Friday, August 16, 2013

Reflections on Pacific Rim

I rarely want to revisit or detail at length my thoughts about a movie after a review, even if I have more things to say.  But nearly two weeks  and two more viewings later,  I’m still buzzing about Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. I’m as surprised about it myself.   Why does Del Tero’s ode to the kaiju and mecha films of his childhood have such a hold on me? Part of it is probably because I grew up on the same diet, though, a slightly newer incarnations of the same material – like Choudenshi Bioman , Ultraman, Voltron, Transformers, and Macross/Robotech.    The other part is because I think there’s really something there that many professional critics who gave backhanded compliments to the film as being a ‘fun’ summer blockbuster missed.   Pacific Rim is a very human story.  Very simple perhaps, but it was by design.  Del Toro had mildly criticized, though not by name, the  Christopher Nolan blockbusters that has seemingly dominated cinemas of late, as being "existential", "dystopian", "incredibly complex"  and one would assume, not fun (to watch).

And he is right. While I had a buzz for weeks after seeing Inception and enjoyed the movie quite a lot, the movie appealed to the engineering and logical centers of my brain. I was more interested in the intricate layers of Nolan’s dream world and how everything connected and how it all made sense than I was about the characters.  Debating the ending aside, I didn’t really care about Cobb, nor did I want to explore Inception’s world beyond what is there on screen. Pacific Rim appeals to me on a deeper more emotional level.

What’s interesting to me about the film is how it has affected other people.  There is a whole community of fans, on twitter, tumblr and elsewhere blogging about a movie that is sort of considered a flop domestically.  There are hundreds of fan fics, fan art with ‘pairings’ of Newt and Herman, the two comedic relief, and just about ever character,  including and especially the Russian crew of Cherno Alpha who has a few lines and even fewer scenes on screen. This is also why the graphic novel explaining the backstory ‘Tales from Year 0’ is doing surprisingly wellPacific Rim has reached the cult fandom that your typical summer blockbuster do not.  I do not see the same enthusiasm for Man of Steel as I do for Pacific Rim, even though the former outperformed the latter at the box office.

Pacific Rim is also the reason why I sorely miss Roger Ebert's insights at the movies.  Ebert respects films for what they are, judging each by their merits and comparing them within the context of their creation.  Just as every film cannot be a Battleship Potempkin or a Godfather, he does not try to compare them as such.

He rarely condescends and in his reviews he gets to the heart of the movies. With his recent passing, a voice that echoes the passion for film has been removed from the broader conversation.   Instead, we have salaried critics vying for the trailer quote or writing lazy haphazard reviews to cram into a 500 word summary at the edge of a newspaper column.  If Roger Ebert was alive, I think he really would have liked the film.

I think Ebert would point out that Pacific Rim ultimately makes the audience care about the characters.  There’s a lot in this film that’s non-Hollywood by design.  It isn't jingoistic, there's no shoehorned in army scene with troops running around city streets to appeal to the Call of Duty crowd.  It's just a fun movie about robots vs. aliens where characters are relatable on a very simple level.  While the characters generally fall into genre stereotypes as a shorthand for explaining where they come from, motivations and so on,  Del Toro has crated a universe that people want to explore.  Like the characters in a good anime, the characters of Mako Mori, Raleigh Becket, Stacker Pentecost have a certain earnestness and humanity about them. Their interactions within the film's universe creates a certain narrative inertia that makes people care.  Just like any good anime, the audience keeps coming back for more and wants to know what happens to them.   That is why I think Pacific Rim is greater than the sum of its parts and it is also why I very much want a sequel. One that either tells the backstory or the story of the kaijus return.

If I learned anything from my childhood.  The monsters always find a way back.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Pacific Rim

Once in a while a movie like Pacific Rim flies under the radar and almost slips away from a first viewing on the big screen. I am very glad I didn’t let it slip away.   I had started out highly anticipating the film given the film’s pedigree (helmed by Guillermo del Toro) and the premise (mechas).  But as release neared, the marketing which tried to evoke a Bill Pullman moment in ID4 with Idris Elba’s ‘Cancelling the apocalypse’ speech backfired for being too over the top and hokey.  It didn’t spike my interest.  As I had vowed to keep myself spoiler free, the negative comments and weak box office numbers seem to have confirmed what I feared. It was a bomb. It didn’t connect with the nerds and anime-fans who should love this.

