Slim Chances

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Sony’s announcement of the impending release of PS Vita Slim in Europe has me more hopeful than ever that the redesigned console will be heading our way soon. Not that it’s going to matter, at this point; Vita is doomed. At least, that’s how I felt a few months ago when I was picking up Soul Sacrifice. With an anemic software library and overpriced hardware, I truly believed that Sony had set up Vita to be even worse off than PSP. The Slim, though, offers the floundering handheld a shot at respectability that Vita more than deserves by fixing everything Sony got wrong in the first place.

It seems simple enough, to me; all the Vita we love at a cheaper price, lighter weight, and slightly less-amazing screen. Seriously, why isn’t this just announced for the US already? Vita launched with the same old problems that hurt PS3 and PSP, and despite living the nightmare for a couple of years now, Sony is refusing to just pull the trigger. The price drop on the system and memory was a move in the right direction, but the Slim needs to happen now.

Rebranding and redesigning PS3 was the best thing that ever happened to the console. The continuity that should have happened in the transition from PS2 to PS3 was finally, properly established when the original PS3 Slim debuted, and Sony’s sales really picked up afterwards. Vita can at least start pushing more units if the Slim, with its cheaper price point, comes to America. Shifting consoles alone won’t be enough, of course, but the bigger the install, the more developers we can hopefully expect to return to the system.

I’m all for the niche titles that Vita has been graced with, and its indie darlings are some of the best in the industry, but the AAA companies would be more than welcome, too. Outside of Ubisoft, there aren’t a lot of developers willing to polish their titles before release (looking at you, Activision), and some no-brainers like Resident Evil: Revelations never made their way to the platform. More units sold will hopefully lead to injecting some new blood into Vita’s software catalogue.

So color me cautiously optimistic for Vita, as the Slim just might be what it takes to turn things around and make Sony’s handheld a contender again. I think it’s fair to say that Vita isn’t ever going to catch up to 3DS, but the Slim has the potential to bring more people into the fold and reignite interest from lapsed fans. Now, Sony, just let me know when I can go get my pre-order in on that awesome green and white model!

 

Retro(spective) 17- Final Fantasy VII

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For all five of you out there, it’s been a while since I’ve posted a Retro(spective), but for a good reason; I had to make this 17th installment about Final Fantasy VII. Too much good synergy was going on with the multiple sevens, and it’s also been 17 years since the game bowed here in the states. This is one of the legendary games of the industry, so I wanted to go all out fact-finding for FF VII. A big part of this blog is back in action, and I couldn’t be happier. Without further ado… Retro(spective) 17-FF VII!

The very early stages of FF VII development began in 1994 for SNES before being sent to the back burner by Chrono Trigger. This momentum shift pushed FF VII further out and ultimately onto Nintendo 64. Final Fantasy series mastermind Hironobu Sakaguchi had been less involved with development of Final Fantasy VI, but that would change with VII. Sakaguchi knew the future of gaming was 3D, and that for Final Fantasy to remain relevant, it would have to be at the forefront of the transition under his guidance.

The first glimpse of what would become FF VII was seen at the SiGGRAPH computer graphics convention in LA. This SG1 demo, as it’s often called, featured characters from FF VI rendered with 3D polygons and fighting a golem. The demo was a showcase for what Sakaguchi was hoping to achieve with VII and filled people with excitement. Cinematically and technologically potent, SG1 was the seed from which everything would grow.

Most people, including the developers at Square, were anticipating FF VII as an N64 release. The entire series had been Nintendo-exclusive from the beginning, and with N64’s robust tech capabilities, VII seemed destined to continue that tradition. It would have happened, too, if not for one major problem; N64 wasn’t going to be CD-ROM based. Sakaguchi had been banking on Nintendo adopting the burgeoning format, as VII was going to be a data-intensive game that would need all the additional storage space CDs offered. Cartridges simply couldn’t contain as much data and were too expensive to produce. Nintendo was standing firm with its decision, though, and with no other choice, Square broke ties with the company.

