Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Xbox 360 = On Fire

Not literally, mind you, although with the sorry state of Microsoft's hardware these days, one actually catching fire wouldn't be much of a stretch. No, I'm referring to its incredible lineup of software that has dragged me away from my blog for most of the past two months. Look at that - a single entry in the entire month of October! I guess it's not surprising, as games like Rock Band 2, Mega Man 9, Castle Crashers, and Fable II all have my undivided attention whenever I get the chance to boot the system up. Many of the games I'm playing are multi-platform, of course, but my 360 gets the love due to its seamless online capabilities and achievements.

November seems to be continuing the trend too, with Gears of War 2 and Fallout 3. The former is an awesome sequel that ups the amount of players for online co-op from two to five and adds an awesome horde (read: survival) mode. The latter? Well, lets just imagine Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in a post-apocalyptic Washington DC. I've poured over fifty hours into this one already, and alternating between it and Gears 2 (whose campaign I completed with a friend in an all-nighter), I'm set for the rest of the month.

Oh, did I mention that I've received a review copy of Legend of Wukong from Super Fighter Team, which gives Sega-16 the world's first review of it? Heh, another game to add to my play list, and an RPG at that!

So if you don't see me as much, it's because I'm doing what most game writers should be doing: playing games.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Happy 20th Birthday, Sega Genesis!

This Wednesday, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of that greatest of consoles, the Sega Genesis. It's been a long road full of great games and big pot holes, but the Genesis fan base is still alive and kicking.

More so than those other 16-bit consoles, the Genesis is still at the forefront of gaming news as well, thanks to the efforts of some talented and dedicated fans. Two decades after its initial release in Japan, Sega's most successful hardware is still quite alive and well. For example, this December Genesis owners get not one, but two new games in the forms of Legend of Wukong from Super Fighter Team (the fine folks who brought us Beggar Prince) and Pier Solar & the Great Architects from Watermelon Development. It's incredible that we're anticipating two new titles for a console that was officially discontinued by Sega a decade ago. Who said all good things had to come to an end?

Yes, the Genesis is still going strong, and Sega-16 is going to be right there to celebrate its big day. That's why we've prepared something special for our readers this week! In addition to our regular dual review updates on Monday and Thursday, we have three features and a video archive update for them as well! This is what we have on tap:
  • Double Take: Altered Beast: The one that started it all, Altered Beast was a title that played a pivotal role in the early success of the Genesis. Though many gamers today are quick to dismiss its easy and repetitive gameplay, the first 16-bit cartridge did much more than offer Genesis owners a free game with their new consoles; it proved that the next generation in gaming had truly arrived.
  • Stories from the Book of Genesis: Good Night Victoria: There's nothing more loyal than a model 1 Genesis, and losing one is always a sad thing. Follow one gamer's experience with his from its birth to its final resting place in this heartwarming tale of a console that gave until the bitter end. It's a a tear-jerker!
  • Reader Roundtable: Launch Edition: What a better way to wrap up the week than by letting our own readers and forum members chime in with their own launch experiences? Everyone remembers where they were the day they got their Genesis - it's a day you never forget, like when JFK was killed or 9/11. Yes, the day that big, black box came home is one you never forget, and our readers will tell us what that special day was like!

If that's not enough, we'll have almost a half dozen new video spots for your perusal in the Video Archive, adding to our already impressive collection of well over a hundred videos. This is a week to remember friends, so check back daily. Heck, why not just leave your PC on all week?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rock Band 2 Get!

I loved the original Rock Band. I even bought the drums! What I didn't like was that the World Tour mode was only available in multi-player. I can't have people over constantly to play, and my daughter still doesn't know how to play the game (she bangs the hell out of those drum sticks though), so I'm left with a lot of time to play on my own. In order to complete the tour, I had to plug in a second a controller and sing and play guitar simultaneously. This was pretty easy - when you knew the song. Nothing was more frustrating than doing three songs out of a set of four, only to have that fourth song be some eight minute nightmare from the '70s that I'd never heard before. Eventually, I passed the tour, but there's no way I can finish all the venues, because I simply cannot sing and play guitar together on hard.

Thankfully, Harmonix made the tour online in the sequel. Now, I can play bass the whole way through, or even jump around on drums and guitar whenever I get the urge. For points, I can always hit up someone on my friends list to play with me. My band, The Also-Rans, is currently third on my list, with over 600,000 fans. Soon, immortality will be mine!

I love this game, plain and simple. All my downloadable content from the first is useable here, and for a paltry $5, you can rip all the songs from the original disc to your hard drive and use them. How awesome is that? I'm not buying the new drum kit, but I think I might invest in a new guitar. My Guitar Hero II one has a loose whammy bar, and it sucks to have the thing drop down and hit you in your hand while you're playing.

So if you see me online and want to jam, just send me an invite and we can rock the house!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thoughts on Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

One of my primary reasons for getting a Playstation 3 was to play Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. It seemed like a great blending of Tomb Raider and Kill.Switch, with lots of action and adverturing. As it turns out, it does indeed live up to its potential.

I'm a little late to the game with this one, I know. I only got my PS3 about a month ago, so I still have a lot of catching up to do. Uncharted doesn't seem to be a long game (I've heard that it's quite short, actually), so this is my game for the weekend. The recent patch for trophy support is nice, and I can now pursue my trophy whoring with confidence!

The first thing that hit me was just how great Uncharted looks. This game is absolutely gorgeous, and I'm playing on an SDTV. I can only imagine how good it looks in HD, and I'll soon find out once my check from GamesTM ever gets here so I can buy one. The environments are beautiful, and the water effects are spectacular (Drake's soaked look when wet is great). Naughty Dog provided PS3 owners with a great showcase of the console's power with this one. I especially loved the Spanish fort area. Puerto Rico is chock-full of those, and it was great to see such wonderful architecture used in a video game!

I have only a few issues with the gameplay, which while great, could be a bit tighter. The cover system is a bit cumbersome sometimes, and moving from a high to a crouching position in a single movement isn't as smooth as it should be. Shooting from the hip is more trouble than it's worth too, especially when headshots are as easy as they are fun. Fisticuffs are awkward at times, but I hardly ever found myself in the need to punch someone when ammunition was so plentiful.

I haven't finished the game yet, but I can honestly say that it made my Playstation 3 purchase worth it. This is exactly the type of game I like, and it's got a great story and awesome visuals to go with the solid gameplay. If you've got Sony's latest console and still don't have Uncharted, I strongly urge you to pick it up.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Wii Out

It's gone. Sold. Out of my life. I no longer own a Wii.

And you know what? I don't miss it. I know there are a handful of games I enjoyed, and that there are a few others out there that I might like, but I just don't have the interest in Nintendo's latest license to print money. This year's E3 was enough to show me that the company no longer has my tastes in mind, and it's since moved on to another audience entirely. That's fine, as I know every company is in this business to make money. Nintendo's got a good thing going, and it's going to milk the hell out of it.

By the same token, I too have a right to search other options, and that's exactly what I did. The same day I sold my entire Wii package (with the exception of Super Mario Galaxy), I waltzed over to Wal-Mart and bought a Playstation 3. I was lucky enough to snag one of the Metal Gear Solid 4 bundles, so I got a backwards-compatible console with the Dual Shock 3 controller, and it all came with a great game to boot. A few days later, Mario was gone in trade-in, and I now own Motorstorm and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. A pretty good start, if I do say so myself.

It all comes down to personal taste. The Playstation 3 doesn't have a ton of games I want right now, but it has more potential for me than the Wii does. I now have a Blu-Ray player and a console that has some excellent titles in the pipeline, and the Playstation Store has a ton of goodies that I'll be trying out. Super Stardust HD is awesome (not as good as Geometry Wars Evolved 2, but awesome nonetheless), and the current library has a few titles that should keep me busy for a while, so the console is going to get its share of play time.

