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Because Nobody Asked: Of DuckTales and Not-So-Hidden Agendas

DuckTales Remastered hits this week for some platforms, and pre-release reviews are out. Some like it, and some really don’t like it. My own opinion of the game is reserved, of course, since I don’t have it. Based on what I played at E3 just a couple of months ago, though, I was pleasantly surprised with my experience. It felt, to me, like a sharper version of the NES original with better presentation and aesthetics. Understand that I really enjoyed the original game, so Remastered was something that I had fun with.

The problem that I have with the negative reviews I’ve read, specifically from EDGE and GameSpot, is that they tend to take shots at the original game. Both complain that the original DuckTales was dull, repetitive, and unremarkable. Both take advantage of Remastered to basically tear down the source material, which to me indicates a bias problem.

Either you:

  1. Played the original game and carry over sentiments and experiences… or
  2. Never played the original and are judging the game based on today’s standards, which is ridiculous.

Look at what GameSpot’s Tom McShea closes with as a shot at the original game:

DuckTales Remastered will make you doubt happy memories from your childhood, or leave you baffled as to why people were nostalgic for such dull platforming in the first place.

The bias is pretty clear in this sentence alone, coming from a professional who claims to “love platformers”. If McShea didn’t like the original game, what chance did a remastered version of the original have of changing his mind, and why is it incumbent upon the game to do so? It’s like asking someone who dislikes vegetables to write a review of the latest salad at a restaurant. You know what you’re going to get. The basic sentiment of the review is already set in stone.

EDGE takes a similar swipe at DuckTales here:

Because the uncomfortable truth is that DuckTales is nothing more than a serviceable adventure, a colourful romp through a variety of bright and inventive settings that does nothing particularly interesting.

Yes, really. After more than 20 years, EDGE writers finally took the time to trash DuckTales because the release of Remastered offered an opportunity to do so. Last I checked, opinions aren’t “truth”. I don’t care who writes it: EDGE, GameSpot, IGN, myself, or anyone else… there’s no “truth” to that quoted statement. That’s what really burns me about some reviewers and websites, honestly. They can create their own “truths” because they’re supposed experts in their field and readers obviously cannot think for themselves. If the reviewer in this case wanted to open a dialog (which he/she obviously didn’t) about the original and why he/she thought so lowly of it, that’s one thing. Instead, “truth” is an inarguable fact. In this case, it’s grandstanding.

In the case of this wave of HD remasters, it’s easy to forget who the target audience is sometimes. DuckTales hasn’t been a relevant IP in years. It stands to reason that Capcom and Disney were targeting fans of the original game with Remastered. Heck, if you were at E3, it was pretty obvious. There really were (and still are) people who enjoyed DuckTales for what it is. There wasn’t a wide-reaching story, There wasn’t character development. It didn’t have super-precise play control. It was and still is, for many of us, just fun to play– flaws included.

I’m not a fan of reviewers using remakes and remasters to pursue formerly hidden agendas about older games. It’s a handicap against the game that they’re supposed to be reviewing, hopefully with some degree of fairness. At least those who had positive experiences with the source material can be relied on to point out specific negatives because, if the remaster or remake is disappointing… it’s on the remaster. Negative experiences with source material when reviewing remasters is, to me, just bad form.

If these reviewers feel the need to take a dump on nostalgia, it’d sure be nice if they’d take that agenda outside of the review instead of weighing it down.

Armchair Analysis Extra: Nintendo vs. The (Third-Party) World

After lots of speculation about Madden NFL 25 not seeing a Wii U release, Electronic Arts confirmed it via a recent statement (courtesy of Nintendo World Report):

“We will not be releasing a Wii U version of Madden NFL in 2013. However, we have a strong partnership with Nintendo and will continue to evaluate opportunities for delivering additional Madden NFL products for Nintendo fans in the future.”

Let’s get the hyperbole out of the way first. Not having a Madden game in 2013 will not kill the Wii U. It’s instinctive to think that a lack of EA presence on the platform could be akin to a kiss of death, similar to what we saw with EA spurning SEGA and the Dreamcast. This is a different animal, I think. Yes, the lack of sports games will hurt attempts to position the Wii U as a primary console. There’s a pretty large base of consumers who buys sports games, and not having the most popular sports IP in the United States on the Wii U platform diminishes its sales potential. This doesn’t mean that the Wii U is finished, however. Nintendo still has its stable of strong IP to draw from that can’t be played anywhere else. It’s similar to what we saw back in 1999 and 2000 but Nintendo’s IP stable is stronger. If EA doesn’t come back to Nintendo, perhaps circumstances regarding some sports licenses will change… such as the current exclusivity deal between the NFL and EA. We’ll have to wait and see on that.

No Madden for (Wii) U! One year! NEXT!

No Madden for (Wii) U! At least one year! NEXT!

While Wii U will battle on, it’s undeniable that losing Madden for a year– combined with no NHL game, no NCAA football game, no PGA game, and no MLB game for this first full calendar year for the new platform on the market– is a painful loss. There also isn’t any assurance that FIFA will see a Wii U release. That would mean that only the NBA would see a Wii U game. Perhaps sports games don’t sell on Nintendo platforms, but when you’re trying to establish sales momentum ahead of competition from Sony and Microsoft and with the likelihood that both new consoles will see at least a Madden game this year (if not also an NHL game), that’s a considerable disadvantage. For sports game consumers looking to upgrade early, the Wii U simply isn’t an option without support. It’s one thing for the games to sell quietly; it’s another for the games to not even be there as a potential lower-priority selling point. I understand the claims from Nintendo supporters that “nobody” (read: very few) buys Nintendo systems for sports games, but not being one of the platforms that a multi million-selling game is going to be on is viewed as a negative by many. Like them or not, sports games are a very important cog in the video game economy.

