The Problem With… Nintendo Apologists

bundle_gray_tabletopI’ve pre-ordered a Switch. I do however still stand by my original stance that the Switch isn’t an impressive system; it’s ugly, under-powered and will struggle to get 3rd parties back on board. So why then have I pre-ordered? I’ve been a Nintendo fan since back in the NES days and their games still have that something special that keeps me coming back. Don’t get me wrong, they do occasionally churn out some shit. Even big franchises like The Legend of Zelda have the occasional “miss”; I thought both Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were among the worst in the franchise. I also like the idea of taking some potentially great games like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with me while I travel. These days I find myself playing handheld systems like my Vita more often than my home consoles so the Switch might be a great setup for me.

I understand Nintendo get a lot wrong (as we’ll delve into in this article) but there’s a lot of fans who I guess we’d call “fanboys” who are so blinded by their sheer love for everything Nintendo that they cannot and will not accept any criticism thrown at the company. Now to be clear, there’s die hards in both the Sony and Microsoft camps too but Nintendo breed a special kind of loyal fan. In the past I’ve been labelled a Nintendo fanboy and a Sony fanboy but honestly, I’m neither. I criticise things I hate with all 3 video game giants, I just have a tendency to enjoy first party Nintendo games and in recent years my consoles of choice tend to be Sony devices – that’s my personal preference. So let’s explore the special flowers that are Nintendo apologists. I’m going to use a few personal anecdotes in this article which I’m ok with as I’m specifically making an argument about these types of fans, not Nintendo fans in general.

I recently got into a debate on a Facebook group when I saw a post stating “That explains why the pro controller is more expensive, that’s insane it has that all built in. Glad to know that”. The post was accompanied by a brief description of its features. The tech inside the pro controller boasts features such as “motion controls”, “HD rumble” (whatever that will end up being) and “built in amiibo functionality”. Firstly, I’m not totally convinced that these features do explain the high cost of this controller. Doing a quick search, the Xbox One controller retails for around $50 and includes their own version of updated rumble in the form of “Impulse Triggers”. A PS4 DualShock 4 can also be picked up new for a similar price and they too feature new tech such as the light bar, speaker (new to PlayStation controllers) and a “Clickable touchpad”. Arguably of course the Switches HD rumble might be a revolution compared to the rumble of old but do an NFC reader and a fancy update to rumble justify a full $20 increase over the competition? Let’s give the poster the benefit of the doubt here and agree that this “new” tech actually does justify the $20 increase. WHY DO I NEED IT? And here’s my argument that I posted in response:

“That doesn’t mean the majority of players want all that tech. Does everything in your house really need to have the ability to scan amiibo? Or would the main screen be sufficient? I’d certainly take the lack of amiibo scanning in a specific controller if it meant the price was £15 less.”11396097-6244453754475000

A second poster then argued that indeed, this same logic could be applied to PS4 or Xbox One controllers. I agreed that indeed that is true but that doesn’t justify Nintendo bumping the cost of their controller up significantly. We as consumers come to expect a certain price bracket for consoles and accessories and indeed on this matter gamers will vote with their wallets I’m sure. The worst part about this is that the pro controller isn’t even the most expensive controller on offer. A set of Joy-Cons will set you back around $90! Journalists and fans alike (well, except for Nintendo apologists) seem up in arms about the price, Polygon seemed to have done the work for me here, after checking Twitter Ben Kuchera stated “I checked Twitter to see if I was just suffering from a case of unrealistic expectations and nope, there seems to be some serious pushback from others about the price of these accessories”1. Jim Sterling commented after the reveal “Let’s look at everything else Nintendo did to kill my interest in the switch”2 before going on to complain about the price of not only the pro controller but other accessories. Colin Moriarty explained on his new show “Colin Was Right”:

“You do have to do something to keep people around. The games aren’t there and they aren’t going to be there and these ridiculous peripheral prices are simply isolating potential customers even more.”3

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Gamers could chose to take or leave the console and any accessories; Nintendo has every right to charge whatever they feel is reasonable but get this. Since the NES we’ve seen a notable decline in install base throughout all of their home consoles4, with the Wii being the one anomaly here. The NES for example shifted over 60 million units whereas the Wii U has managed fewer than 14 million units and with the Switch releasing in less than 2 months that figure isn’t likely to creep up much further. With that I’d consider it a reasonable expectation that Nintendo should do everything they can to win back a bit of loyalty. Maybe sell the console for a significant loss in order to get the install base back up? After all they’d make a killing on software, much like the business model Sony and Microsoft have used many times in the past.5 How about charge a reasonable price for extra controllers? Maybe bundle in the ability to charge the Joy-Cons with the included grip rather than having to shell out for a special charging grip?6 So the slightly higher than expected price of controllers and accessories alone isn’t the only issue here. I think a Facebook post I wrote summaries this nicely:

“What exactly would Nintendo have to do in order for you to call them out on it? Shit on your lawn? There are a stack of issues surrounding the switch and so many Nintendo apologists are coming out with excuse after excuse.

Look, it’s not JUST the charging issue here, that’s merely the icing on the cake or should that be cack?”

Let’s address some of the other points then that are contributing to this mess. The launch line-up is really weak, on the launch day itself we have The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Ok, here’s a decent first party franchise) and 1-2 Switch in terms of first party titles. As for 3rd party? Skylanders something or another, Just Dance 20 whatever year it is and Super Bomberman R.7 Nothing really to write home about. And as for Zelda, well although this is a beloved Nintendo franchise it really isn’t a big system seller; just take a look at past Nintendo sales figures.8 I’d also add that out of these games 1-2 Switch and Super Bomberman R are the only exclusives, Zelda is also on Wii U and the rest of the bunch are coming to multiple platforms. Ok, so how about games released during 2017? Notable “big” games include Super Mario Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, FIFA, NBA 2K18, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2 and ARMS. Notice the absence of a lot of major cross platform games? Where are Call of Duty, Battlefield, Resident Evil 7, Kingdom Hearts III, Mass Effect Andromeda, Metal Gear Survive, Red Dead Redemption 2 and South Park: Fractured But Whole to named but a few. Sure, as the saying goes “people buy a Nintendo or Nintendo games, not cross-platform games”. Hmmm, I’d be convinced of that if only the sales figures showed that to be the case. The fact is when most households chose to splash out on a console they are clearly picking the Sony or Microsoft boxes that can play a few great exclusives as well as being supported extensively by 3rd party developers. Think about it, gamers with a bit of excess cash might buy 2 or even all 3 of these home systems but many kids or adults on lower incomes will only buy one console. And these consumers will certainly want a box that gives them a decent variety of games, including games that their friends are talking about.  And this brings me to the next comment I found on Facebook:

“The hybrid nature of the console will hold it back from being a mainstream success. But it will likely do pretty well, Zelda at launch, MK8 Splatoon and Mario Odyssey all in the first year, will keep the system selling well all the way through its first year.”

My response to this statement?

“4 games in a year will not “keep the system selling well”, especially when 2 of them are essentially “deluxe” versions of existing games and zelda is not an exclusive.”

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The conversation continued with this user stating that I was “forgetting those are four of the biggest games Nintendo has”. The problem is that these “biggest” franchises also made appearances on Wii U and they didn’t shift enough consoles so what makes him think they will just because they are coming to a new platform? Another user then chimed in to tell me games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe aren’t simply ports like we saw from PS3 to PS4. I’m not sure what he’d consider a port then when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is (as the name implies) a Deluxe version of an old game, it includes all previous DLC and a couple of extra bits and pieces to sweeten the deal. It is by no means a brand new game and it isn’t being marketed in that way either. To top off this debate the original user then informed me that these games did in fact sell the Wii U console. Really? REALLY? The 85 million or so gamers who bought a Wii but didn’t buy a Wii U might disagree with you there! The final comment from the original user was also a bit of a surprise after I’d mentioned to him that you only have to look at how the media reacted after the second reveal. Proving my point that Nintendo apologists are almost blind to any criticism he noted:

“The “buzz surrounding it died”? In what world are you living in? Ever major gaming, tech, nerd , and even news outlet has covered the Switch conference.”

Well I’m actually referring to the likes of the Jimquisition episode9 on this subject where Jim Sterling does a fine job of highlighting some of the points (and others) that I’ve mentioned here. Jim specifically mentions at the end of the video that he made the episode out of frustration because he believes Nintendo has “the potential to be the best platform holder…”.10 I’m doing much the same thing here, I haven’t written this article to slate Nintendo – I’ve ordered the Switch! I’ve wrote this article to vent my frustration at a company which makes so many stupid mistakes that they really shouldn’t make.

