Archive for September, 2008

I’ve wanted to cover the NPD Group report for quite some time, but the monthly reports are pretty matter-of-fact and there are a ton of qualified sites on the blogroll that can deliver that quick update every month.  The report they issued today on the year’s top sellers, however, actually holds a few surprises and raises some interesting questions.

Xbox 360 – No real surprises here.  GTA IV had a really big launch, and with the Xbox 360’s sizable installed base, you knew a lot of those copies went to Xbox owners.  I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say that this year’s Madden probably would’ve been in the #2 spot if the Xbox 360 version were a whole lot better than the one on PlayStation 3.  Keep in mind, last year’s Madden ran at double the framrate on the 360 than on the PS3, and we saw a huge gulf in sales as a result.  Army of Two was critically panned, but still moved enough units to scratch the top 5.  So maybe we’re seeing a more casual gamer migration onto the 360?  They’re the ones that don’t pay attention to reviews, after all.

PlayStation 3 – I love the Metal Gear series as much as anyone else, but even I’m a bit surprised to see just how many PS3 owners scooped up MGS4. Keep in mind, these charts aren’t tracking special editions or bundled SKUs – so ALL those copies that sold as part of the spring 80 gb PS3/Dual Shock 3 package don’t count.  We’re seeing console exclusives go the way of the dodo, but if MGS4 is any indication, they still move hardware and plenty of standalone copies.  Microsoft hasn’t been able to tee up many solid exclusives throughout the 360’s lifespan thus far, and Too Human is getting lackluster reviews all over the enthusiast press.

Wii – Believe it or not, there are a couple of bombshells here, or rather it’s what’s NOT here.  Guitar Hero III is the only third party title to crack the top 5 on the Wii, and this is the first GH game available to many Wii-owning casual gamers.  When a critical darling like Steven Spielberg’s Boom Blox can’t raise a flag on your system, something’s not quite right.

Don’t get me wrong – these are 4 terrific Nintendo-produced games, and every Wii owner should have them.  But when you see them all stacked up like this, it makes it really easy to see where some of the more vocal third party developers are coming from when they complain about the not-quite-level playing field on the Wii.  Couldn’t they space all these titles out a little bit more?  Or maybe cede at least one quarter out of each year to their third party partners?

Wii Play launched a few months after the Wii, and it still outsold AAA titles like Madden on the Wii.  What will all these casual gamers play when Nintendo can’t get another Mario game out?

Another big reveal here is the Wii audience’s appetite for peripherals.  4 out of these 5 come with a controller or accessory in the box, and Wii Fit and Guitar Hero III are both way outside of your average price point for a game.

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I’ll be running this year’s New York City Marathon to raise funds for Child’s Play. Readers in NYC can join us at the live fundraiser (featuring Rock Band!) on 9/19, and every contribution and digg helps! Together, we can help some very sick kids through a very scary time, through the power of video games.

read more | digg story

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Hurray continuity!  Welcome to Part 2 of the retrospective.  Be sure and check out Part 1 if you haven’t already.

1989 Dr. Mario – Nintendo introduced the revolutionary Game Boy hardware at the very end of the 80’s, and I don’t think I’ve traveled for more than an hour without a handheld system since then.  The first Game Boy iteration’s creamed spinach-colored monochrome LCD screen blurred every time there was a lot of movement onscreen, so sidescrollers and action games didn’t really make the transition so well.  Puzzle games, however, really shined on the system, because you could keep scratching the itch with quick play sessions whenever and WHEREever you had a free moment.

Tetris was packed in, but that game was decidedly grown up.  Dr. Mario brought more fun to the place-and-drop puzzler than Tetris, with multicolored pills to vanquish the little dancing germs under the microscope.  In the back of my mind, I was always a little bit surprised that some overreactive parents’ group didn’t throw a fit over this game.  After all, the half-and-half pills looked a lot like Dexatrim.

1990 – Super Mario Brothers 3 – This was arguably the last great game for the NES, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better swan song for any system since then.  I never really embraced Super Mario Brothers 2 – it just felt like too much of a departure from the series.  Even before I knew about the Doki Doki Panic switch, it just felt… apocryphal.  But Mario 3 brought back everything we all loved about adventures in the mushroom kingdom, and piled on a ton of extras that made the whole experience feel fresh.

I don’t have the back issues on hand to check, but I’m pretty sure Nintendo Power started covering SMB 3 about 8 months before its US release.  Our local Toys R’ Us was sold out of the game for weeks afterwards, and we finally got a copy after my sister nearly won the spelling bee.