I’m glad I reconsidered.  Going to see the film on a whim, I was hooked from beginning to end.  I knew immediately I was going to like the within the first 15 minutes, before we even see the opening title which did not appear until after an extended prologue.  And here’s the thing. There’s nothing cerebral about Pacific Rim.  Del Toro made no bones hiding his inspiration was the giant monster (Kaiju) films of his childhood.  This is essentially a big budget version of those films, aimed at children inspired by a  staple of Japanese and Asian pop entertainment.  However, unlike Michael Bay’s Transformers and a bevy of blockbusters with flashy effects, Pacific Rim respects the source material and treats the audience with respect.  The end result is a great movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters with a distinctly non -Hollywood sensibility.

Del Toro had a movie he could have made that he didn’t and it was for the better.  The film’s first 15 minutes summarizes a series of events spanning years.  Describing the first attack of the Kaijus, the devastation the wrecked, and the triumph of humanity over these monsters with the first Jaegers (hunter  mechas) developed to stop them.  This would have sufficed for a Hollywood sci-fi movie.  Cities destroyed, millions dead, and a rousing ending.

But instead of making that movie, Del Toro made the sequel.  His story is about the peace that did not
happen after the victory. The film opens at a high point.  Kaijus have apparently been dealt with, Jaeger pilots have become more than heroes, they are rock-stars and the mechas they pilot have entered as pop-culture merchandising machines.  Humanity has grown comfortable with their own power and supremacy.  At this point the audience knows something else is about to happen. It is only the beginning of the movie. The question becomes how the story would wind its way into the eventual monster-mecha brawlfests we’ve seen in the trailers and ads.  The journey there forms the core of Pacific Rim, and in doing so, Del Toro allows for the characters, who we barely yet know, the ability to show emotion, weakness when they are in positions where we expect them to be triumphant and confident.

While it is not unusual for a summer popcorn flick to show a flawed hero with emotions, we expect those to happen in canned family scenes where innocent civilians and family members are killed by the wanton actions of the villain, we expect the hero to collect his emotions and go out and kick ass in a rousing epic battle.  The narrative arc of the typical Hollywood blockbuster almost wills it.   But not in Pacific Rim.  We see tragedy after tragedy befall the Jaeger corps.  at the height of the protagonists power.  Doing this, Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham frames the character in a way that makes it easy for the audience to identify with their emotions and motivations.  There’s no need to spend screen time emoting  badly written lines about duty, honor and vengeance.  We simply know by observing the tragedies.  In Pacific Rim, I really cared.

While not without its hokey, clichéd moments and anime staples, Del Toro manages to make it work.  The film doesn’t feel like a cheapened by them.  Clichés like the rivalry and redemption between Jaeger pilots whose resolution we could see coming a mile away merely acknowledges that these kind of tropes exists in the genre and is a narrative staple in the genre.  As someone who grew up watching Evangelion, Macross, and countless other Japanese mecha anime, I appreciated the anime inspired tropes.  Watching them done in live action by a director who is respectful of the source material is refreshing.   The anime inspired hero poses and one-liners (in Japanese) comes to mind.

Even more impressive are the fight scenes. These turn into all-out-brawls, with some pretty brutal  moments. When I felt distress as a Jaeger is crippled and its pilots slowly killed  blow by blow by a Kaiju, I knew Del Toro has got it right.  He wasn’t just cutting together pieces of CG action sequences commissioned from ILM, he was telling a story with the brawl sequences.  Like a boxer being knocked  around,  the audience is right there rooting for the Jaegers to win as the living hell is beat out of them.

On the same token, Ramin Djawadi’s (Game of Thrones) provides an unobtrusive and excellent mix of electronic and choral score.  I’v e spent the past several summers having my ear drums blasted by Hans Zimmer’s sometimes overbearing scores that Djawadi’s guitar riffs seems decidedly understated.  In hindsight, that is Del Toro’s style. The music shepherds you from one scene to another and it wasn’t  until the visuals had faded away and the story ended that the score’s quality comes to the fore. As I walked out the theatre with the credits rolling, the guitar riffs from the main theme struck me as being catchy.  I had been hearing riffs of the main theme through the entire movie, but didn’t realize how good it was until then.
Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori

Having said all that, the inner geek in me was disappointed by a number of things.  The relative short screen time of the Chinese and Russian Jaeger and what is essentially a cameo from the Japanese Jaeger Coyote Tango.   While I don’t fault the Beacham and Del Toro for focusing on the American Jaeger,  the high profile of the Australian Jaeger was surprising.  I feel its role could have been shared by the machines from the several other participating nations.  