The Wii, on the other hand, seems to be made with my five year-old daughter in mind, and virtually nothing announced interests me at all. Mad, Mad World looks great, but that's just a single game for the next twelve months, and none of the music, gardening, teeth-cleaning games Nintendo's announced move me in the slightest. The weak future schedule only reaffirms my belief that the Wii is not made for me, so I've opted for a console that is.

Many people love the Wii, and that's fine. The library has to appeal to someone, suppose, but it certainly does nothing for me. Reggie's pompous announcement that Animal Crossing is all the "core" gaming I'll ever need proves that Nintendo and I have parted ways. Moreover, the House of Mario recently stated that none of its "core" titles will be ready for 2009, which means that my dollars will be spent elsewhere.

I may still get a DS sometime in the future, but I think I've just sold my last Nintendo console. The weirdest thing is that I'm not bothered by that fact at all.

I guess Nintendo's not the only one that's moved on.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ready, Set, Achieve!

I love achievements. Those tiny little rewards that pop up every so often when playing an Xbox 360 game really make me happy, and I've found myself playing certain games longer than I normally would because of them. Many people don't care for them, and that's understandable, but to deride them makes little sense.

I think the charm of achievements lies in that they represent something we've been doing in games for years, only now it's been given a more prominent role. No one ever complained about how unlockables like new character clothing and items seemed like a cheap way to keep you playing, and many would argue that finding these hidden treasures and getting 100% in a particular game added to its overall value. Achievements only represent the natural evolution of the "unlockable."

To me, they offer enticing challenges that allow me to play further into a game than I normally would. Now, playing a crap game just for achievements is one thing, and it's something I'm completely against, but trying to 100% a game by unlocking all its achievements is something else entirely. When the achievements are practical and well-implemented, they can become challenging additions to an already fun game. Examples of this are achievements like completing all the guild quests in Oblivion. I know people who bypassed the guild quests entirely, and by doing so, they not only missed out on the achievements, but they also left some gaping holes in a lot of the sub plots that really added life to the game.

There are also achievements designed for bragging rights, like completing a game on its highest difficulty or getting 100% of every item. These are no different really, than the high scores tables of old, and I think there's nothing wrong with a gamer receiving a permanent citation for working his ass off in a particular title. I'm quite proud of several achievements of this type, and I like the idea of other people being able to see my accomplishments.

Granted, there has been poor implementation of achievements in a lot of games, and this is completely unacceptable. Games like Avatar, Madden 2006, and Blue Dragon have horrible achievements that are either pathetically easy or tedious beyond belief. These add nothing to their games, and show that lazy developers can be lazy in every aspect of their work. This should not be tolerated or encouraged by anyone.

So what do you think? Are achievements a positive thing or a detriment to gaming?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

MadCatz Xbox 360 Arcade GameStick

I picked this up for $10 at Gamestop today. I've heard mixed things about the quality of the stick, but I wanted the spinner control and Astropop. It also came with codes for Time Pilot and Frogger, but I have both of those. I'll probably hold onto to them for use as a prize in an upcoming Sega-16 contest.

The control itself seems pretty decent. I haven't had the chance to check out the spinner in action, but the overall construction of the whole thing is pretty sound. I know I won't be using this for regular games, but it might actually be pretty useful for arcade titles. Even if it doesn't work out, I at least now have a third controller, and I'll just consider it as a bonus that came with Astropop (which is pretty cool)!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

So Long, Wii...

Growing up on a hefty diet of everything Sega, I was never really partial to a Nintendo console. I loved the NES and every iteration of the Game Boy, but the feeling was just never "there" for me for the other consoles. Still, I tried to give it another shot by buying a Wii off a friend of mine a little over a year ago. I figured this would be the console that would make me a big Nintendo fan again.

It didn't, and now, it's up for sale.

I don't know what else to do with the darn thing. I have seven games in my collection, including most of the requirements like Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Mario Galaxy, and I even have few third party games like Zak & Wiki and Ghost Squad. Still, I take a look at the list of upcoming titles, and there is nothing that interests me at all. Compared with the laundry list of Xbox 360 and PS3 titles that are on my "to buy" list for the remainder of 2008, there really is no reason for me to own a Wii right now.

I've actually been thinking of selling it off for about four months now. My justification for holding out has been along the lines of "I already have it, so I don't have to look for one later on. It's not hurting anyone under my TV," but thinking hard about it, I doubt I'll even bother looking for one at all later on. The Wii doesn't cater to my tastes, and that's unfortunate for me. Nintendo's too busy making money to care, and I understand that it needs to do what's best for it's bottom line. All companies do, and my defection won't hurt them at all in the long run.

The thing is, I don't care at all about Nintendo's bottom line. Unlike it, I care about being entertained, something the Wii is not doing. So rather than let it sit there and collect dust, I'm selling it to buy a Playstation 3. This is what's up for grabs:

Wii console with box and everything, Wii Sports with a custom Wii case. It has the following in memory:
  • Internet channel
  • Weather channel (Lol)
  • News channel (Lol x2)
  • Check Mii Out channel
  • Kirby's Adventure
  • Donkey Kong Country
  • Bonk's Adventure
  • Gunstar Heroes
  • Soldier Blade
  • Super Mario 64
  • 200 Wii points
I also have these games for sale:

  • Ghost Squad
  • Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
  • Link's Crossbow Training with Zapper (with custom Wii case)
  • Super Mario Galaxy
  • Super Paper Mario
  • Zak & Wiki
Anyone interested can simply comment here, check my sales thread over at Sega-16, or email me at ken@sega-16.com.

So long Wii.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Toys R Us Clearence = Happy Me!

I've been hitting up all the local TRU stores in my area, as I usually do, searching for any quality games that have dropped in price. Lately, however, I've been rewarded with some real bargains, and in this day and age of the $60+ game (here in P.R. at least), the cheaper I can find 'em, the better.

Last week I found Meet the Robinsons (Xbox 360) for only $8. Yes, I know what you're thinking. I normally wouldn't play such a game myself, but my daughter's appetite for anything Disney is insatiable. I've played through such games as Ratatouille and Cars with her, and it's actually developed into something of a symbiotic relationship: she gets new games that are easy enough for her to play, and I get achievement points. Some of those achievements can be pretty tough too. You try getting all 1000 points in Ratatouille!

This past weekend I found another Xbox 360 title, Monster Madness, for $8 as well. I downloaded the demo when it was released on the Xbox Live Marketplace, and it was quite underwhelming, but for the price I decided to give it another chance. Now that I have the full game, it's actually not as bad as I had thought. You can adjust the camera, making it completely controllable, and aside from the repetitive gameplay, it's actually a lot of fun. Anyone who liked Zombies Ate My Neighbors should look for a copy.

I'm going back to TRU later this week to see what else they have, and I'm a bit annoyed that there aren't any Wii games on sale. My poor console sports a thick coat of dust, and I'm seriously considering selling it/trading it in for a Playstation 3.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Scratch One More Game Off My Genesis List

While browsing eBay yesterday, I came across this little gem!

It had a BIN of only $5.90, so I snatched that sucker up. I've been wanting to play the Ooze for a long time now, and emulation doesn't quite cut it, since the lack of an instruction manual leaves me in the dark about the gameplay. Now that I'll have a complete copy, I can finally review this one. Of course, that's after I finally finish up the Super Monaco GP twins, two games that I've been meaning to get to for a while but can never seem to accommodate in my schedule. Parenting takes a lot of time, and with a full-time job, my gaming time is sadly limited. I should at least have the first game done by the time the Ooze arrives, and they should all give me a few good games to review as I countdown to my 100th for Sega-16.

Another reason I really wanted to play this was because I'm a big fan of the Sega Technical Institute, and this is perhaps its one game with which I haven't spent any time. Now I can remedy that and see if this truly was the innovative action title I've heard it to be.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thunder Force VI -Finally!

