Saturday, November 28, 2015


Nintendo Badge Arcade

I have several complicated and competing opinions about Nintendo Badge Arcade.  I mean, Jim Sterling's review isn't wrong: this is a pay-to-play crane game where you're trying to win stickers that decorate your 3DS home screen.  The first time I heard the description, my brain just locked up.  What in God's name has happened to Nintendo?

But I've spent a couple weeks -- and a couple dollars -- with it, and... it hasn't exactly won me over, but I feel like there's a place for it in this world.

Let's start with the badges themselves.

There Are Any Number of Badge-Related Lines I Could Head This Section With, But You've Heard Them, Let's Just Get On With It

The new version of the 3DS system software included support for Badges, little character icons that you can use to decorate your Home screen with.  It's basically the next step up from Home screen themes -- now you can put a little picture of Mario or Link or whatever right there on your Home screen in place of a program icon to make your menu look prettier.

This holds zero appeal to me.  As Jim said, the menu is inconvenient enough as it is without junking it up with useless eye candy.  Who in their right mind would care about any of this?

But then I discovered that you can label your folders with badges, and suddenly it became valuable to me.

See, I already think that finding neat and useful ways to organize and arrange icons on my Home screen is an agreeable sort of metagame in its own right.  The problem with 3DS folders is that their labels are so unhelpful -- a single letter or number on the face of your folder is the only clue what's inside it until you actually click on the thing.  If you forget what your folders are, you might make a lot of wrong guesses before you find the one you're looking for.  I instantly saw the use that it could be to put icons on my folders -- a little Mario for my platformers, a little Link for my adventure games, and so on.

Is this kind of a dick move on Nintendo's part?  Well yes.  They've given me an operating system with a glaring interface flaw, and now they want to charge me real money for the icons that will solve my problem.  On the other hand, I can't really say that these things are absolutely worthless to me.  Do I want an 8-Bit Wii Fit Trainer that I can put on a folder?  Well... yes.  Am I willing to pay a buck to do that?

Well... let's think about that.

Why Should I Pay?

Just like Rusty's Real Deal Baseball, this game is hosted by a cute cartoon animal, in this case a pink rabbit.  During the game's opening moments, you can actually engage him in a dialogue about why you have to pay to play his game, and it's pretty clear that Nintendo is speaking through him to justify this product.  And they actually make a fair point.

See, there are multiple crane machines to choose from when you play, and it's pretty clear that each one has been deliberately designed based on the badges that are on offer.  It's not just a square box with a random clutter of JPGs at the bottom; the badges are carefully stacked and balanced on a series of platforms, and it's often obvious that there's a way to "win" it by making the correct move -- starting a cascade that sends all of the badges tumbling down the drain.  Moreover, the game is updated with new content every day.  (You need to be online to play, and all time is based on server time, so no sneaky changing your 3DS's internal clock.)

Badge Bunny makes the argument that our real money is what makes this work.  And... it's a fair enough point.  If Nintendo is going to go on designing new crane machines indefinitely, it's not totally unfair of them to ask us to pay periodically.

In essence, this isn't really a game.  It's just a fancy storefront for another screen-decorating element, just like the Theme Store already is.  If you were paying for gameplay, it would be a complete waste because a buck will get you literally seconds of play time.  But if you genuinely want that Isabelle icon to put on your folder with all of the Animal Crossing games in it, then maybe you can justify dropping a buck, especially when you can get a couple more icons with the rest of your plays.  That's not too awful, right?

Well, there's something you need to remember.

Crane Games Are Awful

Admittedly, Badge Arcade is better than some of its real-world counterparts when it comes to the basic mechanics behind it.  That is, it doesn't feel like a screwjob.  The crane is easy to control, behaves about the way you expect it to, and when it does drop a badge, I can always admit that it didn't have a very good grip to begin with.  It's always clear that there's some way to get a badge out of the machine.  The game feels inherently winnable.

Still, it's a crane game.  And if you've ever walked past a crane game with a young child, you know the psychological draw they have.  They're enticing because they are a GAME.  They have flashing lights and cool sounds and you can push a button to make a thing move.  And if you're good at the game, you get a PRIZE.  Who cares if it's cheap junk that you'd walk past at a Goodwill -- put it behind a glass case, and you've made it unattainable.  It's an award that only goes to the skilled.  Of course, if you actually touch it, the magic vanishes, but by then they've got your money.

Maybe you can say no and walk past it.  But what if it's in the lobby of the Wal-Mart where you take your child grocery shopping every week?  You'll say no once.  Twice.  Five times.  Twenty times.  But then you'll say yes once.  Because after all, it's just a dollar, right?  And maybe you'll say yes another time.  And another.  You don't notice twenty dollars vanishing if it's one at a time.

Now take that crane machine and put it right there on your child's Home screen, where they will see it every single day.

