Not even remotely what you expected

Wednesday, 21 September 2005 — 11:52am | Video games

It is a fact that roughly a third to a half of the posts I sit down and write for this weblog never see publication. They are exclusively of the long-winded and moderately analytical sort, and I abort them for various reasons that differ from case to case. Suffice to say, not all of my candidate entries are founded on fully-formed ideas. Periodic abandonment is the price of writing for an ambiguous audience in such a manner that it is the words, not their personal association with the writer behind the digital curtain, that propel a subject with an efferent and centrifugal element of interest. The alternative is to reduce this place to yet another highly localized jokestop with an occasional amusing link to stick-figure cartoons that offer frighteningly-plausible proposals about how I might pay my way through college, and that I shall not do.

I sat down to write a gut-reaction post about the Nintendo Revolution controller pretty much the minute it was revealed in Tokyo Thursday night (with a spot of latency on account of receiving information through a correspondent and the press), embellishing it with dangling questions that were at the time unanswered for those of us sitting at home. This never got finished, as information kept rolling in all night, be it from the official press release or a direct-feed clip of Nintendo’s own concept video. By morning, there was a webcast of the entire hour-long Satoru Iwata keynote complete with synchronized presentation slides, and IGN posted a detailed FAQ answering most of the inquiries I had in mind.

(If you only click on one of those links, make it the video. It’s a doozy.)

By the same morning, online opinionation of the controller design was extensive enough, and diverse enough in both polarization and heat, that most of what I was originally going to post was redundant anyway. A lot of people caught on to the obvious implications: foremost among them, lightsabres. One observes that if LucasArts can get its act back together and not eschew the Revolution as it did the GameCube the past year or two, wireless lightsabre dueling is the obvious way to go. Of course, LucasArts isn’t getting much of an act together at all, which is why these guys are developing Sam & Max adventures and they’re not. But no matter – the point is, it’s not so ingenious that nobody thought of it, but it’s exciting enough that everybody wants it. So there you go: for those of you who are Nintendo sceptics – lightsabres.

It should be obvious by this point that my own thoughts on the subject retreated into a plain-text document where they could be tucked away and safely ignored.

From the standpoint of a traffic whore, this may seem counterintuitive, since gut reactions that suck in the immediate swarm of Google hits have a consistent record of inducing spikes in visitation rates sharp enough to impale a child of Ungoliant. But traffic whoredom is not my game; there’s some excellent coverage out there already, and I’m not going to compete with it. I think the impact of a reconfigurable and ambidextrous motion-sensing television remote has already been felt by the sheer depth of discourse it has inspired in its wake.

People are thinking about the video game business again and whether or not Iwata’s premonitions of doom about the heat death of the industry on the parapets of a lightning-struck tower are founded. Thought, like touching, is good. The soundest critique I have read distills the Nintendo philosophy to a cycle within which the Revolution controller is just the twelve-o’-clock bell of another iteration: seeding genres and letting other rivals populate them, resulting in the growth of the industry and a net gain for all or most.

As a side note of linguistic interest, it seems – from the official marketspeak from all parties involved in the console wars, of which the Nintendo press release is only a single instance – “hardcore” has been fully embraced into the lexicon of business rhetoric in the gaming sector.

From a more personal perspective, specifically as a game consumer removed from the question of whether the “remote controller” is an omen of death or rebirth… I think this is grand. First of all: lightsabres, baby. We’re talking about onscreen Jedi combat any way you swing it.

It’s more likely that the first killer app to adapt controller movements to melee weapon combat will be a Zelda title; I here assume that one is already on the drawing board, even though Aonuma’s team isn’t done yet with Twilight Princess. The 3D generation of Zelda adventures feature a masterful control scheme complete with context-sensitive lock-on actions to circumvent the nuisances of navigating 3D space with a device built on a 2D plane, but one of the design elements that never played out was the library of fencing tactics that resulted from certain button combinations: horizontal and vertical slashes, forward thrusts, spin attacks and the like. The distinctions are fun to play with, but are rarely necessary aside from poking Gohma in the eye every now and then. The combat system was a lot deeper than documented, but little of this is obvious. (How many of you knew you could do a spin attack with the Skull Hammer?)

Well, now we have an interface for navigating 3D space using an input device that operates in – get this – 3D space, and we have a motion-sensing system for total control over fencing techniques. One wonders, though, if Link will still be a left-handed character once under the command of a right-handed player.

Many are floating the question of the extent to which the eccentric interface will alienate multiplatform third-party developers. This is all part of a larger numbers game and is irrelevant to me as a game player.

Third-party support is a business concern, not a consumer concern. A lot of pundits out there make note of how owners of Nintendo systems almost exclusively buy Nintendo’s first-party titles, showing disproportionately overwhelming resistance to multiplatform releases that fare somewhat better on the Xbox and PlayStation 2. There are exceptions – Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe and Resident Evil 4, Namco’s Tales of Symphonia, EA’s perennial major-league statistical simulators that pass for sports games – but games like the first three I just mentioned are exceptional product; plus, they all started as GameCube-only titles.

