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Archive for the ‘Sports games’ Category

Wagging Madden’s dog

Since Mrs. Liquid Architecture got me a Kindle for Christmas, I’ve been on a bit of a magazine article bender renaissance.  In case you missed them, be sure to check out this chilling article on Marvin Harrison’s gun rap from GQ of all places, along with their entertaining take on EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, post… whatever you want to call Tiger’s whole thing.

Wired’s always a treat to read and Chris Suellentrop dropped a gem in this month’s issue, exploring how gaming’s most successful franchise is also the best selling off-the-shelf  field simulator for a very specific group of employees – NFL players.  Suellentrop calls on a crystal clear illustration from a Bengals/Broncos game earlier this season to show how The Game (Madden) has come to influence the game.

He does a good job showing how EA’s crown jewel series has shaped this generation of NFL players, but I’m surprised Suellentrop didn’t explore how Madden‘s impacted the game itself, and the fan experience of how NFL football is covered.

Digital 1st down lines make the game more accessible to casual fans

For example, every NFL game (and most college football games) I’ve seen since the lat 90’s make use of a digital line to highlight the distance for a first down.  It’s become so commonplace, hardly anyone even talks about it anymore.  When the “virtual line” tech first debuted way back in 1998, I can even recall people saying how it was “just like in a video game.”  Would those handy little markers even exist without Madden?

Skycam apes Madden to show viewers the QB's options

SkyCam (and it’s other branded cousin, CableCam) more recently revolutionized coverage of the game.  It first debuted in the XFL (just like HeHateMe!), giving viewers a floating vantage point above the quarterback.  For the first time in a real live game, we got to clearly see the passing lanes and defensive set at the line of scrimmage, just like in (say it with me now) Madden!  Of course, the makers of SkyCam deserve a lot of credit for their ingenious system of reels, pulleys and cables that make SkyCam work.  But I have to believe the genesis for their entire operation was Madden’s primary camera, and aping that as close as possible in a living, breathing 3D space.

Of course, long time readers (all 3 of you) will remember yours truly covered how ESPN more overtly incorporated Madden into their NFL highlights show.  So Madden imitates life imitates Madden.

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It's never too early, or too late, in the year to talk about baseball games. Right?

If you haven’t been reading Kotaku’s awesome weekend sports series, Stick Jockey, do yourself a favor and head over there immediately.  These weekly thinkpieces are consistently fascinating, especially considering that 99% of the sports game coverage out there is a very paint-by-numbers affair.

This week’s is no exception, as columnist Owen Good really shows his sports business chops examining the 2005 semi-exclusivity deal between 2K Sports and MLB.  Good does a much better job than I ever could in breaking down the how’s and why’s of the deal, but what I found to be really fascinating here is just how off the mark otherwise savvy companies like 2K and Major League Baseball could be in striking a deal, and how ultimately iffy a property MLB has become for a video game license.

There have been a few bright spots here and there (RBI on the NES, World Series on the Genesis, and Ken Griffey Jr. Presents MLB on the SNES come to mind), but baseball has had the must lackluster games library of all major US pro leagues, hands down.  The recently released Madden NFL Arcade and another tremendous annual installment of NHL, both from EA, remind me just how broken baseball games are.

So is the answer as simple as “wait till EA can do another MLB game?”  Possibly.  After all, the Triple Play series was becoming very good just before 2K locked up the exclusivity deal, and MLB2K has a lot of flaws that just wouldn’t make it through EA’s very polished sports game development process.  But Sony’s first party series MLB: The Show suffers for reasons wholly different from 2K’s product – an unforgiving difficulty curve and an engine that emphasizes photorealistic stadiums over responsive controls and a smooth play experience.

With baseball’s annual winter meetings just concluded, the countdown is on for next year’s outings.  They’ll likely be tweaked versions of last year’s games, built upon the same engines that 2K and Sony already introduced this console generation.  2K’s in particular seem to be showing its age.

It’d be great to see one of these license holders tear the whole thing down and start fresh.  Perhaps EA’s 7 year absence from our nation’s pastime will end up benefitting them AND us in 2012, for the simple reason that they haven’t had a baseball game on any current-gen system, and will have to field a whole new team and start fresh.

