs conquering, and it’s usually your job to do it. Sometimes there’s a reward, and sometimes you just have to do it because it’s the right thing to do. This was a strange feeling for me finding out that my heroic, diplomatic actions had caused the deaths of all these people. I’d never encountered this in a video game before. I knew the wasteland was a horrible place. I knew this going in, and it made me that much eager to leave. There was only so much I could do to try and fix the problems of this broken world, but of course, war… war never changes.

The Dream of Nightmares: Some Words about the Sega Dreamcast

The idea of having retroactive nostalgia for something I never took part in is bizarre to me. Having these longing feelings for something that to me only existed peripherally just never made any real sense, so when I have those feelings, I get  confused. The Sega Dreamcast turned 13 years old yesterday, and while I never owned one while it was a viable platform, I started having this longing for it. I was never a Sega kid. I lived in a Nintendo household, so I went from the Nintendo 64 to the Gamecube. That’s just how it was. I had friends who had the Dreamcast, and at the time I never truly realized how special of a console it would be. Of course, it never got the chance to really grow due to Sega leaving the hardware business, but in the short couple years it was on the US market, it gave us an amazing amount of truly unique game experiences. It’s likely that because of that sort of innovation that I’m having this longing for this early entry in the sixth generation of consoles.

In the United States, the Sega Dreamcast was released on September 9, 1999. The advertising focused on this 9/9/99 release date, making it out to sound like a revolution was coming. It was released, and while it started off well, everything went south and the writing was on the wall. Sega had lost Electronic Arts and their array of sports games that had propelled the Genesis to popularity. The Dreamcast lacked DVD playback, something that would instantly sell consumers on the Playstation 2. After the Playstation 2 launched, the Dreamcast quickly lost momentum. Adding a DVD drive wasn’t cost effective during development, but if it came to it, Sega could beat Sony in a price war. This, mixed with every other horrible thing that happened, doomed the Dreamcast. Sega had done everything right, doing everything they could to fix the wrongs they had made in the previous generation, but the brand was tarnished. Ultimately, nothing could be done, and unfortunately, the end was inevitable. The Dreamcast had an amazing launch and boasted one of the strongest console launches ever. Sega’s first party studios were at the top of their game. Everything had come together in a great way, and they set out to push these wild, crazy ideas, but it just wasn’t enough.

This is why I’m upset about this. The Dreamcast did all these things that we take for granted now, and was either the first console to do them, or do them well. It had online multiplayer. Not only that, but it had cross platform online multiplayer with PCs for Quake 3 Arena. In 1999. That is absolutely crazy to think about! Not only that, but it had games that were heavily focused on online play. Phantasy Star Online was built entirely around playing online with your friends. Of course you could play offline, but where’s the fun in that? Communicating wasn’t a problem at all either if you had the Dreamcast keyboard. They made a keyboard for this thing! Thirteen years later and consoles still aren’t keen on the idea of using keyboards. The PS3 supports them for certain titles, and in Japan, a keyboard can be used for Dragon Quest X on the Wii, but beyond that, keyboard and mouse controls are almost unheard of for consoles. Considering the types of games that sell a lot of units, this is really surprising to me. I might be slightly more interested in playing shooters on console if I could use a keyboard and mouse. The idea that this existed in 1999 is cool. I don’t think “cool” is a great word to really describe it, but to me, it’s the proper descriptor. The Dreamcast was just cool.

Now, I talk about online functionality on consoles like it was an entirely new concept for the Dreamcast. It wasn’t. The Nintendo Famicom could access an early version of the internet and you could do your banking on it. The Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo had the X-Band online service, which supported online multiplayer for about a dozen games. It wasn’t a new idea at all, but it was the first time it was done in a reasonable, functional way. PCs had been enjoying the fruits of online multiplayer for a few years now, but Sega really set the foundation for what would become a cornerstone of current generation console gaming.

They didn’t stop there, though. Did you know that the Dreamcast had it’s own downloadable game service? In Japan there was a service called Dream Library that allowed the user to download Sega Genesis and PC Engine games to play, similar to the Sega Channel service from a few years earlier. Not only that, but certain games with online features had content that could be downloaded, similar to how DLC is handled now. Sega was never afraid to take chances and push the boundaries of the medium. In games like Jet Set Radio, you could use the internet browser to download graffiti tags to the use in your game. The Dreamcast had an internet browser, something current consoles still haven’t functionally implemented. It is yet another example of Sega being ahead of the curve, something that always benefited everyone but them.