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While the split alone was a blow to Nintendo, it was worsened by Square’s choice of successor; Sony and its new PlayStation. The CD-enabled 32-bit system was already making life difficult, but to willingly add a bonafide Final Fantasy installment to its roster was going too far, in Nintendo’s opinion. Company president Hiroshi Yamauchi declared that a Final Fantasy game would never again appear on a Nintendo console and promptly sold off his company’s shares of Square’s stock. Square followed suit, and the two companies would remain in a cold war for years to come. It was a sad ending, but one that would ultimately benefit the development of VII.

Free of storage constraints, Sakaguchi was able to move forward with his project unhindered. Game director Yoshinori Kitase and co-writer Kazushige Nojima would prove indispensable during development, helping to focus and perfect Sakaguchi’s vision. Originally, VII was going to center around a group of young resisters being pursued by “Detective Joe”. Kitase quickly dumped Joe and shifted the focus of the story on AVALANCHE and Shinra, which in turn brought Cloud and Sephiroth to the forefront.

With the basics of battles cemented (including the return of Active Time Battles), actual rendering and creation of the world of FF VII became the biggest challenge. Most of Square’s staff had little to no experience working with new animation software like PowerAnimator and Softimage, which necessitated an injection of new blood. The influx of additional workers sent the number of staffers on VII skyrocketing, along with its budget, which easily exceeded its $40 million dollar allotment (along with Sony’s own $80 million dollar marketing push, VII became the most expensive game ever made, at the time). Though rookies with the software, Square’s staffers quickly took to it and began producing at a very high level.

The result of all this hard work was one of the most visually stunning games of that generation. Lush pre-rendered backgrounds conveyed the grandeur of sprawling Midgar, which had a riveting steampunk aesthetic. The characters were portrayed as very realistic during battle scenes, while in the overworld they appeared as super deformed and almost chibi-like. The odd mixture was surprisingly effective and suited VII well.

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Sakaguchi hit a bit of a snag when it came time to enlist the aid of longtime Final Fantasy character designer Yoshitaka Amano. Amano was busy establishing art exhibitions and workshops in Paris and New York, which massively inhibited his ability to contribute to the project. While Amano would go on to design VII‘s signature meteor logo and assist with character sketches, the lion’s share of design work would be done by Tetsuya Nomura. The artist had only handled minor character and monster designs for FF VI, but was more than prepared to hit the ground running.

Nomura’s character designs for VII were a big departure from anything the series had seen. Cloud was an immediate hit with his giant sword and spiky hair, but he didn’t quite start out that way. Initially, Cloud had black slicked-back hair to contrast Sephiroth’s silver locks, but the designer thought he didn’t look heroic enough and added in the blond spikes fans know and love. (Interestingly, Cloud’s rejected design sounds an awful lot like what Zach Faire would go on to look like!). Barret once sported two hands and a bow-shaped gun, while Vincent went through an entire series of careers before settling on undead gunslinger. Nomura became so invaluable to the development of FF VII, that he was eventually given story input (more on that in a bit).

The narrative of VII was yet another departure for the series. Sakaguchi wanted to touch on a variety of high concepts that hadn’t ever been fully explored in a video game, such as the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, death and loss, and more. Kitase and company were integral to finding a way to express these ideas in a way that was clear and interactive within a video game. Beyond Sakaguchi’s own philosophical musings, there were practical matters to attend to, as well.

One such challenge was straying from the then-common conventions of the RPG genre. A typical omnipotent warlord or wizard wouldn’t do as the villain for VII; Sakaguchi had grown tired of that worn trope and wanted something different. The result was the evil mega corporation Shinra, the evolution of a traditional power threat in a modern setting. Primary antagonist Sephiroth was a different challenge, as he was already unique from a visual and background perspective, but was tough to tackle from a narrative standpoint. Rather than bombard the player with his presence, Sephiroth was instead shown sparingly throughout the course of VII in order to build him up in the player’s mind (Kitase compared this technique to what Spielberg did with the shark in his film Jaws). The theme of Sephiroth, One-Winged Angel, became the centerpiece of composer Nobuo Uematsu’s stirring score.

