Saturday, January 17, 2009


Wii Music

Wii Music is a terrible game because it lets you shake the controllers around at random. To prove it, here's a video of me shaking the controllers around at random. See? See how shitty it sounds? That's because Wii Music is a terrible game. I GET PAID TO WRITE THIS SHIT CAN YOU BELIEVE IT

Ah, that was fun. No, seriously, the first problem with trying to review Wii Music is that gaming websites were inundated for months with predictions that the game was going to be crap. And then all of the websites that predicted the game would be crap turned out reviews that assured us, yep, they were right, the game really is crap. And then all the little Nintendo fanboys started piping up, "NO! NO! NO! YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND! IT'S A WORK OF GENIUS! IT'S THE BEST MUSIC GAME/THING EVER! GUITAR HERO SUCKS! ROCK BAND SUCKS!"

So, you see, I'm fighting an uphill battle trying to come up with anything that I could even call my own opinion.

What the Hell is Wii Music?

Let me know if I'm going too fast for you.

Wii Music is a program for the Nintendo Wii that lets you make music. It's not a rhythm game in the vein of Guitar Hero or Rock Band. You are not listening to a pre-recorded song and pressing buttons as little colored blocks fall down the screen. You are making music.

Here's how it works.

You select a song that you'd like to play. Then you select the part you would like to play -- Melody, Harmony, Chord, Bass, or one of two Percussion. Then you select the instrument you would like to use to play that part. Then you play it.

You hold your Wii Remote and Nunchuck as if you were holding the instrument that you're playing. The action that you use to play a note depends on the instrument you're playing. For a horn, you press a button. For a guitar, you make a strumming motion. For drums and pianos, you drum the controllers. For strings, you press a button on the nunchuck while bowing with the remote.

Now. It's not as complicated as playing a real musical instrument. On a real piano, you'd have to find the right keys to play the right notes. On a real guitar, you'd have to get your fingers on the strings correctly to play the right chords. In Wii Music, you can create certain effects by pressing buttons -- switch between arpeggio and chords on a guitar, play a glissando on a piano, that sort of thing -- but the main thing you need to worry about is creating a note, not figuring out which note you're going to create. All of the sound that gets played is predetermined, depending on the song that you started out with. This has led crybabies to whine that the game requires no skill and plays itself.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, if you punch notes exactly in time to the song you have selected, it will come out sounding exactly the way it's supposed to. But this comes with two caveats. For one thing, this probably requires more skill than you'd expect. Even discounting the fact that the Wii motion controls tend to get a bit wonky, every single note that gets played has to come from you. People who are used to playing GH/RB at the lower difficulties may be surprised by how difficult it is to play quickly and accurately even when the only thing you're doing is punching notes.

And for another thing, this sort of complaint is kind of missing the point. In Wii Music, you are not limited to playing the song you have selected.

When you've played a note, you can hold it as long as you want. You can skip notes. You can add more notes by playing beyond the normal note pattern. You can improvise to your heart's content and really make a song your own. You don't need to know anything about music or about how to play the instruments you're using. Just pick up your controller, tap away at your imaginary piano, and suddenly Twinkle Twinkle Little Star turns into a cascading rollercoaster of fast-flowing sound.

The computer fills in any parts of the song that you don't play. If you'd like, you can drop them out. Or you can play through the song a second time with a second part and accompany yourself. You can build all six parts of a song one at a time by playing yourself. Or you can have up to three friends in the same room playing with you. Or you can send a half-finished song to a friend over WFC and let him add his own part. When you're all done, you can make a music video of your completed creation.

No, you're not really writing your own music, which has led to scorn from the other side of the table. This isn't a completely customizable musical tool. You can't play anything you want with it. You must work from the base of the song you've selected. So, snarl the folks who work with sophisticated music authoring programs, what is the point?

And it's a fair enough question.

What is the Point of Wii Music?

When you first start the game, you're let loose with very little instruction or inspiration. They dump a pile of musical instruments on you and say, "Okay! Go have fun!" And if you're like me, the stuff that you play sounds like crap because you have no idea what in the hell you're doing. Sure, making your own melody is quick and easy, and harmony's not too bad either, but the rest of the parts? I didn't have any sort of intuitive grasp of what to do as a percussionist, bassist, or... chordist?

Once you've made a few music videos, you'll open up a new section about style lessons. The game has tutorials that cover fifteen different basic musical styles, including Rock, Pop, Reggae, Marching Band, Japanese, and Electronic. And it'll teach you some basic rhythm patterns that you can use to give a song a certain kind of sound. Ah! I thought. Now I see what I should do.