I understand the cries of “Not fair!” and “EA sucks!” from Nintendo supporters. The rather quick dissolution of the “strong partnership” that EA and Nintendo reportedly had not too long ago is certainly suspect. Perhaps there’s something to the theory about EA’s pitch to Nintendo regarding Origin going south killed that relationship, but there are other factors to consider. Unit sales for the Wii U platform are historically low, tracking the lowest in the first six months at retail since the Nintendo 64 some 17 years ago. Could EA make a return on its investment to port its games over to the Wii U since the install base is so low and since sales of most third-party games on the platform are terrible? Given that EA is trying to scale back projects and save money, perhaps this wasn’t as “personal” a decision as some see it and it’s more of a business decision based on success potential. I think that’s a plausible scenario, but unless the truth comes out from EA brass (which I doubt), we’ll probably never know for certain.

I do think that there’s some culpability on Nintendo’s end here, too. Nintendo’s struggles with third-party relations are worsening, and this apparent divorce with EA is the biggest loss yet. What have Satoru Iwata and his staff been doing to keep EA engaged, if anything? Why isn’t Nintendo reaching into its war chest to make it worth EA’s while to keep supporting its platforms with games? Where has Take-Two been? Where is Konami’s Wii U support? Why didn’t Tomb Raider make it? There are lots of questions and no answers from Nintendo brass, aside from the now-popular Internet meme of “Please understand.”

At some point, Nintendo has to make a decision about third-party relations. Nintendo, at this point, has few allies in the ranks. Ubisoft is still supporting Wii U, but the concession of Rayman Legends moving from exclusive to multiplatform and seeing a significant delay was a blow. Capcom is there to some extent. There’s some question as to Activision’s trust in Wii U, with an air of uncertainty regarding a version of the newest Call of Duty game for the platform. Early reveal notes pointed to releases for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC; however, the Wii U was not mentioned on the list of platforms and retailers are not taking reservations for a Wii U version. I even witnessed a Call of Duty: Ghosts preorder for Wii U get turned away as the customer was told that the game isn’t coming. We don’t know whether it’s coming or not. Some claim it is, but Activision has been coy with its answers to questions about the situation. That absence is not helping Wii U’s perception to customers. If Wii U doesn’t have sports games and (at this point) doesn’t have Call of Duty, there’s no real impetus for people to sink $350 into the platform unless they’re Nintendo diehards. “Old” platforms like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are getting it. It’s a safe bet that the new Xbox is getting it. It’s likely that the PlayStation 4 is getting it. Those last two platforms are fine in not yet being confirmed. The new Xbox isn’t even revealed yet (but will be on May 21st, when the first full reveal of Call of Duty: Ghosts will be shared during the event), and we know the PS4 exists but don’t have many details yet. Compare that to the Wii U, which has been on the market since last November and can be purchased right now. No Call of Duty? No Madden? Possibly no FIFA? Those are perception problems and point to weakness in the Wii U’s software catalog. Again, where is Nintendo in this? Is there not enough clout for Nintendo to get Activision to show its hand a bit?

The Ghosts may be real, but is the Wii U version also a reality or just an illusion?

The Ghosts may be real, but is the Wii U version also a reality or just an illusion?

In the worst case scenario, we will find out if Nintendo fans are right about first-party software being all that Wii U needs to thrive. I don’t believe that to be a good scenario for Nintendo– or, at least, one with a positive outcome. SEGA also had a fairly strong first-party lineup, complete with sports games, RPGs, arcade games, adventure games, and more. SEGA was unable to weather the third-party drought after a strong launch lineup and a solid & steady first-party release slate. Key third-party support is very important to the overall success of a platform, and without it, a very long and uphill battle awaits for Nintendo as its competition gets assault plans ready.

I’ll be very interested to see while attending E3 just what Nintendo’s strategy is. The leaders at Nintendo are not dumb and I’m sure that there will be a plan of attack. I just hope that it’s a good one.

Because Nobody Asked: Nintendo’s Big Gamble

News of Nintendo electing not to hold a press conference at E3 this year is getting all kinds of reactions across the internet. The two main camps that people are setting up in are these:

  1. Good move for Nintendo. Less money spent, plus Nintendo Direct events have basically replaced the traditional press event.
  2. Bad move for Nintendo. It shows weakness and risks losing valuable coverage from the mainstream press.

When Nintendo started rolling out its Direct events during E3 last year, I wondered then if this would be Nintendo’s new direction. Then we got a Nintendo Direct event after E3 which announced many of the games that we would have seen at E3 in past years. It seemed to me that E3 was no longer as much of a priority for Nintendo as it once was, and I firmly believe that this latest move reinforces that line of thinking. It’s important to note that Nintendo will still have some sort of presence at E3 this year, despite the lack of a press conference. Closed-door press gatherings and events for retailers will be held, and Nintendo will most likely have a booth/area for attendees to see what the House of Mario has up its sleeve for the next year. It’s less complicated and likely less expensive to use this new, bold approach than it is to rent out the Nokia Theater and invest in light shows and set pieces.

My concern with the decision is that Nintendo Direct events don’t have a wide reach outside of the Nintendo ecosystem. Nintendo fans watch them religiously, and gaming press does a great job of summarizing and reporting on these events during and after they happen… but what about those who haven’t yet bought into what Nintendo is selling? Mainstream media like USA Today or network news aren’t going to follow Nintendo Direct events. Worse, the lack of a press conference similar to what the competition will be delivering does arguably show a sign of surrender, as if to say, “Yeah, we were gonna get blown away by Sony and Microsoft anyway, so we decided to cut our losses.” When Spike TV, Game Trailers, and many other gaming press sites streamed Nintendo’s press conferences, people of all kinds would watch… not just the Nintendo faithful, and not necessarily just core gaming consumers. Now there’s nothing to stream. Nintendo broadcasts its Nintendo Direct events on its own terms, via its own streaming networks, and if you don’t actively seek them out, you’ll miss out. Then Sony and Microsoft really will have all of the draw, and Nintendo will be left to its loyal fanbase to buy their games while others go elsewhere.