I want to keep an open mind about this, and the skeptic in me tells me to reserve emotion until something tangible has surfaced, but I can't help myself. The news of a new Thunder Force game finally being released is too good to be true, and I truly want to believe that my anticipation will be justly rewarded upon its release this October 30 (Japan only. Argh!). There are some things involved with this resurrection that might raise concern, but I doubt that there's any real reason to be worried.

One thing is worth pondering, and that is the fact that this game is being done by a whole new team of people. The series has never disappointed in the past, but as they say with those products advertised on television: "past experiences are not indicative of future results," or something to that effect. The fact that the last three games rocked doesn't mean that this one will too, especially given that the development team doesn't have any experience with the franchise. Yeah, if you look at that Famitsu scan, it certainly looks awesome, but I'm still going to be a bit anxious until I see some gameplay in action. Techno Soft (or Tecnosoft, whatever...) no longer exists as it used to, and this newest sequel is being done by Sega. Considering the current development state of that company, this alone should send alarms sounding, and red flags should pop up everywhere.

There is a silver lining to this cloud though, as Tez Okano, the writer and director of Segaga for DC and the awesome Astro Boy Omega Force for GBA, is directing the project. He says that the blade weapon from Thunder Force IV (or the idiotically-named Lightening Force in America) is his favorite, so hopefully he'll try for a 16-bit feel for this game. These scans are all there is to go on so far, but I'm betting that we should hear more in a short time. The game looks to be pretty far along in development, and YouTube videos of gameplay should be popping up soon.

Glancing at those scans instantly reveals two things to me: the free-range weapon from part five is back, which may or may not be a good thing, and that the best-looking boss from Thunder Force III is returning! Yes, Gargoyle from planet Hydra can be seen there in the upper right-hand corner of the second page. He looks like he's been working out since his last appearance, but that signature flame breath looks just as deadly as ever.

It's no secret that Thunder Force III is my favorite of the bunch, so I'm hoping that the gameplay mirrors that sequel. Regardless, I will absolutely be all over this, even though I lack an import-friendly Playstation 2 to enjoy it. Hey, that's just a minor detail! Finally modding my dusty PS2 will give me ample reason to go out and enjoy other quality releases, like the Phantasy Star remakes and all those great Sega Ages releases.

It's great to see that this series is back, and I can only hope that it doesn't disappoint. I loved Gradius V and R-Type Final (despite its faults), and a new Thunder Force on my shelf is the shooter trifecta to me. This thunder is no longer broken!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Retro Game Reviews: A Different Beast?

So much has been said about whether or not game reviews are actually needed. There have been entire articles written about the topic, so I'm not going to delve into the state of the modern game review here. There is one aspect of gaming journalism that I will tackle though, and it's from a retro standpoint. From what I've read, most of the criticisms about gaming journalism seem to really fit reviews of modern games, those that can be bought in stores now or rented from the local Blockbuster or GameTap. They have little to no bearing on reviews of games from the past, but they're still given a prominent place on a lot of mainstream media outlets (like IGN, for example). Naturally, they beggar the same question:

Do we really need game reviews at all?

The answer, I think, is quite different when we're talking about retro reviews. Unlike modern games, there is no industry pressure, no NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), no media blackouts, etc. Sega, for example, isn't going to come down on me for giving Golden Axe III a low score, as most of the people in charge over there probably weren't around the company when the game was released. Today's gaming journalists have to contend with many negative things that balance their E3 press passes and swag. They have to face the prospect of losing advertising over a bad review (a dark cloud of controversy that still hangs over GameSpot), and they can even be blacklisted by publishers. For instance, Electronic Gaming Monthly was given a laundry list of demands, literally at the last minute by Konami, after its hands-on with Metal Gear Solid 4. Obviously, the same thing wouldn't happen if I decided to review Contra: Hard Corps or even the original Metal Gear. Most likely, no one at Konami would even take notice of my article.

While journalists and gamers go back and forth about the merits of game reviews, the retro scene slips beneath the cracks. I've been told that the majority of readers look for the review score first, and that it's vitally important to any review. To be honest, I included scores in Sega-16's reviews mostly out of habit, and looking back on it now, I still would have most certainly included them, but on a scale of five instead of ten. I subscribe to the belief that the score is needed, but I don't believe that it should be the focal point of the review. It might serve as a one digit summary of the writer's thoughts, but anyone who is even bothering to write a review should give his audience more credit than thinking that a single number is enough to make an informed decision.

To me at least, a retro game review is a guideline to whether or not the reader should seek out a copy of the game in question, an endeavor that is usually much more challenging and more expensive than a trip to the local GameStop. To meet that end, the review should provide information that answers the basic questions a person might have. And no, I'm not referring to graphics, sound, and gameplay. Too many writers consider these staples to be the mandatory requirements of any review, and they couldn't be farther off the mark.

Let's go back to that comment about readers only wanting to see a score. First of all, to even make such a statement is contradictory, as all the major sites currently out there include some narrative with said scores. If people only want to see a number, why bother writing anything at all? Second, to make such a blanket statement is an insult to your audience. Knowing your audience is one of the basic tenets of writing, yet so many game journalists write as though their readers were children. Whether they know it or not, they're actually talking down to their audience, and this not only offends the reader, but it also makes the writer look weak. This is a major example of the self-depreciating attitude that is so prevalent in gaming journalism and a good reason why no one takes it seriously.

If you're going to write something... anything - review, feature, whatever - you must never assume your readers to be dumb. They may be misinformed about the particular topic you're discussing, but they're not stupid. The review narrative is essential to informing the reader, and the writer must be intelligent in his effort. Don't focus on that which can be gleaned from a screen shot or YouTube video; focus on the experience of the game itself. Why should my readers track down a copy of Pepen Ga Pengo? What does that score of 9/10 mean exactly?

Of course, this doesn't mean that the basic elements of the game should be ignored. You have to cover things like presentation and gameplay. However, that also doesn't mean that they should be the whole review. Where did the game come from? How hard is it to find? Is it expensive? What were the particular circumstances of its release? These are excellent questions that can be answered in the review, and they're things that modern review writers might not be able to discuss at press time. Retro writers have no such restrictions.

I think that game reviews are essential to the retro community, and their freedom from the shackles of the modern industry gives them even more value. When I write a retro review, I feel as though I'm trying to convey the importance of a piece of history, whether it be a must-buy or a game to avoid. A simple score can't express that, and the written effort itself is diluted if the writer assumes he's speaking to idiots. Scores are nice, but anyone really interested in a game will want to know more.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tips for Creating a Successful Enthusiast Game Site

Four years have passed since I founded Sega-16. Never did I dream that after so much time I would still be running a website and love doing it as as much as I did at the start. No, scratch that. I actually love it more now. I can safely say that my enthusiasm is as strong as ever, and I can't wait to see what the future holds.

Back when we had our one year anniversary, I mentioned in the retrospective that there are primarily two reasons why enthusiast sites fail: a lack of focus and a lack of motivation. Both can do in any site, but together they are a recipe for disaster. Take a look at any new site that hasn't updated regularly, and you'll see. Moribund and abandoned, they're just counting the days until they die. It's unfortunate but true, and it makes Sega-16's survival all the more impressive, at least to me. I've seen quite a few Sega sites come and go over the years, and they're mostly the victims of one of the two factors I mentioned. Yes, a lack of money or server space are also problems, but these two are the most notorious. Let's take a better look at them and see why so many young sites fail.

A lack of focus. A young fan and perhaps a few other people get together and decide to create the ULTIMATE fan site. They want to make their new creation the Mecca for everything related to their particular console/game of choice, and they could practically fuel a star with their collective energy. It sounds like a good start, but that star comparison really stops there. Stars take millions of years to complete a complex cycle of growth, maturity, twilight, and death; and they usually have long and full lives doing what stars are supposed to be doing. That is, they fulfill their function. Many sites don't ever get that far.

