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Posts Tagged ‘Little Big Planet’

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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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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As I’ve written before, Sony’s big draw for me (and many others) during the original Playstation era was the level of respect they had for the audience.  Ridge Racer, Tekken, Wipeout, and the Resident Evil series all made their home debut on the system, and all elevated their respective genre to new heights.  Sony marketed to a slightly older audience (remember ‘UR Not E‘?) and introduced an exciting brand of popcorn entertainment.

Fast forward to this Valentine’s Day, and Sony offered up ThatGameCompany’s latest ambitious think-piece, Flower.  For the record, I LOVE this game.  The design is breathtaking, with no HUD and a minimalist control scheme.  The music is subtle and, at times, even a bit somber.   In my short time with the game, it made me think about how our planet functions, mankind’s impact on it, why the movie The Iron Giant is underappreciated, and how various faith’s interpretation of God are different.  Like any good pice of art in any medium, Flower makes you THINK.

It scratches itches that I didn’t even know I had, and makes me want to DEMAND a full apology from Roger Ebert on behalf of theentire industry.  But the million dollar question is, “how many people will really dig this game?”  Perhaps more importantly, “how many people need to buy (and like) Flower for it to be a success?”  Between this game, and PSN exclusives like Echocrome and FlOw, and weird avatar chat/meeting space Home, I can’t help but wonder if Sony may be getting too arty for it’s own good.  It came up in this month’s EDGE Magazine review of Prototype, and I think it’s a valid point.  After all, art that pushes the envelope to an extreme will almost always have a high point of entry that limits commercial success.

Microsoft has exclusive GTA4 content, Gears of War and the HALO franchise to satisfy precisely the type of gamer that Sony connected with over the last two console generations.  Third parties like EA and Ubisoft certainly keep that audience entertained on Sony’s big black box, but I can’t really see Little Big Planet connecting with them.  And with a big gulf in hardware prices in this economy, can Sony afford to let such a big audience go?

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As nerds our people are wont do this time of year, daily games sites, magazines, and even some members of the mainstream press have spent the last few weeks compiling their “Best Of” lists and presenting their choices for game of the year.

Overall, the industry’s at a very weird place for awards season.  We don’t have one be-all end-all award like the Oscars or Grammys.  Some sites and magazines poll their entire editorial staff, but you still have the occasional lone wolf mainstream reporter that publishes his personal top ten.  And there’s really no way to weigh any of these objectively.

Most sites’ awards lists read like a console specific “must buy” list specific to each console.  That’s certainly useful for consumers, and even some marketers.  But I don’t think it recognizes the people behind the games as well as the Oscars or Grammys.  Of course, Spike TV’s VGA’s have been tinkering with that concept for the last few years, with pretty awful results.

The incomparable EDGE Magazine’s quirky, developer-focused awards hit the right spot, but I really thought the most useful wrap-up for industry types was Leigh Alexander’s Gamasutra piece on the year’s top dissapointments.  Every point really hits home, especially the part about the holiday glut.

Perhaps it’s just the competitive nature of gamers (and by extension, game developers), but I can’t understand why hardly anyone in this industry has the fortitude to release a big game in any part of the year other than the fourth quarter.  I understand a ton of games are bought around the holidays, but isn’t the industry mature enough by now to support at least one other hot season?

I don’t know any hardcore gamer that isn’t sitting on a huge backlog of games from the last 3 months.  I know I’ve still got a few retail discs in the shrink wrap, and a ton of games on WiiWare, LIVE and PSN that I meant to download but never had a chance.  The fact is, these games get short shrift for the simple fact that their publishers saw fit to drop them within a week of Gears 2 or Little Big Planet, simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.

Madden always has the shelves to itself in August, and there are plenty of gamers that don’t pick it up.  Why not give them a reason to go into the store in the summer as well?  Wii Fit launched in May and still managed to do killer numbers for Christmas.  Granted, Hollywood releases its strongest Oscar contenders in one big bunch at the end of the year, but what would July 4 weekend be like without popcorn bockbusters?  The industry is changing.  The audience is changing.  Isn’t it time to change the release schedules as well?

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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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