Strike three, out! – Most certainly not

November 12, 2011

I´m sitting in some comfy chair in front of my PC right now and I can´t stop feeling overwhelmed. Simply overwhelmed by the “game” that was Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii. I´m hesitant to just call it a mere game, because that´d put it into the vast ocean of, well, other video games. Crude joking aside, this right here is what has gone missing since the SNES/PS1-era, maybe including Dreamcast-era: An epic (“epic” used in the actual meaning, not in gaming journalism-lingo) adventure, an expansive, lengthy journey, and a wonderful, charming cast of characters. I´d like to say that the last JRPG that had me feel this emotional, involved and captivated, was Skies of Arcadia Legends, and don´t ask me which one I favor, because I couldn´t answer that question. Not now, anyway.

But while Xenoblade is truly their finest masterpiece, developer MonolithSoft has already delivered two fantastic role playing games before. Both Baten Kaitos and Baten Kaitos: Origins gave a glimpse into the skill set and creativity of the now Nintendo-exclusive development studio. Where Baten Kaitos gave us a first look into an unique fantasy-world and an innovative card battle-system, Origins one-upped that and offered detailed insight into the politics of that same universe, succeeding in telling a story that Square Enix´ Final Fantasy 12 failed at.

What is most astounding is the consequent improvement in MonolithSoft´s game design philosophy. To make this not an overly long and in-depth article, let´s just look at the evolution of surficial changes between their three games. Baten Kaitos offered a creative, original combat system that relied on cards, but also used these cards outside of battle to transport any kind of item. Each character in your active party had his own card deck. Health could only be regenerated during combat, by rare, expensive healing items or at save points. Said save points weren´t always put fairly and defeat meant re-starting from the last save point. This brings us to Baten Kaitos: Origins, where not only save points were always within close reach, but the player was freed from having to pay attention for healing, too. Health was automatically filled to max when not fighting some monsters. The addictive card battle system got an overhaul as well, removing character-exclusive card decks and having the whole party share a single one, which really helped the micromanagement process. However, just like its predecessor, traveling the world was still rather slow. And thus we arrive at Xenoblade, where fast travel means lighting fast travel. Once reached a new check point on the ginormous world map, players need to simply click the minus-button, choose their destination, confirm with the a-button and … are wherever they intended to be. It is only between completely different areas when load times take a several seconds wait, but looking at how big just one single area is, that is still an unfathomable achievement in game design. As for the masterpiece´s combat system … it could be said that it is some kind of evolution of the previous games´ card battle, but I guess that would be a little too far-fetched without proper evidence. However, disregarding the cards-or-not topic, Xenoblade made sure to proceed the mission of BKO, creating a most comfortable, user-friendly environment. Health regenerating outside of battle was a given, but not only has you Xenoblade forget all your worries about unnecessary item management (while still offering plenty of customization), it also features stuff like granting experience points for individually beaten enemies. So even if you fail to beat a group of enemies, you get the points for the ones you actually did. And what happens should you fail? Restart from last save point? Watch a lengthy cutscene over and over again? Of course, not! Being wiped out means that you´ll restart at the last map check point. No loss of experience, no loss of anything. And cutscenes cannot only be skipped, they won´t even start a second time when re-approaching the “bitch that kicked your ass“.

MonolithSoft seems to have researched each and every complaint JRPG-fans had with various games in the past and put all of that to heart, resulting in the most user-friendly, frustration-free experience ever. With the exception of a little quick grinding here and there, should you grow tired of doing the endless amount of sidequests, Xenoblade is as smooth of a progression as is possible in terms of game design. Which leads me to the most exciting part of it all and the reason why I wanted to share these thoughts with you: The next game.