Yes, unlike the cosmos, game-related undertakings start with a bang, usually beginning with a flurry of forum threads and posts about potential ideas for the new site. Brainstorming can go on for weeks as staff and would-be contributors plan all the things they want to do. The problem is that a lot of the time, brainstorming is as far as it gets. Months, even a year after the URL has been bought and a free forum has been established, nothing of note has been done.

What happened? Well, a bunch of different things, probably. The creators couldn't agree on a direction for the site, people who committed to writing content upped and vanished, or the one person who was going to put it all online in some form has opted out, leaving the others in the lurch. Now, with no clear direction, the wind has been taken out of the other's sails, and they're now adrift and uncertain of what to do next. From my observations, this is what kills new sites the most. A lack of focus is the first big hurdle new webmasters face, and they often go down without a swing. The problem itself is a combination of smaller errors that could have easily been avoided but ended up killing a dream.

A lack of motivation. After all that enthusiasm and energy, many new webmasters lose interest after about the first six months or so. They look at their new sites a few months down the line and wonder why there isn't a server-straining deluge of hits coming in daily. No new content, the aforementioned lack of focus, and a desire to magically have the best site on the Internet usually do them in. Creating a quality site takes time. You'll need to be patient and continue forward, even when it looks like no one's reading the site but you.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid these problems:
  • Pick a direction and stick with it. All too often, aspiring webmasters try to do too much. Like it or not, it's simply not possible for your new site to compete with IGN, GameSpot, or whomever you wish to emulate. There's simply too many people and too much money behind them and not enough behind you. Look for something that isn't already being done by a hundred other sites. Otherwise, you risk becoming a drop of water in an ocean. This doesn't mean you should confine yourself to one thing, and allowing some room to grow is a smart idea. Just don't bite off more than you can chew at the start. For example, one of the key reasons I decided to start Sega-16 was the lack of comprehensive Genesis sites out there.
  • Plan ahead. Don't just come out and announce that you want to start a website. Think about it for a while, jot down potential ideas, discard the crap, and then tie together that which works. This is essentially what brainstorming is, so if you're going to do it, then do it right.
  • Don't count on others to make it work. Getting other people involved is nice, but after all is said and done, your website is yours and yours alone to run. Don't take contributors for granted, but don't assume that they'll keep you flooded with quality content all the time. I basically assume that I alone am responsible for content, and anyone else who comes along for the ride just makes my life easier. Other people might be motivated at the start, but they might not stick around. You're the one keeping things running, and they're going to operate under the mentality that things will continue without them.
  • Prepare for the long haul. How long do you plan on running the site? Can you see yourself doing this a year or more down the line? Can you fit the site into your real life plans? All of these are valid questions you'll need to ask yourself before you start. For example, Sega-16 is more than just a site I run; it's my passion. I spend at least 2-3 hours on it daily during the week and more on weekends. Not all of that is spent writing, of course, but researching and seeking out contacts often takes up more time than actually doing articles.
  • Content, content, content. Did I mention content? I don't care what your site covers, if the content isn't good no one will care. You need to provide quality articles to keep your audience interested and coming back, and lots of it. Along the way, you'll also need to decide what it is that your site does better than others in the same area. In my case, I feel that Sega-16 defines itself by its interviews, something no other Genesis site does with such frequency. You'll have to find your own niche, your "calling card" of sorts, and give readers a reason to return.
  • Forget about the design for now. I know, a lot of people think that clothes make the man. Well, we're talking about websites here, not men. It's nice to have a cool design for your website, sure, but that's not the most important thing. I'm a strong believer in NASA's philosophy of "form follows function." The design should conform to your needs, not the other way around, and even if you have a ghetto design, people will still come to your site if you provide them with consistent quality content. While this doesn't mean that you shouldn't strive to make the site appealing from the get-go, perhaps the one design item you should really focus on is making it manageable. A "three click" rule is mandatory. That means that nothing on your site should be more than three clicks from the main page. Everything else can really wait a while.
  • Get the word out. You're not going to see traffic spike instantly. Heck, you might go days without any hits at all! You'll need to promote your site, but please do it tastefully. Spamming other forums will do nothing but piss people off and close potential doors for making friends. Add your site to Google and other search engines and make friends where you can. Soon, things will pick up and you'll begin to establish your own readership. Unless you're willing to fork over some serious cash, word of mouth is the best way to advertise. Eventually, people will mention you on other forums and sites, and they might link to articles you've done.
Running a successful website can be a wonderful experience when it pans out. It takes a lot of patience and dedication, but if you start smart and stick to it, you should start to reap the rewards after about a year. Think of it like starting a new business. That first year or so isn't going to be about profit, but establishment of your brand. If you can stick to your guns and ride out the first few months, you should be in pretty good shape.

I've had a ball with Sega-16, and now that the site has been around for a few years, I can actually think less about filling it with good content and more about promoting it. It took four years to reach this point (I don't know what the average time frame is), and I eagerly look forward to working on the site each day. My sense of satisfaction is huge, and I hope others can look to Sega-16 as an example of a successful enthusiast site. If it can help others to aspire to make a site of their own, then even better. We still need comprehensive sites for more than a few consoles, you know!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I'm Sick of Gamers Being Labeled

Really, I am. It's quite tiring to hear gamers categorized as "hardcore" or "casual," and it's positively cringe-worthy to divide them by gender. It's bad enough that we have so slice up the male population into sub-categories, but now we have to place distinctions based on sex? Come on now.

It's been said that gamers are their own worst enemy when it comes to the public's perception of their hobby (passion?), and I tend to agree. The image of a nerdy, basement-dwelling fat guy who cares more about World of Warcraft than getting a job or laid seems to be firmly etched in the consciousness of those who know nothing about gaming. Many people still think that being a gamer means you're lazy and socially inept. As someone who juggles a wife and two kids, a profession, a writing career, and still finds the time to bring my Xbox 360 gamerscore to 45k, I think I can attest to just how full of shit this stereotype really is.

Then someone goes and writes an article about "how to get a gamer girlfriend" and fucks it all up.

Specifically, the article's title is "Kombo's Guide to Picking Up Gamer Chicks: Part One." Part one? You mean the process is complex enough to warrant turning the article into a serial? Geez, no wonder so many "guy gamers" are single.

Don't get me wrong, as my beef isn't with the author herself. Candice seemed like a nice person the few times we spoke over AIM, and I'm sure she's a splendid gal with a healthy outlook on life. No, my problem is with the way her article perpetuates one of the very stereotypes gamers profess to hating. For all of our ranting and raving, we always seem to shoot ourselves in the foot on this issue. It's almost as if we want the distinctions to be made, when there's no reason to. What constitutes a girl gamer? My wife likes Animal Crossing and Super Mario Bros. 3. Does that mean she qualifies? I sincerely doubt any of the suggestions from the article would have worked on her, and I'd probably still be single if I had ever attempted to show her how in awe I was at her Tetris skills compared to my past girlfriends.

This is just the latest example of how we carve ourselves up into little pieces, spending as much time on complaining about how many pieces there are as we do on the actual carving. Over the years, the gaming industry has arbitrarily attached labels to gamers, creating market segments that look lovely on a pie chart but mean little in reality. Are you "hardcore" or "casual?" Do you consider yourself a professional gamer or are you strictly an amateur? Can you list the differences between "guy" and "girl" gamers? There are so many terms for people who like video games (read: gamers), and I sometimes think that the backroom of my local GameStop or Toys 'R Us has game executives watching me through a one-way mirror, analyzing my purchases and classifying me accordingly. It's sickening.

Looking around the Internet, it's quite easy to google the term "casual gamer" (yes, google with a small /g/, as in a verb. Look it up; it's correct) and come up with all sorts of news articles with horrific titles. Christ, even Wikipedia has detailed articles differentiating what "casual" and "hardcore" gamers are. Not enough? How about checking out Casual Gamer, the website that, by its own description, was "created by a group a Casual Games enthusiasts." Thank you for that profound and informative explanation of your motives. I would never have figured it out otherwise.