I want to close by noting that Rinko Kikuchi’s and Idris Elba’s performance were superb.  The poorly cut ‘cancelling the apocalypse’ speech shown out of context in the trailers may have given a lot of people the wrong impression.  In-context, the speech works.  Elba’s  role  as Stacker Pentecost is the glue that holds the film's narrative together.  While he is seen shouting in the trailers, most of his screen-time is understated acting more as the narrative anchor of the entire film, or as his character puts it, he is the ‘immovable point’ on the screen.   Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is surprisingly good, channelling the anime mecha pilot personality to a tee.  There are fleeting resemblances to many anime characters in her role, but I felt like she’s closest to Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami.  A  wounded soul.  Vulnerable,  but incredibly lethal in combat.  It is worth noting that one of her final lines was left untranslated to the English speaking audience.  A little bit of searching on Google should yield its meaning, normal spoiler warnings apply.  The line is a poignant and fitting touch by Del Toro and Beacham as it fits the Japanese inspiration perfectly and would be the kind of thing you wouldn't expect in a Hollywood blockbuster but it is something someone in an anime would say in the end, at the climax, when decisions are made.   It wasn’t lost on me that at that moment, when she said those words that I realized what I had just seen.  Pacific Rim is the live-action mecha  movie I had always wanted to see and make myself.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

E3 2013 - Final Analysis

So E3 2013 is done and over with.  I had commented last week that I hoped to seesurprises and the unexpected but sadly that didn't happen. I think it was obvious given the reduced pomp in this year’s presentation that Nintendo would be focusing on tried and true franchises to kickstart Wii U sales.   That said, it was still a little disappointing that there were no surprise “one more thing” game to show off and that the core of what was shown to us was known, via various Nintendo Directs in the past.  And maybe that’s also part of where the expectations game needs to be played.  We get announcements from Nintendo now almost every other month, so the big news dump at E3, at least for a ‘games only’ year like this one doesn't feel as overhwleming or exciting.

 I was unable to attend the Best Buy E3 demos this year, but that’s not the purpose of this article.  What I want to reflect on is to frame my reaction in context of what others are saying on-line, and to reflect my first ‘feel’ of a game after checking out the video and media Nintendo released.

Super Mario 3D World

A lot of bytes have been spilt commenting on why this wasn’t Super Mario Galaxy U; and to be quite frank, I was never the biggest fan of the Galaxy series (full disclosure: I haven’t yet played Super Mario Galaxy 2 which I understand is the better of the two games).  That said,  3DWorld is surprising take.  Edge-Online openly commented they suspected the game may have even started life as a 3DS sequel to 3DLand and was up-converted to the Wii U to have a big Mario title for Christmas.

I think the disappointment has to do with the fact that the game, while looking visually strong, appears to be a sequelized 3DLand and lacked the 'wow' factor visually and conceptually that console gamers have come to expect when a new Mario game is announced for Nintendo’s home console.   There's little concern that the game won't be fun, in fact I'm willing to bet that it will be a great game, so in that sense some of the disappointment is due to expectations.   Were they too high?

It’s really hard to say, but for me personally, I expected a console Mario to feel more substantial.  It’s nice to see Nintendo explore co-op multiplayer in a 3-D Mario game, but I doubt it will have on-line co-op, and I haven’t yet seen the kind of conceptual and technical leap  Super Mario World had over Super Mario Land between 3DLand and 3DWorld.   Super Mario 3DWorld feels at this point more like a sequel than a console cousin that shares similar branding.  I want to be proved wrong here, but I did enjoy 3DLand quite a bit and will likely be picking this up.  

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD

Wind Waker was one of the few games that got me back to the GameCube ten years ago when I had drifted away to PC gaming and doing other things. It was also released during a very good period of my young adulthood, so there’s a certain bit of nostalgia involved here.  I’m glad that Nintendo hasn’t abandoned what was at the time a very controversial decision to make a cute (Toon) Link when the industry, under Sony’s domination, was going for ‘mature’ with breakout hits like GrandTheftAuto 3

I’m glad that the series producer/director Eiji Aonuma is actively trying to address the game’s two major flaws.  The overlong sea voyages between islands and the game’s pacing, especially around the Triforce fetch quests. That said, Wind Waker is still a flawed game and always felt a bit short.   The **spoiler alert** underwater section of Hyrule right before the final battle was pretty amazing.  It was my first glimpse at Hyrule on a hardware powerful enough to render it in impressive detail, but it felt half-finished and rushed.  There was a short area outside to explore and the player literally walks through a narrow corridor through a bridge and to the final battle.

Given that this will be a full priced release, I was certainly hoping that there would be new content.  There’s certainly precedent for this in the many Zelda remixes when they port a Zelda game to new hardware.   Four Swords dungeon in A Link to the Past on GBA  or  the special color based dungeon for Link’s Awakening DX.  Unfortunately, it does not appear new dungeons are on the way

Here’s to hoping there’s surprise extra content when more is revealed of this HD remake.  For now I’m certainly interested.


