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Archive for February, 2007

Sony’s Lazarus Pit

Posted by nfinit on February 21, 2007

(Submitted for approval to The Platformers on February 21st, 2007)

And on the 95th day, Sony declared victory.

Perhaps not in the manner they had wished- after all, subsiding $1200 high-definition movie players to wealthy A/V junkies doesn’t exactly rake in the same cash as dominating the console gaming industry for two generations in a row, but at least it provides attention in the trade journals and serves a talking point for fans, something Sony’s had a hard time providing. But asserting arbitrary victory in a largely unwanted media format is easy. However, that’s not the real fight, it’s not the battle Sony fans or shareholders care about. Instead, they want to know- is Sony still capable of winning this console generation?

The PS3 has, three months into it’s cycle, sold 1.7 million units worldwide, with systems readily available on shelves. Within the first ninety of the PS2’s life, it had sold over 3.2 million consoles in Japan alone. Not that the PS3 is without company. It’s handheld sister, the PlayStation Portable, has sold 20 million units compared to the Nintendo DS’s 37 million, and is in steady supply. Indeed, one may find enough PS3 and PSP boxes at their local Best Buy to build a tiny, horrifically expensive fortress which to huddle inside and play wireless SOCOM 2. Meanwhile acquiring a Nintendo Wii or DS Lite involves waiting in a secluded alley for someone to sell you some merchandise that fell off the back of a truck. In many ways, the PS3 is starting to look a lot like Sony’s PSP campaign. Only this time without Lumines. So perhaps worse. Complicating matters is that this time Sony faces not one competitor, but two, and Microsoft holds an advantage in price well as year’s head start on sales.

As an old Sega fan from back in the 16 bit Usenet wars myself, I admit a certain thrill to the prospects of seeing the PS3 become Sony’s Waterloo. But still, we’d be remiss to forget that Sony is still entirely capable of pulling this one out.

A lot of people are placing parallels to Sony of 2007 and Nintendo of 1997, shortly before the first PlayStation relegated Nintendo to also-ran status. I don’t think this holds true. The failure of the N64 was a culmination of disparate events- long-held publisher dissatisfaction with Nintendo’s business practices during the NES era, a stubborn refusal on Nintendo’s part to switch to optical disc, Sony’s ability to shift the gamer demographic from preteens to college-age kids with disposable income. Perhaps most damning was Nintendo’s shrinking market-share from the NES to the SNES while the gaming market itself grew.

Sony has only increased console sales over the past two generations as the market has continued to expand. They have dominated the console industry for for thirteen years. Surely this has bought the company more than three months worth of benefit of the doubt. So how can Sony pull this out?

Hire some PR already. What’s the most controversial thing you’ve heard from Nintendo lately? That no one was ever shot waiting in line for a Wii? Microsoft, for their part, spent most of the time after E3 convincing people they need to buy a Nintendo. Sony? They’ve got Phil Harrison saying:

[The] PlayStation 3 launch has been, objectively by any measure, more successful than PlayStation 1, PlayStation 2 or other competing system out previously.

Or Jack Trentton’s recent gem:

If you can find a PS3 anywhere in North America that’s been on shelves for more than five minutes, I’ll give you 1,200 bucks for it.

These aren’t even the worst of the quotes, merely the most recent. Since E3 of 2006, Sony’s suffered from a crippling case of verbal diarrhea. It may seem silly to propose that Sony’s biggest problem stems from their near total lack of PR oversight, after all, the mainstream public has no idea of Sony’s continued and constant PR gaffes. But the hardcore public certainly does, and when you’re trying to sell a $500 movie player on the prospects of being able to play Metal Gear Solid 4 at some vague, undefined point in the future, the hardcore market is all you honestly have. Hardcore games are quite aware of the consequences of owning a losing console, and right now Sony’s CEO class’ inability to stop talking out their collective ass just goes to show a level of disconnect from reality not seen since Marie Antoinette’s attempts at social welfare.

Give us a reason to spend that $500. Grand Theft Auto 4 will be appearing on the 360 before it reaches the PS3. Square/Enix is making bedroom eyes at Nintendo. Metal Gear Solid 4 won’t be appearing for at least a year, possibly longer- and that’s working under the conciet that Metal Gear Solid can still sell systems. Sony needs game you can’t get on the 360 and Wii, and that requires the in-house developers to start delivering. These are the same devs that gave us Shadow of the Colossus, Jax and Dexter, Rachet and Clank, Sly Cooper, God of War, Wipeout and Gran Turismo. But where are they? Polyphony Digital won’t have GT5 ready until early 2008 at the earliest. Incognito’s remake of Warhawk hasn’t been seen since concept renders were released 18 months ago, despite it’s supposed “Summer 2007” release. Killzone 2 won’t be appearing until the later half of 2007, pitting the underachiving series head-to-head against Halo 3.