So I took the basic Rock patterns and started applying them to the songs that were available to me. Tried fiddling around with making my own patterns. Created some very basic sounds. I started to think the game was kind of cute.

Then I opened up the advanced style lessons.

See. All of those people who dismissed this game because they thought it was kids' stuff? Because they thought it was too simple? Because they thought the music sounded like crap? They never opened up the advanced style lessons.

When I heard the Advanced Rock arrangement for Do Re Mi, a lightbulb went off in my head. I heard exactly what was possible with this program. I wanted to know how I, too, could create this sound I was hearing, starting with nothing but a children's song. And the program led me step by step through how to create a real rock sound.

It was more difficult than the basic style lesson had been. It was a lesson in how to change the feel of a song by altering your note patterns. It was exciting, energizing information. I took what I had learned and applied it to the other songs on the disc. And I turned Eine Kleine Nachtmusik into a rock song.

I played in a school orchestra for eight years, and somehow, I never learned the tiniest thing about what music really is. But fiddling around with Wii Music for an afternoon, I started to grasp how music works. How to go beyond the exercise of playing notes on a score and figure out where a song gets its skeleton, its heart, its soul. I've started listening to music in a completely different way, picking out how the rhythm patterns make a song what it is.

I mean, I don't feel like a master or anything, but I feel like I've finally got a clue.

So I guess the point is that Wii Music takes an approach to music that's pretty different from just about anything else out there. It is its own beast. It's a game that is about making music. It gives the user the power to play without having to worry about the mechanical difficulties of learning and perfecting an instrument. It gives the user the power to compose without having to worry about music theory and figuring out which notes sound right together.

Basically, it's a beginner's guide to musical expression.

But It Has Some Problems

Guitar Hero and Rock Band are casual games. Wii Music is more of a hardcore title.

Let me explain.

You put in Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you pick up your plastic guitar, you bang away at the notes, and awesome music comes out of the TV set. You don't have to think about the music, how it fits together, anything. You just have to feel the rhythm and press the right buttons at the right time. You feel like a rock god, everyone goes home happy.

This is not a criticism of Guitar Hero or Rock Band! Oh good god no! I love Rock Band! Even though I have the Wii version! No, I see this as a benefit to Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Because what do you have to do to get the most out of Wii Music? Well, you figure out what song you want to play, and then you have to figure out what you want to do with it. Unless you've got some friends with a serious musical inclination, you then have to record every part by yourself, one instrument at a time. If you're like me, you'll want to do multiple takes because you're a total perfectionist and the Wii remote picked up a stray guitar strum and it just totally ruined your carefully constructed baseline. It can easily take half an hour just to make a very basic-sounding song. I can't imagine what would happen if you had the creativity it would take to put together one of the masterpieces that they demonstrate on the Nintendo Channel.

In spite of all the shortcuts that the game gives you, Wii Music is about creating a song. And creating a song just isn't something you can do casually. It takes time, patience, dedication, and know-how.

And that's really the biggest problem I have with Wii Music. I can appreciate its potential, but god damn, is it ever scary staring down into that black abyss of bottomless POTENTIAL and just thinking "I'm not ready". You really need to be ready to put something into it to get something out of it, and most days I just don't have that.

The second problem with Wii Music is that the motion controls tend to be more trouble than they're worth when it comes to making very carefully-controlled musical patterns. The guitar instruments in particular are notorious for picking up strums where they're not supposed to. I can't really relax into the feeling of magical music happening while I act like I'm playing it when I hear unintended strums bouncing around.

And finally, there's progression. You begin the game with only a handful of songs and instruments, and you need to unlock the rest in stages. Well, that's fine and all, but in a game that doesn't keep score, what criteria do they use to figure when you deserve new content? They count how many videos you've recorded.

Now, see... I can appreciate the fact that they want people to start slowly. Experiment with easy songs and discover things about music on your own before being given more complicated things to try and learning actual techniques. It's a good idea in theory.

The problem is, when I started the game, I didn't know what I was doing and I had mostly Traditional songs to play. The stuff I made didn't sound very nice, so I didn't save very many music videos. It wasn't until after I'd unlocked the extra content that I started making stuff that I wanted to save.

I guess it's as good a measure as any of how ready the user is to take the next step. It's just... I guess I'm not a big fan of having content locked up to begin with, and this didn't earn them any points with me.

