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6:26 AM on 05.16.2015

Pokemon & the wider audience

I used to work in a GAME store here in the UK for a period of around 20 months or so up until June 2013. While the salary side of it eventually made me move on elsewhere, obviously being into games I was rather in my element working there. It was always great to have conversations with people who were as into games as me, especially since my own personal circle of friends aren't gamers. Not to mention the staff discounts that I very regularly made healthy use of.

One of the more interesting but unexpected things that I learnt from working there however were the buying habits of people in relation to games. Obviously, this is all anecdotal from just one store, so I'm not implying this applies to people as a whole, but nonetheless what I observed was fairly consistant throughtout my tenure there; the people that buy The Sims almost all tend to be young teenage girls (and they're the only ones who buy the expansions), middle aged women love Professor Layton and Sonic seems to mostly appeal to young boys. And, for some reason that I never figured out, black adult men seem to buy a lot of racing games. Hell, when I got my dad a 360 I got it with Forza 4 and Dirt 3 because I knew he'd like them both; he then subsequently went on to buy a bunch of other racing games such as Racedriver Grid, Split/Second and Dirt Showdown (among other games to be fair).

Like I say, this was all just me noticing certain demographics tending towards certain games and genres over a period of time in just one small, specific place, and I wouldn't be so bold as to say it's indicative of anything in particular across a larger population.

Pokemon however seemed to do something that no other game or franchise did. Young boys bought it. Young girls bought it. Teenagers, both girls and boys bought it. Same with adults. The only people who didn't seem to be buying it were older generations, people aged maybe 30 or 40+. Pokemon seemed to cross all demographic boarders consistantly with every release. Age, sex, race, culture; it didn't seem to matter, everybody would buy Pokemon regardless. The only other game I can think of that's of a similar popularity across demographics is Minecraft, although from what I saw when that released on XBOX 360, it was much more popular among boys than girls, and it was largely boys aged 15 and under buying it. However, whereas Minecraft is loved as the free sandbox that it is, I think the reason behind Pokemon's appeal is more multifaceted than Minecraft's.

Nostalgia of course plays a huge role, as evidenced by Nintendo upscaling and re-releasing old Pokemon games to new generations of gamers on newer systems. While I personally started on Red & Blue, I know people whos first generation of Pokemon was Ruby & Sapphire, so for them Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire were trips back to their childhood (which is kind of horrifying for me). I dare say the same thing will happen with Diamond & Pearl, Black & White and, if what I saw when X & Y released is anything to go by, it'll happen with that generation too.

I think however, the main thing that really attracts people of all colours and creeds, is that Pokemon itself is arguably one of the most malleable and fluid game experiences out there, and has become more so over time without compromising on what made it so loved in the first place. While the core of it has remained pretty much the same since its inception, the game has become incredibly flexible and open to players tastes.

Other than the route you take through gyms to the Pokemon league, very little in Pokemon is forced onto the player. True, it does put you into the guise of a Pokemon trainer, but who says you need to stick to that? I myself played Pokemon X as an explorer; I managed to avoid seeing all the new Pokemon prior to X's release (with the exception on the starters), so going into the world I had no idea of what Pokemon I would encounter, and when I did find new ones, I had no clue what they'd evolve into. It made the game all the more exciting, not knowing what was in store for me, and I can't see myself playing another mainline Pokemon game any other way from now on.

Then there are all the other self-appointed roles you can take on. You can play it as a collector, looking to own the full 721 Pokemon in existence. You can play it as a Pokemon breeder, making super IV'd and EV'd pokemon for trading and training while letting Ditto do all the dirty work for you. And then of course you can play it with the competitive scene in mind; of what team combos are effective or ineffective, acquiring shinies, so on and so forth. There are so many different levels that Pokemon can be enjoyed on, right from the casual side over to the hardcore competitive side of things.

In fact, the competitive community demeonstrates just how deceptively multilayered Pokemon has become. Any kid can play and understand the fundemental mechanics of Pokemon, complete the game and get great enjoyment from it. If you want to go further, you can start looking into the basics of breeding inheritable moves, of what natures and skill are preferable and how to make a nicely balanced team. You want to take it even further? Then there's the entire competitive battling scene that'll provide you with a level of tactical preparition, planning and battle that, on the surface, one would never assume something as seemingly simple and child-oriented as Pokemon would have. To have that much potential depth and nuance to your core gameplay mechanic that it can be enjoyed on both ends of the same spectrum is not a simple exercise, but Pokemon seems to have done so without ever compromising what made it so captivating in the first place back with Red & Blue.

