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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Event: First Look 2013 Review

Every year in Utrecht, The Netherlands, the First Look Event is held at the Jaarbeurs, a gigantic event space that plays host to thousands of gaming and technology fans. It gives attendees the opportunity to view and play upcoming titles before their release dates, as well as get their paws all over the latest in tech offerings from the likes of Asus, Logitech, NVIDIA and more. Last year, Ubisoft reigned supreme with their Assassin’s Creed III preview, the cosplay alone making it worth waiting in line for entry to the venue. The Nintendo WiiU also made its grand appearance at First Look 2012, with a playable preview of ZombiU. Nothing , however, could compare to the almost palpable excitement for today’s First Look outing. In a year in which two top-tier consoles prepare to duke it out for your hard-earned money, who would know which to touch first at First Look 2013?

I arrived at the venue with my band of merry men (and women) at 9:45 AM. As a regular ticket holder, I was only allowed actual entry at 12 PM, but I had learned my lesson from the previous year and decided to line up super early. This was by far the best strategy, as it ensured that we were among the first 10 regular ticket holders to enter (this, of course, after the 800+ VIP ticket holders). Our plan of action was:

– Bathrooms

– Bottled water

– XBox One booth

The Green Monster.

The Green Monster.

Thankfully, we were only in line for an hour and a half. Upon entering the green box, I saw that Microsoft had opted for quite a few XBox Ones, along with the controller and a gaming headset for each player. This was a nice touch, as it provided some blocking for the cacophony of sound happening outside and immersed the player in the game before them. Interestingly enough, one of the XBox guys mentioned that they (the Microsoft team in The Netherlands) were pretty frustrated at the communication debacle that their US counterparts set off with the announcement in April, and subsequent statements in the press and at E3. HOW ABOUT THAT EH? Anyway. I was wonderfully surprised to find that Microsoft had thrown four games into the preview pile for today’s event: Killer Instinct, Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3 and Forza 5. Obviously, I am just one person, and this is why I travelled with 6 companions. We decided while on line what games we would each take. After convincing my friends to quickly text me their reactions right after playing their games, I gathered the following impressions:

1. Dead Rising 3: My sister adores the Dead Rising series, so naturally I sent her to play this demo. Her feelings afterwards were a potent mix of rabid excitement and careful awe. As she puts it, “Your shoe is literally a weapon.”She felt that the overall controls were trigger-happy, as in, hyper-sensitive, but that could have been a setting placed by one of the XBox One personnel. But then, she was probably too busy having fun mowing over zombies with a tractor to care much about that. As for graphics, she had nothing but good things to say.

2. Killer Instinct: Two of my friends played the demo version of this highly anticipated title. In addition to their impressions, I got the chance to speak to Ryan Hart about it, and he relayed that he had been impressed and that the potential was all there for this to be an attention-grabbing title. My two pals were so deep into their game, they had to be told twice that the demo time for our group was over and that they had to leave the area. They admitted that there was some lag during the game, but took into consideration that this was a demo version. One said that it reminded him of the classic Killer Instinct, so much so that within a few minutes, he was pulling off ultra combos just like in the old days (we’re not that old). Character select screen, like it was at E3, had an arcade feel to it, but the actual fight boasted seriously beautiful graphics, particularly on Sabre Wolf.

3. Forza 5: I sent my racing game lover to tackle this title (not really; he told me he was going no matter what). He thoroughly enjoyed the game’s admittedly gorgeous design, and he also raved about the controller’s responsiveness and how it seemed to respond to every instance in the game that called for any action. For example, when forced to hit the brakes in-game, the responsible trigger reacted much like a car would once the ABS kicked in for the driver. More on his overall impression at the end of this post.

