Image from UnrealMag: http://unrealitymag.com/index.php/2008/12/18/what-we-thought-this-generation-of-consoles-would-look-like/
So all the interwebs are a-buzz with exciting news of a Nintendo's next console. First reported by Game Informer with follow-ups by every other media outlet including details about the new controller from CVG, the new system is rumored to be more powerful than its Microsoft and Sony competitors as well as make the belated move to HD.
Nintendo even seems to be chasing after much needed third-party support by introducing publishers and developers to the prototype early, ahead of E3.
So despite far-off release date (sometime late 2012, at least for now), at first blush there is a lot to get excited about. A new system inevitably means upcoming titles from all of Nintendo mainstays and a strong release could bring some much needed balance to the recently two-way console wars.
But will a Nintendo over promise and under deliver? Would a technically superior system really be enough?
I don't think so.
Computing power is important but not the end game. At least not anymore. In the years to come I see the PC making a major comeback if digital distribution continues on its relatively open-source path. And computers will always be technically superior, even if developers make games with the traditional console player in mind.
In addition, mobile gaming is taking advantage of the flexibility it offers and the sleek interfaces of smartphone and tablet technology to offer another competitive rival.
It's pretty likely that even if everything goes according to plan, Nintendo will be unable to offer anything that comes close to offering PC capability. And being a console, the Wii 2 also won't be able to compete with on-the-go gaming, despite attempts with the gimmicky but poorly integrated 3DS.
So what's areas left for Nintendo to break ahead in? Usability.
While offering a new way of playing games with motion-sense, the Wii did little in the way of user interface, offering an experience that is even worse than the X360 and PS3, which are not so golden themselves.
Online gaming, social networking, and downloadable content will offer the greatest room for competition going forward, and if Nintendo doesn't capitalize on integrating these three areas with seamless serendipity, no amount LSD screened controllers or awesome Mario titles will save the company from a quick counter-launch compliments of Sony and Microsoft.
While Microsoft currently sports the best version online gaming and downloading, there is still plenty to improve upon. And if Nintendo isn't the one to offers plays a user friendly experience from everything to surfing the web, accessing great downloadable games, and connecting with other players both in-game and just online, somebody else will.
And that somebody else might not even be Microsoft or Sony. The looming threat for all three of these traditional gaming platforms isn't from anyone one of them, its from Apple.
The iPhone was cool. iPads are awesome. Now imagine Apples next big product: a home media device that lets you do watch TV, listen to music, stream movies, download and play games, and do everything else you would normally do on the web, except now with voice activation and motion-sense.
It might never happen. But that's the new reality, and I hope Nintendo realizes it.
I was gona post something to see if my account was still active. Meanwhile I'll write something inflammatory.
And I'm sorry if all of this is old hat and none of it is new, I'm not claiming to be original in this rant...
Whats the deal? How do you take a franchise known for its depth, strong character development, and solid gameplay, and suck all the life out of it in one fell swoop? FFXIII will be the Spirits Within of one of the most prolific and genre defining RPG series ever. Square shot itself in the foot on the big screen, now Squenix will blow out its F-ing brains with a game that watches better than it plays.
But what could I possibly be talking about? FFXIII got rave reviews outside of those irreverent, punk-ass purists who couldn't take their bloated heads out of their bottomless behinds for long enough to realize the most recent sequel's glorious simplification, its gorgeous visuals, and seamless transitions. Approximately 450,000 units sold in North America for a total of 775,000 world wide on its post-Japan launch. And by May of last year, Destructoid's own Jim Sterling reported that the title broke 5.5 million sales. No bad for such a niche genre title.
So seriously, what am I talking about.
Game Informer's Joe Juba praised the mythic publisher/developer, "Square Enix has overhauled the concept of battle, focusing more on guiding the tactical flow of the fight rather than each characterís specific actions on a turn-by-turn basis. The result is a kinetic, fast-paced system that stands out as my favorite in the series."
While others panned the game mercilessly, with Kotaku listing it as one of 2010's biggest disappointments, and Wired's Chris Kohler politely noting that, "Final Fantasy XIII isnít an RPG; itís something less."
