Nintendo: Tale As Old As Time, Song As Old As Zelda

Since January 17, 2014, several articles have been published on sites varying from IGN to Bloomberg, lamenting the death of Nintendo after the company reported a shocking loss. This, as opposed to their earlier projections of a hefty net profit, has only contributed to the near-rabid hyperventilation that occurs when analysts begin spouting out the words “iOS and Android” in the same sentence as Donkey Kong. Anyone who can do basic math can see that this isn’t just a minor hit to the pocket that Nintendo is bracing for when their fiscal year ends in March. To project net profits of US$530 million and then sheepishly have to admit that in reality, you’re girding your loins for a loss of US$335 million instead is perhaps the biggest chunk of humble pie that any corporation’s been forced to choke down in recent memory. It is thus no surprise that people are saying that the writing’s on the wall, the nine have left Minas Morgul, the enemy is within, or basically: Nintendo’s world is crashing down around its ears. How did we get here? Who’s running this rodeo? Alas, this is a tale as old as time, one of boardroom betrayal and the business foresight to adapt to the unstoppable force that is change.

Picture this: somewhere in Japan. The 90s are raging all around us, and over some sake and sashimi (I’m just speculating here), the head honchos at Sony and Nintendo are working on their CD-ROM expansion concept for the Super Nintendo. It’s a beautiful day outside and there are smiles throughout the room.

It's all downhill from here on out.

It’s all downhill from here on out.

At some point during their negotiations, the President of Nintendo reaches over with chopsticks for the last piece of sashimi, just as the President of Sony extends his own chopsticks for the same piece. Perish the thought. Convinced that he has rights to the sashimi (I mean, it is HIS office building), Nintendo’s prez goes right ahead and eats it! Sony balks; how selfish! Anyway. Enough of that. The bottom line is that a dispute over contract details derailed the evolution of Nintendo’s hardware offering. Sony said “It’s not me; it’s you,” and in 1994 the PlayStation burst onto the scene as Sony decided to enter the gaming industry all by its lonesome. It was grey; it was slightly sleek; it sported CD-ROM technology, which garnered Sony serious third-party backing and some kick-ass triple A titles. Nintendo, banking on its position as industry leader and wizened veteran of the gaming streets, released the N64 two years later, opting to keep its game cartridge format, a decision that lost it much third-party support that it had held in the past. But Nintendo still had Smash Bros, the fabulous Golden Eye and Mario Kart, all of which capitalized on the 4 built-in controller ports on the N64, providing hours of game-play and destroyed friendships.

Curses!

Curses!

At the same time though, they couldn’t possibly keep it together against the likes of Solid Snake, Lara Croft and a game series you might have heard of called Final Fantasy. Developers saw the future; the future was CD-ROM.

It took the House of Mario until the launch of the GameCube in 2001 to abandon the game cartridge. Today, I find myself filled with “shoulda, coulda, woulda” scenarios as it pertains to Nintendo. What if they had followed through on that Sony partnership? Would we even now have an XBox One vs PS4 ‘war,’ or would it be a brutal brawl between three strong competitors on the battlefield? Personally, I don’t think so…because Nintendo made a second strategic decision around the time the Wii launched that I believe began a sort of domino effect that’s led up to this month’s “holy freaking hell, we’re bleeding money” panic attack.

Any good marketing professional will tell you that target markets, as they relate to certain industries, are not static. They change, and while it may not be frequent, it is inevitable. With the success of the Wii (released in 2006), Nintendo decided that they would stick to family-oriented games and maintain their Pikachu-cute image across all marketing campaigns which, admirable though it may be, was in complete contrast with the gamer population’s mind-set at the time. Their entire brand image remained tied to the legacy characters of Mario, Princess Peach and Link, and unfortunately, 2007 brought with it a little game called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. I know; Modern Warfare was available on the Wii. I’m not talking about availability, though. I’m talking about image, and how the associations formed in your consumer’s mind are often more important than how you see your company. See, Nintendo reminds me of a grandparent or other older person who refuses to admit that the world has changed and bread will never again cost 10 cents at the corner store. The 12 year olds on XBox Live (who have all done unspeakable things to my mom, bless her) don’t concern themselves with the kind of nostalgic image Nintendo is adamantly holding onto. They are not us, as we were at 12, fascinated by the ‘blood’ in Golden Eye. Call of Duty and Halo are what they know and love, and their parents (who were Nintendo’s ‘original gamers’) have also matured. I hear more stories of fathers playing Halo with their sons and daughters than I do of them playing Smash Bros. So what did that ‘strategic decision’ mean? It meant that Nintendo made a conscious choice to flat-out ignore changing attitudes and appetites with regards to their branding. Couple that with a complex platform and their exclusion of third-party devs in the development stages of the Wii-U (a name I still hate to say) and you’ve got a recipe for the cluster in which the House of Mario is currently drowning.