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As the cast of VII grew, the team wanted to provide the player with a wide variety of characters to choose from, but felt that there needed to be more deviations from RPG traditions. One element that Sakaguchi was especially weary of was the hero sacrificing his life for his lady love, only to be resurrected later. After all, death without permanence held no meaning, and VII was a game of purpose. On a Sunday night during a collaborative phone call, Nomura suggested something that would hit Final Fantasy fans like a ton of bricks; kill heroine Aerith and establish Tifa as the true female lead. Sakaguchi loved the idea, and one of the most shocking moments in video game history was decided upon.

The impact of the death of Aerith can’t be emphasized enough. People literally went into a frenzy when Sephiroth impaled her. In the world of 1997, devoid of the internet as we know it today, desperate gamers reset, turned off, and in some cases, unplugged their PlayStations, convinced that there was no way Aerith was supposed to die. Players devoted hours to replaying the game, trying to find some way to prevent the tragic events, only to eventually realize that, yes, she was truly gone.

That Aerith could spark such a fervor of dismay is a testament to the advances in storytelling that FF VII brought to the industry. Players became wholly invested in the plight of Cloud and his companions during the game’s lengthy quest, picking and latching on to characters as one would those in a novel or film. The cinematic flourishes of VII would go on to become industry standards, and the intricate narrative inspired an entire generation of players and game designers.

VII isn’t without its detractors, as there are many who like to cite the game’s suspect Western translation and hefty number of returns, but there’s no denying the millions of copies sold and huge legacy left in VII‘s wake. What Sakaguchi, Kitase, Nojima, and Nomura accomplished redefined RPGs in Japan and cultivated legions of fans in the West who had never appreciated the genre in the past. While many of VII‘s themes and design choices have become overly replicated in the years since, it remains a highpoint of the industry and a true classic.

Released 1997. Developed by Squaresoft. Published by Sony.

Final Fantasy VII is available on PlayStation, PC and Steam. It is also available for download via PSN for PS3, PSP, and PS Vita.

Toy Box 13-Pokemon Sunshine Buddies Pikachu

Released: 2007 | Manufacturer: Tomy

It was a bit of a bear trying to figure out what this thing is actually called. Solar-powered, this adorable Pikachu sitting on a tree stump will sway his head left to right as long as he’s exposed to sunlight. It’s one of my favorite Pokemon pieces, as it’s incredibly detailed and full of energy. Plus, apples! What more do you need in life? I found mine in a Toys R Us, and apparently they can be found as imports, too. Pretty sure the domestic version is cheaper, but happy hunting, nonetheless!

Mooning the Competition

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I couldn’t resist that title, sorry! Who can blame a guy, when developer Renegade Kid has announced that 3DS will be getting a remake of its beloved DS game, Moon? Moon Chronicles has the chance to be an improvement over the original, as it will be bringing a couple of much needed things to 3DS; episodic content and a first-person shooter. Much like DS before it, 3DS seems like a no-brainer platform for an FPS, but developers have, so far, shied away from them on the system. That’s all set to change with Moon Chronicles.

While I worry about altering its pacing by breaking the game into episodes, Moon‘s comeback is a great sign for the industry as a whole. Moon didn’t set any sales records, but it was atmospheric, moody, and smart in a way that just isn’t often seen on a handheld. Moon Chronicles will hopefully be able to reach a new audience and reaffirm to other developers that 3DS can be a vehicle for creativity and risks just like DS was.

That talk about creativity includes the aforementioned pricing and distribution model Moon Chronicles will be sold under. I’m all for devs embracing episodic installments of a game if it will help sales in the longterm (and, thus, guarantee a release!). Again, there’s the issue of pacing to consider when it comes to titles that were formerly released as single servings, but it’s nevertheless a brilliant way of breaking down monetary barriers for customers hesitant to commit upwards of $9-$10 dollars on an unknown quantity.