If I was Satoru Iwata (which I’m certainly not), I would have used the press conference to assert the fact that despite its perceived troubles, Nintendo is in great shape. Split the event in two, starting with Wii U and showing off the games that the company has slated for the rest of 2013, including the very important Q4 period. Take the time to explain to the audience exactly what Wii U is, and what it can do. Eliminate the confusion. Show confidence in it. Then deliver the 3DS side, showing off the games that are finally on their way which will propel the handheld back to positive YOY comps. Show Pokemon. Show Zelda. Drop a surprise. Make the audience believe. The press conference, in my estimation, didn’t have to be about rolling out anything new at all– it could have been a re-roll opportunity for Wii U and a great chance to show the masses that 3DS is in great shape moving forward and that 2012 was an aberration.

But that’s me. The only things that Mr. Iwata and I have in common are wearing glasses and playing Rollerball for the NES (a game that he was a producer on). I don’t run a major video game company worth billions of dollars. It’s far too easy for me to sit here in front of my laptop at 2am and talk about what I would do since there are no ramifications for me. My idea is just that: an idea, and not necessarily the right thing to do.

The thing that we must do right now is to wait and see how the decision affects the overall outcome. If sales improve significantly, those who criticized the decision will have to eat some crow and Nintendo potentially sets a precedent for other companies to follow. If results don’t improve that much, we can again talk about Iwata’s fate and how his poor decision-making have put Nintendo in a delicate state. We won’t know– we can’t know– for quite some time.

I do have my reservations about Nintendo’s big gamble, but the die has been cast and I’ll be very curious to see whether the company doubles down or busts. No outcome is guaranteed, and it’ll be fascinating to watch things unfold during E3 and beyond.

January 2013 NPD Hardware Preliminary Discussion: Wii-Oops

February 15, 2013 1 comment

So… you probably heard the news already: Wii U sales for the month of January were less than 60,000 units. That’s less than 12,000 units per week of the reporting period. That’s also despite the Wii U being the first new video game console (non-handheld) since late 2006. This number should be addressed by Nintendo as “unacceptable” for the US market, which saw the Wii dominate the early and middle parts of this past console generation. Investors should be nervous that the US may not adopt the Wii U strongly enough before Sony and Microsoft present their new hardware, likely later this year. I know that I would be.

Having said that, let’s keep some perspective here when discussing the Wii U in terms of mid-to-long term prospects.

First, and probably most importantly: It’s far too early for Nintendo to take the WiiU out back and put it down. We’re looking at three reporting periods. I know that the same attitude was taken with the Vita– which also strongly disappointed in January sales figures– but three months don’t make or break a console. It’s more than a stumble out of the gate; it’s a blown engine on the first lap for Nintendo and it’s up to Satoru Iwata and the rest of the pit crew within Nintendo to fix the problem and get back into the race. I think that things will get better down the line, but I can’t say with confidence that it’s going to be a huge improvement. Once we get into Q4 and we see new PlayStation and Xbox hardware, Nintendo could very well lose much of its retail advantages. On the flip side, perhaps consumers balk at pricing for these new consoles… or maybe the games library at launch for either or both isn’t particularly deep. If that happens, and if Nintendo can convert promised software to reality, there’s certainly a chance for Nintendo to move some decent numbers in Q4.

Second, there’s a problem with too few games in the channel. Nintendo is working on this, but development is taking some time. Regardless of the reason for the delay in having these games ready sooner in the Wii U lifespan, it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll see more games in retail channels before the holidays and sales should hopefully ramp up a bit from Q2 on. Nintendo still has a problem with weak third-party support which puts them in a difficult situation. If these other publishers don’t or can’t come through with software, more pressure falls on Nintendo to close that gap and increase its quantity and production. I suspect that more third-party games will be coming, but it’s possible that Wii U isn’t a priority for publishers. Many of the biggest publishers are likely placing their bets on Microsoft and Sony, given recent sales performance. As long as Nintendo can handle the load and provide appealing games with some consistency, the Wii U will remain an option for at least some consumers.

Finally, if push comes to shove, a price drop has to be an option to spark sales, especially as we get closer to the other platform launches. Leveraging a price advantage over the competition may coax some fence-sitters to buy in, especially if the games library increases significantly later in the year. Nintendo most likely won’t kill off the Wii U without at least trying the price cut option. I realize that Wii U is already selling at a loss, but combining a price drop with compelling games has worked for Nintendo before. That’s not a guarantee that it works again, but I believe that it’s at least possible that it will stimulate growth if it happens.

I see a lot of reaction to this story as a premature eulogy for the Wii U, and even for the console market at large. I believe that sales expectations must begin to be tempered for both. The Wii U most likely isn’t going to be another runaway success like the Wii was, and several factors can be identified as reasons for continued contraction of the console market, as well. People bristle and get defensive about the rise of the mobile market, but it’s getting harder and harder to explain mobile away as irrelevant and “not good enough”. The truth is that mobile isn’t “good enough” for a loud minority on the Internet. Many other consumers have embraced the mobile market as a cheaper way to play games and as a convergence point to do everything from talk on the phone to play games to watch movies. Mobile won’t kill consoles. It might take some business away, but there will remain a market for console hardware and software sales for the foreseeable future. It’s just going to be smaller.

