Posts Tagged‘nintendo’

Zelda: Breath of the Wild: The Cycle of Calamity.

For the gamers who grew in the age where Nintendo dominated the home console market there’s no series more ingrained in our psyche than that of The Legend of Zelda. I can remember spending countless hours on each of the titles, from A Link to the Past all the way up to Twilight Princess. I haven’t been back since then however, the few titles that came out over the past decade passing me by. So when I saw the first few screenshots of Breath of the Wild I was lost for words; it looked to me now what Ocarina of Time, my personal all time favourite Zelda game, looked like to me back when I was 13. Instantly I was sold, not just on the game but on it’s accompanying console. Sure I may never use it again but it was either a Switch or a WiiU and, honestly, the Switch was the better of the two. So there I was on launch day to pick up my new console and copy of Breath of the Wind and I’ve spent a great deal of the following weeks playing through it.

Truly, this is a Zelda game for the ages.

Awakening in a tomb you find yourself, Link, without any memories of what led you to here. You quickly learn that you’ve been asleep for 100 years with the land of Hyrule beset upon by the ancient evil of Calamity Ganon who is sealed inside Hyrule castle by Princess Zelda’s magic. There are a few who recognise you and are able to give you an idea of the person you once were. One thing is clear however: you are the champion who must take purge Calamity Ganon from Hyrule. Doing so won’t be easy however as the vast array of mechanical beasts that were designed to protect Hyrule have been usurped by Ganon for his own nefarious means. It is up to you then to purge the corruption from these beasts and bring them back to the light for only then will you be strong enough to face Ganon in a final battle of good and evil.

At a fundamental level Breath of the Wild’s visuals are one step behind the current generation, which is par for the course for titles on the Nintendo platform. It uses a style similar to that of Windwaker, favouring a kind of cartoony visual aesthetic. This is boosted significantly by the inclusion of modern lighting techniques, higher resolution models and textures and generous use of particle systems. For the most part things run pretty well however there are quite a few cases when the Switch would get bogged down. This is most notable in towns with a lot of NPCs in them, areas with quite a lot of visible grass or when you manage to give the physics engine a lot of work to do when you get “creative” with combat or puzzles. There’s also the issue of pop-in for larger areas on the Switch, an issue I’ve heard is a lot worse on the WiiU version. For a first party title on a new console things like this aren’t entirely unexpected, however this is their flagship title and these issues should have been caught in QA. It’s also strange to note that this is apparently completely avoided by undocking which, whilst a solution for some, isn’t the way I wanted to play Breath of the Wild.

Like all Legend of Zelda games before it Breath of the wild is a deep and expansive RPG, putting you in an absolutely massive world with countless things to do. There’s the main story line of course which follows the shrine/temple trope that’s well established in the series. There’s also just over a hundred smaller shrines which are short, self contained puzzles that award your spirit orbs (equivalent to the quarter heart containers, but can also be traded for stamina) on completion. Like many open world RPGs there’s also about a dozen or so towers for you to climb in order to unlock the map for the area, each of which presents its own set of unique challenges. Along your way you’ll collect various bits of armour, weaponry and crafting materials to make your journey easier. Gone are the gadgets of Zelda games of past (a single tear may have been shed for the lack of a hookshot) replaced instead by “runes” which allow unlimited use of a few choice abilities. You can now also climb pretty much every surface under the sun, limited only by your stamina wheel. Further to this you have a glider which allows you to leap from any height and glide gracefully down. Even this list probably only touches on less than half of what you can actually do in the game as there’s just so many things to do.

Combat is a kind of “Dark Souls Light” experience. Enemies telegraph their moves well in advance of executing them allowing you to dodge, parry or interrupt them. Depending on the enemy you’re facing they may have certain weak points you can exploit or elemental weaknesses you can make use of. Additionally some enemies are better blocked than dodged, parried rather than interrupted and so on. With previous Zelda games mostly focusing on enemies having one trick you need to work out a deeper combat experience like what Breath of the Wild provides is refreshing. There are still tricks of course (like stasis working on pretty much every enemy in the game) and learning them will make the difference between a frustrating grind and a swift beat down. The combat however highlights probably the worst mechanic in Zelda, one that tarnishes the game’s core tenet of rewarding exploration significantly.

Every item you get in the game (bar a couple, like the Master Sword and a few rewards weapons) have a limited durability. Now this isn’t the normal kind of durability which would require you to shell out cash to repair them. No instead any weapon, shield or bow you find as a limited lifetime before it breaks and disappears from your inventory. Whilst this does encourage some…creative ideas to ensure that your weapon stash is always stocked with what you need (like using crap weapons against crap enemies, since the durability hit is the same regardless) it takes out all the fun of spending ages exploring a random area in the hopes of getting rewarded with a really cool item. Every item you get is going to disappear and so you’ll horde as many as you can, using whatever is available even if its sub-optimal just so your best ones are ready just in case. Even worse if you happen to accidentally throw your weapon or use a shield to parry something that shouldn’t be parried you’ll instantly break them, potentially leaving you scant for better options. To be sure the game throws a fair amount of kit at you to ensure you’re never left wanting but it means that getting, and keeping, the best items in the game is an exercise in farming, not in rewards born out of discovery or hard work.

After an initial stint in the starting area Breath of the Wild becomes a true open world experience, allowing you to complete missions in any way you deem fit. There is, of course, an optimal way to do some things but it doesn’t appear to affect things too much. This will mean that everyone’s experience will be unique, the way in which they played through the world of the Breath of the Wild dictated by numerous factors. For instance whilst my friend and I both coincidentally did the elephant divine beast first we didn’t do any of the others in the same order, meaning the tools we had available to each other were wildly different. We were also playing the game in very different ways: me with Google and the Zelda wiki open on a second monitor and he not wanting to cheat himself (although he said asking me didn’t count!). As with all open world games this does mean there’s a bunch of repetitive stuff to do if you’re so inclined but there’s also a bevy of random encounters that are delightful (and sometimes rewarding) if you happen across them.

