The State of Play – The End of Nintendo?

I write this article with the realisation of a man who can no longer ignore the inevitable. Like a doomed passenger onboard a slowly sinking ship, I can do what only one can do in times like these: embrace the end, remember better times and try to fathom where it all went wrong.

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I, like many gamers, began my journey into video games with Nintendo. I’ll never forget unboxing my first console – the Super Nintendo Entertainment System – back on a Christmas morning at the beginning of the 90’s. My young mind could never comprehend the path my life would take as video games would become my favourite way to spend my free time. The console itself is my most treasured, and some of the games released on the platform I count amongst the greatest I have ever played. I have many things to say about the SNES and its accompanying sublime titles, but that is for another day.

Long before the powerhouses of Sony and Microsoft arrived on the console scene, the video game world was dominated by two console manufacturers – Nintendo and Sega. The legendary rivalry between these two titans of gaming needs no introduction, anybody growing up in the 90’s knows all too well the history of this classic feud. As a gamer you picked a side. And you stuck with them, to the end.

Last week details emerged about Nintendo’s newest offering into the console market – the Nintendo NX. News like this to my 90’s self would no doubt have sent me babbling to my parents and informing them that I know what I want to be on my Christmas list in a year’s time. But reading the news today I was left feeling a little empty and for the first time I felt sorry for Nintendo. The general feeling from the gaming press and fans alike is one of disappointment.

The news that the NX won’t be as powerful as this generation of consoles was the first nail in the coffin. Nintendo say that they won’t compete with Sony and Microsoft in the power department. Not since the N64 (for me, the Japanese company’s last great offering) has Nintendo lead in the power department – that was 20 years ago. The design of the system seems to be causing a certain amount of confusion too, much like it’s dog turd of a predecessor – the Wii U. The general consensus is that the system will be some kind of a vague “hybrid” between a home console which is can also be used as a portable. What this means for the 3DS is anyones’ guess. Seeing as the 3DS is Nintendo’s most lucrative product within the market, it would seem like suicide to take the focus away from it.

Then there is the release of the worldwide phenomenon that is Pokemon Go. Nintendo’s stock rose through the roof as opportunistic investors jumped onboard the Pokemon train. Stock prices shortly plummeted to a 20 year low as those same investors suddenly realised that Nintendo had actually very little to do with the record breaking app. A fact anybody who actually had played the game could have told you.

The sense of shameless opportunism hit a new low when I was perusing the Nintendo Store on my 3DS to see what “new” Virtual Console titles were available (telling that isn’t it? Searching for 20 year old games to play). There in the catalogue were all of Nintendo’s available Pokemon releases – on sale. The blatant cashing in on Niantic’s worldwide phenomenon caused me to cringe as I added Contra 3: Alien Wars to my download list.

So; a falling share price, an extremely tepid response to their new console and a general feeling of pity towards the once glorious console manufacturer. The question is: how can Nintendo be successful once again? For that, we have to turn to their oldest adversary. We have to talk about Sega.

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After the Mega Drive (Genesis), Sega decided to teach the new kid on the block – the Sony Playstation – a lesson, with the release of the Sega Saturn. Unfortunately for Sega, the Playstation was an astonishing success – selling over 100 million units and establishing Sony as the one to beat. The Saturn sold less than 10 million units and was widely regarded as a very expensive disaster for Sega. Meanwhile, Nintendo had decided to sidestep a 32bit disc based console altogether, opting for the aforementioned N64.

The bosses at Sega could see the writing on the wall and decided to go for broke with the release of the Sega Dreamcast before the turn of the millennium. The Dreamcast is the only Sega console I have ever owned and I can honestly say it was fantastic. The system itself sold just over 9 million units but ask any owner of a Dreamcast what they thought of it and they will regale you with mythical tales of VMU’s, Shenmue and ChuChu Rocket! whilst giving off a feeling that you “really had to own one” to know what was so special about it. Looking back you can clearly see it was well ahead of its time. It’s a cult classic of a console. It was also the last system released from Sega.

A decision was needed. Decisive action was to be taken in order to prevent this historic icon of gaming from heading into the abyss. Sega would no longer make consoles and would focus on producing and developing games. By doing this they could remain part of the industry as a whole, with their reputation in tact, and still contribute to making titles for old and new gamers alike.

