Sunday, December 14, 2008

Where the hell is Reggie?

A few years back Nintendo retook center stage through the act of simply updating their executive roster. In May 2004 the iconic Reggie Fils-Aime blew the doors off the quiet Japanese company with a decidedly new face with a legendary introduction. "My name is Reggie. I'm about kickin' ass, I'm about takin' names, and we're about makin' games." It was simple, succinct, direct, and effected an aggressive attitude not seen since "Sega does with Ninten DON'T" was around.

Nintendo did become aggressive, and very quickly - the Wii was born, and Reggie was all over the networks, providing a distinctive face and manner that made any viewer instantly comfortable and more importantly, interested in his products. Reggie also appeared at many trade shows and events to keep shareholders and interested parties informed and excited about Nintendo and where it was headed. But most importantly, he made us all confident in the company's success by simply saying it would happen in a believable way. Success came and the Wii is still a hard to find Christmas item three years later.

But there's one problem.

The cornucopia of Nintendo prosperity and goodness is suddenly AWOL. For the first time in years, Nintendo does not have any A-List titles hitting the market while companies like Sony and Microsoft are raking in the dollars with huge releases like Little Big Planet and Gears of War 2. Where's a Mario, Star Fox, Fire Emblem, or Zelda release for the holiday rush? Common shares of Mario's company are trading at near half the value of their peak about 18 months ago (still up from the pre-Reggie days), reflecting a lack of investor confidence amidst a global economic downturn. And a downturn in confidence is an accurate position to be of when considering The Big N. Instead of launching a new franchise to a wider install base demographic, such as Mother or Stafy, Nintendo has kept silence on any plans.

This silence is detrimental to Nintendo's image in the quickly collapsing casual market. Beyond the fact a "casual" gamer plays different titles when compared to a "hardcore" gamer, Nintendo has put their eggs in a basket that isn't dedicated to their console - "casual" gamers. Nintendo is slated to be victims by the very nature of the demographic they tried to hard to capitalize on. It really just feels like someone's going to walk into my church and invite people to the new mega-church down the street (and be quite successful because they're "casually" interested in the subject at hand). "Hardcore" gamers are what may likely carry a company in this hard economy and Nintendo is nowhere near satisfying the demographic currently more likely to fill their coffers. This brings us to our point: all these new gamers have bought their consoles and want more to do, the dedicated fans have nothing, and Reggie is nowhere to be seen. Where the hell is Reggie?

Reggie has not been out in the public spotlight for quite some time and the public interest/confidence level is starting to drift. Instead, Ye Olde Hanafunda is advertising this holiday for the DS...headlining with titles that are at least a year old. This simply does not jive with the image Nintendo has tried so hard to build over the last year. Reggie needs to get back out in the spotlight, announce some major titles, and restore confidence in both shareholders and gamers alike. In an economy where perceived value of a product is carefully scrutinized, silence simply will not make a consumer feel their investment is worthwhile and this is no time for that high pitched Italian plumber to silence his whoops and hollers.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Game Music? It Doesn't Suck as Bad as You Remember

Every serious gamer has, at one point or another, been struck by a video game in a unique way. Sometimes, it's emotional connections to plot twists. Sometimes, it is the evolution of a character. Still other times, the entire game comes together and is sealed in a crystal moment by the soundtrack. Soundtracks are some of the most endearing and often defining pieces of any video game. Be it an earworm, the aforementioned scenario, or some new way to view the song through an updated remix, game soundtracks will endure far beyond the cartridge and discs housing the game ever will. So enduring are these pieces, that entire traveling concerts and websites have been set up to help avid fans celebrate the legacy of music.

My iPhone (which contains an iPod has been loaded with select game soundtracks, typically the sort that touch on many games. Currently flavors include the entire Kingdom Hearts Complete and Super Smash Bros Brawl soundtracks, which are my true loves of the week. While my lovers are fickle and change, I will always remember a few.

The Ballad of the Windfish - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - Artist: Unknown
The earliest memorable piece of music that stands out in my mind is the final iteration of The Ballad of the Wind Fish from The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. As a child I had really played this game and it seemed the music perfectly complimented the gameplay - besides the obvious musical instrument element, the soundtrack was perfectly suited to the atmospheres of the dungeons and characters. It seemed to come to a head when Marin, a main supporting character you have bonded with through the game, is seen singing The Ballad of the Wind Fish faithfully, despite the entire island disappearing around her, certain to take her at the very last. This moved me as a child, as the song you tried to hard to fully complete through the whole game ends up being the very thing to destroy the world.

The Other Promise - Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix - Artist: Yoko Shimomura
Kingdom Hearts II ranks among the highest of my video game favorites, and certainly has an incredible soundtrack to boot. While KH was a great title and certainly captured a certain magic I'd been yearning to see in video games for years, KHII certainly eclipsed and surpassed its predecessor in so many ways but one - side content. When I learned of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix and all the new additional content it was an instant purchase, and one I've never regretting, especially for the expanded music selection.

The KH soundtracks are incredible and it is difficult to pick a sole song as above the rest, however for me a particular piece stands out. One of the new pieces of content in KHIIFM was the extension of the cutscene in the original release in which Roxas returns toward the end of the game. Final Mix took this and extended it to a full on, if not extremely difficult battle, instead of a sole movie. Playing here was a much more intense and dramatic version of the original song Yoko Shimomura created for Roxas, heard in the original release as well as early parts of Final Mix. Perfectly composed and finely tuned, this song takes a battle that not only surprises you and fulfills the desire most gamers had originally (to see Roxas vs Sora), but jacked it up so high your emotions are drawn into the battle and it almost pains you to see Roxas fall, as he inevitably will. I've not quite yet heard a song that coupled so perfectly to it's game counterpart that it allowed you to actually feel the desperation and despair of a character fighting to not be lost to the wind. I'm loathe to spoil the entirely of the extended scene, but hearing The Other Promise and then hearing the soundtrack back down and return to Roxas' theme as key revelations are made creates an emotional and memorable experience like none other.

The Song of Healing - The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask - Artist: Koji Kondo
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is my personal least favorite of all the Zelda cannon, however it had a soundtrack done in quite the unique style, never quite done the same in any other title. Scattered amongst the new tunes was a piece designed for a moment in which Link manages to reunite a daughter with her father, who link freed from being cursed as a Re-Dead for eternity. The two share an emotional moment in which they are reunited to the sounds of a soft piano interlude, conveniently called The Song of Healing. The song also puts in appearances in other areas, but none quite do it like this one.

Fever - Puyo Puyo/Puyo Pop Fever - Artist: Unknown
Ah, the Puyo Puyo series. A massive hit in Japan running 15 years strong on many platforms and formats, the series has puzzled many and broken others. While the soundtrack itself won't stand out on many counts, my first exposure to the series led me to one song that inspired the weirdest chills down any known person's back. By countering another player's moves you can build up your fever meter and in turn achieve a mode known as fever. Fever itself changes your view to an alternate playfield filled with much easier opportunities to even the odds between you and an opponent. To be on the receiving end of this is never a good thing but hearing super cheery candy music certainly isn't what you'd expect to hear with the sound of pending doom. Yet you do. And you die. In a bright, cheery way.

