Archive for February, 2008

No More Heroes: Crazy, Cool

No More Heroes is the first Wii game from Goichi Suda (“Suda 51”), and despite its (many) flaws, it’s the most compelling 3rd party game on Nintendo’s young system. It’s completely off the wall (and even a little insane), but the gameplay mechanics are so fresh and visceral and the general tone of the game is so exuberant that you can’t help but smile all the way through the adventure.

The first thing that’ll stick out to you when you boot up No More Heroes is the art design. Colors are vibrant and textures are simple, and on first look things almost look Cel-shaded. It’s a style that really fits with Wii’s decidedly lacking hardware capabilities. Further, there’s a retro design philosophy the permeates throughout the whole game – menus and HUD are fashionably pixilated, the assassin ranking list looks like its ripped from an NES game, and you’ll even play an overhead shooter to pass the time during a long train ride. But that’s not to say that the game is for children. Make no mistake, No More Heroes is bloody and immature, but it maintains a sense of aloofness that keeps things from getting too weighty. This game doesn’t take itself seriously, and you shouldn’t take it seriously either.

You play as Travis Touchdown, a cocky assassin with a beam katana (think light saber) and a penchant for violence. You’ve been convinced by a sassy lass to try to become the number 1 assassin in the world, and the game is a chronicle of your race to the top of the rankings. Each of the assassins you face is wildly characterized, and though there is definitely a central narrative, it’s these individual set pieces that steal the show. But take note – when I say ‘wildly characterized,’ I mean completely off the wall.

Unlike most 3rd party efforts, No More Heroes not only takes full advantage of Wii’s unique controller, but it does so in a smart way as to not turn the game into a waggle-fest. All standard sword swipes are performed using the A button, while kicks and punches are mapped to the B button. Travis can attack either high or low, depending on the way you are holding the Wii remote. This is a subtle addition that makes the action more physically involved without going overboard.

No More Heroes Action

(You’d spin the remote here to initiate a counter move)

As you deplete an enemy’s energy, you will be given the opportunity to perform a finishing move by swiping the remote in the direction that’s shown in an onscreen prompt. Further, you can stun enemies with long combos or well timed kicks, in which case you can perform wrestling moves on opponents by moving the remote and nunchuk in tandem according to the prompted directions. Other instances of motion control include a special jumping slash (waggling the nunchuk) and a defensive katana counter (quickly moving the remote in a circle, as you would a sword). The action is fast and furious, and the motion controls are intelligently implemented. In short, No More Heroes could not be adequately replicated on another console, and that’s a great thing to see in a 3rd party effort. Other developers should take notice of how to create a game on Wii that takes advantage of its strengths without sacrificing the depth of an established genre’s control scheme.

That’s not to say that No More Heroes is without its flaws, though – in fact, the game has a number of notable glitches and shortcomings. The open city, Santa Destroy, is especially disappointing. The general structure of the game is that you have to collect a certain amount of cash to access the next ranked assassin fight. There are a number of tasks scattered around Santa Destroy for you to complete for money, but in general they all fall into two categories – they’re either generic “kill everyone before the time runs out” missions, or they’re menial tasks like mowing lawns, collecting coconuts, and picking up trash. Boring.

No More Heroes City

(Santa Destroy could use more variety (and more people))

And not only is the city lacking variety, but there is a lot of graphical pop in, the collision detection while riding Travis’s (awesomely cool) bike is horrific, and the streets feel sterile and lifeless. Ultimately, though, despite a missed opportunity with the open city, each of the 11 or so boss fights is incredibly unique (if a little insane) and compelling enough to encourage you to play through the city portions of the gameplay.

It’s crude, bloody, and the story doesn’t really make sense, but the sheer energy that permeates through all aspects of No More Heroes (especially the imaginative boss fights) makes for a very entertaining adventure. Further, the control scheme, a perfect mix of standard button presses and motion controls, makes for the experience wholly visceral – I was sweating a little bit after the game’s final battle, partly from my frenzied motions and partly from the excitement of the duel, and the satisfaction of my victory was magnified by this combination of experiences. All told, No More Heroes is a fresh, fun game that shows that the Wii-mote is as effective at improving existing genres as it is at creating new ones.