This is perhaps the most interesting Wii U game shown at the conference.    With the current zeitgeist of the nerd crowd around Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, it’s nice to see an unashamedly Japanese mecha game take center stage.  The game’s pedigree from Xenoblade developer Monolithsoft doesn't hurt.  The visuals deliver the kind of next-gen look that makes this a standout title on the Wii U.  Very interested.

Mario Kart 8

Easily the most visually impressive Wii U game next to Monolithosft’s “X”.  The trailer looks awesome. I was wondering where Nintendo would take the franchise after Mario Kart 7 and it’s very nice to see that they’ve kept the core of what makes Mario Kart great and added a new twist by allowing racing  sideways with anti-gravity karts.  Opening up the tracks even more and adding more angles to attack in the race.

News that we're able to record videos of our matches and share them on Miiverse is awesome and welcome.  As a very casual player, this interests me far more than any amount of tournament communities can, though I do hope they keep the excellent Mario Kart communities on-line system they have on the 3DS for Mario Kart 8.

The Legend of Zelda : A Link Between Worlds

On any other E3, news of a handheld Zelda game based on A Link to the Past would have been big enough  news, but we got to know about this game several months ago from a Nintendo Direct.  I already discussed my impressions of the reveal trailer. 
Given the E3 trailer is showing much more of the game, it really does look like a 3D interpretation of A Link to the Past.  The environments look slightly better than the trailer we saw last April, with more detail to the textures.   That said, I still can’t see a single torch in the test dungeon where the Eastern Palace used to be.   This may sound trivial but I think part of what made A Link to the Past look great visually is the unity of purpose of the elements on screen.  Dark rooms are dark for a reason. Lit rooms have an obvious source of light.  It certainly didn't hurt that this showed off the SNES transparency capabilities at the time.  It’s a little curious that the outside of the singular window we see Link wallcrawl through from the trailers, there are no obvious light sources in the dungeons.   It’s not like the 3DS isn't capable of nice lighting effects.  I don’t want to feel like playing through floors  floating in space.  I want to feel like I’m fighting through a dungeon and be terrified when I enter a darkened room.  The even lighting in the test dungeon we've seen so far is a little worrisome.

That said, I want to say the remastered A Link to the Past overworld and dungeon themes (as can be heard in this playthrough with direct feed sound in the embedded video above) is absolutely brilliant. 

Easily my most anticipated game this year, and given the pedigree of the world it is building from, I have very high hopes for this. Don’t screw it up! Give me torches!

Donkey Kong Country Returns Tropical Freeze

This is probably where a lot of people were disappointed.  I am still enjoying Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D  on my 3DS so this game feels entirely too soon.   Visually, it also looks like an upscaled Wii game.  Not that there is anything wrong with it, but the game actually managed to look better on the 3DS because the smaller screen made everything look crisper, and the 3D added the right kind of volume to the graphics making them pop out from the environments which is reminiscent of the ‘ACM graphics’ (made up marketing word) from the original Donkey Kong Country games.

The Wii U game looks far too clean in the sense that there are no shiny shaders we normally associate with HD games.  While I have no doubt the platforming will be superb and the music will be top notch with Rareware's David Wise on board again, I’d much rather they delay this game and work on the visuals.  Look at Trine 2 Director’s Cut on Wii U and see how a 2D game can look with the power of modern graphics chipset and apply it to Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze

Give this game the proper love and Nintendo polish and I will be there day 1.

There are several games I haven’t touched on here. Pokemon X&Y, Smash Bros U/3DS,  Mario & Luigi Dream Team, Pikmin 3 Bayonetta 2, Yoshi’s New Island.  I either have no strong opinions about these games or are less interested in them than usual.  That doesn't mean I won't be picking them up.  The new Mario & Luigi game is the closet (visually) to Super Mario RPG, which is awesome in my book as I really dig that style of graphics plus I love the series offbeat humour, but I just really don't have enough to say about these games at this point in time.

Please Understand

Finally, I want to touch on Nintendo’s E3 performance.  From a game’s perspective its leaps ahead of last year’s seriously disappointing reveals and it brings into focus what we’ll be getting for the rest of the year plus see a preview of some of the titles in 2014.   I applaud them for bringing E3 playable games to games at Best Buy and hope they do it again next year, at expanded locations, perhaps even at GameStops.  Part of the reason I couldn’t test those games out this year were the BestBuy locations they chose and the times didn’t mesh with my schedule.