Gym Leader Battle - Pokémon Red/Blue/Green - Artist: Junichi Masuda
Go back with me to 1998 for a moment. Home to Boyz II Men in every car and Game Boys in black and white, this year saw the North American debut of the Pokémon franchise. As a young junior high student I was just beginning my personal video game carrier, breaking the habit of visiting my neighbor just to use his Nintendo. Kicking this off? Pokémon Blue. After spending a million days figuring out what the hell was going on (no, the instruction manual didn't help), I figured out I needed to go kick some gym leader's ass. So I began the journey, and after cursing myself for picking Charmander to use against a Rock type I made it to the gym. A few mandatory battles later and I was treated to a far more intense piece of music I wasn't expecting - the gym leader battle music. Gone was the "Oh yay, we're having a fight" sort of tone, we were getting serious. Brock cleaned up on me but I didn't care, the music was just awesome. While somewhat cheesy now, the music matched the feeling of discovery I felt intensely and the memory remains with me to this day.

Those are but a few of my fondly recalled musical moments in gaming. There are plenty of other tracks that ring through my memory from time to time, some older than others, but each evoking a particular unique emotion I don't quite 100% duplicate anywhere else. We each have our own set and all carry sentimental value. Which are yours? Perhaps the tune of Sephiroth? Mayhaps the creeping of Death in Kid Icarus or melodies of unexplored caves in Crystalis jump you into fond recall. By all means, share your thoughts. You'll find a lot of others probably share the same memories.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Samba De so Close, Wii!

I think it's absolutely fantastic Sega has revived several of their more unique franchises - I'm a staunch fan of unique games that promote creativity in games and show me new ways to experience my hobby. I've found far more cherished gaming memories and creative stimuli in games like NiGHTS and Space Channel 5 than I do titles like in the Battlefield series, which play in the same general sort of sense as many other games. It isn't that those titles are any less enjoyable or solid - it's simply a case of unique memorable moments and inspirations. In today's competitive market, there are less and less companies that can afford to be a "Working Designs" type company that are willing to bet it's business on bringing you unique products, which is why Sega's willingness to risk capital on more unique titles draws far more of my attention and hope for success than franchises like Smash Bros, which will always serve as a license to print money.

Sega's current risk on the market is the revival of Samba De Amigo for the Wii console. A unique title bristling with crazy animal characters and dancing EVERYTHING, it blazed unique territory in 1999 by being a game based entirely on the shaking of maracas. Nothing else had been done like it before, and save for a similar Sega-produced tambourine game, nothing has ever been since - until now. With Sega seeming to not be in the best financial position, especially in a slowing world economy, releasing a title like this requires it to be developed, produced, and marketed in just the correct way so as to maximize the potential purchase dollars of the niche market it caters to. Despite being only two days into release in the North American market, I've clocked quite a few hours (killing my arms in the process), and it is painfully obvious Samba De Amigo will need a lifeline faster than the failing banks of Wall Street. The good news is that this CAN happen with the current release situation, the bad news is Sega's track record of responsiveness doesn't lead one to a conclusion in positive territory.

So what's broken? Gameplay, production, and marketing. Let's examine each and how they can be fixed:

In the original Dreamcast release Samba De Amigo came with a sensor bar and two red maracas, the fruit of Sega's extensive research into near-perfect duplication of the title's arcade counterpart. The game requires the maracas to be shook based on rhythmical notations on the screen in a high, mid, or low position for each hand. It worked very well and is often praised as among the best translations of perfect arcade style controls to a home console.

The Wii version is based on the Wii's wiimote and nunchuck technologies, not visual reflection as on the Dreamcast. This creates a situation in which a similar, yet entirely different mechanic is used to determine the wiimote, or virtual maracas', placement in gameplay. Instead of being able to triangulate positioning through infrared, the virtual maracas' position is based on the pivot of the wiimote. This goes completely against the human tendency to place the wiimote in a higher space or a lower space like is logical - instead one must make sure the wiimote is pointing in the appropriate direction instead. You can use your arm to help simulate a "dancing" feel but in the end most will throw their arms up, pointing the wiimote backward, causing a missed shake of the maraca. Repeated unintentional misses when following logical steps leads to frustration. Ever hear of a game that wasn't designed to be frustrating selling like hotcakes? I sure haven't in a long time, and the word of mouth this game generates based on this factor alone could be a deadly blow. The fix? This fix lies in correcting the game's production.

A good deal of the problems could have been solved with the Wii Motion Plus, a device that should have been built into the WiiMote. This marvelous upgrade Nintendo held secret, causing a number of new titles to play worse then they could have, with Samba being a prime example. The WiiMote can't track the movements and shakes, when comparing how much accuracy could have been programmed into this game had Nintendo let developers know about the add-on. Samba is simply a victim of Nintendo screwing the pooch, er, monkey.

A game where you pretend to shake maracas should, well, come with maracas. It only makes sense. I recognize Sega had no need to create an entirely new peripheral for Samba De Amigo on Wii when the controls were motion sensitive to begin with. Nevertheless the game positively screamed for some sort of maraca peripheral or add on to help make the game experience more authentic.

Believe it or not authenticism is not the only reason for including a maraca shell with the game. Having played with a third party maraca shell for the Wii, I can confirm this simple plastic shell goes a long, long way in correcting the game's flawed basis for detecting maraca position. Having the ability to see and feel a large maraca in your hands inherently guides you to position the wiimotes accurately for position and shake detection. The difference was nearly night and day! On the hard difficulty level I was initially feeling frustrated and spending more of my mental processing power on making sure the game thought the maracas were in the place I wanted them to be, instead of focusing on actually playing. The second I snapped those shells on I was automatically in the right place due to how I had to hold it, and I shifted from focusing to actually being able to play the game, increasing my enjoyment ten-fold. Having the shakers in play also helped to sharpen my timing. Simply put, imaginary maracas don't lend themselves to easily being played with.

Sega's out-of-the-box impression to consumers would have been sharpened so much had they simply included a maraca shell for the wiimote for the aforementioned reasons. The best part? They still can do this! Creating a bundle with a slightly higher price tag is not unheard of and has been known to happen from time to time. Making this sort of shrewd move could single handedly save the game from the path it is rolling down without abandon, as dropping $15 extra for a set of maracas as a separate purchase can deter a consumer while bundling would create a better impression of value while ensuring the gameplay goes according to plan at the same time.

What happens if this is not done? Samba De Amigo on Wii will likely go down amongst Sega's worst DC to Wii conversions in history thanks to the lack of "built in" guide to shake your maraca just right. Even if it is actually corrected (a Sega first), they still need to get the word out.

Some companies don't get marketing or aim for the wrong market entirely. Sonic needs to go fast, yet Sega slows him down and markets the title to the 18-40 year old demographic that purchases games, instead of marketing that sort of title to the senior population playing Wii Sports. Unfortunately Sonic is doing better than Amigo - and that's saying something. Sega needs to get the word out about this unusual title if they hope to sell it. The average casual, and even hardcore gamer, simply isn't going to fully understand a title of this nature based on the box alone - especially when the box has a bizarre looking monkey wearing a sombrero while holding maracas. Sega needs to get the word out about what this game actually is and how it is played. 30 seconds works for ordering some crap bug remover through voodoo, so why not a dancing monkey?

