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.