The conclusion that is typically drawn from this curious observation is that either the GameCube is adopted as a second (and secondary) console, or Nintendo players are just a bunch of prepubescent kids. It’s certainly not a question of horsepower, as the PS2 is consistently overperformed by the other two. But these oft-heard excuses are gross oversimplifications. The real reason Nintendo satisfies, albeit to a niche (or more accurately, a wide array of differing niches), is because their appeal blends entertainment with almost pretentious arthouse sensibilities. It’s not the approach that attracts the largest market in raw numbers, unless you’re Pixar, but it helps retain a core audience that keeps the brand alive while it expands into nooks and crannies nobody even thought to consider. Call it the Apple stratagem.

In today’s segment of Penny Arcade, Jerry Holkins (“Tycho”) remarks that “for a couple generations now their systems have been (at least, outside of Japan) a kind of dedicated shrine to their own games, games that shame the rest of the industry with their polish, their palette, and their playability.” That pretty much sums up the real incentive for playing with the proverbial power: Nintendo, its first-party squadrons and immediate third-party allies are like real butter. Once you’ve had a taste, you can never go back to margarine. Is it a dream to live in a paradise where load times are a myth, Koji Kondo melodies fill the air and Hunter Metroids frolic in the skies? Nintendo’s world is that paradise. Some would call it a paradise lost. I say it’s regained.

If I buy one console next generation, it will be the Nintendo Revolution. It’s not because I have unswerving loyalty to Nintendo as a hardware manufacturer, because I don’t; owning Nintendo systems is an effect, not a cause. There are many critics out there who have repeated the claim that games are a software-driven business. True, but diversification of hardware is the condition that permits diversification of software, and that’s why it is no folly to laud the Revolution at face value. I have unswerving loyalty to Nintendo as a software developer, and have been well rewarded for it time and time again. Guess which platform you’ll find playing host to their interactive delights.

I’m not saying that the Xbox and PlayStation lines have nothing going for them, but while they have fairly substantial software libraries – something that will no doubt continue with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 – when it comes down to it, the number of top-quality titles for each console is about equivalent. Then it boils down to a matter of taste. Will it be Metroid Prime, Wind Waker, Resident Evil and Paper Mario? Or will it be Halo, Ninja Gaiden, Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic? Or will it be Grand Theft Auto, God of War, Katamari Damacy and Metal Gear Solid? For the informed one-console consumer, that’s half of the choice. The other half is the forecast – the projection of what is to come, and which exclusively-bound software studios you can rely on to generate consistently stellar output.

It’s safe to say that unless investing in all three comes at almost no cost relative to your financial statement, you’ll miss something – so the real variable to consider is what you can’t afford to miss. And there’s no way in hell I’m missing Nintendo.

Going into the next generation, Nintendo retains a quantity advantage of its own: while its first-party release schedule is sparse, it won’t get any sparser, since the philosophy behind the Revolution’s design is to avoid driving development costs through yet another roof.

The unique interface would remove any Nintendo-PC overlap if there were any to begin with, and there isn’t – something that puts Nintendo in a considerably different position from the Xbox. Let’s admit this much: the Xbox is a machine for PC-style games – some of them excellent – that are better on a controller than a mouse and keyboard. It further succeeds because it avoids the seriously and perhaps irreparably flawed upgrade model that is killing the PC game business. At the same time, some games that would otherwise help justify an Xbox hardware purchase happen to play better with a mouse and keyboard; Knights, I’m looking at you.

If developers that prefer the conventional controller setup decide to abandon Nintendo, that would be a crying shame, but it won’t add as much appeal to the Xbox 360 and the PS3 as it properly should. If money were not an issue, one of the two (if not both) would be worthy of consideration out of technological fetishism alone. If you don’t believe me, watch the Metal Gear Solid 4 video and come back when you’re done slobbering. Everybody notices the quality of the textures and real-time cinema-quality effects, but what truly thrills me is the scope of imagination on display that validates the hope that yes, the next generation can provide designers new freedoms of expression the current one does not – so long as your imagination is capable of filling that expanse, in which case your name is probably Hideo Kojima.

The obstacle here is that Microsoft and Sony are trying to price one another out of business in the most peculiar way – by raising prices so high that buying the other guy’s console second is an impossible proposition. Xbox 360 retail bundles in Canada – for the real thing, not the skeletal Core System designed to rip off people who don’t take the time to read about what they’re getting for their hard-earned money – are easily going to cost upwards of $700 ($500 for the system and over $150 for bundled games and accessories that will undoubtedly be exactly the ones you neither want or need, plus the Mulroney tax); Ken Kutaragi has been prancing about for months telling everybody how elite and unaffordable the PS3 will be, so that’s almost a given. Then again, the PSP was considerably cheaper than expected. Then again, the DS slaughtered it anyway.

The result? Unless Nintendo really screws up on the first-party software end – and I don’t believe they will, given their stellar track record of telling everybody else how to make video games, then waiting a few years before telling everybody all over again – I now have enough information to say that I’ll be their customer twelve to eighteen months from now, and for financial reasons, likely theirs alone. Seeing the Revolution controller has solidified my endorsement, and I am eager to see what games they’ll come up with for the slender contraption.


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