2K’s pricey misadventure makes it unlikely that anyone, be it EA, 2K, or another player, will be in a hurry to buy up exclusive licensing rights when they become available again for the 2012 season.  But if someone opens the checkbook, I hope MLB Digital Media takes a close look at the plan, the team, and at least asks to see a preview build this time around.  In all fairness, that office wasn’t yet created for the 2005 deal.  Who knows how many fans they’ve turned off or missed out with lackluster branded games since then?

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ODST's won the day, but was September a turning point for Sony in the war?

ODST's won the day, but was September a turning point for Sony in the war?

The NPD Group’s US Video Game Report for September just hit my inbox last night, and it may be an early indicator of the exciting fourth quarter predicted by some pretty smart cats.  We saw increases across most categories from September ’08’s numbers, but not enough to pull the year-on-year numbers out of their recession doldrums.  However, Sony’s got several reasons to smile, in spite of Halo 3: ODST nabbing the top spot on this month’s Software Top 10:

Rank Title Platform Units
1 HALO 3:ODST 360 1.52M
2 WII SPORTS RESORT WII 442.9K
3 MADDEN NFL 10 360 289.6K
4 MARIO & LUIGI:BOWSER’S INSIDE STORY DS 258.1K
5 THE BEATLES:ROCK BAND 360 254.0K
6 MADDEN NFL 10 PS3 246.5K
7 MARVEL:ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 2 360 236.0K
8 BATMAN:ARKHAM ASYLUM PS3 212.5K
9 GUITAR HERO 5 360 210.8K
10 THE BEATLES:ROCK BAND WII 208.6K

Yes, there are only two PS3 titles in the top 10 this month, but looking at this list, you can practically see the purchase behavior!  Madden and Arkham Asylum both shipped to decent numbers on the PS3  in August, but not enough to overtake their respective Xbox 360 counterparts.  These particular games’ second month in the Top 10, despite the PS3’s much smaller installed base, is a clear indicator of a positive trend in hardware sales for Sony.  More casual gamers that only buy one or two pieces of software a year religiously get Madden, and strong word of mouth among hardcore gamers (not to mention a pretty good ad campaign) for Arkham Asylum has made that a must-have title for anyone just purchasing a current gen system.  So gamers that were holding out for a price drop seem to be gravitating towards the PS3, and they’ve essentially created their own hardware bundle in the process.

The price drop and slim hardware proved to be exactly the 1-2 punch Sony needed.  Take it away, NPD analyst Anita Frazier!

“Compared to last September, the PS3 was the big winner, more than doubling last year’s sales.  This portrays a very strong consumer reaction to the price decrease as August and September both realized a lift of more than 70% over the prior month.  This is the first month that the PS3 has captured the top spot in console hardware sales.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft rolls out a new hardware bundle or retailer discount for the holiday.  This very well could be the PS3’s year.

In other news, this month’s NPD report saw Wii Fit fall out of the Top 10 for the first time since its introduction 15 months ago.  Of course, it was immediately replaced in the Top 10 by Wii sports Resort.  But for a $90 game to spend 15 months in the Top 10, where even a soft month has the floor somewhere around 200K units, is impressive.  Just like the home crowd standing up for their starter during his 7th inning exit, I’ve got to salute Nintendo on this one.  Well done.standing o

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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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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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Fellow marketer and WordPresser Doug Meacham tied together some stirring evidence to back up a thought I’ve been chewing on for quite a while: popularity of music games will lead to greater interested in playing actual musical instruments.  It makes perfect sense.  While there were a few sky-is-falling critics of the genre early on, Guitar Hero and Rock Band allow a whole new audience to interact with music in a very real way.

Beyond trading up for real instruments, the Guitar Hero audience has shown plenty of love to previously obscure bands from the game during a dark time for record sales.  And I’m willing to bet there are quite a few GH fans that “discovered” older bands (that totally play, like, their dad’s music) through the game, and really learned to appreciate them.

Rock music games give us a nice, tidy package to study the direct correlation between games and non-game merchandise sales.  The genre was created well after gaming moved from a niche hobby to mainstream entertainment, it consists of only 2 flagship series, and interest can be tracked through solid sales numbers on (mostly) tangible products that are tied to only this one genre: guitars, and records and downloads of  music from featured bands.  There’s no spillover data from other genres here, because no one rushes out to pick up a new guitar ’cause they had an awesome time playing Left 4 Dead.

