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.