I’ll be working on a more complete analysis of January’s NPD hardware sales data for Popzara Press for early next week. I’m waiting to see if any leaks or clues on 3DS and PS3 hardware sales come to light over the weekend before trying to put my column together.

Because Nobody Asked: My Top Five Consoles of All Time

December 20, 2012 3 comments

With this console generation coming to a close, and with the strong likelihood that this will mark the end of buying modern consoles for me, I thought I’d look back and rank my top five consoles of all time. These are my rankings, my criteria, and my words. Your mileage can and will certainly vary.

5. Nintendo 64: I recently wrote an entire piece about the Nintendo 64 and why it’s the console that I’m hoping to add to my collection next. Interestingly enough, many of my favorite N64 games were third-party offerings, which is something that I really haven’t been able to say about a Nintendo platform since then. Aside from RPGs, which the PlayStation really dominates, the N64 has a decent variety of games to choose from. Great platformers, solid coin-op conversions, a few quality first-person games, a couple of really good Star Wars games, and more. I have more than a few fond memories of the platform, even though I took it for granted when I had it during the late 1990s.

4. Dreamcast: It was a short but eventful and highly enjoyable run for SEGA’s final hardware platform. My favorite memories of the Dreamcast are of the arcade-perfect coin-op conversions that we saw for it. Midway ported NFL Blitz 2000, Hydro Thunder, and NBA Showtime and it was like having the arcade machines in my apartment. Crazy Taxi and Virtua Tennis were fantastic, too. I can’t forget about SoulCalibur, either; that game still holds up more than 13 years later. Dreamcast original games like Shenmue, Seaman, Metropolis Street Racer, Skies of Arcadia, and others expanded the experience beyond arcade roots and blew my doors off. The 2K sports games were also noteworthy. It’s a shame that the Dreamcast couldn’t hang in there a bit longer, but I’ll always look back on it fondly.

3. Super Nintendo Entertainment System: It was tough to decide between the second and third spots, but the Super Nintendo gets the third spot. The SNES represents a lot of personal firsts: the first console I ever bought on my own, the first RPG I ever played (Final Fantasy II), the first Castlevania game I ever played, and the first time I (irresponsibly) chose buying a game over paying bills (Street Fighter II). The games were (and still are) are generally good to great, the controller was arguably the basis of controllers that would come later, the sound was amazing for the time, and Mode 7 graphics showed us things that we’d never seen before with scaling and rotation. A surprising number of SNES games still hold up well nearly 20 years later, too. The Genesis might have done a few things better in terms of CPU speed and fewer instances of slowdown, but to me, the SNES was the winner of the 16-bit war.

2. PlayStation 2: After being impressed by Sony’s first console, I was prepared to be impressed by the PlayStation 2. The Dreamcast held my interest at first, though… and it wasn’t until the Dreamcast’s demise that I finally jumped on board the PlayStation 2 train. From that point on, in February of 2001, I was hooked and haven’t looked back since. It wasn’t the most powerful of the platforms during its generation, but the variety of games available for the PS2 was unmatched. Arcade ports, quirky titles, RPGs, music/rhythm games, sports games, racing games, action games, compilation discs, and many more genres all found homes on the PS2. It was still the exclusive home for Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Tekken, Ace Combat, and other major IPs while also playing games like Mister Mosquito, Mad Maestro, Katamari Damacy, and several more. Backwards compatibility also means that the also-great library of games for the original PlayStation is largely playable and adds to the huge number of games available. The PlayStation 2 will be awesome for many years to come.

1. Nintendo Entertainment System: To me, the Nintendo Entertainment System really marked the beginning of several things. It was the beginning of the merge into mainstream culture that video games had never seen before. It was the the beginning for series like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and others. It was also the beginning of my genuine fascination with consoles and a gradual move away from arcades to arcade-at-home experiences. The NES controller is a picture of simplicity with its two face buttons and directional pad. Many NES games are highly accessible, although the difficulty curve on some of them can be daunting. Some of my first attempts at writing video game reviews were based on NES games, so the platform has personal significance in that regard, too. Perhaps the most important thing is that I find the games to still be highly enjoyable, even some 25 or more years later. NES games may not be the prettiest-looking games, the passwords may be miles long at times, there may be an inordinate number of princesses that need saving, and the games may not be complex by today’s standards… but I can honestly say that the NES is the one system that I’d take if I was left on a deserted island or if I had to choose one platform to play solely for the rest of my days. To me, that alone earns the NES its #1 spot.

So, there you have them: my top five consoles of all time. For what it’s worth, the Genesis is in the sixth spot, just outside of the rankings and based solely on its sports games. I didn’t include handhelds on this list.

I open the floor to you, if you’d like. What are your top consoles of all time? List as many or as few as you’d like in the comments below. Feel free to cite reasons, too– it makes list entries more fun and I’m certainly interested in your reasoning. Have fun with it… and thanks a lot for reading my own list.

Consoleation Status Update: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

December 11, 2012 Leave a comment

We’re coming to the end of another year, and it’s been a mix of good and bad for me.

On the good side, I’ve been slowly building my library of older video games and consoles. I’ve added a Nintendo Entertainment System (as a birthday gift), a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (bought from an awesome relative), a SEGA Genesis, and a Nintendo Gamecube (given as a gift). My PlayStation 2 games library eclipsed the 300-game mark this year, thanks to some awesome deals from GameStop. It’s been fantastic getting to enjoy these games and systems once again, and it’s managed to keep me distracted when life hasn’t been going well. I also got to go to cover E3 this year, thanks to Popzara Press, and it was an honor to cover the event. Finally, I returned to college for the first time since 1991 this year– and, if I can do well on my final exams over the next couple of weeks, I could get straight As.