This is what Nintendo need to do.

They have an arsenal of first party titles that they can focus on to bring in revenue whilst at the same time showcasing them on the most powerful consoles on the planet; Mario, Zelda, Metroid etc. all could be brought to a wider audience who would never touch a Nintendo console as it’s “for kids”.

It has to be done. I have a feeling that the Nintendo NX will be the final system Nintendo make. I just don’t want it to financially cripple them. I don’t want to live in a world where new gamers look at you with the mystified gaze of a time traveller when you mention the names Nintendo and Sega.

The next few years will be pivotal for Nintendo’s future, yet they have to look at their past and identify their strengths and focus on them in order to survive and become great again.

Over 20 years ago I picked my side and I’ve stuck with them ever since. And I will to the very end.

 

 

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Review – Super Meat Boy

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“Jump you bastard!”

This phrase has been the soundtrack to my living room for the last couple of days. Yet there is no anger or exasperation felt when shouting it at my TV for the trillionth time. Quite the opposite, it’s joyful and wonderful.

The game causing these outbursts is of course Team Meat’s Super Meat Boy, which has just been released in the Playstation Store. Everything that can be said about this game has already been said, I just thought I’d share a few of my views on this wonderful little game.

I, like many people, remember watching Indie Game: The Movie and becoming infatuated with these two blokes building this seemingly impossible, never-ending project. I wanted to play this mythical game there and then. Being a Playstation owner I missed out back then, my chance has finally come however.

From the retro intro and level select screen you know you’re in for a treat. This game is a labour of love, there’s no other way to say it. Meat Boy’s controls are fluid and precise and coming from a platforming background they felt instinctive. Glorious. A simple two button layout is all that’s needed. Using R1 to dash is a revelation.

The level design is utterly splendid. Every jump, buzz saw and pitfall are accurately placed in order to test your reflexes and cunning. You get into a certain momentum when playing so that when you watch back the end of level replay you feel like a complete beast.

Be prepared to die as you will be dying a lot in this game, but the near instant restart is brilliant in the way it feeds the addiction and doesn’t put you off your rhythm. You’ll be going back to earlier levels in order to ace it fully – to appease the OCD demon inside you – but that adds to the fun.

A catchy soundtrack tops off what is one of the most refreshing gaming experiences I have had in a long time. The game is a masterpiece and deserves its status as a legend of indie gaming.

And that is all I have to say about that.

The State of Play – A Knight to remember

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I’m currently dismantling various pieces of rubbish, selling items from my ever growing inventory and carefully selecting which sword/armour/gloves I wish to craft. After 20 minutes I’m happy. My girlfriend thinks I should have used the time to clean out the shed.

This is The Witcher 3, one of the finest games of recent times and certainly one of the stand out releases on this generation of consoles so far. It’s a vast, beautiful and awe inspiring title that has generated much acclaim and rightly so. It’s the only game I’ve played in the last month, until this morning.

I was perusing the Playstation Store on the lookout for any new titles that I may have missed when I came across Shovel Knight. I remember hearing great things about this title when it was released in 2014 but somehow missed the announcement that it was available on Playstation 4 (this could be due to CD Projekt RED putting me into a Witcher inspired coma for the last few months). £11.99 would be the price to play Yacht Club Games’ debut offering. And after a few hours, I can honestly say it’s probably the best £11.99 I have ever spent.

For those who do not know who or what Shovel Knight is then I shall do me best to sum it up in a sentence: It’s a 2D side scrolling retro platformer done in an 8-bit style where you play as a knight with a shovel for a main weapon.

Since the emergence of the Indie Game market there have been a lot of retro-styled throwback titles in recent years. Some more successful than others. I think that a lot of the titles released come down to the player relating and connecting with what they are playing to what they were playing all those decades ago.

That is why I believe Shovel Knight is such a success. Its gorgeous level design, gameplay, story and soundtrack not only remind me of the obvious classic games it pays homage to, it also encapsulates a whole generation of gaming from my childhood. Shovel Knight himself is Arthur from Super Ghouls and Ghosts reincarnated, and the first stage where you can see a castle in the back ground reminded me of a similar sight towards the end of Streets of Rage 2. Everything feels comfortably familiar, from the perfect control system to the classic hit detection “flash” when you strike a boss. You have all the mod cons of recent gaming such as auto saving without it ever losing its authentic feel. This game could have been released 25 years ago and it would have been a triumph then as it is is now.

