Thursday, December 13, 2012

It's Okay to NOT Like Something...

I get into arguments all the time; I wouldn't call myself "curmudgeonly," otherwise.  Some of the most frequent video game-related arguments I encounter involve one or another aspect of "Fan Boy-ism" - when someone likes everything a company puts out regardless of whether or not it's actually good.

I have, at certain points in my life, been guilty of this sort of fanaticism.  For several years, I ate at the trough of Final Fantasy, pretending to like everything that Squaresoft/Square-Enix released, regardless of how great or awful it was.  We must, however, eventually put our blind adherence aside and just be honest, not only with ourselves, but with others, as well.

Take, for example, and argument I got into early in 2012, where I asserted that few video games put out music that sticks in your head.  Case in point - the Zelda series of games.

I have, for almost my entire life, been a musician.  I am a classically trained opera singer, a trumpet/horn player, a fair pianist, and a music arranger for both instrumental and choral music.  I have literally thousands of songs stored in my memory, for one reason or another, and I can identify the source, whistle, hum, sing, or play the melody, and give you a time signature, key signature, and count structure for almost any piece that's ever caught my attention.  Most of the past twelve years have been spent choreographing movement and equipment work to music.  I get music; I understand it; I have a deep connection with it.

The Zelda series has often been the source of several haunting, annoying, and memorable melodies, ranging from the unforgettable overworld theme in the original NES game to the opening theme in A Link to the Past.  Ocarina of Time presented us with several irksome ocarina tunes so catchy that I still hear them when I'm trying to go to sleep.  Even Windwaker had a few melodies in it that were worth humming.

But, for the life of me, I can't remember a single note from either Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword. Nothing grabbed me as particularly moving, poignant, or memorable.  The music was well-written, to be certain, and I won't argue that it was a case of bad composition; but it was utilized so sparsely and poorly that it served only as occasional background noise.  It never became a focal piece of the game, and provided the player with a moment that made you pay attention to it.

A heated argument, of course, ensued, and several video links were posted; how could I not find Midna's Theme (or whatever it was called) beautiful and moving?

Well, honestly, the piece, itself, is moving, and were I sitting in a dark room or a concert hall listening to a performance of it, I'd most certainly be moved.  However, in the context of the game, it falls largely flat.

And the problem doesn't lie only with the Zelda franchise; Final Fantasy, a series whose soundtracks have spawned countless orchestral arrangements, concerts, CDs, rearrangements, and OSTs, has fallen victim to the badly used music trend.

Even Final Fantasy XII, for all it's flaws, had gameplay-appropriate music, and the occasionally memorable moments in an inexorably tedious game were made almost completely by the soundtrack that accompanied them.  Final Fantasy XIII, though?  Aside from being a shitty game, the music seems largely like an afterthought.

I'm certain that the composers really went out of their way to come up with a complex and nuanced score, but it is very clear that no one sitting in the room asked anyone outside of the room whether or not the music was effective.

It's okay to not like something, just as it's okay to like something.  While cases of "like" are always subjective, there are reasons why certain things become popular where others do not.  Much as I loathe Lady Gaga (and her music), her songs are catchy (like the plague); I can't tell you who sings a certain song, but I can probably recite a line or two from it if it's accessible.  I'm not a huge fan of Sir Mix-a-Lot, but I can bust out with "Baby Got Back" every time it comes on at Frat Rat Karaoke.

And when I get a video game theme stuck in my head, chances are it's going to be the repetitive, tinny refrain of a classic NES game, where music HAD to be thoughtfully composed to make the best use of the sound chip, rather than an overly complex score written to fill in the gap when you're sitting in front of your screen watching an FMV instead of actively playing.  Hell, I often use those video breaks as time to take a piss.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Nintendo Power's Big Leap

You know, I get it; people are nostalgic for Nintendo Power, and at first, I felt the same way...until I remembered the last issue I picked up.

Maybe I'm showing my age, here, but what Nintendo Power became in this century is a pale shadow of what it once was.  I understand that times changed, and Nintendo needed to update its format to meet the needs of current gamers, but at some point in the last decade, it failed to live up to the promise of its name.