Unfortunately, 2012 has also been very challenging. It’s the first year that I had absolutely zero income since 1991, when I was in school last. It’s made for a very difficult period in my life, where even the very basics of life aren’t always guaranteed. I’ve had to sell off some belongings and go without a lot of things. The transition from living in Arizona to living back here in Massachusetts has not been a smooth one, and it’s been humbling overall. Video games and writing, along with my educational responsibilities now, have been what’s kept me from losing myself this past year… and my family has been instrumental in helping me to survive during this period of time.

As I look forward to the new year, I’m hoping to find a way to continue to pursue building my retrogaming library. Taking a suggestion from a few friends, I put together an Amazon wish list and updated it for the holidays. This was much easier for family when they asked what I might be hoping for under my tree later this month, although I’m honestly happy to just have a roof over my head. If there was a big thing or target that I have for 2013, it would be adding a Nintendo 64 to my library. I recently wrote about why the platform has been on my mind of late, in fact. I know that N64 carts are getting harder and harder to come across, but it’s really the one significant platform that I don’t have currently. Aside from that, there are a few games that I have my eyes on, like High Speed for the NES, Axelay for the SNES, and a few other titles.

I’ve also recently begun posting video blogs up on YouTube, and am looking forward to doing more of these in 2013. I’ll be talking about whatever topics come to mind, though NPD sales analysis and retrogaming will be two of the more common themes. I’m also hoping to do some more podcasting in 2013 as well, as the shows that I was invited to do were a blast to participate in. In addition, I will be continuing to work with Popzara Press to contribute reviews and monthly NPD sales analysis pieces. Working with Nate and his team has been a great experience, offering the kind of latitude and flexibility that allows me to be successful. I’m looking forward to maintaining and growing my social media footprint in 2013, and I feel that my writing and videos will help me reach that goal.

Something that I’m going to try to do in 2013 is to try and dial down my negativity when it comes to modern gaming and my feelings about it. I think that I’ve made my point about where I stand and the difference in direction that modern gaming is taking versus my own path. There will still be days when I’ll have some negative things to say, but I think the focus needs to be on what I like or what makes me happiest. I’ll also be continuing my focus on interpreting sales trends and data, as that’s really been my niche over the last year.

Consoleation passed 23,000 page views this year. I’ve always maintained this blog as a labor of love, and as a platform to share my thoughts in a way that social media simply doesn’t lend itself to doing. I can post 140-character blasts from my brain, but Consoleation has always been that vehicle to expand upon my thoughts, share my experiences in a more in-depth fashion, and hopefully generate some reaction or interaction. 2013 will mark the 5-year anniversary of Consoleation, and that’s a pretty significant milestone. Thanks to all of you who have visited– and hopefully will continue to visit– my little piece of the World Wide Web. You’ve made it more than worthwhile, and that means a lot to me.

I wish all of you and yours the happiest and safest of holiday seasons. May you all get something nice to open– retro, modern, or otherwise.

Before I go, here’s the video that I shot this morning– the first in a series I’m calling “Monday Memories”, which will focus on retrogaming experiences and library additions:

 

WedNESday: The Pinball Episode

October 25, 2012 Leave a comment

I decided to do a little something different today, and cover several games at once in a genre that I adore: Pinball. The NES was home to several different pinball games and derivatives, and I spent my WedNESday playing five of these. I’m going to rank them from worst to first. (Note: High Speed is not included on this list as I don’t have it in my collection.)

Here’s #5:

5. Rock ‘N Ball (NTVIC, 1989)

Rock ‘N Ball is less a pure pinball game and more a pinball derivative. In addition to a basic pinball table, variations on gambling, hockey, and soccer themes cover the other three gameplay options. The game is a “jack of all trades, master of none” type of offering, and pinball purists should approach this game with caution. The pinball table is not at all compelling and there aren’t enough features on it to hold interest for very long.

Although the pinball table wasn’t much fun, the soccer and ice hockey sports-themed games were enjoyable for a time. The games feel a bit like foosball, with two flippers a side. One flipper is for defense and the other for offense. There is also a goaltender on each side to block shots and even put an extra kick on the ball to take the opposing team by surprise. These games are best played with a friend, as the computer doesn’t put up much of a fight.

Collectors may want to give Rock ‘N Ball a second look, especially if found with a manual. The game is rated 5 on the Nintendo Age Rarity List, which makes it the most uncommon of the NES pinball games. For everyone else, though, Rock ‘N Ball is forgettable.

Let’s move on to #4:

4. Pinball Quest (Jaleco, 1990)

Pinball Quest thinks outside the box by combining pinball with basic RPG trappings in its RPG Mode, which is this game’s highlight. The story is standard fare: The Pinball Princess has been kidnapped and it’s up to you to save her from evil. Defeating enemies by plowing the ball into them increases the ball’s attack power, but if the ball drains from its current playfield, that accumulated power is lost and must be rebuilt. There are shops that sell helpful items, such as stoppers and extra flippers, but it does take a considerable amount of time and gameplay to build up a bank of funds. While the RPG Mode is a unique concept– something that Zen Studios likely took some inspiration from for its Epic Quest table for Zen Pinball and Pinball FX2– the execution is lacking.

Pinball Quest also offers three more traditional pinball tables for players to enjoy, each with its own theme. Pop! Pop! is a nod to American culture, with bowling, billiards, and lots of stars decorating the table. Viva! Golf takes place on a golf course and has water hazards, sand traps, and mischievous gophers to contend with. Finally, Circus is just as it sounds with clowns, lions, and… a slot machine? These tables are functional and very basic, although Circus has an interesting bonus game to try by lining up the correct shot. The tables are better than what Rock ‘N Ball offers, but are still relatively weak offerings for those looking for more traditional pinball experiences.

