Archive for March, 2008

Thoughts On Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the third installment in Nintendo’s mascot-fighting franchise, is both a fantastic success and a missed opportunity.

The the offline portion of the game is even more feature packed than previous installments.  In addition to the multitude of modes and features available in Melee, an astoundingly awesome (and huge) soundtrack, a stage creator, and screenshot and video capture abilities make for an even more robust experience.  But perhaps the most notable content addition to Brawl is The Subspace Emissary, a 1 or 2 player story mode in which the Smash Bros. cast joins forces in an entertaining, if nonsensical, side-scrolling adventure that features the most (and best) FMV ever seen in a Nintendo game.  Gameplay is similar to the Adventure segments in Melee – think traditional Smash controls in side scrolling levels. 

 Smash FMV

Some reviewers have complained that The Subspace Emissary is ultimately repetitive, but I enjoy it.  I’ll admit that it’s essentially one fight after another (the platforming and puzzle solving is secondary to the brawlin’), but I don’t see that as a bad thing – I love Smash’s gameplay.  And yes, the story is confusing (the characters don’t speak, which leads to some ambiguity), but the cutscenes are fun to watch and do a great job of expressing the various personalities of Nintendo’s wide array of characters.

The local multiplayer is as tight as ever – nothing has really changed from Melee in regards to the general gameplay paradigm, but the fighters seem to be more balanced and the introduction of some new items (most notably the Smash Ball) keep things feeling fresh.  Further, a lot of new characters are introduced to the series, from lesser knowns like Pit (from Kid Icarus) and Lucas (from Mother 3), to 3rd party icons like Sonic and Solid Snake.  Multiplayer has always been the main draw of the franchise, and Brawl does not disappoint in this regard.  It’s a blast to play with friends.

One of the most highly anticipated features of Smash Bros. Brawl was the online component, and while the ability to play with friends online is fantastic, Nintendo has neutered the experience so much so that a lot of potential is wasted.  The central issue regarding the online design is the inability of friends to communicate with each other.  You can map 4 messages to character taunts that are usable during a match, but this system doesn’t allow any real communication between players, and it can’t be used in the lobby between games.

Smash Gameplay

Further, there’s no way to invite friends into your games, and since there’s no way to communicate with people on your friend list, it’s difficult to organize a match.  It’s too bad, because the actual online gameplay is pretty solid – the netcode is decent and ability to humiliate your friends and family across the country is awesome.

Overall, Super Smash Bros. Brawl ups the ante with new features and modes that add a lot to the Smash experience.  Unfortunately, the online mode suffers from poor design choices that dilute its potential.  But while Nintendo missed a real opportunity with Brawl in regards to online play, the rest of the package is so well put together that I can almost forgive them for the lacking online experience.

Red Ring of No Surprise

My reaction to the recent failure of my Xbox 360 would be best described as “casual disappointment.”  I wasn’t surprised so much as annoyed, and while much has already been stated on the subject, the subject resonates a little more when it finally happens to you.

 Red Ring of Death

Curse you, Red Ring!

I always assumed that my 360 would break down at some point, and I’d even bought a PRP from Best Buy as a means to upgrade to a new motherboard revision when it eventually bit the dust.  As planned, I walked out of a Best Buy last week with a shiny new Elite containing a Falcon motherboard.  I had done some research before my console exchange to ensure that I got a Falcon, but as it turns out, BB only had Falcon units in stock anyway. It makes sense – in the wake of the 360 shortages over the past few months, I’d bet that there are very few pre-Falcon 360s in stores. 

I wonder what exactly went wrong with 360’s design. Originally I suspected that the problem was simply the result of (lacking) component quality, but the issue is so prevalent that I can’t imagine how Microsoft could have possibly missed it in hardware stress tests.  As I understand it, the motherboard warps over time after repeatedly heating up and cooling down (turning on and off) to the point of failure, and I would guess that such a scenario would be a well researched test-case.  Obviously something went wrong, but we’ll probably never really know the behind-the-scenes reasons for the design flaw.  At this point, one can only hope that Microsoft learns its lesson for Xbox 720.

As for me, I opted against renewing my PRP.  Here’s hoping that the Falcon revision proves to be more reliable than my original Zephyr (the motherboard in the original Elites).

NPD February 2008

NPD sales data for February is as follows:

Hardware Sales:

NDS: 587,600
Wii: 432,000
PS2: 351,800
PS3: 280,800
360: 254,600
PSP: 243,100

Weekly Sales February 08

Software Sales:

1. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (360) 296.2K
2. Devil May Cry 4 (360) 295.2k
3. Wii Play (Wii) 289.7K
4. Devil May Cry 4 (PS3) 233.5K
5. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Wii) 222.9K
6. Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games (DS) 205.6K
7. Lost Odyssey (360) 203.6K
8. Turok (360) 197.7K
9. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PS2) 183.8K
10. Rock Band (360) 161.8K

Sales Trends February 08 v2

General thoughts:

The extremely strong numbers for Wii and DS aren’t shocking from a demand perspective – it’s just great to see that Nintendo rectified their stock problems from January.  It will be interesting to see how high Wii can go in March – Nintendo recently announced that the newly released Super Smash Bros. Brawl sold 1.4 million copies in its first week, and Reggie promised an increase in Wii stock in anticipation of the increased demand (that demand could ‘increase’ for Wii is shocking to think about at this point in time).  It will be interesting to see how that pans out.

