Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween! A Few Family Friendly Holiday Game Suggestions

A lot of people start to get excited about the holidays when October hits.  Halloween kicks off cooler temperatures with costumes and candy and leads in to a lot of fun with friends, family, and food.  In talking to gamers though, one thing I have realized is not a lot of people know there are seasonal games to be played!  I try to break down what is playable for the entire family below.  A good Halloween game can get kids excited for trick-or-treating without terrifying them out of the fun or boring mom and dad in the process.

What Not to Play

One thing this write up will not suggest is playing an honest to goodness horror game.  The horror genre is alive and well in interactive media.  Classics like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are available on a lot of digital storefronts as are more recent, and terrifying, newcomers like Outlast, Amnesia, Left 4 Dead, and many others.  Just like I would never recommend that my children watch a slasher flick or a jump scare filled cinematic thriller, I would also never recommend they play these games.  I personally have played Left 4 Dead and more action oriented but Halloween appropriate games like Bayonetta and have enjoyed them.  Due to gore, suggestive themes, and a host of other reasons, they just cannot be recommended for kids.  As always, check the ESRB ratings associated with a game and use common sense.  If the game looks terrifying in screenshots and descriptions, then it probably is.

Bayonetta is a wonderful character, but our favorite Umbra Witch is not the best role model for kids.

Directly Connected Versus Loosely Connected Seasonal Games

One thing you cannot get hung up on if you want variety is whether a game is literally connected to Halloween or not.  Some are, so do not fret!  Others can be enjoyed with a Halloween point of view if you let yourself.  I will break up my suggestions based on how close to the season the game is actually tied.

Halloween Games With Direct Connections

Costume Quest 1 & 2 (ESRB Rating: E10+)

Reynold and Everett are definitely ready for trick-or-treat
These games are my personal favorites to play in October.  The original Costume Quest was released in 2010 by developer Double Fine Productions with help from publisher THQ.  THQ has sense gone under, but Midnight City helped publish Costume Quest 2 once Double Fine got the rights to the franchise back.  Costume Quest 2 was widely released Halloween week 2014, which happens to be the week this was written.  I downloaded Costume Quest 2 on Wii U about 3 hours ago, so I do not have all the details on that title yet.  I have completed the original and all of the DLC for it though, so I can speak with some authority on it.

In both games you choose to play as either Wren or Reynold, a sister and brother with their hearts set on trick-or-treating Halloween night, who are constantly finding themselves in bad situations.  With the help of their friends Everett and Lucy, the group tries to uncover plots to rid the neighborhood of candy and rescue one another as trouble keeps finding them.  The primary game mechanics include going door to door in each locale collecting candy or battling baddies you encounter.  The battles are simple, relying on precise timing of button presses, and provide variety through the different costumes you wear.  Costumes include a robot, ninja, pirate, wizard, super hero, eyeball, and candy corn among others.  Costumes also give you special abilities while exploring the world, collecting candy, stamps, and experience points to improve your character.

The games are a blast.  The costumes let you feel empowered and remind you of what Halloween is all about.  The dialog has a sense of innocence about it, really capturing what you expect kids to be thinking about and prioritizing on Halloween night.

Costume Quest is available digitally on PC, Linux, Mac, PS3, and Xbox 360, while the recently released sequel is on PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Wii U.

Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon (ESRB Rating: E)

Who ya gonna call? ... Luigi?
Mario's brother gets into some Halloween-centric mischief in the 2013 Nintendo 3DS release Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon.  This is actually a sequel to a Gamecube game.  Developed by Next Level Games and Nintendo, the game sees Luigi partner with an appropriately mad scientist to investigate haunted houses, capturing hostile ghosts and ghouls along the way using what is essentially a modified vacuum cleaner and flashlight.  While ghost nabbing you are also trying to figure out why the ghosts went bonkers in the first place.

Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon is a pretty great game that has seen a lot of success in the sales department.  Each of the ghosts (depicted by specific colors and shapes as seen in the picture above) have certain abilities that Luigi has to overcome with his gadgets before he is able to capture them.  In between action sequence, Luigi gets to, very timidly mind you, investigate hidden corridors, trap chambers, back alleys, and just in general creepy crawly places to find hidden items, keys, and answers.  

There is also a great multi-player mode that allows up to four friends tackle time trials in a scary skyscraper appropriately named the ScareScraper.  The best part is you only need one copy of the game to play local multi-player thanks to the game's download play feature.  Try it with a friend to get a feel for the mechanics if you are skeptical about purchasing the game yourself.

Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon is available on Nintendo 3DS via retail release or digitally on Nintendo eShop.

Games with Loose Ties to Halloween

LEGO (various games mostly rated E to E10+)

LEGO games? Here? Why not!

LEGO games are ubiquitous these days.  Every platform has them, and for the most part they are solid experiences.  The key component that connects this franchise to Halloween is the act of dressing up your character or swapping between different characters.  Want to be a super hero?  Try LEGO Marvel or LEGO Batman games.  How about a wizard in a fantasy world?  LEGO Harry Potter and LEGO The Hobbit games have you covered.  What about a construction worker or police officer or emergency responder?  LEGO City Undercover and The LEGO Movie The Video Game have you covered.

Pop in a multi-player LEGO game with your family Halloween week and try to find as many costumers as possible.  Switch characters a lot, and have fun with the custom character creator.  I recommend a LEGO Batman title if you want to cycle through Batman and Robin's many suits or LEGO City Undercover if you want to collect a ton of monster themed costumes like Werewolf or Frankenstein from LEGO's Monster Fighters brand.