$10 bucks doesn’t sound like much, but in a world where $1 is the price of entry for many mobile games on iOS and Android, it’s no surprise that consumers now have different expectations. Unfortunately, despite handhelds like 3DS and PlayStation Vita offering a better and more varied experience of play via their mixture of traditional and touch interfaces, many players are simply turned off by those systems’ higher game prices. Episodic releases allow pricing on dedicated gaming handhelds to be more competitive with smartphones and tablets without limiting devs from making a profit off of their games.

I know, it’s not like the game really becomes any cheaper if the pieces all add up to the average price of a retail release, but that’s really being unfair. It’s a psychological thing, and considering it might get more people in the door and allow them to cut the game off at the knees if they don’t like it, I think the consumer is better off, in the end. Regardless, when Moon Chronicles drops, it will be another feather in Nintendo’s cap, and hopefully inspire more developers and players to give the eShop a go.

The Contract-Preview

Okay, so, I’m going to preface this by warning that, yes, it’s a piece of fiction and not one of my normal blogs. I’ve been experimenting with this stuff over on Nintendojo, and this is the most recent piece of mine they’ve published. I’m going to put a preview here, and then, if you want, you can head on over to read the entire thing on Nintendojo. Who knows, I might start putting this stuff on Retro(spective), but one step at a time, as they. The following is what I imagine a first meeting between Star Fox and Metroid could be like.

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Even with the helmet on, she could tell the place was rank. It was a dive bar in the outer reaches past the asteroid belt near RX 338, on some dustball planet that most interstellar maps didn’t bother to ping on a quick scan. Even her ship’s computer had a heck of a time locating it for autoflight, which was a rarity. Usually, when a client requested a meeting this far out of the way it either meant an ambush or the need for absolute secrecy. Her gut said ambush, but then, she was feeling negative. The table in front of her was covered in little rings from old drinks, circle after circle overlapping the other like bubbles in a dirty bath. The armor made it awkward to sit in the booth and some of the patrons were casting sideways glances in her direction. She couldn’t help but smile; it wasn’t every day she got to sit in a room where everyone was scared of her.

“Samus?”

The voice came from the left, as a short humanoid being walked slowly towards her. He was clearly old, though it wasn’t always easy to identify age with certain races. Paunchy and covered in gray fur with a head like a giant rabbit, his steps were slow, but deliberate, as though he was analyzing her every movement. That was fine; she was analyzing his.

“Yes,” she replied. “What’s the code word?”

“Metroid,” he shot back. “Yours? I have mine, you have yours, right?”

“Lucy.”

“That’s right. Thank you for coming.”

“Were you followed?”

“Not that I reckon.”

A lie; Samus had been busy watching the room as the old timer made his way to her seat, and there were two people at the bar who were subtly watching their meeting with more interest than was normal. Considering everyone else was scared to make eye contact with her, they stood out like sore thumbs. Samus noted the rabbit’s deception to herself but said nothing. If this was a setup, he was doing an awfully bad job of it. The rabbit wasn’t looking all that clever, but she decided to let the conversation continue.

“That’s good. Is this a transport or protection contract?”

The old rabbit ignored the question and took his seat across from Samus. Even in her armor, Samus had been able to slip into the booth well enough, but the rabbit was having some trouble stuffing himself in. After he finished wriggling, a beverage was quickly brought to the table by a thin, fox-like female. The fox gave Samus an extremely fleeting look before quickly making her way back to the bar. Samus was starting to feel uneasy as the rabbit drank deeply from his stein.

“Care for a drink?” he asked between gulps.

“Not particularly. Is this a social call?”

“Oh, not at all, just thought I’d offer. I don’t often drink with strangers, is all. Though, I guess there’s not that many folks who don’t know your name, these days. The Galactic Federation ever give you a medal for that Phazon business a couple years back?”