I get upset over the Dreamcast not only because of how great of a system it was, but also because of the unused potential. The gaming landscape could have ended up wildly different. Even then I hated seeing Sega go down like this. Despite the missteps it took to get there, they did everything right, only to be kicked to the side. Sega really was at their creative peak during this time, and after they quit the console business, I don’t think their internal teams hit this consistent level of quality ever again. Sonic the Hedgehog games continue to be released to various levels of acclaim, while the majority of Sega’s lineup of franchises has been left to die. Over the last few years, a lot of Sega’s top talent have left the company. They really are a shadow of their former selves. I hate seeing it, and when Sega of America was hit with heavy layoffs this year due to restructuring, I started getting really worried that Sega might be going down for the count.

Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding their final home console, I do feel as if Sega has been making a few good decisions lately. I was really happy with a lot of their publishing and rerelease choices that I saw at PAX such as Double Fine’s new title The Cave, and digital rereleases of games like Sonic Adventure 2 and Jet Set Radio, all of which demoed really well. I really want to see more of these Dreamcast games better represented on current generation consoles. The HD rerelease of NiGHTS into Dreams looks and plays surprisingly well. I don’t typically go for a lot of rereleases, but I want people to remember that these games exist and that many of them are still great.

While I said that Sega is a shadow of their former selves, occasionally they do something that seems to bring back some of the magic. I got to demo Phantasy Star Online 2, and it felt just right. It played well, and I got that same enjoyment from it that I get from the original. I had a lot of fun playing it, and I really got that Sega vibe that I don’t get from a lot of their games anymore. Even though Yuji Naka and Yu Suzuki are long gone, and Rieko Kodama mostly acts as a producer now, I still believe in Sega, and sometimes I even believe the magic is still there. Because of this, I don’t want to watch them die. They once had their slogan that said they did what “Nintendon’t,” and I don’t want “shutting down” added as a new entry to that list of accomplishments.

The Wii U, New Super Mario Bros U, and Couch Co-op

“The people ahead of us are way too friendly. Look at them help each other!”
“They’re still helping each other. I don’t think they’re that close of friends.”

Over the weekend I got to play Nintendo’s Wii U console for the first time. I was incredibly excited that they brought it to PAX, and I would have been really surprised had it not been shown. I played through a handful of the demos they were showing, and among them I would say that Project P-100 was the real standout. I feel that Nintendo did a good job showcasing the console as a whole, along with what it could be capable of. I might have a bit of a bias, as I was planning on buying one anyway, but after playing it, I really had a lot of fun, and I see a lot of unique and intriguing gameplay possibilities with the tablet controller. With that in mind, I think the demo that I had the most fun with was New Super Mario Bros U, or as certain facets of the internet have been calling it, New Super Mario World.

New Super Mario Bros U is similar to the other games in the New Super Mario Bros series in that it is a 2D sidescroller, designed primarily around elements of the early Mario games, while offering new nuggets to help keep it from feeling completely stale. While I feel like the DS installment in the series suffered from incredibly lazy level design, the Wii and 3DS entries have been much better. The big difference with this game is that a fifth player can join in a limited way, using the tablet controller to add platforms onto the screen to help the other four players progress through the levels. This is exactly what the group ahead of my group did. They played by the rules and used this system properly. My friends and I took the opposite path, using this new tablet controller as a means to be a total asshole to the other players. New Super Mario Bros Wii was an excellent exercise in being a dick to your friends, and this game is setting out to raise that bar to dangerous levels.

My friends and I played through the three demo levels, switching off turns for the tablet controller as we learned about what we could do with it. Instead of setting up platforms as stepping stools, my friends and I naturally gravitate towards putting them in awful places that impede the progress of the other players, often right in front of or above them. This always leads to someone falling in holes or running into an enemy. Four player co-op games are dangerous business, and giving another player a tiny opportunity to play god is only going to make it worse. For this, I absolutely love it.

I generally loathe online multiplayer. I’ve always preferred to play games in the same room as my opponent, usually one of my friends. There’s something satisfying with being able to just yell and hit your friends in person, something I feel the current generation has sufficiently lacked. Nintendo has always excelled at this, and while I see people complaining about the reported lack of online multiplayer for some of these Wii U games, I don’t blame them for not including it. I’ve never wanted to play a Mario game with online multiplayer. I’ve always felt that a series like that is much better suited to being in the same room as the other players. There just seems to be a dynamic that goes missing when you remove that physical presence. Some games are better suited to playing online, 2D side scrolling platformers are not. Nintendo still believes in the spirit of couch co-op, and for that, so do I.