In leaving itself so open-ended and player defined, it inherently offers wide appeal. People like being offered the opportunity to choose how they want to play their game, even if they turn down the offer and proceed as the game directs them, but having the choice available means that people who otherwise might have dismissed the game as not for them can get something from the experience. That's not even taking into account the customisability of things in game; your name, sex & appearance as well as your Pokemon's names. That's a point too: the simple appeal of the Pokemon themselves. With so many Pokemon in existence, there's going to be at least some that appeal to everyone. You want to make yourself a super cute, fuzz-riddled team of adorableness? How about a team of armoured spiky rock hard dinosaur-dragons? Or maybe a morose, eerie team of dark & ghost pokemon? If not that, maybe a team of lightning powered robots? Hell, why not go the whole hog and have a full team of nothing but the most powerful legendaries? Pokemon themselves are of course the major selling point of any Pokemon game, and whether you like or dislike certain gens aesthetic styles, it can't be denied that Game Freak have really put an impressive amount of diversity into their creations.

I can't help but think about how Pokemon does this widespread appeal so well and then look towards the AAA market, and how in their drive to have a bigger and bigger piece of the wider audience pie, they end up watering down and losing sight of what people initially loved their games for, alienating their established fanbase while the audience they were so voraciously chasing does little more than mutter slightly, only to turn away to face the brighter lights that they were always heading towards. I'm thinking of Dead Space 3, Resident Evil 6, the whole Overstrike/Fuse situation, that kind of thing.

There's a difference between opening your game up to be more welcoming to people who might've been intimidated before whilst maintaining your games creative heart (such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown) and warping a loved universe into something undesired in an attempt to pander to an uninterested mass. IF EA had been realistic with Dead Space, both in terms of projected sales and budgeting, we may well be playing the fourth installment as we speak. As it stands however, they tried to hurtle it to the top by contorting it into a shape it was never meant to fit, and now the series is seemingly silent. I can't help but worry that while AAA publishers stick to the business model that they're holding onto now, more series will be considered 'dissapointments', 'failures', or not 'meeting expectations', and will be either twisted beyond recognition or consigned to redundancy in the name of grasping that fickle, tantalizing wider audience.

I'm never going to be as into Pokemon as I was at the beginning, but I think after working in GAME and seeing just how many people it works for and on how many different levels it does that has made me respect it a lot more as a creative achievement than I ever would've done during my youth. It should stand as a prime example in the medium of how to build upon your foundation and open it to new minds and players over time without breaking what you already crafted or losing what you envisioned in the first place in the restless pursuit for an even bigger fish. There can't be many games that boys, girls, men & women can all claim to play, but from what I saw during my time behind the counter certainly convinced me that Pokemon was one of those few.

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3:26 AM on 04.03.2015

I can dream: Warhammer x Dynasty Warriors

If you're anything like me, you really enjoyed Space Marine. Like, really, really enjoyed it. I think we all know that from a mechanical and technical standpoint it wasn't anything outstanding, but my god did it nail the sensation of really being a hulking, 7' 6", third of a tonne unstoppable force. As much as I love Dawn of War, Space Marine felt like the truest representation of what I always imagined the 40k universe to be like; of being in amongst the dirt and blood and unrelenting violence of it all. While it certainly wasn't a perfect game, it was solid enough to deserve a follow-up; it could have fixed the flaws of the original whilst building on the stronger aspects. Sadly, with the fall of THQ, it seems unlikely to happen, although the currently in development Eternal Crusade MMO is showing signs of maybe filling that gap.

But what if (and it's a very, very big what if) Koei Tecmo were to collaborate with Games Workshop and create a Warhammer 40k Warriors game?

Why it would be glorious

Warhammer and Dynasty Warriors dovetail together so perfectly that it's almost absurd. Everything KT could ever need to create a 40k warriors game is there; enemies, playable characters, movesets, locations, weapons, alternate skins. Even in terms of story, which is far from DW's strongest aspect, would be a cinch given then nature of 40k's universe. Almost any scenario can be thought up and explained by the psuedo-sciene-magic-babble that fills 40k; the warp, the webway, tomb worlds, hive fleets, psychic foretellings, ancient powerful relics, chaos cults, genestealer cults, heresy, orks just being orks; KT could have an absolute field day playing around in the universe, giving reasons to travel around the entire galaxy while remaining true to the style & tone of 40k. Having said all that though, there are only really 2 things that you absolutely must have to complete the quintissential DW experience.

First: battlefields full of enemies. Given that 40k is all about mass battles, then yeah, between Tyranids, Orks, Necrons and Astra Militarum, you're pretty much covered for your swarms of enemies. That's not even taking into consideration all the less populous other factions that are in 40k who could just as easily be used in the same manner. Like I said, it's 40k; even if a race is dying such as the Eldar, they'll never fully go extinct, so they can be enemy units just as readily as any of the swarm style factions could be.

Anyone who played the Exterminatus mode of Space Marine can attest to how well 40k suits the 1 vs. 100 ideal that DW prides itself on.

