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Blowing on the Cartridge

Hola Amigos! After a 3+ years hiatus, it feels great to be back here, writing about games once again. I hung it up for a while because I was working in the industry for a major publisher, and it would have been impossible for me to write about the video games I was genuinely excited about without introducing all sorts of conflict.

In the interim, I poured some thoughts put about fatherhood and my 2 awesome daughters over at We’re Gonna Need More Bathrooms. Even after I had moved on career-wise, I found myself with so little time to play that it didn’t really make much sense to opine on the industry.
Getting away from games for a while has gotten me more in touch with what I REALLY love about games in the first place.

Listening to a bunch of pleasant Michiganders describe their fledgling board game company on the Happy Mitten Podcast is inspiring, and I can’t get enough of Wil Wheaton’s excellent YouTube show TableTop, where he plays a new board game every week with a different assortment of friends. Games frame the fun. They give us something to commune over.

03_10_11_sneakysnackysquirrel1At 4 years old, my oldest daughter is starting to ask more and more to play board games with me when her sister naps. And I’m pleasantly surprised at the quality of games for the pre-school set! It’s not exactly a night playing Pandemic with friends, but a quick game of Richard Scarry’s Busytown or Sneaky Snacky Squirrel scratches the “board game” itch pretty well. She’s also moved slowly into video game territory on the iPad, and it’s been interesting to see how her tastes differ from mine, or even what mine were like when I was her age.
Most importantly, the landscape of games — the way we buy, play, and share our games — is undergoing a massive, really interesting change. In 5 years time it will not resemble at all what I grew up with. And that’s made me really, really miss writing about them.
I have played 1 console game in the last 6 months. But I’m still playing. The time has to fit around my day job and parental duties now, and (like so many other gamers these days) that takes the form of whatever device I have with me in that downtime. This week alone, Cliff Bleszinski swore he would never develop another packaged, disc-based game. AND Irrational Games, the studio behind the critically acclaimed BioShock series, called it quits.  Director Ken Levin will be continuing on with a dramatically smaller team, making shorter multiplatform games. These are both on the order of techtonic shifts in the industry, and I think we’ll see a lot more of these in the coming months. Should be a lot of fun.

As I prepare to say goodbye to to the blog, I thought it would be a great time to revisit “Games of our Lives.”  The original 3-part series was some of my favorite material to write, and I still go back and re-read them every now and then.  I intended to cap off each year with a new entry, but that got away from me after I concluded part 3 with 2007. So without further adieu:

2008 – Super Smash Bros. Brawl – The original Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 was a high school, and later dorm room favorite.  I didn’t play very much of the GameCube followup, but the promise of more Smash Bros. on the Wii – a console I was already having so much fun with – was a no brainer.

Brawl is the last game I stood in line for at a midnight launch, a month before my wedding in 2008.  It could very well be the last midnight launch I EVER attend.

With all its game modes and hidden characters, Brawl is an unbelievably deep game.  A month after launch, I was still having a blast discovering things in the single player mode.  So when I couldn’t sleep the night before our big wedding weekend, I naturally popped in Brawl.

The familiar feeling of smacking around characters like Link and Kirby with my old pal Mario really brought me back.  I had just quit my job the day before, and was about to start my family the day after.  But for a few pre-dawn hours, none of that mattered.  I got to play.

2009 – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – Last year was the first time since I started writing the blog that I named a Game of the Year, so it would have been easy to choose New Super Mario Bros. Wii. But when I think back on 2009, it all kind of pales in comparison to an unseasonably warm Sunday in early November when I got to meet my beautiful daughter.

I had missed the first Uncharted. It came out before I got my Playstation 3, and while it sounded cool (especially Nathan Drake’s badass shirt per Tim Schafer), but there were a ton of great games in my backlog by then.

Among Thieves was met with critical acclaim upon release, and must’ve set some kind of record for enthusiast press podcasts devoted to singing its praises.  It’s a technically solid game, puts endearing characters into a compelling story, and even threw in rich multiplayer modes for good measure.

