Archive for June, 2008

Final Thoughts On The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

I finally finished Phantom Hourglass over the weekend, and as my 7 month time of completion would indicate, I was a little disappointed with the game.  As I was playing through the adventure, I was having trouble pinpointing exactly why I wasn’t digging it – there were definitely aspects of the design that I really liked, but I couldn’t shake feelings of disappointment.  As such, I wanted to make a list of my likes and dislikes when I finished to game to help sort out my conflicted emotions.

 Zelda Phantom Hourglass

What I liked:

  • The general gameplay mechanics. I was a little skeptical about the touch screen controls before playing the game, but Nintendo did a really nice job of simplifying the interface without sacrificing control.
  • The items. While none of the items were new to a Zelda game, the way that they were controlled (and the ways that they were used in gameplay) were very fresh.
  • The Temple of the Ocean King. A lot of gamers and reviewers were put off by the timed nature of the game’s main dungeon, but I definitely appreciated how each new item you obtained allowed for a new, faster way of tackling old puzzles.
  • The lack of a rupee limit. It was always annoying in older Zelda games when you were in a dungeon with a full wallet of rupees – it felt like you were leaving money on the table (at least in Twilight Princess they put treasure back in chests if you couldn’t hold it).

What I disliked:

  • The narrative. Pegged as a sequel of sorts to Wind Waker, I was expecting a decent story.  Unfortunately, the games has very little exposition, and outside of the decent ending, you hardly get a chance to know about any of the characters.  Linebeck could have been interesting, but he was a simple caricature that was given very little time to develop any real depth.
  • The pacing. Perhaps this can be traced back to the poor story, but I never felt the need to play “one more dungeon.” I usually find Zelda adventures to be pretty addicting, but Phantom Hourglass didn’t grip me like I thought it would.
  • The ocean. While I understand how some people found the ocean in Wind Waker to be a little boring, I thought it was a nice change of pace from the usual Zelda overworld fare.  But the ocean in Phantom Hourglass is a big step backwards, and the thought of having to cross the thing was enough to make me turn off my DS more than once.
  • The dungeon design. While I liked what Aunoma and team did with item design, I was disappointed with how they used those items in dungeons.  In general, the dungeons felt very sterile and unexciting – there was never a question of what I had to do next, and the way I had to do it was rarely enthralling in and of itself.

I should note that I have always preferred the console iterations of Zelda more so than the handheld versions (with one exception – Links Awakening is superb).  Still, this is the first original handheld Zelda game that has been produced in-house at Nintendo since Links Awakening. My expectations were high.

If I had to describe Phantom Hourglass in one word, it would be “Lite.”  As in, “Light Cola” or “Lite Dressing.”  Everything about its design feels like a simplification of the Zelda formula. That’s not to say that this minimalist approach was without its successes – the lack of a rupee limit (noted above) is a great example of how simplification made the game more fun to play.

But my issue with the game is that everything is so simplified, so sanded down,  that the entire experience feels very charmless. I’ve always enjoyed Zelda games for their quirky side quests and interesting townspeople.  Unfortunately, Phantom Hourglass all but exterminates any extraneous quests or characters. This refinement might serve to make the main quest more well defined, but it also causes the entire adventure to lose a lot of its charm (and fun).

A great example of what I’m talking about is how the note taking feature was handled.  After a cool puzzle to introduce the mechanic, it was not used to its potential for the rest of the game.  In fact, that’s how I felt about the game in general – a lot of potential with uninspired execution.

As a game, Phantom Hourglass may be good, if not great.  As a Zelda game, though, it fell short of my expectations.

Call of Duty 4: Eatin’ Crow

So I have to admit, I made a mistake.  I prematurely judged the value of Call of Duty 4, and in doing so I almost missed out on a completely entertaining and worthwhile single player campaign.  From an article I wrote back in December after reports of CoD4’s short length:

While the Call of Duty games are mostly popular for their robust multiplayer modes, I value them more for their visceral, engaging single player campaigns. Therefore, even amidst the launch excitement, I was a little disappointed by what I read about COD4’s single player mode – a play through on the standard difficulty is said to only last around 5 hours. Is that long enough to justify my purchase?