For the E3 direct itself, I hope the massive demand for the stream on the day of the stream imparts some important lessons.  Get more servers for the Nintendo Direct steams, and perhaps defray some of that load by allowing a 3rd party, such as GameTrailers to also carry the feed.  That kind of cross promotion has merit as you may reach people who otherwise may not have been aware Nintendo was going to be having a video feed that day. 

The High quality feeds on the Wii U eshop also shows off the games much  much better than the lower quality versions on YouTube.  Nintendo should upload and show off the best quality versions of their trailers.

Last by not least, bring surprises to E3. I mentioned this already, but people need to have their expectations exceeded.  I felt like we knew all the games going in.  I was also disappointed that Square-Enix threw all their bones at Sony.  No Final Fantasy V remake for the 3DS?  No RPG support for Wii U? 

Some things for Nintendo to rectify in their next Nintendo Direct in the weeks and months ahead.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

E3 2013: Advice for Nintendo - Do the unexpected

It’s been a year since I wrote about the Wii U reveal at E32012.  The Wii U launched to lukewarm public reception and Nintendo’s position heading into E3 2013 is precarious, with Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One nipping at their heels.

In this industry, the narrative can change on a dime.  After tearing through several E3s with record sales and the next Wii titled casual experience, Nintendo's last two E3s has been a lucklustre mess of disappointment and confusion.  It is probably not a surprise them that despite having one of the largest booth if not the largest at the conference itself, the company has opted to scale back its pre E3 conference to a business partner meeting and eschewed  the overproduced extravaganza that are notorious source for internet memes to a pre-recorded 1 hour show to be aired at 7am PDT on June 11th

Given whatever they wanted to say and reveal was likely decided months and weeks ago,  I have no expectation of this blog posting influencing them in anyway.  But if someone at Nintendo is reading, it’s worth noting that the consumer unrest around Xbox One’s restrictive consumer policies has handed them a golden opportunity to re-introduce the Wii U as gaming console as people understood it, not where Microsoft wants to take them.

Do the Unexpected:

We know what to expect.  Smash, Mario, Zelda &  Luigi.  They’re all fine.  We’ll undoubtedly see Smash Brothers and previews to the next big Mario game.  What Nintendo really needs however is a surprise or several of them.  A collaboration project, a new franchise, a third party exclusive that will fire people up.   At this point, most people who own a Wii U or is considering it knows it will be their Nintendo Box, that expectation is priced in.  Showing Nintendo’s traditional franchises will help clarify what is coming, but it may not convince any new people.  Nintendo really needs to work on the part of the expectations this is currently non-existent.  That is the ‘extras’ that will get new people to turn their head and look and push fence sitters to committing.

There are 3 angles to approaching this:

The perfect example is a marquee title like GTA V. People aren’t expecting GTA V to land on Wii U.  But if it were to be announced, with exclusive content, or even better a timed exclusivity, that could rain on Microsoft’s parade. 

In terms of smaller scale titles, buying exclusives for well loved games that has strong hardcore following but has largely been abandoned by their publishers (see Bayonetta) is also a good 2nd angle to get attention and hype.  An oft rumoured title is Beyond Good and Evil 2.  Beyond that could be revival of Darksiders from the now bankrupt THQ under Nintendo’s publishing  banner.  There is a graveyard of games from this past generation with only a single entry that were dropped by their publishers  due to high HD development costs and low returns.  Picking diamonds in the rough like Nintendo had with Bayonetta is a great strategy to immediately get mindshare among consumers with a known quantity.

Finally, angle digital content.  Minecraft seems tailor made for a Nintendo platform, yet Microsoft has it on the 360.  Getting a game like Minecraft, even if it never makes Nintendo a dime, would immediately boost interest in the Wii U, especially if there’s off TV play involved.    Consider it a loss-leader.

Nintendo’s long-time software partner Square-Enix has been on a tear with premium releases of RPGs on iOS and Android Play Store.  Priced between $5 and $15 those titles seem ideal for the eShop.  Yet, they have not released a single digital game on the eShop.  If Nintendo needs evidence for people’s desire for the kind of digital content Square-Enix is putting out, they need to look no further than the success Level 5 has been enjoying with their Guild01 imports – Liberation Maiden and Crimson Shroud.  There’s a hunger for high quality premium digital titles done by Japanese developers in under-served genres like Adventure games and RPGs.

Satisfy the Disgruntled Consumer

Nintendo’s biggest problem is it’s archaic digital policies.  Digital purchases tied to the machine instead of accounts, the slow pace and trickle of Virtual Console releases and non-transferable Virtual Console content between platforms has infuriated and disappointed many of their long time fans.