Oh! Also, there isn't a single compelling venue to perform in in the entire game.

Just Something I Thought Was Funny

I remember reading something from Tycho over at Penny Arcade about Guitar Hero. About how he wished that the experience allowed for some degree of improvisation on the player's part. Now we have Wii Music, the game that's about improvising, but he hasn't said a word about it. I can only assume that, as a representative of the Monolith Video Game Nerdcore, the thing never even registered on his radar because it was another one of those stupid Wii experiments that Nintendo keeps doing in lieu of making new video games.

Who Did They Make This Game For?

I honestly have no idea. This is probably the most intimidating piece of software that Nintendo has released in the Wii line; it just doesn't feel like something you can pick up and play. On the other hand, the loose controls and the monotony of playing through the same song six times make me yearn for a more powerful music authoring tool.

So... I guess this is music for beginners. It's just a little taste to get you interested and make you think about what you like about music -- whether it's aspiring to be a composer, mastering the ability to play a prewritten song perfectly, noodling around at random, or maybe a little bit of each.

It's not the piece of crap that IGN wants it to be. Nor is it the earth-shaking revolution in home entertainment that Nintendo boosters need it to be. No, it's just a modest, charming piece of software that lets you make music.

And thank goodness there's still room for it in this world.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Wario Ware: Smooth Moves

My opinion of the latest Wario Ware game fluctuates depending on a wide variety of variables, like the day of the week, what I had for breakfast, the proximity of Earth to planet Mars, that sort of thing. I may call it any number of things ranging from "the best Wario Ware game to date" to "a clear sign that Wario Ware jumped the shark well before its time".

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. On average, I'd call it a pleasant experience. Not as compulsively addictive as the original or Twisted, but also not as forgettable as Party Games or Touched. It ironed out some of the more regrettable kinks that the series had developed, but it also did away with some of its better eccentricities.

I'm going to write about it for a while here.

Return to Diamond City

As anyone will tell you, the best part about any video game is its story. That's why nobody bought Tetris. Smooth Moves finds Wario led to a mysterious temple by larcenous moogles, only to discover (and steal) a mysterious Wii controller-shaped stone artifact called the Form Baton. In days of old, the Form Baton was a divine gift to civilization, inspiring people to hold it in lots of fascinating ways and do stuff. But in Wario's hands, it's little more than the inspiration to make a bunch of new microgames.

Which leads me to the question -- is Wario Ware Inc. still in business? I mean, sure, the first game ended with Wario firing all of his friends and running off with his OBSCENE PROFITS, but they've clearly banded together again in Twisted. The further you get from the original, the less they play up the idea that these characters are actual software developers. In Smooth Moves, there isn't even a location where the characters slowly gather together as you complete their games. There isn't even much social connection between them -- it's as though they've all moved on from those heady, romantic days when they were all making video games together, and now they're all off doing their own things. And yet, they can't seem to escape their past, because everywhere they turn, they find themselves confronted with difficulties that can only be overcome if you play a bunch of microgames.

Touched took the controversial move of ditching Dribble & Spitz and Orbulon as developers in favor of newcomers Mike and Ashley. Although Ashley was universally loved by all, Mike was despised for being a one-trick pony whose trick wasn't very good. Basically, he was created to be the developer responsible for all of the games where you blow into the microphone on the Nintendo DS until you win, and it's pretty hard to imagine him doing anything else.

Smooth Moves, on the other hand, features every character in the series and two new faces. One minor disappointment is that, apart from Wario and 9-Volt & 18-Volt, the developers no longer have any kind of real theme to their games. I still miss the concept in the original, where games were categorized by genre, but it's better than the "control style" categories in Touched, where you ended up with an entire developer whose games amounted to "find the right spot on the screen and draw a million fast circles". If they had tried to squeeze out 25 games that revolved around "The Discard", for example, I'd imagine that this game would be the thing that'd get discarded. YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE

Let's take a look at our friends old and new, eh?

As per tradition, Wario is once again the alpha and the omega. In his introduction stage, you have to help Wario escape the Temple of Form with the Form Baton, thus providing impetus for the rest of the game. All of the games use the same simple form: the remote control. Luckily, the level isn't restricted to only pointing games, so it never gets boring.

Wario returns to wrap things up at the end, but instead of re-using the Wario Man gimmick from Twisted and Touched, Wario is transformed into his tiny self (actually dozens of them) in an accident involving a new motorcycle and a strawberry patch.