With the Wii U entering the HD-era and MonolithSoft being one of Nintendo´s technically most capable teams (as was found out, they even helped with Zelda: Skyward Sword), whatever their next project is gonna be, it´s an instant Most Wanted-title for anyone that enjoys great video games. The big question remains: Is it is even possible to surpass the magnificence of Xenoblade? Well, yes it is (sorry). While many of those that played Xenoblade agree that it is one of the best JRPGs ever and THE best JRPG of the current generation, it´s easy to find room for improvement. Not the kind of improvements that were missing due to incompetence, but because at some point, something just cannot be implemented anymore due to the sheer vastness of content. Having finished Xenoblade in 91 hours only means that I´ve beaten its main story. I could probably put in another 90 hours to do and see everything – it´s that much content. Now, if I had to pick just one aspect of the game that I would love to improve on, it´s character dynamics and detail surrounding them. Xenoblade puts our heroes in this grand adventure and we grow to love them, but maybe with the exception of hero Shulk, none of them is ever fleshed-out particularly well. Which, again, isn´t a huge fault here, since we´d be looking at a 150 hour-campaign otherwise. But the point stands and is reason why I´d like for MonolithSoft to take the opposite approach for the next project: An adventure and story small in scale, but featuring an enormous, fearsome amount of care for detail. A story that is character-driven, rather than following the limits of some almighty villain. A combat-system that completely makes away with grinding and introduces an intelligent mix of strategy, puzzle and attentiveness. Maybe to the point where losing a fight not only doesn´t just put you right in front of it for another try, but actually incorporates the loss into the further progression of the game, thus never leading the flow to a halt. MonolithSoft has shown how they love to put some real-world tangents into their fantasy worlds – maybe they should turn around that approach and make a JRPG that is set in our current, modern world and whatever fantasy is only creeping in an ominous, far away background, slowly coming closer as the plot unfolds. I´m having Death Note or Durararara on my mind right now, if you happen to know these anime shows. But anyway, I have no doubt that the game after Xenoblade will be devoid of frustration, feature an even more motivating combat system and present another rich, creative universe. If it´s me, I´d like to see MonolithSoft´s fine skills used in a small scale-character driven title, but I´d lie if I claimed that I wouldn´t also love another big, epic journey.

Xenoblade Chronicles comes to Europe!

March 31, 2011

Sorry for the long break, but anyways, great news: Today, Nintendo of Europe announced that Xenoblade will be released in Europe this year under the new full title “Xenoblade Chronicles“. The Monolith Software-rpg for Wii has been permanently praised for its vast, open game world and has been voted number one-rpg of this current generation of consoles by a certain Japanese hardcore-rpg-fans´ website. A release date isn´t known, neither if the game will see a US-release. But it certainly would be stupid to release both this and Zelda: Skyward Sword at the end of the year, so maybe we´re in for another pleasant surprise soon?

Beyond Wii HD – Madness Ensues

February 11, 2011

A couple of hours ago, a fellow gamer friend mentioned how he hoped for the Wii-successor to leave the same kind of “WTF?!”-impression that the current market leader left when Satoru Iwata unveiled it at Tokyo Game Show 2005. A lot of discussion boards are currently filled with notes from users that simply demand HD-resolution, a Wii HD, a Super Wii – in other words, the typical successor-system. Personally, I agree with that one friend: A Wii 2 with only better graphics and slightly better “everything else” wouldn´t really hype me much. I´d buy it on the advent of a new Zelda-game, of course, but it´d really lack any specialness. Some gamers out there correctly wrote about how going with a typical successor could even be quite dangerous for Nintendo, since the last remaining traditional home console manufacturer is in a rather unpleasant situation: The Wii sold tons, dominated the hardware landscape, but third party-support is absolutely dead, starting this year. Motion Controls have been adopted by both of Nintendo´s competitors, with Kinect showing a new kind of freshness that wiimote-style gaming has lost. And let´s not kid ourselves: The Wii 2 won´t be leader in graphics, be it for a long time or be it for the fact that third party-developers won´t support a powerful Nintendo-system. It´d get a lot of cheap up-ports, the end. That´s Nintendo´s outlook, that is what it looks like right now. One might mention the Nintendo 3DS to possibly change third parties´ perception of supporting a Nintendo-system, but that, too, can be doubted a lot.

Nintendo needs a special “so-me-thing“. They made the phrase “blue ocean” popular, and that´s exactly what they have to find anew. But what is this mystical, special, fresh new “something” that can ensure for the Japanese company to survive and continue being successful? Smallish innovations, software-based innovations are nice, and I already talked about such concepts, but these have two basic problematics: 1.) They lack the instant “wow“-factor for the masses, and 2.) they can be copied easily by competitors. Taking all of the above into account, looking at the hardware instead of (only) the software, and trying to get into Nintendo´s “creative mind“, I came up with 5 Concepts of Madness. What fascinated me, was that while coming up with these ideas, I engaged in some research using google and found out that these “well, that would be cool, wouldn´t it“-thoughts of mine are actually being turned into reality at this very moment. No, with the exception of one of them, these are not yet part of the gaming industry, BUT: Smart people have developed these technologies to the point where they´re reliable, comfortable to use and, probably, affordable. All of them have one thing in common, though: They increase our interaction with games – or games´ interaction with us.