Would you like more proof that the buzz died after the reveal? How about the Kinda Funny guys? Colin specifically stated after the Nintendo reveal11 back in October 2016 “I’m excited to pre-order”.12 After the second reveal Colin commented that he was “not very excited”13 before the guys commented negatively on the price of the accessories14 and everything else for that matter!15 Anecdotally I might also add that during the original reveal I left several comments on forums expressing my dislike of the Switch’s ugly, clumsy design. I was pretty much shot down immediately, not a lot of people agreed with me. Fast forward to the second reveal and forums are now seemly divided down the middle with arguments revolving around the high price of the accessories, the Nintendo network becoming a premium service (more on this soon) and the sparse launch line up. And then there’s the articles, of course it wouldn’t be fair to say that all the Switch press was negative. There are indeed a lot of positive posts and many fans and journalists alike have been won over. But just look at a few of these headlines and I think you’ll agree that Nintendo haven’t exactly knocked it out of the park:

The pricing on Nintendo Switch accessories is a bad, bad joke1
Nintendo Switch online service’s ‘free’ monthly games come with a huge catch161-2-Switch is not the killer app the Nintendo Switch needs17
Nintendo Switch will launch with fewer games than the Wii, Wii U or 3DS18
Nintendo Switch’s bundled Joy-Con grip doesn’t charge controllers19

And I think that sums up Nintendo, there are always caveats with their services, games and products. And talking of services, let’s take a look at Nintendo’s new offerings. First of all there’s news that the Switch’s voice chat is done…wait for it… via a smart phone app!20 That’s right folks, there is no native voice chat built into the Switch, and here’s the reasoning behind it according to NOA’s head honcho Reggie Fils-Aime:

“we want to reinforce the capability to take your experience with you on the go…. The ability to do matchmaking, voice chat through your phone, it’s a hell of a lot more convenient than having a gamer headset stuck into your backpack trying to do that. That’s why we’re doing it the way we are. We see the convenience, we see the ease of delivery. We think it’s going to lead to a better experience.”20

This is another common problem with Nintendo, they do things so against the grain that it defies all logic yet Nintendo will outright defend these decisions, as will their apologists. If the issue here is parental controls then implement controls to block this feature for children. If however the issue really is convenience then why can’t we have the best of both worlds and include voice chat out of the box as well as via a smart device app? Is Reggie seriously trying to say voice chat via a phone is more convenient? Not only does this mean anybody who wants to voice chat needs a couple of hundred pounds worth of mobile phone, but it needs to be charged, have a decent signal and be used separately from the Switch’s interface. And how about the “gamer headset stuck into your backpack”? Is he suggesting you no longer need a headset? So I just sit on the train with my phone next to my ear or with the speaker blearing out? Or do I use a small set of headphones with a microphone? If the latter then why can’t I use that with a Switch instead of the massively inconvenient headset Reggie assumes I need if voice chat was native to the console?

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For the record, personally I don’t care about voice chat, especially on a Nintendo console as I’m not a big online gamer. Like voice chat or not though, there’s a hell of a lot of gamers out there who use this feature daily on the PS4 and Xbox One. How can Nintendo ever hope to gain a big fan base when online gamers are denied basic features like this? Yet again though, the apologists help justify Nintendo’s absurd decision. One Facebooker commented “When you make things more difficult for people to use – voice chat – you deserve to be endlessly mocked.” Perhaps he was trolling a little as this was on the Nintendo Voice Chat Facebook group, however, just look at this response “I don’t agree. Nintendo is pivoting towards mobile as a focal point. They approach online differently as such. So, it may not be for you, but mocking is for kids online.” “Pivoting towards mobile”? So that’s the justification for shafting core online gamers?

It seems that voice chat isn’t the only online feature Nintendo is having a stab at butchering either. Much like Xbox Live and PSN, Nintendo will now also start charging for online functionality and in return gamers can expect online lobbies with voice chat, exclusive deals and monthly game downloads from the NES and SNES libraries.21 Here’s the catch, not only have Nintendo miserably failed with all online ventures on previous consoles when compared to Sony and Microsoft but their new paid for service will be giving fans access to an 8 or 16-bit game for one month only!22 Ok, so I’m a firm believer that gameplay is king and I also think that some of the finest games in existence can be found on both the NES and SNES but there’s no denying that offering gamers limited access to 20 or 30 year old games for a month isn’t exactly on par with their competitors. Sony alone offers 6 games per month (2 on each platform from PS3, PS4 and Vita), not forgetting that quite often a selection of these games are also cross-platform so the argument of “I only have a PS4 though” doesn’t wash here. Arguably a lot of these games aren’t worth the bandwidth they use to download but there have also been some great games on the service over the years. And what’s more, both Sony and Microsoft let you play these games for the entirety of your subscription. Having now been a subscriber for 5 or 6 years myself I literally have access to hundreds of games.

I actually put this question to members of the Nintendo Voice Chat Facebook group and in general most responses agreed with me. There were however a couple which tried to justify Nintendo’s decisions and put a positive spin on things. Here’s a couple:

“I like it the flavor of the month concept to it. In reality most of these games take a few hours to beat. So a month should be more than enough time with an NES or SNES game.”

“In a way wouldn’t having it only as a month motivate people to play right away, fill the online modes and most will be done with NES and SNES games after a month anyway? Just a thought.”

“The good thing about the monthly thing would that it would encourage a lot of people to play it that month. This would make it a lot easier to find people to play online with during that month.”

“I like it, i think it will be great for everyone to have access to the same title at the same time.”

Now, I understand what the first commenter is suggesting. In general a lot of NES / SNES era games can realistically be beaten with a couple of hours. However, what I don’t agree with is justifying this decision just because a game is short. Let’s put it this way, sometimes I might buy a game or get one free with PS+ but not actually get around to playing it for months, or even years in some cases. Why would Nintendo putting a restriction on the availability of the game be a good thing? Isn’t it better for the gamer to decide when they want to play the game instead of having it dictated to them?

I’d urge you all to throw away your nostalgia and throw away your biases and really take a look at Nintendo’s decisions. This is a company I grew up with, I love their consoles and love their games but there’s nothing wrong with calling out a company when they do something shitty. It’s pretty clear from Nintendo’s dwindling sales figures that they are struggling to stay relevant and keep up with Microsoft and Sony and if they at least don’t try and offer similar services and technology they will eventually fall.

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Finally, please go and watch both the Colin Was Right episode “Same Old Nintendo” and the Jimquisition episode “What Nintendo Fucked Up With The Switch So Far”. Both of these episodes are excellent, level headed and delivered by Nintendo fans.

A note about any Facebook quotations I’ve used.
I’ve left quotes unaltered, including spelling and typos. I felt this was the best way to avoid misquoting anybody. I’ve left out any citation here; they are simply being used as anecdotes to protect the users anonymity.

1 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14261342/nintendo-switch-extra-controller-price-terrible
2 – https://youtu.be/7fH_wl8ceAg?t=341
3 – https://youtu.be/LenzNAyRnWU?list=PLy3mMHt2i7RJjrxBVoVL5tDTbhimG4NFz&t=540
4 – https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/hard_soft/
5 – http://www.pcworld.com/article/127906/article.html
6 – http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-01-16-nintendo-switchs-basic-joy-con-grip-doesnt-charge-controllers
7 – https://twitter.com/NintendoAmerica/status/820006323328864256/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
8 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/01/29/these-are-nintendos-lifetime-hardware-and-software-numbers
9 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fH_wl8ceAg&t=352s
10 – https://youtu.be/7fH_wl8ceAg?t=681
11 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5uik5fgIaI
12 – https://youtu.be/HONQAWV5nxQ?t=754
13 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=333
14 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=452
15 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=511
16 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14266290/nintendo-switch-monthly-games-not-free
17 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14268204/1-2-switch-nintendo-switch-pre-review
18 – http://www.polygon.com/nintendo-switch/2017/1/13/14263186/nintendo-switch-lineup-wii-wiiu-3ds-comparison
19 – http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-01-16-nintendo-switchs-basic-joy-con-grip-doesnt-charge-controllers
20 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/01/14/nintendo-talks-voice-chat-online-approach-for-switch
21 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/01/13/nintendo-switch-online-services-will-be-free-at-first
22 – https://twitter.com/kobunheat/status/819956802741747712?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

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The problem with… The last boss

I’ve been playing video games for the best part of 30 years but I don’t consider myself to be exceptionally skilled. I’ve never excelled at PVP games and I’ve never been top of online leader boards. I don’t mind a challenge but I don’t always crave it which is why I can enjoy an easy run through of Kirby’s Epic Yarn or get stuck into Demon’s Souls should the mood take me.