The more concise and logically laid out (looking at you Water Temple) temples in the form of the divine beasts really are the standout feature of Breath of the Wild. Using your map to physically alter the entire environment you’re in, whilst not a completely original concept, is executed brilliantly. It forces you to not just think of the puzzle at hand but also how the environment can be changed in order to solve it. Out of all of them my favourite has to be the camel divine beast as it was the most complex of the lot. The salamander and bird by comparison felt relatively simplistic, however that may have just been because they were the last 2 I did and I had cottoned onto all the tricks that the game designers were using. Again it’s a bit of a shame that exploration isn’t as rewarding as it could be here, with limited durability weapons and run of the mill consumables the typical reward, as some of the environment interactions needed to obtain them border on the clinically insane.

The shrines, which are kinds of mini-temples, are also great little distractions. The fact that you’re given all the tools to complete them right at the beginning of the game is very much appreciated as it means you’re not constantly re-treading ground in order to get the next item or upgrade. I do wonder if some of them were fully tested before release however as some of them can be completely bypassed with what appears to be emergent game play mechanics. Some things seem intentional, like circuit puzzles being able to be solved by using metallic weapons or shields, but others, like the ball rolling puzzles that use motion controls, can be bypassed by turning the controller upside down. Either way the fact that you won’t be stuck in one for more than 15 minutes or so is great, especially when there’s over 100 of them to complete.

 

Crafting, whilst functional and rewarding, could do with a few tweaks to make it a little bit more useful. For instance, in order to cook something, you have to go to your inventory, select the ingredients, get out of the menu, throw the ingredients into a cooking pot and then wait for them to cook (skipping saves you about 2 seconds, total). You can discover various recipes by combining things together, although most of the time you’ll be focused on effects or the number of hearts something it restores. The problem here though is that if you want to make say, 10 of something, there’s no way to quickly churn them out. Instead you’ll have to repeat that process I outlined 10 times over. Worse still whilst you can “discover” recipes there’s no book or anything in them, all you can look at is food you’ve already made to see what went into it. There’s also no real way to tell an ingredients effect relative to others in its category (besides heart restoration), something which is rather annoying when it comes to making elixirs. Sure you can hazard a guess that the more rare monster part is better but it’s nigh on impossible to understand just how much better it is.

The inclusion of something like a recipe book, one that would let you say queue up cooking multiples of recipes you discovered, would go a long way to solving this issue. Additionally having something like an ingredients page in the same book, one that details relative strengths of ingredients, would make cooking a little less…messy. Sure I understand that the whole idea is to get you to explore and experiment but, honestly, after a certain point I’d like to be able to min/max things without constantly referring to wikis and Google if at all possible. There’s also a missed opportunity in allowing you to craft bits of armour, arrows and other things which could add yet another level of depth to the crafting system. Overall it’s not bad, I mean who doesn’t love the little cooking tune, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement here.

Where Breath of the Wild really starts to shine is in the absolutely staggering breadth of the world you’re in. I spent countless hours exploring numerous areas, finding inventive ways to climb mountains and trying to see how I could glide from peak to peak so I didn’t have to wrangle my horse around everywhere. Even at the point where I figured I had explored pretty much all the game I discovered not 1, but 2 whole new zones that were packed with quests and new areas to explore. If I’m honest I was only in those areas to chase down a specific set of armour for my final fight with Ganon but just getting to those points required a good hour or two of walking around to get to where I was going. It was on this specific journey I also found out that there was a kind of NPC I didn’t know existed in the game and, had I known about them earlier, it may have changed my idea on how to approach certain parts of the game.

Whilst the in-general exploration is tarnished somewhat by the lack of strong rewards (as I mentioned before) the targeted, specific exploration that you’ll do to unlock certain key things is most certainly rewarding. The master sword quest, one which sees you follow an incredibly long chain of events (if you do it normally) showcases a lot of things that you’d be kicking yourself if you missed, especially if you’re a long time Zelda fan. My quest to get the barbarian armour, and then upgrade it, took me to 3 different corners of the map and then all around the place hunting Lynels so I could get their horns. Ask anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild and they’ll likely have another story about how they spent an inordinate amount of time chasing something down and just how much of a delight it was. It was the same kind of feeling I felt when I eventually caught that blasted eel in Ocarina of Time, one of those moments that will be hard to forget.

Of course the real attraction of any Zelda game is the story and Breath of the Wild most certainly delivers here. All the usual suspects are here: you have no memory of anything, Zelda is the princess you need to save, Ganon is the evil you must defeat and the various races are still their charming selves. Strangely, unlike previous Zelda games, there’s little talk of the triforce and its influence on those who wield it. There are some references to it, mostly through the various shrines that have the same names as each of them (courage, wisdom and power) but they are no longer what imbues each of the main characters with their respective traits. However the characters are given an in depth exploration of their backstory, thankfully without resorting to massive gobs of text. Finding your lost memories reveals the nature of Zelda’s relationship with Link, her father and the people of Hyrule in great detail, something which makes the final battle with Ganon all the more satisfying.