All that aside, I was desperately trying to finish Uncharted 2 as my wife’s due date approached, and that’s why it will always stick out in my mind.  That whole week was a blur of making sure we were ready, from packing the hospital bag to washing the newborn clothes.  And whenever my wife took a nap, or I managed to snag a spare moment, I would jump back into Nathan Drake’s search for Shangri-La.  I was at the final boss, this close to beating the game when we finally had to go to the hospital, and I didn’t end up beating it until about a week after we brought my daughter home.  So it has the distinction of being the first game I played as a dad, too.

Dangerous Minds

I’ve been critical of President Obama’s attitude toward the industry in the past, so I have a responsibility to point out that the administration seems to be getting it.  Last week, he announced the National STEM Video Game Challenge.  It’s the latest in a line of very worthy programs that challenge young students with designing an educational video game.

With some brilliant minds behind it and an excellent group of sponsors, it’s a great program with national scale.  I just hope there’s more where that came from. It kills me to hear about the plummeting interest level in math and science among school-age children, and then hear “these darn video games” blamed for it in the same breath.  Game development is not only the most sought-after career for young people in this country, it’s also a very demanding pursuit of math and science based disciplines.  Harnessing the passion for this industry should be a no-brainer for educators.

My own alma mater, Michigan State, launched an ambitious game design program only a few years after I graduated.  Of course, I’m envious of the lucky Spartans that came after me. Many, many other universities are currently offering or exploring a similar program. We still haven’t seen a University establish itself as THE game design school in the US, so there is certainly some work to do in marketing these degree programs to prospective students.  And it’s up to high school and middle school administrators (throw in K-8 while you’re at it) to make sure their pupils are prepared for them.

Silver Mario

In case you’ve been under a rock, today is the 25ht anniversary of Super Mario Brothers original Japanese release.  As I write this, “Mario Bros” is the #5 trending topic on Twitter.  In addition to the usual suspects, a ton of mainstream press covered it.  I even saw a headline about the anniversary on that screen in the elevator in my office building.  Y’know, the one that everyone awkwardly stares at, so they don’t need to make conversation.

It’s appropriate that the anniversary happens to fall on the release date for the latest Halo game, Reach. These two properties couldn’t be further apart.

Halo is the very essence of what drives the industry today – a multiplayer-focused shooter fueled by competition, favored by angsty teens (and ghastly teens-at-heart), where it’s not uncommon to count more epithets than bodies. I’ll admit it – I’ve never played much Halo.  It just never appealed to me.

Mario games look downright quaint by comparison, with bright colors, squeaky clean character design, and all those side adventures in cart racers, puzzlers, brawlers, RPG’s…

Just take a look at their flagship characters.  Halo’s Master Chief is a faceless cipher under that impenetrable helmet. He and his space marine buddies have now starred in 5 games, but are still mostly marketed around (and purchased for) the multiplayer experience.  Besides, he just wouldn’t fit in a fun, happy-go-lucky cart racer.

Mario doesn’t speak either, outside of the occasional “it’s-a-meeee!’ or “let’s-a-go!”  But his charisma and charm have moved 240 million games – just among the character-focused core series.

Mario has been a constant through some remarkable personal benchmarks.  For those of you just joining us, some highlights: One of my first published reviews was on Mario 64.  I broke the news to readers (and in turn, some of my friends) about my wife’s pregnancy via a post about New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  And when it came time to take the baby announcement photos, my daughter had on a Princess Peach onesie.  Mario was even mentioned twice in speeches at my wedding – one of those during the actual ceremony.

Playing a Mario game evokes much of the same feeling for me as watching my daughter play on the floor does now.  There is an innocence, and a simplicity to it that will always be endearing.  I can’t help but smile when it’s just me, and the jumping, and the coins.

Happy birthday, buddy.