In a refreshing change of pace, Mona's stage has nothing to do with being in a hurry to get somewhere or endangering police officers. This time around, she's a cheerleader for Diamond City's football team, and the story revolves around the plucky young quarterback whose heart she has captured. But alas, in the end, he just can't compete with the fat, ugly, troll-like object of Mona's true affections.

Jimmy T & Jimmy P
No longer making their own microgames, the Jimmies have embraced their love of hosting the remix stages, and now the two Jimmy levels serve only to combine the games of the other developers and present them at a greater initial difficulty.

After having his family along for the last two games, Jimmy T is dancing solo again in this game. Like in the original, he comes across as an enigmatic -- and slightly intimidating? -- disco maniac. But when he loans an umbrella to a stray cat caught in a rainstorm, he finds himself with some unexpected dance partners.

Jimmy P is actually introduced as a new character, T's mysterious double who seems to be leading a parallel life. While T dances the night away at Club Sugar, P spends his daytime hours at Club Spice. Although their storylines are very similar, there are key differences -- one involves kitties, the other involves doggies.

9-Volt & 18-Volt
The -Volts are once again one of the last developers you unlock, thanks to Nintendo's epiphany that no one will pay attention to anything that they unlock after being given a five-second Metroid game. The Nintendo-themed stage is decidedly low on the real classics this time around, instead focusing heavily on five-second Gamecube games, with the occasional 3D reimagining of Clu Clu Land or Balloon Fight. A cameo appearance by Wario Ware Twisted only serves to remind us of how sweet that game's 9-Volt stage was in comparison -- wall to wall NES games, not a single space wasted by stupid "classic toy" minigames, and a very cool Super Mario Brothers boss game. It was the best of times.

Dribble & Spitz
Dribble & Spitz reprise their role as cabbies who drive a mysterious stranger to a location only to watch them vanish in an incredible fashion without paying. They also have the only stage with a persistent theme tune, but it's slightly forgettable compared to the classic driving tune in the first game and the multiple user-selectable soundtracks in Twisted.

Kat & Ana
Even if it is a bit derivative of the first game (and completely lacking the beautiful theme tune and epic visuals that accompanied it), it's nice to see Kat & Ana focusing on the ninja aspect of their "kindergarten ninja" schtick again. I mean, come on, chasing monkeys? Running from bees? That's weaksauce. Gimme the battles with giant demons any day.

Ashley was the real breakthrough fan favorite of Wario Ware Touched. The dark and twisted teenage witch thing was excellent, and the catchy theme tune was the icing on the cake. She's once again trying to put together a spell, and her morbid charm is just as wonderful as ever. The only real disappointment is that her boss game is based on the Discard -- it can be won in one move. Considering how important the boss game is to a Wario Ware level -- Nose Dive single-handedly propelled Kat & Ana's stage to my most-played level in Twisted -- I find myself skipping over Ashley whenever I power the game up. Such is life.

Young Cricket & Master Mantis
These guys are new for Smooth Moves, and it's really hard to care about them. I sort of tend to mentally lump together anything that has to do with Asian martial arts, so I see Cricket as a guy who's gunning for a position that Kat & Ana already fill. What's worse, the stage is about Cricket cutting in line at a restaurant, and then thinking better of his decision. Wow. Epic. A vocalized theme tune might have saved this one.

Penny Crygor is the other new face to Smooth Moves, a cutesy girl genius character derived thematically and genetically from Doctor Crygor. With her grandfather's love of SCIENCE, but lacking his trademark dance moves and obsession with toilets, there's really not a lot to be said about her. Her stage is about inventing a motorcycle to beat her grandfather at an invention contest.

The alien just always has to be different, doesn't he? In the first two games (TWISTED CAME BEFORE TOUCHED ITS TRUE), his gimmick was games that lasted twice as long. This time around, he's all about games that use twice as many hands. His stage is just like all of the other "normal" developer stages, except that it takes place after the events of the epic single-player campaign mode and the games never show up in any of the "remix" stages. The only way to access Orbulon's stage is to connect a Wii Nunchuck (or "Balance Stone") to your remote ("Form Baton"), and the only way to return to the other game modes afterwards is to unplug it. So yeah. Kind of weird.

Orbulon's spacecraft is once again having technical difficulties, this time crashing into the Temple of Form shortly after Wario returns the Form Baton. But when Orbulon discovers the Form Baton, he also finds the Balance Stone, the combination of which allows him to pilot the temple into orbit.