What I do have a problem with though is excessively scaling the difficulty when approaching the end of a game or when reaching the final boss. Generally speaking I think the concept of a final boss is outdated, sure in some cases it’s useful but it shouldn’t be the default. Did The Last of Us feel as if it were missing something for not including a last boss? Granted genres such as the RPG need a final boss, the whole purpose of progressing and in some cases grinding in a JRPG is to power up and become strong enough to obliterate the antagonist.

There have been a good handful of games that have left a sour taste in my mouth specifically because of an annoying or particularly difficult final boss. It’s almost to the point for me where an outstanding game can be relegated to an “ok” game purely based on that final impression that it leaves. So this then is what I’d like to discuss throughout this article. I’d also like to make it clear that all of the games I’m about to list have left an impression on me over the years for having issues when it comes to the final boss, some are old, some are new. I’ve specifically chosen to not revisit these games while writing this article as the point is this – these games did or almost did turn me off them just because of one final battle and that’s one of the memories I’ve been left with.

Of course spoilers will follow as we’re talking about the end of several games here.

Final Fantasy VIII

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Final Fantasy VIII was defiantly my least favourite of the PS1 trilogy of games, that being said I still enjoyed the game, the story and the characters. I’ve actually played through the game at least 2 times from what I can remember but I’ve never actually completed it. My problem with the final boss, Ultimercia isn’t necessarily with the battle itself but rather an overwhelmingly broken system. The draw system in my mind was undoubtedly flawed, permanently limiting the amount of magic you can store and use and forcing the player to constantly grind to “draw” more magic from enemies offered nothing new or exciting to the battle system. Sure it ensured players thought a bit more about each move. Should you really use the highest tier of Fire magic (Firaga), which you’ve only stocked 10 of when you could use the basic Fire magic which you’ve stored 99 of? Essentially though, I found the system at best a grindy nuisance and at worst game breaking.

When reaching Ultimercia for the first time I quickly realised not only did I need to level up my characters but I would also need to spend time grinding in order to draw useful magic. And here’s where I encountered the second problem – I had no way of returning to the world. I could be wrong here but I could only figure out how to access certain areas of the world map and if memory serves the towns were blocked behind magic barriers, preventing me returning to areas to stock up on items and equipment. I’m sure at the time I consulted walkthrough’s to figure out exactly how to return to different islands but it either couldn’t be done or it was too convoluted. And with that Ultimercia still reigns supreme.

My complaint then might seem more about the gameplay mechanics of Final Fntasy VIII rather than the boss but I’ll stress this, I had no problem progressing through the game up until this point. It was literally a case of I was powerful enough to progress through the entire game but not powerful enough to beat Ultimercia.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 2

Now hear me out – pretty much every game on this list I like, some I even love. Uncharted 2 is without doubt a superb game, it’s one of my favourite PS3 games but I can’t deny the last boss, Lazarević was a right cunt. In all fairness I play the Uncharted games on hard and crushing difficulties so I’m fully expecting to die a lot during my adventure. That being said the difficulty ramped up considerably during this fight to the point where I wanted to throw my pad against a wall and feed the plastic shards to Lazarević himself.

On top of being difficult, this boss fight was extremely dull, essentially it involved running around in a circle in order to hide from Lazarević then pop a purple ball of goo over him before he spots you. This process had to be repeated several times in a row and if you were attacked you were screwed. I remember attempting this boss fight many, many times in a row before I finally took the big bastard down.

Uncharted is one of those series where I really wouldn’t mind if they totally left out the final boss fights. There wasn’t really one in Uncharted 3: Among Thieves and I didn’t feel cheated because of it.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Uncharted 4

Alright, so I’m picking on Uncharted here. Naughty Dog are up there as one of my favourite developers and the Uncharted series is one of my favourite franchises of all time, so why am I complaining about yet another boss? Surprisingly I actually thought this boss fight was excellent, I loved it! Mechanically and visually this boss fight was superb, what I didn’t like however was the difficulty of getting through it.

This final boss fight sees Drake in a good old standoff with one of the games antagonists, Rafe. You engage in an epic sword fight with stunning animations and great mechanics, really impressive stuff. The fight itself consists of a series of attack and parry moves where you have to correctly block whichever side Rafe is about to attack you from. These moves feel so quick and difficult to judge that most of the time I either couldn’t react fast enough or I couldn’t quite figure out where he was going to attack me from. There’s also a bunch of quick time / button mash sections which aren’t so bad. I actually enjoyed this battle to begin with before I realised just how damn difficult it is. I think there are 3 or 4 checkpoints scattered throughout this fight but getting to each one became a real chore to the point where the novelty of the fight really started to wear off. It’s a real shame as this game is near perfect but perhaps the difficulty of the final boss could have been better balanced.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

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I distinctly remember how I felt when I finally finished Donkey Kong Country Returns. I almost didn’t feel like finishing this one, I was immensely frustrated with how broken this boss was. Whereas the previous games featured in this article felt too difficult, DKC Returns actually felt broken. I could pass off the previous boss battles in this article as me not being good enough, with this tough it felt like I needed a whole lot of luck – which in a game like this is unforgivable.

Tiki Tong is essentially a huge head with fists who floats above the stage, pounding down every now and again in order to squash the titular ape. So what’s to stop you applying general boss fight logic and carefully watching his attack pattern? Well that’s just the thing; Tiki Tong seems to break the rules of the game, attacking in ways that are seemingly unpredictable. The difficulty curve throughout the game seemed to gently ramp up but by the final boss it shot through the roof. Why frustrate players like this? I didn’t feel a sense of achievement for defeating Tiki, I simply felt like burning the cart and never returning to the game again.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

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Another broken, totally unfair boss fight, there’s no other way to put it. The battle against Senator Armstrong feels like a broken mess and offers nothing except frustration. As with Tiki Tong, I felt absolutely no sense of achievement for taking this big bastard down, I simply felt annoyed that developers, Platinum had deemed this a worthy end to the game.

The boss fight includes a bunch of quick time events where you have to slash in particular directions in order to stop Armstrong from hitting you with various projectiles. I can’t quite remember exactly what I was apparently doing wrong here but I couldn’t get the timing nailed down and he’d repeatedly pummel me. I seem to remember spending a couple of hours over the course of several nights trying to overcome this fight. I’d consulted walkthrough’s and asked other people who were playing the game exactly how I should kill him and I still had issues.

The worst thing here is that slashing in the correct directions was a broken mechanic in itself; I had to look up video walkthrough to figure out how to get around the broken system by moving the analogue sticks in very specific ways to allow the game to correctly recognise my input direction. Bosses like this are truly awful, why should I suffer because of a clearly broken gameplay mechanic?

Bloodborne

Bloodborne

Probably another controversial one for the list then is Bloodborne’s final boss Gehrman (which I’ve learnt isn’t actually the final, final boss but he happened to be the boss I defeated to see the end game). This Jerk doesn’t look anything special, especially in a game like Bloodborne where many of the bosses tower above you. Forget his looks though, this is one difficult boss who caused me to almost stop playing the game right there and then.

Now I realise Bloodborne, along with the Soul’s games are renowned for their difficulty. That being said I’d made my way through the game up until this point and I’d previously finished all the Soul’s games. My character was around level 100 by the time I reached Gehrman, which I’m guessing is pretty powerful considering a lot of people seem to finish the game around the level 70 sort of mark. I’d expected a challenge by the time I reached the final boss but after levelling up so much and killing every boss in the main game I imagined I’d prepared enough for this final encounter.

Gehrman charges right for you and he doesn’t give up so you’ll need to be quick and skilled in order to dodge, shoot and counter him. The problem here is I just never really got comfortable with the shooting to stagger your enemies mechanic throughout the game and by the time I reached the final boss I struggled to get this right. Regardless, I was able to stagger Gehrman multiple times but on the odd occasion he did manage to attack me I’d basically had it. So time and time again I respawed and had to start the battle again, and here is the underlying problem with the boss battles throughout this game.