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WiiWare to Launch May 12th

Nintendo’s long awaited WiiWare service will launch on May 12th.  From a Nintendo PR:

WiiWare will be a repository for all types of experiences – literally, something for everyone. Early WiiWare games will come from celebrated developers like Square Enix, which is creating FINAL FANTASY CRYSTAL CHRONICLES: My Life as a King, a simulation game for all ages. Also watch for games from up-and-coming developers like Frontier with its fresh, enchanting platform adventure LostWinds and a new episodic game series from Telltale. The first U.S. WiiWare games will be available on May 12.

I’m pretty excited about the prospect of WiiWare.  Though I’m a big fan of Xbox360, I’ve never been particularly wowed by the content on XBLA.  Apart from a few gems (Geometry Wars, for instance), most games feel like corporate calculations as opposed to organic creations from small development studios.  While that’s not exactly a fair assessment (a lot of games are indeed done by ‘indie’ groups), Microsoft seems to have a pretty strict approval process in place to really control the various types of content that are released.  In theory, this makes sense – the idea is to make sure only a diverse set of software is released to the general public.  But in practice, I’ve found very few compelling titles that suite my gaming interests.

Final Fantasy Chrystal Chronicles

(Final Fantasy Chronicles: My Life as a King from Square Enix)

With WiiWare, Nintendo has promised to open up the platform to whomever (within reason, of course) wants to contribute content – this includes small teams with limited budgets. The upside of this approach is that there will be a wide variety of titles available on WiiWare that should prove very fresh and unique with Wii specific controls.  The downside, of course, is the potential for a bloated UI that will really make finding the right titles difficult. David Braben, founder of Frontier Developments, the team behind the upcoming LostWinds for WiiWare, offered a cryptic comment in a recent interview with Gamasutra regarinding this issue.

As one of the first announced WiiWare titles, we ask Braben how he believes the service will stand up to its console competitors. Apart from the fact that the Wii has fast gathered an impressive installed based, Braben said that while Xbox Live Arcade was easily navigable at first, “It’s got very hard since. I don’t even know if there’s stuff that I want out there.”

The WiiWare service he said, could provide “potential solutions that don’t apply to other services. It’s for Nintendo to announce, but certainly from what I’ve seen it looks very interesting.”

LostWinds

(LostWinds from Frontier Developments)

Hopefully we find out what he might mean sooner rather than later, but even still, the concept of a more open environment for development studios to really try some unique things outweighs the potential issues with the UI.  Further, the portion of the PR that I quoted indicated that there will be episodic content from Telltale Games (the guys behind the well-loved Sam and Max series of games).  The potential for episodic content on consoles is really exciting, and I’m glad that Telltale is the studio that’s taking the first plunge.  Overall, WiiWare looks to be everything Nintendo promised that it would be.  I can’t wait to see what else is slated for release.

EA Games: Back to Basics

A New York Times article by Seth Schiesel posted today talks about the rebirth of creativity at mega-publisher/developer Electronic Arts. Best known to most people for their yearly sports sequels (most notably the Madden football games), EA has been long reviled by gamers for its low-risk, calculated approach towards game development and its penchant for buying great development studios (Westwood, Bullfrog Productions, and Origin Systems, among others) and running homogenizing their creativity (all of those studios were ultimately dissolved into the EA machine).

With revenues falling and rival Activision (who is in the midst of a merger with World of Warcraft studio Blizzard) showing great gains, whispers of change have been swirling around camp EA.