Dr. Crygor & Mike
Dr. Crygor's undergone another evolution thanks to his new invention, the Kelorometer. And now you -- yes, you! -- can derive the exact same benefit from his "workout" remix. The deal is, you have to play through a selection of twenty microgames, selected for the aggressive and exaggerated movements that they require. Instead of scoring you based on wins and losses, the game keeps track of how many "kelories" you burn as you waggle the Wii remote around. The mix also includes two games -- one at the halfway point and one at the very end -- that last much longer than normal and are basically unwinnable, the only point being to repeat the described action as many times as you can. It's odd, yet interesting, much like the good doctor himself.

Oh, And, Uh, Gameplay?

Oh, I don't know. On the one hand, it feels like most of the microgames are either "waggle masher" games (a descendant of the "button masher" and "screen masher" games from the rest of the series), where the challenge is simply to shake the controller as fast as you can before your time is up; or timing games, where you have a single action to perform and the challenge is to time it correctly. There are some actual skill games, but none of them really stand out. The real challenge of the Wario Ware series -- trying to identify your goal and accomplish it in five seconds -- feels a little downplayed, especially now that you're given a clue as to how to hold the controller before a game begins. Some of the games will throw a little changeup at you, but when you're told to hold your controller in "the elephant" pose and then the game features a giant elephant nose on the screen, there's really little doubt as to what's going on.

On the other hand, hey, it's still one of the more active Wii games out there. If you want a game that really showcases real-world action translated into video game action, you can't do much better than this.

Yeah. It doesn't really seem like that great of a trade-off, does it?

The boss games are pretty underwhelming this time around. Give or take a Wario Dance Company, none of them really have that feeling like they're a great starting point to what should really be a stand-alone game. Compare the boss games in Smooth Moves to Mona's Balloon Trip knockoff, 9-Volt's Super Mario Brothers, Kat & Ana's Nosedive, Crygor's gravity-sensitive robot game, or even Jimmy's staircase-ascending game from Twisted, and you'll find Smooth Moves is wanting.

They've also made the controversial decision to remove "The Grid", the mode where you pick a single microgame and play it repeatedly at ever-increasing speeds and difficulty. On the one hand, it makes this game feel like it's missing something. On the other hand, you don't actually want to play any of these games individually. They're mostly mashing and timing games, do you really want to sit there and repeat that motion over and over again for any length of time? Thank goodness, in fact, that we're no longer tasked with accumulating high scores in all 200+ microgames in order to unlock that one last goddamned doodad.

The sideshows are pretty all right this time around. I guess. None of them really scream "infinite replayability" the way Dr. Wario or Mewtroid or even Orbit Ball did. There's a 3D version of Balloon Trip that uses the remote + nunchuck combo -- as you flap your arms, so too does your on-screen balloon fighter. There's a sort of Breakout Adventure game where you have to guide a ball and paddle up a tall, tall tower by breaking enough blocks to clear a path for yourself.

But the best reward of all is the latest version of Pyoro -- and I say that as a man who has never understood the appeal of these side games. This version is set up like a vertical shooter. Pyoro is basically a cursor on the screen, controlled by pointing the remote. Pressing a button snaps his beak out to eat approaching bugs. But the real cleverness of the game is in its combo system. You can change Pyoro's angle by twisting the remote. If you attack a line of bugs from just the right angle, you can snap them all up in one gulp and earn a big point bonus. It's almost worth the price of the game all by itself. Well, maybe when it goes Player's Choice or something.

And finally, they saw fit to ruin the multiplayer experience by making it focus on games where you pass the remote around. I mean, come on. They want us to wear that wrist strap so that we don't hit any weak points for massive damage, and yet they expect us, in a party atmosphere, to switch it around every five seconds. Uh uh. Ain't gonna happen. Mega Party Game$ let us use all four controllers at once; why can't Smooth Moves?


On the one hand, Smooth Moves is such a bland game that it makes me wonder why I should bother with the Wario Ware series if the people making it seem to think that it's little more than a showcase for weird graphics and whatever stupid new controller Nintendo's come out with. On the other hand, it's not so bad as to make me give up hope entirely.

It's only natural, when you love a video game, to want more. Probably Wario Ware just exploded into a franchise much too quickly, which led to a drought in the rampaging creativity that made the first game such a favorite. It's kind of a shame.

But the game's still a decent enough distraction. If, for some reason, you're short of minigame packs in your Wii library.


