Category Archives: Commentary

The Violent Catharsis of Mafia 3

When games give me a choice, I tend to behave morally.  Sure, I’ll steal some precious currency now and then, and kill the odd NPC who gets on my nerves, but generally I try to be a good guy.  I help people, I spare people, I give second chances and the benefit of the doubt.  I played through BioShock twice and never harvested a Little Sister.

But Mafia III is different.  In Mafia III, I’m killing everyone.  Not innocent bystanders, at least not on purpose, but every enemy.  Everyone who looks at me sideways.  Even when the mission objective is fulfilled and I could just as easily hop back in my car and drive away, I kill everyone.  Brutally, if possible.  I’ll spend five minutes crisscrossing a shipyard to track down that one errant red dot on my minimap.  When a phalanx of cops shows up and compels me to flee before I’ve killed every last enemy, I feel a tinge of regret: I didn’t get to kill everyone. Continue reading The Violent Catharsis of Mafia 3

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The Switch: What We Know, What We Don’t

The Nintendo Switch era is almost upon us.  In just a week, the Switch will be released to the masses, or at least those of us lucky enough to have a preorder, and thanks to Nintendo’s January presentation, we finally know what we’ll be getting for our $300.  Mostly.  So while we wait for the new console’s release, let’s take a look at what we know and what we don’t.  We’ll start with the questions we had going into the presentation.  We were wondering about…

The Price

 This one’s easy.  It’s $299.99, at least in the U.S.  This is a touch higher than I expected, and might be dangerously high from a consumer standpoint.  Nintendo is selling their decidedly less powerful system for the same price as an Xbox One or PS4, and unlike those consoles, the Switch doesn’t come with a bundled game.  Or a library of cheap used games to pad out the collection.  This price point will really test the Switch’s core concept – its console-handheld hybridization – because that’s pretty much the only thing it has going for it when compared to its competitors.

Switch-presentation-001.png

Going into the big Switch reveal in January, I was expecting it to be around $250, but the price was always a double-edged sword: too high and no one will buy it, too low and it might not be very powerful.  So when Nintendo announced a $300 price tag, I was briefly optimistic that the system might be more powerful than I anticipated.  It would seem, though, that the “extra” $50 is going towards tech in the controllers rather than the GPU, so this optimism was short-lived.

Continue reading The Switch: What We Know, What We Don’t

Switch Incoming

A few months ago, Nintendo gave us our first look at the Switch – née NX – the company’s latest piece of gaming hardware.  The reveal came in the form of a wordless three-and-a-half-minute video, showing people playing the console/handheld hybrid in a variety of improbable locations – basketball court, rooftop party – and with a variety of controller configurations.  The video shows off the Switch’s ability to seamlessly transition from home to portable use, offers our first look at the detachable controllers, and confirms that the system will use cartridges, as has previously been rumored.  Ostensible gameplay footage offers some hints as to what might be coming down the pike, but otherwise the video is light on specifics.  Mostly it just puts a face to the name, confirming the rumors and the actual look of the hybrid console we’ve been imagining (and hilariously drawing) for months now.

switch-logo

When rumors that the NX was going to be a handheld-home console hybrid started swirling, I was unenthused, and a bit skeptical.  But after watching the reveal trailer (a bunch of times), I’m sold on the concept.  I don’t know what did the trick.  Maybe it was the glorious return of asymmetrical analog sticks to a Nintendo controller; maybe it was thought of replaying Skyrim (which I’ll never do, because who has 800 hours to spare?) on a Nintendo platform; or maybe it’s just my heart catching up to the inevitability that I will buy whatever Nintendo puts out.  But whatever the reason, I’m excited to get my hands on a Switch. Continue reading Switch Incoming

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Nine, Conclusion

[This is the last post in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts onetwothree,  fourfivesixseven, and eight.]