Pinball Quest is a relatively common find, and is worth a look for the right price. Your mileage may vary as far as the RPG Mode experience goes, and it’s certainly a departure from the usual pinball fare. It just doesn’t measure up to the other NES pinball games that I played and winds up in the #4 spot.

Now, on to #3:

3. Rollerball (HAL America, 1990)

Rollerball is a very traditional pinball experience. Drop targets, bumpers, rollovers, spinners, and other common traits of a pinball machine are all present here. There is a multiball feature, an opportunity to earn extra balls, and the scoring system is fair. The game also offers a playfield that spans four screens in height. These are all good things… so why is the game only in the third spot?

Well… it’s rather boring.

Rollerball‘s unique identifier is its large playfield, but it’s also the game’s biggest weakness. There just isn’t very good pacing. Playing for 5 minutes feels like playing for for 15 minutes. Perhaps that’s because the playfield is too large, or it could be due to the speed of the ball being a bit slow, but it translates to a lack of excitement or urgency. Rollerball becomes a test of endurance with no real payoff. High scores aren’t saved to the cartridge and there isn’t a sense of accomplishment when all is said and done. It’s fun at first, and stays amusing for awhile, but the experience does degrade over time.

The game’s one redeeming feature comes once multiball comes into play in the top level of the playfield, which occurs after rolling over lit, flashing letters that spell S-K-Y-H-I-G-H and then locking the ball in the upper capture hole. At that point, the race is on to pop a series of bumper balloons before one of the balls drains at the very bottom of the lower screen of the playfield. Multiball keeps you on your toes, but there’s one caveat: If one ball drains from the current level of the playfield, play continues on that one level until the other ball drains. This makes multiball a bit easier to manage if you struggle with tracking two pinballs at once. Unfortunately, activating multiball is a bit more challenging than it should be, thanks to the layout of the playfield’s top level and propensity of the ball to drain through the outlanes.

Rollerball is an average pinball game, with neat features being cancelled out by generally dull gameplay. “Average” puts Rollerball right in the middle of the ranking, at #3.

And now… #2:

2. Pinball (Nintendo, 1985)

The gap between Rollerball and Pinball is slight, but Pinball wins out and gets the better ranking here. Pinball doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but what it does offer is a solid pinball experience that’s engaging and entertaining while throwing in a few surprises. It’s a more exciting game than Rollerball, despite the smaller playfield and lack of multiball. It’s easy to learn the ins and outs of this table, which makes Pinball very accessible to players of all skill levels.

There are two levels on the playfield in Pinball. The top level has several different shots to master, including an orbit on the left side that is worth 2000 points and initiates a neat ball-bouncing animation from the seals on either side of the center bumper. The slot machine just below the seals is started by hitting a shot through the rollover on the right-hand side of the level. Lastly, there’s a target that gradually increases in point value from 100 up to 1000 with successive hits. The center bumper is the big hazard here and its presence forces players to time their flipper shots just right to hit desired targets.

The lower level is more dangerous, in that a drain here means the end of the ball. Five rollover slots comprise a straight flush and neat bonuses if you can hit them all. Drop targets on the far left can reopen the ball entry lane and get players back up to the top level. Rollover symbols between the two side bumpers can activate outlane stoppers, which are important to extend turns. Finally, a bonus game featuring Mario is available by hitting a shot into the hole located in the upper right corner of the level. A trio of bumpers in the middle of the playfield pose a challenge since getting the ball caught in them can wildly affect its trajectory and lead to quick drains down the middle or via the outlanes.

The strategy is simple enough, but the challenge is less obvious until you start playing Pinball for yourself. What comes off as a fairly simple experience gets addictive as your score increases and you start getting the hang of things. For good players who break 100,000 points, the game pulls a nasty trick with the flippers that will surprise you and test your skills more than ever before. Unfortunately, there isn’t a battery backup to keep track of high scores, but that’s what cameras and notepads are for– just as they were more than 20 years ago.

Pinball gets a bit of a bad rap because it does come off as so simple, but sometimes simplicity is better than trying to reinvent the wheel. Don’t overlook this game when putting together a collection. It’s a solid #2, but not quite the best.

So what’s #1, then? I’m glad you asked.

1. Pinbot (Nintendo, 1990)

I suppose that it’s no surprise that a conversion of a real-life pinball machine tops my list of NES pinball games, but that spot is well-deserved. Despite a few wrinkles that RARE put in to differentiate the NES port from the actual table, Pinbot still offers the best traditional pinball experience for the console. Skill shots, ramps, accumulating jackpots, and exciting multiball action are some of this game’s highlights.

The main objective on the Pinbot table is to initiate multiball by completing the set of multicolored lights just below Pinbot’s visor. This is achieved by hitting two banks of targets; one is along Pinbot’s visor and the other is to the right. Once all of the lights are lit, Pinbot’s visor lifts, revealing two capture holes. Locking two balls starts multiball, which challenges players to re-lock one ball and then hit the Solar Ramp located on the upper left of the playfield to earn the Solar Value Jackpot. Once this is achieved, the playfield changes color and the difficulty ramps up… which I’ll get to shortly.

Aside from multiball, Pinbot offers a couple of other challenges and shots that are worth completing to improve your score and earn some extra balls. All nine planets (Yes, there were nine planets back when Pinbot came out) plus the Sun can be lit, starting from Pluto and working towards the Sun. Planets are spotted by either completing a bank of drop targets on the left side of the playfield or by hitting an enclosed target on the right side. The drop targets are easier and pose less of a drain risk to the player if the shot is missed; the enclosed target on the right lies just above the right outlane and, if missed, a rapid drain can occur. Completing all planets and the Sun earns Special, which lights one of the outlanes for an Extra Ball. Aside from the planets, a capture hole just to the left of Pinbot’s visor gradually increases in value from 25,000 points up to 50,000, 75,000, and then lighting one of the outlanes for an Extra Ball. Finally, hitting a lit drop target on the bank of targets to the left lifts the Solar Ramp and reveals an enclosed target that, when hit, awards an Energy Value.