1.)  Living in a tablet-world – The Tablet-Hybrid

Yeah, I apologize for bringing such an unoriginal idea into this article, but it´s both as uncreative an idea as it´d be crazy for a home console´s concept. Tablets have been THE attention eating topic of the past year and the not-so little devices continue to grab the electronic entertainment industry´s buzz. Just now, Samsung is gaining more and more reputation for their Galaxy Tab-series, while Apple is about to announce the updated iPad-version. But wait: Am I about to propose for Nintendo to compete in *that* market? Well, bluntly said, yes. But imagine this:

The Wii 2 is neither portable nor stationary, it´s a hybrid-machine. It consists of a controller (of some kind), a dock-station for wireless picture-and-sound and a tablet. However, the tablet is not meant to become the main center of attraction of this system – it´s a natural expansion. To this day, I remember the days prior to E3 2005. Thanks to this most entertaining time in my internet-career, I also remember a quote of Shigeru Miyamoto that since then has often been cited. That quote basically expresses, how Miyamoto would love for games to leave that box in front you, that TV. A built-in projector was the most popular fan-theory. But what, if instead of going for something completely crazy and weird, Nintendo´d go for the realization of the Nintendo DS´ concept for home consoles? That way, the tablet becomes an extension of that game world that previously only existed in the confinements of your television. Just to make sure: The tablet would NOT be the main controller of the system, not by any means. You´d still have wiimotes in your hands. But imagine it like that: You´re sitting on your couch, playing the new Legend of Zelda-game, using the wiimote for 1:1 sword-fighting. Right next to you on the couch is the tablet. You need to take a look at the map, so you grab the tablet and watch it, while nothing breaks the immersion of the game you´re playing. And that´s only one admittedly superficial example for its usage. I don´t have a tablet, I´m not the one that´s in the position to tell you how awesome these devices are, but I guess millions of Samsung- and Apple-consumers would be happy to get their word out there.

Additionally, even though the tablet is supposed to be an extension to the existing gaming experience, it is, after all, a tablet. Which means that it´d make for great multimedia purposes as well as creating a continued gaming experience that´s not bound to the television. Browsing your console´s menu, chatting with friends from your friends list, playing some of the more simple games you downloaded from WiiWare, or even accessing special tablet-modes from the “big games” that add another layer to these games´ enjoyment.  With Sony´s PSP2 featuring HD-graphics buil into a device that´s still quite a bit smaller than a tablet, satisfying visuals should be doable, too. I also don´t see this concept rivaling the Nintendo 3DS, since it´d be “just a tablet“, meaning no buttons or sticks. And be honest: You´d love for Iwata to reveal this concept of a Nintendo-tablet-hybrid at this or next year´s E3. I know you do.

2.)  Let´s invade them! – The Augmented Reality-System

Maybe it´s just me that thinks this concept would be crazier than the above, but in my opinion it´d be a big gamble. A gamble that could change gaming in the same matter that Wii did. We all know by now what augmented reality, or in short: AR, is. Using a camera to film the real world, then inserting virtual objects or animated characters into that scene. There´s mostly two reasons why I feel confident to name it as an idea for a whole new system: 1.) Because existing AR always had a problem with the interaction of virtual objects and real world scenes, and 2.) because there´s so much untapped potential!

AR has been a gimmick and continues to stay on that level with what can be seen from Nintendo 3DS and Sony PSP2 so far. But let´s take a moment and think about what this phrase actually means: Augmented Reality – some kind of mechanic or happening or action that takes reality and expands on it.  Why, I ask, is it that this concept seemingly can only be used for cute pet-simulations or fad-like features? Well, because nobody´s taking it seriously, which, of course, is partly due to no such system existing that comes built-in with higher AR-capabilities. “Smartass, how about giving examples, eh?” With pleasure.

The big focus, as a consequence of the AR-features, would be a home console that´s all about creating unique experiences. To initiate that creation stage, the system comes bundled with a camera, a 3D-camera that can record the depth of its environment. It wouldn´t be just a stationary camera like Kinect or EyeToy, though, but also one that you can take with you. Go wherever you want and film the environment of yours. Later, you transfer the data to the main system and the real fun starts. For a Mario-game, you could now jump around with the good ol´ plumber in your own room or whatever you recorded. For Pokemon, fierce battles would ensue in your garden. Or, my favorite idea, the next Resident Evil-game would take place in your own house (or at least one part of the game). I often thought about how super-scary a horror-game would be, if it played in my neighborhood. Okay, maybe that´s because my neighborhood is that scary, but I believe that it´d be like that for most gamers: Seeing their comfort zone being invaded by the horrors and trying to survive. That´s how I imagine the proper use of AR. Sure, it all depends on the camera´s quality, which in turns might be costly, but it´d be definitely another game-changer. Gaming would be no longer about experiencing streamlined content, it´d be all about experimenting with your environment and changing games to your liking.