Saturday, January 10, 2009


How Nintendo Lost the Console War

Something interesting is happening.

As of this writing, Nintendo seems to be on the cusp of a 50% market share in the current generation of home video game consoles. That means that the Wii will have sold as many units as the Playstation 3 and the X-Box 360 combined.

Go to video game discussion forums. What are people talking about? PS3 versus 360.

The battle for second place. That's what interests gamers these days.

Nintendo? Everybody hates Nintendo. Nobody wants to talk about them. Nobody wants to remember it exists.

Sure, why not? They're number 1 right now. Everyone hated Sony when they were number 1. But the funny thing is, not even the Nintendo fans are really all that happy. Just look at all of the bellyaching over a Christmas full of Wii Music and Animal Crossing.

The Monolithic Nerdcore Video Game Kingdom is in turmoil. Listen to what they say. There is an anger here that goes beyond the typical fanboy stuff, the "I need to justify buying Box A by cutting down Box B" brand identification that has dominated the conversation for as long as there have been multiple game systems on the market. If it was just that Nintendo made games that people didn't like, then Sony and Microsoft fans would just laugh off Nintendo's new system the same way they did for the past two generations now.

People hate Nintendo. They're pissed off. There's an overwhelming feeling among gamers that Nintendo has betrayed us. What happened?

I have an idea.

Remember that when Nintendo came out with the NES in the mid-80's, they were a breakout success. Nintendo became synonymous with video games. They were the only game in town.

Then Sega came out with the Genesis. Nintendo answered with the Super NES. Nintendo fans remember it as a golden age, but even then, their market share was getting nibbled away. Even a transition from the only game in town to the biggest game in town is a pretty hard one. And Sega's assault -- with a color handheld, a CD add-on, and aggressive marketing -- earned them a lot of cool points. Whatever the market may have said, the anecdotal buzz made Nintendo seem like the dorkier of the two big companies at the time.

And then the Playstation slam dunked the industry. When they went up against the Playstation and eventually the Dreamcast with the Nintendo 64, they started earning themselves a sour reputation that would only get worse into the next generation. They were technically inferior. First they chose cartridges over discs, then they chose small discs over normal discs. They didn't have online. They only made "kids' games".

I still remember what happened during the Gamecube era. I remember how embarrassing it was, watching Nintendo try to reach out to people who just didn't give a fuck. They tried to get the hardcore titles on the Gamecube. They got the exclusive deals to Resident Evil and Eternal Darkness. They got Metroid Prime and Geist to prove that they could do FPS games too. They tried again and again to prove to people who played video games that they were just as cool as Sony and Microsoft.

But why would people leaving Sony and Microsoft? Nintendo wasn't offering anything they couldn't already get. And they struggled for market share.

And so they announced that their next product was going to be a Revolution.

They showed us the controller and we laughed. They showed us the graphics and we laughed. They told us the name and we laughed.

Look at everything that Nintendo is doing wrong, we said. This system will never appeal to us. It will fail spectacularly, and then Nintendo will have to drop out of the console business just like Sega did.

Ah. Remember what happened to Sega?

The Dreamcast didn't make them enough money, and so they decided to stop selling consoles and start making multiplatform software. But then they had to compete on an equal footing against other companies, and they saw how difficult it was, and they've been struggling for relevance ever since, particularly when it comes to making good games that feature their mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog.

There was a time when we all thought Nintendo was going to do that. That we would kick them out of the console market for good and they'd be forced to do what Sega did. We thought that Nintendo would be destroyed just as Sega had been.

I wonder.

I wonder if the truth is that it was never Nintendo's intention to make another video game console in the traditional sense. I wonder if Nintendo wasn't destroyed. I wonder if the real thing going on here is Nintendo's transition from Video Game Company to Something Else.

Look at what they're doing. Look at Touch Generations. Look at all of the non-game software they do these days. A cooking trainer. Wii Fit. Wii Music. Remember when they'd crank out a Mario Party every year like clockwork? We haven't heard a peep in a while now. Remember when Mario was on everything Nintendo did? When they couldn't even release a god damned DDR on Gamecube without Mario on it? Now we find that Nintendo's face is, well, a Mii's face.

Nintendo has been in business for over a hundred years. They began as a playing card company. They'll change what they're about if there's money to be made from it.

We expected to see Nintendo just keep doing the same old things to try and please us and to keep failing over and over until they faded into obscurity and then oblivion. That's what we expected their defeat to look like.