Badge Arcade is fine if you're a sober adult with an idea of the value of money who's able to show some patience and restraint.  But I cannot imagine why any parent would decide to add this kind of money-sucking psychological trap to their child's video game system.  Even if they are mature enough to realize that money is a real thing that we shouldn't be dumping into crane machines, sooner or later they're going to see a badge that they want and they know they can't have.  Kids don't need one more thing in their lives trying to convince them that they need it.

The First One's Always Free

But the game's free, the denizens of Miiverse protest.  You can get all of the badges you want just by being patient and using free plays once a day.

I mean... you know why they give you a free play every day, right?

When Badge Bunny first welcomes you to the arcade, he's overjoyed to offer you five plays, completely free of charge.  He starts you in an incredibly easy Mario-themed machine, where the badges are spaced out and easy to grab, and even if one of them slips, the ground is slanted so that it's most likely to tumble down the drain anyway.

"Wow!" says Badge Bunny as you clean out the entire machine, "You did great!  I didn't get a single badge on my first try!  You're a born winner!  This game is always going to be this easy!"

Then he broaches the subject of payment, but quickly puts you at ease -- they have a practice machine that you can play once a day!  You don't get to keep the badges, but you can use it to earn more free plays that you can use in the real machines.  On my first day, the practice machine was a super easy Zelda-themed machine where you used a hammer to knock the practice badges off of the platform.  I cleaned it out without any problem.  One of the practice badges I got was a bonus badge worth 3 free plays, plus I earned a fourth free play for getting more than 10 practice badges in 5 tries.

You feel pretty good when you're done for the day.  You've got a nice stack of badges, and maybe you're thinking this won't be so bad.  Just be patient, play once a day, use your free plays -- why's everyone so worried about this game?

But when you continue to play for the rest of the week, you start to realize a couple things.

First is that free plays are a joke.  How surprising it is that those bonus badges in the practice machine dry up after the first day.  I remember a day when I got a particularly easy practice machine and cleaned it out twice within my five free turns.  Not one of them was a bonus badge.  And when you do find a bonus badge?  Well, it's not good for three turns anymore -- it's just good for one.  After the heady rush of the first day, you find that the reality is just about one or two free turns a day, and sometimes none.

But hey, even if you just get one free turn a day, all you have to do is be patient, right?  Get one badge today, get another one tomorrow, soon you've got all of your favorites, right?

Well, no.

Just like in a real crane game, the good stuff is on the bottom.  Nintendo knows that you want that Isabelle badge, so they made sure that she's buried under boring-ass lamps and bookshelves so that you have to dig her out.  So you'll burn through your free play(s), and then you're left with the badge you actually want sitting there, finally ready to be grabbed.  If you leave the game and come back to it later, the whole machine resets.  But if you put a dollar in right now...

And remember what I said about the game updating with new machines every day?  Well, the other side of the coin is that they remove machines after a while.  Sure, there's a rotation, and maybe the one you missed will come back another day.  Then again, maybe it won't.  Do you really want to run the risk of missing your chance to have a Majora's Mask badge?  Just one dollar...

The whole point of giving a free play every day is to make sure that you're coming back every day.  It's to make sure that you're always aware of what's available and what's about to vanish "forever".  It's to put you in a frame of mind that it's possible to get that badge that you want, if only you had one more try to do it.

And it's also to get you to sit through an ad.

See, every day, when you come to the arcade, Badge Bunny pops up to tell you about the new badges that are on offer, and he runs you through an unskippable dialogue where he tells you about HOW AWESOME this Nintendo game is and OH MY GOD YOU'VE GOT TO TRY IT, and HEY if you've already got the game in question, WE'VE GOT ALL OF THESE COOL BADGES I BET YOUR LIFE WON'T BE COMPLETE UNTIL YOU OWN THEM.

And Badge Bunny is adorable and animated and chatty and funny and you don't even realize that this is just a cheap advertisement for Nintendo.

I'm Continuing to Play This Game For Some Reason

From a cold, clinical, intellectual frame of mind, I can lay out all of the reasons why this is a terrible piece of software, but at the end of the day, the fact remains that I still check in with Badge Bunny every morning.

The fact is, I do think it's an interesting experiment.  Nintendo has made a completely digital crane game, right down to the fact that you pay real money for every play and you win useless junk that you get to keep.  This is going to hold a different value for different people.  For some people, this is going to be worth it.  For others, it won't.  The stalwarts who will never, ever pay for this sort of thing can try it out, shrug, and move on.  The people who like decorative trinkets will probably discover that it delivers some value for them.  The process is self-correcting.

I don't want to encourage Nintendo to pursue pay-to-play schemes like this.  There's a reason home game consoles collapsed the arcade market -- given the choice, people generally prefer to make a single payment and own a game forever.  But given that this is more like a fancy storefront, and the digital goods that you get from it are yours to keep indefinitely, I can only get so mad.

I've played the game for two weeks.  I've spent about six bucks in order to get the icons that I really, really wanted, but mostly I just play for free, maybe get a new badge or two, and then put it down again.  I haven't really felt ripped off.  I don't pay any money if I don't expect I'll get something I want from it, and so far I haven't been disappointed.

It's... fine.


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