I noticed fairly early on that the blood vials mechanic was either massively broken or so cryptic that I couldn’t understand or figure out how it worked. Generally speaking you have a set amount of vials (let’s say 10) that can be consumed to regain health. These vials can be obtained by killing enemies and collecting them as loot or bought. Once consumed, they have to be replenished – or do they? I never quite figured this out. Many times I’d start a boss fight, fully stocked up on vials, consume several then die. Once I respawned it was pot luck as to whether these vials automatically replenished themselves back to 10 or whether I was left with the amount I had when I died. This continually happened throughout the game during boss fights. Die – respawn – check vials. Sometimes they’d be full, despite using them during the boss fight, other times I’d be left with the amount I had once I died.

So although Gehrman was a difficult boss battle, the game mechanics made it infinitely more frustrating. I’ts no exaggeration to say that for every time I attempted Gehrman I was probably spending 15 minutes grinding the starting area to replenish my vials. 

Dishonourable mention 

DrinkBox Studios’ Guacamelee came to mind while writing this article but I’d realised it wasn’t the final boss that almost had me quit this game. Jaguar Javier, a boss towards the end of the game actually gave me the biggest headache while playing Guacamelee. In some respects this is the worst offender on my list as I wasn’t even at the end game when I encountered a boss that very nearly made me quite the game. 

Conclusion 

Many games take the approach of the action film genre where the main protagonist finally catches up to the antagonist of the film and takes them down in one final battle. Back when gaming was in its infancy the majority of experiences were action based and involved heavy amounts of slaughtering and thus a last boss was a nice full stop to a game whose ending generally consisted of a “The End” screen. Thankfully games are starting to mature as a medium and in cases like The Last of Us or Journey the narrative is good enough that the inclusion of a final challenge is not always appropriate for the player to feel satisfied.

Developers need to be bold enough and confident enough with the experience they have created to not have to shoe horn in a final boss battle. However if a boss battle is required then developers need to realise that offering one final challenge should be satisfying and not frustrating. A good boss battle should require the player to use the abilities and techniques they have built up throughout the game but not feel cheated by the difficulty curve ramping up inconsistently when facing the final boss.

The Problem With… Nintendo

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I’ve pretty much been a lifelong Nintendo fan, receiving a NES at about the age of 6. Since then I’ve owned every major platform they have released apart from the ill fated Virtual boy. I’m still a huge Nintendo fan to this day, but they really infuriate me with some of the stubborn decisions they make. Nintendo have always followed their own path and have consistently innovated and pioneered a lot of main stay features from the Rumble Pak to analogue sticks. At times though, Nintendo’s blind refusal to compete and stay relevant is just baffling.

There are several main points of contention that I believe Nintendo need to address. Without doing so they will find themselves drifting further away from consumer’s expectations.

Console Branding

Let’s start by tackling the whole branding shambles. Nintendo have always tended to stick to a familiar naming convention (as do Sony and Microsoft) and in the past this worked out relatively fine. It’s fairly easy to understand a Super Nintendo is better than a Nintendo and that a Game Boy Advance is better than a mere Game Boy.

Nintendo Entertainment System
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Nintendo 64

Game Boy
Game Boy Color
Game Boy Advance

Starting with the Wii and DS eras Nintendo have increasingly made poor marketing decisions when branding a console or handheld. As many will remember, codename “Revolution”1 was later renamed Wii which wasn’t exactly a fan favourite. Many fans will remember the jokes and digs at the name during the early days of Wii. Nintendo didn’t learn from this negative reception, in fact they refused to let go of both the “Wii” and “DS” brands by naming their subsequent consoles “Wii U” and “3DS”.

The DS itself isn’t necessarily a bad name and indeed it sold in excess of 154 million units2 making it the second best selling console of all time behind the PS23. So poor branding couldn’t have really been a factor here, the problem comes from branding successive consoles with extremely similar names. The hugely successful sales of the Wii and DS family might be one reason why Nintendo decided to use these brands to encompass the Wii U and 3DS. The problem here is that the majority of people aren’t typical gamers, they don’t read up on gaming news on a daily basis and they don’t keep up with the happenings of major game companies such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. I’d forgive the average parent then if they were under the assumption that the 3DS is identical to the DS other than the ability to transform DS games into stereoscopic 3D. After all, Nintendo had already released a range of DS consoles from the DS, DS lite, DSi and DSi XL, all of which were based around the standard DS model. The DSi had a handful of games that were not compatible with the DS and so it was essentially an intermediary step towards a new handheld, a DS 1.5 if you will.

To make matters worse Nintendo created the 3DS family which currently consists of 3DS, 3DS XL, 2DS (more on this in a moment), New 3DS and New 3DS XL. It isn’t exactly obvious if somebody states “I have just bought myself a new 3DS”. What does this even mean now? Are we talking about the most recent model titled “New 3DS” or is the person referring to a brand new original 3DS console as opposed to a second hand one?

The 2DS is yet another example of the poorly chosen branding Nintendo are becoming synonymous with. How does a parent differentiate between a DS, DSi, 3DS, 2DS and New 3DS, let alone the lite and XL variations? Ah, the 3DS is like a DS but with a 3D slider? So the 2DS is the 3DS without the 3D? Is it a DS then? No, actually it’s not a DS. My head hurts just writing this paragraph.

wiiu

The Wii U branding is even worse; just take a look at the announcement trailer4. The entire focus here was on the “new controller”, each new piece of text that flashed up on screen talked about “… the new controller”. In fact, there was no mention of the actual console (which looks remarkably similar to the Wii by the way, confusing the matter even more) and it was only shown on screen for a few seconds, in the background. The Wii’s unique motion controls were in part responsible for its huge lifetime sales. Many will remember the stories of elderly and children alike all enjoying a game of tennis on Wii Sports. The concept was simple, hold this thing that looks like a TV remote and just swing it as you would a tennis racquet. It’s pretty understandable that Nintendo may have come to the conclusion that a similar marketing strategy would work for the Wii U – advertise the controller, it will sell the system. There was only one problem; it confused a whole lot of people. What had they just watched? Did Nintendo just reveal a new controller for the Wii? Satoru Iwata later went on to acknowledge this marketing mistake5 yet Nintendo still don’t seem to realise the brand names themselves are causing some of this confusion.

Sony’s consoles are clearly identifiable; they all look different for a start. Sony use numbers to denote their home systems (PS1, PS2 etc…) while their handheld straight up use different names (Portable, aka PSP and Vita). Most people can easily understand that the PS3 must be the successor to the PS2. Can anybody not in the know really come to the conclusion that the Wii U is the successor to the Wii? Or that the 3DS is the successor to the DS but not the 2DS?

Nintendo simply need to step back and think about how their branding will come across to a consumer who knows nothing about their products. It’s all well and good for a consumer who reads games journalism outlets and lives and breathes games but what about a parent buying their 6 year old a console for the first time? If you must stick with Wii, then name the successor a “Super Wii” at the very least. Really though Nintendo need to shake off the Wii branding as the Wii U really hasn’t taken off as expected and the Wii is now known to many people as the console that collected dust and filled people’s homes with shovelware. Due to the confusion with the DS, 3DS, and New 3DS I’d suggest Nintendo move away from the “DS” branding altogether.

Horse Power 

I’m slightly torn over this one as I firmly believe game play is king, not graphics, not horsepower. There does come a point however where you wonder why Nintendo refuses to keep up with the competition. Iwata has addressed this issue before6 however, and he seems keen on Nintendo continuing to innovate and carve their own path through the games industry.

Link_und_Epona_(Twilight_Princess)

Nintendo consoles are generally considered to be under powered compared to their competition. It’s easy to see why they go for this approach; they can use cheaper components and sell a system based on unique features and well loved franchises. Each system can then sell for a profit, which is unheard of in an industry of loss leaders7. The Wii U bucked this trend by selling for a loss8 but what is under the hood didn’t exactly scream “next gen” when the system was released back in 2012. Comparison charts between the current 3 home consoles9 only need to be glanced at to immediately see how under powered the Wii U is. In fact, the Wii U would be far more at home being compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 which are 6 and 7 years it’s senior respectively.