Couple a marketing ploy with the maraca clasp bundle and suddenly you have a game that really works straight out of the box, letting you reach the hardcore market, but also the casual market that so many companies are so desperate to break into (and Sega really needs to break into something). It's a sure-fire recipe for success!

Let me be clear - I'm not declaring Samba De Amigo to be dead two days into release. To make such a declaration so soon is not in the speculative nature of any well-informed gamer. What I am saying is the clear level of production values and effort that go into such a well-loved title are about to go the way of Sega's other recent failures - and that is what probably is the biggest loss of all. Let's all hope some Sega PR person googles for "Samba De Amigo" or "Samba De Amigo Review" and finds my page of suggestions. I know they'll go a long way.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Samba De Doom?

Sega has finally released Samba de Amigo for Wii and yes, it's fun! Digital Stardust loves our readers and we love our Sexy Mexican Dancing Monkeys™ and want their success. That being said we've discovered how to overcome the game's one flaw - the controls. Simply calibrate and go? No sir, that's not it. Here's the secret - don't move your whole arm when playing. The maracas are based on the pivot of the Wiimote, not their location in space. Move your arms a little, but pivot your wrist a lot more. (Eg. Don't be throwing your entire arm in the air - just raise it a little but rotate your wrist so the Wiimote points straight up.) It worked for us and the game is much better.

Happy Dancing!

Friday, September 19, 2008


Is it just me or am I the only person on earth who is sick and tired of DRM? Rootkits, Securom, malware-esque software - these are the things companies are doing to make sure I cannot make copies of their software. On the one hand I can see the need to curb rampant piracy, but on the other hand what happened to my single backup copy? Here's what I think the bottom line is - at some point some judge on a bench somewhere needs tell corporate America "No. No you may not take whatever measures necessary to protect your IP. The consumer has a right to basic technology that could be used for piracy, even though the intent is not to do that. You will just have to accept it." If this happened, I'd immediately move to wherever that judge is and vote him or her in consistently.

I think perhaps the only DRM I'm actually okay with is Apple's Fairplay, and it isn't because I like Apple either. It's because it has to be the single best DRM scheme I've personally encountered - it doesn't ever actually bother me with questions and popups and firmware modifications. It just is there and does what it does best. It doesn't allow the files to be used on another person's computer without me logging in. It's brilliant! There's nothing else I have to do, the RIAA shuts up a little more, and I'm out just 99 cents, which is the cost of the hamburger I probably didn't need anyway.

Sadly, Fairplay is Apple's baby and they keep it locked up tight so it won't be cracked directly. That just leaves all the other things that drive me crazy - Securom, Sony's Sekrit Rootkits™, and their family of viruses. With so many applications moving into "the cloud" (fancy speak for "internet") why not just implement a forward moving scheme that doesn't actually burrow into my computer like certain diseases associated with adult occupations? It's two-thousand-freaking-eight for cryin' out loud!

Corporate America & Co.. I have news for you. We, your customers, don't like your digital rights management. No, you may not reach into my personal life in the name of the almighty dollar. No, you may not modify my system setup to ensure you get every damn penny you think you deserve. You know why we are pirating things these days? It's because you simply are too greedy to consider lowering the price of your goods to a point that doesn't require my left kidney. You're pricing your market right out of legitimacy. Stop turning out more and more crap that I'm not interested in that forces you to raise your price on the actual good content. Yes, I will vote with my wallet and yes, you will lose your money. And when that happens you will not have a right to whine that your profits are down and people are pirating your expensively priced good content. In this social contract I'm willing to support you if you stop being so greedy! Lower your prices, buy one less Porsche a year, and suck it up. You'd be surprised at how many more Porsches you'll get when you become affordable and higher quality.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Somari Team Presents: The Ocarina of Piracy

For a small portion of my life I lived in Turkey. The first thing you learn about video games as an expatriate is they're notoriously hard to get for your foreign system and games on the market in Europe are disgracefully delayed in coming to market. The second thing you learn is you need a multi-system TV with automatic switching. Seeing NTSC running on a PAL TV for the first time is a nightmare that causes a mental breakdown, once you consider the thought of needing repair on your console from a foreign region. The third thing you learn is to cherish and love the Sony hologram, the Sega Swirl, and the official Nintendo Seal of Quality as piracy runs rampant.

In North America, it is not very common to walk into a Wal-Mart or Toys-R-Us and see pirated games sitting on the shelf. I was blown away in Turkey to see Super Mario 64 for Game Boy. How cool was that? Well, as it turns out, it was not cool at all. Super Mario 64 for Game Boy was some sort of hacked Super Mario Land 2 with Mario's hat carrying some sort of funny wings on it constantly. They weren't the carrot hat ears from the source title but instead I think they were some sort of ruddy ear thing inspired by the wing cap from Super Mario 64. At the time I thought it wouldn't matter that these obviously faked cartridges exist - people knew better, right? The biggest shock of all came when I visited Toys-R-Us once.

Toys-R-Us had always carried legitimate Dreamcast titles and accessories, many of which I wanted after playing them on the in-store demo. They even had some Super Nintendo titles sitting around with some licensed controllers. Nintendo 64? Obviously someone had not gotten the Ocarina of Time gospel and come to the light of Miyamoto. I chalked it up to regional differences and some launch thingie things that needed to be worked out. Fast forward a few months and Nintendo had thrown a few Ocarina of Time ads on TV to promote the launch of the console. I decided I'd pop into Toys-R-Us to check to see how the European box art would be different. There were no Nintendo 64s. Instead I was greeting with the "Super Game!" or some such named thing. I examined the box curiously and saw "Cool 3D graphics!" depicting some sort of FIFA-type game along with some miscellaneous fighters. For $30 I figured it might be worth checking out and managed to procure one after nagging my parents.

After getting home and eagerly sitting in front of the TV, I pulled out my shiny new console and realized it looked a LOT like a Playstation. Except there was no CD drive. There was a cartridge slot under the supposed disc drive cover. I knew something was wrong by now but I took the pack-in game "1,000 in 1" cartridge and stuck it in. The shock set in as soon as I hit the power button. Apparently "Cool 3D graphics!" in Chinese means "8-bit". Pirated, clunky Mario titles lived inside the cartridge along with heinous hacks of Popeye and Excitebike, among many others. I knew something wasn't kosher for sure (bright kid, wasn't I?).

I managed to return the console to Toys-R-Us thanks to not being able to speak much Turkish. Nevertheless, my eyes were opened. What was all this junk out here? I kept an eye on Toys-R-Us for a while, watching as they stocked a large amount of consoles, quickly replenishing stock when running out. After a few weeks I was fed up and contacted Nintendo of America since there was no real central number for Nintendo of Europe I could find.

