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Archive for the ‘Nintendo’ Category

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.

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nintendo-wii-price-drop_2After Sony and Microsoft both announced hardware price cuts a few weeks ago, every podcast, analyst, fanboy, and even some Wall Street types focused on what Nintendo still had in its hand (other than some million dollar bills).

As of this writing, a Wii price drop is finally, officially confirmed.  And really, I think everyone saw this coming over the last few days, as some awfully official-looking channels tipped the new $200 MSRP in the US.  Still no word on other territories.

Of course, a price drop is always good news for consumers in an economy like this, and Nintendo is now the first in this hardware generation to find the magic $200 mark for their full-featured SKU.  Part of me still wonders if Nintendo really NEEDED a price drop this holiday, though.  They’ve got a solid holiday lineup with a new, critically-acclaimed Wii Sports already on shelves and a family-friendly Mario game due out in November.  Besides, the Wii flew off shelves the last 3 holiday seasons at $250.

I was actually expecting a new Wii SKU to hold the line on price, but sweeten the deal on pack-ins.  Another Wii remote & nunchuck, perhaps Motion Plus add-ons or a Balance Board would add value to that $250.

smb wiiBuried deep within the price drop announcement is a release date for New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  It’s November 15.  This is big news for yours truly, as my baby daughter’s release date is November 14.  A Super Mario game that allows up to four players simultaneously, the day after my family grows by one “player.”  Synergy!

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a_christmas_storyWith today’s The Beatles: Rock Band launch, I can’t help but wonder if all the cards are already on the table for what could be a very interesting Christmas’ “console war.”

Sony’s slim hardware redesign was a non-starter for me, until they blinked first and threw in a matching slimmer price point.  Microsoft followed suit almost immediately, discontinuing the Pro SKU and making the Elite model their $300 go-to.  Both good decisions.  While the Wii’s still got them both on price*, it’s a much slimmer gap now that’s more than bridged by the feature sets.

A lot of major third party releases have been pushed back into early 2010, and the ones that are still on the calendar are mostly multiplatform – The Beatles: Rock Band chief among them.  Microsoft will get another Halo title in ODST this holiday, as Playstation fans finally get their hands on Gran Turismo 5.  So we’ll have (at least) one more year where these two boxes duke it out on a fairly even playing field.

Xbox still has a more cohesive online experience, but the Playstation 3’s installed base is finally at the point where you can jump into a well-populated game at any time of day.  While I’m sure the price adjustment was a tough pill to swallow for Sony brass, they’re now offering the best value-for-dollar in gaming hardware (PS3 buyers get a Blu-Ray player while new Xbox 360 owners still need to cough up another $100 to make the thing wireless).

I’m looking forward to a well played, late generation holiday throwdown that will really put the consumers in the driver seat and rely heavily on Sony and Microsoft’s multichannel marketing effort, and maybe some cool pack-in deals.  Game.  On.

*NOTE: I know both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have limited-feature SKUs that fall below the Wii’s $250 price point, but let’s talk about the systems gamers actually want to buy here.

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tiger bundleTiger Woods keeps good company.  He stands with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as the only men to win the Masters more than 3 times.  He’s a dominant athlete that’s changed the face of his sport, just like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan before him.  And just like Lebron James or even non-athletes like Mark Zuckerberg, his entrance on an international stage at a very young age can truly be described as phenominal.  With the release of Tiger Woods 10 for the Wii, he joins the rare company of (fictional and immortal!) characters that have starred in a game good enough to move hardware.  And NINTENDO hardware to boot.

Unlike last year’s game, EA chose the Wii as the lead platform for Tiger Woods 10.  That effort’s been rewarded out of the gate with shining review scores.  More importantly, it’s finally making good one EA’s “All Play” effort to bring Nintendo’s more casual Wii-owning audience into the sports game fold.  A Sunday golfer in his 30’s could easily pick this game up and play alongside his entire family, with plenty of fun minigames and varying difficulty levels to keep everyone entertained.