Mario (various games mostly rated E)

Boo and Dry Bones give every Mario title a little Halloween spice
Mario gets a mention on the list not because he has a Halloween focused game like his brother, but instead because some of his enemies are Halloween focused.  From legacy Nintendo consoles to modern day, Boo, Dry Bones, and even masked Shy Guys have been giving Mario and friends fits.  Boos are typically featured in haunted house levels of Mario's platform outings, while Dry Bones hang out in molten lava boss stages.  Shy Guy is a more common enemy in regular stages (not pictured above).  These characters have all appeared in the Mario Kart franchise as well.

If you have a Mario game around, it is never a bad time to give it a go with your family.  On Halloween try to give it an appropriate theme by collecting all the coins or secrets on the Boo levels or using Shy Guy or Dry Bones as your racer in a Mario Kart title.

Wrap Up

Admittedly I have not played every family friendly game with a Halloween tilt.  Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack! is a game from Drinkbox Studios that looks like it could fit the bill.  The same can be said for A Boy and His Blob from WayForward.  You could feasibly try answering with only Halloween themed solutions in a Scribblenauts game from 5th Cell as well.  Whatever you decide to play make sure it does not take you away from the fun of Halloween.  Enjoy trick-or-treating or your costume party safely and save some candy for your next family gaming session!

- Scott

Update: Nintendo had the same idea that I had and posted this short video with some great Halloween themed levels.  The video includes several games I mentioned above but focuses on specific elements of the games that make them Halloween related.

Not to be outdone, The Pokémon Company also posted a reminder to Facebook that there are Ghost type Pokémon in all of their games. Try to catch them all, or form a team of only Ghost types and go on an adventure!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bravely Default - Impressions


Agnès and Airy official art from http://bravelydefault.nintendo.com/

Overview and Mechanics

Bravely Default is a Nintendo 3DS game developed by Square Enix and Silicon Studio and published in Japan by Square Enix and in the US and Europe by Nintendo. The game is an RPG reminiscent of traditional Final Fantasy games, specifically of those Final Fantasy games centered around worlds where powerful crystals exist and are often being corrupted by some form of miasma or darkness (all of which are prevalent in Bravely Default). The developers have even stated that Bravely Default is a "spiritual successor" to Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. You take on the role of four young heroes named Tiz, Agnès, Ringabel, and Edea traveling to rid their own world of crystal plaguing darkness. The artwork is stunning thanks to character designer Akihiko Yoshida, who fans might be familiar with from work on Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, and the aforementioned Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.  At the end of the day, judging from what I have played, I think Bravely Default is going to be a much better Final Fantasy than the majority of the actual Final Fantasy games I have played.  It has been a splendid experience so far.

Final Fantasy veterans will recognize some stalwarts of the classic Japanese RPG formula. There are airships and world map traversal segments, there is a lot of dialogue (spoken dialogue as a matter of fact, a rarity for Nintendo handheld games), there is HP and MP, there are jobs and abilities, and of course you will level up throughout the game, improving your capabilities as the foes you face do the same. There are also random encounters, but this includes one major improvement for me from a traditional JRPG perspective. Regardless of difficulty, you can adjust your encounter rate on the fly in the configuration menu. Need to power level some? Increase the random encounter rate to +50% or +100%. Need to get somewhere fast to locate a chest or save? Decrease your encounter rate by the same margin. It is a system I will miss if excluded in future games I play. Additionally you will have at your disposal a compendium full of details on the world and practically everything and everyone in it in the form of a journal that Ringabel is in possession of.  I spend hours reading through all the details, something I do not always do in other games.  The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion gave me a similar experience, where the lore and detailed descriptions of the game world captivated me.


Street Pass/Spot Pass and Friend Codes feature prominently in Bravely Default.  Some interesting mechanics are introduced in the game through these 3DS features.  For starters this allows you to accept villagers into the town of Norende.  Without spoiling anything, all I can say is these villagers assist in building shops that generate items for your crew as well as extremely helpful ability and special move bonuses.  Simply assign the villagers to a specific shop or building task and leave the game running either while you play or in sleep mode.  You'll receive gifts and will be able to purchase the items and gear at save stations throughout the world.  You can also connect with people whose Friend Code you have obtained.  The added bonus to having friends is getting access to their special moves via the "Summon Friend" functionality as well as the "Abilink" feature, which allows you to access higher level abilities for a job that your friend is further along in.  You can find out more about these functions in the game.  Just remember that you can also use a reciprocal send feature to in turn send back a special move of your own.  Simply select send from the "Summon Friend" menu and select a move to send during battle.  Typically providing a buffed special move is the best thing to do, or at least most useful.  If you do not do this you will never repay the favor to anyone!  I see people with level 1 characters all the time being sent because they never update their sent move.  Just be aware if you are early in the game and use a level 99 friend to attack, you will blow through the early match but lose access to that friend until they re-send their move.  I try to save my higher level friends until really in a pinch.

I briefly mentioned save points earlier and want to mention one last thing about them.  For starters the game also has auto-save, which in a JRPG is a huge benefit.  The game will save anytime you enter or leave a town, dungeon, or similar areas as well as whenever you swap floors inside a specific area.  Additionally their are save points in the form of wandering adventurers.  They are another helpful feature in that they grant access to items and equipment from Norende as mentioned above as well as provide hints to what may be coming up.  They will always tell you if a higher level foe or a boss is ahead and prompt you to save before finishing the discussion with them.  Also even though they are adventurers they do not actually move, so if you need to restock or save again, you can revisit the same adventurers wherever you find them.