3.)  Not the craziest one, guys – Brain Controls

Haha, I know, I know. This is the usual “guys, look at me, I´m making THAT joke again“-idea. But let´s bear with it for a moment. The idea of controlling a game with your brain, with your thoughts always seems like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives us sensational vibes, making us dream of fantasy stuff like telekinesis and telepathy. On the other hand: Win Button. Think to win, and you will. Yeah, not that exciting. But that´s not how it´s supposed to be implemented in real video games, anyways.

When Kinect was announced and Milo was shown, my mind went crazy about how this advanced camera could be used to complement traditional controller-inputs. You know, playing Mass Effect 3, moving Shepard (who´s male) with the one stick, turning the camera with the other one, shooting with the trigger and so on. And slapping aliens in the face by doing a punching-motion yourself, or throwing grenades or, well, that alien-sex part … For now, Kinect has turned into another minigame-fest and due to the lag, I don´t feel like it´ll change from that status any time soon. However, that´s where Brain Controls come in – only a hundred times better in theory.

Brain Controls should never become the primary input method (unless we´re talking about Matrix-like gaming). As a complementary input-option, however, it´d open up a whole new world of interaction with virtual worlds. Your primary controller would remain something like a Wiimote or a 360-controller, but in addition, you´d have some sleek sensor-device on top of your head that measures your brain activity. Examples for what that would enable players to do are literally limitless. You want it, you think it. Now, I know that you still think “okay, it´s nice to want things, but that´s far-into-the-future scifi-stuff“. Except it´s not. In the following video, Tan Le from Emotiv Systems shows off their next generation of human-machine interface – a sleek device that´s costs are in only the hundreds of dollars instead of thousands of dollars that previous brain measuring devices cost. Both design and price make this a real possibility. And if you want to know if it can actually be used for gaming purposes: Watch the video!

Video: Tan Le of Emotiv Systems demonstrates Human-Machine interface

4.)  Now they´re attacking – R.O.B. 2.0

So we´ve talked a lot about getting deeper into games to strengthen immersion and fascination. How about going the opposite route, though? Calling it “R.O.B. 2.0” is hyperbole, since the original hardware-gimmick for the NES couldn´t do a whole lot and actually only was supported by two games. But the concept I´m proposing is simply too damn similar in appearance, so don´t fall of your chairs: A robot-console.

Robot-supported” console would be more exact, though. Social Gaming has become a buzz word that everyone has heard by now. One of the big parties that embraced these easily accessable, simple games was Nintendo. First, Sony brought games out of the playroom, then Nintendo brought it out of the hands of freaks, to the casual masses. But social gaming isn´t just this entry level-software. Microsoft took multiplayer-gaming to new heights with Xbox Live and keeps adding features that heighten the value of its communication aspects. “Social Gaming” has become a reality for gamers, but that´s only true as long as they´re sitting in front of their TV. Video games are still niche in that they´re confined to a narrowly defined space within our life. And it´s only getting worse for Nintendo, with smartphones, that are capable of hundreds of functions, taking away attention from dedicated gaming systems. Therefore, to keep attacking that new kind of competition, while maintaining a focus on what matters (gaming), one has to break free from that one confined space in front of the TV and place emphasis on a broader aspect of life.

Maybe you´re thinking of some kind of Nintendo smartphone now, but that´s totally not it. Software alone will not be enough to fight 1 Dollar-games. We all know that Paper Mario 3DS will be well worth its 30 Dollars, but the mainstream doesn´t care about that. The mainstream is happy with a simple touchscreen-only games to bridge the ten minutes waiting time in-between two events. It´s creative hardware that has a real shot at attracting consumers. That´s where R.O.B. 2.0 comes into play. Or let´s call it the NinBot, I like that better. We as gamers socialize with each other thanks to all the new possibilities, but who we´re not socializing with, is the games. Socializing with games? “Dude, hentai-games are not cool, eew …” No, not THAT kind of socializing, idiots *blushes*. What I mean is to look at virtual content as more than “just another title“. But that´s a mostly software-based decision and thus something that could be easily copied. That´s why there´s NinBot. NinBot is a small, well-designed robot that has basic communication skills. There´s lots of different ways to realize such a machine, but maybe it´d have a lcd-screen that could display emotions. It could make sounds, maybe learn words and simple sentences, getting more complex the more time you spend with it. But NinBot wouldn´t only be some Furby-copycat. While playing Call of Duty online, NinBot would work as your headset, imitating a real friend. Put it next to you on the couch, and what other human players say will sound from NinBot´s speakers. And don´t worry about a microphone, it is Nintendo that brought WiiSpeak to us, after all.