Unfortunately Chris, if it were something less, it would at least be something. As it is, XIII feels closer to a centerless void of shiny visuals that do their best to distract from the flat battles and tired dungeons. Imagine if, in addition to the paradigm system, it also had FFXII's gambit commands. I'd actually be able to have paradigms shift by themselves as battles unfolded without want for my skill or attention. Rather than a video game, it would be more accurate to call FXIII a movie that abruptly stops annoyingly often. And I'm not even gona go into the whole slipping in and out of Australian accents, abundance of perky titted females, or gun wielding black guy with a chocobo that lives in his afro (and he's the best part of the game!)
In all seriousness though, I originally picked up FFXIII last March after a long gaming hiatus (minus random encounters with Call of Duty and Wii multiplayers). Two hours in, feeling the frigid indifference of shit on a stick characters that had been polished over with beautiful backgrounds filled with houses I'd never get to barge in on and NPCs whose mindless dialogue I'd never get a chance to read, I stopped...hit power...and went on my way.
Then, after graduating into this bumble F$ economy, I picked the title back up in my spare time and started working through it. Like a long lost friend who was always there for me, I owed the series that much. Oh how wrong I was!
About halfway through completion, my mind may yet be changed, but for now it looks like the JRPG will need to do some deep soul searching while its FF mother ship tries to scramble for any last semblance of street cred with hardcore/old school gamers*. Seriously, does anyone out there have any examples they want to throw my way? I'd love to sink my teeth into a thick piece of JRPG goodness, but the field seems laden with over-hyped, under-deliverers like FFXIII, or lackluster splooge-fests filled with stiff mechanics plastered over by quirky anime visuals.
Is the JRPG dead? Did FFXIII kill it? Am I a latecomer to this debate?
Yes, yes, and YES!
So what. Let's reopen that can of worms. Movies like Brick recast the best elements of film noir in a fresh, mind-blowningly modern way. Can the JRPG revived as well?
*I'm not sure how you personally would define either of those categories, but I think I can safely say I fall into at least one of them.
Rummaging through the collection I happened upon a past gem. I decided that enough time had passed and it was time to revisit the old classic.
Now anyone who knows me knows that I have serious commitment issues when it comes to replaying my favorite games. What seems like a great idea in the beginning becomes dull and arduous later on, picking up old titles only to drop them hours later when my ever growing sense of impatience takes hold.
But this time that didn't happen.
I have not been as pleasantly surprised by and old favorite as I was when I ran through Secret of Mana this past week (Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan). For a game that launched in 1992 (only recently re-released on the virtual console), almost everything about it was fresher then some of the more recent RPGs I've enjoyed.
Now fortunately for me, I got out my frustration with all of the game's shortcomings long ago, returning to the second Mana installment with a new found sense of appreciation for the title's glaring mistakes. The NPCs are, for all intensive purposes, less helpful then toad stool and the story's translation is at points incomprehensible.
And yet the interface for switching between party members is seamless. One button switches the player's control instantly if the girl or sprite get caught running into walls while another allows you to directly access their action menus (for magic, items, etc.).
As for the story, while I'm sure there's loads of background and mythology I missed out on, the basic plot is there and character motivations are made clear enough. Converted for release in the states in approximately a month, most of the story's fat was cut one the way, over leaving only the meat and bones and driving some gamers crazy. However, in an age of RPG cliches (emo protagonists, evil empires, and disguised princesses) I was more than happy to be told only the bare necessities involved in my quest. As RPGs become cinematic and story driven it was refreshing to play through Secret of Mana without those aspects of the game belabored.
Instead of fifteen minute dialogue exchanges with embarrassing voice acting, a bugged out cannon operator blasts you from one adventure to the next for 150 GP. Less than 15 seconds of text and you're off exploring the next area, getting more magic and battling new monsters.
Due to the genius of Square producer Hiromichi Tanaka and programmer Nasir Gebelli, Secret of Mana sports a streamlined battle system and creates the rich world that later Mana titles have built on. I lavishly applauded FFXII's fluid battle mechanics at the time of it's release, sick and tired of changing between screens and awkward menus in battles past. But Mana accomplished this more than 15 years prior. Granted, Mana is a homogeneous real-time action RPG, free from many of the burdens of traditional turn based games. But still I wonder how developers could have gotten gameplay so right a decade and a half ago while present teams botch one title after another.