Tigers Frisbee Golf mode adds a much-needed party game appeal

Tiger's Frisbee Golf mode adds a much-needed party game appeal

In a move that really surprised me, Tiger comes bundled with the new Wii Motion Plus peripheral, fully a month ahead of the first compatible first-party title, Wii Sports Resort. When I first saw Motion Plus at last year’s E3, I thought Nintendo would go for the identical release plan as N64’s Rumble Pack, which came packed in with Star Fox 64 for its introduction.

I certainly hope we see more support from third party devs for Motion Plus.  Tiger uses it correctly, and it makes a huge difference in the overall feel of the game.  It really connects with most of the things that make playing golf fun, especially when you bring some other players into the room.  Here’s hoping all the attention and TLC this title obviously benefitted from during development pays dividends for EA on the shelves, too.

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While I didn’t get out to last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E³), I was really glad to see the show return to the more recognizable “under the big top” format.  At a time when just about everyone is forced to cut costs wherever possible, it was nice to see some of the industry’s big hitters pull out all the stops once again.  At the very least, it gave us all a lot more to watch than the very weird “editorial speed dating in office parks” feel of the last two years.

This year’s show was poised for success from the start – we’re far enough into this console generation that most developers understand how to get the most out of the hardware, but we’re not quite to the point where everyone expects to see new all-new consoles unveiled.  E³ 2005 was the most boring show I’ve been to, with the big reveal of the PS3 and all the tech demos and non-games that came with it.  This year was mostly focused on the games.  Be sure to check out the big honkin’ E³ coverage summaries over at Kotaku and Joystiq, just in case you missed anything.  Read on for my highlights (and a few not-so-highlights) from the big keynotes of the show.

MICROSOFT

beatles RB sullivanThe Good: M-soft came out strong right out of the gate with The Beatles: Rock Band.  They managed to have Paul McCartney and Ringo Star onstage, turning an otherwise ho-hum demo into a newsworthy event for even non-game press.  Perhaps most importantly, they created the most newsworthy event of the show for non-enthusiast press, and managed to have the surviving Beatles on stage with all sorts of Xbox branding behind them.  It’s a multiplatform title – in fact, the first Rock Band to ship day and date on the Wii as well as the PS3 and 360.  But Microsoft has managed to “own” this game in the minds of exactly the type of casual gamers that will eat up The Beatles: Rock Band — and a system to play it on.

The Bad: Microsoft managed to grab headlines with their project Natal camera system.  Essentially, at-home, real-time motion capture for gesture controls in games.  It looks like it works pretty well, and is much easier to set up than Microsoft’s earlier efforts with the Live Vision camera.  But I still can’t get excited about applying that technology to games.  I guess time will tell, as no release date or even a price point are in sight yet.

The Rest: All in all, Microsoft had a strong showing with those two reveals, and then a lot of smaller, fan service announcements.  The first ever Final Fantasy game on Xbox, a Metal Gear Solid multiplatform title, and a ton of sequels to familiar Xbox franchises rounded out their hour.

NINTENDO

The Good: Last year, the enthusiast press felt abondoned by Nintendo, with their keynote centered around Wii Motion Plus and the pack-in game, Wii Sports Resort.  This year, they made sure to take care of the hardcore set, with ample stage time given to a new Metroid game by Tecmo’s Team Ninja, The return of Mario Galaxy, and the very classic feeling New Super Mario Bros. finally brought to the big screen as a fun coop game for up to 4 players.  Charming, timeless IP goes a long way toward keeping the Big N in good graces with their loyal fans, and they delivered quite a bit of love for them this year.

wii_vitality_1The Bad: The Wii Vitality Sensor is… puzzling at best.  I’m an unabashed Nintendo fan, and I stand by the notion that failures along the way like the Virtual Boy are essential for a company to foster the free thinking brand of R&D that could deliver the Wii unto us.  But the idea of a peripheral that pinches you on the finger so it can get a read on your pulse… I just can’t see the application here into anything that would make a fun game.  I’ve been wrong before and I really hope I am in this case, but Nintendo certainly didn’t help its cause by not even really demoing this at the show.