Despite last week’s loss warning, CEO Iwata says he has no plans to resign. I find this an interesting decision, mostly because I think he shot Nintendo in the foot by expecting their handheld segment to shoulder the burden brought on by the Wii-U’s production costs, heavy losses and low sales. In the same breath, he also says that he’s not too keen on having Nintendo titles (such as legacy Mario and the still-popular Pokemon) released for other platforms. This is the third time that Nintendo is faced with a deep chasm before them and the bridge across is guarded by a troll who asks the question “Will you change?” Is it too late to make the turn-around? Do I think Iwata is right for staying on as CEO and resisting the calls for his company to develop games for other platforms? There is no right answer to that question. He is an executive decision-maker faced with perhaps the most significant challenge in Nintendo’s history. It would sting to see classic favourites cavorting about on platforms other than those carrying the Nintendo brand, a brand that feels like an old friend no matter how much time has passed since you last played a Mario game. It might be their undoing; the research alone that would have to go into such a solution would be daunting. Iwata has to carefully write the next chapter of this tale or face an abrupt, Sopranos-like ending. I just hope he doesn’t resist change, whatever form it may take, because as much as I’ve never wanted to own a Wii-U, to quote a friend…I don’t want to live in a world without Nintendo. Until next time…

Good luck, old buddy.

Good luck, old buddy.

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Review Ahoy: The Black Flag of Freedom Cry

You may be wondering why it’s taken me so long to review Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. I do have a very good reason for the delay, and that’s because I was waiting for the Freedom Cry DLC to release. I felt that this would provide a more complete overview of this latest AC title and, to be quite honest, I was so utterly bored by the main storyline that I hoped the DLC would add some fire to a lackluster game.

Assassin’s Creed Snore: Black Lag

Low Points

We’re going to just get the bad mojo out there before we get to the good stuff, because I can think of no other way to properly review Assassin’s Creed IV. But be ye warned: there lay spoilers ahead!

Arr.

Arr.

As I started the single player campaign for AC IV BF, I was struck with a horrible thought: Ubisoft is like the French Activision, in that the AC franchise is starting to feel a little Call of Duty-ish. It seemed like just last year I was air-assassinating black bears as the most wooden assassin since Altair: Connor. Oh wait…it WAS just last year (this is bearing in mind that AC IV released in 2013, and that’s when I bought and played it). I couldn’t recall ever getting excited for this game beyond the promised ship-based adventures and really, that’s the best part of Black Flag. Once Edward Kenway gets settled on the Jackdaw, there was no stopping me when it came to plundering ships on this epic nautical map. This is not to say that there were no glitches to be found along with the plunder. There is no way that as a fresh pirate with a bare-bones ship, I should have been able to take down a level 39 Man ‘o War, but thanks to said MoW somehow flipping onto its side and exposing its hull, I was able to pummel it enough to capture and send it to my fleet. I’m not setup for video capture from my 360, but I’m sure you’ve seen some of the more hilarious ship-related glitches in this game.

Secondary to overturned ships were just little errors that were distracting and, considering how hard I had to work to keep up my interest level for the main story, I found myself more frustrated with their appearance than I have ever been with game glitches. My personal favourite has to be when my crewmen were dangling in mid-air as we’re sailing at travel speed. I played around with that for a while, changing directions and then bringing the Jackdaw to a dead stop in the water. The crew would then revert to normal behaviour, hanging onto the mast and climbing the ropes…until I started sailing again! Argh…and not in the pirate way.