To that question, I answer a resounding “Heck yes.”  Even though I won’t touch the much lauded multiplayer mode (Team Fortress 2 will cover my FPS online gaming until Left 4 Dead hits later this year), the single player alone has been worth the price of admission (admittedly, I borrowed the game, but I would have been satisfied with the 60 dollar tag).

It’s hard for me to pinpoint what it is about CoD4 that is so appealing.  Taken at face value, the game is not unlike your every-day, generic first person shooter – you are a faceless soldier (2 different soldiers, actually) who finds himself up against a large quantity of faceless baddies.  Even the scenarios are conceptually run of the mill.

I guess it’s the general quality of the game that really sticks out at me – the entire package is just put together very solidly.  It just goes to show that, while original concepts are desirable, ultimately it is quality of the execution that matters.

Is Call of Duty 4 short?  Yes.  Does that matter?  Nope.

Tiger Woods 2009 (Wii): It’s About Time

IGN recently went hands on with Tiger Woods 2009 for Wii and came away pretty impressed.  They seemed excited about the game in their podcast last week, and that sense of optimism was reinforced by the writeup that they posted yesterday.  From their impressions: 

We’ll need to sink much more time into Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 before we can make any final calls, but so far, the game delivers, bringing to the arena an experience with much better gameplay mechanics and noticeably improved visuals, not to mention more gameplay modes (including online and golf party) than ever before. Right now, this is our favorite golf game to date and we think that as soon as you play and see it for yourself, you’ll be a believer, too. Check out new in-game screens and videos in our media section.

It’s pretty shocking that, 18 months since launch, Wii has yet to see a quality, full-fledged golf game.  Golf is the sport that stands to benefit the most from the Wiimote, and its nice to see that EA is finally sinking the proper resources into their title.  Of course, that’s not terribly surprising, since the two previous Tiger games were big successes on Wii.

(The graphics look a little cleaner than previous versions.)

Assuming that these initial impressions pan out, I will probably be picking this up when it ships later in the year.  I’ve been Jonesin’ for a golf game since Wii launched, and it looks like I might finally get my fix.

NPD May 2008

NPD sales data for May is as follows:

Hardware Sales:

Wii: 675.1k
NDS: 452.6k
PS3: 208.7k
360: 186.6k
PSP: 182.3k
PS2: 132.7k

Software Sales:

  1. GTA IV (360) 871.3K
  2. Mario Kart Wii (Wii) 787.4K
  3. Wii Fit (Wii) 687.7K
  4. GTA IV (PS3) 442.9K
  5. Wii Play (Wii) 294.6K
  6. Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) 171.1K
  7. Iron Man (PS2) 130.6K
  8. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Wii) 116.8K
  9. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness (DS) 107K
  10. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time (DS) 102K
  11. Call of Duty 4 (360)
  12. Iron Man (PSP)
  13. We Ski (Wii)
  14. Mario Kart (DS)
  15. New Super Mario Bros. (DS)
  16. God of War 2 (PS2)
  17. Game Party (Wii)
  18. Guitar Hero III (PS2)
  19. Haze (PS3)
  20. Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

(Source: Gamasutra)

Software: Top 10 for each platform

PS2:
1. Iron Man 130.600
2. God of War II 60.000 – 102.000
3. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock* 60.000 – 102.000
4. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
5. Rock Band*
6. MLB ’08: The Show
7. Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 3
8. Metal Gear Solid: Essential Collection
9. Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy
10. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3

360:
1. Grand Theft Auto IV 871.300
2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 60.000 – 102.000
3. Iron Man
4. Rock Band
5. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
6. Halo 3
7. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2
8. Major League Baseball 2K8
9. Army of Two
10. Saints Row

PS3:
1. Grand Theft Auto IV* 442.910
2. Haze 60.000 – 102.000
3. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare*
4. Gran Turismo 5: Prologue
5. Iron Man
6. MLB ’08: The Show
7. Rock Band*
8. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
9. Sonic the Hedgehog
10. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2*