It was a great game that has aged very well, and it lived up to the hype at the time.  The Mushroom Kingdom felt very lived in for the first time, and you finally got the idea that Mario was up against something more than just a weird dragon and some turtles to his right… Koopa was a regime and only you could liberate them from Bowser’s tyranny.  Heavy stuff indeed.  It introduced flying, and the overworld map, and a lot of other staples to the Mario universe.

Most of all, I loved the way this game united my entire universe.  It was released at the very height of the NES’ popularity, and my friends and family (even the adults!) wanted to get a hold of this game.  I guess you could say it was the first time I was aware of hype surrounding a game, or just the idea of hype in general.  I wonder if I’d have ended up in PR if this game hadn’t been so awesome.

1991 – The Simpsons Arcade Game – A woefully underappreciated classic, this is the only game on this entire list that has never seen a port on any home console.  Multiplayer side-scrolling brawlers owned the arcades, bowling alleys and pizzerias in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and no one perfected the art form quite like Konami.  The Simpsons was one superb entry in a string of stellar coin-ops like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, and Wild West COWboys of Moo Mesa.

It’s on the list because I bought a well-loved arcade unit of this game in 1997, from an arcade in Royal Oak, MI, with money I had saved up from a summer job.  It was so much more than just another game to play.  Once I got The Simpsons home and in my bedroom, it became a trophy to my love of games.  It was my enormous stuffed marlin hanging on the wall.

I gained a whole new level of appreciation for the culture surrounding games when I got a hold of The Simpsons. It was the first time that I was really excited about a game that had been released a really, really long time ago (6 whole years!).  Keep in mind I was 16.  All the magazine articles about the Simpsons had been published in ’91, in publications like JAMMA Digest and Arcade and Amusement Operators’ Quarterly.  But it was a shining piece of superb game design by a company that had perfected games in one genre.  It was a marvelous example of a GOOD licensed game, with spot-on art direction and a story that could’ve been wedged into a weaker TV season of The Simpsons.  I really learned how to recognize a truly great game with The Simpsons

1992 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time – I distinctly remember renting this game, along with Defenders of Dynotron City at the video store.  It was the cover story in Nintendo Power that month, and I had been pouring over the level layouts and screenshots for weeks before release.  My grandmother died the next day, and I just remember things were really, really quiet around our house that whole week.  My mom talked the guy at the video store into letting us hang onto the game for another 3 day rental period, even though it was in high demand at the time.  I’ve always been a huge Turtles fan, but still never bought this game – arguably the best one released for any home console.  I guess it just always reminded me of a pretty rough time.

1993 – Zombies Ate my NeighborsWhen someone asks me what my favorite game of all time is, this is the first one out of my mouth.  I haven’t played it in years, so it’s entirely possible that there’s a gloss of nostalgia around it.  But if LucasArts puts Zombies out on the Wii’s virtual console, I’m buying it on day one.  This game was just plain fun, and struck the perfect balance between a tribute to and tongue-in cheek spoof of cheesy sci-fi/horror B movies.  There was just enough of an established story to get by.  Zeke was obviously a huge movie geek, ’cause he wore 3D glasses all the time.  Julie was kind of a tomboy, ’cause she always had on a ball cap (even when she drinks the purple monster potion).  Beyond that, it was really up to you.

Perhaps most importantly, the credits in this game were a playable level, rather than just scrolling text after you saved the world.  You walked around the level and read all the designers’ names, and they all had some personality-defining object or animation for their in-game character.   They were all American guys based in Palo Alto. It was the first time I really grasped the concept of all the people it took to make a good game, and that working in games could be a viable profession for me.

1994 – DOOM II – Like nearly every nerd currently between the ages of 25 and 35, I was completely obsessed with the original DOOM. It was the first PC game I absolutely had to have, and I tried to get every non-PC owning friend to come over and see this unbelievable game where you see your gun in front of you and you’re fighting zombies and demons from Hell on Mars!!! I got the first Counting Crows record around the same time, so I spent the entire summer blowing away demons while Adam Duritz belted out Mr. Jones… it led to a very weird mental soup where I still can’t listen to ‘Round Here without my trigger finger getting twitchy.

So of course, I was perfectly ready for DOOM II to be the best game ever.  I realize now that it could have been delivered by Super Mario Himself and heralded by a choir of Hooters waitresses, and it still wouldn’t have lived up to the expectations my 13-year-old self had placed on it.  But John Romero and the guys at id Software didn’t really do much to help in that department.  They spent less than a year developing the highly anticipated sequel, and put what must’ve been millions of dollars and hudred of hours into promoting the hell out of DOOM II.