I vividly remember getting my first issue of Nintendo Power - the very first issue.  It was amazing in terms of what it offered: gaming tips and tricks to give you the "power" to play your "Nintendo."  Maps, codes, hidden items...all of these were explicitly laid out for the reader alongside previews of upcoming games, cheesy and awful 80s/90s advertising gimmicks, contests, interviews, and game reviews.  It was a go-to source for everything you needed in gaming, and if it wasn't in the book, for just the price of a long-distance phone call to Redmond, WA, you could call a Nintendo Game Counselor to help you through that tough level (just ask my parents; I'm certain their wallets remember).

As I became an adult and shifted away from Nintendo's consoles, I left behind Nintendo Power as the games I wanted to play were seldom on the system.  By the time I'd graduated high school, my subscription to the magazine had long since lapsed, and aside from occasionally picking up a copy in Walden Books if the cover image grabbed my attention, I rarely, if ever, thought of the magazine.

And then, I went Christmas Shopping for Myself (which is really the best way to do Christmas).

In December of 2003, I went to a Super Wal*Mart in Turkey Creek Pavilion in Knoxville, TN, and wandered over to the video game section where I found the Nintendo Gamecube being offered in a bundle with a Legend of Zelda Collection game and a year's subscription to Nintendo Power.  On a whim, I bought it, and sent in my subscription information.

What I got in the mail honestly shocked me.  It was such a pretty magazine with so little of the content that once made it great.  Gone were the maps, codes, tips, and tricks, and in their place were overly enthusiastic reviews for games that would've never gotten past the door a decade earlier and shit tons of statements reading, "Want to find out what's next for Nintendo?  Stay tuned for the next issue of Nintendo Power!"

...And the next issue was just as lame with even less information.

I get the Nintendo of America sold the magazine to a different company, and no longer backed it, but seriously? It didn't get better.

(Flash forward seven years to a Borders Books and Music in Los Angeles)

While waiting for my partner to get out of work so we can go meet a friend for dinner, I wandered into the gaming section of the magazine aisles and picked up a copy of Nintendo Power.  So little content was present that, after flipping listlessly through the pages, I literally dropped it back into the rack without putting it with its mates.  I may have actively hidden the magazine, so terrible was its offering.

So, what happened to the once great NP?  I honestly don't know.  At some point, I suppose, Nintendo decided to focus on doing what every other gaming company was doing and just focus on making games.  They left the magazine behind, and the staff, I guess, went to find other jobs.

Interestingly enough, there was a market, at one point, for moving their original format to the web and monetizing what they had to offer in electronic form, but, as with most gaming trends, they weren't very quick on the uptake.  Nintendo got out of the business of offering maps, tips, tricks, and codes, leaving that to Prima, Brady Games, and whomever else started putting out player guides.

It didn't have to be that way.  They could have shifted all of those aspects of the magazine to the web.  But, they didn't.

Go to Nintendo's website, now, and you can tell that, as a company, they still don't really grasp the whole "online" thing.  A paragon of feckless design, the Nintendo website offers visitors a flashy front page displaying whichever big product they're pimping at the moment, and then...there's the rest of the site.

It's hard to navigate around the site, and trying to find information beyond the surface requires some serious digging through layer upon layer of bad website design and misleading links.  Go to their Club Nintendo section, and the "Member Sign In" link is so much smaller than the "SIGN UP NOW!!!" button, that it's almost invisible.  Try to find out information about your account, and you have to go on a scavenger hunt to find the right link.

Want to get support for a product you own?  They have that...sort of.  It's just the most basic of information.

Want to get more details on an upcoming game?  They have pictures and a few sentences, as well as an advertising video that shows as little gameplay as possible.

Want to know what games they have in the eShop, DSi Shop, or Wii Shop?  Good fucking luck.  The search function doesn't even return with all the games available at the time.  Trust me...I've hunted for them.  

Ultimately, I get it.  Nintendo's goal is to make great consoles, which it does...eventually.  But, as with Nintendo Power, they've left gamers in the dust.  

Some of my favorite memories from my childhood and early adolescence was getting my monthly issue of Nintendo Power, with the lame game cards, Pogs, and whatever other "collectibles" they were offering at the time.  I loved opening up a new issue and poring over the contents and, unlike the porn I'd steal from under my dad's mattress, actually reading every sentence.  Every "Special Issue," Collector's Cover, and sweepstakes was full of possibilities, and every month, I'd scour the "Coming Soon" section for the release dates of game in my favorites series of games, and every month, I'd be let down to find no new information.

So, yes...there's a part of me that mourns for the loss of Nintendo Power; unfortunately, that part has been mourning for so long that there are no longer tears to cry.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

How Marketing Works (And How Not to Do It...)