Additionally there are a few tutorial quests you can complete along the way as well as side quests that complement the main storyline.  The game is far too complex to go through every aspect in this impressions write-up, so I will just touch on a couple of other things that I took notice of.  Technically speaking the 3D effect is impressive throughout the game.  Nintendo has received criticism as of late for games like Pokémon X and Y failing to make any noticeable use of 3D, but Bravely Default is evidence that 3D visuals have a place on the system.  The voice acting is solid, and the writing is tremendous.  I keep thinking as I play that the grammar and speech patterns are refreshing.  Overall the game is engrossing with supporting mechanics that enhance the experience.


Ringabel, Edea, and Tiz official art from http://bravelydefault.nintendo.com/

Story and Theme

On the topic of story I would be remiss if I did not mention something I deeply enjoy thematically in Bravely Default.  A lot of games, more specifically narrative driven games, are beginning to wade into the waters of social messaging nowadays.  Some of those narrative games, even those that receive positive media attention, miss the mark in my opinion (and in some cases end up more off-putting than engaging), but on occasion I find a narrative game that really strikes a chord with me.  Little Inferno is a a good example of one prior to Bravely Default that I enjoyed, with a clear message and engaging, simple delivery.  Bravely Default is systematically more complex than Little Inferno, but resonates with me all the same in a very similar way.

Throughout Bravely Default your team (and just as an FYI I will avoid spoilers, so feel free to read on regardless of where you are at in the game) travels to places and interacts with people who represent very real world problems that we find the global community facing today in reality.  Ancheim, a land of resilient people, is being taken advantage of by tyrannical rulers with hidden agendas.  Florem, a land once known for modesty and reverence, is now a site of excess filled with neon lights and vanity.  A city that never sleeps.  The Matriarch of Florem has a compelling conversation with the heroes at one point in which Edea asks how she could be unaware of the change in her city, and she responds by pointing out that some of the changes were so subtle that she never even realized a problem existed until it was too late.  In general throughout the game there is an on-going fight to restore the world's faith and unity in the face of changes driven by malevolent groups and individuals, individuals who would see their own ambitions ahead of real positive change in the world.  I think on a deeper level there are strong implications that the people of the world have lost their spirituality and sense of purpose, which the group sets out to restore during their journey all while combating the deceitful ones who want to take advantage of the circumstances.  The darkness, corruption, and physical miasma clouds lend themselves well to allegories, something that has spoken volumes to me throughout my play-through.

Collector's Edition Swag


Sampling of the AR card deck with my two favorite characters from left to right Edea and Alternis the Dark Knight

Here are some shots of the Collector's Edition, which I highly recommend for $55.  In my opinion this is a beautiful and worthwhile Collector's Edition.  I have experienced everything from the dreadful, overpriced Batman: Arkham Asylum Collector's Edition with its $100 price tag and cheap, plastic pack-ins to much more fulfilling purchases like the Epic Mickey Collector's Edition with it's wonderful Mickey Mouse statue and the Fallout 3 Collector's Edition complete with Vault Boy bobble-head and throwback tin lunch pail.  The Bravely Default CE ranks among the top of those, specifically because of the beautiful AR card deck included. (Note: I believe the EU version of the Collector's Edition costs a little more and includes a statue, while the US version I purchased does not have the statue.  As a result I cannot make any determinations on the quality of the EU statue unfortunately.)


Collector's Edition unpacked next to a Pikachu 3DS XL for size reference
Music CD and game box
Sample page from the art book featuring the city of Ancheim
Sampling of the AR card deck, from left to right Airy, Agnès, Tiz, Edea, and Ringabel

Wrap Up

I feel like I only breached the surface of what Bravely Default has to offer.  This is a rudimentary introduction to some of the mechanics, themes, and functions of the game, and I highly recommend everyone who owns a 3DS or 2DS system give this game a shot.  The back of the Collector's Edition box says "BASIC READING ABILITY IS NEEDED TO FULLY ENJOY THIS GAME," and I think that is an adequate warning.  The content is extensive, the systems at times are complex, and the interactions and themes are not always trivial.  Having said all of that, I have come away believing that Bravely Default might be one of the best games I have ever played, especially in the JRPG and handheld sub-genres.  This can be a spectacular experience if you have the time for it.

One final note - Bravely Default has a free demo on the Nintendo eShop that takes roughly 4 to 8 hours to complete depending on how thorough you are.  This provides an insight into combat as well as the Norende shop building mechanics through a story separate from the game.  The story of the main game is much more interesting, but I recommend the demo for anyone wanting to try things out.  The demo has a bit of a level grind feeling to it, but that is representative of the area and circumstances, not the main game.  You also receive items by completing demo quests that transfer to the main game.  It is worth trying out.

Until next time.
- Scott

Note: To put things in context, I am just under 26 hours into the game and have completed Chapter 2 of the main story.  Norende has also been completely restored.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

The State of Nintendo, A Fan's Point of View


Tonight Nintendo is discussing its current earnings predicament with analysts and investors.  Most gamers have already heard the news that the Wii U is not doing well, and the 3DS, despite healthy overall sales, is seeing stagnant growth.  The end result is Nintendo has lost some money.  They have a huge war chest of funds to keep them healthy for quite a while, the same war chest that fended off a Microsoft buyout in the past, but the company cannot sit back and rest on the money it made in previous generations.  The question then that armchair analysts and critics alike have been posturing on is how does Nintendo fix the problems that are causing them to lose money?