That´s just a small array of NinBot´s features, though. It all comes down to costs, but the little, fellow robot could also have a built-in camera that, which combined with the ability to walk/drive could make for some nice games to be played on the big screen.  But no matter what, NinBot´s number one purpose would be to bring video games out of the living room and into the whole home space. Don´t imagine NinBot to look toy-like, instead picture a really cool-looking, stylish robot that can sit on your shoulders and becomes more fun the more you interact with it. I know that my reasoning for WHY THE FLYING FUCK SHOULD NINTENDO DO THAT?! hasn´t been that great, but I found this line on Wikipedia: “R.O.B. was released with the intention of portraying the Nintendo Entertainment System as something novel in order to alleviate retail fears following the video game crash of 1983.” If that line is even remotely true, then I don´t think NinBot is that crazy of an idea. Or it is, but a crazy, yet potential idea. And to give you another presentation of what direction I´m actually thinking for this robot-guy here, watch the following video, where Cynthia Breazeal from MIT demonstrates the development of socializing robot-technology.

Video: Cynthia Breazeal demonstrates the development of social intelligence

5.)  An audible revolution – Music Emotion

Phew, the crazier it gets, the harder to explain it, as well. And I don´t have another video to clear up the picture I´m going for. Let´s start simple: The Nintendo 64 and PlayStation started a visual revolution, introducing 3D-graphics that have been refined constantly since then. The next big revolution was about controls entering the motion-stage. Now, audiophiles might claim that DD 5.1-sound was exactly that, but I disagree: We haven´t seen a revolution of sound in video games, yet, and it is the area within games that offers room to attack. I´m a gamer, not an audiophile, so when I talk about a “revolution of sound“, I mean something that´s a game changer, not just some nicer sounding quality – that´s boring and not exciting at all!

What´s exciting, though, would be another case of gaming leaving the television. I´m thinking of an evolution of the Vitality Sensor-project. A device that is capable of measuring your feelings … if that is somehow possible at all. I guess I´m one of the few remaining Zelda-fans that likes the usage of midi-files, since these seem to be what enables the music to be dynamic. This kind of dynamic music, however, is reliant on nothing but pre-programmed actio-reactio situations. Riding on the sunny field => happy music. Enemy approaching => intimidating music. What we see has become interactive, what we do has become interactive, now why not what we hear, as well?

The new version of the Vitality Sensor, maybe a clip on your ear or whatever, would notice how the player feels in each and every situation and change up the music accordingly. That doesn´t mean that scary scenes would be ruined by some happy song playing due to the player´s fearless attitude. But instead of the super dark, intimidating song, a rather challenging, adventurous track would play if you engage a hard fight with a bright attitude.  The vitality sensor wouldn´t be used exclusively for sound, though, so there´d also be other new aspects thanks to this hardware. And speaking of hardware, here´s the real crazy part about this music revolution: The Vitality Sensor wouldn´t be a sensor device only, it´d also be a type of MP3-player. Including a pair of earphones that´s either not fully covering the ear OR is of semi-permeable structure, so you can still hear your surroundings. Completely unrelated to your home console, you´d be wearing this “Vitality Sensor-MP3-Player” during everyday-life situations. The clue is that the sensor would still be measuring your feelings and playing corresponding music tracks, automatically changing between tracks, volume or speed. The idea is that, instead of keeping the player captivated in front of his TV, this device would transport a crucial part of what makes games and movies so emotional and intoxicating to the real world: Accompanying our feelings with perfectly fitting, mood-supporting music. If we take it a step further, there could be connectivity between every “Vitality Sensor-MP3-Player“, thus people interacting with each other will hear the same music during their encounter. And thus, the music revolution would begin.