Monthly HW February 08

There was nothing particularly shocking on the software side of things, though the close sales of Devil May Cry 4 will raise some eyebrows.  One would think that, given a 6 million console lead (in the US), multiplatform games would be performing far better on 360 than PS3.  But despite the similar numbers for Devil May Cry 4 (remember that DMC 1-3 were exclusive to PlayStation), note that 3 other multiplatform games for 360 showed up in the top 10 (along with an exclusive title), while DMC4 was PS3’s lone representation.  Of course, it’s impossible to get an accurate sense of the software market with the limited data we are given, but based on what we can see, 360 continues to impress on the software front.

As in January, the hardware numbers are the most interesting aspect of the NPD report.  For the second month in a row, PS3 outsold 360.  Microsoft continues to claim that hardware shortages are to blame, and while retail reports seem to corroborate that notion, one has to wonder what exactly Microsoft is doing that is causing such stock deficiencies.  Theories have ranged from stockpiling for Grand Theft Auto 4’s April release to clearing the retail channels to prepare for a new SKU and/or hardware revision, but regardless of the reasons, Sony’s momentum is continuing to accelerate.

Aggregate HW February 08

Of course, 360 still has a nearly 6 million console advantage over PS3 in the US, but with the PS3 performing strongly overseas (relative to Xbox, that is), Microsoft must be sweating a little bit in regards to future trends.  And to be honest, PS3’s performance is impressive even regardless of 360’s.

I still maintain, though, that while Sony’s recent successes do foster some confidence for their fortunes in the US, Xbox360 will retake its position of sales superiority as stock is replenished in March and April leading up to the highly anticipated GTA4 release (I’m sure Microsoft will be actively pushing their exclusive DLC).

Another thing to keep in mind – Xbox360 recently saw a price cut in Europe, so watch for a similar announcement in the US within the next month or so.

Storylines for the upcoming months:

-What will be the sales difference between the 360 and PS3 versions of Grand Theft Auto 4?

-Will Microsoft finally correct their supply issues?

-Reggie has promised huge shipments of Wii in March to complement Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  Can they break 700k?

 (thanks to NPD and the community at NeoGAF)

Zack and Wiki: Late to the Party

I almost bought Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure in November on the strength of near universal positive reviews, but it ended up flying under the radar as I focused on more high profile releases (Mario Galaxy, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, among others).  I recently got the chance to play through some of the game, though, and I wish I had been convinced to pick the game up last year.  It’s really quite ingenious and a whole lot of fun.

On first glance, Zack and Wiki looks like a sloppy, kiddy cash-in, but it is a game that drips of polish to the extent that few Wii games can match.  You play as Zack, a young, aspiring pirate who’s after treasure.  It’s a point-and-click adventure game, though it is essentially one giant puzzle after another, as the narrative (usually the focus of adventure games in the classic sense) takes a back seat to the gameplay.

Zack and Wiki Forest

Zack and Wiki is one of the best looking games on Wii.  The character designs (especially for Wiki, your cute monkey side kick) are aimed towards the younger audience, but the game has a vibrant, colorful style that really fits well with Wii’s underpowered hardware.  Each game area is beautifully realized, with lush greens, subtle blues, and deep reds highlighting the various world themes (forest, ice, fire, etc).  Lighting effects are excellent, the particle engine is robust, and various graphical touches, from great reflections to well implemented heat-distortion, add to the overall visual appeal.

But Capcom’s puzzler isn’t all looks and no brains – in fact, the game is more difficult than its art style might imply.  I’ve been initially stumped on a lot of the levels that I’ve played so far, and while there is some degree of trial-and-error present in all of the challenges, the solutions are all logically derived, which makes the head scratching worth it.  I don’t like game puzzles that have completely off the wall solutions (think old school Resident Evil games), so Zack and Wiki is a welcome surprise.

Zack and Wiki Ice

Zack and Wiki is not only a lot of fun, but it’s also one of the few games on Wii that feels completely unique to the system (and that includes most of Nintendo’s excellent efforts) in the sense that it really takes advantage of the wiimote’s strengths.  The nunchuk is not used, and all movement is done via point-and-click.  Further, the various items that you collect in the game are each manipulated by holding the wiimote in a certain way and then moving it as you would move that item in real life.  It all works well (except for a recurring bell-shaking minigame), and just in case you get confused as to how to manipulate an in-game object, there is a handy (but not intrusive) graphical indicator that shows how to waggle correctly.  To top things off, up to 3 friends can grab wiimotes to assist you – they can’t interact with in-game objects, but they can draw lines onscreen to indicate their ideas.