It would be interesting to see what other games had similar effects, if only it were trackable.  I’m sure there are plenty of guys out there who learned the rules of football (and eventually an interest in the sport) from Madden.

Licensed NFL merchandise continues to move at a steady clip despite the young male audience move away from watching TV, but it’s a real leap to call an uptick in sales of footballs, helmets and jerseys “the Madden effect.”

So when I see a team like the Yankees loading up their luxury boxes with PS3s and copies of MLB 09: The Show, it’s clearly a deal designed to

benefit Sony.  But I think MLB might be pleasantly surprised with how much interest a wider reaching games initiative could generate in the sport.  At the very least, it would bring some of the cool factor they despereately need to make the very worthy RBI program a success.

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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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Welcome to Part 3 of my first attempt at continuity.  Be sure and check out Parts 1 and 2 before you move on to the finale…

1999Ready 2 Rumble – I graduated high school in 1999, so this was a huge transition year for me.  I left my parents’ quiet house in the suburbs for the sprawling, gorgeous Michigan State campus in East Lansing.  I met literally thousands of new people, and got a fresh start on the rest of my life.

Sega had spent my high school years pissing away all the good mojo they had garnered in the Genesis days by releasing unnecessary hardware like the Sega CD, 32X, and the Saturn in rapid succession.  They had also cast off surly dick Bernie Stolar, and were ready for a fresh start themselves.  So when the Dreamcast launched on September 9, 1999 (“where were you?”) it was like we just instantly understood each other.  Kind of like that part where two characters stay up all night talking in… some Cameron Crowe movie, I think.

The Dreamcast had its quirks: weird controllers, a proprietary disc format, and a hefty Windows CE operating system under the hood.  It was ahead of its time.  To be fair, I was struggling through Japanese 101 and slowly learning that I was pursuing the wrong degree.  So no one’s perfect.

The eventual nail in the Dreamcast’s coffin was the absence of EA Sports games.  But it still managed to sneak in a few really, really solid sports games like launch title Ready 2 Rumble.

About halfway through freshmen year, this game transformed my dorm room into an extended hours arcade.  Its hilarious cast was a throwback to Punch Out!!, and quick pick-up-and-play controls made it a natural weapon of choice for our assembly of amateur drunks college freshmen from all over the Midwest.

2000Chu Chu Rocket – Another Dreamcast gem, Chu Chu Rocket was the first game to take advantage of the system’s built in modem.  For the uninitiated, it’s hard to believe just how addictive a puzzle game about getting lots and lots of mice into a rocket ship can be.  And I understand that.  But once you got the hang of this game, its dark sense of humor and frenetic pace combine for an itch that you just can’t help but scratch.  The online play was laggy, but totally worth it.  After all, there’s nothing more satisfying than sending a cat into your opponent’s rocket at the last second before launch.

2001Ico – There are two types of gamers in this world: those that have never played Ico, and those that LOVE it.  But you shouldn’t be ashamed to be in the former group.  After all, this masterpiece really struggled to find its audience in the US, was woefully short printed, and (just to complete the trifecta of nerd Spanish Fly), was eclipsed by the much higher profile Grand Theft Auto 3 at release.

I didn’t track down a copy until years later, towards the end of my PlayStation 2 days.  I was hooked immediately.  This was clearly a game that took itself very seriously, and that was ok.  The team behind Ico created a work of art, and they wanted us to think about, explore, and feel the game just like any legitimate artist in any other medium.

They dispatched with some very essential game-y trappings: all the characters speak in a made up language, and there’s no onscreen HUD or gauges of any kind.  The story was gripping, and even heartbreaking at times.  We would only refer to this game as ‘the hauntingly beautiful Ico‘ (never just ‘Ico’) around my bachelor apartment Queens.  Play it for a few minutes and you’ll see why.

2002 – SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals – The first game to take advantage of the PlayStation 2’s add-on broadband adapter, SOCOM promised to deliver to consoles the same fast paced, multiplayer squad-based combat that PC gamers had been enjoying for years.  It even came with a nifty USB headset so you could bark orders (or dirty jokes, depending on your squad) in the heat of battle.