After two weeks with Super Mario Maker – the time I needed to get through the game’s nine-day content rollout and also deal with the few extra days of waiting the game threw at me, maybe to punish me for playing past my bedtime – I finally have access to the complete game.  And if the previous eight posts don’t make it clear, I love this game.  On the creation side, Nintendo has made the act of designing a level feel like a game.  The tools allow you to be really creative while keeping the interface intuitive and simple, with pop-in pop-out playtesting.  And every step of building a level is a lot of fun: throwing a bunch of random elements into a stage and then playing through it, just to see what happens; testing, tweaking, and refining your creations until they function the way you want them to; dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s, and getting to where your level finally feels complete.  All of this is fun.

On the play side, the game offers you, in effect, infinite Mario.  And because levels can be built in one of four themes, complete with their own mechanics and some unique items, it actually offers you quadruple infinite Mario, infinity times four.  The pool of community-created levels is a mixed bag, but abandoning one level and jumping into another is pretty quick and simple, and the pool is so deep that you’re bound to find some great stuff if you spend a little time looking.  The Internet is also stepping in to fill the curation void, with a lot of “The Ten Most [adjective] Levels in Super Mario Maker” lists out there.  In the first week of the game’s release, more than a million levels were uploaded, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the game limits users to ten uploads until they accumulate some stars from the community.  And the levels already range from brutally hard to auto-playing to musical to Kafka-esque exploration of Waluigi’s existential dread.  So obviously this community’s potential is huge.

And that’s one of the things that most excites me about this game: its potential.  With most games, good or bad, two weeks of playing for several hours a day is usually enough time to give you a pretty good impression of what the next ten or hundred or thousand hours of play will be like.  Games can always surprise you with plot twists, new settings, upgrades, and changes to the mechanics.  But few games can surprise you the way Super Mario Maker seems all but guaranteed to.  The community is already doing things I didn’t anticipate.  For almost all of us, it’s just been two weeks.  The level pool right now represents just what people have come up with off the top of their heads.  What will people come up with when they’ve had time to really digest the game and internalize its mechanics?  I can’t wait to find out.

Continue reading Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Nine, Conclusion

Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 4

[Note: This is the fourth and final part of a multi-part post.  In the first part I looked at the ways the Wii ultimately was a failure, and in the second part I looked at the ways Nintendo failed to capitalize on the Wii, helping to create the situation they find themselves in now with the Wii U.  In the third part I looked at some of the mistakes Nintendo has made with the Wii U.]

Nintendo is not in a great spot.  Their current home console, the Wii U, is an unqualified failure, and the 3DS, while selling reasonably well, is so far Nintendo’s worst selling handheld system, serving perhaps as a harbinger of handheld gaming’s inexorable decline.  Obviously, Nintendo needs their upcoming console, codenamed NX, to be a hit.  If the NX puts up Wii U or GameCube numbers, the company may have to seriously consider getting out of the hardware business.  So what should Nintendo do with the NX?

With history as our guide, we can safely assume that Nintendo is going to try to do something big, bold, innovative, and unusual with the NX, leaving us all simultaneously scratching our heads in confusion and fantasizing about the new types of games Nintendo’s system will (perhaps) make possible.  That’s what’s so exciting about Nintendo, their willingness to take unfathomable risks in an industry built around predictable iteration.  As I write this, the gaming world is mourning the unexpected and untimely death of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, perhaps the biggest champion of risk-taking in Nintendo’s history.  Under Iwata’s leadership, Nintendo introduced the idea of a touch-enabled, dual-screen handheld – a concept that has sold more than 200 million units across its various incarnations – and the Wii, that runaway success that even your grandparents played.  Sure, Nintendo has also had their flops – that’s the “risk” part – but they’ve had tremendous successes and have shaped the modern gaming industry more than any other company.

So what should they do going forward?  What should their NX strategy be?  The path back to success isn’t clear for Nintendo.  Having lost both the traditional, core audience and the Wii’s massive casual audience, Nintendo will have an uphill climb trying to sell the NX to anyone outside the dwindling base of Nintendo loyalists.  It might already be too late for Nintendo to reverse their decline.  But there are some things they can do that will give them a fighting chance, and at least help them avoid some of the problems they’ve had in the recent past.