The Rest: I was honestly hoping for a little more of a preview of what’s coming down the pipe for DSiWare and WiiWare.  They’re both underutilized networks on the best-selling pieces of hardware out there.  Beyond that, 6 new exercises and 15 minigames added to Wii Fit Plus doesn’t sound like very much new content to me.  I’d prefer to see them deliver more exercises throughout the year as DLC.

SONY

The Good: Team Ico revealed The Last Guardian, the sequel to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. True to form, this one will be a PS3 exclusive, and looks to be hauntingly beautiful.  I will probably buy it on launch day, and cry at least once by the time I beat it.  So will you, if you happen to have a soul and a PS3.

The Bad: Sony’s gesture control (was this a requirement to present his year!?) just seems way too early to show to the public, and I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t have if Microsoft hadn’t made such a big splash with Natal.

The Rest: I’m intrigued by the PSP Go.  That tiny form factor looks to solve a lot of the issues the original design (and subsequent iterations) had to deal with, but not all.  The screen’s still not protected in your pocket, which is a much bigger deal to me than the fact that there’s only one analog nub.  Sorry, FPS fans.

It’s puzzling to me that the PSP, which has had such a hard time reaching any audience other than teenage boys is the first to market with a download-only portable system.  Not to mention, one with a $250 price tag at launch.  If they don’t market the Go hardware the right way, they could be left with a diminishing audience that feels burned about all the useless UMD’s they bought to go with their original hardware.

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42Today marked the 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic first Major League Baseball game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Throughout the league, MLB teams honored Jackie in their own way, from a dedication at the new Citi Field to scholarship awards and Jumbotron retrospectives.  And every single player in every game today wore #42, with no name on the back of his jersey.

It was a class move that involved the entire league.  And yet, it didn’t carry over to either of the officially licensed baseball franchises,  MLB 2K9 or MLB 09: The Show.

Considering these games (and every major sports game, for that matter) get continuous roster updates and patches throughout the season, is it really too much to ask that this carefully planned, well executed salute make it into the digital version of our favorite pastime?

Sports games have led the way in verisimilitude for quite some time.  Madden brought in authentic rosters and 11-on-11 formations 20 years ago, and still adds a nifty trick or two each year to bring the game just a bit closer to reality.  A few years ago, they linked in-game weather conditions to the actual field conditions in each stadium in realtime.  This year’s NBA Live game features daily adjustments to player performance based on their real-life counterparts’ hot and cold streaks in realtime.81705570SL030_JACKSONVILLE_

For all of EA’s attention to the little things, even very recent editions of Madden missed the occasional detail.  Where were the Gene Upshaw memoriums in this year’s game?  No, their lack of inclusion shouldn’t (and hopefully doesn’t) impact anybody’s enjoyment of the game overall, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect these seemingly minute details to come through in the games.

I really hope Sony’s MLB: The Show team can get around to a pink bat update in time for the Mothers’ Day games.  Maybe they could even tie in a charity component with the Susan G. Komen foundation.  That’s DLC that really adds value to a game, and makes us all feel like we’re a small part of something much bigger.

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The NPD report for February came out last Thursday, and if the industry keeps up this pace, I may have to issue a teary, self-depricating apology for my New Year’s rant about release scheduling.  The first quarter of the year has always been pin-drop quiet, even during some of the industry’s best years.  It gave gamers, retailers, and developers a much needed breath after the holidays.  This year?  Not so much.

On a recent visit to GameStop, I had to choose from perennial favorite MLB The Show, the long-awaited Peggle: Dual Shot, the better than expected GTA: Chinatown Wars, and Street Fighter IV.  Of course, Resident Evil 5 just dropped, and Gears 2, Little Big Planet and the rock-out-with-your-plastic-axes-out games continue to get killer DLC on an a regular basis.  It’s unlikely that such a bountiful first quarter was 100% intentional.  Holiday release schedules get ambitious, marketing budgets get slashed, and before you know it, a locked-in holiday blockbuster gets shuffled into the following year.