There is nothing immediately wrong with Nintendo systems being under powered as long as there is a good catalogue of games. Fans will buy a Nintendo system for the Nintendo exclusive franchises, but will the average consumer? Hardcore fans are quite happy with the device sitting and gathering dust for several months a year while waiting for the next big exclusive. Nintendo have become many gamers secondary console of choice and for the majority of the year gamers will play with a Sony or Microsoft console then hop across to a Nintendo platform every couple of months to play an exclusive. And here we get to the real problem, 3rd party support. Having multiple consoles myself, I don’t really care if 3rd party support comes to Nintendo or not because I’ll just fire up my PS3 or PS4 and play games on those devices. However a large amount of gamers (particularly children) are not always in a position to have multiple consoles. They are left with a choice between a handful of really great Nintendo games or buying either a PS4 or Xbox One and playing their exclusives as well as a large amount of 3rd party games.

Nintendo could arguably dominate the market if they were to release a similarly powerful console complete with all of their historic franchises that consumers know and love as well as offering the same multi-platform games that both Sony and Microsoft provide. Developers would want to release games on the system because they wouldn’t have to create a stand alone, downgraded port just to run on that system. Porting games between PS4, Xbox One and PC is a fairly standard practice and can financially make sense. Porting a game to Wii U just doesn’t make great business sense because more effort has to go into the downgraded port and with such a small install base the risk isn’t worth taking.

As for the next system, well Nintendo have merged their hand held and home console R&D departments10. Many speculate that this merge may result in a future console being a hybrid device that can be hooked up to a TV and played like a traditional console as well as being portable. Whatever Nintendo choose to do going forward I believe they need to create a console powerful enough to compete with their rivals. Nintendo should take a hit on the sales of a new, powerful console and provide developers and consumers with a viable alternative to Sony and Microsoft’s offerings. This is the only way they will draw in 3rd party developers and increase their install base as a result. If Nintendo really want to impress they should look ahead to technologies that will be common place in 3 or 4 years time and aim to release a new home system in around 2 years time. This decision would allow for developers to easily port between all current consoles and PC as well as allow Nintendo to also show off powerful new exclusive games that wouldn’t be possible on the PS4 and Xbox One. If they wait too long to release a new system there will be early rumours of whatever Sony and Microsoft offer next, by this point many consumers will just hold tight until these consoles are released.

Cross-buy

Both Nintendo and Sony actively support multiple platforms yet Sony has been far more active in creating an eco system. When purchasing a game customers expect many will work across a combination of PS3, PS4 and Vita (if not all 3) all for one price. This isn’t always the case but there are countless examples of games being released and given away for free to previous customers, Dead Nation11 being one such example. Nintendo on the other hand haven’t made their ecosystem quite as friendly. This means that if you buy a virtual console game such as Mega Man on the 3DS there is nothing tying your Wii U account to that Mega Man purchase. In this instance you’d have to buy the game again on the Wii U if you wanted to continue playing on that platform.

I’m not aware of any sales figures that would highlight how many customers are buying a game twice because they want to play it on both the 3DS and the Wii U. Personally Nintendo are losing money from me as I hardly ever buy virtual console games because I don’t like the fact that Nintendo won’t let me play them on multiple systems. My digital library over on the Sony ecosystem however is pretty extensive, in part because I’ve had the ability to buy games on my PS3 and later replay them on my Vita. More recently games have then been ported over to the PS4 where I’ve had the option to download them again for no additional cost.

Nintendo online accounts, coupled with the lack of cross-buy feel downright archaic. What’s worse is customers cannot visit an online store to browse for and buy content. Generally when I receive an RSS feed from Sony informing me about a sale I’ll click through to the store and end up buying a few games if they take my fancy. It’s convenient to quickly log in and make a purchase while it’s fresh in my mind. Nintendo on the other hand don’t tend to have many sales and even when they do I’d have to be at home, boot up my console and head over to the shop then search for the game.

MvsDK

Nintendo are slowly making steps to improve their ecosystem as we’ve seen with Mario VS. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars12 recently being announced as a buy one version and get the other one for free deal. We might yet make some progress, however this is labelled as a “Special offer”, potentially meaning in a few months time the offer will no longer stand. Keeping a back catalogue of virtual console games is also possible by using the system transfer to permanently move all purchases from the Wii to the Wii U. The catch here is that the virtual console games have to be played with the Wii U booted into Wii system mode. A small payment can be made to update some games to work in the Wii U OS, however the current virtual console library for Wii U is pretty lacking.

Now in terms of preserving the history that Nintendo are famous for they really need to sort out their virtual console. For a start we need at least some sort of preservation of existing purchases, I don’t want to be buying a copy of Super Mario Bros. For every Nintendo console I own. At the very least I’d like the ability to purchase a game and play it on my Wii U or 3DS without buying 2 copies. Ideally though, I’d like the Nintendo ecosystem to evolve enough so that I only have to buy a VC game once. At which point the game is tied to my account and I can access it from any future Nintendo platform. This might seem like a bad idea from Nintendo’s point of view because they’d only make money from one purchase but look at it this way, how often are consumers going to keep purchasing the same game over and over again? I know I’d buy more VC games if I thought I’d be able to access them on future platforms. That being said I know the Wii U VC library is lacking at the moment and part of that is down to porting games to work with the gamepad. There would have to be a compromise in creating a VC platform that would remain relatively unchanged on future platforms. Nintendo would need to avoid using time and resources continually porting old games to new systems. And don’t forget, Nintendo might then only generate one sale per game from veteran gamers but with every new generation of consoles comes a new generation of gamers who have all this history to discover. Think of it like iTunes, I buy a lot of my music digitally now because I can always access it through my account. If I had to re-buy my iTunes music every time I bought a new device I’d think twice about buying an album.

Nintendo Creators Program

If Nintendo haven’t already done enough to prove they have lost touch with their fans then the recent youtube program just tops it off. Essentially this program allows Nintendo to siphon off earnings from every youtube creator that posts videos featuring Nintendo games13. If a content creator doesn’t sign up to this program their content can be removed for copyright infringement. On the other hand they can choose to sign up and give Nintendo 30% of their total channel earnings or 40% for single videos14. There is no question of the legality here, Nintendo own the original material and are perfectly within their rights to take a cut of these earnings.

In the modern age the way we consume media is drastically changing. With the rise of on-demand TV and sites like youtube many people now consume media as and when they are ready. Consumers subscribe to their favourite channels not only to view various pieces of media but also to interact with content creators. Many channels now feature “Let’s play” videos, these consist of a content creator streaming themselves playing through a game. Some narrate their experiences, some review and critique games while others offer walkthrough advice. Most creators monetise their channels and make a small amount of profit for each view they receive so essentially these creators are making money by streaming copyrighted material that they do now own. This is where Nintendo decided to step in and cash in on their games being streamed.

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So why is the creators program such a mistake? Aren’t Nintendo losing out on revenue if they don’t put this program into effect? Well yes but on the other hand many games companies are now getting free marketing. What better way to market a game than watching a likeable “real” person playing a game they have actually chosen to play rather than being asked to play? When viewers watch their favourite content creator having fun with a game they are much more likely to want to play that game than they would be from watching a very fake family in a studio “living room” all pretending to enjoy a game that they are being paid to advertise. So with Nintendo now forcing creators to pay a share of their profits many well known channels will be boycotting Nintendo games. Kinda Funny15 and PewDiePie16 have both expressed that while they admit Nintendo are within their rights to do this it’s not exactly a clever move. Colin of Kinda Funny went on to state that they will simply stop doing Nintendo content all together if this starts to affect them.

I’d just like to add that streaming a game cannot be compared to streaming a film or TV show. The core experience with the former involves interacting with the medium and making choices of some sort which you cannot do by watching a stream. The core experience with TV and film on the other hand is watching the content.

Nintendo should cut the creators program completely and let content creators stream Nintendo games without worrying about copyright infringement. Not only will Nintendo’s reputation improve from this move but they’ll benefit from the free marketing.

What else can Nintendo improve?

amiibo

Recently Amiibo showed just how loved Nintendo characters are but I’d like to see improvements here. Right now Amiibo are selling in their millions and are getting difficult to get hold of but how long can that bubble last? Nintendo need a way to keep the momentum going for years to come and the recently announced Amiibo cards17 and trial games18 should help see to that. Really though, I’d like to see Nintendo offering either full virtual console games or decent discounts on them. The other obvious idea is for a fully fledged Amiibo game in whatever form that might take. Characters could unlock parts of levels or new abilities and obviously a character model to play as in game. I suppose Skylanders is the obvious comparison but Nintendo have so many great ideas I’m sure they could come up with a unique twist.