Despite being overseas, Nintendo was keenly interested in listening to me and forwarded things onto their teams in Europe for handling. I kept tabs on the store, surprised when suddenly one day the entire stock of "Super Game!" was gone without being replaced for a few months. I took a small portion of satisfaction out of it, thinking maybe I had made a small difference in the video game world.

I didn't win. The next summer Toys-R-Us started to carry more "Super Game!" while never picking up the Nintendo 64. Again the pattern continued of sell and restock. I called NoA again and reported once more. I was left on my own to conclude Nintendo had followed up with Toys-R-Us corporate in Turkey and had pressured them to stop carrying the console. Ostensibly this worked for a time but had ultimately failed. I was later informed via major game news outlets Nintendo would be withdrawing distribution of the Nintendo 64 from Turkey along with titles sold there due to the extreme piracy in the area.

As a gamer, I felt sad at the news. Many titles Nintendo has published over the years are frequently considered great works of art that push the human sense of emotion. At the time I felt it was like being denied the opportunity to see a Van Gogh or Picasso. I was also angry at the pirates for using "Cool 3D Graphics!" to lure people falsely into purchasing a fake product. As I thought more about it I became outraged at piracy. It wasn't just a little here and there - it was a lot of little heres and theres that combined to drive a great product out.

I never did keep tabs on the gaming scene in Turkey when I left. I do not know if the Wii ever made a successful launch there or if the Vii did. But now you know the story of a little black console that was driven out by piracy, despite a legitimate launch effort. Next time you consider grabbing a pirated copy of some title, stop and consider this little story. Maybe you'll change your mind.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Has Nintendo Run out of Steam?

E3 2005 - Nintendo creates world headlines and places its cajones on the line as it announces the Revolution. Skeptics run rampant, believers come to Christ, and the end seems nearer than ever. Though there are many schools of thought on the console, one thing is apparent - it's Nintendo's Final Fantasy. They will either do or die. After a series of carefully timed news releases in which we learn more about the console, we not only become impressed, but we get a sense that Nintendo has a firm roadmap in place and is in control of what its doing.

This sense of control is confirmed as Nintendo continues to ask the public to be patient for the things they want to hear - the new Marios, the Mario Karts, Smash Bros. After being asked for patience, the public is given the news over time for the things they want to hear. Sure, the console can't be found, but the games are just as awesome as we expected and the control scheme delivers.

Enter 2008. Super Smash Bros. Brawl is released after Super Mario Galaxy and is followed up with Mario Kart Wii. Then...silence. Nintendo has nothing of major interest to announce - no F-Zero title, no StarFox, no hint of a Zelda, not even a gimmie such as a Pilotwings title. To boot, no major DS releases were announced either (Where's my New Super Mario Bros 2?). We're left in the inky blackness that is quiet.

What happened Nintendo? One gets the feeling someone didn't think ahead this far. Has Nintendo become a victim of its own success? At this juncture, it's quite likely. Holiday 2008 is approaching and Nintendo has no major releases in the pipe for the first time in a long, long span. Super Mario Sluggers just isn't going to make the grade against titles such as Little Big Planet. Either way, the Big N has got to get it together - it's stock is down about $15/share from last quarter and is continuing in this trend, which does not bode well for gamers and investors alike. While Nintendo isn't going to coin heaven anytime soon, they're also not in coin heaven either.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Adults Are Gamers, Too

So, some time ago at work, I was looking at the box to Sega Rally Revo for the 360. As I get my snail mail on the way out of the house as I head to work, it was in my bag, work was dead, and I thought I would poke around the box and instructions to keep me busy for a bit.

A cow-orker comes into my office from wrapping his skids, sees the game on my desk, and he says to me, “You’re just a big kid,” smiling and chuckling in a friendly way. This backs up what I havee noticed for years now: Most people see gamers as being kids, or immature adults, and frankly, I wonder why more eyes haven’t opened up to the fact that the mainstream gamer - and target market - is a male of 34 years old. So, I am a few years younger, and slightly bumpier in the shirt then the average guy (Yeah, that means I'm a woman, kiddos) but I’m pretty close to that target. I’m just the one expected to be playing only puzzle games on her DS instead of beating someone up to steal their helicopter, then creating havoc in Liberty City.

Jack Thompson, self proclaimed savior of the gaming world and soon to be disbarred lawyer, has a few actual good points, but he perpetuates the idea that games are only for kids. I actually agree with him that games such as “Grand Theft Auto” should not be marketed towards children - but here’s the key fact: They aren’t, and they’re rated “M” (in the US) to show parents. The simple existence of the GTA series is proof that games are not only made for children, even if Thompson thinks the people at Take Two/Rockstar are twisted evil people bent on destroying the world. They know what they made, and they know they are not going to be handing over a copy to a 12 year old themselves. People like Thompson make my mother cringe when GTA is mentioned, and make it so she would never even give the game a glance, as I sit in my own home enjoying the well crafted and deep storyline.

I see this as a case of few people knowing where or how to treat videogames, and the people who play them.

So what do I see as a solution? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to change the public consciousness to accept adults as gamers, but it will come in time, even if a comic book created for adults still is seen as a child’s pastime, and therefore should not exist. I think I’ll always be older then what the public sees as a gamer, as will millions of others. I do see a few things that could be done to keep things in the right perspective, however. Parents should be interested in what their kids are playing, and just like TV and movies, realize that they don’t have total control outside of their household.

Games are not only for kids, as is the same with a movie or TV show. Many parents would not want their kids to be watching Family Guy or even Robot Chicken, even though those are animated programs. What we are seeing is that gaming is one of the newest popular forms of entertainment, and will be in the spotlight until something new comes around to take its place. The same thing happened with TV, comic books, and believe it or not, actual books.

So why all this talk of parental guidance and such? It is me asking most of the world to not take away Grand Theft Auto and other adult oriented games. There are many adults gaming, and we want content that is in line with other entertainment we enjoy. We can’t all enjoy Disney Princess games, can we?

Common, Niko. We’ll make them pay for what they did to Roman!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Feature: Konami V Roxor - The Suppression of a Dance Revolution

Editor's Note: Welcome to Digital Stardust's first full-length feature piece. Due to the length of this piece in an RSS reader, you may find reading this easier on DiS itself, where you may also choose to put in your two cents. With regards to the piece itself - this has been in the works for a few months now as we've been patiently tweaking and revising it to ensure we drive our point just right. This post only seems more relevant in light of Konami's current lawsuit over Rockband, which bears some eerie resemblances to their past lawsuit against Roxor. Although the technical points of the lawsuits may be different, we cannot help but see the similarities between the two and hope the past does not serve as an oracle for the future in this case. So, without further ado, please enjoy Digital Stardust's "Konami V Roxor - The Suppression of a Dance Revolution".

July 1, 2005 - a day infamous in music gaming history. A new press release showed up on Konami's global homepage indicating suit had been filed against Roxor games seeking "an injunction and damages against the manufacture of dance simulation game 'In The Groove'."

