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.