MILD PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Whilst not every quest or story is something I’d hold up as an example of good storytelling Breath of the Wild has some exceptional moments. Freeing each of the divine beasts, and the conversations you have with your former companions, is both an exhilarating and heart wrenching experience. The Mipha story stands out particularly in this regard, her love for Link being the link which converts even the most hardened Zora to begin to trust the people of Hyrule once again. The final battle with Ganon (which I had all 4 beasts for) had me loudly cheering at my screen, the culmination of the dozens of hours I had put into this game coming to a massive crescendo. When most games’ endings are trite, littered with not so subtle references to an incoming sequel, Zelda’s is one of perfection. It’s also very much worth collecting all the memories before you embark on the final battle as it adds another scene, one which honestly melted this jaded gamer’s heart. Just thinking of it brings back tears, it was that beautiful.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a shining example of what Nintendo is capable of when they put their minds to it. The world is incredibly expansive, begging to be explored and filled with all the story elements that we long time Zelda fans desire so much. It’s hard to summarise what makes this game great in a single, or even multiple, paragraphs as there’s just so much to love. I will temper that by saying that it is not a perfect game, like so many other reviewers are saying, but it is most certainly a title to which I will compare many to from now on. Breath of the Wild managed to do what a decade of Zelda games has failed to do before it: convince me that it was worth playing and then blow away my expectations. I don’t think I can name a game that will be forever defined by its flagship launch title but Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be forever synonymous with the Switch and all other releases will have to live in its shadow.

I don’t care what kind of gamer you are: Zelda: Breath of the Wild is worth your time.

Rating: 9.75/10

Wait…The WiiU is Actually Fun?

So whilst getting into sessions at PAX might have been something of a bum steer this time around there was one thing that it really excelled at: getting people together to play games, any kind of games. I don’t mean this lightly either they catered to essentially every time of gamer you could think of with their massive games libraries and spaces dedicated to playing. By far the best time I had there was stumbling into the free play PC area late at night when there were a bunch of PCs free and our group of friends just playing, like the good old days of LANs. It’s also an opportunity for gamers like me, who spend the vast majority of their time on a single platform, to experiment with others and strangely enough I found myself behind the controls of a WiiU.

Wii U ConsoleThe game we played was Nintendo Land, a kind of lavish tech demo ala Wii Sports which did the same thing for the original Wii back in the day. Most of the games are incredibly simplistic in nature but are centered around playing together and demonstrating what’s possible with the Wii U controller. My friend who introduced us to this game insisted that we play one which was essentially a game of one person trying to run/hide from everyone else. Catch is the person who’s being chased has the Wii U controller and can see everything that the people trying to hunt them down is doing. I was a little skeptical at first but I figured that I had some time to kill while our friends finished up their game of Puerto Rico.

Then something weird happened, I started having fun.

It’s a simple premise but the game play that comes out of it is really quite fun as you team up against one person to try and chase them down. The other games in Nintendo Land are based around similar premises, like one where you’re a ghost that has to scare all the other players, and they all have that simple joy of co-operative/competitive play which makes them great for both kids and adults a like. I didn’t end up playing all of the modes since we were meandering off to the PC area but I walked away with the feeling that whilst the Wii U might not be the crazy success the Wii was there’s definitely something to it, even if that thing won’t potentially sell.

Honestly I think the problem here is one of market saturation and the value proposition that the Wii U brings to the table. The Wii was successful because it went after the largest target market: people who don’t traditionally play games. This helped spread the console to places where it never would’ve gone before, to the point where just getting one seemed to elect you to an exclusive club. This was at the cost of alienating some of the more hardcore/dedicated fan base, something I’m sure Nintendo was willing to wear for the sales it got. The problem with this is that the difference between the Wii and the Wii U isn’t big enough for those kinds of users to see the value in upgrading, indeed when I told my wife (an avid user of our Wii) about the Wii U she wondered why we’d bother getting it and, at the time, I was inclined to agree with her. After playing it I can see that there are some cool uses cases for that giant controller, ones that I’m sure current Wii owners would appreciate, but I don’t think Nintendo has done a great job of selling that so far.

Did this convince me to buy one? Not particularly as there’s no games that are drawing me to the platform and I can’t see myself getting a group of people together to play Nintendo Land very often. This could change, indeed it might almost be worth it for a HD Zelda game, but there’s little more than that novelty aspect going for it currently. I’m not exactly sure how Nintendo can overcome this, they’re in a bit of a chicken and egg situation at the moment with developers and titles, but there’s no denying that there’s something to the Wii U concept.

 

Consoles Aren’t Going Away and Mobiles Won’t Take Over.

You wouldn’t have to be a reader for long to know that my preferred gaming platform is the PC but I’m pretty sure it comes as no surprise that I have all of the current generation consoles (apart from the WiiU, but I do have a Wii). I grew up with both platforms and arguably I was more of a console gamer when I was younger but as time went on I found that PC gaming just sat better with me. What I’m getting at here is that whilst I might be a PC gamer I’m certainly not one to call for the demise of the consoles and indeed believe that the platform will be around for quite a long time to come.

Current Gen Consoles Playstation 3 Xbox360 Wii

Others don’t share that view, in particular Ben Cousins who wrote this article on Kotaku outlining the reasons why consoles are going away:

Many people (me included) have been saying publicly that they think the ‘console’—dedicated hardware designed primarily for gaming—is on its way out.

I used to keep a list of famous developers and executives who shared my view, but it got too big to maintain!

Anyway, here’s just two whom you might care about: David Jaffe and Hideo Kojima.

He then goes on to list 5 data points and 2 assumptions that back up his claim and on the surface they appear plausible. Indeed many of the supporting points are based at least partially on ideas that everyone involved in the games industry knew about but I feel the conclusions drawn from them are a little over-reaching, enough so that his idea that consoles are going away is at the least premature and at the worst grossly misinformed.

