Tokyo 2020 – The year of the gamer

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Gamers and geeks alike should embrace the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. If the Tokyo 2020 handover ceremony during the closing of Rio 2016 is anything to go by, the opening and closing ceremonies may well show the world just how relevant our culture now is. The handover ceremony that took place in Rio included nods to traditional and modern architecture, the bullet train and Mount Fuji while also fully embraced geek culture, anime and computer games. We were treated with appearances from both Pac-Man and Super Mario and although brief these mascots showed just how important computer games are to Japan as a nation.

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Japan’s president, Shinzō Abe even went as far as cosplaying as Super Mario, entering a warp pipe which then remained front and centre for the remainder of the show. Tokyo 2020 could do far worse than using a mascot such as Super Mario and indeed there’s a good chance that Mario, Pac-Man, Sonic and other famous faces will feature in the 2020 opening and closing ceremonies. These mascots would be far more appealing and relevant than the tragic London 2012 mascots and what the fuck was the 1996 Atlanta mascot supposed to be? What better mascots to use for the 2020 games than Mario and Sonic, some of the most recognisable characters of all time? Nintendo’s relationship with the International Olympics Committee stretches back to 2008’s Beijing games with the release of the first Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, and this could serve to bolster that relationship.

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While it’s true that the games themselves will be much the same as previous hosts games the opening and closing ceremonies are a spectacle that show the host nation’s culture, history and industry. Pushing computer games forward on a stage like this not only shows how big this industry really is but will go somewhat towards brushing off the notion that games are for kids. That’s not to say the 2020 games should be used as a marketing tool for the games industry, far more is at stake here. This is about showing the world what we’re all about and inviting everybody to take part.

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Let’s not forget there is still a stigma surrounding games, despite the medium being more popular than ever before. We still have the age old problem, particularly with older generations frowning upon anybody seen as “wasting” their time playing a game. The reality is an awful lot of people are now gamers without realising it, just take a look around the train on the way to work and see how many people are playing Candy Crush Saga on their phones. They might not consider themselves “gamers” but they’ve probably ploughed more hours into that game this week than I’ve put in on my PS4. Part of the importance here is Japan outright saying this is us, this is our culture and not just a child’s pastime. So let’s rejoice over Tokyo 2020, it might a unique opportunity for both sports and computer games.

 

NX Launch title speculation

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The NX should be in our homes within a year but what games can we expect to play on Nintendo’s new box? Nintendo has to strike a balance between releasing enough 1st party games on a regular basis to satisfy its fans yet not shoot its load too early and leave fans in a software drought for months at a time. After all, with Nintendo’s track record we can’t count on 3rd party support, especially if the NX turns out to be drastically different from the PS4 and the Xbox One – making porting more hassle than it’s worth. 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Legend-of-Zelda-Breath-of-the-Wild-Screenshots-02-1280x720

Nintendo have already confirmed Breath of the Wild will be an NX launch title1. No doubt this will please many hardcore Nintendo fans looking for a meaty title to get their teeth into during the launch period.

Personally I think Skyward Sword and Spirit Tracks are among the worst Zelda games Nintendo have released. Breath of the Wild needs to do something special to restore my faith in the franchise and after watching some of the footage that Nintendo have released I have to say this is shaping up to be one of the best Zelda games in recent years. That being said, Nintendo aren’t very forward thinking so Breath of the Wild could go either way. It’s all well and good offering us new mechanics, new items and a vast open world but will it have substance? Walking around a large open world scattered with a few fetch quests and several handfuls of heart containers placed slightly out of reach just isn’t going to cut it. Nintendo needs to make a believable, fun world packed full of a variety of side quests that offer up new experiences and offer unique rewards.

Chance: 100% 

Super Mario

Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel were both critically acclaimed2 and many fans were hoping that Galaxy 3 would find its way onto the Wii U. What we got instead was Super Mario 3D World which was also a fantastic game, although it didn’t quite hit the sale note that the Galaxy series did. So what does this mean for NX? Will Nintendo finally release a Galaxy 3?

The Galaxy series would undoubtedly make it into my list of favourite games of all time yet I think it would be a shame for Nintendo to bring us another. Nintendo needs to do what Nintendo does best and bring us yet another fresh, genre redefining Mario game that we know they are capable of. We want to be blown away with an all new concept that shows us why Mario is truly the king of platformers.

Nintendo have released six home consoles to date with only two of them (Gamecube and Wii) not having a core 2D or 3D Mario game as a launch title. The chances are then that Mario will either be a launch title or released within the launch window (a moving target, that let’s say for arguments sake will be within the first 12 months). Nintendo have a lot of fans to win back with the NX so a Mario game early on will be a no brainer, and let’s face it 3D World was released back in 2013 and aside from some smaller projects the team have been pretty quiet since.