4. Ryse: Son of Rome: As you may have sorted out, I played this demo myself. It offered a Gladiator-like play-through in which you partner up with either a friend or the AI and then proceed to fight your way through a series of challenges. Visually, Ryse is incredibly pleasing, with extraordinary detail in the environments, armour and weaponry. Game play, however, was a bit confusing to get a handle on at first, considering there was no explanation of controls at the beginning of the demo. However, once I figured out the two-button combination for blocking and countering, combat flowed smoothly and was bloody and brutal. And yet, it was still the usual medieval slash ‘n stab to me; this might be an unfair impression, considering it was just a demo of a gladiator setting, but the general thought was that the story should serve to carry the game through its business-as-usual combat. The AI companion: I can’t even with the world right now. I did truly enjoy the controller; it was a smooth design and was tons more comfortable than the 360’s. Good job, Microsoft.

Once we ended off at the XBox One booth, we took a walk around and enjoyed some of the Ubisoft’s booth Just Dance action, as well as the FIFA 14 station. Somehow we ended up stepping into a demonstration for Raven’s Cry, an upcoming title from Top Ware (the studio behind Two Worlds II) and Reality Pump, I guess? I know that TW handed the title to Reality Pump, but the branding all over this booth belonged to them. Inside was a build of the game dated October 2nd, 2013, loaded onto a PC and played by one of their booth attendants. While the game has some decent graphics, the movement of the main character was slightly off. He seemed to be fighting with himself on whether to do an Ezio-like swagger or a Connor-like stride. Either way, buddy was trying to pull off an Assassin’s Creed gait, even while speed-walking through water like he was Christ himself. Seriously, the man was practically walking on the surface and it was the first of three main complaints that we had about this demo. The second, and most important, would be the combat system. It was incredibly rudimentary and was perhaps the most telling factor behind their decision to transfer the project to Reality Pump’s control. Two combat situations were played on screen, both of which resembled little more than a fencing lesson. And finally, the naval component needs some serious work to even light a candle to hold beside Assassin’s Creed IV. I do hope they get this title off the ground now that Reality Pump’s taken the wheel, because it does look promising and you can never have enough pirate games.

Or...Not So Much?

Or…Not So Much?

After some time, we decided to brave the PlayStation 4 line, which at one point curved two ways across the walkway. With the day winding down, the line moved swiftly and within a few moments we were inside the PS4 booth. This is where you see that, regardless of their earlier communication missteps, Microsoft sometimes does a better job at picking themselves up and marketing their product right. I’m not sure if Sony is so confident in their self-assured superiority that they don’t think they need to put on a good show at these events, but they did not impress me nor any of my friends. While I didn’t have the chance to snap images in the Microsoft booth (you know, because I was playing), I managed to get these two of the PlayStation 4:

The Console.

The Console.

As you can see, the console itself is neat and slim, which I do appreciate. Not particularly flashy or snazzy, but it works.

The Controller.

The Controller.

I have never been a fan of PlayStation controllers, so it would be unfair of me to comment. However, my friend (whose hand you see) and some others with us didn’t particularly think it was as revolutionary as Sony thinks it is. The general verdict within my Magnificent Seven was that if today had been a competition, the XBox One would have won (heh). We’re not fan-boys or fan-girls; we just love games. I fear that the PS4 might suffer from the same launch issues that its predecessor did, but I could be wrong. I previewed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in my play-time with the PS4, and the game looked as beautiful there as it might have on the XBox One. This makes all the ridiculous name-calling and posturing on message boards even more useless, but I know that’s what the companies love. Stir the pot, thicken the stew or whatever? I don’t know.

I ended my day with a visit to the booth I’d been waiting on since the start of the day: Warner Bros’, where I got to have some fun with Batman: Arkham Origins.  I was not allowed to take pictures of the booth itself, so here, have this instead:

He's not the hero First Look deserves, but he's the hero it needs...or something.

He’s not the hero First Look deserves, but he’s the hero it needs…or something.

Running on a PlayStation 3, Arkham Origins was as beautiful as they’ve promised it would be. You were only given one mission to complete, but since there was no timer, you had the opportunity to swoop around the city and beat up thugs. The combat system you’ve come to know and love is still there, and it flows even smoother than it did in Arkham City (is that even possible?). I am most anxious to see how Troy Baker (Joker) and Roger Craig Smith (Batman) will hold up to their predecessors (the incomparable Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy). Baker has such a distinct timbre (most recently, as Bioshock Infinite‘s Booker DeWitt and Joel from The Last of Us) that it will be odd to hear him in insane-mode as The Joker. Smith is most notable as Ezio Auditore da Firenze of Assassin’s Creed II (and all subsequent sequels, aside from III) fame, and I’m interested to see how he handles Bruce Wayne

Fun Fact: Troy Baker voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne in LEGO Batman: DC Superheroes Unite.