Continue reading Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 4

Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 3

[Note: This is the third part of a multi-part post.  In the first part I looked at the ways the Wii ultimately was a failure, and in the second part I looked at the ways Nintendo failed to capitalize on the Wii, helping to create the situation they find themselves in now with the Wii U.]

With the hundred-million-selling Wii having largely faded from public consciousness, Nintendo in 2012 decided to release the Wii U.  Two-and-a-half years later, the system is struggling to reach the ten million sales mark.  Third parties have largely abandoned the console, and Nintendo doesn’t seem to have many bullets left in the clip, having already released entries in most of its major franchises.  It’s unlikely that anything is going to turn this ship around; no matter how good Splatoon is, it’s not going to send another ten or twenty or thirty million people out to buy a Wii U.  No, when all is said and done, the Wii U is going to go down as a failure.  But why did it fail?

Why the Wii U Failed

The Wii U has been a failure for a lot of reasons, some of them inevitable.  As we’ve seen, Nintendo gave up on trying to woo core gamers to instead pursue casual gamers, and by 2012, those gamers had moved on to smartphones and tablets.  Because of Nintendo’s inability to convert Wii owners into reliable customers, any attempt to leverage the Wii’s success to sell a new console was probably bound to fail.  Really, the Wii U falls perfectly in line with what’s been happening to Nintendo for basically ever.  Nintendo’s sales have been in steady decline for decades, the Wii notwithstanding.  Every Nintendo console, except the Wii, has been the worst-selling Nintendo console to date.  A single hit isn’t going to change that if it doesn’t address the core problems behind this decline.

(Data source: Nintendo)
(Data source: Nintendo)

So before the Wii U ever launched, there was a certain amount of baked-in failure.  But even if it was never going to be a Wii-sized, success, it could have been less of a failure.  For one thing, the Wii U probably should have come out sooner.  By the time the Wii U came out, the Wii was not only past its prime but had become something of an afterthought. Continue reading Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 3

Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 2

[Note: This is the second part of a multi-part post.  Check out the first part here.]

In the first part of this post, I examined how Nintendo, with the Wii, traded core gamers for casual gamers, a strategy that worked in the short term but cost Nintendo in the long term.  When smartphones and tablets emerged as a major gaming platform, especially for casual games, they left Nintendo with no market for their new hardware.  They sold over 100 million Wiis, but are struggling to sell one tenth as many Wii Us.  There’s obviously nothing Nintendo could have done to forestall the rise of the mobile games market.  But this doesn’t mean that the evaporation of Nintendo’s audience was a foregone conclusion.

Wii-U-web-001

Could Nintendo have transformed the tens of millions of casual, first-time gamers who bought Wiis into a dedicated customer base that would reliably purchase new games and consoles in perpetuity?  Who knows?  It would be a tough job for anyone, at any time.  We can’t know how things might have turned out had Nintendo done this or that.  But we can see pretty clearly a number of ways Nintendo failed to support and take advantage of the Wii. Continue reading Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 2

Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 1

Between the lackluster sales, the dearth of third-party support, the recent announcement of the Nintendo NX, and the indefinite delay of the latest Legend of Zelda game, it would seem the writing’s on the wall for the Wii U.  Though Nintendo insists that the NX won’t be a simple replacement for the Wii U (or 3DS), it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the release of the NX – whatever it is – ends up boosting Wii U sales.  After two and a half years and about 9.5 million units sold, we can confidently declare that the Wii U has been a commercial failure.

Wii-U-web-001
Take a good look. It won’t be here forever.

 

Nintendo needs the NX to be successful.  The company remains committed to dedicated gaming devices, but another system that sells as poorly as the Wii U did will force them to reconsider that position.  So what should they do with the NX?  How can they avoid a repeat of the situation they’re in with the Wii U?  To understand that, we need to take a look at everything that went wrong with the Wii U.  And to understand that, we first need to hop into our DeLorean and look at the ways the Wii failed, and the ways Nintendo failed the Wii, because, in a lot of ways, the Wii is what put Nintendo in this mess.