The Mana series itself serves as the quintessential example of this, having progressed from its ground breaking roots to the present misguided incarnations.
Everything from the art style and character design to the gameplay and music fit together to give players something simple but still engrossing. With balanced combat, magic spells can save lives and change the course of a boss fight but a powered up sword combo still packs a punch. And what the game lacks in character and inventory depth it makes up for with its intuitive and natural fighting mechanic. Even the "lost in translation" quality of the story ends up adding a bit of mystery and the sense of a vast explorable world outside of the linear plot line.
In other words: clear up some time on the calender, turn away from the tsunami of subpar JPRGs for a second, and get back in touch with your roots.
There's been some discussion as of late about the current reality of the video game industry. And while the bitter nostalgic inside of me resists, I'll admit that the industry is at a more exciting point in time then ever before. If I stumbled back in time to find two kids sitting down to their first playing of Metroid, I would first be humbled, but then prophesize with glee, "you ain't seen nothing yet".
While Nintendo's Ford Model T approach has been serving up economy and volume with the number of games it's been releasing, Microsoft and Sony are not only still more relevant but have the diversification to fund their juggernaut consoles until the sun burns out.
And then theres Katamari creator Keita Takahashi who took the words right out of my mouth:
GI: I was thinking about your presentation while I was walking around the show floor at GDC. It was interesting because there wasnít anything on display about making games fun. There were booths for tools to make better-looking trees, or higher-quality faces or smoother animation, but nobody was talking about how to make the games enjoyable. You would think that would be the most important consideration. Is that because itís hard to package and sell tools to make something ďfunĒ or do you think itís something else?
Takahashi: I want to ask the same question. Why arenít these vendors trying to sell ideas or tools to make the games more fun? Thinking about it, maybe itís because the gaming industry has become a little too big. Itís all about business and money. Itís more about keeping the shareholders happy. Sometimes I really wonder if these creators are in the business because they love games or if it is because of the pay.
And even before I could contemplate the effects of million dollar budgets on gaming investment, David Crane, previously of Activision, beat me to the punch :
David Crane: Well, except for the indie development thatís going on as one person on the iPhone. There is the entire gamut thatís running now. It has gotten to the point where the biggest problem with the massive console games are the 100-man teams and the six-year development cycles mean that you canít do anything original, because somebody is paying $20 million to make this happen.
Now this isn't some conspiracy theory rant about corporate greed and commercial insidiousness. More money and more people making games can only be good right? But like massive banks, and massive car industries, and massive film studios...well, competition is good and the way the board is laid out right now new developers with fresh ideas have to hold their breath and hope they can hop it from Marvin Gardens past Boardwalk in one roll of the dice.
But wait, isn't that what the internet is for? And so for the time being I see gaming at a cross roads (huge generalizations are usually wrong and always come after the trend has begun) between embracing the possibilities presented by the internet and massive digital networks.
Microsoft and Sony see this, and so they've been inching closer towards PC like, all in one consoles that are part machine and part super computer. Meanwhile Nintendo who as far as I can tell is lagging behind, no pun intended, in its technical capability (who wasn't excited for online Brawl until the that sad reality was experienced for the first and last time), seems leaps and bounds ahead in its layout.
Crane loves to talk about the iphone and how it is revolutionizing casual gaming. And if any of the current players are headed in that direction, Nintendo, infamous for dragging its feet, might have the best opportunity to embrace this.
What is this? I don't know yet, but as one Mr. Water World was once told, "if you build it, they will come".
Music is changing faster than anything I can think of (I bow to no one, especially prepositions). Since I was born, and I'm only 21, there have already been three major transformations. At my youngest cassettes were the mainstay and radio was huge. Growing up Y100 and Q102, (Philadelphia, Pa) were THE radio stations defining not only what was cutting edge music but your personality, VH1 or MTV preference, and whether your had a soul or not. Then CDs started hitting their peak, civilization turned the bend in 2000 and before any of us new it, the internet and Apple single (or double) handedly changed the music industry. The internet allowed people to circumvent the middle man cutting out distributors and sometimes recording labels. Straight from my recording equipment to your PC speakers.