Samus blinked beneath her visor. Maybe this rabbit wasn’t as dumb as he looked.

“That’s… classified. How do you know about it?” she asked.

“Friends in high places, friends in high places, you know how it is. In our line of work, the more you know, the longer you stay alive. Isn’t that right, missy?”

Behind the old rabbit, one of the people she had noticed at the bar rocked viciously on the stool it was sitting on, its drink sloshing in tandem. Another humanoid, though this one seemed to be a frog. It was hard to determine gender from this distance. The frog quickly adjusted itself and became still once more. The rabbit cleared his throat.

“Yes. For example, the more I know about why I’m here, the longer you get to survive. You are trying my patience,” Samus said, coolly.

The other person at the bar opposite the frog bristled. Silhouetted by the smoke hovering overhead, a bird humanoid distinctly swiveled its stool in their direction and drew a hand a fraction of an inch towards his hip. The frog seemed to be trembling. Across from her, the rabbit smiled.

Read the rest at Nintendojo.com!

Building a Better Wii U

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Normally, I write about video game series in these “Building a Better” pieces, but in light of Nintendo’s latest sales woes, I thought it might be appropriate to analyze Nintendo itself. As ever, critics and fans alike are quick to start nailing the coffin lid shut on Nintendo’s time as a hardware manufacturer, but let’s face it; this is nothing new. Let’s take a peak behind the curtain and see how Nintendo can fix things and remain viable now and moving (hopefully) into the future.

Fix the Online Experience

Xbox Live needs to be the model for every single console manufacturer in the industry. The architecture of Microsoft’s online service is so sound that it’s boggling why any company, Nintendo included, wouldn’t embrace the core tenets of its design. I’ve said this before and will repeat it until I’m blue in the face, but certain standards always have to be recognized. The basics of online interaction as defined by XBox Live are so ingrained in players’ minds that it’s foolish to ignore them.

I applaud Miiverse and think that it’s the shining jewel of what Nintendo has accomplished on Wii U, but it’s not enough. Wii U’s online needs to be XBox Live plus Miiverse. Making friends, forming parties, and cross-game chat should be seamless and easy to do. People coming to Wii U from Live and even PSN are greeted with an alien experience that feels underdeveloped. Pro Controllers should have headphone jacks. Players should be able to report problematic Nintendo Network users. At this point, being different isn’t good enough; Nintendo needs to be on the same level as its competitors on top of offering unique features like Miiverse.

True Unified Accounts

I was happy to unify my Nintendo Network account across Wii U and 3DS, but it was a merger by name, only. Nintendo’s version of having an “individual” account is a bit of a farce, at this point. One ID for one Wii U and one 3DS; that’s it. For customers who buy multiple Nintendo consoles, there is still no reprieve from being forced to re-buy games and DLC multiple times.

As with XBox Live, the precedent for how to do individual accounts right was set many years ago by Sony’s PlayStation Network. I have multiple PS3s, PSPs, and a Vita, and Sony recognizes this, allowing me to spread my account across a host of consoles. Nintendo might have their reasons for being so stingy, but for a player who has invested in multiple systems, it’s more sensible to accommodate than restrict.

There’s simply no benefit to not being able to spread my collection across a handful of Nintendo devices. I have a 3DS I take out on the road with me and an XL that I keep at home. If Nintendo were reasonable like Sony, I’d be able to share my huge collection of games on both systems, but instead, my XL sits mostly dormant of downloaded titles because I don’t want to pay twice for a game. It’s a waste and it’s discourteous to consumers.

Diversify and Increase Development of Wii U Software

A common assertion that fans (and even I) have made about Wii U is that its fortunes will improve if it starts getting more and better software the way 3DS has. Here’s the problem with that line of thought; Nintendo’s handhelds have always gotten a wider variety and greater amount of games than its home consoles. Wii U certainly had much better titles in 2013 than in 2012, but just look at the difference in volume between it and 3DS.

