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.