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 – Bobbing Along

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I sometimes sit and wonder about how amazing it would be to step into a time machine and head back to the early 90’s with my Playstation 4 and a copy of something like The Witcher 3 or The Last of Us. I’d love to see the wonder and amazement bestowed upon the gamers of that age – their minds would be blown to smithereens. They’d dribble in awe at the sight of Ellie and Joel exploring a deserted village after which they’d be mumbling incoherently at the lush vegetation passing them by as they ride Roach around Skellige, with Geralt’s white hair flapping in the wind.

Graphics and visuals beyond imagination; scale, voice acting and character movements unbelievable beyond words. Yet there would be one mechanic that would bring even them – the stone age of gamer – to despair. Underwater sections. Or more specifically, swimming.

Since the dawn of home gaming, in the adventure genre particularly, the “water stage” has been a staple of level design. Yet whilst every other factor of gaming has evolved for the better since then, swimming hasn’t.

Take The Witcher 3, for example. A game I have played a lot over the last 3 months and a game I consider to be one of the finest releases in years. Geralt can run around the lush lands with perfect agility but once he comes into contact with water he turns into what can only be described as a drunken vagrant that’s fallen into a canal. You watch in dismay as he randomly scrambles around underwater, with the player frantically smashing the X button to loot a chest and feeling like they are controlling an oil tanker. The problem is compounded when attacked by enemies. Poor Geralt is pinged around like he’s in a pinball machine.

Yet it has always been like this since games went 3D. Think back to Tomb Raider. Even now I can recall the wall pounding frustration at seeing Lara’s drowning animation for the tenth time whilst trying to pull a submerged lever. People cite Super Mario 64 as one of the greatest games ever made, but if you play it again (like I have recently) then you will realise that the swimming sections are utterly dire.

Even modern powerhouse developers like Rockstar can’t get it quite right. Swimming in GTA has that common feeling of sluggish clunkiness that other games of its generation have.

Naughty Dog seem to be the only developer who seem to be actively trying to improve the mechanic. The Last of Us underwater sections were fairly smooth and quite enjoyable. They were still far from perfect, but at least Naughty Dog are trying to improve this age old problem. Other developers seem to shoehorn in water levels with little thought or eye for improvement, as if it’s a necessary evil.

I believe that swimming underwater was at its best in 2D side scrollers. Think Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World or even Ecco the Dolphin. These games were much more basic of course, but the tap-tap of a single button to control the forward and vertical movement of a character was a revelation. So simple, yet so effective. Some underwater levels from that 2D era are amongst my favourites. The change to 3D overcomplicated things.

Swimming in games is here to stay, but developers need to actively focus on improving it and making it more fluid or else the whole mechanic is in danger of becoming stagnant.