I had a long, solo train ride from Boston to NYC on a quiet Sunday morning last weekend, so naturally it was the perfect time to enjoy a full, uninterrupted listen to both of the released albums from the Protomen’s 3-act rock opera exploring the Mega Man universe.  I’m happy to report it’s as awesome as you would imagine a rock opera about Mega Man being.  Seriously.

I’m late to the party when it comes to the Protomen – but you’re not exactly reading Pitchfork right now, so sorry if they’re already passe below 14th Street, or something.  They’ve already been hat tipped by the likes of WIRED and Joystick Division, and I first heard of them years ago from Penny Arcade.  So don’t make the same mistake I did!  You could be listening to Act I: The Protomen while you read this!

About halfway through act 2, I got to thinking about how… just plain good these records are.  Where countless movies, TV shows and books failed miserably, a band of indie rockers from Murfreesboro, TN got it so very right.  Why?

Perhaps most importantly, the Protomen’s music builds on the already solid fiction of the Mega Man games that so many of us have such fond memories for.  They don’t needlessly pile on forced backstory and violently change the mood, like the creators of Super Mario Brothers: The Movie.  Or invent a whole different story out of whole cloth, and shoehorn in Mega Man characters, like some OTHER Capcom franchise’s ill-thought sliver screen debut.

Jesus Christ

The Protomen opera instead holds up seemingly minor characters to the light and explores periods of time that were glossed over in the narrative of the core (8? 9? Do the new retro ones really count?) Mega Man games.  It’s a lot like the mega-successful Broadway play, Wicked, when it comes to offering a compelling narrative through a shift in perspective.  The second act, The Father of Death, is particularly handy with this, as it presents Dr. Wily as a somewhat sympathetic figure with honest, selfless motivations.

To be fair, there have been more terrible games based on decent movies than vice versa.  But Hollywood, and the publishers of crappy officially-sanctioned-fan-fiction books, could learn a lot about translating games to other media from the Protomen’s labor of love.

They chose a good franchise that already had a fun, compelling story attached, but still enough room for additional stories to texture its world.  Also, I think the fact that they’re working within the fiction of a NES era game really makes the Protomen’s job easier.  We just expected simpler stories from our games back then, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation in those 8-bit visuals and chiptune soundtracks.  Especially when that interpretation itself is in a non-visual medium, like rock opera in this case.

At the very least, if you enjoy Mega Man games, or just being a nerd and the culture that surrounds games in general, I think you’ll like the Protomen.  I can’t wait for the third act, and I wonder if they’ll move on to a different franchise once this saga is complete.  For every terrible Prince of Persia movie that gets produced, someone, somewhere must shelve a gritty, heartbreaking Star Fox script, right?  Right?  *sniffle* do a barrel roll indeed.

It looks like they already made cool Star Fox puppets. Where's Robbie Henson?!

I quite often get official word of marketing campaigns for new and soon-to-be-released games.  They’re second only to architectural trade stories in “things I’m most often pitched.”*

Anyways, EA is taking a novel approach to promoting their supercops-and-unsavory-characters MMO, APB. They’re making one fan put his money where his mouth is, literally turning him into an avatar that could be produced in the game’s design-your-character interface.  I’ve seen more than enough promotions that put one lucky fan into a game as a background model, and even occasionally as a playable in-game character.  So it’s cool to see EA turn that concept on its head.

The community is at the helm, making choices via popular vote on who their base model is, his hairstyle, even tattoos the poor guy has to get. To be fair, Josh (the “winner” in this case) lists “Free Runner” as his occupation, so he probably had plenty of time and empty pockets to commit to this project.  And hey, it’s not like his shift supervisor is gonna reem him out for showing up to work with stupid visible tats or a crazy haircut.  That’s why you make career choices like “Free Runner” in the first place, right?  Except this guy.  He’s a badass, and it look like dude gets paid.