Dream Team, A Link Between Worlds, New Leaf, Awakening, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, and many more games graced Nintendo’s handheld, while Wii U had to make due with a fraction of that amount. If Nintendo does want to use software to push Wii Us, it needs to bring to the table the wealth of titles that have appeared on its handhelds for years. Some games, like the Mario & Luigi series, have never ventured beyond handhelds; perhaps by embracing series like these and bringing them to Wii U, Nintendo can truly turn the tide.

Considering the interfaces of Wii U and 3DS aren’t all that different, Nintendo should stop focusing so much of its creativity on 3DS and turn some of that ambitions towards its struggling home console. Don’t abandon 3DS, obviously, but allow the Wii U to benefit from some of the ambition that Nintendo invests into gaming on the go. The lineup for Wii U is too safe and predictable; shake things up!

Hurry it Up With Virtual Console

Iwata himself touched on this previously, but Nintendo has to start pumping out the Virtual Console games faster. The company’s back catalogue is huge and invaluable, and there are a lot of players out there waiting to play classic games on the GamePad. The Nintendo 64 games are obviously waiting in the wings, and Game Boy Advance titles have been promised, but beyond those two systems, GameCube needs to become part of the picture. It’s yet another wonderful collection of games that players love, and it’s outright foolish not to be offering them for download.

Resuscitate Old Franchises

At this point, nothing and no one in Nintendo’s pantheon of games and characters should be dormant. Not every series is a system seller, but just about every single Nintendo franchise has a ravenous fan base. As Pikmin 3 demonstrated, even the more low key series can inspire new fans if done well, and that can easily be the case with F-Zero, Star Fox, Metroid, and a ton of others. Other companies would kill just to have one of Nintendo’s franchises, so there’s no reason to be underutilizing anything.

There are a lot of other things Nintendo can do to draw in more players, but these are some of the more glaring problems, in my opinion. 3DS is doing well, so Nintendo should really make Wii U its priority for the next year or two. One thing is for certain; Nintendo is far from dead, and far from done.

Sequel Snubbing

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There’s something about video game sequels that make people very irrational. Outside of annual titles like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, most games take two to three years before a proper followup arrives (longer, if you’re a Final Fantasy fan!). Yet, despite a respectable amount of time between most series installments, critics are quick to grow restless with a franchise’s signature mechanics and gameplay. It’s understandable that going into a sequel, some people will to want to see significant changes to the source material in order to find the experience worthwhile, but dismissing a video game that’s one or two entries old for becoming redundant just seems outrageous to me.

IGN’s review of the L.A. Noir DLC Reefer Madness is a good example of this. In the review of the main game, reviewer Hilary Goldstein said “L.A. Noire does something we’ve never seen before”. Flash forward to a couple of months later when the DLC dropped, and Greg Miller told readers that whether or not they’d want to play the new content “depends on if [they] are really itching for a new case to do the same old thing in”. “Same old thing” being an incredibly odd thing to say considering the concept was “something we’ve never seen” two months prior!

That’s a more extreme example, of course, but it’s not uncommon in principle. Too often, reviewers are quick to penalize a sequel for not straying enough from the path. What’s vexing is that the path many of these games stick to is wholly unique to a given franchise. Games like Pokemon, for instance, are incredibly different. There have been imitators over the years, certainly, but as has been demonstrated for over a decade now, no one can match Nintendo’s lovable monster catching series. So when a new Pokemon drops, I’m more than happy to play through the same familiar trappings because I can’t find them anywhere else.

There’s more to a good sequel than pure familiarity, as no one wants a series to rest on its laurels time in and out, but in the end, if something is fun, I want to play more of it. Video games are a bit different from other forms of entertainment in that so much of the audience’s enjoyment is derived from the experience of playing. No one is proclaiming that watching and playing football has grown stale after decades of the same thing, after all, so it’s totally reasonable to want to play video games from a particular series over and over. They’re games, after all, and the most important thing about any title is that you have a good time playing it.