(Image of Nintendo President Mr. Iwata courtesy of Toru HanaiReuters)


Knee-Jerk Reactions

There has been no shortage of commentary on Nintendo's predicament.  Major news outlets like Time as well as smaller tech-centric blogs like Techno Buffalo have all had things to say about what Nintendo should do with Wii U.  Some of the comments and opinions have focused on an extreme scenario where Nintendo, after only a couple of unprofitable months following years of profitability and high dividends, would immediately dump their hardware manufacturing arm for a software only model, similar to Sega after the Dreamcast tanked.  That is wishful thinking though for people who want Nintendo software without paying for the hardware.

For starters, Nintendo's situation is dramatically different than Sega's.  Nintendo is still flush with cash, so there is no immediate need to do anything that drastic.  Additionally to think Wii Sports would have been such a cultural phenomenon on any system other than the Wii is laughable.  Nothing even close in terms of play-ability and financial success (according to VGChartz, Wii Sports has moved over 81 million units, many of which were sold with the console itself) has ever been produced for Microsoft's Kinect peripheral or Sony's Move.  The same can be said for less important but still relevant games like Mario & Luigi: Dream Team or The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on 3DS.  Those games could never have been done on a handheld other than Nintendo's flagship dual screen, and both are over a million units sold.  The combination of Nintendo's available funds and their ability to craft and curate experiences specifically for their devices and controllers makes this idea of abandoning hardware illogical to me and many others.  They are in a similar situation to Apple in that they build experiences for their devices, not for devices that other companies have built.

One other problem I have with people stating as fact that Nintendo moving to other consoles or mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones would bring in ridiculous sums of money is lack of evidence.  Admittedly there is no evidence to refute these claims either, but that is the major issue.  Nintendo has no guarantee that any of us have seen that if PS4 had Nintendo titles or if iPad had Nintendo titles that they would sell with the runaway success some people have predicted.  One firm went as far as putting a $2.7 billion profit tag on a mobile push by Nintendo, but I am not aware of any consumer surveys or marketing predictions that can justify these claims.  I would actually love to see Sony or Apple in particular run a survey of their respective install bases asking franchise by franchise if players want to see a Mario game on their hardware, a Zelda game, a Metroid game, legacy games from previous generation Nintendo consoles, etc.  I think this would be enlightening but also never expect it to happen.


(Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze promotional image)

What is Nintendo Really Going to Do?

In the near term, Nintendo President Mr. Satoru Iwata has taken a 50% pay cut and announced smaller but still significant cuts for other top executives for the next five months.  He has apologized and stated that Nintendo is evaluating reform within the company to right the sinking Wii U ship alongside a stock buy back to shore things up further.  This is great, but it has not given us much to calm the rumor mill with.

What we do know is Nintendo has some strong Wii U titles in the pipeline for 2014, and through recent earnings it was revealed that the attach rate of the Wii U is actually not terrible (Wii U attach rate is sitting just over five software titles per console sold, a better attach rate than 3DS currently has).  I suspect that Nintendo is hoping Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze in February and Mario Kart 8 in Q2 can bring a little life to their home console while they figure out what to do next.  Bayonetta 2, Super Smash Bros, X, the next Legend of Zelda entry, and several other games have been announced but not dated.  The sooner the better for Nintendo because these have the potential to be system sellers and at least get Wii U off of life support.  The 3DS has a few strong titles early in the year like Bravely Default from Square Enix; however, it is much less of a concern with its install base of over 42 million units.  The new 2DS system actually seems to be attractive to new emerging markets like China, so Nintendo may continue to rely on the handheld's sales to keep losses low while they attempt to figure out the Wii U.

What Would I Like Nintendo to Do?

A big reason behind why I am writing this piece is because I have plenty of complaints and ideas myself.  Despite having some exposure to business practices and technology markets, I do not claim to be an expert providing magic beans to fix all of Nintendo's ailments.  These are my opinions as both a fan and an owner of multiple 3DS handhelds and a day one Wii U Deluxe.

(Bayonetta 2 promotional image)

Games

Some of you may recall I previously wrote about some of the post launch reception Wii U received.  I will not rehash that, but suffice it to say I agree with everyone who said Nintendo bungled the launch.  There were no must own titles for the first five months of the console's lifespan (Lego City Undercover is still my favorite game for the system and was released in March 2013), and the initial message was muddy and confusing (many have said Wii U and Nintendo's refusal to show off the console itself caused confusion that still lingers today with people who believe the Wii U is simply an optional tablet controller for the original Wii console).  In the second half of 2013, Nintendo shipped Pikmin 3, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, and Super Mario 3D World, all excellent games, while Platinum Games shipped The Wonderful 101.  Third parties also contributed games like Assassin's Creed, Batman Arkham Origins, Scribblenauts Unmasked, and the latest Call of Duty and Skylanders games.  People are still saying that is not enough, so what is enough?

The short answer is for critics it will never be enough.  Even with Donkey Kong Country, Mario Kart 8, and Bayonetta 2, there will still be detractors.  I think Smash Bros, the next Legend of Zelda, X, and other games are further off and cannot be relied on near term to fix the problems.  I actually think Nintendo needs to lean on Indie developers and its eShop in the near term.  Shovel Knight, Teslagrad, Tengami, Armillo, Q.U.B.E. Director's Cut, and several other games (check out this sizzle reel on YouTube) look extremely promising and will cost substantially less than $50 - $60 retail titles.  There are plenty of existing Indie titles that are fabulous on Nintendo's eShop already that Nintendo could feature, such as Toki Tori 2+, Little Inferno, The Cave, and Runner 2.  Sony has done really well showcasing Indie's on their platforms, and Nintendo could benefit from similar outreach and focus.  They have started the behind the scenes work with Indies, but I would love to see a more public forum where Nintendo expresses their dedication to independent games and studios.