The difficulty is perfect and the boss battles are wonderfully challenging. I was cursing at the TV after timing a jump wrong over and over but all with a smile on my face, purely for the reason that the frustration was part of the fun! I welcomed it like a long lost friend.

It’s just the perfect game to play after endless hours grinding away with Geralt of Rivia or any other mammoth gaming project one has on the go. If I were to use a food analogy (my favourite) then The Witcher would be an exquisite 3 course meal consisting of foie gras, followed by venison with a red wine jus and finishing with a lemon syllabub. An experience to take your time over and savour. Shovel Knight on the other hand would be a delicious gastro pub-style burger with beer battered onion rings, accompanied by an early 90’s soundtrack playing through your brand new iPhone.

So I had best go clean the shed out now, if I value my life, but when I come back in there will be one game I’ll be itching to play. And it involves a little blue knight with a shovel.

The State of Play – Are games challenging enough?

“You Died”

I found myself maniacally laughing and speaking in tongues at seeing these two words for at least the thirtieth time in 3 hours. Yet the frustration was reassuringly nostalgic.

I’d first seen the blood red text appear on my screen 20 years prior when playing Resident Evil for the first time on the Playstation. Now, in 2015, I was seeing the same two words again – but this time on the console’s fourth generation, and in the form of Bloodborne.

Playing From Software’s fantastic new release got me thinking about another thing these two games had in common despite the age gap of two decades – the difficulty.

Bloodborne has garnered much praise from critics due to its unflinching difficulty and deservedly so, but is this game overly testing or have we – as modern gamers – become scared of a challenge?

It immediately becomes apparent that From Software have been very economical when it comes to checkpoints, they are audaciously few and far between. The humble checkpoint has become such a crutch in recent years that we take them for granted. Most releases these days find them staggered in what sometimes feels like 30 second intervals. In Bloodborne, the feeling of finally reaching one after fighting through hordes of beasties, half dead and low on items, is one of exhilaration. The sweet satisfaction of reaching a save point where you can fully restock and replenish your health and items make it all worth while. A glorious feeling.

Back in Capcom’s survival horror masterpiece, and the feeling was quite similar. There was nothing quite like the dawning realisation that you have no health replenishing herbs left, 4 rounds of ammo in your handgun and in order to get to the typewriter to save your game you must first get through a corridor of the undead. Couple this feeling with the stomach churning dread of knowing that you last saved two hours ago, and you begin to appreciate the enormity of the situation.

I’ve lost track at the number of games from back in the day that I have put to one side for months on end after dying and losing hours of progress.

The interesting thing is that early in my gaming career I didn’t really know any better. Sure, Legend of Zelda a Link to the Past had a superb save feature, as did Super Metroid, but other titles on the other hand had nothing at all. Not even a password to level select.

I remember Jurassic Park on the SNES. It was a decent game; great graphics, sound and design. The object of the game was to collect eggs and do something with them. I never knew what as I never made it that far. There was no save function or password system. Every time you played the game you had to start from the beginning. Every time.

To this day I can still play the first three levels of Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts in my head as if I was playing it on a SNES. I shit you not. I’ve played that game, and more specifically the first few levels, hundreds of times in my life. It’s easily one of the hardest games I’ve ever played and also one of the best. Any game where you get to the end of it only to find out you have to play through it ALL AGAIN immediately in order to fully complete it is a true sadistic masterpiece. I must be a sucker for Capcom games.

The feeling of completing a game such as Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts is unparalleled in my experience of gaming. A true test of timing, reactions, level memorisation and patience. The same feeling with Resident Evil. There were many points where you would temporarily give up, but the frustration in it’s difficulty would ensure you’d always be back.

Recent games I’ve played have none of this. GTA V for example was a stunning game. Great fun and an enjoyable experience. But was it a challenge? Not for me. Not in the slightest. It seemed to be scared to challenge the player too much.

It’s as if developers these days are playing it safe, they don’t want to lose players who can’t hack a challenge.

That is why Bloodborne is such a breath of fresh air. It has everything the modern gamer wants in a game; gorgeous graphics, fast paced action and lots of blood and guts.

Yet it also has what the modern gamer so desperately needs in a game – a challenge.