This little blue creature WILL frustrate you. It sucks. LITERALLY.

As it stands, Pinbot is an exciting table with lots to do and multiple scoring opportunities. The one downside to RARE’s conversion of this table is the addition of creatures onto the playfield after each completion of Solar Value Jackpot objective. After getting the jackpot for the first time, a blue slime creature gradually makes its way around the Solar System and, when it reaches the Sun, becomes a vacuum that attempts to suck up the ball. If the creature succeeds, it chews up the ball and spits it out, effectively ending that ball. After collecting two jackpots, a winged creature shoots missiles at your flippers. Two hits on a flipper eliminates that flipper until the ball drains. The missiles can be destroyed by the pinball, but if you miss… look out. After three jackpots, a different winged creature flies around and attempts to capture the ball and carry it off the table, ending that ball. These additions are interesting ideas, but they damage the authenticity of the Pinbot experience and arguably sour the experience to the point that collecting jackpots is no longer the best course of action. That’s a bad move.

That complaint aside, Pinbot is the best of the pinball games that I played today for the NES. It was, at the time, as close to having the pinball machine as you could get. Now, of course, you can buy Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection and play a strictly authentic simulation of Pinbot, but this game holds its own as a fun overall experience. I strongly recommend it as an addition to your own NES collection, if you don’t own it already. It’s still relatively common and is very easy to pick up and play.

As you can see, pinball was well-represented on the NES. Six pinball games in total were released for the platform, and High Speed (also developed by RARE and is similar to Pinbot in terms of conversion) is the one of these that I’m missing. These games helped me to carry my love of pinball machines home in a cheap and more convenient fashion, and set the stage for pinball video games that would arrive later. Zen Studios and Farsight Studios have done a great job of keeping pinball alive and relevant in the present day, but it’s been fun to go back in time and relive some of the earlier days for the genre.

Below is a slideshow of pictures that I took during gameplay with my iPhone 4S:

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WedNESday Review: Pro Wrestling

October 10, 2012 2 comments

Pro Wrestling is not a bad game. It’s easy to pick up and play. It has a nice variety of wrestlers to learn and to play as. It’s a fun wrestling-lite experience overall.

It’s also a game that’s the beneficiary of a bit of NEStalgia.

I spent a considerable amount of time playing Pro Wrestling recently, and it was interesting to me how my experience went from “Wow, this is a lot of fun!” to “Wow, I’m totally bored. Time to move on.” An unrewarding difficulty curve and general lack of perceived progression became evident after a few matches and Pro Wrestling became more like an Ironman match than a Championship bout. It’s easy enough to keep playing and shoot for what’s considered to be a “high score” in terms of a win-loss record, but it’s more of a battle of stamina than anything else.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Pro Wrestling, because it’s one of the best wrestling games on the NES. Tecmo World Wrestling probably gives it the most competition, and that game came out some three years after Pro Wrestling did. It’s an enjoyable game for a short time, as you work your way up through the rankings and shoot for the #1 Contender spot to challenge for the VWA Championship. From there, a gauntlet of ten title defenses lie ahead before you face the Great Puma, who is the end boss.

Congratulation!

Each of the game’s six main wrestlers have his own set of special moves that are in addition to the basics, such as punches, kicks, and body slams. There are moves off of the top rope, whips into the ropes, and fighting that can take place outside of the ring. Considering how old the game is, seeing all of these options is pretty impressive. The fact that all of it is controlled by a D-pad and just two buttons makes it even more impressive. There is attention to detail here as well, like a cameraman that follows the action outside of the ring, lively commentators, and an active referee who patrols the ring during each match.

The problem with Pro Wrestling is that there’s not enough of a hook to keep players interested, especially solo. The challenge isn’t so much getting to the Great Puma and the stiff opposition that he provides, but it’s going through the match progression as each opponent blends into the other. The difficulty curve isn’t sharp enough, and when it does finally challenge players, it boils down to move input timing windows. The computer doesn’t get better; it gets cheaper. If you have a friend to play with, Pro Wrestling fares a bit better. Live competition sharpens the experience a bit. There isn’t a line of jobbers to slog through; it’s you and your opponent, and trash talk is usually an amusing by-product. There isn’t a Championship belt or anything to battle for; the prizes are pride and bragging rights.

Pro Wrestling is a game that’s best played in short bursts. Single-player is fun to a point, and multiplayer is more enjoyable overall. Before long, you’ll establish your favorite wrestler (King Slender is mine) and quickly learn to dominate with him. If you do manage to persevere and meet the Great Puma, be ready for a tough battle… but getting there without giving in to the temptation of moving on to something else might be a bigger accomplishment than beating him and winning the overall title.

iOS Gaming: Now I Believe

June 23, 2012 6 comments

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently jumped on board the iPhone train. After spending some time with it and sampling some of the many games that are available for the device, I can honestly say that my time with dedicated handhelds is probably over. Affordable games, impressive visuals and sound, and plenty of variation in genres and offerings make iOS devices compete favorably with the DS and Vita handhelds we see now.