The other essential element for a DW game is making the player feel like the most absurdly OTT OP lone wolf possible. You need to be able to absolutely annihilate enemies on mass with ludicrous attacks, exhibiting excessive flair and spectacle along the way. There are more than enough named characters within 40k from every sngle faction who fit the bill. Even regular troops can be stupidly OP: anyone who knows anything about Space Marines can attest to this. And that's not even mentioning the Grey Knights. Almost every unit could be worakble: Nobz, Striking Scorpions, Lychguard, Incubi, Terminators, Broodlords, Berzerkers, Tempestus Scions, Battlesuits; the point is, KT would have a hell of a lot of variety to work with. The roster could easily be in excess of 100 playable characters. And hey, if Ganon works as a playable character, then larger 40k units like dreadnoughtswraithlords and swarmlords are possible too.

KT could even get really greedy if they wanted to: they have the opportunity to indulge in copious amounts of DLC with 40k. There are hundreds of space marine and chaos chapters, eldar craftworlds, ork klans, necron dynasties and tyranid hivefleets that could be made as skins. The same applies to weapons; every race has dozens of different ranged and clsoe combat weapons, and they could be implemented much in the same way alternate weapons were in Hyrule Warriors, providing alternate movesets. Hell, put in the customiser from Space Marine and you have the option for putting in custom armour parts as DLC as well.

Obviously I wouldn't want the game to be a bottomless pit of cosmetic DLC, but from KT's perspective it's a potential source of serious revenue that it would stupid for them to ignore, even if it would be frivolous.

Let's be honest though. The thing that makes DW spin-offs so appealing is the extreme levels of fan service. The simple truth is I want to play a game that allows me to run charge Karandras headlong into a unit of Space Marines cut them to shreds single handedly. 40k melds so neatly with this idea, both in terms of the tabletop game as well as its lore that I have to wonder why it's never been done so far. And then I remember why.

Why it'll never happen

Games Workshop does have a presence in Japan, but it'll come as no surprise to any of you to learn that it's minor. As far as I can tell there are 2 GW stores in Tokyo, and that seems to be about it. There are more independent stores that sell GW wares, but the fact is 40k simply wasn't made to appeal to Japanese tastes, and GW doesn't appear to have any real interest in pursuing that market.

On the flip side, DW isn't especially popular over here in the west, at least in the context of video games as a whole. I can't find any concrete sales figures (I don't really like to refer to vgchartz but it's the only source I have), but no DW games, main series or spin-off, has ever sold more than a million copies outside of Japan, and only 3 have made it beyond the 500k sales mark in the west. It certainly has its audience, and that will undoubtedly have been expanded by the success of Hyrule Warriors, but the fact remains that the games pretty much always sell far better in Japan than they do in the west. This is only compunded when you look at the franchises that KT has done spin offs with. Gundam, Fist of the North Star, Zelda, Dragon Quest, One Piece, Samurai Warriors; they're all based on Eastern themes and franchises. The only exception is Warriros: Legends of Troy which was developed by Koei Canada (and even that seems to have sold better in Japan than over here).

You can see the issue. An unpopular and weakly supported western franchise in Japan is not a good candidate for a crossover with DW since it would alienate the consistant Japanese market that DW has built up and relies upon. Having said that however, I can imagine a 40k warriors doing pretty well in the US and Europe; 40k, while still a niche hobby, is surprsingly popular, and I know full well that many people would enjoy a follow up to Space Marine.

I do get the sense however that GW has been somewhat scared off investing in large gaming projects following THQ's demise. THQ went under just over a year after Space Marine's release, and it was the first significant attempt at marketing a Warhammer game to a primarily non-warhammer, more AAA end of the market (although I suppose you could argue Fire Warrior was the first to try this). There hasn't been a 'big' Warhammer game since Space Marine, although the recently announced Warhammer Total War could be a big hit. Recently they've been leasing their 40k and fantasy licenses to a wealth of smaller developers (ending in some very mixed results), with lots of different games being released independent of one another. All in all the games GW has been greenlighting seem to be far safer options with relatively low development costs that target smaller, specific audiences. Given their delicate financial position currently, I can't imagine they'd be too keen to dive into anything AAA again anytime soon.

As sweet as an idea as it may be, I can't see a Warhammer x Dynasty Warriors ever realistically coming to life, despite how well the two seem to compliment one another. It would be a spectacular game for me personally, and one that would genuinely get me hyped (which is a word I use very sparingly).

Then again, nobody could've guessed 2 years ago that there'd be such a thing as Hyrule Warriors, so who knows? A 0.01% chance is still a chance? Right?

Right?