Although trophies and achievements are loved by some and hated by others I think Nintendo are missing out on a similar system. If fans don’t care about these rewards, simply ignore them but at least allow fans who do like them to have something similar on the Nintendo ecosystem. I believe these reward systems can have value, for a start they lock a lot of people into the ecosystem. Player’s can look at all their trophies for all the games they have played on a system, when it comes to moving across to a rival they’d be losing all of their rewards. Secondly, Nintendo could incentivise collection of rewards by offering something similar to Club Nintendo. If 100% of the achievements are earned in a game the player might unlock a code for a virtual console game for example. Ok, so Nintendo would lose out on a sale here but they’d also be incentivising players to keep playing on their system and keep hold of their games for as long as possible.

Let’s go back to basics with the controllers. It’s all well and good having choice but having a Wii U with a game pad, motion controller and nunchuk as well as a classic controller is just overkill. Not only can this be confusing to new consumers but it also looks like an expensive system when at first glance a potential customer will wonder if they need all of these controllers on day one. 

Conclusion

I actually think Nintendo do get a lot right, they have a great back catalogue of classic franchises and as such they have a very dedicated fanbase. Nobody can deny that Nintendo innovate, who would have thought that motion controls would become so big over one console generation? Love or hate motion controls, there is no denying there was a point when every developer wanted a piece of the action with Sony and Microsoft also developing their own rival technologies.

Nintendo always experience peaks and troughs, going from such a phenomenal console like the SNES to experiencing low sales and a lack of 3rd party support during the N64 and GameCube eras. Nintendo have had huge failures in the form of the Virtual Boy and the Power Glove to huge successes that have changed the industry like the Rumble Pak and Analogue sticks. No doubt that whatever Nintendo does in the future they’ll have a mixture or sheer brilliant ideas and innovative games as well as a few failures along the way.

Nintendo are now playing catch up trying to get used to working with HD visuals a generation later than the competition. They have been late to the online party, having a pretty basic store, limited online multiplayer functionality and a lack of voice chat. Nintendo really do have the potential to rise to glory once again but a change is needed at the company. They really need to move with the times and reassess how they go about creating games and new technology. There is nothing wrong with keeping their core philosophies and inventiveness but they also need to look at what the competition are doing to stay relevant.

  1. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2006/04/27/introducing-nintendo-wii
  2. http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/library/historical_data/pdf/consolidated_sales_e1409.pdf
  3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2011/02/14/sony-playstation2-sales-reach-150-million-units/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e3qaPg_keg
  5. http://www.standard.co.uk/business/nintendo-boss-admits-wii-u-could-have-had-better-launch-6410045.html
  6. http://thebridge.jp/en/2013/10/nintendo-satoru-iwata-bdash#fn:2
  7. http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2006/11/8239/
  8. http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-10-25-iwata-wii-u-will-be-sold-below-cost
  9. http://uk.ign.com/wikis/xbox-one/PS4_vs._Xbox_One_vs._Wii_U_Comparison_Chart
  10. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-01-16-nintendo-plans-to-merge-handheld-and-console-teams-in-historic-shake-up
  11. http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2014/04/14/dead-nation-arrives-ps-vita-week/
  12. http://mariovsdk.nintendo.com/
  13. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-02-05-nintendo-clarifies-youtube-revenue-share-program-asks-users-to-delete-non-nintendo-videos
  14. https://r.ncp.nintendo.net/guide//
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHlBzxc3P6A#t=319
  16. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/02/youtube-pewdiepie-nintendo-revenue-sharing
  17. http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/library/events/141030qa/index.html
  18. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2015/02/17/amiibo-to-unlock-nessnes-virtual-console-trials-soon

The Problem With… Final Fantasy

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Final Fantasy – A Brief Overview

Final Fantasy is a franchise of role playing games and associated spin-off games. Generally most games in the franchise are totally unrelated to each other but share common themes and mythologies. Reoccurring themes include characters with names such as “Biggs”, “Wedge” and “Cid”, mythological creatures such as the “Chocobo” and “Moogle” and god-like summons such as “Shiva” and “Ifrit”. Each game generally centres around a group of playable characters who are assembled through the course of the game in order to rid the world of an evil antagonist. The name Final Fantasy was originally used as the title of the first game as it was a final attempt by series’ creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to create a successful game. The name does not imply that each game is supposedly the last!

Introduction

I’ll start with a quick game, I shall describe a Final Fantasy game and you say which one you think it is.

I run down a corridor; I am interrupted with the occasional cut scene, I then continue to run down a corridor. Finally I enter a battle, I press a button and the game selects the most appropriate spell to cast against the enemy. The battle finishes and I continue on my epic quest down a long corridor, occasionally I wonder if I will come to a cross roads I can explore or reach a village where I can wonder around for an hour; talking to locals and upgrading my gear – no such luck.

Final Fantasy fans reading this will have no problem pointing out that I have been describing Final Fantasy XIII. Really, this article can end here and conclude with the statement “The problem with…Final Fantasy is FFXIII”. My love affair with JRPGs officially came to abrupt end with XIII but in all fairness this was just the tipping point. The truth is Final Fantasy had been going downhill for years, beginning with Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2. For the record my favourite game in the series is Final Fantasy IX, which in my opinion got just about everything right. A good story, set in a beautiful world, filled with interesting characters and literally stacks of nods to previous games in the series. So what went wrong when transitioning between the PS1 and PS2?

Game Play Over Graphics

The PS1 was released in the very early days of 3D gaming, along with the N64. Looking back most games from that generation haven’t aged well, specifically 3D games. Just take a look at some classic sprite based games on the SNES such as Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Secret of Mana; although they look old they still have a certain charm. Now look back at N64 games like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 007 or PS1 classics such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider. None of the N64 or PS1 games look particularly charming or cute these days; that’s because we were transitioning into 3D. The technology was in its infancy whereas 2D platformers and other SNES games had been using technology that had already been in development for several years.

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Games like the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII didn’t get caught up in trying to look mind blowing. Just consider for a minute the above images; on the left you can see Cloud as he appears when rendered in game. On the right you can see Cloud pre-rendered in an FMV, they look vastly different. VII still looked good at the time but that isn’t what it has been remembered for. The game play and narrative alone was enough to keep the player hooked, any technical achievements were a bonus but not the main selling point. XIII on the other hand has put its focus on polished graphics and as a result both the story and gameplay have suffered greatly. I am not alone with this opinion; it’s quite common knowledge among the gaming community that VII is one the most highly requested Square Enix remakes. Yoichi Wada, the Square Enix president, has stated “To get FFVII to something like FFXII, it would take ten times as long”. [1] A statement that in my opinion effectively confirms that XIII doesn’t even come close to the scope and exploration found in older FF games.

The 3 eras of Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy franchise can be split into 3 eras, the first being the golden age of Final Fantasy to FFVI. These games progressively evolved over several years but remained largely recognisable in terms of looks and gameplay. The first big change then came during FFVII to FFIX era, here the franchise switched to a fully fledged 3D game, came on CD-ROM instead of cartridges and featured FMVs. During this era the Final Fantasy brand reached a whole new level and introduced many new fans to the RPG genre.  The next evolution can be seen in FFX to FFXIII (excluding FFXI as this is an MMORPG); here the games dropped the world map mechanic (more on this in a moment) and really tried to push the graphical capabilities of each system the games were released on. During this era the games somewhat “sold out”, trying to pull in a very mainstream audience and dumbing down the traditional micro-management and number crunching game play and mechanics.

Both the first era (I-VII) and the second era (VII-IX) seemed to build on the success of the franchise and both have flagship games with a large fan base (VI and VII). In my opinion, although the third era (X-XIII) has seen strong sales there isn’t a core fan base behind these games.

Final Fantasy X – The Franchise Reinvents Itself

So why do I believe the third era, starting with X brought about the demise of the franchise? Notably there was a shift in key members of the team; Nobuo Uematsu had scored all previous games in the series but he was now joined by other composers. His work on VII-IX in particular is remarkable, yet from X onwards we see a rise in generic electric guitar and J-Pop music, even featuring lyrics! Hironobu Sakaguchi, who had previously produced all of the previous games in the series, became an executive producer. From what I can gather the role of “executive producer” on a video game can be a very fuzzy area but generally this appears to be a step back from some of the more creative aspects of the game itself.

Voice acting was utilised for the first time which, although a step forward (especially in story heavy games) can also negatively impact the game. Cloud (the main protagonist in VII); for example was always considered a bit of an “emo” filled with teenage angst but the player was able to create their own version of Cloud by imagining his accent and how he talks. Arguably the X protagonist, Tidus, was a very similar character only this time players were able to hear his shrill voice and he perhaps came across as more of a young whiny teen than he would of if this game were text only.