[Note: This was originally going to be one post, but as I’ve been working on it, it’s grown to epic proportions.  So, I’ll be breaking it into a few chunks and posting the first couple parts while I finish the rest of it.  The main gist of the post is to look at the Wii U’s failure and consider what it means for Nintendo going forward, but it’s going to be a bit of a walk to get there.  In part 1, I’ll be looking at how the Wii failed.  In part 2, I’ll be looking at how Nintendo failed the Wii.  In part 3, I’ll be looking at how the Wii U failed.  And in part 4, I’ll be looking at what Nintendo should do going forward.  I aim to have all four parts posted by the middle of next week, but who knows, by then it might have grown into six or eight or fifty parts.  I spend a lot of time thinking about Nintendo.  Anyway, enjoy!] Continue reading Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 1

Here’s an Idea: An Amiibo Killer App

[When I’m not playing games or writing about games, I’m often thinking about games – thinking about what would make a cool idea for a game, or how I wish a certain game was different, or what I’m hoping for in a sequel.  So, to share some of these ideas, I’m starting a new occasional column called Here’s an Idea.  Basically, it’s game design fan fiction.]

Nintendo’s line of collectible, game-connected figures has so far been a huge success for the company.  In the six months they’ve been out, Nintendo has shipped 10.5 million units and is scrambling to get more product on store shelves.  This is, in one sense, perfectly understandable: similar products, like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, are hugely successful, and Nintendo has a stable of popular characters like Mario, Link, Donkey Kong, and… Wii Fit Trainer.  Why wouldn’t they be popular?  But in another sense, the success of Amiibo is a little weird, because unlike, say, Skylanders, they don’t really do anything.

(Image: Farley Santos)
(Image: Farley Santos)

Well, that’s not entirely accurate.  They do some stuff.  But what they do is a vague and inconsistent.  The most robust Amiibo support is found in Super Smash Bros., where Amiibo become NPC companions/opponents that you can level up and customize.  This is the closest Amiibo come to having Skylanders-type functionality, where you bring your character into the game, upgrade and/or customize it, and save the stats to the figure rather than the console hard drive, allowing you to bring your character to a friend’s house.  But in Super Smash Bros., you don’t get to play as the character, just alongside it or against it.

Meanwhile, Amiibo support in other games is pretty limited.  In Mario Party 10, a new “Amiibo Party” mode lets you tap your Amiibo to the gamepad a bunch of times to do things that could easily be done with a button press, and then save the powerups you earn to your figure.  In all other Amiibo-compatible games, functionality is limited to read-only effects, in most cases involving Amiibo unlocking things like extra costumes or consumable in-game items.  Of course, the fact that one Amiibo can be used in multiple games – though limited to one read/write game per figure – is a nice bonus, regardless of how limited the features are for those additional games.  But what is lacking is a really great killer app where Amiibo feel really essential to the gameplay.  So far, they kind of feel shoehorned in. Continue reading Here’s an Idea: An Amiibo Killer App

What’s NXt for Nintendo?

Back in March, Nintendo announced that they were working on a new “dedicated game platform,” with the codename “NX.”  No other details were offered other than to say that the NX will be a “brand-new concept” and that the company “[hopes] to share more information” in 2016.  The announcement came during a press conference in which Nintendo announced its plans to develop games for smartphones, so the point of this reveal was to reassure stockholders and/or fans that the company is not abandoning dedicated gaming hardware.  And, for now, that’s all we really have to go on: a codename and a vague notion of when we will learn more.  Well, that and our infinite capacity for unfounded speculation!

Not the NX, probably.
Not the NX, probably.

There are two big, obvious questions:  What is the NX?  And when is it coming out?  To the first question, there are really four potential answers: a home console, a handheld, some sort of home console/handheld hybrid, or something else entirely, a genuinely “brand-new concept.”  For now, let’s set aside the “something else entirely” category, as that’s a bottomless pit of speculative potential and there’s only so much Internet to go around.  Continue reading What’s NXt for Nintendo?