I played through it in a weekend and was throughly disappointed.  It was basically a map pack with one new gun.  The new enemy designs sucked, it was still impossible to get a multiplayer match going with your friends on all your modems… I was disappointed.

I had just started writing the first ever game reviews column in my high school newspaper that fall, and I layed into DOOM II pretty hard.  It felt like that scene in Jerry Maguire – I wrote and wrote and wrote.  The words poured out of me, and by the end I had written my first good, honest appraisal of a video game.  It was so much easier to find my voice when I was writing about a game that I didn’t want people to play, and it’s the first time something I wrote actually got a response from my friends.

1995- NHL ’96 – As is required by law in the state of Michigan, my family kept up with hockey fairly regilously.  We dutifully bought the first entry in EA’s hockey franchise, NHLPA ’93, a worthy successor to our last heavily played sports game, Blades of Steel.

I took the next couple years off, but then Steve Yzerman and a bunch of Russians got this close to winning a Stanley Cup against the much scarier New Jersey Devils (led by the world’s most intimidating nice guy, Scott Stevens).  A picture of Stevens and Yzerman facing off made the cover of NHL ’96 and I was sold.

I had figured my friends and I would be the main audience for NHL ’96, and maybe I’d get in a few games with my dad, who hadn’t touched a controller since NHLPA ’93 and Blades before that.  But one day my sister offered to play.  She had played Mario games almost exclusively, and barely ever played at this point.  She played as the Vancouver Canucks, and sparks flew.  They had an ethnic slur for a team name.  They had exotic-sounding names like Jurke Lumme and Pavel Bure (and we watched a lot of Sprockets).  It didn’t hurt that it was the same roster that took the Rangers to 7 games the previous year, and she had the faceoff timing down to a science.

I had always gotten along really well with my sister, but we spent a lot of time playing together over NHL ’96, and she gained a real appreciation for sports in the process.  I like to think it helped her come out of her shell.

Most importantly, I learned a lot about why I love games so much along the way.  NHL ’96 became an excuse for us to spend time together, and we had a lot of conversations about real world things that had absolutely nothing to do with video hockey during that time.  The rabbi at my wedding talked about how much I love to see peoples’ personalities unfold when we play games together, and I really don’t care that much about winning or losing.  I can follow that sentiment to something that started all the way back with this game.

1996 – Super Mario 64 – I got a NES for my first communion, so it only made sense (to me at least) that I deserved a Nintendo 64 for my confirmation.  It was a really big sacrement, and the N64 controller was the frst to have an analog stick so, y’know, fair deal.

About a month ahead of launch, Nintendo put a bunch of demo unit N64’s into retailers with one controller and Mario 64. My buddy Mike and I would ride our bikes up there nearly every weekend just to play it.  Now that I think of it, Toys R’ Us was kind of a ridiculous distance to cover on bikes from my house, but we wouldn’t have spent that time kissing girls or curing cancer or anything, so no harm done.  It was good times, I got to be the best man at his wedding, and we both have beautiful families now.  Thanks, Mario!

Mario 64 blew all of us away, and really evolved the platforming genre to keep up with the times.  Like DOOM, Tetris, and other genre-definers before it, this game had a ton of soulless knockoffs.  But Mario 64 was a collection of really well-executed level designs, complete commitment to an engrossing, narrative world, and loving attention to characters we had all grown up with.  It was one of two N64 launch titles, and the system was still impossible to find that Christmas.

I wrote a gushing review of it in my school paper, and a classmate accused me of being way too pro Nintendo.  Some things never change.

1997 – Final Fantasy VII – I had been an early convert to the Sony PlayStation, but Crash Bandicoot, Twisted Metal and Resident Evil weren’t enough to convince my friends that this weird, CD-based system with its bat shaped controller and home audio company pedigree would last.  But then Squaresoft announced that Final Fantasy VII would be coming to the US on PlayStation, with a faithful translation and the original Japanese series numbering (instead of the screwed up US system, where Final Fantasy VI came out as Final Fantasy III on the SNES).  It was a huge sign that Sony and their third-party publishers intended to take hardcore gamers seriously in the US.  We had been taken for granted by Sega and Nintendo up to this point, and Sony sure seemed like a white knight with all this… respect.

1998 – Metal Gear SolidI was living in Shiga, Japan as a high school exchange student in the summer of ’98, and spent a lot of my off time in their arcades and game shops.  Like just about all exchange students, the Japan tour was a life changing experience.  Japanese studios still accounted for the majority of AAA titles at this point, but I could tell even then that American developers like EA were starting to catch on over there.