Hypothesis: Nintendo lost the console race with the Gamecube. And with the Wii, they willfully left it behind. And I don't think there could be a surer sign of this than the fact that the Monolithic Video Game Kingdom doesn't give a fuck about anything they do anymore.

Just think about what that would mean. This is what we've done to Nintendo by marginalizing them for the past two generations. This is what we've pushed them into becoming. We created this. We pushed them straight out of the video game business and into... well, Something Else.

So why the hatred? Why don't gamers just enjoy their PS3s and 360s and get over it? Because Nintendo did something that we can never forgive them for.

They proved that they don't need us.

After ten years of pushing all of their resources into trying to make us like them again, they've given us up as a lost cause. And by giving up on us, they've once again become the biggest game in town. They've shone a light on what a puny, insignificant, closet hobby this really is. They've shown us how small we really are when it comes down to it. How little people at large truly care about the things we care about. They have invalidated all of the things that we value -- gorey shooting games, high-definition graphics, complex controls, online communities -- and, by extension, they have invalidated us.

And so we seethe. And we scream that Nintendo's going to be in big trouble if all they do is crap like Wii Fit and Wii Music, that they'd better start listening to what we want if they know what's good for them. And when they stand at the brink of 50% market share, we seethe some more because we don't want to see our glorious hobby eclipsed by Something Else.

So what's next?

I guess we watch Nintendo go down the road of making elegant, friendly entertainment and self-improvement software and occasionally video games. We watch Sony and Microsoft try to horn in on this suddenly lucrative market. And we watch modern nerdcore gaming quietly dwindle into a tight little niche.

Maybe. I'm guessing. What the hell would I know? I'm just a blogger.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Wii Play

I've been doing the Wii wrong.

I'm starting to get the feeling that there's an underlying purpose to the Wii that transcends the typical exercise of buying a box, connecting it to your TV, and stacking random software on top of it.

I mean, certainly I've had a good experience doing that. I own a lot of "extracurricular" Wii software. Not a lot of it is great, but it's nice to have Cooking Mama and Harvey Birdman on hand when I get the itch. Regrets? I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention.

But the longer I've followed the Wii, the more it's become clear to me -- this console is a puzzle that is meant to be put together piece by piece. If you try to skip a step, you may miss out on something important.

The first thing I did wrong with my Wii is that I didn't wait in line at 3AM to pick it up from a brick and mortar store. I bought my Wii in a bundle from Walmart's online store. As a result, I missed out on that most important first step in Wii ownership -- the blessed good fortune of being one of the lucky souls who could walk out of the store with a box full of magic.

The second thing I did wrong was to skip out on Wii Play. I did this because I read the reviews of the game and decided to just get an extra remote on its own.

Required Courses

Nintendo's put together a rather tidy, elegant curriculum for the first two years of the life of its console:

Wii Sports
Wii Play
Link's Crossbow Training
Mario Kart
Wii Fit

There. Five games that every Wii owner should have in their library to get the "core" experience. Sports is a pack-in, and probably the perfect choice to give people that all-important first impression of the console. Each piece of software after that is essentially a trojan horse, sneaking new equipment into your Wii setup. It's a great strategy; with the exception of the Zapper, the software is always fronted as the highlight of the package, with the hardware as a novel "bonus". And with the exception of Wii Fit, they're all sold at normal retail price or below, which makes them appear to be really great deals.

Wii Play, then, is sort of the odd man out. After all, the Wii already comes with a remote; they're not exactly giving you a new toy to play with here. Wii Sports is already a multiplayer game for the whole family that effectively introduces us to what the remote can do. So it doesn't seem obvious why Wii Play should be considered a requirement for Wii owners.

At least, not at first.

Look at the games on this disc. There are two Ponglikes, a shooting gallery game, a racing game, a game where you have to move and shoot at the same time -- all concepts that will be instantly familiar to people who have been playing video games constantly for the last twenty years.

Ah, but for the people who haven't?

Wii Play is, first of all, "Video Game Age: Train Your Brain to Play Video Games in Minutes a Day!" It's a set of training wheels for people who don't have a large "gaming vocabulary" and who need a little patient leading when it comes to the strange and fascinating world of things that move on the screen when you push the buttons. By sneaking it into our homes as a game that comes with a free controller, Nintendo is trying to get newbies who bought the system for Wii Sports to give some other stuff a try. Did you like the target shooting game? Maybe you should try Link's Crossbow Training! From there, maybe a first-person shooter! How about Charge!? Well, maybe you'd like to try this Mario Kart thing we have. And so on.