To be fair, Heavenly Sword, Lair and Motorstorm are coming up in the next couple months, and these games may indeed be worth buying a PS3 for. But compare Sony’s proposed 2007 lineup to the 360’s 2007: Crackdown, Forza 2, Mass Effect, Halo 3, Blue Dragon, Eternal Sonata, Guitar Hero II, Lost Planet, Shadowrun. For this year at least, Microsoft will be able to match Sony blow-for-blow with exclusive titles that at least match, if not exceed, the efforts of Sony’s vaunted first party teams. At this point, Sony may be reduced to paying for 3rd party exclusive titles. Grand Theft Auto went a long way towards selling the public on the PS2 lo so many years ago, how much money would it take to convince Rockstar to return to the Sony fold? It couldn’t take much to lure Team Ninja the superior graphical prowess of the PS3, something which would be an enormous talking point for Sony. Acquiring Dead Rising 2 as a PlayStation exclusive would be planting a dagger in Microsoft’s spleen.

Finally, do something about the price, even if it’s trivial. $500 is hard to swallow, even if a 20 gig PS3 a greater value than the 360 Premium. But sacrifices could be made that would not directly touch the already negative price margin on PS3 hardware. Imagine if Sony included a copy of Resistance: Fall of Man with each sale- then you’ve effectively reduced the price difference between the 360 Premium and the 20 gig PS3 to $40. There are other options that don’t involve Sony losing their one sure-fire sale though, perhaps a Ridge Racer 7 pack-in, or a voucher good for $60 worth of new games bought anytime in 2007. They perhaps offer a high-resolution directors cut version of an existing PS2 title, say Gran Turismo 4, even Metal Gear Solid 3. You wouldn’t be closing the gap nearly as much price-wise as you would if you threw in a free PS3 game, but there would be added value vs the 360, an idea Sony has has a hard time getting across to consumers.

In conclusion, I don’t think it’s time for Sony fans to start looking for ways off the ship just yet. Sure, Microsoft is going to to have an incredible 2007, but they’re not leaving much left for 2008, and by then there will be worries that the 360 has but a year left in it’s cycle. As far as the Wii, Nintendo has yet to prove they’re capable of producing a steady stream of titles for one successful system, much less two at a time. This year isn’t a complete waste, either. There’s every chance Heavenly Sword and Lair will live up to the promises of their screenshots, and Motorstorm is already well-received in demo kiosks.

That said- if the spring trade shows roll around and the public is given no reason to stop holding out on a 360 or Wii, it may be time to start carting out Marie to her date with the Guillotine.

Posted in Op-ed, PS3, Sony, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

Graphics vs Gameplay

Posted by nfinit on February 12, 2007

(Originally submitted to The Platformers)

There are a great many acts of mental deception console fanboys subject themselves to, and few fascinate me more than that of “graphics vs gameplay.”

Simply put, proponents believe superior graphics inhibit gameplay; that through some arcane process developers without access to transparency filters or Mode Seven or 1080p resolution add Extra Gameplay Magic, making their games superior to games appearing on the most powerful system. They deride graphics as nothing more than “eye candy”. You’d almost wonder why these people don’t toss out their current hardware and live a life of perfect zen gameplay mastery with a Vectrix. Of course, spending much of my gaming life as a Sega fanboy, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to using the argument myself, Blast Processing be damned. And of course, there is a bit of merit to these concerns, what with Castlevania’s dalliances in the 3d realm being forgotten, and poor Sonic’s not been the same since he moved to the Dreamcast.

But there is no need for graphics to get in the way of good gameplay. Indeed I think it can be shown that advancements in technology only serve to enhance gameplay and open up new gameplay genres. A walk through the past 25 years of graphical progress between hardware cycles illustrates this.

Consider the move from the 2600 to the NES- before, the most complex platformer was Pitfall, we had not seen scrolling platform games anywhere near as complex as Mario. These games were confined to a handful of sprites on screen, making shooters such as R-Type impossible. The most compelling story the 2600 ever told was that of a humble dot endlessly pursued by a vicious, key-hating duck. We’d have to wait on new hardware before we would see stories on the level of Dragon Warrior and Phantasy Star.

The move to 16-bit hardware presented a refinement of existing genres, but new gameplay avenues were still opened. Games like Pilotwings would have been impossible without the smooth scaling at the SNES’s disposal. Eight-bit systems gave us compelling RPGs, but one can hardly argue Final Fantasy 6 would have been the same without the SNES color pallet. Similarly, Lunar: Silver Star Story would not have been the same without full-motion video. And while the NES could approximate Street Fighter II, it’s hard to imagine that anyone not heavy into psychotropic drugs would prefer it over the SNES version.

The PS1 era marked the latest great graphical leap between hardware generations, and gameplay took a leap as well. Finally we could see truly cinematic experiences on consoles, expressed in Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil. Indeed, the entire Survival Horror genre relies on atmosphere that would have been impossible on previous hardware. The racing genre, long confined to crude 2D sprites, finally flourished. After years of playing second fiddle to the arcade, consoles saw arcade ports that looked and played better at home, contributing to the marginalization of the arcade industry. True 3D FPS games on the consoles became possible, and we even saw first-glass FPG games appearing exclusively on consoles.