The biggest shock I received when playing X for the first time wasn’t the voice acting, cast or new battle system. After several hours into the game I realised there was no world map! Now it’s fair to say that previous games in the series have also had a degree of linearity; the basic story has to be completed in a set order. The player is funnelled towards new areas with paths that the developers do not want you to explore blocked until a later time. This concept used to be masked quite well with the use of a world map. The player could clearly understand that they couldn’t transverse a mountain or swim an ocean until a later point in the game when they had unlocked an airship or boat. The world map in these older games never really had a massive amount of locations to explore but the few it did have that strayed from the main quest helped give the impression of a non-linear experience.

Final Fantasy XII

Aside from the fact that I couldn’t follow the story in XII and didn’t have a clue what was going on half the time; the gameplay itself was pretty good. As with X, there was an absence of the classic world map. Instead a compromise was made in which the player was able to explore the world via interconnected regions, this felt much closer to the old world map system. XII still had its fair share of problems, in particular the forgettable characters and the Gambit system, a catalyst of sorts to the “autobattle” system featured in XIII.

The gambit system did present a few interesting ideas; the basic concept of which was to set up a list of rules which your AI party members would follow when in battle. For example, a character on your team could be set up to always attack using magic. If however, anybody in the party has less than 5% health left, the character will use a health potion on their next turn instead of a magic spell. Although a deep system, the problem here was that your party was now essentially fighting for themselves while you took control of the main character. This, in part, has lead to Final Fantasy games becoming the linear, corridor crawler, dumbed down game we see in XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII – The Franchise Sells Out

Right from the moment you pick up a copy of XIII you can clearly see Square Enix have tried to reach out to a wider audience. The European box art features the game’s main protagonist, Lighting in all its Americanised glory. This might not sound like a big deal but previous Final Fantasy games in both Europe and Japan featured a simple logo while the movie poster Esq. Box art was typically reserved for North America. See the images below of the Final Fantasy VII box art for the Japanese, European and North American covers. Why did the Europeans now have to suffer with the American box art? Probably because the simplistic box art of previous Final Fantasy games doesn’t appeal to your typical FPS gamer.

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As I mentioned in the introduction, XIII was a very linear experience. The game has strayed far from its classic JRPG roots and has turned into a beautiful but dull experience. XIII seems like a tech demo that somehow managed to get green lit into a fully fledged game because it looks pretty and will draw in the mass market. There is a compromise a development team must make with games, more polished and beautiful games will be more linear. Create a more open, flexible game and you have to compromise somewhat on graphics and polished, scripted experiences. Games such as Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and Portal 2 look so polished because the experience is very structured and you are clearly being led along a path the development team have carefully crafted. Compare this to something like Fallout 3, which doesn’t look very pretty but you are placed in a massively open world environment that you can explore as you wish. Final Fantasy has clearly opted to be based in the Uncharted camp rather than remaining in the less attractive, massively open RPG camp and here lies a massive problem. Final Fantasy is an RPG choosing to attempt to have its cake and eat it and it has failed massively.

Undoubtedly XIII was the game that killed the franchise for me. Obviously, being the most recent game this could be a one off mistake. After all Square had developed a new engine, which they were getting to grips with on a new console generation (but wasn’t this also the case with VII? And that was brilliant). I doubt this is the case though, as going back to analyse the changes made during this “third era” it is quite clear that some bad decisions had been fermenting since the development of X, mainly the development team trying to push the tech rather than looking at what made the older games in the series so good.

Other than linearity, XIII also implemented a new battle system, which has a similar feel to the Gambit system used in XII. The worst thing about the new battle system is the “autobattle” feature, which essentially presents the player with a “one button to rule them all option” as it selects the appropriate command to use. Now many people who have experienced a Final Fantasy game in the past know that many attacks, summons, potions and defence commands can be gained and utilised in battles throughout the game. JRPGs normal consist of many of these commands and part of the fun of the genre is the micromanagement and decision-making involved. Having a command to bypass this is killing the whole fun of the battles. Of course this feature doesn’t have to be used but it is very tempting in some situations, not to mention new comers to the genre will probably rely on this button constantly than complain that the game has no depth and you can win by just pressing one button.

XIII has also followed a recent trend of releasing sequels. Sadly, this is something that began with VII. VII started the trend for releasing sequels, spin-offs and other media in the form of Crisis Core, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus to name a few. The VII collection however was justified as the game had such a strong following and releases came years apart (Crisis Core for example was released over 10 years after VII). However, it wasn’t really until X that the flood gates truly opened for these types of Final Fantasy collections. Here is a list of the X, XII and XIII collections to date:

Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X-2

Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Versus XIII (TBC)

Conclusion

It seems very fitting that my first real JRPG experience was VII while XIII put me off JRPGs. Saying that both Dark Souls and Demon Souls are absolutely fantastic RPGs from an eastern developer and they shine a ray of hope that JRPGs haven’t all turned into a mess. I believe that a much more interesting RPG experience can be had with western RPGs. Games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are absolutely huge while quests and game play style can be approached in a variety of ways. Other games, that aren’t strictly RPGs but include RPG elements such as Bioshock have also provided a refreshing way to revitalise both the RPG and FPS genres. Compare this to The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. Although I am a massive fan of both Zelda and Final Fantasy I can’t help but think about how disappointing they have been in recent years. Zelda has gone stagnant and struggled to move with the times, offering a very hollow experience while Final Fantasy has tried to evolve and failed miserably.

[1] http://kotaku.com/5551606/how-long-would-a-final-fantasy-vii-remake-take

The problem with . . . Sonic The Hedgehog.

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In 1991 a blue blur streaked across our screens for the first time. This is when my first experience of Sonic The Hedgehog began, with my Master System controller in hand I spent countless hours dashing through each zone hoping to defeat Dr. Robotnik (as he was named back then in all but Japan). Sonic was like nothing we had seen before, his sheer speed, the lush setting of the green hill zone and his cool persona. Sonic was fresh and a far cry from the outdated podgy plumber sporting a moustache and dungarees, yet at some point throughout the years it all went wrong. You see, although Mario as a character was always much less “cool” than his blue younger rival, Mario is still innovating and refreshing with each new instalment of the main franchise, which is now pushing 30. So where did it all go wrong for Sonic? For some years Sonic was arguably as big, if not bigger than Mario, let’s take a look back at how Sonics rise to fame began.

During the 1980’s the juggernaut of Nintendo began to dominate the games industry with a reported market share of around 92%[1]. By this point Sega had already entered the console market and yet the Master System paled in comparison to the NES, selling around 13 million units[2] while the NES achieved a whopping 61.9 million[3] sales. At this point Sega had to rethink their strategy, the Genesis had arrived in Japan at the end of 1988 and over the course of almost two years it was eventually released in the UK (the console was named ‘Mega Drive’ in both Europe and Japan). This console was about to sow the seeds of success which would shoot Sega into the forefront of gamers minds, and make Sonic one of gaming’s greatest icons for generations to come. The Genesis was not an instant success, however, that was all about to change as a new game had been developed called Sonic The Hedgehog and it would be bundled in with every new Genesis console.

Sonic became an instant success and Sega’s market share peaked at around 55 – 65%[4][5] during 1991. The golden era of Sonic was about to begin as a string of Sonic titles were released yearly, beginning with Sonic The Hedgehog 2 in 1992, the lesser known Sonic CD in 1993, and both Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles released during 1994. The classic Sonic formula had worked wonders throughout the 16-Bit era, however, Sonic’s reign was about to end due to three important factors discussed below.

Part 1: Sonic Adventure

3D gaming ushered in a new era for videogames, and many existing franchises had to evolve to stay relevant. Super Mario 64 hit shelves in 1996, followed by other 3D platformers, such as Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation. Sega had also begun to evolve and so the natural progression was to bring their mascot into the realms of 3D. Fans had to wait 4 years after the release of Sonic & Knuckles for Sonic Adventure, which was released for the Dreamcast in 1998; it was the first in the main series to feature 3D gameplay (spin-offs such as Sonic Labyrinth and Sonic 3D had previously experimented with isometric gameplay).