Unified Account System -   This is imperative if Nintendo is to exploit the consumer furor over Microsoft’s current DRM and used game policy.  Announce a unified account for all Wii U, and 3DS purchases that lets consumers access their content on more than one machine as long as they are signed into their accounts.  In this way, the games we buy are attached to the account, not the machine that it was originally downloaded.  Things break, people move, or buy a 2nd console.  They want to be able to seamlessly move content around, not wait 4-6 weeks  via mail for Nintendo to manually move content over.

The Apple Approach – Nintendo may already be heading in this direction  with their addition of 3DS software information on the Wii U eshop but it would be really nice to to allow certain digital content (Virtual Console, some eshop games) to work on the Wii U and 3DS.  1 purchase would allow access on two platforms.  This will be seen a positively consumer friendly and excite people.


3DS Miiverse -  This is long overdue.  A Miiverse app integrated into the 3DS operating system would be great.  What would even be better is for it to function exactly as it does now on the Wii U.   Suspend a game,  and make a post with a screenshot of the game at the suspended state.

 New hardware -  Nothing is more exciting than a new hardware reveal.   This may seem counter-intuitive but  a new piece of hardware that complements the Wii U and 3DS could be an interesting 3rd pillar for Nintendo.   What could this hardware be?   Maybe a box with a screen that allows the Wii U to stream content  to it as if it is a second game pad , but a game pad with an internal processor, SD card slot and memory that supports the 3DS eshop.    Price it right, and with the right content, this in-between portable could be a hit and leverage the aforementioned unified accounts system while serving as a Wii U as a game pad substitute and a portable digital only 3DS device.  

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Crimson Shroud

Crimson Shroud for the 3DS eShop

Designed by Yasumi  Matsuno of the Ogre Battle series & Final Fantasy Tactics fame and initially released in Level 5's anthology collection Guild 01 before making it to eshop in Europe and North America as a stand-alone download, Crimson Shroud is delightfully fun retro experience.  The game is table-top RPG, with an unseen game-master guiding the game’s players along a game board.  As an eshop title, the game isn't particularly long, but one can think of the game’s narrative as a weekend Dungeons & Dragon session with some friends.  The narrative isn’t meant to be dragged out, but is a short and simple story about a band of heroes in search of the truth behind an ancient relic called the Crimson Shroud.

For some people who are fans of RPGs as a video-game genre, the old classic table-top RPG can be something foreign, perhaps even quaint.  Matsuno’s Crimson Shroud in this sense is unashamedly retro in it use of the dice.  Everything from the effectiveness of the mage’s magic to the power of the front-line attack is determined by the die.  In doing so, the game unveils a common mechanic in many RPGs we’ve come to love since the NES days.  In almost every RPG, the random number generator plays a critical role in determining hits and misses, damage variances and critical damage probabilities. Yet in the shift from tabletop to video gaming, the trend was to hide these calculations behind the game’s visuals and attack and defend sequences.   Crimson Shroud deconstructs the RPG genre to its constituent parts by showing players how the results are arrived at with the dice roll standing in for the random number generator.  

Characters are represented as figurines on a game board
Eschewing the increasingly incomprehensible gear upgrade systems in many JRPGs, Crimson Shroud offers the ability to earn equipment and gear through random enemy battles and treasure chests with an endless supply of weapons and armor that can be upgraded by simply combining weapons of the same type together to create new and more powerful versions of the item in +1, +2 , +3 versions and so on.   As an added incentive to replay the game, upgraded gear are allowed to be carried over into a New Game+ after the game has been beaten for the first time, allowing players to experience a more difficult version of the game.

There are little touches littered throughout the game that adds a sense of whimsy and realism.  To roll the dice for example, players must use the 3DS analog slide pad to roll the dice around around imitating the motion of the hands before a dice roll.  All the units are portrayed not as fully animated avatars, but as figurines on a game board that topple over when they are killed.   While this may seem like a visual downgrade, the game uses the 3DS' 3D to great effect to craft a minimalist but seemingly real virtual game board.  The 3D depth of the games visuals gives the  figurines and the game board a sense of volume, as if the player is holding a window with the 3DS and looking in.

Launched in December 2012, the game’s surprising performance atop the Nintendo 3DS eshop charts as one of the consistently top ten most downloaded titles  is a testament that old-school doesn't necessarily mean boring or archaic.

Highly Recommended. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Miiverse Arrives on Phones and PCs

When it was first revealed at E3 2012, I was excited and gushed about its potential to create a seamless communications network for fans, and users of Nintendo hardware across multiple platforms, a kind of Twitter for gamers, a micro-social network. Six months after Wii U’s launch Miiverse has arrived on phones and for browsers and reality seems to have crept up and dashed some of those high hopes.  