But now Electronic Arts is finally coming to its senses. In a (pardon the expression) game-changing speech at the Design, Innovate, Create, Entertain conference in Las Vegas this month, John Riccitiello, the chief executive of Electronic Arts, fell on his virtual sword and admitted that his company had squandered its leadership by trying to reduce the creative process to a cell on a spreadsheet. He said his company had lost its way by trying to homogenize and manage its creative process much like the consumer products companies (Haagen-Dazs, PepsiCo, Clorox) he used to work for. In an extraordinary mea culpa, he promised to change.

EA, who recently acquired BioWare and Pandemic for ~800 million, will have a chance to put its ‘new’ philosophy to the test.

“There is no question that Origin and Westwood and Bullfrog don’t exist today, and you don’t generally buy things in order to close them,” Mr. Riccitiello said. “Those deals obviously didn’t work the way we anticipated. The leaders in those organizations got set up where they thought we were bringing in a bureaucracy. We were bringing in centralized tools and technology that homogenized the output and slowed them down. They weren’t listened to.”

Discounting the disappointing ruination of Westwood (and others), I’ve never had a big problem with EA. Though their games have never been of stellar quality, their long-running franchises like Madden and MVP baseball (while they had the license) are adequately well produced. At the same time, as an industry leader in regards to revenue and mindshare, it’s always been disappointing to see them constantly shirk innovation and risk for the easy profits.

Hopefully Riccetiello’s promises will be honored, as there is always room in the industry for inspired development. But talk is cheap, and I’ll remain skeptical until I see some results. In their defense, though, EA’s willingness to let famed designer Will Wright continually delay Spore in order to meet his vision is heartening, to say the least. I’m hoping that their other development talent (BioWare, Pandemic, etc) will be given similar freedoms to ensure that their unique development style and expertise are not compromised.

NPD January 2008

NPD sales data for January 2008 was released today:

Hardware Sales:
Wii: 274,000
PS3: 269,000
PS2: 264,000
NDS: 251,000
360: 230,000
PSP: 230,000

January NPD 2008 Weekly Totals

Software Sales:

1. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (360) 330,900
2. Wii Play (Wii) 298,100
3. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Wii) 239,600
4. Rock Band (360) 183,800
5. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (360) 182,700
6. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) 172,000
7. Burnout Paradise (360) 144,100
8. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (PS3) 140,000
9. Mario Party DS (NDS) 138,500
10. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games (NDS) 133,000

Update: Additional data from NeoGAF, theSimExchange.

NR. Burnout Paradise (PS3) 83,000
NR. Advance Wars: DoR (NDS) 81,000
NR. No More Heroes (Wii) 65,000 (yay!)
NR. Uncharted (PS3) 54,000
NR. Kingdom Under Fire: CoD (360) 52,000
NR. Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity (Wii) 39,000

General Thoughts:

Though PS3’s performance makes for a great story, the small difference among all platform sales (only 43,000 separates Wii and 360/PSP) indicates that supply constraint had some effect on total hardware sales. There were reports of shortages for NDS, Wii and 360 in January, and that their usual 1-2-3 combination was disrupted (by strong, but not amazingly impressive performances of the Sony platforms) lends evidence to those reports. For the industry as a whole, January ’08 saw an 18% increase over January ’07 (adjusted for Jan ’08 being tracked as a 4 week month compared to Jan ’07 being a 5 week month)(source: blog.wired.com).

There aren’t many surprises on the software side of things – Call of Duty 4 topped of the charts for another month, and titles like Guitar Hero III, Rock Band, and Super Mario Galaxy continued their great sales. Hopefully more data will be released in the next few days that will shed more light on the subject.

January NPD 2008 Weekly Trends

What does this mean for Xbox360 and PS3 in 2008?

There’s no doubt about it: Sony scored a big victory in January. PS3’s margin of victory wasn’t huge, and Microsoft’s inexplicable inability to get consoles into consumers’ hands was as much a part of the equation as PS3’s success, but Sony can finally chalk up a victory over Xbox360. For the first time since launch, they can say “We won (discounting Wii, of course)!”