Chance: 90%

Donkey Kong Country

We know that Retro have actively been working3 on an unannounced title since Tropical Freeze was released back in 2014. Based on Retro’s previous track record we could be looking at a new Metroid game, a 3rd DKC returns game or even revitalising another beloved Nintendo franchise. I’m playing this one safe then as I don’t think it’s a certainty that we’ll get another Kong game any time soon. Nintendo have been known to rest many well know franchises with Metroid skipping the N64 entirely while Donkey Kong has been put to bed a few times throughout the decades, coming back years later reinvented.

Chance: 33% 

Metroid

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Nintendo would do well to come out swinging with this one. We haven’t seen a core 3D Metroid game since 2007’s Corruption while a core 2D game last graced our screens back in 2004 in the form of Zero Mission (a remake of the original Metroid game). Of course we all remember the rather lack-lustre Other M4 which was a bit of a bastardisation of both the 2D and 3D games but even that, as the most recent Metroid outing was released in 2010.

Metroid producer Kensuke Tanabe stated to Eurogamer that a new entry in the series likely wouldn’t drop until the NX is released5 due to the development time of a new game. It’s also difficult to predict whether a new entry in the series will return to the games classic 2D roots or if Retro would pick it up for yet another Prime-esq game. While it’s not strictly an FPS, my guess is that Nintendo will want to offer up something within that genre.  After all the prime series looked gorgeous and was perhaps the Trojan horse to help sell the Wii to the FPS market.

I do think though that a new 2D Metroid could be on the horizon but this would suit a more niche audience and so Nintendo would do well to develop a 3D game first.

Chance: 70%

Kirby 

There’s no shortage of Kirby games, we tend to receive one in some form every couple of year. Be it a pinball spin off or a platformer with a new aesthetic, Kirby is constantly being reinvented, some love the franchise and some hate it. Kirby is a great addition to Nintendo’s library as the games are generally kid friendly but appeal to old skool Nintendo fans.

Kirby is arguably one of the lesser franchises that jumps to mind when thinking about Nintendo games so while the chances of getting at least a few Kirby games on NX is fairly high I wouldn’t hold my breath that there’s going to be one for launch. In fact, to date no Kirby game has ever been released on any platform for the launch date. Kirby doesn’t have the appeal to draw in gamers looking to invest in a new piece of hardware; instead this franchise should be used more as “filler” to bolster months with fewer 1st party releases.

Chance: 20%

Pikmin 4 

While not strictly a lunch title, the original Pikmin was a launch window game, releasing within a matter of weeks of the GameCube. Pikmin 2 followed around 2 years later, also for the GameCube while Pikmin 3 hit around 6 months after the Wii U launch – technically being another launch window game.

Back in August 2015 Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed that Pikmin 4 was nearing completion6 and with no word on progress since it has presumably been ported over to NX. The chances are then that Pikmin 4 will certainly be released within a matter of months of the NX launch, if not on launch day.

Chance: 80% 

Fire Emblem

SI_3DS_FireEmblemAwakeningAs an old school Nintendo fan I’m always surprised when a game emerges that I know nothing about – Fire Emblem is one such franchise. I was already familiar with Advance Wars but I’d never even heard of Fire Emblem until Awakening was announced for the 3DS. Glancing at sales figures, previews and news articles makes one thing clear since the release of Awakening; Fire Emblem is now more relevant than ever. A Fire Emblem game heading to the NX then seems like a no brainer.

With Fates releasing very recently for the 3DS it’s hard to predict what developer Intelligent Systems will do next. They may return to the sister series, Advance Wars or work on something totally different. With the huge sales enjoyed by Fates7 (even outselling the massively successful Awakening) Nintendo may decide to strike while the iron is hot and choose to release a follow up as quickly as possible. And what better way to release a follow up to a successful franchise than to develop it for a new piece of hardware that they are trying to push?

Although Fire Emblem is far more relevant than it’s ever been its important not to overstate how big this franchise is. Nintendo’s big hitters such as Pokémon, Mario Kart and Super Mario regularly shift in the region of 10 times the amount of copies that Fire Emblem can8. Why send out Fire Emblem to die when Nintendo could ship it during a slower period?

Chance: 25%

Pokémon

“Pokémon on a home console?” I hear you cry? Rumours are rife9 that the NX will in fact be a hybrid console, combining both the power of a home console, playable on a TV along with the flexibility and portability of a hand held.