One of my favorite phrases, as of late, has been "fanboys."  iPhone fanboys; Nintendo fanboys; XBOX fanboys.  There's a fanboy for everything to do with consumer electronics, and there's nothing funnier or more pathetic than watching them unbox their new products on video.

That having been said, I'll just get to the point of this screed - how two companies can produce vastly different products at roughly the same price point, and the one with the lower tech specs will (and already has) won the day.  These two companies are Nintendo and Sony.

If there are two companies whose consoles and gaming devices need almost no introduction, they are Nintendo and Sony Playstation.  Both companies have made consistently impressive contributions to the world of gaming, but when it comes to handheld gaming, one company just keeps getting it right, while the other continues to fail.

It is hard to argue that Nintendo has and likely always will win the day when it comes to handheld gaming devices.  Since the release of the Gameboy in the late 80s, Nintendo has consistently released products that provide an endless amount of return on consumer investment.  These devices never seem to die, barring catastrophic accidents, and the games, while not always the highest in technology, are consistently remembered as being staples of their respective generations' childhoods.  Each new handheld system brings something unique to the market - the Gameboy was the first that allowed gamers to play full games at home; the Gameboy Color brought darkened colors to life; the Gameboy Advance brought backlighting; the DS brought touchscreens, then cameras, and now 3-D.

Sony, on the other hand, has always had the more impressive technology.  The PSP could seemingly do everything; games in full, bright color, graphics capacity that made games a pleasure to play, internet connectivity via WiFi, UMD movies and games, and eventually, a fantastic catalogue of downloadable full games, both new and classic.  Unfortunately for Sony, their handheld devices have just never been that successful when compared to their lower-tech competition.  They've almost always had subtle design flaws - the original PSP was too thick; the PSP Go was too small, and uncomfortable to play; the PS Vita...well, that shit's just a mess, all around.

So, when Nintendo announced that its next "Next Gen" console system, the Wii U, would have a handheld gaming component that would allow gamers to take the game off the big screen and into their hands, it seemed like the perfect marriage of their successes - combining their more dedicated handheld gamers with their more casual Wii gamers.

Of course, every market analyst predicted that this system would be "another" massive failure - it wasn't high-tech enough, innovative enough, or dedicated to the hardcore gamer.  When they speak of this being "another" failure, they are, of course, speaking of the stumble-ridden release of the 3DS handheld system, which initially suffered from a massive dearth of games that anyone wanted (or wants, even now) to play.  What these naysayers all seem to forget is how lackluster was the release of the first Nintendo DS.  A year later, when the 3DS had by far surpassed the first-year sales of the original DS, those same market analysts had to eat a little bit of crow, as their predictions fell far short.

Luckily for their jobs, the Wii U came along to underwhelm them.  But, once again, they're going to be wrong.  In fact, they already are - every single retailer of the Wii U has sold out of the 32GB Black Wii U pre-order, and most have sold out of the 8GB White Wii U version...two months prior to its release.

When the Vita hit their hands, however, reviewers could blow enough hot air into the gamersphere, praising its fantastic resolution, innovative back-side touch screen, dual analogue sticks, and the promise of great things to come.  And it could have been all of those things (even with that still-useless back-side touch screen)...but Sony, it would seem, is not Nintendo.

Sony has yet to understand that they don't dominate the gaming market.  They continue to overestimate their popularity, hoping that an almost invisible marketing campaign will be sufficient to sell their overpriced device that can't seem to decide what it wants to be or to whom it should be geared.  

The tech specs appeal to hardcore gamers...and those capabilities have yet to even begin to be tapped.  They can't get any 3rd party developers to even touch the damn thing, since no one in Japan seems to want one, and even fewer people over here want it.  

Worse is that it STILL has yet to do what it was promised to do.  Yes, it can Skype.  It took two months, but it could do it.  And yeah, you can watch Netflix on long as you don't mind holding the damn thing and draining your battery just to get through a single episode of Sons of Anarchy.  

And that brings up the nightmare of its terrible design aesthetic.  The thing is just a nightmare to hold, because the backside has that worthless touchscreen on it.  Conveniently, Sony has placed two painful indentations on both sides of the bottom where you can hold it up on your physiologically weaker pinky fingers, while attempting to hold it with the rest of your fingers held in a claw grip to hold onto the two vagina-shaped indentations on either side of the back-side touch screen.  The design requires you to both hold it gingerly and squeeze it in the least comfortable of ways.