Neither of the five above concepts sounds like a highly-likely plan for Nintendo´s future. I´m well aware of that. But neither did motion-controls and glassless 3D for a portable sound that likely. Anyone could talk about his dream Wii 2 with gorgeous HD-graphics, fantastic online-features and improved motion controls. But that has been done to death and, honestly, I personally hate the idea of that. The Wii is my favorite system of the current generation, which puts me in a minority within the “hardcore gamer“-crowd. But still, the reason why I loved the Wii were its unique features. Prior to the Wii´s revealing in 2005, I thought about giving up video gaming, or stay with only a PC. But then the Wii was shown, alongside the motion-controller. It was a dream come true, something that was so incredibly hard to take serious before its official confirmation. And I want to get a feel of that sensation again. Is one of these five concepts going to happen? Maybe not … but maybe yes! That´s the kind of thought that gets me excited, hyped. Not the thought of a WiiHD.

A Nintendo without a plan – question mark

January 16, 2011

In only three days, the highly awaited Amsterdam-event will take place, accompanied by a simultaneous event in the USA. It´s expected to give gamers outside of Japan all the details they want to know about exact launch date and price of the Nintendo 3DS handheld, as well as some deeper insight into the features of said device. Meanwhile, negative news about the nextgen handheld have come up and then there´s that highly successful home console, called Wii, that´s seemingly left out in the dark. Nintendo, what are you up to?

Remembering the first half of 2010 makes any Wii-owner feel warm inside. The year started in a fantastic way, giving us the unexpected sequel to Endless Ocean (Forever Blue), followed by the exceptional Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Monster Hunter Tri, and culminated in the arrival of Super Mario Galaxy 2. Unique, high quality games all around. This year´s beginning makes Wii-owners feel confused and sad inside. The only announced Nintendo-games for Europe are Mario Sports Mix and Kirby´s Epic Yarn, both released in first two months of the year. Interesting third-party offerings are non-existent. Excuse me, dear Nintendo, but is that it? A multiplayer-game and gorgeous-looking, but short in content platformer?

Xenoblade and The Last Story still haven´t even been hinted at a western release, on the contrary, there have been hints that Nintendo has no plans to bring The Last Story to non-Japanese gamers, which makes any wishes for the less popular Xenoblade even less hopeful. Two quality Wii-titles remain. One is Dragon Quest 10, which maybe, and it´s a big, doubtful maybe, will be released this year in Japan, but definitely not anywhere else. The other one is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Originally expected to be released last year, then delayed to a spring 2011 date, and following the latest comments and rumors now a holiday 2011-title. There is a dim chance that Zelda might see a release around May, but there´s really no factual evidence for that, just the history of The Wind Waker being released in May back then.

Some gamers on message boards claim that Nintendo simply makes use of its “no announcement until close to release“, but that doesn´t make much sense when it´s already January 2011 and we don´t even know any releases for time beyond February! And it´s not like there´s a big conference happening where Nintendo could make such announcements. The Amsterdam-event is unlikely to feature anything other than Nintendo 3DS, and GDC also doesn´t seem like the time and place to throw out a release-liste of yet unknown games. And so I don´t forget that one: 3DS was confirmed to be region-locked, might have shockingly bad battery life and might even use the same damn friendscode-system for online-gaming. The software-lineup so far looks fantastic, but the hardware kept looking worse and worse these last few days.

If worse comes to worst, we´re looking at a 2011-lineup that consists of Mario Sports Mix in January, Kirby´s Epic Yarn in February, then nothing until maybe November, when Zelda is released. Or Zelda might come out in May, leaving the latter half empty. All that with not a single high quality-third party title to fill the gaps. One may give it to Nintendo that E3 2011 could see several completely unknown new Wii-games (Cosmic Walker, come on!), but that still leaves all the months up until said event. If there is a plan, Nintendo does an exceptional job at hiding it from the public´s eyes.

Ratio: Silent Hill – Shattered Memories

December 19, 2010

Not marketed by its publishers, ignored by Alan Wake-hypers and too different from its origins to be loved by old fans: That would be the most fitting description of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, at least when you´re looking at only its surface and its surroundings. What Shattered Memories actually is would be one of the most immersive, engaging gaming-experiences that have ever been created. That doesn´t mean that this 2010-game is flawless, but what it did was spectacular. Why Silent Hill: Shattered Memories shouldn´t be missed out by any fan of rich, detailed virtual worlds – you´ll find out in the following review.