In the last few days of my trip, Famitsu magazine featured Metal Gear Solid on their cover and included a demo disc in the shrink wrap.  The game had been hyped for over a year on both sides of the Pacific, but Konami was only giving a sneak peak to their Japanese fans.  I nabbed a copy after one of my last days of school there, and promptly trekked to the local dirt mall with my buddies when I got back to the States so I could get my PlayStation modded.

We played the hell out of that one stage demo for months, until MGS finally came out stateside.  We knew that beginning Shadow Moses level like the backs of our hands, and even had a pretty good idea about the dialogue in the Codec screens.  From then on, the MGS series has reminded me of my incredible time abroad.  Apropos, because Hideo Kojima stands as one of the last great Japanese auters of game development, and the MGS series is a fantastic love letter to the cinematic, uniquely Japanese school of game design.

To be Concluded…

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Dick: I guess it looks as if you’re reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?
Rob: No…
Dick: Not alphabetical…
Rob: Nope…
Dick: What?
Rob: Autobiographical.
Dick: (In awe) No fucking way.

No doubt inspired by the brilliant movie (and book) High Fidelity, I’ve seen a lot of music bloggers run with an autobiography-through-music meme lately: pick one record (or song) for each year of your life.  Not the best seller from that year, or even the best record, but the most important one, personally.

Of course, I immediately thought of games, and what my collection would look like if I had never sold any games, and arranged them autobiographically.  Also, I threw in a little running commentary along the list.  I’d be really interested to see some more of these, so feel free to leave a link in the comments for your list.  Without further ado, read on for Games of Our Lives (part 1)…

1981 – Donkey Kong – Obviously a banner year for me, ’81 was no slouch when it comes to pop culture either.  Three days after me,  MTV was born and video killed the radio star.  And of course, Shigeru Miyamoto introduced the world to the original 800-pound gorilla and the most unlikely protagonist since Mickey Mouse: a plucky, mustachioed hero in red overalls dubbed Jumpman.  More on him later…

1982 – Burgertime – I can’t say I played a ton of this one-screen classic in the arcade.  I was busy with other stuff like solid foods, figuring out the appropriate places to put poop, etc.  Six years later, I got this game along with my Nintendo Entertainment System, so we spent a lot of time together.

1983 – Grand Prix – We got an Atari 2600 when my sister struck a deal with my mom about not sleepwalking for a certain length of time.  It worked.  I was too young to really grasp the mechanics of a lot of Atari games at the time, but Grand Prix is about as simple as it gets.  Push the button (and Atari controllers only had one) and move the car with the joystick.  Also, I was weirdly entertained by the screen flashing bright pink whenever you crashed into something.  I’m surprised I never had a seizure or anything.

1984 – Paper BoyAnother one that I was too young to play in the arcades, but absolutely loved when it was ported to the NES.  My first paying job was as a paper boy during junior high school and I think, subconsciously, that job only appealed to me because of this game.  I can still close my eyes and hear the tally screen after each level, counting up the subscribers and non-subscribers on your route.

1985 – Super Mario Brothers – This game was mentioned in two separate speeches at my wedding, so that should give you some idea just how much of a toehold this fictional plumber has in my life.  Want more?  As I write this, a Mario figurine stares back at me from my desk.  My wife will celebrate the day I finally quit wearing my team Mario jacket from a previous job.  I had a dog named ‘Mario’ growing up, and once dressed up as Mario for Halloween. That was Halloween 2006.

I think so much of what makes the original SMB great lies in its simplicity.  There aren’t any cut scenes to watch before you jump into the game – you just know that something is happening in this strange world, and it’s all to the right of where you are now.  It was such an accessible game that everyone at least tried it a few times.  Above all, playing SMB is one of the few shared experiences that my entire generation has in common.

1986 – Bubble Bobble – Catchy tunes, great character design and a vibrant color palette really made this game stand out from other early third-party NES games.  I first started playing it on my aunt & uncle’s NES, before we had one at home.  I used to write down my level passwords on a notebook next to their TV, and my cousins would pick up the game where I left off, writing down all their passwords during their respective visits.  I’d say we invented long distance cooperative gameplay, but I would imagine this same exact process went on in every Nintendo owning home throughout the mid-to-late 80’s.

1987 – Punch Out!! – Just like Super Mario Brothers, Punch Out!!‘s control scheme was elegant in its simplicity.  Everyone could identify with the game’s protganist, Little Mac, and pretty much every guy in his late 20’s/early 30’s can name at least one of the game’s larger-than-life opponents.  At it’s core this game’s a really, really impressive test of timing, rhythm, pattern recognition and scientific method.  It’s held up very well over the years, and was a tremendous hit when it showed up on the Wii’s virtual console in 2006.  Bonus points for including Mario as a referee.