Also available at the Warner Bros booth was Dying Light, a zombie game that in all actuality looks and plays like a Dead Island clone with a dash of Mirror’s Edge sprinkled on top, except with an incredibly clunkier combat system. I am not sure if this game should have been first-person; it made it feel awkward and enhanced the unrefined combat mechanics. Zombie game fanatics will enjoy it, but for now, it’s not on my Must Buy list.

Final Thoughts

Now that I’ve played both systems, I can honestly say that the hoopla surrounding their specs and which is better than the other is almost a moot point. Both ran at the same speed when I played, with the PS4 doing a slightly better job at handling the heavy weight that is Assassin’s Creed IV, but I encountered a tiny lag with both consoles, so it’s not as if either one was a perfect smooth ride. Black Flag on the PS4 even seemed choppy at some points, but then, that could have been the monitor they had me playing on. This is where most casual gamers find reason to complain: the graphics. And you know what? I reckon that both consoles have more or less the same to offer in that department. More and more it seems that the display you opt to use for your experience will be the deciding factor in the image you are faced with at play-time. For example…outside the XBox One booth, they had a stream of Forza 5 on an LG 60-inch 4K television which was, in a word, amazing. Inside, we played on LED SMART TVs, which didn’t affect the beauty of the games that drastically, but you could see the obvious difference. I’ve always told people that in the end, if you have a crappy display device, what you see will be crappy. HD doesn’t quite work unless your display is, well, HD.

The Forza fan who accompanied me on Sunday had the following to say about his experience, and I agree with him on every point:

After a few minutes of playing both the XBox One and the PS4, it’s still a difficult choice for me to make a conclusion as to which is better. Theoretically, on paper, the PS4 has the advantage. They both have equal-level graphic cards, both are AMD 7000 HD. However, the XBox one uses 8 GB DDR RAM as the processor with a 32 MB eSRAM, which are current generation and for future game development I’m a bit skeptical if the XBox One launch version will remain a strong fighter in the long run. Of course, they might launch new versions in the future, as both companies did this generation. The PS4 has the same graphics card, but their processor is 8GB GDDR5 RAM so…theoretically, the PS4 wins as a gaming system that is geared towards new game development. When it comes to the gaming experience….this was an entirely different story. The exclusive titles for the XBox One dominates PS4 left, right, and centre. The XBox controller feedback was amazing; I didn’t get the same rush or effect when playing on the PS4. This is where it becomes difficult to choose. I’m trying to keep an open mind and not be brand loyal; the facts and theory tell me to go for the PS4, but the feel and exclusivity of games, along with the experience, has me leaning towards the XBox One.

After First Look, it honestly felt as though we were heading to a similar launch scenario as we had with the PlayStation 3: a short catalogue of launch titles, whereas the XBox One has the advantage of, among others, Killer Instinct. On the train ride back, we discussed the fact that as the years tick by, the number of PlayStation exclusives have slowly dwindled; even Metal Gear Solid is no longer safe. For all the marketing push of the PS4 being more developer friendly than the XBox One, why haven’t they landed the prime real estate titles and held onto historically PlayStation exclusives? It’s something to think about, particularly if you, like me, are exhausted with both companies’ PR machines churning out one silly snarky article after another. Personally, I would love to own both systems; however, if I look at what I play and what I plan to play in the future, then an XBox One it should be…just not right away, because I’m not the launch-day-purchase kind of gamer.

Whew! What a post, eh? I hope you enjoyed this run-through of First Look 2013, and I hope it’s at least given you a clear view of where both consoles stand, as we await their release this year. I sure enjoyed attending it, and I’m looking forward to next year. If you attended and have your own thoughts, please feel free to share them. Until then, peace!