Wii:
1. Mario Kart 787.400
2. Wii Fit 687.700
3. Wii Play w/ Remote 294.600
4. Super Smash Bros. Brawl 171.100
5. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock 116.800
6. We Ski 60.000 – 102.000
7. Game Party 60.000 – 102.000
8. Super Mario Galaxy 60.000 – 102.000
9. Boom Blox 60.000
10. Carnival Games

GBA:
1. Pokemon Emerald
2. Action/Adventure Bundle
3. Candyland/Chutes/Memory
4. Pokemon Fire Red w/ Adaptor
5. Pokemon Leaf Green w/ Adaptor
6. Sonic the Hedgehog
7. Yahtzee/Payday/Game of Life
8. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team
9. Puppy Luv: Spa & Resort
10. Madagascar

NDS:
1. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness 107.000
2. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time 102.000
3. Mario Kart 60.000 – 102.000
4. New Super Mario Bros. 60.000 – 102.000
5. Crossword DS
6. Mario Party
7. Imagine: Babyz
8. Mario and Sonic: Olympic Games
9. Speed Racer
10. Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day

PSP:
1. Iron Man 60.000 – 102.000
2. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
3. God of War: Chains of Olympus
4. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
5. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
6. MLB ’08: The Show
7. Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters
8. Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition
9. Madden NFL 08
10. Tom CLancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas

(Source: Neogaf)

Nintendo’s Takeaways

As has been the trend for well over a year now, Nintendo has done a stellar job in May with both Wii and DS.  Hardware sales for both platforms continue to impress, and all indications are that nothing will change in the foreseeable future.  On the Wii side, there are some indications that supply might finally be catching up with demand, but it will be a few more months before we can accurately make a judgment in that regard.

Perhaps more impressive is the dominating software performance of the Nintendo platforms.  7 of the Top 10 games appear on Nintendo platforms, and according to a Nintendo press release, titles from Nintendo systems account for 19 of the top 30 software spots.  No matter how you slice it, that’s a very successful month for Nintendo.

Perhaps most illuminating, though, is the fact that a number of those software titles are 3rd party offerings.  For instance, Guitar Hero 3, Boom Blox, We Ski all made it into the top 30, indicating that Wii’s software ecosystem is maturing to the point that 3rd parties can find success.

From this point on, things get somewhat questionable for Wii from a software standpoint.  While there’s no doubt that Wii will continue to sell through the summer on the legs of Mario Kart and Wii Fit, Nintendo has offered up very few hints as to what it’s planning for the rest of the year.  E3, which kicks off in July, should provide a clearer picture of how the rest of the year will unfold.

Microsoft’s Takeaways

For Microsoft, it might be hard to see a silver lining in the clouds for May.  Not only was 360 beaten soundly by Wii (again), but PS3 put in a decent month to the tune of a 20k advantage.  Further, only 1 software title made it into the top 10, and even its success is wrapped in negativity – Grand Theft Auto IV has sold well on 360, but it has not provided the hardware boost that many had been expecting.

But things are not quite as bad as they seem at first glance – Microsoft saw a year over year sales increase of 21% (186.6 this month compared to 155k in May ’07).  Taken in and of itself, that’s a decent sales increase, especially in light of the increased competition from Sony (in fact, that all consoles saw a huge increase this year compared to last shows how well the industry is doing in general).  However, it’s the very competition itself that makes 360’s year over year increase less important.  Fair or unfair, a console’s performance is not viewed in a vacuum – raw numbers are important, but relative success compared to competitors is also important.

Maybe Microsoft is content to trade market share for profitability, or maybe they are still convinced that they can have both.  Regardless of their intentions, though, 360’s failure to capitalize on their early market share advantage is almost completely due to Microsoft’s unwillingness to consistently and aggressively drop the price of their console.  It is simply too expensive to compete with Wii and not cheap enough to differentiate from PS3.

June might not be pretty for 360, but it will see success in July and August with the release of NCAA Football and Madden 09, and games like Too Human, Gears of War 2, Bionic Commando, and Banjo Kazooie should help to create some momentum going into the holidays.  Ultimately, Microsoft is trying to make it through this slow part of the year at the status quo, but like an old tube of toothpaste, there just aren’t a lot of sales left to squeeze out at this price point.