Many fans of dance games were outraged. Konami, developer of the Dance Dance Revolution franchise, was providing no updated legal arcade-based method to play Dance Dance Revolution in the North American territory and many were quick to point out all machines in the US were illegal Japanese imports, confirmed by the screen in game that indicates the game is "licensed for use in Japan only." Others simply felt that Konami did not want an up-and-coming competitor taking "their" market. But is this why? Or was it a simple case of patent infringement, as a majority of the lawsuit indicated? Could it have been a case of corporate greed? The outcome has been decided already but the unspoken influences of the two rivals live on. 

First, let us take a look at Dance Dance Revolution.

Dance Dance Revolution

Rewind to December 1997 at a thriving Japanese arcade. Amongst the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, a new machine is wheeled out with two speakers outlined in neon tubing, five keys arranged in a piano-like fashion with a scratch table, a display, and two smaller sets of speakers above that - also outlined in neon tubing. The machine is set down, plugged in, and left alone in a similar fashion to the identical machines being deployed in other arcades. Soon throngs of Japanese teens and young adults are playing this new machine, the "ultimate dj simulator", pressing keys in a timed fashion and "mixing" together a selection of specially composed tunes. This is beatmania. The machines were wildly popular, spawning many new sequel "mixes" in addition to a game that would share much of the same music library - Dance Dance Revolution.

Winter turned to spring 1998, which saw beatmania 2nd Style break sales records and even more widespread popularity. Spring became summer and as in August 1998 Dance Dance Revolution was released, drawing a majority of its music from the first two beatmania mixes. This was not a dj simulator, however - this time players danced to the music through a set of preset steps in the shape of arrows corresponding to locations on the "dance platform" ranging from beginner difficulty to extremely difficult, full blown aerobic routines. Just as beatmania was a hit, Dance Dance became a wild success and soon became known as "DDR" for short.

The popularity and demand for DDR in Japan lead to a quickly paced release schedule for the series - a 2nd mix in January 1999, then a 3rd mix in October 1999. 3rd Mix made the jump across the Pacific to US arcades by year's end, taking on the name of "Dance Dance Revolution" sans a mix number. This release was notable due to the speed with which it occurred (just over a year after the Japanese 1st Mix release, unheard of at the time), the market it was being launched into (the North American market traditionally shows poor sales for more unusual or novel games on consoles, let alone the bust arcade market), and the expenses Konami asked of arcade operators in terms of cost of purchasing and maintaining an arcade unit. American audiences were slow to take to the game, but nevertheless a cult following quickly began and regular players would arrange coordinated playtimes to compete for bragging rights and social interaction. A year later in October 2000 Konami released Dance Dance Revolution USA to arcades with an expanded song selection and slightly improved graphical interface. Konami would not release a new official US arcade edition until September 2006, a long six year wait.

Back in Japan the Playstation market was well established and several home versions of DDR were released, prompting fans in the US to request a home version in their territory from Konami. After a two year period of silence Konami reluctantly released a home version based on the first US arcade edition in 2001 (DDR USA had already been released a year prior to arcades). Despite the game being nothing more than port of a two year old game with "old" music, the game became a sleeper hit, with sales of the game well beyond expected levels as new fans were introduced to the home version. Driven by sales numbers, Konami released Dance Dance Revolution Konamix for the Playstation in 2001, two years after the release of DDR USA, which the game was based off of. A Disney-themed edition was also produced, which eventually saw an unmarketed US release prior to Konamix, now a highly sought after Playstation collectable due to its perceived family-friendly selection of music.

After what seemed like confident backing of the series by Konami USA, the company entered a period of lopsided releases, drawing the criticism of fans. Many arcades had benefitted from the widespread popularity of DDR to the point where major news outlets were asking if the US arcade was making a comeback. At the request of patrons many arcades sought to obtain newer releases from Japan, which contained many new features and much higher song capcity per unit. Despite many arcades being forced to obtain bootleg units due to the extreme difficulty in obtaining legitimate arcade units, many fans began to play the more "superior" versions of DDR with new features many were unaware of, leading to the criticism of Konami deliberately holding back newer features from the US market as well as the feeling of a "missing gap" in the series' progression. Another common criticism that arose was handpicking of particular songs for the official US releases. A common example is the ever-popular but still unreleased original version of's Butterfly in any US version of DDR, despite Konami's Jason Enos indicating on several occasions they had the rights to do so.

During the introduction process of the series to the US and Europe the Japanese editions of DDR - considered the "main line" of the series - were sporting significant improvements. 3rd Mix introduced non-stop mode (no rest period between songs), 4th Mixintroduced a battle mode in which 2 players compete for higher score, 5th Mix added full length songs (as opposed to the standard average 90 second song), 6th Mix (or DDRMAX) introduced "freeze arrows" and heralded the second generation of games in the series by making the jump from older hardware based on the Playstation 1 to hardware based on the Playstation 2 - resulting in significant graphical improvements and a much higher song capacity. An alternate branch of DDR games were also introduced under the Dance Dance Revolution Solo brand that featured six-arrows instead of four.

Fans of the series began to play the imported arcade versions, which generally were regularly updated annually with newer imported editions from Japan that boasted even more songs and better features. DDRMAX2: Dance Dance Revolution 7th Mix was introduced to Japanese arcades in March 2002, featuring a new "Oni", or challenge, mode in which a player could only miss four steps out of a nonstop 5+ song series. Dance Dance Revolution Extreme was released in December 2002, featuring both the Oni an Nonstop modes in one game (the two had until now only been implemented in alternating editions), more music, and a better library of crossover songs from the beatmania franchise and other Konami-produced titles. Despite these innovations the actual gameplay itself changed very little in the sense that one was still pressing arrows when they reached the static arrows after scrolling up and additional criticism arose regarding Konami's consistent recycling of modes and features instead of innovating the series. Konami would not release a new arcade edition in any territory for four years.

The home console releases in Japan were consistent and generally straight ports of the newer music introduced in the corresponding arcade mix, with fewer "revival" songs than in the arcade due to DVD-size constraints. All new features were intact. The North American home versions released also bore the name of the Japanese editions (confusing gamers further as no new official US arcade releases were occurring) but did not sport any of the newer music or features introduced. Gamers were left frustrated as they could not play their favorite songs from the arcade on the equivalently named home edition and were again stuck with "older" songs. Konami did attempt to remedy the issue, however, by providing a handful of licensed songs from North America in the game.

With the arcade line of releases on hiatus Konami began to develop new console-only releases for both North America and Japan beginning in 2003, however these releases were not consistent in either name or content between territories. Japanese releases came on Playstation 2 and were generally updates of fan favorites through the series, or original songs brought into the newer generation of Playstation 2-based DDR games. None were considered to be part of the main line of Nth Mix releases.

Konami USA was finally able to bring athe DDR music library in North America current through various console releases. DDR Extreme 2 was released for Playstation 2, confusing gamers somewhat as the arcade never recieved a second DDR Extreme title. Though different, the US and Japanese versions did share a common graphical interface, due to using the same base programming code to save costs. Konami USA also began to release a new line of Dance Dance Revolution games for the Xbox, then later the Xbox 360 under the names Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix and Dance Dance Revolution Universe, respectively. Each recieved multiple sequels and have not been released in Japan due to poor uptake of the Xbox consoles. Note that gamers do not consider these to "compete" with the arcade editions as the game engine is a completely different build than the one used in the arcade.