 

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11:35 AM on 04.02.2015

Smash Bros vote: The case for Bomberman

As soon as I heard about the poll for additional characters in Smash Bros. 4 I resigned myself to the likely fate that Bomberman won't be selected. There are far more popular and in demand characters around that command so much more attention from the community that he's liable to get forgotten amongst the calls for Bayonetta, Wonder Red, Waluigi, Ridley, Geno, Isaac and so on. But in spite of that, I think that, while he may not be the most popular candidate, he is far and away one of the best suited to join the fray in Smash Bros 4 for a whole host of reasons.

Konami is wasting him

As most people will be aware, Hudson Soft, the developers of Bomberman ceased to exist as a company in 2012 and were subsumed into Konami. While this saved Hudson Soft's various licenses from oblivion, it has sadly meant that Bomberman has ended up as little more than mobile fodder.

I was surprised to learn that rather than being a silent franchise as I expected, there have actually been 2 official Bomberman games since 2012, albeit both mobile games; One Hundred Person Battle Bomberman and Bomberman on iOS & Android (seen above). As both of these were only ever released in Japan, I can't comment on the quality of them, although both of them seem to follow the tried-and-tested forumla for mobile games of earning their keep via microtransactions.

It hardly seems a fitting destination for a 22 year old icon of gaming to end up, and appearing in Smash could bring the white bomber out of stagnancy. Hey, if it helped Megaman, there's no reason why it couldn't do the same for Bomberman.

The only thing logistically standing in his way is crazy-as-balls Konami themselves; I can't see any logical reason for them to object to his inclusion, but then again, Konami is insane as Jim points out; just because it makes sense, doesn't mean they'll do it.

He has a long running history on Nintendo consoles

By my count, Bomberman has graced Nintendo's consoles in 38 times, ranging from 1983 to 2009 on NES, SNES, N64, Gamecube, Wii, Virtual Boy, Gameboy, Gameboy Colour, Gameboy Advance and DS. To put that into perspective, it's nearly double the number of games Samus has appeared in and, if we're counting all spin offs and remakes, the same number of games as there are in the entire Zelda franchise. That's a rich heritage for a third party character; no other company has hosted him so frequently since his debut.

Sakurai is somewhat apprenhensive to have too many third party characters, and I can understand that; it would be easy to flood the Smash roster simply to appease the masses. But given Bomberman's long running history with Nintendo, I feel his inclusion would be both worthwhile as well as warranted. Besides, he's already met Wario.

He has prior experience smashing

Yep, Bomberman was in a smash-esque game back in 2003, DreamMix TV World Fighters. A Japan only title, it saw Bomberman fighting alongside the likes of Solid Snake, Optimus Prime and Simon Belmont. As you might expect, the game is somewhat obscure; I certainly wasn't aware of it prior to writing this article. However, after a bit of youtubery, it confirmed one thing that I was already fairly sure of; not only has he already proved that he can be turned into a fighter, but that he's ready to slot right into the Smash 4 roster.

He writes himself

Moveset? Colour palettes? Alternate costumes? Taunts? Final Smash? Trophies? Stages? Music? Yeah, Bomberman has all of these in bucketloads. In fact there's probably enough in Bomberman to make an entire DLC pack for Smash 4. I for one would adore a Bomberman stage, even more so if some of the original Bomberman items could be incorporated somehow.

There have been more than 70 Bomberman games to date, so he has a wealth of history to select every aspect of his smash design from. Of course bombs are his staple (and even within that he has a variety of bomb types that he could make use of), but he has a whole host of other potential attacks; all the different equipable items from Bomberman Quest, any of the 25 Karabons that appeared in Bomberman Tournament, Tirras, and of course one Bomberman's most recognised aide, Louie.

I can see Louie functioning both as Bomberman's Up B recovery move as well as his final smash. In fact, when it comes to final smashes, Bomberman has a lot of options. Gravity Bombs, Dangerous BombsFull Fire and Guardian Armour: these are just some of the possibilities I've come across by briefly looking. I'm sure a more in-depth study would likely yeild even greater possiblities.

Weird as it might sound to say but I can see him functioning similarly to Snake in Brawl. Laying homing bombs, using remote-control bombs to chase other players and setting mines are all feasible options that Bomberman has access to. Abilities as simple as the power glove or kick could be implemented in interesting ways. He even has access to some defensive measures, giving him a nice potential variety to become a unique, stand-out fighter without being overpowered or gimmicky.

So there you have it

I've only ever played 3 or 4 Bomberman games. He's not my favourite video game character and I'm not especially attached to his franchise as a whole. In spite of that however, I've voted for him to be in Smash 4. There are likely other characters that you'd prefer to be there; that are more relevant at the time of writing, have better competitive potential or simply are more popular than Bomberman, and there are plenty I'd be happy with other than Bomberman. All I'll say is this; while you probably want others to be there, Bomberman is one of the few characters who I think genuinely deserves it.

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