Companies are jumping on the label bandwagon, with both Microsoft and Ubisoft even creating whole divisions directed at the "casual" gamer. A smart business move, considering that this new sector of the industry is worth a proported $2.25 billion each year. So big has it become, that there's even a Casual Gamer Association out there now! The issue that needs addressing here is how this affects the people who actually buy and play the games. Do the people buying Wiis and playing games for the first time consider themselves casual gamers?

The problem with labels becomes most painfully apparent when not even the biggest of gaming companies itself can decide whether or not they exist. Take Nintendo Europe's own managing director of marketing, Laurence Fischer, for example. In a prime example of brilliant marketing skill, Mr. Fischer told casualgamingbiz last May that he disliked the term "casual gamer." He said "“I don’t like the word casual. There’s a lot of meaning and interpretation of the word. For me you’re either a gamer or a non-gamer."

Sounds reasonable enough, right? Of course, being a marketing guru, it was only a matter of time before an outbreak of Foot-in-Mouth Disease set in. Addressing concerns about the Wii's limited storage space to Edge magazine, Fischer continued his blitzkrieg of brilliance and casually (see what I did there?) stated that only "geeks and otaku" would feel the need for a Wii hard drive. I guess we should have seen it coming though, as in that same May casualgamingbiz article, Fischer also explained away Animal Crossing's audience by saying "“It was really an otaku game – it had a small community of people playing a lot.” So much for consistency.

This is compounded by the tireless work of gaming journalists who latch onto these labels far too easily. Perhaps they feel that it makes them sound smarter or more in touch with their audience, but all it does is give serious journalists more ammunition for their argument about how gaming journalism isn't really journalism at all. You don't hear any other area of the business slicing its audience into separate categories based on how much news they listen to or how often they get involved with the subject matter. The closest I can think of is sports, and even then there isn't a clear breaking down of the audience by the press. I've yet to hear ESPN or Sports Illustrated refer to "fair weather" fans on a regular basis, even though the concept clearly exists around the water cooler. On the news and in sports periodicals, the kid playing baseball in the park by his house isn't "casual" compared to "hardcore" MLB players, and no one goes out of their way to make the contrasts between NBA and WNBA players apparent. Are their differences? Of course there are. That doesn't mean we have to constantly point them out. Some things forgo mentioning for fear of belaboring the obvious.

Perhaps if game companies, and more importantly, gaming journalists, took their audience more seriously, the need to use labels would disappear. Yes, people put things into categories on a regular basis, but that's just because this is the primary way in which human beings interact with their environment. Hell, I bet you placed this very article into a category as soon as you began to read it. We all do it, sure, but that doesn't mean we have to splash those categories all over the place for everyone to see them. If game publishers want to use their labels in the board room to discuss sales, then fine, just keep it out of the general vernacular. I'm tired of being classified under several sub-categories of gaming. It's dumb, divisive, and it only serves to keep gaming as the black sheep of hobbies despite its immense size and money-making prowess.

But as I said at the beginning, it would be unfair to place the blame solely on the corporations and the press. Gamers themselves are as guilty in this regard, and one need only listen to the vitriol spouted across the Internet about the Wii and how Nintendo has turned its back on "real" gamers. There are those who take pride in being labeled a "hardcore gamer" - I even wrote for a magazine named exactly that - but there's more than one definition of the term! The Wikipedia entry I linked to lists no fewer than five separate criteria for defining what a "hardcore" gamer is, and trying to understand it is more trouble than it's worth. Judging from the convoluted rationalization it offers, it might just be better to just stick with what Fischer initially said about it all: you're either a gamer or you're not.

My name is Ken Horowitz, and I am a gamer. And that's all.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thoughts on "The King of Kong"

After months of trying, I was finally able to cat The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters on G4 last night. For those who haven't had a chance to see it, the movie is a great telling of the competition between Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell and unknown challenger Steve Wiebe. Wiebe, who plays religiously on the machine in his garage, manages to significantly beat Mitchell's two decade-old high score. He sends the tape in to Twin Galaxies, the official score keeper of video games, and has his score rejected because it was videotaped and not submitted in public. Twin Galaxies then goes on to accept a tape of Mitchell's after Wiebe beats his score in person at the New Hampshire arcade Funstop.

Although Twin Galaxies apologizes later on for its treatment of Wiebe and allows him to submit tapes in the future, the bias towards Mitchell is apparent from the get-go. While two referees are dispatched to Wiebe's Seattle home and proceed to dismantle his machine to see if the board had been tampered with (all while Wiebe isn't even home, mind you), no one questions Mitchell's taped run, which suffers from a mysterious flickering on the left side of the screen, conveniently covering his score just long enough for it to change.

Now that I've seen the movie, two things stand out to me. First off, Billy Mitchell comes off as an arrogant ass. He has amazing skill (he retook the Donkey Kong high score from Weibe a year after the movie was filmed and still holds it) and is undoubtedly the best professional gamer in history. However, Mitchell's skill is almost overshadowed by his attitude, and no matter how often he pleads his case in the movie - and it's a lot - you just don't want to take his side. Is this the real Billy Mitchell, or has he been unfairly portrayed? Other interviews with him that I've seen seem to point to the former.

Here's the best example. Numerous times during the film, Mitchell is interviewed and explains how the only way to prove someone is the best at a game is by playing in person. He makes several mentions about how only those who play in public can prove their skill and rightfully take their spot at the top of the mountain. On various occasions, Mitchell makes his position known, saying things like "To me, most important is to travel to a sanctioned location, like Funspot, that makes it official; if tomorrow Tiger Woods golfs a 59, big deal. If he does it at Augusta, that's where it counts."

The problem is that Mitchell is given three different chances to play against Wiebe head-to-head during the movie but always declines. When Wiebe defeats his score at Funstop, Mitchell already has a tape with a higher score en route to Twin Galaxies, which accepts it without question. For someone who is so sure of himself and thinks so little of Wiebe, he seemed awfully eager to keep from playing him head-on. Why not compete and shut everyone up once and for all? Mitchell eventually does put his money where his mouth is, but it's an entire year after the events in King of Kong, and while in public, it receives nowhere near the amount of buzz the movie did. Decidedly low key for someone who loves the spotlight as much as Mitchell does.

Second, I'm not entirely confident that Twin Galaxies was being fair here. Founder Walter Day has disputed the movie's portrayal of the situation, and he claims that Mitchell and Wiebe were on much friendlier terms than the film suggests. He also argues that he was never as biased against Wiebe as he's made out to be. Whether or not this is true, the fact that Day accepted Mitchell's video tape after disqualifying Wiebe's is controversial, to say the least. The board that Wiebe used to beat Mitchell's 1982 Donkey Kong score was provided by Roy Shildt, a longtime nemesis of Mitchell's, but it was never conclusively proven in the movie that it had been tampered with. You'd expect Twin Galaxies to at least treat Mitchell's low quality and questionable video tape with the same scrutiny as it had Wiebe's. It's only fair. I won't condemn Day and his organization, as he obviously tries to make amends with Wiebe during the film. I do think, though, that an organization that considers itself to be "official" shouldn't play favorites or consider anyone to be a "golden boy."

Overall, King of Kong is a great look into the world of professional video gaming, and anyone who is a fan of the industry should see it. The sense of competition between Mitchell and Wiebe is awesome, and now I have an almost instinctive urge to migrate to New Hampshire and play at Funspot. It's the place to go for this type of competition, and having now seen the movie, I can't help but wonder how many other neat little places like this there are around the country.