North American gamers certainly appreciated the regular releases and music a constant criticism remained - they could not play their favorite songs in the arcade with any uniformity or preference due to songs being split into different songlists when comparing console editions and arcade units. Additionally, arcade machines were now considered "old" with no new machines being released in over 3 years and home releases outstripping arcade units due to having newer music. An additional constant criticism was DDR's percieved stagnation. No new methods of play had evolved since DDRMAX in 2001. Enter In The Groove.

In The Groove

In 2001 many gamers, frustrated with way Konami was handling Dance Dance games in North America, began to develop an open souce clone of the game for PC that would allow for custom music and step (or dance) patterns. This program became known as StepMania. As fans of DDR became increasingly frustrated with Konami's release patterns the resources of the SM community grew as more fans became aware of its existence. Caution was at hand, however, as Konami was currently in suit with Andamiro over claimed patent infringement by DDR competitor Pump It Up. The suit specifically dealt with a patent Konami held regarding the interaction of a dance pad with a computer. Because of this great care was taken to encourage independent music and step pattern writers to create original content for the game. To avoid the same patent infringement the program did not include or endorse a particular method of input during play. Although the suit was settled, the software's programmers did not change their stance in encouraging original content.

Regardless of the officially encouraged movement by the authors of StepMania many fans assembled songlists identical to DDR counterparts in order to satisfy their desire to have consistent music selection between the different available software selections available. Programmers also added options to the software that would enable it to act as an arcade machine, but again did not endorse or suggest a method by which such a machine should be deployed.

Once the arcade options were developed into SM a game titled In the Groove was announced to be in development for the arcade by Roxor Games. Initial screenshots showed a highly stylized interface with a blue motif for the main menu and the in-game interface similar to DDR but changed, ostensibly to avoid confusion with DDR. Fans of DDR and StepMania showed an immediate positive interest. After extensive development that drew upon the resources of the StepMania community in terms of soliciting feedback and requesting the assistance of several prominent music and step chart composers, In the Groove was released to arcades in October 2004 - two years after Dance Dance Revolution Extreme.

Reception of In The Groove was extremely positive due to the improvements the series boasted when compared to the DDR franchise. A connected USB drive could save player statistics, show the player's name in game (as opposed to "Player 1"), and save screenshots. The most significant feature, however, were the addition of many "modifiers" that would change the way arrows displayed as they progressed up the screen. While DDR used 2-D sprites for the arrows, ITG used fully rendered three dimensional arrows, allowing for modifiers that would make the arrows appear to be scrolling up the screen from an angle, pulse with the beat by means of stretching in and out, spin around during the scrolling upwards, float in a wave pattern across the screen, among others. These modifiers could be individually activated or be be enjoyed as part of the scripted step pattern through use of the highly popular marathon mode, which was ITG's answer to DDR's nonstop mode. Another popular change was the requirement to hit three or four arrows at once, forcing one to use their hands. The developers of Dance Dance Revolution had repeatedly stated they would not allow this in the franchise.

While ITG was had a higher difficulty it was considered a significant improvement over the DDR franchise by fans, who enjoyed the newer difficulty options and refreshing mix of original soundtrack and licensed music (some of which was shared with DDR by coincidence). Response was positive and arcades began to purchase units based on patron demand. Both standalone units and DDR unit conversion kits were made available. Arcade operators reported better maintenance and support for ITG units as Roxor was based in America as opposed to Konami, who did not provide support for imported units as they were labeled for use strictly inside of Japan. Roxor provided regular support for In the Groove in the form of actively participating in internet music gaming community discussion as well as providing regular software updates to machines in order to eliminate programming glitches.

The following spring Roxor simultaneously announced a home release of In The Groove as well as In The Groove 2 for arcades. ITG was released in June 2005 for Playstation 2 in partnership with Red Octane, a few short months after being announced and within a year of the original arcade release. Roxor had again beaten Konami to the punch by providing a 100% accurate port of the arcade game to the console, complete with duplicate song lists in addition to a few "preview" tracks and modifiers for the upcoming In the Groove 2. This addressed a key frustration of many DDR fans and brought high praise to the franchise.

The Clash of David and Goliath

Shortly before the release of ITG on the home console rumors began circulating on DDR Freak, a popular music gaming community, that Konami had filed suit against Roxor. While somewhat surprising to fans, many had speculated as to why Konami had not taken action earlier to prevent the original arcade release of ITG as the games were so similar. These rumors were confirmed on July 1, 2005 when Konami's homepage announced they were filing suit in Texas against Roxor games for copyright dilution through trade dress infringement, patent infringement, and injuring Konami's business reputation.

Fans were frustrated and many declared this to be the final nail in the coffin from Konami in regards to the future of dance gaming. Fans expressed outrage and disappointment in many arguments - primarily that Konami was being hypocritical, as a majority of units in North America were illegally imported (all imported units clearly stated "For use" or "licensed for use in Japan ONLY"). Another argument was that Konami had not released an official US arcade unit in five years (the last being DDR USA) and as such had demonstrated a lack of interest in the arcade product. Still others speculated about the timing of the lawsuit - Konami was attempting to stop release of the home platform edition, which would take more of their market. Others simply felt Konami had been shown up by a superior product and was now attempting to fight back to maintain a vice grip on the dance game market. Some fans felt Konami had a legitimate complaint and Roxor had "stepped on Konami's toes" by not "asking permission". Which is the correct argument? An examination of Konami's suit is critical in answering this question.

The Lawsuit Itself

Konami's lawsuit has three essential points: Roxor violated Konami's aforementioned patent that covers the way a dance pad functions and communicates to the arcade or console unit; That In the Groove rode on the success of the Dance Dance Revolution brand and caused monetary damages to Konami by diluting the Dance Dance Revolution trademark; That In The Groove has caused monetary damage by injuring Konami's business reputation. Note that these points were never decided as the case did not go to trial.

The first point of the lawsuit is Roxor's alleged violation of Konami's patent on the dance pad interface. Roxor has claimed no patent violation occurred but it is widely held that Konami brings this argument due to the conversion kits that have been offered which turn DDR machines into ITG units. Konami argues this process violates the patent on the machine, which contradicts the common practice of arcades changing motherboards in arcade units routinely, allowing games to be changed. An example is changing a board in a Mortal Kombat machine to a Pac-Man board so the machine now is a Pac-Man machine.

The second point is that Roxor deliberately rode on the success of the DDR franchise and damaged it in turn. ITG conversion kits came with a full marquee and array of decals and stickers to allow the complete covering of all DDR trademarks on the machine (these marks and logos are collectively called trade dress), however many arcade operators did not do this. Konami argues Roxor did not do their part in requiring operators to cover all DDR trademarks on the machine and as a result a layman would observe someone playing In The Groove and assume it is Dance Dance Revolution. Konami further argues that ITG is an inferior product and that a layman would conclude the observed "Dance Dance Revolution" is also an inferior product.