One aspect of the games that has been missing is a Game Pad seller.  Aside from off-screen TV, which is wonderful by the way, most games fail to take advantage of the Game Pad to any interesting extent.  I think ZombiU, Lego City Undercover, and Batman Arkham Origins do the best job currently, but what I would love to see is a strategy game that allows you to move units strategically on the Game Pad.  Fire Emblem would be perfect for this.  I have no idea if Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem will utilize this, but I hope it does.  This game may or may not be released in 2014, and it could be spectacular or possibly too complex to enjoy given its parents' pedigree.  I would love to see strategic battles play out on the TV after mapping my moves on the Game Pad though.  (UPDATE: The investor briefing just wrapped before I published this piece, and Nintendo addressed the Game Pad's lack of effective use.  Suffice it to say Nintendo and I agree on this one!)

(Nintendo eShop logo)

Infrastructure 

This has always been a hot button issue for me.  There is no denying Nintendo has always been way too conservative in terms of network capability and account features.  Only recently did Nintendo Network IDs migrate to the 3DS, allowing for a shared wallet across Wii U and 3DS eShops.  Besides that though the system is still sorely lacking.  If your console ever breaks or is stolen, you have to call Nintendo directly and work with them to retrieve your previously purchased digital content.  Nintendo only recently removed a restriction on 3DS where you could perform content and data transfer between systems a total of 5 times.  That welcome change aside, this content should be stored in a protected cloud environment that is accessed through your account.  The problem is purchases are tied to an individual console and not the console owner, putting Wii U and 3DS far behind similar systems managed by Valve, Microsoft, and Sony.  Additionally saves are stuck on 3DS cartridges (for physical games and internal memory for digital) or internal memory on Wii U.  I once tried to copy a save file for a friend to use with his own copy of ZombiU only to find out that was not allowed.  We cannot even copy save files.  This seems so counter-intuitive to me.  Why would Nintendo want to prevent customers from accessing saved data and purchases from multiple consoles?  It can be protected and limited to just your account if they wanted to do that, but they have not shown any interest yet, even stating at times that they have not heard or seen substantial interest in these features from developers despite consumers asking for it.  I would think developers want whatever gets more consumers interested in the hardware that their software operates on.  Microsoft and Sony have embraced cloud gaming, as has Valve through their Steam platform, all allowing an account to be accessed from multiple devices with all features and content available (for more details on how those companies manage this activity feel free to visit the respective company's support pages).

Another big boon would be allowing cross purchasing and cross play functionality between 3DS and Wii U.  Nintendo should leverage the much larger 3DS install base to drum up interest in the Wii U.  Re-purchasing Virtual Console or Indie digital titles for full price on both systems is tough to swallow.  I would love to see at the very least a discount or some acknowledgment that Nintendo is aware I bought the title once already.  Sony again has won people over through their ability to do this with PS Vita and PS3/4.  That functionality has sold systems for them.

Finally adding what other systems have as default functionality should not need to be asked for in this day and age.  Account level accomplishments view-able at the profile level, operating system level voice chat that can be sustained in games and out of games, and more capable messaging functionality should all be available.  Currently Miiverse is cute, but most of it is clutter and useless in actually managing content or sharing data in a meaningful way with friends.  Batman Arkham Origins attempted to create a way to share accomplishments by auto posting to Miiverse, but the majority of the automated posts include a black box screenshot instead of a legitimate shot of the action.  It is a nice attempt, but it should not be needed at all.  All of the listed features would be welcome improvements to a system in need of getting back to basics though.

Conclusion

I have probably missed a few things that I like to rant and rave about, but this hopefully was an enjoyable, albeit lengthy, opinion on how the Wii U can improve from a fan of Nintendo.  I honestly believe Nintendo's continued support of family friendly games and couch co-op gameplay should be celebrated.  Nintendo constantly produces high quality, brightly colored, vibrant games that anyone in my family can play in an industry where grim first person shooters released annually dominate.  Nintendo's biggest priority should be reminding people why we all at one point in time or another loved them, not finding ways to abandon who they are.

UPDATE:  As mentioned above, the investor's briefing has come and gone while I was preparing this piece.  Nintendo mentioned two additional areas I did not consider: Quality of Life software and Intellectual Property licensing.  Both are extremely intriguing, and from my point of view proves Nintendo is definitely thinking a little out of the box.  Nintendo has shown interest in QOL/health software in the past with the Wii Fit platform and Vitality Sensor (though the Vitality Sensor was never commercially released).  The Balance Board and Wii Fit Meter are solid products that I own and enjoy.  Additionally new licensing deals could mean anything from allowing Activision to develop a Luigi game to allowing Archie Comics to start printing a Metroid comic, similar to their excellent Mega Man and Sonic comics.  The possibilities there are endless with some being great and some not so great.  We will have to wait and see how these pan out, but at least change is coming.

Until Next Time
- Scott

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Charity Wrap-up

I meant to post this sooner than I am (especially since our team finished Extra Life duties this year in November), but now is a great time to reflect on how successful our Extra Life campaign was this year.  As always we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our friends and families who donated to both Children's Medical Center and Our Lady of the Lake this year.  Our team does the fun stuff (play video games, bug people on social networks, etc.), but the real heroes are all of you who make sure the children we support are receiving much needed funds.  From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.

Now on to the numbers!