But a lot of people don't really appreciate the fact that this is a game designed to get people playing together.

The free controller is obviously a major part of that strategy, but there are some more subtle forces at work here. For example, the game isn't any fun whatsoever to play by yourself. It just isn't! A lot of the games are just plain pointless if you're the only person in the room. But it takes on a completely different life when you're playing two-player. Target shooting is a lot of fun when you're competing against an intelligent being standing directly next to you. Billiards is fun. Laser hockey is fun.

The game has been criticized for being short and shallow, but I don't see it as a problem. Whether this was an intentional design choice or not, it makes the game into more of a social activity rather than a purely competitive one. It's like a board game or a card game -- it's less about winning and losing, and more about having fun together.

Quite an odd thing to do in an industry that's all about creating experiences that isolate you and try to replace your world with an electronic fabrication.

So Much For That

It's interesting to look at Wii Play as it fits into Nintendo's overall strategy, but honestly, I don't play it a lot. It sucks to play it by yourself, and I have much more interesting multiplayer games to play. Much like Duck Hunt, it's the sort of game that everyone owns even though it's not that great. And if you skip it, you're just... missing out on this whole chunk of what it is to own a Wii.

If you want another remote, you might as well get the disc for ten bucks just to try it. And once you have it, you might as well keep it.


Friday, January 02, 2009


Maboshi's Arcade

Maboshi's Arcade has an interesting concept -- it's a small simulation of a classic video game arcade that goes right in your living room.

When you start the program, three windows appear on the screen, side by side. They're in the classic portrait aspect ratio and everything. To begin a game, you simply drag your Mii face down to an empty window, choose your game, and start playing. The really interesting thing is, all of the windows behave independently from each other, so players can wander in and out at will. It's exactly as if there are three arcade machines on your TV set, complete with self-running "Attract" modes.

The program features three different games. (And it should be said that any game can be selected from any window; you aren't limited to games that the other players aren't using as you would be in a real arcade.) They have a classic arcadey feel, all experimental and abstract and such.

Circle is a game where you control a ball rolling around inside a circle, and by pressing the A button, you control which direction it rolls. The object is to clear out all of the enemies before they escape the circle.

Line is a game where you control a "core" with a protective stick that automatically rotates around it. By pressing the A button, you can fling yourself in the direction that the stick's momentum takes you. The object is to knock away blocks and enemies with the stick while flinging yourself up the screen toward the end of the level.

Square is a sort of turn-based Snake game, only instead of trying to eat things, you're trying to burn away blocks with your long, fiery tail. Again, you're trying to reach a goal at the top of the screen. You get full directional control with the D pad, and every time you move, the screen scrolls slightly downward and any fire you've set burns a little more. The object is to make your way to the goal without letting any unburned blocks touch the bottom of the screen or wandering into the blast radius of a bomb or trapping yourself such that you have no place to move.

All very simple games. It's keeping quite a bit with the feel of the Art Style games that Nintendo's been pushing on Wii Ware lately. They're good in the sense that you may feel compelled to try again as soon as you die, but I don't think any of them are really break-away hits. They serve their function -- they feel like old-school arcade games.

The "effect system" is... all right, I guess. Basically, as certain things fly off the screen in one game, they'll cross over into whatever window they're flung into. Most of these effects are beneficial to the recipient. It's billed as the game's big hook, but... I dunno, I just don't see it.

Much more interesting to me is the DS version. When you've completed one entire level in each game, you unlock the option to download a version of Maboshi's Arcade for the DS. This one takes the classic arcade concept in a slightly different direction -- this is about the home version.

If you were playing games in the early 80s, you know what I'm talking about. Home game systems couldn't emulate arcade machines, so home versions were rewritten from scratch, with much simpler graphics and usually some small changes to gameplay. And so it is with Maboshi's Arcade for the DS. All of the games are presented with a much more digital, toned-down display compared to its console big brother.

But the really neat thing? You hold the DS book-style to play it. All of the games are played using the control pad. The physical aspect of the game is adorable. The screen is in classic arcade portrait aspect, controlled with a single joypad positioned just below the screen -- it looks like an old arcade machine. And the DS itself opens and shuts like a book between play sessions, which makes it feel like some sort of magical game book.

This isn't really a huge deal, but for 800 Wii points, it's a pleasant enough diversion for folks who miss the days of sticking quarters into a Centipede machine.


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