Still, it’s doubtful that January is a sign of any major reversal in regards to overall sales trends in the US. From a hardware standpoint, Xbox 360 had a great holiday season (where it outsold PS3 by a significant margin), and it simply doesn’t make any sense for such a dramatic reversal in consumer interest to occur in the very next month. And when you look at the industry in terms of software, 360 has continually surpassed historical industry trends. The fact of the matter is, Microsoft (and Nintendo, for that matter) essentially sold out of product in December, and since their supply lines were so manipulated to get as much stock into stores as quickly as possible, there wasn’t a lot left to fill shelves in January. On the other hand, while Sony had a solid holiday, PS3 had plenty of leftover supply to satiate demand in January. That’s not to take anything away from their success, though – in spite of all of the negativity surround its next gen machine (high price, poor sales of key 1st party titles, etc), Sony has done well to at least keep PS3 relevant in the market. They aren’t going down without a fight.

Ultimately, for what it’s worth, mark down January 2008 as the first time since launch that Sony has bested Microsoft. And depending on how soon 360’s supply woes are dealt with, PS3 might come away with a multi-month string of successes when the dust settles. Momentum means a lot in this industry, and Microsoft had better watch out that Sony doesn’t gain a lot of it in the first part of 2008. PS3 has had a lot of bad press over the past year, and to be honest, even the emergence of Blu-ray as the standard for hi-def media and a sales victory in January probably won’t be enough to overturn consumer wariness towards the console (domestically, anyway). But every comeback needs a first step, and Microsoft needs to ensure that this ‘step’ doesn’t become a trend.

Will we look back at early 2008 as the start of a major shift in the market or as a small blip in well established trends? I’m betting on the latter, but only time will tell. 2008 should prove to be an interesting year.

Storylines for the upcoming months:

-How quickly will Microsoft rectify their supply issues?

-Can Sony further capitalize on their competitor’s mismanagement?

-How will 3rd party games on Wii perform in the calm before the storm (aka, the releases of Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Wii Fit)?

(thanks to NPD and the community at NeoGAF)

Predictions: January 2008 NPD

NPD video game sales data for January 2008 will be released next Thursday. My hardware predictions are as follows:

NDS: 380,000 (-80.77% from December)
WII: 340,000 (-68.52%)
360: 240,000 (-76.19%)
PSP: 220,000 (-74.06%)
PS2: 212,000 (-75.91%)
PS3: 192,000 (-69.91%)

The holiday rush is over. Like most industries, the video game industry takes a deep breath in January in the wake of the insanity of the months leading up to Christmas. Not only is consumer interest low in the early parts of the new year, but a number of consoles are supply constrained because their manufacturers overstressed their supply lines to provide as much as stock as possible for the gift-giving season.

When making predictions for the start of a new year, it’s important to take a step back from the huge numbers of November and December. While they of course provide some context for current sales, holiday conditions are not necessarily the best indicators of future performance. For instance, the PS2 had a fantastic month in December with 1.1 million consoles sold, but that can mostly be attributed to its low price and large library of legacy software. You won’t see it continue that type of huge success throughout the early part of 2008.

For January, I predict slightly lower than expected performances from DS, Wii, and 360 – all of these machines were tough to find throughout the month, though that’s to be expected after their strong end-of-the-year sales. PSP should have a solid month, with PS2 and PS3 bringing up the rear.

On the software side of things, there were only a few potentially notable releases in January across all platforms (Burnout Paradise for 360/PS3, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin for DS, and No More Heroes for Wii). My predictions for a select number of games are as follows:

[360 Burnout Paradise] 265k
[360 Call of Duty 4] 305k
[360 Kingdom Under Fire: CoD] 57k
[360 Rock Band] 195k
[NDS Advance Wars: DoR] 115k
[PS3 Burnout Paradise] 105k
[PS3 Uncharted] 50k
[WII Guitar Hero III] 175k
[WII No More Heroes] 80k
[WII Super Mario Galaxy] 320k

Actual sales data from The NPD Group will be released on Thursday, Feb. 14th after market close (4:00 PM).