Personally, I love things like King of Kong, especially when they deal with the Golden Age of gaming and all those great titles from the early '80s. This movie is a treat for all retro gaming fans and should be in their DVD collections.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Delisting XBLA Games: The Latest Industry Blunder

In an effort to clean up the "clutter" on XBLA, Microsoft is going to delist those games that have been available for at least six months, have a metacritic rating lower than 65%, and haven't had a high conversion rate (the percentage of people buying a title after downloading the demo). According to MS, delisting said games will allow for a smoother and easier experience buying games for the service. To call this policy stupid would be an understatement. There are several things wrong with delisting titles, and none of them have to do with making anyone's experience more enjoyable.

Microsoft's reasoning is that this will help reduce the clutter on the Live marketplace. Say what? Clutter... on a digital store that has no physical presence? Why not just come out and tell the truth. These games are being delisted because Microsoft has gone batshit insane approving every turd proposed for XBLA, and now it wants to clean up by getting rid of the stinkers. The same company that denied Valve's Portal a berth on XBLA went and released Sudoku and Warlords (no good without a paddle!) just a few weeks ago. This is what I'm talking about.

The Xbox maker has made a great move by upping the maximum game size to 350MB, but there really shouldn't be a cap in the first place, just ask Capcom. This line of thinking is why we have a store filled with Frogger and Yaris, and no one's playing them, Jeff Minter be damned. We've heard developers complain about the glut of crap on XBLA before, and MS seems to want a quick band-aid solution to its blatant lack of quality control by sweeping the games under the rug - literally. All of the delisted titles will still be available for purchase via a friend's recommendation, and they're not actually being taken off the servers, just off the main list. You can even still play them online. So they're there... it just doesn't look like they're there. Brilliant.

There's a bigger problem than people not being able to find Dig Dug, one that almost no one is talking about. The threat of delisting not only plagues gamers who might be afraid that a game they've been meaning to buy might up and vanish, it also bodes ill for developers. Think of the company that wants to try something different. The whole selling point of services like XBLA. the Playstation Store, and WiiWare is that they offer developers a place to sell their games without the costs and pitfalls of retail distribution. Selling online allows them to take chances and go for that particular title that might never have had a chance to come to store shelves. If there's a threat of it being taken off the service, developers will be less inclined to think outside the box and take chances.

You might be able to argue that this will also keep them from making crap, but the glut we've seen so far is no one else's fault but Microsoft's. If it hadn't kept approving weak arcade port after weak arcade port, we wouldn't have so many of them. Telling game makers that their new titles have a chance of being delisted could be enough to make them take their wares to the Wii or Playstation 3. And let's be honest, making a game invisible to the general consumer is as good as eliminating it from the service entirely.

I sincerely hope that Microsoft rethinks this foolish policy. There's no need to take any games off the main page, and simply reducing their price a bit and assigning them to a bargain bin section would take care of the entire problem. Hey, if you're going to make it so that the general public doesn't even know the games are there, dropping their prices to 200 or 400 MS points shouldn't be a reach. The more games on the service the better, and one man's Mad Tracks is another man's Puzzle Quest. There's no need to eliminate anything and risk alienating consumers and developers alike.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Problem with Xbox Live

Everything's online today. Once upon a time, it was enough just to be able to whup the butt of the guy playing next to you, but gamers were soon enamored by the prospect of whupping butt cross-country. Being able to take on a real, live human opponent any time and anywhere was very enticing; it still is. So enticing in fact, that modern hardware manufacturers have endeavored to make it a key part of their console strategies. This hardware generation marks the first in which an online component isn't some random add-on peripheral that you can buy if you want. No, this cycle has made it part of the equation for all three systems, and we will most likely never again go back to that world of standing in line to play against someone.

There's a problem though, at least something that I consider to be one, and I'm referring specifically to Xbox Live. While gamers the world over look at upcoming titles and wonder about their online components, this fervor and anticipation doesn't last as long as you'd think. Unless you're looking at a major release, such as Halo 3, Rock Band, or Gears of War; the online lobbies tend to taper off in use mere weeks after a game's release. Come back a year later, and they're practically dead. That's a serious paradox there folks, and it's one that game developers are no doubt taking seriously when they're considering investing the time and money needed to bring a title online. Why incorporate an online component if no one is going to stick with it?

I first noticed this phenomenon back with the original Xbox. Everyone was playing Mech Assault, and full games were not a problem to find. That is, until about five or six months later, when everyone had moved on to the next big release. The same thing happened to me with OutRun 2. People played feverishly for a while, and then poof - they lost interest and started playing something else. About the only original Xbox title with which I had no trouble finding people to play was Project Gotham Racing 2, which most likely had to do with just how incredible it was... and the fact that there wasn't anything really like it online.

This problem hasn't just manifested itself on the Xbox 360, it's grown and multiplied like a virus. Just this past week, I tried to find someone online to play Overlord's survival mode with me. My search came back empty. Pillage? Nothing. Slaughter? Zilch. Curious to see if this was the case with some other titles, I popped in Kameo to see if someone was online. I still have those co-op achievements to get! It was a wasteland as well. I got the same results with Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Where has everyone gone?

No, I know the answer to that one. Just a glimpse of my friends list tells me all I need to know. GTA IV is number one right now, but many are still online with Halo 3 and Gears of War, and... nothing else. I see some sporadic Guitar Hero III and Rock Band in there sometimes, but these three are the only ones consistently played online. And by "online," I'm not just referring to the player being signed in to Live; I mean that an online mode is actually being played.

Xbox Live Arcade titles are even more susceptible to this, as their window to shine is usually about seven days (unless you have a week when MS releases two sure-fire soon-to-be-delisted titles like this one, with Warlords and Suduku). Ever see anyone playing Gauntlet in co-op? How about Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles? The latter is an interesting mention, because I can remember how everyone was dying, DYING to play it in four-player co-op. That frothing demand lasted about two weeks.

Why does this happen? Is it because Xbox 360 gamers are ADD-riddled and have too much cash to spend? Partially, perhaps. I think there are a few other mitigating factors contributing to this quick disinterest in all things online:
  • Too Many Games to Play. How many people are still playing Stranglehold online? Not very many, judging by my fruitless attempts to find someone. It's only been eight months since the game was released, and the lobbies are dead most of the time. With a solid online component, I'm sure Midway thought it would ride the top of the Live charts for months, instead of sinking off like a virtual Titanic. Is it the game's fault? Hardly. Who played anything in November that wasn't Halo 3? A lot of titles got their Live walking papers when Bungie's monster hit, and most haven't recovered. Even the mighty Halo itself was staggered by Call of Duty 4, which in turn was toppled by GTA IV. It's almost as if gamers have to embark on a playing frenzy to milk their investment of as much playtime as possible before it's overtaken by the next big thing.
  • Crappy Online Implementation. The most obvious reason, it alone has the power to kill anyone's desire to play online. No one sticks around for a game that has issues connecting to a lobby, disconnects constantly, or lags like a frame-by-frame examination of the Zepruder film. The XBLA games I mentioned are notorious for this. All the games I mentioned above had horribly laggy online play, some to the point of being unplayable. TMNT was especially heart-breaking, because I had more than enough friends willing to help me kick Shredder's ass, but the Foot Clan apparently hacked into Microsoft's server, thus disabling any attempt on my part to save Splinter. Damn ninjas, always so arrogant with their shurikens and hacking skills...
  • Lazy Developers. Ooh, that's right, I said it. Half-ass online play excites no one, yet we continue to see it happen. A game where you're part of a squad loses its luster when said squad always has to be A.I. Even worse are when developers add only a few modes to games that literally scream for full online co-op. GTA IV is a perfect example of this. I wanted to cruise Liberty City with friends and do the missions with them. Impossible, since the campaign is Niko's story, and co-op play would ruin the deep and thought-provoking narrative of one man's journey from one repetitive drop off mission and fetch quest to the next.
Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 used a similarly lame excuse for reducing campaign online co-op from four players to two. "We wanted to enhance the graphics in multi-player," Ubi Soft explained, and by doing so, it crippled the gameplay. If so grand was its desire for software excellence, then could someone explain to me why I never got the achievement for beating the game on Realistic difficulty, even after Ubi Soft patched the game to allow it?