The game starts out very abrupt, showing how Harry Mason, the game´s protagonist, and his daughter are having a car accident. Harry loses consciousness only to find out that his little, cute girl is gone when he finally reawakens. The game then switches over to a psychologist´s bureau, who welcomes you and eventually starts asking you questions about the accident … which apparently has happened in the past. You can look around the room while sitting still in your chair, but be careful: that´s already part of a vital segment of Shattered Memories´ gameplay. The psychologist´s questioning divides the game into several chapters, though it doesn´t break up the game flow by suddenly changing you previous location. It´s just a narrator-function in that way, changing between past happenings and your current session with the psychologist, though it is important in its own way. Probably the most popular game mechanic of Shattered Memories is the actively changing game content, depending on not only the way you answer to the psychologist´s question, but also how you perceive the environments of Silent Hill. This goes from houses or persons that you encounter having different colors, to enemies and persons looking different, all the way to scenes playing out completely differently, leading to up to five different endings. It´s these interactive changes that at least partly balance out the game´s biggest flaw, which would be its short playtime of about six to seven hours. But don´t be deceived: These few hours are packed with atmosphere and tense situations.

I have only played the Wii-version of this game, but nonetheless do I believe that it is the best way to experience this title. Other than the intriguing change-mechanic, the motion controls really make this game the unique blockbuster that it is. Using the wiimote´s pointer-function as your ingame-flashlight is but the most obvious use you will encounter, yet it is undoubtedly implemented in a very fun way, made even better by Shattered Memories´ fantastic lighting effects. Each object or person that you point your source of light against will realistically cast a shadow, changing its form depending on angle and distance. Often times will you find yourself just playing around with what kind of silhouettes can be created. It´s redundant to mention how much these effects add to the creepy atmosphere that will never leave you for the whole trip. Besides the clever flashlight-mechanic, you´ll use the wiimote´s built-in speaker as your mobile phone, holding the controller against your ear to listen to phone calls. Which you can make yourself by finding new phone numbers scattered all over the city of Silent Hill, simply by looking at advertisements or posters on walls or otherwise written down numbers. The game doesn´t expect you to call anyone, but it´s exactly that kind of optionality that makes it all the more endorsing. On other occasions you will use the pointer-function on minigames that are realistically put into the game, like opening a locked door by guiding different parts to their right position. The most action-focused motion control-mechanic will be defending yourself against nightmarish creatures. Often times, people complain about how the shaking off-mechanic doesn´t work that well, thus resulting in failure, but as far as I´m concerned, it works perfectly fine. When one of those creatures jumped on your back, simply follow the on-screen icon and shake the wiimote in the exact same way. Or even less complicated: Act like you would in real-life. When a creature hangs on your right shoulder, raise your hand to the left and hit it down to the right. No science, really.

Mentioned creatures will only attack during pre-defined nightmare-scenes where your one and only goal is to reach a certain place. On this run, without any option to fight back, numerous of the horrifying monsters will run and jump after you. To gain distance, you can throw over objects to slow your enemies down, or sometimes find and activate a torch which temporarily holds off any attack. These chase sequences will make you lose your head and set you into an incredibly panicking state, the only thing on your mind left: Where the hell do I have to go?! And you´ll lose your way many times, that´s for sure, but it isn´t a problem due to the beginning of each chase being a check point. What helps you finding your goal are blue marks on doors or fences that indicate interactivity, as well as your mobile phone´s gps-map. In terms of Shattered Memories´ creepiness-factor, a lot of people argued that due to the knowledge of the absence of enemies during non-chase sequences, the rest of the game is boring. Can´t say I agree with that claim .. at all. It is true that your ingame-character´s life won´t be in danger outside of the chases, but at least on your first playthrough, you don´t know when the world around you turns into the scary nightmare-version of Silent Hill. And it can happen any time. Sometimes you pass one of the many doors and suddenly find yourself in the ice-nightmare, sometimes the streets transform before your eyes, not hiding the mystical happenings. Even outside of the chases, the environments are so well-designed and dark and little inviting that most gamers that get into the virtual world of Silent Hill will find themselves playing a true nightmare.

What pushes Shattered Memories beyond its great story and great visuals is the incredibly interactive gameplay. Where other games focus on some parts and dismiss others, developer Climax managed to successfully deliver a complete experience. Exploring environments from a behind-the-shoulder view with a directly controlled flashlight, using your mobile phone to call people, read messages, look at a map or take photos, opening doors just a little to peak into the next, unknown room, smoothly climbing over obstacles or hiding inside them – it all comes together more than nicely and is one of the very few games that don´t leave you wishing “awww, if only I could somehow interact with that“. Visuals and soundtrack are masterful and probably around the best the Wii-system has to offer. Not only are there these convincing lighting effects, it is the textures that will take you by surprise. Instead of the usual blurry mess that most non-HD-games make use of, Shattered Memories lets you actually read anything you can see and thus creates a higher sense of exploration. The weather-effects are superb, too, really adding to the atmosphere when snow starts falling.