My college roommates and I never really got that deep into the online component, though.  The headset worked in single player too, so you could order around the dumb-as-posts AI squad mates, Boomer, Jester and Specter.  This is way more entertaining than it sounds.

2003 – Evil Dead: a Fistfull of Boomstick – This wasn’t the best game of 2003 by a longshot.  ’03 was a banner year for the industry with Call of Duty, Mario Kart Double Dash, and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time all hitting shelves.  Boomstick was flawed by comparison, but I had spent much of my senior year of college interning with a small ad/sound production studio, and had the great pleasure of working with Ash himself, Bruce Campbell.

It was the first time someone that I had actually met was the star of a video game, and that really made me appreciate the fact that this game tried so hard to capture the feeling of the Evil Dead movies.  It may not have succeeded 100% of the time as a game, but it’s still one of the best games out there based on a movie property.  It doesn’t hurt that I happen to LOVE this particular trilogy, too.

I bought Boomstick about a month before I moved from Michigan to New York, so it was the last game that I played in the basement of my parents’ house, passing around the controller with my friends.  For that reason alone, I’ll always have a soft spot for this game.

2004 – NFL Street – When I think of my first apartment in New York, 3 things immediately come to mind: hideous linoleum, Oh My God’s Interrogations and Confessions record, and long sessions of NFL Street. I barely knew my roommate, Geoff,  when we first moved in to that bachelor pad in Astoria, but we became fast friends by happy accident, hanging out way too late in dive bars, commiserating over our entry-level peon jobs, and spending entire Sundays shaking off hangovers and passing the controller back and forth.

Neither of us made very much money, so after the cable bill and Coors Light expenses, we couldn’t buy a ton of new games.  Around the same time as I picked up NFL Street, we saw indie rock superband Oh My God at a bar in the Village, and their latest record went on infinite loop in the apartment stereo.  For the next few months we played that game and record to death simultaneously.   Whenever I hear a song from that record, to this day, I just see visuals from NFL Street in my head.

EA had 3 iterations of the NBA Street series to hone the pro-sport-meets-the-sandlot formula, and they absolutely nailed it with this game.  The character creation system was robust, with endless possibilities for player looks, clothes, and attributes.  I’ve found recent entries in the Madden series to be a little intimidating, with enormous playbooks and all those audible options on both sides of the ball.  The EA Sports BIG team stripped away all the nonessential bullshit for Street, leaving us with the most fun, eminently playable football game since Mutant League Football.

Like any case of a Midwesterner moving out to The Big City, there were definitely some bumps along the way that first year.  Our landlord was a dick.  The place was drafty.  I spent two months unemployed.  But when I think back on all the good times we had, watching hilarious movies, exploring the city and playing some great games, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

We eventually moved into classier digs, started listening to other CD’s, and Geoff was the Best Man at my wedding.  It’s too bad the NFL Street series didn’t have the same luck, as both sequels ended up unplayable.

2005 – Guitar Hero – It may be hard to believe, but the father of gaming’s new favorite genre started from very humble beginnings.  The original Guitar Hero was a PlayStation 2 exclusive, during that system’s twilight years.  Required, packed-in peripherals were a huge no-no, and a $75 price point seemed sky-high for any piece of software.  Barely anyone had heard of developer Harmonix, and retailers hated the idea of devoting so much floorspace to such an X factor of a game during the holiday rush.  Looking back on it, it’s sort of amazing that the game succeeded at all.

I was representing GamePro magazine during Guitar Hero’s launch cycle, and went on a holiday press tour with editor Sid Shuman.  He raved about GH in every single interview, and by the end of the tour I just HAD to pick it up.  I grabbed a copy in release day, from a huge stack at my local Gamestop.  It didn’t seem like they were going to move fast.

Shortly after the game came out, we had a perfect gaming storm in New York.  It was the coldest winter in years, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority entered into a lengthy work stoppage.  Living in Queens, I wasn’t required to go into my office in Manhattan.

The more I played GH, the more I felt like I had to share it with EVERYONE I knew.  I took my PS2 everywhere for the next few months, and I wasn’t alone.  GH got a huge bump through word of mouth, and it was a bona fide hit by Christmas.