The following cycle gave us no revolutionary leap in the way graphics were presented, but the new hardware still allowed for larger worlds, giving rise to the sandbox genre made popular by GTA3. For the first time devs had the ability to do some truly remarkable work in terms of the scale in which worlds were presented, best seen in Shadow of the Colossus. Dynamic lighting not only made games look better, but it made stealth games such as Splinter Cell possible. Existing genres could be presented as a more compelling gaming experience. Sure, it may have been feasible to play God of War on the N64, but would you have really wanted to?

It could be argued that the current console generation exhibits only another cursory polish, but I don’t think that’s fair. We haven’t seen what the PS3 is capable of, and already the 360 boasts Dead Rising, a game that could at best be approximated on the Xbox 1. Meanwhile, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved would not be the same without its riot of particle effects and screen-warping explosions.

The false dichotomy of graphics over gameplay isn’t just a flawed argument, it is indeed a total and complete falsehood, if anything, the direct opposite is true. Every new advancement in graphics have opened up more freedom of design, more possibilities, even more size in each subsequent generation of games. There will always be disappointing games, even games with multi million dollar CGI budgets, but their being bad games is not the fault of the system they’re presented on. Graphics are more than eye candy. The progression in graphics have pushed gameplay farther than new controllers and online multiplayer gaming could ever hope.

Sadly, just as crappy games will never go away, neither will Graphics vs Gameplay. But hey, if anyone wants, I’m willing to trade my Genesis for your Wii.

Posted in Op-ed, Submissions, The Platformers | 2 Comments »

Gradius V Review

Posted by nfinit on February 2, 2007

Gradius V is a modern-day relic, a throwback to the salad days of the NES, and an obvious work of love from Treasure. The problem is, when you start with a game entrenched firmly in the mid 80’s Japanese arcade ethos and try to build a modern representation of it’s genre, you wind up with something that feels very much like a mid 80’s arcade game wrapped up in a neon blue polygon bow. There’s a lot of things in Gradius V that a neophyte shump fan is simply ill-adjusted to deal with or even enjoy.

The central conceit of Gradius V–and it’s central flaw– is it’s power up system, and indeed this powerup system defines Gradius as a whole. This system relies on collecting pods which are used to buy a sequence of power-ups shown as a segmented bar across the bottom edge of your screen. The problem with this system (and indeed with most shumps featuring a power-up system and why they’ve been phased out as of late) is that the game is balanced against a fully-powered Vic Viper. It has to be, otherwise a boss encounter– and there are many boss encounters– will result in all of a moment’s challenge if you come ready to bear with a full compliment of laser drones and missile pods. So once you get hit your survival strategy revolves around a war of attrition between the boss’s weak point and the number of credits you have left. In fact, once hit, the game changes from one of pattern memorization to one of a war of attrition between the boss’s weak points and the number of credits you have in reserve. Chances are, unless you’ve loaded up a wholly unreasonable number of extra lives and are playing on anything above Easy, they won’t be enough.

As a result you wind up with an inherently frustrating game, one based not exactly on skill, but on trial and error and the ability to memorize patterns, on being in the right place at the right time at all times. Most modern shooters eliminates pattern memorization (and thus create a game about skill and guile) simply by eliminating the powerup process completely, or at least allowing a player to keep their powerups after being destroyed. The one hit kill nature of Gradius V allows for very little imagination on the part of the player. There is the pattern, this pattern is paramount, learning the pattern is the only way to live.

I’m not saying Gradius V is a bad game– far from it, it’s a quality shump and Treasure’s pride and craftsmanship are evident in every detail– but it is a very difficult game to fully enjoy, especially if you already own Ikaruga or R-Type final or Mars Matrix, or any number of inherently less frustrating, more sophisticated shumps. The Catch 22 here being that if you don’t already own a shump, getting into the genre via Gradius V is akin to a layman learning about string theory by picking up a college-level physics textbook.

As such it’s a hard game to fully recommend. Yes, it’s a good game, but it’s one that’s really only meant to be appreciated by aficionados of the genre. For it’s part, Treasure makes no apologies for this, outright insulting a player on his poor performance while at the same time teasing for one more playthrough to see the imaginative level designs and uniquely Treasure boss encounters. It’s deserving of a spot in the shooter vet’s wall unit, but just be aware before going in that only the most dedicated of shump elite will ever get the full value inherent in this title.

Luckily, Gradius V is cheap, having not yet succumb to the particular madness of shooter fans that result in newcomers having to pay upwards of $40 just to enjoy Ikaruga. So by default it becomes one of the best easy-to-obtain shooters made in the past 5 years. In any case, the $20 spent will not go to waste, Gradius V is a fine game, albeit a fine game that is deeply flawed. If you have a low threshold for frustration, however there are any number of quality PlayStation 2 action games to be had for the same price, most of which will not lead the player to fits of controller-twisting rage.

Posted in Gradius, Reviews, Shumps, Treasure | Leave a Comment »