Black Flag also suffers from a serious case of BORING STORY. Sorry. I tried to think of something clever to say here, but all the thinking time in the world couldn’t yield better snark. It goes without saying that there will never be another Ezio, who had some personality and I believe will go down as the favourite assassin. I was annoyed with Connor as a character and thus could not muster half a damn to give for his dilemma. Haytham was by far the best character in AC III and so I assumed that a game dedicated to the exploits of his father would be exciting and captivating. At this moment, I can’t quite explain what was happening with his wife, Charlotte…or was it Caroline? Christina? Whatever. See what I mean? I have cared more about Call of Duty characters than I do about Edward’s story, and while the historical bits and “surprise!” moments (though really, who didn’t see that James Kidd thing coming?) were fun they don’t make up for the lackluster character development.

High Points

As I’ve said before, the times you’re on the Jackdaw, sailing through the Caribbean Sea and raiding British, Spanish or French ships are among the game’s best moments. The sea shanties are particularly brilliant, and I know I’m not the only one singing along with the crew. Visually, Black Flag is a stunningly beautiful game. Coming from a Caribbean island myself, I have to commend Ubisoft on capturing the beautiful shades of blue and green that we have in our waters, as well as the tiny land masses that are mostly found in the Bahamas’ area. That being said, I did chuckle when the map made it appear as though Jamaica and Nassau are relatively close together when in truth they are quite some distance apart. Not doing anything to improve people’s geographical prowess, then.

The addition of Kenway’s Fleet makes your nautical adventures that much more interesting. I loaded my fleet with frigates and Man ‘o Wars, salvaging and upgrading as I gained the ability to take down more powerful ships. The Ubisoft companion app came in handy here and is a nice touch; I send my ships out in the morning while on the train to work and then collect the cash when I get home. And trust me, you will need cash in this game. Some of the upgrades for the ship are ridiculously expensive, and the game urges you to plunder by tacking on material requirements (cloth, metals, etc), all of this contributing to the making the nautical aspect the game’s defining feature.

Finally, while he’s about as interesting as Twilight when he’s talking, Edward is pretty cool when swashbuckling. Yes, there were some glitches, but I did enjoy his reckless fighting style, particularly when using just the hidden blades. There were some finishing moves that were so full of bone-crunching, muscle-tearing goodness, it brought a tear to my eye. He possesses some of the same flourish as Connor (bless him) but with less control and precision. Basically, if Edward’s going to stab you, there’s no telling where he’ll land. It made for fun combat, and I appreciated this plus point to an otherwise boring character.

To Plunder or Not To Plunder?

If you’re a die-hard Assassin’s Creed fan, you will get this game. Do I recommend it for people new to the series? No. Hell, I don’t even recommend AC I for newcomers, but that’s not the point here. I would prefer that Ubisoft take two to three years to fine tune their AC titles before releasing them as the glitchy, lackluster time-waster that Black Flag ends up being once you’ve completed the story. The wear and tear is beginning to show, more than it did for AC III, and the worst part is that Ubisoft doesn’t seem to care. Let’s not even get started on the annoying ‘meta-ness’ of when you’re out of the Animus and are wandering around “Abstergo” offices, hacking your colleagues’ Animuses (Animi? I don’t know) and discovering all the shady secrets of the Subject 17 project. Those moments were super distracting for me and added nothing to the game, not even when that nut job from IT turns out to be who you think it is all along (if you’d managed to pay attention, that is). Keep reading as we dive into the Freedom Cry DLC.

Freedom Cry: Sensitive Ubisoft Is Sensitive

Whenever a developer tries to tackle a sensitive subject, whether it’s something that happened in the past or is currently occurring somewhere in the world, people generally cringe, unsure as to how the game will turn out visually and emotionally. Two such subjects are the holocaust and slavery. In my next post (sometime this week), I’ll speak more in-depth about this, but for now check out this article, about Luc Bernard and his crusade to make a game solely about the holocaust. Right now, we’re going to take a look at the Freedom Cry DLC for Black Flag, and how Ubisoft took that other hyper-sensitive subject, slavery, and built game content around it. 

Picture credit to Diehard Game Fan.

Picture credit to Diehard Game Fan.