But, ask any market analyst, and they'll tell you all about how the PS Vita is an amazing device. was the Apple Lisa.  And anyone who knows their Apple history knows how THAT one worked out.  Actually, the Apple Newton would be a better comparison.  Or the current Maps App.

At any rate, if you want to know why Nintendo continues to win the day, all you need to do is look at their reputation for putting out devices that last, even if the novelty of their innovation wears off.  It's not always about graphics and spec techs; it's often more about appealing to the right audiences with the right kinds of disposable income.  Fanboys may love you, but you're never going to build a cottage industry if you rely on them.  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Square-Enix Peg in a Round Hole World...

After paying little to no attention to the happenings at the E3 convention (as per usual), I am just now catching up with some of the goings on with my former favorite video game company, Square-Enix.

There is much shared history between S-E and myself; together, we had a relationship that spanned almost three decades.  It has become apparent, however, that the time has come for me to bid farewell to them on a sour note...which is ironic, considering their next "major" release is Final Fantasy Theatrhythm, a lame ass rhythm game featuring music from their once glorious past for the Nintendo 3DS.

Some of my best memories from childhood involve Squaresoft games, before I even knew that a single company was responsible for my favorite games.  I would rent Final Fantasy for the NES from the local video store, Video Madness, nearly every weekend just to start back where I left off (assuming someone hadn't replaced my save file).  When I finally purchased the game, I would take it everywhere I went.  Family beach trips were spent indoors with the tinny 8-bit music filling our condo while the rest of the family were outside on the sand and in the Atlantic.  As they enjoyed the waves pounding against the coastline, I was traveling by boat from one port to the next to fulfill my quest to save the world from Chaos.

As I got older, my love of Final Fantasy grew with the platforms; from Final Fantasy Legend on Gameboy, to Final Fantasy II (which they never told us was actually IV) on the SNES, the Final Fantasy series of games grew up, it seemed, alongside me.  When I entered high school, Final Fantasy VII and VIII introduced the novel concept that characters used vulgar language, blood was actually red, characters got drunk off of alcohol as opposed to milk or soda, and, surprisingly enough, some characters who inhabit the worlds of Final Fantasy were gay.

Sure, they were gay at a bathhouse in a slum, participated in a very confusing exercise-based gangbang, and then dragged a barely unwilling Cloud into a sauna to relax the muscles...all so he could gain access to the "best" pair of underwear to dress up like the most attractive female he could be......

Actually, now that I look back on that, this scene was pretty transformational, for me, at the time when I was just coming out in high school.

I digress.

Square-Enix was once a transformational company, constantly pushing the boundaries of RPGs to new heights, and fundamentally redefining for an entire generation of gamers what it meant to play a Role Playing Game.

And then came the ability to have realistic graphics.

With the release of the PS2, their landmark series, Final Fantasy, suddenly shifted from a series that was more about the story to one that was more about the graphics.  Square-Enix went from releasing a new main-series Final Fantasy game once every 1-4 years, to suddenly having six-year release schedules.  They instead focused on releasing spinoffs, remakes, ports, and a slew of Final Fantasy VII drivel that just needed to stop.

At this year's E3, Square-Enix unveiled their Luminous game engine with a tech demo that featured a fake Final Fantasy game, and of course the tech geeks lost their fucking minds.  What's sad is that they didn't actually present anything worth buying.

Instead of localizing the series that it bought when they enveloped Enix, Dragon Quest, they continue to release the games only in Japan, despite the cries from their Western fans.  They went even further to ruin the series by making the latest iteration of the game, number ten in the series, an online game.  Awesome.  So, you've taken the last bastion of the classic JRPG and turned it into an online nightmare?      Great.

Unfortunately, gone are the days of the good JRPG from Square-Enix, and instead, we're left with gaming travesties like Final Fantasy XIIII and XIII-2.  

The moral of the story is this:

RPG fans don't want better graphics; they just want better games.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Best Buy is Often the Worst Buy...

I have a shopping addiction.  There.  I've admitted it.

Whenever I have money and I want something, I'll have it in my hands within the week.  This is a terrible habit, but it's one that has followed me my whole life.