And that's where I want to see video games headed. There is no doubt that the music industry is still in a great state of flux, working out how to deal with illegal downloading, free radio websites, and the like, but for the time being I have no doubt Coldplay, Feist, and Beyonce will continue to sell albums. Likewise, huge titles like Bioshock, the next Zelda, etc. will get the glory they deserve. But just imagine if you will, turning on the virtual console and looking out over an endless abyss of possible gaming gems created by upstart developers and disgruntled ex-employees. Then think about sorting through that wonderful mess. Like David Crane mentions in his GI interview, there would be a ton of crap out there. There are a ton of unoriginal and even untalented music artists out there roaming the plethora of Myspaces. But with the endless resources of gaming journalism, online and in print, trudging through the Deep Deep Swamp with your piggy nose on and discovering that one gem would be easy, well worth it, and dare I say fun. Imagine the creativeness (I make my own words) of World of Goo or Little Big Planet on a smaller scale but a biweekly basis. The possibilities are mind numbing.
And so we're back to the fork in the road where gaming can embrace the limitless future of interconnectivity and creativity, with Blockbuster titles and numerous smaller, shorter master pieces as well, where the imagination can be set lose and the big companies can make money without completely shutting out the little guys, or the industry can stagnate while we sift through recycled first person shooters, hack'n slashes, and superficial JRPGs at fifty dollars a pop waiting each year for those three or four titles that are truly worth owning.
I haven't posted in a while, and only posted once before, so I felt it was time say something.
It'll be short and and quick. Just something that occurred to me as I watched some video game ad waiting for a video to stream on a website. My thought was this: wow graphics have come a long way. My second thought was wow, that looks more real than the view from my window. And here we go.
Electronics have come so far. Digital technology is amazing and the resolution quality of the screens we play games on have become more like a rectangular cut through reality into another world. Before what comes next arrives I'll preface it with this: I like games like Fall Out 3 and Metal Gear (though I've only play one of them), Metal of Honor, etc. Zombie games are fun. I mean who hasn't walked into a room and seen someone playing a Resident Evil game without wanting to pick up and play for five seconds just so you can unload a couple of shot gun shells into the nearest undead.
Alas though I wonder if the progress of technology, the number of computations per microsecond, the textured and clean graphics, hasn't lead me away from what drew me to video games in the first place. Nintendo was a scheduled escape from reality with Mario, Sonic and friends hijacking me every weekday at 3 to crazy worlds of over sized mustaches and hedgehogs in red track shoes. Games that stick players in the lives of WWII soldiers or intercity gangs are cool. They have great gameplay because of their creative teams and large budgets. But I wonder what games those same development teams would have been putting together if some natural disaster had landed humanity back in days of 8bit cartridges. Cartridges are dead and before anyone accuses me of being a nostalgic bleeding heart I'm not whining about getting back to the good old days (well maybe a little). I just wonder if in our perfectionary natures we haven't become to obsessed with graphics. Graphics are great. I'm as glad as anyone that the days of Splintering polygons harpooning my eyes is over. But why not use the amazing graphics technology we have now in a more creative way.
I said this would be short so I should stop before I make a coherent point. The movie industry might make it clearer. For how many years have directors and special effects people tried to make things look more real? Putting all hyperbole aside the answer is forever. But the whole point of special effects was to do something you couldn't in real life like show two superheros flying or a person dodge bullets or an over sized lizard destroying downtown Tokyo. And yet it seems like the majority of mainstream games (mainstream referring to where blockbuster titles), have been trying for a long time to become more and more realistic, not just in how things are shown but the material itself. Shadow of the Colossus is a visual delight that was not possible ten years ago. In it technological and graphics prowess meet dreamlike art. In the end I'd just rather be galloping through a forest that I couldn't find in real life than with a bow in one hand and a master sword in the other instead of puttsin around robbing hookers in a back alley that looks remarkably like the one I see every day on my walk to 7 eleven.
Well I have to get back to finals studying and the West Wing now.
There are plenty exceptions to this, maybe so many that they aren't exceptions, in which case I'm sure more than one person will correct my ill advised rambling.