The third point goes in hand with the second point. Continuing the example of the layman, Konami argues that because this person has observed "an inferior product" and assumed it is DDR, they will also assume Konami's products are inferior. As a result Konami claims to have suffered significant financial damage. Konami alleges Roxor is aware of this and has deliberately continued to produce infringing product. As a result Konami requested the court award treble damages based on intent. Litigation and discovery were widely expected, and reactions were varied.

Before Court

Many fans educated themselves on the lawsuit, reading the lawsuit papers directly and drawing conclusions. Many persisted in the argument that Konami merely felt shown up by Roxor's product and was hitting back, possibly to ensure the dance game genre stayed within Konami's "vision" (control). Others lamented Roxor may have some fault, but that many claims could be dismissed.

Summer 2005 turned to fall and In The Groove 2 was released for arcades, despite pending litigation. It boasted even more arrow modifiers and more USB drive connectivity options in addition to a much expanded songlist that included all of the In The Groove 1 songlist. Roxor pushed the standalone unit option, however continued to provide conversion kits for DDR machines in order to encourage sales of the game.

In January 2006 Roxor announced In The Groove 3 for arcades, and In The Groove 2 for Playstation 2 at the In The Groove North American Tournament Finals in Las Vegas, Nevada. Roxor partcipated in several trade shows that year, however In The Groove 3 was not on display as expected, presumably due to development delays. With the lawsuit still weighing on the dance game community, speculation continued as to the final outcome of the case and the court trial.

Final Verdict

Despite a positive outlook for the In The Groove franchise, a press release was put out by Konami and Roxor on October 18, 2006 indicating the matter had been settled. The cost? Roxor immediately transferred all rights and assests associated with In The Groove to Konami, in addition to agreeing to "respect Konami's intellectual property rights" (read: Not make a new dance game).

Fan reaction was mixed. Some fans expressed outrage at Konami and called for a boycott of Konami product while others expressed profound disappointment at the settlement, expecting Konami to squat on the rights to the ITG  franchise. Still yet others agreed with the outcome and supported the resolution. Roxor's developers remained silent on the matter, except to request fans of the dance game community continue to support dance gaming. This sentiment continues in private conversation with developers.


A year and a half has passed since the settlement and lasting effects have come to light. Despite popular opinion, Konami has yet to issue a statement regarding the ultimate fate of the In The Groove games. A possibility of continuation exists through integration of features into Dance Dance Revolution or a completion of In The Groove 3 for arcade or In the Groove 2 for home console, as the fate of the alpha builds and source code for both games remains unknown.

Sales of the standalone arcade unit of In The Groove 2 also continue. Some speculation exists that an entity at Konami was sympathetic to the situation as Roxor released two more patches post-suit for ITG 2 that enable custom songs and stepcharts to be used from StepMania - a sort of "last hurrah" for fans.

In The Groove for Playstation 2 is no longer on retail shelves. It is believed this is due to a combination slow intial sales in the general market in combination with the pending litigation at the time. The game is sought after as a collectors item.

Dance Dance Revolution finally recieved an arcade update through the form of Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA in 2006 and SuperNOVA 2. Konami V Roxor is widely credited with spurning Konami to finally release a new arcade edition worldwide (a first), complete with a matching Playstation 2 release featuring a corresponding songlist, also worldwide. The theory that ITG spurned a release is furthered by the fact the EU release ofSuperNOVA stated "The ORIGINAL and still the best" on the cover. There is minor variation in a few licensed tracks between the arcade and home editions, ostensibly to provide an incentive to play each edition. SuperNOVA was the first official US arcade unit to be released in six years, with the previous official release being Dance Dance Revolution USASuperNOVA 2 was released to arcades worldwide in late 2007. Dance Dance Revolution X, a new title to commemorate the franchise's 10th anniversary, has been recently announced.

The developers for In The Groove continue in new positions. Some remain at Roxor, others are freelance. Previously contracted staff for the development of In The Groove have used their talents in the Pump it Up series of dance games. It is also worth noting some of the music announced for In The Groove 3 has found its way into Pump It Up, as one of the composers retained the rights to their music and was allowing Roxor the access through a license.


So what's the future of music gaming? No one is certain as it is a constantly changing field a decade old. One thing is certain, however - In The Groove will have a lasting effect on Konami. One can hope it is certainly for the better. This is Digital Stardust, signing off.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I sincerely hope at some point Activision and Harmonix get back in touch with the gaming public soon - we are TIRED of buying instruments in this area of $4.20 per gallon gas. Besides destroying available real estate within my house, I simply cannot afford to drop $200 everytime a new version of Rockband comes out. What happened to the good old days of allowing a peripheral to be used with several games before a new version is even considered? Is Dance Dance Revolution the only holdout that doesn't require me to buy a new dance pad with yodeling ability with every new mix released to the public?

I speculate, but perhaps the developers of these hugely grossing games have massively large houses they purchased at the cost of a few mil. This could explain why they're able to justify the high cost of the "Mary Poppins Box of Band Instruments" with each new version of the game. Not to mention their massive houses could actually store all these toys, unlike my fair size apartment (as far as apartments go). If this trend continues buying an iPhone could actually be cheaper than buying a video game!

As "authentic" as these games are trying to be, it's getting gimmicky to the point of ridiculous. A drum set that is velocity sensitive and can adjust the volume for the sound it makes in the game? Adding more things to hit instead of something manageable to a newer player? Excluding bands who won't provide master tracks? At what point do you throw down the controller and go start an actual rock band? Have we reached this point already? Guitar Hero: World Tour allows for a full electronic drum set to be used in place of the drum peripheral. Next the publishers will just provide sheet music, right?

Activision and Harmonix - most of us like your companies and definitely get into your music games, but for the love of pete, will you stop with the oneupsmanship in the instruments and let us actually ENJOY them for a while? I don't think I'm the only one who is becoming turned off by these iconic titles due to the high cost of entry. You stand to make a lot more money by simply releasing a new version of the game that uses my current peripherals, instead of making me choose between money for groceries and a game.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Non-Japanese are SMRT!

Video games have carried a tragic, but historic legacy of being unreleased or dumbed-down for release outside of Japan. The first prominent example of this is Nintendo of America's decision to not release Super Mario Bros. 2 and instead create a faux sequel from Doki Doki Panic, citing American gamers would struggle too much with the greatly increased difficulty of the original sequel, hurting sales in turn. It took until 2008, roughly 20 years later, when the game was properly labeled Super Mario Bros. 2 for release in North America. Europe got it even worse - they only had access to the title on the Wii's virtual console for a mere week or so before it was taken down as part of its promotional run. The fortunate upshot of this was a very unique title got a chance to show its face around the world when it would have wasted away, otherwise. However, I digress...

Why is it a trend today to release games where death either contains no real consequence (because you have 2,000 other lives) or you just cannot die period? Is it some sort of hyperextension of Dr. Spock's theories or the fact companies really do think non-Japanese are impatient or something else entirely? Regardless of the reason, non-Japanese gamers are being denied many wonderful opportunities in gaming, either permanently or for extended periods of time.