I didn´t talk much about how exactly the story unfolds or what changes your own decisions can and will make. And I won´t do that. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a masterpiece, a truly immersive experience that should be undergone without any detailed knowledge, spoiling fun and interesting scenes. To add this: I hate horror-games since I´m a scaredy cat, but the gameplay possibilities and atmosphere convinced me to give this game a try, and damn, do I not regret that decision. Shattered Memories will suck you in and keep chewing on you until the very end. And then you´ll want to play some more, since you remember all the places you could have tackled in a different way. Thanks for not marketing this game, Konami, you brought gamers the most unknown treasure of 2010 (or 2009, if you´re from the USA). No, seriously, add in a dialogue-system like Mass Effect has and it´d be the best video game, haha!

Iwata: Bringing people online on Wii/NDS was a bitter learning experience

October 9, 2010

In a news-article on Siliconera, head of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, talked about the stronger focus on online-features regarding the upcoming Nintendo 3DS-handheld. He called it a bitter learning experience to get people online with Wii and Nintendo DS. It is still in the dark if 3DS will feature any (strongly) improved online-capabilities, since Iwata focuses talk on 3DS´s wlan-features, called SpotPass and Tag-Mode, that exist to use set up hotspots to connect to the internet. Something that might work for Japan, hardly for the USA, and definitely not for Europe.

However, people are criticizing Nintendo´s online approach as whole for a long time now. It has to be said that Nintendo most likely doesn´t have “crappy online” just for fun. Biggest evidence of that is the warning-screen that pops up every time you start your Wii or NDS. Not using any different technology in terms of “being dangerous”, it is only Nintendo that “has to” use these warnings. That, in combination with the emphasis on friends code, should make clear that Nintendo actually fully addresses to any kind of danger that could come from using their systems. It might be a hassle for adult gamers to be have no choice of being protected by these decisions, but it can´t be argued that it works. Anyone who has ever used Xbox Live and voice-chat knows what a more open system brings alongside.

The other reason is that Nintendo is Nintendo. Instead of giving gamers the obvious, they´re looking for something unique. There was an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto many years ago where he was asked about online-gaming (I think it was before the GameCube´s launch), and his answer was basically: If we cannot create new kinds of games by using the internet, we have no interest in that. We don´t want to simply put our existing games online without any innovations.” So, while online-multiplayer is vital to a lot of enthusiast gamers, it surely isn´t anything special or unique. I´ve wondered myself what new game-genres could be made, besides online-multiplayer and mmorpgs. Seems that Nintendo hasn´t come up with an answer, either, yet.

Naruto Shippuden: Gekitou Ninja Taisen! Special announced

September 15, 2010

And I will be the only to give a s*** about that :D. The Gekitou Ninja Taisen!-series is my long beloved beat’em up-series that started out with Naruto: Gekitou Ninja Taisen! on GameCube, got three successors on the same system, with GNT4 being the pinnacle of the series, and then four more entries on the Wii, though the last game was not a fighting-game. Which means fans had to wait for two whole years! Naruto Shippuden: Gekitou Ninja Taisen! Special, here we come!

While the Naruto-manga/anime has been somewhat ruined by its own author, the fighting-games for GameCube/Wii remain the best realization of the source-material. Even though the Ultimate Ninja Storm-series for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 looks much better and fancier, the Gekitou Ninja Taisen! actually succeeds in creating engaging, motivating and challenging combat-situations, accompanied by playable characters that resemble the series´ originals much better then the over-the-top fighting in the HD-games.

What we can see on this scan from Famitsu are Naruto in his Sage-form and Sasuke in his Kage summit-outfit. Naruto finally has his Fuuton Rasen Shuuriken and Sasuke seems to start his Kirin-attack. That´s all for now, but fans are already speculation which other characters developer 8ing might add. On the one hand, two years are a long time, on the other hand, 8ing is as lazy as the Pokémon- and Animal Crossing-developers. Well, not that lazy, but close to. If we assume that the Kage summit is part of the game´s story mode, then possible new appearances are:

  • Raikage
  • Killerbee
  • Yahiko-Pain
  • Konan
  • Suigetsu
  • Karin
  • Juugo
  • And a big maybe: Madara

Of course, there´s a ton of other characters that SHOULD be playable by now, but with 8ing you just don´t want to set bar too high. For now, let´s wait and see. And we might actually see new stuff and first videos tomorrow, when Tokyo Game Show starts.