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.