1988 – Mickey Mousecapade I got my Nintendo as a present for my First Communion, along with this game, Burgertime, and the Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt combo cartridge.  Like everyone else, SMB introduced me to platform games, and I loved it.  But the cool thing about Mousecapade was that it let ME control an iconic character that I was already absolutely crazy about.  It’s a formula that game publishers large and small continue to trade in today.  This game added some nice touches, like the “keep Minnie Mouse close behind you” mechanic, and excellent level and enemy design based on Disney classics from Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Fantasia, etc.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 in the days ahead!

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Just in case you missed it, ESPN add a cool little feature to this season’s NFL Countdown pregame shows: their in-studio talent interacts with player models from Madden ’09. Brooks Barnes captured all the gritty details in a NY Times piece earlier this week – it’s certainly worth a read.

ESPN has played a big part in Madden’s presentation the last few years (and likely paid handsomely for the privilege), so this isn’t an enormous deal for either party.  And I think I first saw live actors interacting with in-game models in Time Traveler way back in 1991.

What makes the NFL Countdown activation particularly exciting is that ESPN benefits from the experiment much, much more than EA.  This may be the only franchise in all of gaming that I can say, without a doubt, stands totally on its own, and gives an established force in media like ESPN a leg-up by simply sharing airspace.

The fact is, the NFL Countdown is already full of annual Madden buyers.  I think its a safe bet that anyone who tunes in and HASN’T bought the game in the last few years is kind of a last cause for EA.  But ESPN may be able to grab some eyeballs, and most importantly stop gamers from switching on their console for a bit, by throwing some of the familiar Madden ballers on the screen to interact with Berman, Keyshawn and Ditka.

Personally, I hope it works out for all involved.  After all, how cool would it be to see a virtual Zeterburg deke out Barry Melrose  during the hockey season?

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Just in case you missed it, be sure and check out the excellent piece on Spore in the NY Times by Yale fellow and renowned scientist Carl Zimmer.  The Times is hardly ever wanting for quality games journalism, with Seth Schiesel on staff and even the occasional think piece from Steven Johnson in the Sunday Magazine.  But Zimmer’s exploration of Spore is a real gem, because he treats Spore with the same level of respect as any entry in any medium that has the potential to bridge the gap between livingroom and classroom.

I’m sure that one day the medium will mature to the point that stories like this will become commonplace, but for now it’s a high watermark for games coverage in mainstream press.  Also, Zimmer’s piece mentions How to Build a Better Being, a Discovery Channel special that airs next Tuesday (and will come packed in with the special editionof Spore).  As I said before, Will Wright’s showing up in force to promote Spore. We should all enjoy it while it lasts.

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As another stellar PAX show wound down this weekend, Sony completed a more-or-less clean sweep of industry show prerelease buzz for LittleBigPlanet. The construction/platformer/multiplayer collaboration defies all current genre (yours truly is calling it a “toybox” game) and is quick to make fans wherever it pops up. It dominated E3 “Game of Show” lists, was named Leipzig’s Game of the Show, and popped in quite a few places at PAX, including the offbeat “How to Get Your Girlfriend into Video Games” panel.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for LBP is just how much stock Sony is putting in the game’s all-things-to-all-people mascot, Sackboy.  He’s truly a modern icon for the consumer generated content era: a blank (albeit cute and cuddly) slate to take on whichever identity makes the most sense for your game.  Whereas Mario (nee Jumpman) injected a little character into stacks of pixels nearly 30 years ago, Sackboy and his crew can be infused with all the personality you need.  Sony’s even releasing an 80G hardware bundle featuring LBP in Europe.

Perhaps most importantly, LBP is the latest in a line of unbelievably good titles that aim to occupy the space somewhere between a game and full-blown platform.  Rock Band and later editions of Guitar Hero continue to deliver weekly content to suit a wide variet of tastes, from The Who to Nirvana song packs.  Nintendo packed a robust level editor into the already-superb Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and the community still pumps out engaging level designs almost 6 months after its release.  Soul Calibur IV is currently flying off the shelves, due in large part to one of the deepest create-a-character modes ever seen in a console brawler.

While it’s true that these games rely heavily on the efforts of an engaged community, they also require a substantial commitment from developers.  LBP developer Media Molecule has made it clear that they have no followup project in mind yet.  For the months, maybe even years after it ships, they will be in the business of supporting and expanding LBP. And I applaud the effort.

Can LittleBigPlanet deliver on expectations?  Will it truly make us all one step closer to self publishers?  Will it finally deliver a sustainable experience supported by smart, effective in-game advertising?  Only time will tell, and I can hardly wait until October to find out.

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