Take for example the first data point about consoles being sold at a loss. This is no revelation as console makers have been doing this for decades prior and have still managed to turn a profitable business from them. Indeed while Nintendo might be breaking its usual rule of not selling consoles at a loss it doesn’t take much for them to become profitable with the sale of a single title enough to push it over the line. In fact if you look at the past 5 years things look pretty good for the major consoles, especially for Microsoft and Nintendo. I believe Cousins is being slightly unfair by going back further than that because those years were right at the beginning of the current generation console’s life and that’s arguably the point at which the greatest losses will be incurred.

 

I’m also not sure how 40% of the sales occurring after the price drops supports his idea that these people are somehow the mainstream gamers. Taken literally that means that the majority, I.E. >50% of current gen console owners, bought their console before these price drops/product revisions occurred. I’d also argue that a portion of those new sales were also current owners upgrading older consoles as in the case of the Xbox the original was something of a jet engine when used and the subsequent iterations vastly improved that experience. I’ve heard similar tales from PS3 Slim owners as well so I don’t feel the “mainstream gamer” argument holds up with console sale figures alone.

It’s not a secret that mobile devices are pervasive but it’s also quite known what they’re capable of and what their primary use is. Indeed console makers are aware of this and have been working to expand their console experience onto the mobile platform. Microsoft has long been working towards achieving their Three Screens idea which would see the experience between Xbox360, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 unified together enabling developers to provide the same experience regardless of the platform. We’re still a long way from achieving that and whilst smartphones do a good job of getting close to the console experience they’re still not in the same league, something which console owners are acutely aware of.

The rest is speculation based off those points which I won’t bother digging into but suffice to say I don’t get the feeling that consoles are going to go anywhere in a hurry and I’m willing to say that there’ll definitely be several more generations to come. The mobile market might be growing but I believe it’s an additive market, one that’s bringing more gamers in not one that’s cannibalizing gamers away. There’s also the fact that consoles are increasingly becoming the media centre of the house, something that smartphones are going to have a hard time replacing. Still we’re both deep in speculation territory here so the only way to settle this will be to wait it out and hope that both our opinion pieces are still online in a decades time.

The Future of Console Gaming.

Even though in my heart I’m a PC gamer I was never without a console growing up. For the most part I was a Nintendo kid, seeing every console from the NES upwards making its way into my family’s living room. That changed when I had my own job and enough money to buy a PlayStation 2, secluding myself away in my room to play Gran Turismo for hours on end trying to justify the $700 odd sum I had spent on this magnificent piece of hardware. Nowadays you’ll find every major console lining up beside my TV so that I can indulge myself in any title regardless of its platform. 

The past couple decades has been quite an interesting time for consoles. They really came into prominence after the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1985 (2 years later for us Australians) and Nintendo continued to be highly successful with it’s successor. Their reign as the king of consoles came to an end with the release of the original PlayStation back in 1994 which saw Sony catapulted to the top of the console kingdom. Microsoft, seeing a great opportunity to compete in the gaming market, released the Xbox back in 2001 and whilst it didn’t dethrone Nintendo or Sony it enjoyed some mild success in the market, even if it wasn’t a success financially. The release of the PlayStation 2 kept Sony at the top for quite a while as neither the Xbox nor Nintendo’s GameCube could hold a candle to it.

The current generation of consoles saw another shift in the king of consoles crown, but not for the traditional reasons that gamers had come to expected. Whilst the PlayStation 3 was a technical marvel the Xbox360 hit the trifecta of price, performance and catalogue of good platform exclusives that helped build it up to the success it is today. Neither of them however could hold a candle to the success that is the Nintendo Wii. Aiming at their largest untapped market Nintendo created a console that appealed to non-gamers and gamers alike. The result being that they couldn’t manufacture the things fast enough, seeing wide spread shortages for the console that only helped to sustain the fever pitch surrounding it. With a grand total of 90 million consoles sold to date it’s well on its way to be the most successful console ever released, although it still has a long way to go to match the PlayStation 2 (coming in at a whopping 153 million).

The next generation of consoles is still some ways off however. Traditionally you’d see a new console generation every 5 years but the only ones with any official plans so far are Nintendo with their Wii U console which isn’t slated for release until sometime next year. Granted the current generation of consoles has aged far better than any of their previous generations what with developers finding all sorts of optimizations to squeeze extra performance out of them but even the best programming can’t hide the aging hardware that’s running in these consoles. It is then up for debate as to what the next generation of consoles will look like and there’s speculation that it may be the last.

Richard Garriott AKA Lord British, games industry celebrity and space tourist, has gone on record that he believes that the next generation of consoles will be the last:

IG: It’s always tough to completely change the way you look at things. The bigger the company, the more conservative they tend to be. Do you think consoles as we know them are doomed, or are we going to get a new generation, or is it just becoming irrelevant?

RGC: I think we might get one more generation, might, but I think fundamentally they’re doomed. I think fundamentally the power that you can carry with you in a portable is really swamping what we’ve thought of as a console.

IG: If we’ve got a smartphone that can do Xbox level graphics, which we’ve almost got, and I can hook that up to a TV and use a controller, what’s the difference between that and a console? It’s just whatever games are available.

RGC: Yes, exactly. That’s why I think there may be one more round of consoles left, but not many.