The whole thing has me thinking more about our relationships with what we control onscreen.  Tom Bissell had some very, very good points in Extra Lives about how much of (another EA title) Mass Effect’s success is tied to Bioware empowering us all to create OUR Commander Shephards.  I still bristle a little bit when I see a YouTube video or something from that game, and it’s not MY Shephard running around.  It feels like the lost footage from Back to the Future with Eric Stoltz in the Marty role.  Creepy.

...that's just not right

But I don’t think I would ALWAYS be more emotionally invested if I could design my own avatar.  Case in point: there’s nothing on this earth that turns my “nostalgia” valve quite like a Mario game.  Even when I could play a sidescrolling platformer — that most nostalgic of genre — with an avatar of my own design in LittleBigPlanet, it just didn’t resonate emotionally as much as one starring everyone’s favorite plumber.

APB designer Dave Jones (of Lemmings and GTA 1-2 fame) clearly wants us to feel like we’re inhabiting that world.  As WoW has shown us, a custom avatar can really make players buy in to the setting and fiction on a very deep level.  Let’s hope Josh can hack it.

* Really.  Enough with the damn pitches about building materials.  I’m sure advances in shaftway cabling are a very big deal, but we write about videogames here, peeps.

According to the industry’s typical cycles, this year’s E3 should see new console unveils from all the major players, as we’re now 5 years out from the Xbox 360 debut.  Those shows have always been light on big game releases from third parties.

With Microsoft and Sony buying time for their flagship consoles via motion control add-ons, the big third-party publishers were very much in support mode this year, mostly showing how their lead franchises work with the new technologies.  From that perspective, this year’s show felt a lot like a “new console hardware” year.  Still, some of the bigger names rose to the top:

EA

  • EA had a strong showing, particularly as part of Nintendo’s 3DS reveal.  We’ll see new Madden, FIFA, and The Sims installments in 3D within a few months of the hardware launch.
  • They’re bringing Tiger Woods golf, which sold very well on the Wii the last two seasons, to the very similar setup of Playstation Move.  It’s a bright star in that lineup.

Konami

  • Konami’s also getting a lot of mileage form its most beloved franchises, with Metal Gear Solid Rising seeing a simultaneous release on PS3 and Xbox 360 (a first for this series), as well as a new Metal Gear game for 3DS.  We’ll also see 2 new Castlevania games.  One a boxed retail product on PS3 and Xbox 360, and the other a download-only title to hit very soon as part of Microsoft’s annual “Summer of Arcade” Xbox LIVE promotion.
  • The music genre lost a lot of heat in the past year, and we saw significantly fewer music games in this show as a result.  Glee Karaoke comes along at a great time for that license, and will draw from a large audience of casual gamers for months.

Ubisoft

  • Joins EA as the only other third-party publisher to have a launch offering on Move, Kinect, and 3DS.  Although it should be noted, their early titles for Move and Kinect are two very generic feeling sports titles.
  • Ubisoft is benefitting greatly from this much longer console generation.  Their investment in creating big, open-world games is now paying off, as their development teams around the world can relatively quickly put together a sharp looking title like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, or a novel licensed game like the download-only Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
  • They’ve been smart about balancing their catalog among safe sellers and kid-friendly titles, along with edgier fare for niche audiences and hardcore gamers.  That trend will continue this year with new Rayman and Splinter Cell titles showing alongside Michael Jackson: The Game.

MTV Games

  • Again, the music genre is much softer now than last year, but Dance Central was one of the few compelling Kinect games.
  • Rock Band 3 may have some trouble with retailers that got burned with so many big boxes taking up floor space after last Christmas.  Still, adding a new instrument (keyboard) and introducing new modes that promise to teach consumers how to play real instruments (and the new 102-button guitar controller for said mode) breaths some new life into this franchise.

The Bottom Line: Existing franchises that really take advantage of the new hardware (whether it’s 3D or motion control) will sell well, just as if we had whole new consoles out this year.  EA will likely have a strong year from FIFA, their new MMA title, and Madden development at a point where they can really just cruise with minimal updates for the remainder of this generation.