I have no self-control when it comes to shopping, and when I think back to when I first got out on my own, I remember frequenting Best Buy in Knoxville, TN to satisfy all of my multi-media shopping binges.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this article, today:

I wish I could say that I'm dismayed or surprised by this article, but I'm not.  I've been noticing Best Buy's decline for the past six years, and have communicated this dismay to the corporate structure and local managers (at many stores) dozens of times.

I won't paraphrase the article by repeating it verbatim, but here are my experiences with Best Buy over time:

I first began shopping at Best Buy in 2002 when I lived in Knoxville, TN.  I bought my first personally purchased DVD player, and literally dozens of DVDs, there.  I would go at least once a week after my shift at Famous Dave's or Macaroni Grill and pick up a new release on DVD or a new video game.  The staff knew me personally, and could always count on me to drop $100 there on every visit.

When I moved to Atlanta, however, I didn't have access to a local Best Buy.  Hell, I didn't even know where one was.  So, I switched my purchasing dollars to Borders.  There, I could purchase movies AND books.  I did find a Best Buy near where I worked, but when I went, the experience was markedly different.

I once was physically bowled over by one of the Atlanta Falcons' players who was doing some stupid recorded shopping trip to show how he spent his millions.  After running me over, instead of apologizing to me, he told me to watch where I was walking (I had been standing still), and then asked me if I knew who he was.  I told him I had no idea who the hell he was, but that he was a dick.  When he told me he was an Atlanta Falcon, I said, "Whatever.  I'm a Patriots fan."

This experience pretty much ended my "good times" with Best Buy.

The next time I went to a Best Buy was in December of 2005 when I went to purchase a computer.  At this point, the company began to change...

Gone was the attractive staff that actually knew what they were selling, and in their place were ungroomed idiot boys who had no clue how to differentiate between a television and a computer monitor.  This trend continued, and as the staff got less knowledgable, the product offerings got less affordable.

I remember when DVDs, CDs, and games were reasonably priced - Best Buy, however, believes that these items come at a premium.

Here's a cost comparison:

Fright Night (2011) 3-D Blu-Ray, DVD, Blu-Ray Combo Pack -

List Price:  $49.99 (Ridiculous to being with)
Amazon:   $30.99
Best Buy:  $34.99

It seems like a small difference, but that makes a BIG difference.  That's just off the Best Buy website.  In the store, I can almost guarantee you that the price would be $39.99.  

Any chance that Best Buy gets to jack up its in-store prices, it takes, and then it wonders why consumers don't buy small electronics in their stores?  Figure it out!

That doesn't even begin to cover the fact that the stores are ridiculously disorganized.  Aisles are oddly placed, and products are barely alphabetized.  Appliances are stacked on top of one another like a game of Jenga, and the television section is filled with TVs on the blink.

None of the employees seem qualified to handle money, much less answer technical questions about products.

Here's a hint to all of the specialty electronics stores - if you hire qualified people and pay them well, you will have customers who are happy with the services you offer.  If you hire idiots, cut your product supply, and focus only on your bottom line, you will lose customers.  It's easy.

Downloadable Content is Usually Crap...

So, I'm a gamer, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.  I enjoy RPGs, puzzle games, and the occasional Zelda/Mario game.

Square-Enix has been my favorite company for over two decades of my gaming career, and I've tried to stick by them for most of the last five years only to be continually rebuffed with shitty games.

Final Fantasy XIII - You're pretty, but your story sucks and your characters unlikable.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 - You're prettier, but your story sucks, your character are unlikable, and you're a sequel to a game that just wasn't that good to begin with...

OH...and then, there's Downloadable Content.

I guess this must be a Japanese thing, but I don't care what "costumes" my character are wearing, S-E.  $3 for a new costume for my character of choice is fucking shitty deal, and that you think this qualifies as something worth paying money for shows us just how little you care about the quality of your gamers' experiences.  That shit should be free.  How about you offer DLC that allows gamers to play games that have real value for their money?

I understand Square-Enix is attempting to tap new markets, but online gaming is NOT the answer.  You are ruining the Dragon Quest series by forcing players to go online to play a game that should be an RPG, but instead forces me to play with others.  I don't want to play with others; that's why I purchase RPGs.  Dragon Quest is one of the most storied and successful gaming franchises in the world, and rather than continue its great traditions, Square-Enix has managed to pump out crap title after crap title.

It doesn't help that Square-Enix cares so little about gamers in other localities.  When Nintendo of America has to step in to localize your RPGs to the United States, you aren't doing your fucking jobs.  Fucking figure it out.

I'm done.