However, I’m willing to give Capcom the benefit of the doubt with Street Fighter IV.  All along, they’ve been favoring a hardcore gamer audience in marketing this title, with a steady flow of info from their Capcom-Unity blog and Twitter feed.  And their down ‘n dirty “Fight Club” event was just about the only pre-launch promotion this year that I really, really wished I had worked on.  At the end of the day, this title exists for that hardcore, multi-system owning gamer that purchases over a dozen games a year.  Capcom was refreshingly unapologetic about it, and I’m glad to see they were rewarded for it.

Nintendo juggernauts like Wii Fit, Wii Play, and the Mario Kart titles will (very deservedly) continue to consume the best-seller list month in and month out, because there’s a new casual gamer born every minute.  I hope third parties continue to use different parts of the year and inspired, innovative promo to show their biggest fans how much they still care.

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el-camino-back“Chicken or the Egg?”  “El Camino – car or truck?”  “Used games – great for building audience, or scourge that will bring down the industry?”  These are all Sisyphus-ian questions that only get more divisive with educated conversation.

The heat got turned up on the used games issue this week, with Amazon’s announcement of their new used games trade-in program.  Gamestop stock immediately plummeted 14% on the news, and then the real fireworks started.

Dave Perry, a guy whose opinion I respect, named names and called out the ECA on not addressing the issue with big retailers.  Dave Jaffe and GamePolitics’ Dennis McCauley also weighed in, at opposite sides of the spectrum.  Let’s face it, this issue has been simmering for over a decade now.

I hardly ever buy used, simply because I’m usually buying on release day.  I’m willing to bet this is true for most hardcore gamers.  But as Nintendo has proven time and time again in the last 3 years, casual gamers are a much bigger audience.  And there’s no way a parent will choose a $60 brand new game over a $45 used copy of the same title that’s guaranteed to work, and is available at the same store.

It would be easy to say that all this hand wringing and carrying on is worthless.  After all, used games is an issue that WILL go away eventually.  When was the last time you bought a CD?

But the seismic shift in audience we’ve seen over the last few years means the switch to all-downloadable will be even harder to flip.  Before, we could count on at least a healthy majority of console owners being tech saavy, early adopter types.  But the more casual gamers, and the people (read: parents) that make those purchasing decisions expect to walk in to a brick-and-mortar retailer or hop onto a site like Amazon and get a physical piece of media at the end of that process.  You can’t put a download-only title under the tree on Christmas morning.

For the time being, we will have to continue putting games on discs, putting discs in boxes, and relying on retail to move them off shelves.  And like it or not, there will be SOME form of reconsumption without any additional compensation to the developer.  Especially in rough economic times.  Even if the ECA strikes an unbelievable deal with every retailer under the sun tomorrow, you’ll still have rental, players swapping games with each other, and E-Bay for starters.

gta-lnd1The onus on developers is to build additional value into new copies, and create compelling downloadable content that can generate revenue from used game purchasers.  Microsoft Game Studios was really on to something when they packaged each new copy of Gears of War 2 with a unique, one-time-only redemption code for downloadable maps.  And GTAIV’s Lost and the Damned DLC will no doubt generate a ton of revenue for Rockstar, from both owned-it-since-launch-day die hards and used game bargain hunters that just picked it up this week.

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nintendo-ds-lite

I’ve been traveling a ton lately, so I’ve been neglecting the blog (lame, I know) and playing a LOT of games on the DS and PSP.  And I’ve been having a blast.

There’s just something very lo-fi and fun about whipping out a handheld when you have a few extra minutes – no need to log in to Live or see what the guys on your friends list are playing.  It really takes me back to the days of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dr. Mario on the original GameBoy, in the backseat of my parents’ car.tmnt

This generation of handhelds is nearing its fifth year on the market, and I honestly don’t see them being phased out anytime soon – especially considering the current economic climate.  They’ve each been refreshed with newer hardware iterations over the last few years, and Nintendo’s upping the ante yet again with the DSi.  They’ve both had their time in the Rising Sun, with every new Pokemon and Monster Hunter Portable title somehow enticing millions of new hardware purchases upon release.