This year we took a different approach to the marathon.  For starters we supported two hospitals, since the majority of our donors are split across two states.  Secondly we had the entire team play from one location.  Both of these were meant to directly address some lessons learned from last year.  We still have some things to tweak (see lessons learned 2013 at the bottom of this post), but a lot went really well.

Last year (2012) we raised $590 for Children's Medical Center.  We had three team members all playing for the one hospital.  This year (2013) we raised $866 with a breakdown of $658 for Children's Medical Center and $208 for Our Lady of the Lake.  The really encouraging part about those numbers is that we did not sacrifice donors to Children's Medical Center in favor of Our Lady of the Lake.  We beat our total last year and were able to give to an additional hospital.  I cannot tell you how rewarding this is.  We initially had a goal set for $1,200, but a few avenues for donations that we pursued outside of our family and friend circle never really panned out.  I reduced the goal to $800, but luckily we were able to surpass that lowered goal.  We are slowly climbing towards $1,000 in a given year.

Our year over year total for donations rose $276 or roughly 147% of last year's total.  If we just look at Children's Medical Center, we increased our donations by $68 or 112% of last year's total.  Our Lady of the Lake has no comparison point, since it was a new hospital for us this year.  For now, thanks to all of you, we have raised a grand total of $1,456 over two years for the hospitals.

Next year we are considering a Spring marathon to support either Extra Life or additional charities.  I am still evaluating this.  I do not want to burn people out and lose donations for any one cause, but if we can manage two major events per year and raise money for both Extra Life and additional charities such as Child's Play or Operation Supply Drop, I would really love that.  I encourage everyone reading this to learn more about any of these great causes.

Last but not least we have this year's lessons learned.  For starters I have to apologize.  I was unaware of Twitch's archiving policy, and I did not cut any highlights from our live stream before the videos were removed.  The first big lesson learned is if we live stream on Twitch in the future, then I need to do a better job of moving some of the footage to YouTube or my local storage.  Luckily we also took a lot of pictures and some live video and shared to Facebook, but I know some people were hoping to see highlights from the stream.

Another lesson learned is make sure all games work as expected in advance.  I thought John and I could start up a local Left 4 Dead 2 multi-player session with minimal effort, but I was sorely mistaken.  It is a convoluted and confusing process to get multi-player for that game working on PC.  Sadly some of you may have seen a few minutes of angry streaming on Twitch as John and I were testing things.  Next year we will have to plan more suitable games that are also stream-able.  We also had to drag an old CRT TV into my office for the retro streams of Custom Robo and Super Mario Advance.  The TV was only outputting in black and white for us, but it worked.  I have a new monitor though for next year to assist in dual screening gameplay captured off of legacy systems.  We will try to make this a much bigger part of future marathons because everyone loved it (including the players).

Finally both John and I hit a wall of severe fatigue around 2AM - 3AM again this year, and frankly gunning caffeine is not sufficient to bust through it (nor is it very healthy).  Next year we are planning to pause the marathon at 2AM, sleep for several hours, and resume the marathon around 8AM following sleep.  That would mean we start at 8AM Saturday and roll until 2AM Sunday.  We then pick things back up at 8AM Sunday and roll until 2PM Sunday afternoon.  This would keep the players sane and much more healthy through the weekend.  It is fun to pull all-nighters, but it is also a chore to grind through the quiet hours of the night.

Thanks for reading through our 2013 marathon highlights.  We appreciate everyone who makes each marathon for charity such a wonderful experience and success, and we wish everyone a safe, relaxing, and happy holiday season.

See you in 2014.
- Scott

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Pokémon X/Y Early Impressions

Early Impressions: Pokémon X/Y for Nintendo 3DS

Just over 4 hours into Pokémon X and with 36 Pokémon entered into my Pokédex, I feel like now is a great time to provide some impressions from a long time series fan for anyone curious as to how things have changed.  If I can summarize everything I am about to type in one word it would be "streamlined."


Look and Feel

Pokémon X and Y look to add some cool new features to the formula, and alongside new features comes a graphical overhaul that has been long awaited by series fans.  I have played every generation of the main Pokémon series, and I can honestly say the new coat of paint was one of the things I wanted most.  While playing it on my 3DS XL, I cannot help but feel like the handheld version has finally simulated the one thing the home console Stadium and Coliseum games have done well, which is make the battles more exciting.  The home consoles have the announcer to add to the drama, but that is one thing the handheld version is still missing.

Not to be outdone, the audio for this game is also much better than in years past.  That is entirely due to the technical limitations of previous hardware, but nonetheless it is nice to sit and play Pokémon with a good pair of headphones and really enjoy the experience.

Aside from the graphics and sound, the player also gets a bit of an upgrade.  Limited customization options are available for the first time ever.  Aside from picking your character's gender, which you have been able to do in a few of the previous games, you can also pick skin tone and hair color from a few preset options.  As you travel the game world you can also buy custom clothing, another new feature.  It is not full player character customization like you would find in a Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls game, but it is a start that allows for some differentiation.

Pokémon Availability

This is where streamlining comes into play.  In generations past, the player would pick a starter Pokémon from a selection of 3, each having a starting element of Fire, Water, or Grass.  This game is no different, but Nintendo and Game Freak have provided way more options this generation than ever before.



Initially the player gets to choose from Fennekin, Froakie, and Chespin (Fire, Water, and Grass respectively).  Nintendo is also running a Mystery Gift promo right now that allows players to download a Torchic with some pretty cool stats via any Internet connection.  Torchic is the Fire starter from the Game Boy Advance generation of games, Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald.  Torchic is not only a solid Fire Pokémon, but it also comes with Boost, an ability that increases its speed after each turn, and an item that will allow it to Mega Evolve later in the game.  More on Mega Evolutions momentarily.