The idea of consoles going away isn’t a new one, hell there was a time when everyone thought the PC would be the dominant platform for all time, but them being replaced outright by mobile devices is a new one on me. For starters whilst you can get current Xbox level graphics on a handheld it’s always going to be a game of cat and mouse as to how far ahead the consoles are. Realistically current smart phones capabilities are only catching up to what was possible 5 years ago, not what’s possible today. Indeed once the next generation of consoles is released the smart phones (and other portable entertainment systems) will again be behind in terms of technology. The fact of the matter is you can’t shoe horn current generation technology into a portable form factor so I doubt we’ll see the loss of consoles after the next generation.

Although there is potential for the console market to be shaken up somewhat by the portable industry. The Wii showed that a console can succeed without having cutting edge technology in it (the Wii is basically a GameCube on the inside) and it’s that same market that gobbled up the Wii that will turn to other places for their gaming fix. Whether this will make the transition into some form of home based entertainment like consoles currently do remains to be seen however, but there’s definitely potential for it to happen.

As for the the future of console gaming? More of the same I believe. Whilst we may have seen some technical marvels in the form of the Wii, PlayStation Move and Kinect the bread and butter of these consoles doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, even in the face of challengers like the iPhone. For the non-gamer market however there’s a strong possibility that they’ll shift away from their Wiis in favour of their smart phones or tablets but there’s still a massive market that will crave the better graphics and performance that can only come from a console. 

The Rationalization of Consolization.

Any long time gamer (I’m talking about 10+ years here folks) will remember the time when the PC was the platform for all games to shoot for. It’s not that consoles weren’t good, by many standards the original Xbox and PS2 were quite capable machines at the time, it was more that PCs gave you the best experience and the limited input options for consoles made many games simply untenable on the platform. The next generation of consoles provided something different however, they were more than powerful enough to give a modern PC a run for its money at the time and the games on them were definitely a step up from their predecessors. What has followed is a massive boom in the world of console gaming and subsequently a decline in the world of PC gaming.

This is not to say that PC gaming is dead and buried, far from it. Whilst consoles might have taken the lion’s share of the gaming market there are still a great many titles that make their way onto the PC platform. For the most part however it is obvious that these games were developed with the console platform in mind first with paradigms that don’t necessarily make sense on the PC making their way into the final release. This process has become known as the consolization of PC gaming and it has been met with a lot of criticism by the PC gaming community. Whilst I don’t like what this means for PC gaming I do understand the reasons behind the shift away from the PC as being the primary platform.

Primarily it comes down to simple economics. Since the PC was the platform for so long many seem to think that it’s by far the biggest market. The truth is unfortunately that for the vast majority of the market the console reigns supreme with PCs making up a very small percentage of it. Take for instance one of the biggest recent retail releases, Call of Duty: Black Ops. Total units moved for this game in November last year were in the order of 8.4 million with only 400,000 of them being on the Wii, DS and PC platforms. Putting that in perspective that means that the PC release accounted for less than 5% of the total sales volume and data from previous years shows that this number is on the decline.

A single data point however isn’t enough to prove the theory and no one will argue that the Call of Duty series is a bit of an outlier in itself. However if you take a look at the sales charts for each platform it’s quite clear that PCs really are a niche market when it comes to games totaling around 3% of the total units moved. Of course 3% of a multi-billion dollar a year market is still a significant chunk of change but it’s comparable to say the difference in market share between Windows and Linux (and should provide some insight into why nearly no one bothers with developing games for Linux).

Just because PC gaming is becoming a niche market doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear anytime soon however. There are still many types of games, real time strategy being one of them, that just simply don’t work well in the console world no matter how much tweaking you do to the core game play. It does however mean that consolized games should be the expected norm for PC gamers and whilst that might mean a sub par experience it does have the added benefit of extending the life of our systems significantly, which I know is a small consolation. Still unless the PC somehow manages to draw crowds the size of any of the console platforms those of us who choose the PC as our platform will have to make do with what we’re given as the game developers of the world must give the crowd what they want.

LulzSec: Easy to Hate, Easy To Love.

It’s nigh on impossible to make a system completely secure from outside threats, especially if it’s going to be available to the general public. Still there are certain measures you can take that will make it a lot harder for a would be attacker to get at your users’ private data, which is usually enough for them to give up and move onto another more vulnerable target. However, as my previous posts on the matters of security have shown, many companies (especially start ups) eschew security in favor of working on new features or improving user experience. This might help in the short term to get users in the door, but you run the very real risk of being compromised by a malicious attacker.

The attacker might not even be entirely malicious, as what appears to be the case with one of the newest hacker groups who are calling themselves LulzSec. There’s a lot of speculation as to who they actually are but their Twitter alludes to the fact that they were originally part of Anonymous, but decided to leave them since they disagreed with the targets they were going after and were more in it for lulz than anything else. Their targets range drastically from banks to game companies and even the USA senate with the causes changing just as wildly, ranging from simply for the fun of it to retaliations for wrong doings by corporations and politicians. It would be easy to brand them as anarchists just out to cause trouble for the reaction, but some of their handiwork has exposed some serious vulnerabilities in what should have been very secure web services.

One of their recent attacks compromised more than 200,000 Citibank accounts using the online banking system. The attack was nothing sophisticated (although authorities seem to be spinning it as such) with the attackers gaining access by simply changing the identifying URL and then automating the process of downloading all the information they could. In essence Citibank’s system wasn’t verifying that the user accessing a particular URL was authorized to do so, it would be like logging onto Twitter and then typing say Ashton Kutcher’s account name into the URL bar and then being able to send tweets on his behalf. It’s basic authorization at its most fundamental level and LulzSec shouldn’t have been able to exploit such a rudimentary security hole.