Sony’s Takeaways

While in the same boat as 360 in relation to Wii, PS3 saw some unexpected success in May.  While the 360 version of GTA IV saw a ratio improvement over its PS3 counterpart, PS3 hardware saw a healthy increase month over month, which is even more impressive when compared to the slight decrease in 360 hardware sales from April.

This is an interesting point in PS3’s life cycle.  On one hand, the memories of lofty expectations (buoyed by PS2’s huge success) are still fresh.  On the other hand, it’s been roughly 18 months since launch, and somewhere along the line, reality has set in.  PS3 will not be the next PS2, it’s that simple.

So what is Sony to do?  Well, they’re actually doing a pretty good job (their initial failures aside) – considering the awful start that the console had, the top brass has been pretty successful in maintaining some positive consumer association with PS3.  With a moral victory in May over Microsoft, Sony is riding high going into June.  Metal Gear Solid 4, released today, will not set the world on fire sales-wise, but it should prove to be moderately popular with the hardcore gaming community, and hardware sales should spike in similarly solid (though not spectacular) fashion.

Overall Impressions

– Nintendo has done it again.  Not only did they dominate in hardware sales, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that software sales on Wii and DS are a force to be reckoned with.  Watch for that trend to continue in the upcoming summer months.

– Microsoft had better brace itself for a tough June.  After a disappointing May, watch for Sony to ride the popularity of Metal Gear Solid 4 to a more apparent victory in June.  The popularity of NCAA Football and Madden will help to even things out in July and August, but Microsoft really needs to consider a price drop in the upcoming months.

As usual, thanks to NPD and sonycowboy.

Strikingly Similar

There’s an interesting story up on GamePlasma.com that blows the whistle on an apparent case of foul play.  Limbo of the Lost, a point-and-click adventure from Majestic Studios, features graphical assets that are remarkably similar to those found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion from Bethesda Softworks.  See an example below.

A scene from Limbo of the Lost

A similar scene from Oblivion

Pretty ridiculous, eh?  GamePlasma has more examples on their site, and apparently the asset “influence” was not exclusive to Oblivion – it looks like Majestic Studios was “inspired” by a number of popular titles.

Kudos to GamePlasma’s staff for noticing.  It will be interesting to see how Bethesda responds.

Too Many Games, Too Little Time

In spite of my better judgement, I picked up Ninja Gaiden 2 today.  I’ve got an extensive backlog of games I’m trying to get through, so adding an extra title to the pile is not exactly a smart decision at this point, especially since I couldn’t get into Ninja Gaiden Black because of the horrid camera.  But it’s hard for me to pass up a great deal on a potentially awesome game.

Reasons why I might regret my decision:

  • I might not even get a chance to play it – I’ve got a ton of great games on my slate at the moment.
  • The camera – if it is anything like the atrocity that is the NG: Black camera, there’s very little chance that I’ll boot up the game more than once.

Reasons why I might not regret my decision:

  • I enjoy skill-based action titles.
  • I like ninjas.

It will be a while before I can get enough time with the game to fairly judge its quality, but I’ll be posting impressions here when I get the chance.

Predictions: NPD May 2008

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

 

Predicted Total Hardware

Predicted Weekly Sales

% Change of Weekly Sales

Wii

760,000

190,000

6.41%

NDS

460,000

115,000

10.90%

360

202,000

50,500

7.45%

PS3

198,000

49,500

5.83%

PSP

196,000

49,000

1.71%

PS2

112,000

28,000

-9.97%

After a pretty shocking April, at least as far as 360 and PS3 sales are concerned, I’m expecting a similar result in May, though I do anticipate a slight increase in sales for all platforms (except for PS2).  Wii supply should be increased to satiate demand for Wii Fit, and though Grand Theft Auto 4 had a smaller than expected effect on PS3/360 sales in April, it was only tracked for 5 days – expect a more pronounced (though still not enormous) increase in May.

Actual sales data from The NPD Group will be released on Thursday, June12th after market close (4:00 PM).