I’m certainly not out to sway anyone from their preferences. If you bought and if you enjoy your 3DS or Vita, that’s fantastic. I’ve always said that there will be a market for them. For me, though, I was very surprised with the gaming experiences that awaited me on my iPhone 4S. Augmented reality is there. Tilt controls are there. Touch controls, while obviously not as responsive or accurate as traditional controller inputs, are acceptable as long as the game is built with touch in mind and not a port with adapted control schemes. I’ve got pinball games to hold my interest from Farsight Studios and from Zen Studios. I’ve got arcade-based games like Galaga S and Galaxian S that work surprisingly well. I’ve got a pretty neat puzzler in Castlevania Puzzle, which appeals to me as a fan of the series and adapts the idea for a touch screen instead of porting an older game with potentially rough play control. I’ve got a really cool shooter in Star Wars: Falcon Gunner that satisfies my arcade and Star Wars appetites while letting me dabble in augmented reality if I wish.

The Death Star has never looked better on a portable platform.

For what amounts to the price of a downloadable game on Xbox LIVE Arcade or the PlayStation Store, I have a library of seven games to play on the go… and I haven’t even taken a look at free offerings too much just yet.

I’ll admit that I’d rather play with a more traditional controller, as that’s what I’m used to. I admit that sometimes my thumbs get in the way of the action, and, on occasion, the touch screen is inconsistent with its sensitivity. It’s not a perfect experience, but when I consider everything else that I can do with this device– phone calls, text messaging, web, decent photo and video tools, productivity apps, and a lot more that I haven’t even tried yet… thinking about spending $250 on a Vita or $200 on a 3DS seems redundant. I don’t want to carry two gadgets when one fills my needs adequately or better.

I know that I’m not alone in thinking this way, either.

People are still playing video games, and will for a long time. The problem is that portable tech has caught up to dedicated handhelds in many respects, and the biggest attraction is that there’s a lot to choose from and it’s almost all significantly cheaper than what we see on the Vita and 3DS. There aren’t enough reasons for more casual players to make that second investment when they already own smartphones and tablets. Core players will still buy handhelds and will always rail on the lack of a controller, and that’s perfectly fine. For me, smartphone gaming is an imperfect but still enjoyable experience that’s less expensive, more varied, and is good enough to satisfy my gaming urges when I’m not here at home.

Castlevania Puzzle is deceptively fun and supplies fan service to Symphony of the Night players.

As an analyst, it’s been clear to see that a gradual market shift has been occurring as handheld hardware sales– despite new platforms– have been generally struggling here in 2012 while the mobile sector has been growing. Now, as a longtime video game player and with first-hand experience of what iDevices bring to the table, I can see why the shift is happening. You can complain about lack of depth, lack of a controller, the advancement of the freemium model, and more… but a growing number of people don’t care enough about any of that.

It will be very interesting to see how Sony and Nintendo deal with the challenges posed by the mobile sector as we move forward. It looks like more games will be coming for both the 3DS and the Vita later this year, which solves one problem. Now they have to get consumers to buy in… and not just the core consumer that has been on the fence, either. Trying to win back the casual consumer is important; without them, revenues will continue to slide and questions about the viability of the dedicated handheld market will continue to be asked.

Pre-E3 Thoughts

Popzara Press recently published two articles of mine that I wrote in order to get the E3 ball rolling there.

The first one is from an analyst perspective, breaking down each of the three hardware companies: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Microsoft was the easiest of the three to talk about, though I found it interesting that early fears of a strong focus on non-game entertainment seem to have cooled with word of several big third-party game announcements during the Monday morning presser. I think that we might be surprised with what Microsoft brings to the table, but I’m not sure whether it makes a difference in terms of hardware sales for 2012 given the saturation status of the platform. Sony’s event could be the most intriguing, as there are several possible storylines. How will Sony address the Vita situation? What of this rumored cloud-based gaming acquisition that we’ve been hearing about? Is a revamp of PlayStation Plus in the cards? I’m personally very interested in what comes from that event Monday night. Finally, Nintendo’s true unveiling of the WiiU is extremely important. Nintendo needs to start selling the world on what WiiU is, and this is the company’s first big chance to do that. Launch date and pricing won’t be revealed, but games and hardware capability will be center stage.

My other piece has to do with some downloadable games that I’m looking to see on the show floor. I named three in particular. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is a personal selection. I hold this series in very high regard and am excited to see the work that Josh Tsui and his team at Robomodo have put so much effort into. I’ve been following the progress of THPSHD since it was announced last December; from what I’ve seen, this has the potential to be one of this summer’s bigger releases. Zen Pinball 2 is another game that I’m looking forward to seeing. If you know me, you know I’m a bit of a pinball freak… and it’s great that the PlayStation 3 is finally getting its own Pinball FX2 kind of upgrade from Zen Pinball. Hopefully I’ll get a peek at the new Avengers tables, too. Finally, Double Dragon: NEON is an appointment that I set up because of my arcade roots. WayForward has done some great things with arcade IP in the past (Contra 4, anyone?) and I’m eager to see what they’ve done with Double Dragon here.

I hope that you’ll take a look at both pieces, and I invite you to comment on either or both.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that most of my writing for the next couple of weeks will be for Popzara Press. I’m not sure how much extra writing time I’ll have during the event, and I’m going to be playing catch-up for another week or so after I return from Los Angeles. I will post some more personal stories and content from the trip here as time allows, though, and most definitely after my Popzara workload slows down a bit. If you’re interested in more frequent updates from me during E3, I recommend following me on Twitter. You can follow along as I’m terrified during my flight, you can find out what I’m playing and who I’ve met, and it’ll basically be a running diary of my experience.

Although the thought of flying to Los Angeles is still freaking me out, I’m extremely excited to be able to attend E3 this year. It’s going to be a big show and I am even more excited to be able to share my experience with so many people. Some call this work– and it certainly is– but I consider it an honor.

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