There are many other examples of LulzSec hacking various other organisations with the latest round of them all being games development companies. This has drawn the ire of many gamers which just spurred them on to attack even more game and related media outlets just so they could watch the reaction. Whilst it’s kind of hard to take the line of “if you ignore them they’ll go away” when they’re unleashing a DDoS or downloading your users data the attention that’s been lavished on them by the press and butthurt gamers alike is exactly what they’re after, and yes I do get the irony of mentioning that :P. Still had they not been catapulted to Internet stardom so quickly I can’t imagine that they would continue being as brash as they are now, although there is the possibility they might have started out doing even more malicious attacks in order to get attention.

Realistically though the companies that are getting compromised by rudimentary URL and SQL injection attacks only have themselves to blame since these are the most basic security issues that have well known solutions and shouldn’t pose a risk to them. Nintendo showed that they could withstand an attack without any disruptions or loss of sensitive data and LulzSec was quick to post the security hole and then move onto to more lulzy pastures. The DDoSing of others though is a bit more troublesome to deal with, however there are many services (some of them even free) that are designed to mitigate the impact of such an incident. So whilst LulzSec might be a right pain in the backside for many companies and consumers alike their impact would be greatly softened by a strengthening of security at the most rudimentary level and perhaps giving them just a little less attention when they do manage to break through.

 

Nintendo’s Wii U: Coming Full Circle.

I’ve been a Nintendo fan for well over 2 decades now, my first experiences with them dating all the way back to the original Nintendo Entertainment System which I believe is still in a functioning state in a closet out at my parent’s place. I have to admit though they kind of lost me when they released the Game Cube as by then I was hooked on my shiny new PlayStation and there weren’t any games on the Game Cube that appealed to me as a burgeoning hardcore gamer. That trend continued for a long time until my then housemate bought a Wii on the release date but even then I didn’t really play it that much, instead favoring my PS3 and Xbox360. Indeed the Wii I got using some credit card reward points has been mostly unused since we got it, even though I thought there were a couple games on it I was “dying” to try.

For what its worth it’s not really Nintendo’s fault that I haven’t really been a massive user of their last 2 generations of platforms, they made it clear that they were hunting for a different market and I wasn’t in it. Sure there were some nostalgia titles that tugged on my heart and wallet (Zelda and Mario, of course) but they weren’t enough for me to make the leap and I’ve stuck to my other staples ever since. Nintendo had firmly cemented themselves as the game console for people who don’t identify as gamers, broadening their market to unprecedented levels but also alienating the crowd who grew up with them to become today’s grown up gamers. At the time it was a trade off Nintendo appeared happy to make but recent announcements show that they may be thinking otherwise.

Nintendo recently announced the console that is to be the successor to the Wii which has been worked on under the title of Project Cafe and will be officially known as the Wii U. The console itself looks very similar to its predecessor, sporting the same overall layout whilst being a little bit bigger and preferring a rounder shape to the Wii’s highly angular design. Nintendo is also pairing the new console with another new accessory, a controller that comes with an embedded touch screen. At first it looks completely ludicrous, especially if you take into consideration that the Wii’s trademark was motion controlled games. After reading a bit more about it however it appears that this tablet-esque controller will function more like an augmentation to games rather than being the primary method of control, with the Wii nun-chucks still being used for games that rely on motion control.

The console itself is shaping up to be no slouch either, eschewing Nintendo’s trend of making under powered consoles in favor of one that is capable of producing full 1080p HD content. Whilst the official specifications for the Wii U aren’t released yet the demonstrations of the release titles for the console do not suffer from the low polygon counts of previous Wii titles with the demos looking quite stunning. With enough grunt under the hood of the Wii U Nintendo could also be making a play for the media extender market as well, something Microsoft and Sony have covered off well in the past. Couple that with a controller that would make one nice HTPC remote and I’m almost sold on the idea, but that’s not the reason why I’m tentatively excited about what the Wii U signals for Nintendo.

Nintendo has said during the E3 conference that they believe their new console will target a much broader audience than that of the Xbox or PlayStation, which taken on face value doesn’t mean a whole lot. The Wii sales numbers speak for themselves as both gamers and non-gamers alike bought the Wii and it outsold its competitors by a large margin, so if Nintendo can continue the trend with the Wii U it will be obvious that they’ll hit a broader market. However the announcement of the Wii U also came a video showing launch titles, many of which would have never previously made it to Nintendo’s console. It looks like Nintendo is trying to lure back the hardcore gaming crowd that it shunned when it re-imagined itself and that makes a long time fan like myself very happy indeed.

Of course the proof will be in the putting for the Nintendo Wii U and with the console not scheduled for release until sometime in 2012 we’ll be waiting a while before we can judge their attempt to claw back that niche that has slipped away from them. Whilst my Wii may sit next to my TV feeling woefully underused I get the feeling that its successor might not suffer the same fate and I’m excited at the possibility of Nintendo coming full circle and embracing those gamers who grew up with them. The possibility of it being a little media power house is just the icing on the cake, even if I might only end up using the controller through Bluetooth on my media PC.

Next Generation Portable (AKA: The PSP2), Sony’s Answer to the 3DS.

My history with Sony can only really only be described as one of their fan boys. It all started well over a decade ago when I picked up my first Playstation, several years after they had been released. I loved that console dearly and when the Playstation 2 was announced I threw myself into wild amounts of debt with my parents so I could pick up one of the consoles on launch day. This extended to the time when they released their first portable gaming system, the Playstation Portable, as I convinced my then boss to let me take one home before the official release date. I’ve spent a good chunk of time with my PSP over the past few years and even still use it today for the odd game of Lumines or Guilty Gear. Still ever since some teaser images were released of it’s successor I’ve been eagerly awaiting its debut and yesterday afternoon finally saw an official announcement from Sony.