Checking what's new?
Expect to see a lot of this
Miiverse for the phone and PC browsers look robust enough.  Simple design that is evocative of the Wii U Miiverse interface, and very Twitter-like. However, moving to anything substantive, such as looking at my own feed or the activity feed from friends and those I’m following, I’m met  with relatively long loading times, compared say to my twitter app, or even the mobile/web version of twitter.  It’s a pain to see what’s new.  Yes, I understand Miiverse has to load images as well as text on the feed itself, but some streamlining would be appreciated given the Wii U Miiverse isn’t the fastest thing in the world either.

More importantly, there’s no functionality to make a new post directly from a PC or phone browser. The private messaging system is missing, nor is there an option to follow /friend interesting posters that I may stumble upon while casually browsing through the communities on my phone. Why these limitations?  Nintendo could easily create a tag for posts made of different hardware (Wii U, 3DS,  Internet) but allowing Miiverse as a reply only feature is detrimental to the growth and vitality of the social aspect of the network.  Even if a filter is specifically added to prevent children for seeing off-Wii U posts, it would still be a nice functionality for users to correspond and socialize on Miiverse outside of home, and to make gaming related posts in that context.     If I were ever to meet Mr. Miyamoto in person again, I’d like to post it to Miiverse first.

Miiverse app for the phones (the unofficial Andriod version notwithstanding) would be the obvious next step for Nintendo.  A web address isn't very visible in today’s app centric smartphone.  An app could raise the profile of Miiverse and could also solve some of the performance issues by streamlining a smartphone’s resources to run a set number of features by caching feed updates into the app even when the phone is in sleep mode to speed up load time and allowing the functionality to ping and alert users to check the app when there is activity in their feed. A very contemporary feature that twitter already has.

It is interesting to note that the web based Miiverse is blocked on the Wii U and 3DS browsers. Since the Wii U already has Miiverse as a system feature blocking it on the Wii U browser makes sense.  The fact it is also blocks on the 3DS is a fairly good indication the service will arrive in some form on the 3DS.   And on that note, I hope that Miiverse on the 3DS will exist in OS level rather than as a separate app, so that I can actually suspend a game and use it.  The feature could perhaps take the place of the underutilized notepad functionality which incidentally already has the functionality to pull a suspended game’s in-game screenshot from memory.  Something Miiverse also uses in allowing users to post a screenshot of their in-progress games.  This would allow players use the Miiverse in a way that is more or less similar to how we use it on the Wii U.

Slick Interface: A good start but
many Wii U options are missing
The fear is that Nintendo being Nintendo, Miiverse on 3DS  could also arrive in a decidedly less interesting format.  As a separate app that is not integrated into any game, or worse, as a separate app and in its own ‘walled garden’ addressing 3DS only releases.  I certainly hope for an open Miiverse that is accessible across all Nintendo platforms moving forward.    The current ‘Year of Luigi’ community is a perfect example of a Miiverse community that would benefit from 3DS cross-posting.

More generally as a Nintendo-centric social network, Miiverse needs the raw numbers (of users) to generate the kind of interesting discussion, memes, tending topics, and maybe even the occasional scandal to draw people in.   However, seeing as to how the web and phone version seems more limited than what many of us had originally envisaged, we cannot rule out that Nintendo’s goal is not to make a social network for their users, which in my mind would be a tragic mistake. But Nintendo’s opaque goals on Miiverse means we cannot rule out this possibility.

On final analysis, while it’s nice to have Miiverse on my phone and on my PC, and I’ve find myself checking my feed more often, the current incarnation of Miiverse for PCs and phones just feels a little lacking. It certainly delivered everything  shown to us at E32012.  Its just that after the E3 ‘reveal’, My mind  went in directions far grander than what the final product suggested.  None of the features I assumed would be standard (off-Wii U posting,  a grand confederacy of current Nintendo products with Miiverse support) were actually promised,  but rather, we as consumers assumed it.   There’s certainly nothing stopping them releasing a Miiverse app on the now seven year old Wii, and turning these web based experiences on the phone into apps.  But as a first step, Miiverse as a website feed is adequate.  Let’s hope for better things in the future.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Link To The Past

After two disappointing DS entries and to me what felt like a lucklustre Wii entry, I felt that maybe it was time to leave Zelda alone.   The ‘major’ entries to the Zelda  franchise have increasingly become bogged down by long laborious story sequences, overlong tutorial ‘sandboxes’ and desolate overworlds.    Yet, in the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to experience again the sheer joy of the Zelda game that got my hooked –A Link to the Past.