The PSP certainly had a hot launch year in the ‘States, but a series of odd hardware bundles and some barren years in the games department have put the very slick, sexy piece of hardware in a compromising position.

The DS has proven to be quite the cash cow for Nintendo on both sides of the Pacific.  A raft of too-cute kids’ games and shovelware may be a bit of a turnoff for hardcore gamers, but they’ve been duelly served with loving ports of SNES hits and great exclusives like the Pheonix Wright series – not to mention Nintendo’s own stable of tremendous IP.

Personally, I’ve always hoped for the best for the PSP.  It’s a really great piece of hardware, and the more recent versions have improved upon the battery life and tweaked some of the screen issues.  Playing through God of War: Chains of Olympus and GTA: Liberty City Stories shows what this system is capable of, and I feel more like a disappointed T-ball coach than an angry gamer when I see another lackluster season for the PSP come and go.

A flurry of good news for PSP owners broke late last week, with Sony’s John Koller revealing the (better late than never) PSP arrival of Little Big Planet, Assasin’s Creed, and the Rock Band franchise.

jerry_maguire-1In a seperate interview, Koller (friends call him “the faucet” ’cause he dispenses cool) confirmed that they’re pursuing developer Ready at Dawn for more PSP games.  That would be awesome because RaD’s Daxter and GoW: Chains of Olympus are two of the system’s shining stars.  Koller finished up his whirlwind media day with a pinky-swear to the entire community that Sony’s not bailing on the UMD format. That’s really awesome for me.  I have a UMD copy of Jerry Maguire and NEED Sony to stay with that format, or I may be forced to buy my 6th copy of that movie.

complete

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Early estimates from Black Friday 2008 are slowly trickling in, and it would appear that Nintendo is off to a third straight killer year for the Wii.  Impressive, considering they’re working with a sparse holiday software lineup and their only first-party offering is the tepidly received Wii Music. By all indications, Wii Fit is flying off shelves, and likely keeping the hardware a hot commodity almost by itself.  

This really demonstrates Nintendo’s Blue Ocean strategy working well.  Wii Fit launched nearly seven months ago.  Under normal circumstances, it would be rocking the discount bin this Christmas with a sequel on the way.  But that’s just it: hardcore gamers that would run out to get a game on launch day aren’t fueling the Wii’s swollen installed base, and they certainly aren’t the target audience for Wii Fit.

Microsoft had a good weekend as well, handily outselling the PS3 and last year’s Xbox 360 number.  Sony’s no doubt up on year-over-year sales, but I can’t help wondering how their numbers would have looked if they had put out a LittleBigPlanet bundle in the US, like they did in the UKLBP is getting some decent ad support now, and Sackboy appeals to a family that could really only afford to spend $400 on a box if it’s going to keep their entire family entertained for the better part of this year.  As much as I love Metal Gear Solid 4, I just don’t think Snake has the same appeal to that audience.

In theory, the PS3’s Blu-ray player helps on the family entertainment front, but I’m not sure that’s a real value add for that type of consumer.  Disney is just beginning to put animated features out on Blu-ray, and those discs aren’t compatible with the portable and in-minivan DVD players that parents already bought.  Between the Netflix addition, price drop, and Kung Fu Panda/Lego Indiana Jones bundle, the Xbox 360 deserves to be on their radars.

Beyond that, Pricegrabber shows Sony’s own budget-priced Blu-ray player (the BDP-S350 1080p) as one of the top 3 searches over the weekend.  Did they cannibalize PS3 sales with their own player in a similar price range?  I think we’re seeing a case of what’s good for Sony the company not necessarily benefitting the games division.

Obviously holiday sales are a much longer battle than one weekend, but it looks like the industry may just be as resilient as we had all hoped.  I’ve long held that Wii Fit will be the best software seller this season (hardly a bold prediction), and it looks like the very deserving Gears of War 2 will pull in second.  Weren’t single console exclusives supposed to be go away?

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