That there is the next generation of Sony’s portable gaming systems. On the surface it doesn’t look to be much more than an overgrown PSP with an additional analog control stick but the real meat of this device is in what’s under the hood, as shown by it’s impressive specifications:

CPU ARM® Cortex™-A9 core (4 core)
GPU SGX543MP4+
External
Dimensions
Approx. 182.0 x 18.6 x 83.5mm (width x height x depth) (tentative, excludes largest projection)
Screen
(Touch screen)
5 inches (16:9), 960 x 544, Approx. 16 million colors, OLED
Multi touch screen (capacitive type)
Rear touch pad Multi touch pad (capacitive type)
Cameras Front camera, Rear camera
Sound Built-in stereo speakers
Built-in microphone
Sensors Six-axis motion sensing system (three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer), Three-axis electronic compass
Location Built-in GPS
Wi-Fi location service support
Keys / Switches PS button
Power button
Directional buttons (Up/Down/Right/Left)
Action buttons (Triangle, Circle, Cross, Square)
Shoulder buttons (Right/Left)
Right stick, Left stick
START button, SELECT button
Volume buttons (+/-)
Wireless
communications
Mobile network connectivity (3G)
IEEE 802.11b/g/n (n = 1×1)(Wi-Fi) (Infrastructure mode/Ad-hoc mode)
Bluetooth® 2.1+EDR (A2DP/AVRCP/HSP)

Such specifications are becoming somewhat of a trademark of Sony, opting to go for the most powerful system they can deliver on a chosen platform. It’s been a double edged sword for them as whilst they can always claim the specifications crown their products are then hampered by their high cost, as illustrated with every console they’ve released. Still this thing is mightily impressive with connectivity rivalling that of today’s smart phones and processing power that hasn’t been seen before in a device of its size.

There are a few notable things to mention about Sony’s next handheld and one of them is shown in the picture above. That’s a capacitive touch panel that allows you to interact with the NGP, much like the touchscreen on any modern phone. Many companies have experimented with these in the past as a way to forego having a touchscreen, eliminating the need to touch the screen and leave fingerprints all over it. Interestingly enough though Sony decided to include a touchscreen on the front as well, meaning you can interact with it via both ways. How this is going to be used remains to be seen but its addition does make for some interesting possibilities.

Of notable absence is also any form of a media drive, ala the UMD. Whilst the format seemed like a good idea initially it was plagued by problems like reducing the battery life in half and lack of blank media like other formats. The former was an unfortunate problem that could never be worked around and the latter an attempt to stop piracy which failed miserably. Sony then attempted to revamp the PSP brand with the PSP Go which did away with the UMD in favour of digital distribution. However the PSP Go had abysmal adoption rates with many users outraged that their UMD collections were now completely useless. Still the PSP Go has paved the way for the NGP much like Windows Vista did for Windows 7 and the lack of any kind of media drive on the NGP shows that Sony is committed to a fully digital distribution network going forward.

Sony’s had a hard time in the portable gaming world but the fact remains they’re the only other company who’s still trying to take on the king of the market, Nintendo. Whilst the 3DS does look good on the surface its high price and the publics general disinterest in 3D means that Sony has a real chance to make a grab for the handheld crown with the NGP. However they have a real uphill battle ahead of them, especially when you consider that their new hand held will probably be more expensive than the 3DS. For a rabid Sony fan like myself it’s a no brainer, I’ll definitely be grabbing one of these on launch day just because it looks like such a versatile piece of kit. We’ll have to see if its worth buying as a game console when the time comes but it’s shaping up to be an interesting year for the handheld space.

 

That Feeling Reignited.

I awoke from a night of extremely lucid dreams, signalling that my body had finally recognised that I was on holiday and was beginning the process of unwinding the tangled mess of my brain that I had built up over the past year. It was a good feeling and something I had been waiting for ever since I landed in the US but I had never imagined it would’ve taken this long to occur. Still flush with a small victory I roused Rebecca from our slumber and set about preparing for the day ahead. It was shaping up to be a wallet draining affair.

I hit up Yelp again to find a breakfast place that was close by. Narrowing the search down I honed in on a cafe inside a hotel not far from us, the Cafe Edison. The menu was a simple affair, a welcome change from the massive menus we’d become accustomed to over the past week or so. We ordered ourselves up a hearty breakfast whilst basking in the rustic architecture, figuring out where we’d head to first. Whilst I had always known that I wanted to visit Nintendo World when I came to New York we had past it the night before on our hunt for the dinner place I had tracked down and had to refrain from going in there prematurely, but today it we would be making a bee line for it.

A short walk later saw us at our destination, the 2 story store entirely dedicated to the world of Nintendo. The bottom floor was almost completely dedicated to the DS with dozens of the handheld consoles dotting the show room floor. I fiddled around with the comically large DSi XL for a while before catching up with Rebecca who’d started looking over the wall of Pokemon figurines plastering an entire wall. There wasn’t much more for us on this level so we headed upstairs to the Wii/merchandise/history area and instantly I knew this is what I was looking for. There was an entire section dedicated to all sorts of Nintendo memorabilia including a working Famicon (the console before the NES). I spent a good half hour ogling the various things before shifting my gaze to the merchandise, eventually leaving there $100 poorer with several bits of swag in tow:

We’d also noticed that there was a Lego store not too far away so we wandered over there to have a look. It was patently obvious that this place was far more popular than the Nintendo store we had just come from with space being at a premium as you were trying to move around it. The audience was however a generation younger with the majority of the people in there being under 12. There were some impressive Lego sculptures in every section of the store but apart from that it was pretty much just your run of the mill retail store which was a little disappointing. I left there with my wallet in tact, but with a good dozen pictures to remind me of the short time I spent in there.