In addition to this generation's starters as well as Torchic, the first ever generation of starters is available for the player to choose from very early in the game.  Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle (Grass, Fire, and Water) allow you a lot of flexibility in your early party, covering all weaknesses that you were stuck with in previous games (anyone remember having just a Charmander to go against Brock's Rock Pokémon in the original game?).  Needless to say half of your party of six can be fleshed out with legitimate starter Pokémon from the outset.

One other huge change that fits into the theme of streamlining is NPC trades.  In previous games you would come across non-playable characters offering you a Pokémon trade.  If your party was full or you did not have the right Pokémon with you, you would have to visit a Pokémon center to access a PC and swap your party out.  Now the PC simply pops up and allows you to access your storage boxes when a trade is prompted, another long overdue feature.  On a sidenote from that, Pokémon Marts are now inside of the Pokémon Centers, so even that is streamlined.  I have not found this generation's Day Care yet, but I hope the interface is improved there as well, though I want to say the Day Cares in previous generations at least had a PC available to swap Pokémon out without having to leave to find a Pokémon Center.

Level Grinding (or lack thereof)

Level grinding is easy to cover here because it is practically non-existent again due to streamlining.  In previous games if you caught a Pokémon later in the game, swapping it into an established party was at times difficult.  You had to either leave the Pokémon at a Day Care to level as you progressed without it or swap the Pokémon in and out of battle to allow it to earn EXP.  Additionally you could use an EXP Share item, which in the past was a Hold item, meaning you had to assign it to a specific Pokémon who would then siphon off EXP from active participants in a battle, leaving only those active participants to receive a percentage of the EXP for the fight they won.  Now the EXP Share, received after the first gym battle is completed, is a Key Item that you register.  It provides EXP to the entire party, where any active participants receive full EXP for their involvement, and all other Pokémon receive a percentage of EXP after that.  Some purists may choose not to use this feature, but the vast majority of players will set it to on and never touch it again.  It is huge for leveling parties.

Another new feature is one that should have been included ages ago.  In previous games if you were battling a wild Pokémon and opted to catch it instead of defeat it, then once the Pokémon was caught no EXP was gained.  Now Pokémon will receive EXP for battles that end with a successful capture.  It is a feature that allows players to truly pursue catching every Pokémon they come across.

Some Pokémon also benefit from friendship ratings that used to only be improved by walking around the in game world while the Pokémon was in your party.  Now the game features a new mini-game mode called Pokémon Amie where you can pet, feed, or play games with party Pokémon.  I originally thought I would ignore this feature after trying it once, but my kids adore it.  This is a great way to get younger children involved in the series, especially since Pikachu, found early in the game if you have some perseverance in the first forest segment, has had its voice altered to match the cartoon version of the character.  A lot of in game characters will compliment you if you catch a Pikachu, and kids will love playing the mini games with it.

Still to Come

I have not been able to fully test all of the features of the new game yet.  Nintendo has been detailing Mega Evolutions in a lot of the press for the games.  These are basically in-battle transformations that allow a Pokémon to gain different abilities or types depending on the Pokémon and the version of the item they are holding.  Mega Evolutions require a specific item to be held by specific Pokémon, and the items change slightly based on the version you play (X or Y).  I hear you can trade Pokémon from one version to the other with the item from that particular game, but have not tested it.

This is also supposedly the most robust online/network capable Nintendo game ever according to some media outlets.  Features include the usual trading, battling, and tournaments from previous versions as well as the ability to cast party buffs on passers-by via Street Pass.  I look forward to test driving these features in the future.



One final and massive change involves what were previously known as Effort Values or Stat Exp.  In previous generations, simply leveling a Pokémon without paying attention to its Effort Values, or EV, would get you crushed in live tournament play.  The formula and understanding of EV training was always complex even for me, so much so that I never bothered with it (and lost plenty of online battles as a result).  I will not bother trying to explain the system, but here is a Bulbapedia page on it for those interested.  This is another streamlined feature in X and Y.  This generation has functionality called Super Training.  I have not gotten into this yet either, but again here is an article, this time on Serebii.net, explaining the new system and how mini games allow better control of EV training to all levels of users.

Wrap-Up

I may have left a few things out, but those are the major items that caught my attention in the first four hours of gameplay.  Maybe most importantly for fans is that this game still feels like Pokémon even with the new features and presentation.  Any fan of the series will feel right at home, and newcomers will enjoy a modernized trip to the world of Pokémon.

Enjoy playing.
- Scott

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Blog Re-branding, Twitch Debut, Extra Life 2013

Lots of updates to throw at everyone tonight.

First off, John and I have officially signed up for Extra Life 2013 under a new team name.  My son asked us to go with something a little more positive this year, and after some deliberation our team name is now Super Game Boys inspired largely by Nintendo's Super Game Boy cartridge and the original Game Boy and Game Boy Advance devices.  You can locate our team page on the Extra Life site here.

We are supporting two regional hospitals this year.  Please see the donation links below.  Remember your donations go straight to the hospital listed, and all donations are tax deductible.  Click the "Support me!" button on the player pages and follow the instructions to submit a donation.  Thanks for everyone's support!

To donate to Children's Medical Center in Dallas, TX, visit this page here.

To donate to Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital in Baton Rouge, LA, visit this page here.