Sierra's upcoming Ghostbusters game did the same thing, adding online play for only "special" missions in a mode separate from the main game. Developer Terminal Reality has stated that it believes that playing co-op would disrupt the narrative of the story. Ok, seeing that the game is being penned by the original writers and features the voices and likenesses of all the Ghostbusters, I can understand that. What I don't understand is why, in this day and age, they simply can't do like the original Rainbow Six: Vegas did. When you played the story by yourself, you got all the juicy narrative and the whole plot. In co-op mode, you didn't, but you got to kill terrorists with three pals.

Anyone who wants to play this new Ghostbusters game (which is probably everyone) is going to play through the story, so why not motivate them to do it both ways? Offer achievements for beating stages alone and in co-op mode, so they have to do it more than once. My friend playing as Egon isn't going to "ruin" the experience for me, because I'll most likely have beaten the game solo already. This is just a poor excuse.

These factors give lower profile releases virtually no online life to speak of. Overshadowed by the major apps and without the hype of the media to generate interest, they fade into obscurity, leaving many gamers unable to enjoy those games that did online right. One simply cannot be expected to play everything released on launch day, and I'm sure that many gamers don't try out certain titles until they've come down in price. Something's gotta give, as they say.

Despite this sad trend, some games manage to avoid this situation simply because of how different they are from everything else. For example, you can always find people playing Uno, and I'm sure there are more than a few titles (Forza 2 and Project Gotham Racing 4 come to mind) that will endure. For the majority of online games however, their time to shine is severely limited, and once they're gone, they're gone for good.

Anyone up for some Phantom Dust?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Welcome Back Dr. Jones

It's finally here. After almost two decades of anticipation, we finally got a new Indiana Jones movie. As a major fan (who isn't?), I've spent years hoping that this would happen, and it was almost surreal to see that it's finally a reality. After it all sank in though, and the initial euphoria wore off, I began to wonder if Phantom Menace Syndrome (PMS) would strike this sequel as well. In my case, I have a clean bill of health, but unfortunately for some people, it seems it has.

For those not in the know, PMS is a condition where the victim spends years, perhaps even decades building up their expectations of what the next installment of their favorite movie series will be like, until they reach a level so unattainable that nothing possibly put to print could ever satisfy them. The syndrome gets its name from the insane amount of anticipation and hype generated for the first new Star Wars film in over two decades, a film which while bad, could never have sated the hunger for that mind-shattering, wet pants-inducing experience the audience had been waiting so long for, no matter how good it was.

See, PMS is vicious in that it attacks the part of the mind that deals with nostalgia and all those warm and fuzzy memories of days gone by. Recent victims of the disease include Transformers and Live Free or Die Hard. Neither lived up to what a lot of people wanted, even though they were both solid films. They say you can't go home again, and this seems to ring most true when it comes to childhood memories.

I do like the term "Phantom Menace Syndrome" though. I like it because its initials are the same as that other condition that induces unwarranted bitchiness and anger. In fact, I like the term so much that I'm going to trademark it.

Phantom Menace Syndrome™

There. Feel free to use it if you like, but please be sure to credit the author!

I guess you could say that I had mixed emotions going into the fourth chapter of the Indiana Jones saga. The build up and electricity this movie has generated is more than enough to make even the most fervent fan a little nervous about its quality. Still, I always wanted another chance to see one of these films on the big screen, so off I went. After finally pushing my way through massive theater lines and sitting through the worst selection of trailers one could imagine being tied to such a major release, I was finally able to partake in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Quite a long title, to be sure, and I was apprehensive that it was symbolic of what this movie was doing: needlessly stretching things out.

I've heard a lot of people talk about how this film wasn't needed, and that the title of The Last Crusade referred to the curtain being drawn on the major film use of the Jones character, as well as the hunt for the Holy Grail (despite Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg saying the opposite for years after the third film was released). They say Kingdom shouldn't have been made, and that the famous trio should have left well enough alone. Needless to say, it got my mind working as I stood in line for my ticket. Almost twenty years had passed since Last Crusade, and as someone who grew up with Indy, would this new movie stomp all over my childhood memories? Was I making a mistake? Would my image of the character be shattered if this film stunk? By then, it was too late. I was already approaching the box office window.
Two hours later I emerged from the theater a relieved man, but let me say this straight off. Kingdom isn't as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade, though I'd put it about on the same level as Temple of Doom. Now, some people hate Temple, but that's their loss. I like it a lot and consider it a nice change of pace from the "stop the Nazis from taking yet another supernatural artifact" storyline of the other two films. Kingdom, with its extra terrestrial-centered plot, fits in there nicely, and it serves as a fitting bookend to Indy's film and TV adventures.

And perhaps the term "bookend" is the best way to describe this movie. Sure, it didn't have to be made, but it's nice that it was. I loved the way they tied it in to the other installments, giving it its proper place in the Indy timeline. All the films offer a year at the beginning, but none of them affect the others chronologically. Kingdom changes this by obviously connecting itself into Raiders of the Lost Ark by re-introducing Marion Ravenwood, Indy's old flame and the daughter of his mentor. Abner. However, it goes further into the other parts of the Indy mythos by explaining why Sir Sean Connery and Denholm Elliot aren't present, as well linking itself to the Young Indiana Chronicles by referencing the episode Curse of the Jackal and Indy's adventure with Pancho Villa. It was a nice touch, and it helps bring the old man's life full circle. Furthermore, it sets up Mutt Williams (Shai LeBeouf's character) for future adventures. For example, when Mutt asks Indy how old he was when he rode with Villa, the old archeologist replies "about your age." Very cool.

Characterization aside, many people have expressed disappointment with the acting in the film. In this regard, I'm forced to agree. Ford doesn't seem to be on his best day, which is odd considering how eager he'd always said he was to get another shot at playing Indy. Karen Allen is pretty rusty as well, and LeBeouf is the only one who comes across as generally sincere. The others seem to just be going through the motions most of the time. That's not to say that vintage Indy doesn't rear his head. He does and quite well at that. The warehouse scene is great, albeit too short, and Ford looks and moves incredibly well for a man who's just reached Social Security age.
That has to be my only gripe with the movie, aside from a Tarzan-like vine-swinging display from Williams in Peru. I liked the special effects - a hallmark of the series - and never found the use of CG to be excessive, though I'm sure that there are those out there who cringe every time it's used. For them, I have no pity, as they walked into a LucasFilm product knowing full well what to expect. It seems that they need to touch the hot stove with each and every one of his movies before they realize the burn danger is real. The fact that just about every action and adventure movie today uses CG means that its detractors have a dwindling amount of options for their viewing pleasures. Get used to it folks, CG is here to stay.

I'm thankful to say that PMS didn't afflict me, and I'm feeling fine in regards to the condition of the elderly Dr. Jones. I liked the plot. I liked old Indy. I liked Mutt Williams. Dare I say I'd be eager to see him wear the Fedora and continue in Ford's footsteps? Yes, yes I would.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Let It Go People... Let It Go...

For some reason, there are still people out there who think Sega should take another stab at the hardware market. As provocative as this sounds, it's not very viable financially. Everyone knows the terrible shape Sega was in financially for almost a decade after it released the Saturn, and it's only been in the last few years that the company has reached any type of solvency at all. That's why re-entering the hardware market now would sound the death knell for Sega, especially with three solid and successful consoles already in the public's consciousness.

This isn't the mid '80s anymore, when a virtually unknown company in the U.S. could launch a new console and revive the home market. Remember when the NES debuted? How many people could identify the Nintendo brand at merely a glance? As the story goes, former NOA chairman Howard Lincoln couldn't get anyone to give the NES (then called the AVS, or Advanced Video System) a second look when it debuted at the January 1984 Consumer Electronics Show. No, today, everyone knows what a "Wii" is, and the terms "Xbox" and "Playstation" have been firmly entrenched in the public's mind. For Sega to even consider entering such hostile territory, it would take either the greatest software push and creativity ever seen in video gaming, and quite possibly the world's biggest death wish.