Just for kicks we decided to make our way to the Apple flagship store next to Central Park. Rebecca wanted to see if she could get a new case for her iPhone but realistically we just wanted to see the spectacle that is the giant glass cube protruding out of the underbelly of gotham city. Walking up to it I was impressed by how clean they’d managed to keep it in this pollution ridden city but that was instantly overtaken by the swarm of people coming in and out of the store. We made our way down and were instantly greeted by a swarm of people the likes of which I’ve never seen before, with nearly every display item being fondled by a potential customer and every employee either helping someone or frantically running around the store. I had wondered about the lack of Apple advertising in this giant metropolis and this provided the answer, they just don’t need it. With Rebecca coming up empty for a suitable replacement case for her iPhone we left the Apple store and started ambling towards Central Park.

We were initially going to go into Central Park Zoo but it was going to close no less than an hour after we arrived there. On advice from our recently returned from the US friends, Nick and Dannae, we started making a beeline for our closest retailer of the New York City Ticket. It’s basically a collection of tickets for local attractions at a discounted rate and can be purchased at each of the attractions themselves. Since we were in Central Park the closest one was American Museum of Natural History so we headed over there. The attendant had told us that the last show for the day in the planetarium had just started so she gave us a second set of tickets to come back to catch it another day. With that in mind we did a quick tour of the 2nd level before the museum closed for the day, sending us home.

Tomorrow is set to be filled with more shopping and sight seeing although hopefully more streamlined than we did today. My foot has been giving me trouble again and whilst it was fine for most of the day the walk home flared it up to the point of being properly painful. Thankfully it seems to get better rapidly so hopefully a day of light walking won’t set it off again and I can continue to enjoy the numerous sites this metropolis has to offer.

Format Transitions: The New Cash Cow.

Thanks to the engineer in me I’m somewhat of a hoarder. My wardrobe at home is littered with components of PCs gone by and hundreds of CDs that contain various drives and backups that I will probably never, ever end up looking at again. My garage is filled with all manner of junk that I’ve kept on the off chance that I might have a use for it some day in some weird project and every box of every product I’ve bought over the years if I ever want to sell them. It comes as no surprise then that I also have an extensive range of old video games around the place, from my goold old NES (which currently resides at my parent’s house) to my original Playstation games.

In all honesty I haven’t played any of them in quite a long time. Every 6 months when the big clean up and chuck out comes around I always look on them fondly, but none of them make the transition to the lounge room for a playthrough. The same could be said for the games folder on my PC which I’ve only ever deleted games from when space was getting critical (and thanks to my new 1TB drive for it, that won’t be for a while now). Still they remain there should I find myself in a situation like I did a couple years ago where I was without Internet for a week or so when moving house. Warcraft 3 and Freelancer are still my fallbacks during these times.

More recently it seems that many publishers are looking to cash in on our nostalgia. At the end of last year I picked up the Eidos pack (mostly for Batman and Tomb Raider… don’t judge me bro) and noticed that it included Deus Ex and Deus Ex 2. They were definitely a bonus as I tried to run the original from my massive game folder only to find it threw up some strange errors that my Google-Fu was unable to fix. Talking to a mate who had also bought the pack he said it worked without a problem and I saw him playing it a couple times over the next few days.

Getting past the fact that I got these titles for basically free (They’re $10 each on Steam by themselves) it still took me back that in essence I had paid again for a game that I already owned. My original install of the game refused to run properly under Windows 7 so I can understand that at least some effort went into reworking it but I wasn’t paying for the game per say, I was paying for the transition of format. The sour taste this left me with only got worse when I found a few people who had got the game to work without incident which in essence meant I had paid for a service I really could have performed myself.

Eidos aren’t the only one cashing in on fan nostalgia and format transitions. Nintendo has the virtual console which has a selection of games from many of Nintendo’s old systems as well as some of their former competitors (Sega being one of them). Sony brought out the PSOne Classics section of the Playstation store to do much the same thing, offering up a catalogue of games that can be played directly off the hard drive. That also opened up the option for those who purchased a second generation PS3 fat or any slim console to play old games that their hardware no longer supported. Microsoft, as far as I can tell, hasn’t got a service like this for the Xbox360 but since it can play nearly all the games (with 470 verified as supported) there’s probably not much of a market for it. Plus the Xbox hasn’t been around as long as any of Nintendo or Sony’s consoles, so there’s little for them to cash in on there. Still they’ve done well with their online marketplace, which is arguably the best out of the big 3’s offerings.

Still for someone like me who does actually have a rather large collection of old games the thought of paying for them again feels a little rough. I’ve got original PS1 games that still work in my PS3 that I’d love to be able to rip to the hard drive for those times when I might enjoy a 10 minute bash on something, but despite the fact that the technology is obviously there Sony will never let me do it. I’ll admit their service does provide something that is worthwhile (like when your originals are scratched to hell) but what about us long time fans who have massive backlogs that we’d love to play on our new consoles?

The primary argument from Sony et al is that most people buying new consoles are doing so to play new games, and I agree with that sentiment. The occaisions when I bust out an old game are few and far between, especially when I struggle to finish one game a week these days. Still asking long time fans (and let’s be honest here, these are the guys who are buying the old titles) to pony up again for games that they more than likely still have doesn’t do them any favours. I can understand that opening up such a service would present quite a few problems (how do you verify that the ripped game is playing on one console only?) but it’s still something I and many other fans would love to see.

Maybe I’m just spoiled since I’ve been doing it for a long time anyway…