I really can’t praise Zack and Wiki enough, as it’s everything a Wii game should be.  It’s fun, the interface is simplified (but not dumbed down by any means), and it’s challenging enough that even experienced gamers will be satisfied.  You can find the game for 30 dollars, and at that price you owe it to yourself (and to Capcom) to give it a try.

As a side note, Lucasarts should take notice:  I want a Monkey Island game on Wii. Make it happen!

Predictions: NPD February 2008

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

NDS: 360k (+43.43% change over January)
WII: 340k (+24.09%)
360: 262k (+13.91%)
PS3: 256k (-4.83%)
PSP: 221k (-3.91%)
PS2: 220k (-16.67%)

January was an interesting month for the industry.  For the first time since its launch in November 2006, PS3 (270k) outsold Xbox360 (229k) and finished only 4k below Wii (274k).  Concurrent with this success, Sony was finally able to put HD-DVD away, and from here on out, Blu-ray will be the de facto standard for high definition media.  It will be interesting to see how things play out over the next few months – will Blu-ray help PS3 gain some traction in the minds of consumers, or was January’s outcome simply the result of supply issues for Nintendo and Microsoft and thus not indicative of any future trends?

I’m inclined to go with the latter.  While I do think that PS3 will see some success on the heels of the format war’s conclusion (along with upcoming games like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Gran Turismo 5 Prologue), January was not as implicative as one might think.  Xbox360 and both of Nintendo’s systems were coming off of great holidays, and their supply lines were stretched pretty thin going into the New Year.  Things should get back to normal in February and March as supply issues are rectified.

Software Predictions:

[360 Devil May Cry 4] 220K
[360 Lost Odyssey] 125K
[360 Turok] 95K
[NDS Apollo Justice] 40K
[PS3 Devil May Cry 4] 115K
[PS3 Lost Planet] 60K
[PS3 Turok] 60K
[PSP Wipeout Pulse] 50K
[WII Dragon Quest: Swords] 60K
[WII No More Heroes] 45K

Actual sales data from The NPD Group will be released on Thursday, March 13th after market close (4:00 PM).

Audiosurf: The Ride of the Forever

Audiosurf is a music/puzzle game (think Tetris meets Amplitude/Guitar Hero) from Dylan Fitterer. It’s the first game developed under the Steamworks framework from Valve, and it’s completely awesome.

The basic gist of the game is this: you control a car/ship that you race on a track scattered with various colored blocks that are generated in sync with the background music. But here’s the twist – while games like Guitar Hero and Amplitude have soundtracks chosen by the games’ developers, Audiosurf allows you to use any (compatible) song from your music library. And since the gameplay (and also visual presentation) is determined by song content (rhythm, speed, tone, etc), this means that Audiosurf becomes the experience you want it to be since it tailors to your musical tastes and situational whims (“hey, I feel like riding some Radiohead right now”).

Audiosurf Verse

A Long December by Counting Crows (first verse)

For each song you pick to ride, Audiosurf creates a unique (but not random) track for your car to traverse – inclines, declines, and turns are all generated as to make each song a fresh experience. Blocks, generated by the rhythm patterns of the song, are scattered across each track, and Audiosurf’s multiple game modes consist of collecting blocks in various ways. Further, each track has a leaderboard so that you can compare scores with friends and strangers who have played the same songs as you. You can even subscribe to an email notification system so that you are informed if one of your high scores is beaten by another person. This is a neat concept, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself playing your favorite songs repeatedly as an outward display of your fandom.

Audiosurf Chorus

A Long December by Counting Crows (guitar solo)

The game is compelling to me for two reasons. First, the aforementioned gameplay modes are, at worst, interesting diversions and, at best, a lot of fun. I particularly enjoy the Mono modes, where you have to dodge grey blocks and catch all of the colored blocks. It’s a simple gameplay concept, but out of all of the modes, it’s the one that most establishes a palpable connection with the music that you choose to ride. Second, the surrealistic way that audio (mood, rhythm, speed) is represented visually by the game is perhaps Audiosurf’s most differentiating design aspect. Just as the game generates a track for you to ‘surf’ on for each song, it also creates a unique, wildly-colorful world of imaginative shapes and structures as a backdrop for the action.

When you hit a colored block, an explosion of shapes appears in the sky. Loud choruses and solos result in sharp color shifts, changes in tempo are reflected by the speed your car moves on the track, and the game world in general pulsates in time to the song. The game is visually arresting, and I’ve found that that presentation is so evocative that it reflects the very essence of the songs you choose. I know that sounds corny, but it’s the truth. You’ll have to experience it for yourself to see what I mean.

At 10 dollars, it’d be silly to pass up Audiosurf. Even if the concept of riding your music collection is not terribly exciting, the game’s graphical presentation, online leaderboard integration, and decent gameplay variety should be enough to at least leave you satisfied with your purchase. And if the concept resonates with you at all, the prospect of riding future music releases will no doubt leave you as excited about the game’s longevity as I am.

Highly recommended.