Which is why I find it odd that someone, a games journalist at that, would publish an article proposing that Sega do exactly that. C|Net's Don Reisinger wrote a lengthy piece last week entitled Why Sega Should Release a New Console. In it, Mr. Reisinger lays out what he thinks could be a winning formula for Sega to get back into the game and reverse its economic fortunes. Unfortunately, the article contradicts itself a few times and Reisinger comes off as not really knowing his history. Let's take a look at some of his major points:
  • The company incurred a loss $501 million during its 2008 fiscal year and its video games division lost about $56.3 million.
Those numbers look frightening, don't they? $56 million is enough to keep anyone up at night. But when you compare it with the overall amount of Sega/Sammy's losses - the overwhelming majority of which came from its sagging Pachinko business - it's not so bad. Add to that that Sega has seen the gaming side of its business become solid over the past three or four years, and you realize that the monetary misfortunes the company is facing stem from the Sammy side of things.

Sega began to turn things around as early as 1992, not even two years after relieving itself of the albatross around its neck that was the Dreamcast. The House of Sonic is confident that things will turn around next year, thanks to its software side making up for Sammy's failings. With game sales picking up overseas and the success of titles like Yakuza 3 in Japan, it's obvious that the game maker isn't responsible for the problems the overall group is facing.

True, Sega is still being dragged downward by Sammy's Pachinko woes, and while I don't think it will be able to overcome those losses just by its game sales alone, I also think that the games division is on an upswing that has put it in a better position than it ever was as a hardware maker. Consider that Sega incurred $398 million in debt in 1998, the year before it released the Dreamcast. That's $342 million more than this year's loss. Yes, the company is losing money. But when you compare it to how it was bleeding cash for years while pushing failing hardware formats, the loss has been substantially reduced.
  • Sega's Sonic franchise is floundering.
In terms of quality, definitely. In terms of sales, no. Just look at the numbers. Sonic Heroes: over a million units sold. Shadow the Hedghog: over a million units sold. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games: over five million units sold. Even Sonic & the Secret Rings was a best seller for its respective debut month, and has reportedly gone on to sell over a million units as well (I can't confirm this though). Does this look like a series that's in decline to you?

Just a year ago, Sega/Sammy reported losses for the third straight year but saw a 32% increase in software sales, prompted by the famous hedgehog. Sonic has two upcoming releases, Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, both of which are highly anticipated. Sonic has consistently been a big seller, regardless of diminishing quality, and this consistency goes back to his first third party outing, Sonic Adventure 2 Battle on the GameCube. We as gamers are lamenting the decline in quality of the franchise, but the sales numbers do not lie, and Sega's foremost concern is with sales. As long as the games sell well, no one will shake this hedgehog's tree, so to say that the franchise is "floundering" isn't just exaggerating; it's plain wrong.
  • Depending on the study you read, the average gamer is anywhere between 30-35 years old. Because of that, it's safe to assume that the vast majority of gamers remember the days of Sega console gaming and there is still a huge group of Sega zealots in the wild that long for another Dreamcast.
The average gamer Mr. Reisinger refers to are the same ones that snubbed the Saturn in favor of a Playstation and ignored the Dreamcast in anticipation of the Playstation 2. These older gamers still remember the money they spent on their 32X and Sega CD attachments, and just the mention of either add-on is enough to release years of pent-up angst. Why on Earth would this particular demographic buy another Sega console after such a long and storied history with the company? After more than half a decade with their Xboxes and firmly enjoying their Wiis and Playstation 3s, why would they add another console into mix now?

If anything, this should be the target audience Sega should avoid. They most likely aren't the ones who bought Mario & Sonic or any of the other new releases, and we've seen just how far the support of older gamers goes with Sega with such massive flops as Panzer Dragoon Orta, both Otogi titles, as well as recent flops like Sega Superstars Tennis, which dropped to $20 about a month after its release. All of these are excellent games that should be in everyone's libraries but were largely ignored by the very audience Reisinger says Sega should pursue.
  • There's no debating the fact that Sega has been a relative failure in the software space. Since its decision to drop out of the hardware game, the company has had a few minor hits, but nothing has been developed that we can classify as a blockbuster.
Once more, the sales numbers for the Sonic franchise soundly contest this, but he may be right about the rest of Sega's line up since going third party. Of course, how he thinks this will magically change because of new hardware is beyond me, and I believe Sega already launched a new console with an amazing library of original and creative games that was totally crushed in the market. It was called the Dreamcast.
  • In order for Sega to truly keep its game division afloat, it'll need to develop hardware that's both forward-thinking and inexorably tied to the online space. Beyond that, it'll need to repair the issues it may still have with retailers and some other developers and endeavor to build a console that can compete on the same level with the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3.
Sega did a good job of repairing its relationship with retailers when the Dreamcast debuted. Remember how Kay-Bee Games refused to stock anything Saturn-related because of Sega's suprise launch in May of 1995? They stocked Dreamcast games and systems. However, Reisinger's assertion that the new hardware would have to be online has been tried before, again by the Dreamcast. He must have forgotten that Sega couldn't get people to play it online even when it gave the console away just for signing up for SegaNet. Why would it be more successful now? Furthermore, how would Sega fund such an endeavor, when Reisinger opens his article citing how much money the company has lost? It cost Microsoft over a billion dollars just to get Xbox Live up and running, and Sega hasn't seen that much cash since the Genesis was still its product. It's just not possible for Sega to even consider such an investment, especially - as Reisinger so poignantly illustrates - the company has been losing money for four consecutive years.
  • Third-parties are having trouble selling games on the Wii and if they believe that they can turn an even greater profit by selling games on three consoles, the deals should start to build up.
Has Resinger even been playing games for the last three years? Third parties are using the Wii to farm easy cash with quick ports and shovelware, and you know what? They're making money. How else could you explain crap like Carnival Games selling almost a million copies? I should also remind Reisinger of the success Capcom has had with Resident Evil 4 and Ubi Soft's massive sales of Red Steel and Rayman Raving Rabbids. And companies are already turning greater profits by selling games on multiple platforms. Again, Capcom reaped the rewards of this strategy with Devil May Cry 4, and Ubi Soft cleaned up with TMNT. Companies are doing just fine, and while another console could mean more potential copies to sell, but it wouldn't be a major attraction to a new Sega console, especially one with zero user base, considering how well the big companies are already doing.
  • After forming the deals with developers, Sega will need to build the hype machine up as much as possible. Instead of following the faulty plan of years ago, it needs to show off a console that's both more powerful than anything available, offers a Blu-ray drive, and has the kind of online component we're only seeing in the Xbox 360. The company also needs to play by the rules: it shouldn't announce the console and release it on the same day and it should take as much time as it needs to ensure all of its ducks are in a row before it launches it.
Again, where is Sega supposed to get the cash to do this? How is a company that's posted four straight yearly losses supposed to secure the capital for a machine more powerful than the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3? And how would it sell it for a reasonable price? People complained of the current consoles pricing of $400 and $500, and Sega would definitely have to target the higher end of the price spectrum to avoid losing its shirt. Factor in the news that a price drop is most likely coming this year for the two next gen consoles (yeah, I went there), and Reisinger's argument collapses completely.

Look, I agree that it would rock to have Sega back making consoles. As one of those older gamers Reisinger refers to, it still feels odd to me to not have a Sega system in the market after almost two decades of buying its hardware. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation does not favor such a move by the company, and it's likely that we'll never see another Sega console again. It's nice to dream, but if Reisinger is serious in his contention that Sega could and should return to making hardware, then he's not living in the same reality as Sega.