I was beyond thrilled when Nintendo announced earlier in the week that there would be a new 3DS Zelda game set in the world of A Link to the Past.   This is a game that I’ve thought about and cautiously wished for.  After downloading the 3DS preview trailer, it was apparent that this a real honest to goodness non-gimmicky top-down Zelda.  The antidote to the creative doldrums the franchise finds itself in. 

Of course, a short  one-minute trailer can only show so much.  Thankfully, Nintendo also had demo units for journalists to try and since last week plenty of hands on impressions have began to filter through.  One in particular shows an extended hands-on video with a direct sound feed from the 3DS, confirming that the soundtrack, at least for this demo, is a sufficiently moody remixed  dungeon theme from A Link to the Past.
Visually, the game embraces its pedigree, bringing back the fresh looking round faced Link of the late 80s and early 90s that I grew up with, with the yellow banded trim on his green cap.  The ornamentations such as snake/cobra themed motifs, and the metal dungeon doors with the evil eyes are back. Everything from puzzle components of the test dungeon and the layout of overworld itself drew directly from A Link to the Past.

The extended demo  confirmed that this 3DS entry will be tight compact Zelda game with quick and easy swordplay and shield mastery with fast navigation through the screen.   This speed is further reinforced by the fluid framerate, which appears to run at a very impressive 60 frames per second. The  ease with which Link moves on screen and his quickness harkens back to that era of games where things respond as they should.  There are also subtle modern progressions.  In the demo, the magic bar (green bar on the left of the screen) now slowly recharges when magic isn't being used.  Eliminating one layer of inventory and magic points management that bedeviled some Link to the Past players.

Aesthetically this is as I had imagined A Link to the Past could look in 3D.  Granted we mainly only see a few scenes outside in Hyrule and mostly inside dungeons,  the minimalistic designs is the modern interpretation of A Link to the Past’s clean pixel Art, with a sheen added to the walls and floors as they catch bits of light and reflect sparks from Link’s shield blocks. 

While the 3DS demo clearly brought over visual elements from A Link to the Past, the aesthetic choices for the 3D conversion haven’t been without its critics.  There were some who were concerned they looked simplistic and not ‘lived –in’ enough, prompting Industry personality Cliff Bleszinski  aka Cliffy B (formerly of Epic) to chime in with a disappointed tweet that people who arecomplaining are ‘part of the problem’.   In an extension of the critique, one piece of fan art from A Link to the Past’sopening sequence was used as a primary point of comparison in one of the discussions over at NeoGAF. The argument seems to be essentially asking for a ‘grittier’ look.  The rocks needed texture, the grass needed to be browner.
I’m not really sure that’s what the Zelda of our childhood would have looked like had it been a modern franchise.  While we can quibble over Nintendo’s art direction, I would agree that the demo dungeons lacked visual unity. It is as if we are merely watching layers stacked upon layers, with no aesthetic logic to their design. Where is the light coming from exactly?

Even in the 1990s, the designers of  A Link to the Past’s many dungeons understood that dungeons needed a logical unity of purpose to their design.  Following this approach, they took care to show how the levels were lit, and how floors and puzzles were interconnected and how the overall design fit a purpose, often with hidden patterns and multi-tiered Indiana Joneseque puzzles that blew my twelve year old mind.   Doing this pushed the SNES’ to show off its many graphical effects, playing with light and darkness, pushing the SNES with a generous use of transparency effects and parallax scrolling. 

The proposed Zelda game for the 3DS could do more in terms of pushing the 3DS in that direction.  Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon showed us the 3DS can pull off some impressive lighting. So let’s see more dungeons with light sources like torches reflecting and refracting light around gleaming rooms,  beams of light filtering through and illuminating the environs and staircases, clever trap doors and secret entrances that unite the dungeons into a single puzzle, rather than a collection of puzzles as we’ve seen in the demo.   That said, demo is the operative word. This is a demo experience with a test dungeon.  Nothing would indicate we’re playing a finished product. The dungeon may not even be in the final game.

I’m fairly confident Nintendo will deliver with this title in terms of crafting a compelling experience.   To that end gamers and fans of the franchise should also be cautious in jumping to conclusions by either proclaiming the game’s success as forgone conclusion or lamenting Nintendo ‘cutting corners’.  It feels that both points of view over-exaggerate  and fit into  pre-existing narratives of people want to see rather than a true unadulterated first impression.

The Legend of Zelda demo on the 3DS is clearly impressive in how closely it captures the spirit of the original SNES title.  Here’s to hoping that the final product will not disappoint.