Point-in-case: Square-Enix and Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. This title will likely never see the light of day outside of Japan, however it is one of the most masterful pieces of gaming to be released since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Note: I am not speaking about the original KHII, I am speaking very specifically of Final Mix). When the original KHII was released in North America, critics bemoaned the lack of a truly-difficult setting, which turned the game into a button mash-fest. Despite having three difficulty settings included, many believed the hardest setting available was equal to a regular strength difficulty in other games. The updated Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix is only available through Japanese import, and by comparison contains a much more difficult game when set to the same "hard" difficulty equivalent of the North American edition. It is in this difference of difficulty-between-regions that a whole new level of appreciation can be gained. New bosses and much needed bonus material aside - the game demands incredibly precise timing to even score a hit on some bosses that was not even a thought to me when I played the American version. Clearly the US version's difficulty was noticeably lessened compared to the Japanese version. Final Mix even has a newer, even more difficult level of play, named "Critical"! Despite all this potential insanity, the sense of personal accomplishment in conquering the game was far better than any sort of Gamerscore achievement.

There is a version of Tetris, rarely seen outside of Japan, called Tetris: The Grandmaster. Played in arcades, this version of the classic puzzler starts off like any other version, however it progresses to incredible speeds, eventually entering a mode commonly called 20G. Pieces fall instantly down and have slightly less than a second before they lock in place, creating an incredibly difficult but rewarding experience - after lasting a few minutes at 20G, you can earn the highly coveted, but rarely earned rank of "Grandmaster" and your name will remain on the high score screen for all to see. Interested? Unless you live by an intensely dedicated import arcade, you'll probably never see the game outside of some YouTube videos and an emulator. Reason for lack of release is widely believed to be the level of difficulty being too hard for non-Japanese.

Sadly, it seems like the small details that made a game an AAA-grade title are going by the wayside in favor of not disappointing someone who cannot beat it on the first try. There is still something to be said in this day and age for the sense of personal accomplishment felt when after a few tries at timing a particular move against a boss it is finally pulled off and you progress a little further. Am I the only person who played NES games in the 1980s and despite becoming frustrated, knew I was making it a little further each time I died? Where, I ask you, dear game developers, have all the flowers gone? Japan?

Perhaps all the flowers are being squandered on the new gamer. A school of thought has been established which dictates games must be fully accessible to every single person who picks it up. Death can't loom too close and game overs can't have full consequences. Certainly all games should be playable by everyone but catering so very hard to ensure everyone can play easily has resulted in the loss of the "oni"s and "critical" modes that didn't cost a lot of programming time and satisfied plenty of the old guard of gamers.

I'm not arguing all titles released outside of Japan are dumbed down for the sake of other regions. I've participated in Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Puyo Pop, F-Zero, Castlevania, Contra, and Ninja Gaiden and pulled my hair out multiple times. While these games are testaments to the legacy of video games, there are fewer and fewer hard titles as time goes by, replaced with titles that are "softer" as they're localized. This isn't to say games that had problems, such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and Wind Waker, which had the owl statues added and a greatly improved triforce locator implemented, are softer. These are necessary improvements and are good for gameplay.

I'm also not arguing that all games should be made blisteringly hard, but there should be a good, lasting level of difficulty available for those who desire a challenge beyond the typical. Don't pull the "but the children!" card - Japan has children too, and American children of the late 1980s and early 1990s lived without severe defects after dying on the Mother Brain sequence for the 48th time. All I want is a good challenge to be available to me, if I so desire. It makes good business sense, too. It increases a good game's replay value and overall recognition among fans, and carries the side effect of me being far more likely to purchase a sequel title.

Remember "Beaver Bother"? I do. The feeling of accomplishment was worth it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The World is Moving for no Reason!

I had a discussion with a friend the other day about platformers and he asked a question "What is the point of a scrolling screen? It doesn't make sense from the point of the character." I laughed gave the obvious answer: the challenge. He retorted "No, that doesn't make sense to me. If I'm supposed to be the guy on screen, it doesn't make sense to me." He had me. I couldn't answer. I mean, have you just been sitting around and had the world start to suddenly rotate so suddenly you're forced to keep moving to survive? NO! (If you're answering yes you need to stop reading this now and go nap.) Can you just imagine walking down the street and suddenly you're running as everything scrolls by at some uncontrollable speed and for no real reason? It makes no sense! Why do we retain this holdover from the 80s?

Sure, there are falling ceiling tiles and moving floors, but those can make sense in fantasyland because they're still plausible. However, a scrolling screen makes little sense to the character, especially since the feat can't be replicated in 3D. Moving platforms just make more sense and can be used far more creatively - think Rainbow Ride from Super Mario 64. Let's bury this odd contraption we call the scrolling screen and move on. It had its time and I'm tired of it pissing me off.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Xbox Live Arcade Desires: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Live!

The Xbox Live Arcade service has proven to be a great platform for revitalizing older PC and console titles and delivering them to a newer audience - however there are some games missing that may prove to be excellent additions to the service. Consider this....

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Live!
Stop singing the Rockapella jingle in your head. We're not talking about that.

Many children who went to school during the 80s and 90s will recall several games fondly - Oregon Trail, The Munchers series, and Carmen Sandiego in its various flavors. A crook has committed a spectacular heist and it's your job to track them down. Fond memories include the blocky graphics chosen to represent the various cities around the world, the henchmen as they snuck across the screen when you chose the correct city to go to, and the occasional flying knife or other object intended to harm you, the gumshoe. Collect all the clues and you could get a warrant from your successful sluething. Find the crook before you get your warrant and they go free. The howls of frustration still ring in many ears.

As with the Xbox Live Arcade Desires series of titles so far, the same case can be made for this game's revival. Carmen suits the family demographic Microsoft is desperate to steal from Nintendo, by cleverly educating players while injecting a good dose of fun to cover up the "not-so-awesome" parts. Again, the title is flexible in the sense mom and dad can take part in the fun while the child can still be the star. And nostalgia is just plain cool.

Improvements here could be simply amazing, depending how much effort is put into rebuilding this title for the Xbox 360. As agents travel they could see other henchmen and have to help act as an informant to other A.C.M.E. agents working on other cases ("I saw him with a red coat.") by choosing from a few possible responses. As cities are traveled to, news feeds from the area could scroll on the screen courtesy of RSS. And of course cities could be changed and updated with new pictures and relevant information over time. A mega-case could be put out in which agents must work together to help find the ever elusive Carmen herself. The possibilities here are amazing.

So Where is it?
Carmen Sandiego has perhaps the toughest time of all Xbox Live Arcade Desires games so far - revival attempts on the GameCube resulted in a spectacular flop. While Carmen Sandiego and the Secret of the Stolen Drums was considered a decent update by many critics, marketing was poor and as a result the desired sales did not materialize. When you're expecting sales off a beloved title that flops it puts more than a single nail in the coffin for future revivals. With the economy struggling, securing funds for a doubtful sequel just may not happen.

If someone out there with power is reading this, consider a revival of Carmen Sandiego. There is definitely a market out there, but keep the expectations real.