In line with our Extra Life efforts this year, I started playing with the open source recording program Open Broadcaster Software.  John and I tested it tonight, and, despite our audio and comedic timing needing extensive work, it went pretty well.  We will do occasional live streams on our freshly opened Twitch page.  Delayed uploads and the occasional offline recordings can be found at my existing YouTube page here.

We are planning marathons on August 15th/16th from 9PM to 1AM and throughout the international marathon on November 2nd/3rd.  We look forward to everyone visiting our pages and hopefully enjoying some of the content.  Suggestions welcomed!

- Scott

Saturday, June 8, 2013

E3 2013 Primer


The Electronic Entertainment Expo kicks off this week, and this is a particularly newsworthy show.  Sony and Microsoft are both bringing new hardware to the convention, and Nintendo is expected to show what the second round of games delivered for their recently released Wii U will look like.  All of the different 3rd party publishers are also clamoring for top billing on at least one of the systems.  With the next generation of gaming comes privacy and consumer concerns as well as pricing and release questions.  So what should people look for during this year's expo?

The Hardware

Sony held a press conference earlier this year to announce their new console, the PlayStation 4.  The focus of the event was on same day digital releases, cloud functionality, and easy access social media sharing, in addition to some new games planned for the console.  The general reception was reasonably positive.  Their console will also be shipped with an improved PlayStation Eye peripheral, which will function similarly to Microsoft's Kinect, which gets mentioned shortly.  Sony has promised 40 games at this year's expo for the PS4, but has not specified whether they are all exclusives or not.  I suspect some are multi-platform titles with a few key exclusives sprinkled in.  My top "game to watch" on Sony's system is Destiny, the latest from former Halo development house Bungie.  This will be a multi-platform game, but it sounds like Sony is giving Bungie some floor time during their press event.  Also expect Sony to provide answers to some of the questions Microsoft is currently getting hounded over.

Microsoft also recently announced their new console, the Xbox One.  I will not rehash some of the heated debates littering the internet of the One's muddied announcement.  Microsoft has dug itself a hole by stating the new console requires an internet connection to play games due to licensing and authentication process requirements, only allows games to be loaned to a friend once (and those games you lend can never be given back, nor can they be given to anyone who has not been on your friend's list for a minimum of 30 days), and does not support game rentals.  They are also leaving it up to publishers to decide if "participating retailers" can resell used software.  Additionally privacy advocates have raised alarms over the upgraded Kinect peripheral.  The peripheral is always on and must be connected.  Per Microsoft the Kinect device will not record or upload conversations, but it is always listening for the command "Xbox On" for start up.  For more details visit Polygon, whose coverage has been incredibly thorough.  They also have an excellent opinion piece on their site regarding the consumer concern with an always on / always connected console.  My top "game to watch" for the One (ridiculous name by the way, not sure how people can still say the Wii U is that bad of a name) is currently just a rumor.  Rare, developers of classic franchises Banjo Kazooie and Perfect Dark as well as Viva Pinata, are supposedly reviving an old favorite for the new hardware.  If it is a new Banjo Kazooie game, that would be interesting.

The Games

I mentioned what to expect with Microsoft and Sony, but what should we expect from Nintendo?  Nintendo is not releasing new hardware this year, since both their 3DS handheld and Wii U home console are still relatively new to the market.  The 3DS has a full head of steam, with an install base approaching 32 million worldwide.  The Wii U has been lambasted by industry pundits for a lack of releases post launch and lack of engineering prowess when compared to the hardware mentioned above.  For a deep dive on the Wii U launch, read my analysis here on the blog.  I actually have two "games to watch" on Nintendo systems, and really I guess you could say there are four games total.  Sega and Nintendo announced a partnership to bring Sonic exclusively to Nintendo hardware over the course of three games.  One is an Olympics tie-in; another is unannounced but rumored to be a Mario-Kart + Sonic & All Stars Racing mash-up.  The other game in the agreement is Sonic Lost Worlds.  Lost Worlds will be released on both 3DS and Wii U, exclusive to those consoles.  I want to see the functionality between the two versions.  Is there multi-player across platforms?  Can you save on one device and pick up where you left off on the other?  I have similar questions about another unrelated game with the same premise.  The new Smash Bros. game, developed in collaboration between Nintendo and Namco Bandai, will make its debut, also exclusive to 3DS and Wii U.  I have the same questions for it.  Is there a compelling reason to buy both versions, or better yet can Nintendo capitalize on the install base of the 3DS to help sell Wii U hardware?  It would also be interesting to see if Mario will be battling Goku of Dragonball fame due to the development partnership with Namco Bandai, but I do not expect to hear the full Smash Bros. roster this week.

Outside of the major hardware sellers, the 3rd party front looks largely familiar.  EA will be pushing its latest sports in-game engine, called Ignite.  Ubisoft will be bringing the promising Watch_Dogs to the event along with the latest Assassin's Creed title.  Activision has promised the next Call of Duty and Skylanders titles.  Disney will be bringing its Skylanders alternative Infinity to the show as well.  Warner Bros. will be sure to have the latest footage of the next Batman title, dubbed Arkham Origins.  Konami has a new Metal Gear, where the lead character will now be voiced by Kiefer Sutherland.  Platinum games should have some new details on Bayonetta 2 as well.  I would love to see some Indie developers surprise us or see the new players in the hardware space like Ouya, GameStick, or Oculus Rift show off something exciting, but the games mentioned above will probably take the lion's share of the press space outside of the discussions generated from the new consoles themselves.

Hopefully the above keys readers into a few of the hot topics going into this week's conference.  Every year people are surprised by one or two titles and let down by others.  It should be an interesting year due to the current video game market as well as the new hardware and technological advancements.

- Scott