The music genre’s obviously grown by leaps and bounds since then, and online multiplayer, downloadable content and now full-on authoring modes have opened up music games to a much larger audience.  I’m willing to bet there are quite a few Xbox 360 and PS3 owners out there that wouldn’t have bothered with a system if not for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. It was nice to be one of the first evangalists.

2006 – Bully2006 was the Wii’s big coming out party, and I was just as swept up in it as every other gamer (and kid, soccer mom, and granparent, apparantly).  But when I look back at all the releases from ’06, this one jumps out at me.

By the time Bully came out, the Grand Theft Auto series was a well-oiled machine.  Vice City and San Andreas expanded the GTA universe beyond Liberty City and established the GTA3 engine as a legitmate multigame cash cow.

That engine didn’t really sing until Bully, if you ask me.  Bully’s characters felt new and fresh compared to the endless stream of GTA gangsters, and everyone could relate to its high school setting.  The entire game existed well outside of GTA’s recipe for success, which was remarkably ambitious of Rockstar.

I happened to be at Rockstar’s NY headquarters on launch day for an interview.  It didn’t work out, but at least I got a newly minted copy of Bully as a parting gift.  It was my first real, legitimate brush with a job in video games.  Thank God it wasn’t my last.

2007 – Super Mario GalaxyThe Wii launched with an outstanding new Zelda title and the groundbreaking Wii Sports in 2006, but its otherwise scant launch lineup left hardcore Nintendo fans (like yours truly) scratching our heads and wondering, “where’s Mario?”  The old, reliable super-plumber had been driving karts, playing golf, basketball, baseball, and even board games – but the last true Mario adventure for a home console was the maligned Gamecube platformer, Super Mario Sunshine*.

Galaxy launched to unbelievable expectations.  It had to prove the Wii’s unorthodox “remote + nunchuck” control scheme could really work for a non-sports game.  It needed to make a platformer relevant again, in a sea of flashy squad-based shooters on more powerful consoles.  And it needed to stand up to the nostalgia and fun of ALL of Mario’s previous adventures, because they were all playable on the Wii’s virtual console by the time Galaxy came out.

My wife (then my fiance) got me Galaxy for my first real Hanukkah, and I can honestly say it lived up to all my expectations.  With the exception of a few contrarian critics (who got a lot of traffic for their negative reviews… just sayin’), it was a rousing success.  Most importantly, it captured that Mario game feeling.

Galaxy looked better than anything we had seen on the Wii thus far, and it married the separate two-handed control scheme to classic platforming.  I couldn’t stand to leave my copy for long, so I brought it back to my Michigan to visit my folks over Christmas – and the Wii to play it on.

* NOTE: It’s recently become cool on forums and blog comment sections to claim that you’ve always LOVED Super Mario Sunshine, and declare that it’s a misunderstood misunderstood work of staggering genius.  It was a good game.  Just not a fantastic game.

2008 – ? – It’s too early to say just yet.  There are tons of worthy candidates going into the fourth quarter, and lots of potentially great games on the horizon.  So far:

LittleBigPlanet may be the first game since Super Paper Mario to really capture my wife’s attention.  The Sackboy character might just be cute enough to draw a wider audience to the PlayStation 3, and the Tinkertoy aesthetic is tough for anybody to resist.  I think it might really grasp the limited-only-by-your imagination paradigm shift that Spore was so close to finally realizing.

Metal Gear Solid 4 lived up to my really high expectations. There was a moment there where I had withered, old Snake crouched for a bit too long, and he groaned and grabbed his back in agony.  I had to laugh because I was playing with my headphones on, to keep the ambient gunfire from waking my wife on a weekend morning.  A far cry from the plucky 17-year-old that brought back the original MGS demo back from study abroad in Japan.  Are we really that old, Snake?

Super Smash Bros Brawl is the only game that I felt was worth going to a midnight launch for this year.  I’ve always loved the series, and the promise of online multiplayer, a level designer, and all those characters combined for some kind of record in terms of gameplay value per dollar.  I can’t imagine having a game like this available as a 12-year-old with limited means for game purchases.  It’s so deep that it’s essentially its own platform.

I couldn’t sleep at all the night before our big wedding weekend.  I woke up around 4 am and ended up in the living room.  I popped in Brawl, and for a little while before all the craziness and life changing of the weekend ahead, it was just me and Mario.  One more time.

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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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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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