Sonic Adventure received mainly positive reviews[6][7],so how could 3D possibly have had a negative impact on the franchise? Sonic The Hedgehog had been designed to be a much faster game than Super Mario Bros.[8] There is still an element of skill involved in Sonic’s gameplay, however the main appeal is its speed. I generally felt myself rushing through most levels as fast as possible rather than trying different routes and finding all the secret areas. Adding a third dimension to the mix didn’t really add anything to the game play, and if anything, Sonic became increasingly frustrating to control as his speedy movements were difficult to judge in a three dimensional environment. Mario on the other hand was a slower paced game with a greater focus on skill and taking time to plan each jump with expert precision, or work out a method of attack (there was of course a countdown timer in Super Mario Bros. but generally stages were not designed to be sped through as they were in Sonic The Hedgehog). Adding a 3D element to Mario games offered a further degree of tactics; the player now had to carefully navigate the plumber across narrow ledges, circle enemies and shake off crazed Bullet Bills. Moving to a 3D environment was one of only several large changes Sonic Adventure brought with it.

In recent years many would agree that Sonic games have become bloated with superficial playable characters, and if we compare this with core Mario games, the player is generally only able to play as Mario or Luigi, of course there are exceptions to this (see Super Mario 64 DS). I believe Sonic Adventure was the catalyst for this, adding six playable characters that were insubstantial in terms of their relation to the Sonic universe and more importantly to the player base. Sega seem to have addressed this oversaturation of extraneous character selection with the launch of Sonic The Hedgehog 4, in which a character teaser countdown[9] was used which finally revealed Sonic as the only playable character.

Sonic Adventure also brought with it some strange design decisions. Gone were the memorable electronic songs synonymous with previous games in the series, instead replaced by throw away guitar riffs and vocals . . . vocals! As for the level design, there were some beautiful zones such as ‘Emerald Coast’, ‘Mystic Ruins’, and ‘Windy Valley’, all of which were reminiscent of canonical Sonic design. New, however, was the inclusion of hub worlds (think Super Mario 64’s castle), which would be a perfectly fine inclusion were it not for ‘Station Square’; a city populated with humans and featuring a train station. Other than Robotnik (who is very much a caricature) humans had never been a part of this universe before, but that all changed with Sonic Adventure.

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Most importantly, disregarding some poor design decisions on Sega’s part, it is the gameplay that should keep players hooked. Going back to play ‘Emerald Coast’ (the first zone in Sonic Adventure) I realized how little interaction there is in this stage, with very few enemies, and a very linear path to the goal. The stage looks quite nice, but due to Sonic’s high speed, the player misses most of its beauty, and has no real reason to slow down to appreciate it as the stage is fairly linear with a general lack of enemies and obstacles.

Part 2: The Console Fiasco

When a new console is released it is generally four or five years until a successor is released. This allows developers to get to grips with the new tech and work on building a franchise. Developers start to understand the limitations of a platform and are in a much better position to release a sequel or two utilising the same engine and tech. Consumers also benefit from these life cycles as they generally end up with better quality games as a result. Buying a new console can cost hundreds of pounds and consumers can be reluctant to upgrade. Both Nintendo and Sony have released every new home console at least five years after their last flagship machines (there was a four year gap between the original Xbox and the Xbox 360). Sega on the other hand have had a very troubled release schedule.

The Master System debuted in 1987 and aimed to compete directly with the NES. By this time however Nintendo had already dominated the market. For the next generation the Genesis arrived two years earlier than the Super Nintendo, giving Sega a much-needed boost. The Genesis firmly cemented Sega as an established brand, and not wishing to fall behind again, Sega quickly began working on new consoles. They were perhaps a little worried that Nintendo might follow up and beat them to the market with their next generation console, which would eventually be the N64.

What happened over the next decade would lead to Sega retiring from the console market and focus solely on software. Between ‘89 and ‘99 Sega would release six new home consoles (along with the 32X there were also Mega-CD 32X games which required both a Mega CD and a 32X), plus provide continued support to the Master System. On top of this Sega also released hand held consoles and updated existing models (Mega Drive II). Compare this to Sony who openly announced that their consoles have a ten year life cycle.  The new PlayStation becomes Sony’s flagship system for five years, and then the company spends a further five years supporting the system as the budget older brother to the PlayStation 2, strengthening the user base for their latest console. There is nothing inherently wrong with this logic as Sony only supported two home platforms simultaneously, not seven!

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Now arguably the Mega CD and the 32X (along with Mega-CD 32X games) were add-ons for the Mega Drive, as neither could function without being connected to a Mega Drive. The idea was quite innovative, essentially keeping a base console relative for years to come while upgrading it with extra units rather than abandoning it in favour of the latest system. Keep in mind however, that these were full price systems retailing at approximately £250[10] for the Mega-CD and £150[11] for the 32X at release. Nintendo implemented this same concept several years later but in a much more user friendly way by offering customers the ‘Expansion Pak’, which increased the N64’s RAM. The Expansion Pak retailed for a fraction of the price of the 32X and was even bundled free with Donkey Kong 64 for a time. So therein lies the problem. It’s not that fans went off Sonic itself, but for the most part they lost interest in Sega as a brand. Nobody could keep up with the sheer about of systems Sega was selling, and for that matter who would want to?  The 32X library consisted of thirty-four games while the Mega-CD 32X library consisted of only six (some of which were duplicates of 32X games); quite a price to pay for such a limited selection.

Sega followed up with yet more bad decisions. The Saturn was slated for a September 1995 release but four months before the launch date, Sega surprised fans when the console shipped early at select retailers.[12] Due to the surprise launch there were only a handful of games, none of which were from third-party developers. Sonic didn’t even make an appearance on the console after Sonic X-treme became stuck in development hell. Four years of poor sales passed until Sega released what would be their final console, the Dreamcast.  In terms of shipped units, the Dreamcast only scrapped around 10 million, just slightly more than the Saturn.[13] Both the Xbox and GameCube sold about double that amount although they were not considered to be massive successes when compared to the mammoth PlayStation 2 sales; a console which has gone on to sell an estimated 150 million units. For reference here are SEGA’s home console releases in chronological order:

Master System (1987)

Mega Drive (1989)

Mega CD (1992)

Pico (1993)

32X (1994)

Saturn (1995)

Dreamcast (1999)

Part 3:  In Conclusion

There is not a simple explanation as to why both Sega failed as a hardware developer and Sonic failed as a flagship franchise. Sonic’s fall from grace seems to be attributed to the culmination of bad design decisions to both hardware and software. With failing hardware a franchise cannot survive, but would Sonic have fared any better had the Saturn or Dreamcast sold as well as the PlayStation 2?

During the 1990’s many franchises were evolving and Sonic had to compete to stay fresh and relevant. Sonic Team seemed to struggle to evolve Sonic in a way that would remain true to the franchise. Perhaps Sonic should have remained a 2D platformer and found new ways to innovate within that design space; after all, in recent years 2D platformers have enjoyed a resurrection and have been well received. Mario and Sonic have returned to their roots with New Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 respectively, as well as many new and unique platform style games such as Braid, Limbo and Super Meat Boy populating the downloadable space. In the meantime though, Sonic has been placed in increasingly unfamiliar situations. There has been 3D platforming in Sonic Adventure, the high-paced, almost racing like Sonic and the Secret Rings, and morphing into a werewolf in Sonic Unleashed:  none of this content ‘feels’ like a Sonic game should.

Sonic remains a reminder of a bygone era of classic platforming action in the golden age of gaming. Unfortunately he has never been able to move on and evolve in a way that both improves the core mechanics and remains relevant.

1. Kent, Steven L, The Ultimate History of Video Games (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), p. 428.

2. http://uk.retro.ign.com/articles/965/965032p1.html

3. http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/library/historical_data/pdf/consolidated_sales_e1106.pdf

4. Kent, Steven L, The Ultimate History of Video Games (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), p.434

5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mFs2v7XM4o&feature=relmfu

6. http://dreamcast.ign.com/articles/160/160140p1.html

7. http://www.gamepro.com/article/reviews/385/sonic-adventure/

8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6D9h-4vQUHM&feature=relmfu

9. http://blogs.sega.com/2010/01/15/project-needlemouse-character-countdown-finale-and-concept-art/

10. http://www.captainwilliams.co.uk/sega/megacd/megacd.php

11. http://www.captainwilliams.co.uk/sega/32x/32x.php

12. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2008/05/02/the-sad-legacy-of-the-saturn-launch

13. http://web.archive.org/web/20080905175406/http://www.gamepro.com/article/features/111822/the-10-worst-selling-consoles-of-all-time/

Edited by Arthur Salt