Freedom Cry focuses on Adewale, Captain Kenway’s quartermaster for most of the main story. Adewale is a former slave, having escaped from his Trinidadian plantation when it was raided by pirates. He speaks of his experience as a black man on the high seas in the main story, and at some point in the game he leaves your side to find a higher purpose with the assassins. There are some well done interactions between Adewale and the people in Kenway’s life, particularly when one of them comments “You let him carry a pistol?” and Edward berates him for insulting his quartermaster. Nice touch, that. In Freedom Cry, set 15 years after the events of Black Flag, Adewale is captain of his own ship, running errands on behalf of the Assassin Brotherhood. After raiding a Templar convoy, he steals a parcel addressed to a woman residing in Port-au-Prince, but he doesn’t get a chance to discover what’s in the box before a storm shipwrecks him on the shores of Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti). From hereon out, he lends his considerable aid to the cause of the Maroons of Port-au-Prince. If you’re unsure who the Maroons were, click here to educate yourself.

I went in giving Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt and, despite Freedom Cry sporting many of the glitches that plagued Black Flag’s main story, I was pleasantly surprised and more than a little emotional with their handling of this subject. Please keep in mind that this is my own opinion; if you don’t like it, feel free to respectfully disagree. Much like the holocaust, I don’t think people will ever quite understand how horrifying slavery was, from the journey across the Atlantic to the indignities suffered by the slaves in the Caribbean. On the island of Curacao, there is an exhibition where you head underground and get an idea of what it was like to be packed, stacked and shackled like sardines in the cargo hold of a ship for months at a time. Freedom Cry slaps you in the face with this reality towards its emotional ending, which I won’t spoil here.

The best thing about this DLC is that Adewale plays like an entirely different character to Kenway. He is big and muscular, and he makes it count in his combat encounters. You can’t help but wonder if being surrounded by the injustice of slavery drives his brutality when executing slave overseers and guards. Freedom Cry wastes no time in throwing you into the plight of the Maroons, but all around you there are examples of what life was like for slaves in the Caribbean. There are cages to be unlocked, runaway slaves to rescue and auctions to stop, all in the name of recruiting Maroons for the revolution. The town crier proclaims the conditions of Le Code Noir, a royal decree that contained “guidelines” for the handling of slaves in the French colonies, including how often and with what tools a slave could be punished. How kind, right? Still, it’s the kind of detail that we’ve come to expect and appreciate from Ubisoft and they deliver ten-fold.

Picture credit to Ubisoft.

Picture credit to Ubisoft.

You are still able to upgrade your ship, though I spent less time on the seas in Freedom Cry than I did in Black Flag. Ships react to your vessel with alarming quickness, particularly when you’re tasked with intercepting slave ships and their escorts. I actually cannot recall having Hunters on my trail in Black Flag as quickly as they are in Freedom Cry. I took it as an indication that for a horrific time in human history, human cargo was more valuable than rum and sugar and thus painted a target on any who would interfere in that trade.

I won’t rehash all the glitches of Black Flag here; just know that they are present, though they are less distracting once you’re used to them from the main game. I will say that my biggest pet peeve with Freedom Cry was the absence of singing on board the ship. As Adewale moves through plantations, eliminating overseers and freeing slaves, there is a wonderful rise and fall to the volume of their field song, one of the best historically accurate features in this game. Ubisoft enlisted Olivier Deriviere to score Freedom Cry and he brought La Troupe Makandal on board. The result is a perfect blend of orchestral and traditional Haitian drum rhythms that are a highlight of the DLC. The songs being sung in the fields are in line with those freedom songs that were used to pass the time in the field and, in some instances, to communicate with one another. Your ship’s crew is populated by Maroons and other freed slaves, so it seems illogical to exclude songs while you’re sailing towards liberating more slaves. Besides this, however, Freedom Cry possesses a more engaging story than Black Flag and that makes me wish there was more on the way, particularly because I feel it had a rather open-ended conclusion. This is the first time I’ve ever purchased a Season Pass and luckily it was worth the money spent.

I hope you enjoyed Freedom Cry as much as I did. I’m aiming to settle into a posting schedule that’s a bit less interrupted. Thankfully, Christmas holidays only happen once a year! Until then, peace.