The big push for the Wii U at Penny Arcade Expo seemed to be about local multiplayer. This is how the Wii originally caught traction with Wii Sports in 2006, and I know Nintendo would love nothing more than to repeat that level of success. Unfortunately by introducing this vastly more complicated control system, it’s an uphill battle the whole way. The reason the Wii caught hold was because of how easy it was the grasp the concept. The Wii U, featuring the full array of console controller buttons, along with a touch screen tablet interface, is substantially more difficult to grasp. The Nintendoland title seeks to remedy this and help ease people into the idea, essentially making it the Wii U’s answer to Wii Sports. I played a couple of the minigames with my group of friends, and if this is how they intend to demonstrate the capabilities of the tablet, I don’t see them having a whole lot of problems. I’d actually be very surprised if this didn’t turn out to be a pack-in title with the console. I didn’t enjoy the Zelda style minigame, as I found it to be nothing more than a boring, proof of concept for something that I’m not very interested in to begin with. It was the equivalent of a traditional on rails lightgun shooter, but I did find the Luigi’s Mansion themed title to be a lot of fun.

The Luigi’s Mansion themed minigame was basically just a new version of Pac Man Vs. Four players assume the role of the ghost hunters, while a fifth player, using the tablet controller, roams around to avoid getting caught by the hunters while simultaneously picking them off one by one. As I said, it’s very similar to Pac Man Vs, but yelling back and forth at my friends while trying to figure out where the ghost is is still just as fun as it was on the Gamecube. I get off on this kind of couch co-op gaming, and I’m thankful that I have a group of friends that understand how it works. I don’t expect (or want) this style to become the norm for every single game, but as a means to help introduce people to the idea of this tablet controller, it works as intended.

One of the big problems I see with the tablet lies with third parties. Outside of this initial push, I really don’t expect any third party developers or publishers to make a lot of Wii U versions of multiplatform software. Third parties are usually content these days to just develop the same games for the HD twins, along with a PC version. Rapidly inflating development budgets aren’t exactly good for creativity in the business, and the age of lots of third party exclusives is now long over. I just don’t see many publishers taking the chances or time to add features to create Wii U enhanced versions of some of these games. Of course, Nintendo at least considered this option, having created a “pro controller” that looks and feels like an Xb0x 360 controller. This controller doesn’t include the tablet interface, but has the same buttons as the Wii U tablet. I don’t know if this is going to make a lot of difference for a lot of developers, especially those in the west, but it feels like a nice compromise to try and meet them halfway. Nintendo consoles live and die by their first party support. It’s been that way for years, and I don’t see it changing. This next generation I’m already planning on going primarily PC and Nintendo, as I feel like that will fill in most of the essential niches that I subscribe to. Microsoft doesn’t really make games for people like me, and with development budgets being the way they are, I can see a lot of Japanese developers pushing content onto the Wii U before moving onto the Playstation 4 in a couple more years.

Ubisoft’s Zombi U was an excellent example in using the tablet for gameplay functions. I wasn’t that interested in the game itself, but that’s not to say that it didn’t work as intended. That game has a very tense and creepy atmosphere, and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. It stands as a great jumping off point for the ancillary features that the tablet can be used for, and I hope that other third parties will take some real chances with it to do some truly interesting things. Using the tablet as a backpack is a great example, along with using it as a means to switch weapons. I think that the zombie concept has gone stale, but I think that Zombi U at least does something interesting with the idea. By placing a huge emphasis on real time survival and a permanent element of dread, they’ve really established a nice foundation for a unique gaming experience.  For the majority of third party games, I’m expecting the tablet to act as a map screen and not much else. I really see a lot of potential here that I’m worried will go untapped. I’m not a huge Ubisoft fan, but they believe in the Wii U, and for that I hope that others will start believing as well. I really want this console to succeed, not just because of my Nintendo bias, but because I don’t want to see the industry resort to yet another dick waving power struggle.

Penny Arcade Expo was Nintendo’s last big chance to sell people on the Wii U before launch. It got the console into the hands of a lot of people, and I hope it helped clarify a lot of the confusion over it being a brand new console instead of just a new peripheral for the Wii. Nintendo hasn’t been doing a great job of differentiating the two, mostly focusing on the tablet controller itself instead of the actual console. As I said before, I was going to buy one anyway, but after putting a little time into it, I still believe in Nintendo. I just really hope that others will do the same.