Pokémon is without doubt one Nintendo’s most beloved, best selling franchises and since its inception back in the late 90’s the franchise has never skipped a handheld generation. With Sun and Moon arriving later this year it’s doubtful that we’ll see a new entry in the series for the NX launch. We don’t yet know what compatibility will be like with previous consoles though so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to see a 3rd game to complement Sun and Moon. The last time we got a 3 game generation was back on the DS with Diamond, Pearl and Platinum.

Chance: 30%

Star Fox

Over the years Star Fox has gained average to good review scores10, with the most recent entry in the franchise, Star Fox Zero scoring among the lowest in the series. Nintendo need to plan their next move carefully. It’s fair to say Star Fox has never been among the top echelons of Nintendo’s all-stars so it would come as no surprise if Star Fox doesn’t make an appearance on the NX any time soon – if at all (Star Fox was notably absent from the Wii).

Chance: 10% 

Mario Kart

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Since being introduced on the SNES, Mario Kart has had a single release on every piece of Nintendo hardware (with the exception being the Virtual Boy). There’s no doubt that Mario Kart will make an appearance on the NX but what’s more difficult to predict is when it will see the light of day.

Mario Kart 8 was released around 2 years ago so it’s fair to say another entry in the series could be well into development but then again how often are Mario Kart games launch titles for a system? The answer is never. Although we’ve seen Mario Kart games during the launch window we’ve never actually been able to pick up a copy day and date with a new piece of hardware. The chances of Mario Kart NX being a launch day title then? Not good. The chances of it being released within the first year? Fairly good. 

Chance: 60%

Splatoon

Splatoon is a hard one to call, is this destined to become a staple Nintendo franchise or will fans see it relegated to the likes of Pilotwings, Wave Race and Kid Icarus, popping up every couple of generations with no real consistency?

Considering Splatoon was universally praised11, sold fantastically well12 and had its own range of Amiibo it seems only logical that Nintendo will continue pushing it in the coming years. Not only does Splatoon fill the role of a pseudo-shooter (a genre lacking from Nintendo’s 1st party teams) but it appeals to a wide range of gamers and offers online play, a market which Nintendo really needs to cater to.

Chance: 50%

Animal Crossing         

Animal crossing is another heavy hitter for Nintendo. The game uses a tried and tested formula and iterations don’t tend to offer much in the way of new mechanics but nevertheless fans lap up each entry in the series. Animal Crossing hasn’t made an appearance on the Wii U so there’s a good chance a game might have been in the works and is now being ported over to the NX.

Animal Crossing would be one of the better games to show off the capabilities of the NX. Taking the game on the move and street passing with other players then heading back home and visiting their village with your home internet connection all while enjoying the graphics on your HDTV seems like a great way to sell a new game in the series. 

Chance: 70%

Super Mario Maker 2 

Super Mario Maker was a great idea. Take the LittleBigPlanet formula; throw in a bunch of Super Mario Brothers items, power-ups and landscapes then create a bunch of near impossible obstacles or novelty music levels for friends to enjoy. After offering players all the recourses they need to faithfully recreate levels from the golden age of Super Mario Bros. what more can Nintendo offer?

Chances are a Super Mario Maker 2 would do something completely different. The less likely idea would be to offer players a Super Mario Maker 3D, featuring elements of games from Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. Not only would this overwhelm players but seamlessly transitioning between these 3 generations of Mario games and mixing up mechanics such as FLUDD from Sunshine or planetoids from Galaxy would be an absolute nightmare.

The other, far more likely scenario then is to tackle a different franchise. How about a The Legend of Zelda Maker? A Metroid Maker or a Donkey Kong Maker? All 3 of these would work well and after up different, unique experiences. Imagine creating dungeons in a Zelda maker or creating sections of a space station in Metroid and deciding which doors can be unlocked with which upgrades? What about designing mine kart sections for Donkey Kong?

Sales of Super Mario Maker were pretty strong so Nintendo must have had the conversation about where to take the “maker” franchise next. That said, this type of game probably isn’t suited as a launch title to show off a system and its graphics. I’d expect to see a game like perhaps 2 or 3 years into the NX’s life.

Chance: 20%

Super Smash Bros. NX

Smash Bros. is now a staple Nintendo franchise, with an entry hitting each Nintendo home console since the N64. Each game in the series is received with overwhelming praise14, so what better way to celebrate Nintendo’s rich history and character roster than with an all-star game?

There’s no doubt that during the life of the NX a Smash Bros. game will release, the question is when? Furthermore who will develop the next game? The wait between Melee and Brawl was 7 years, while the 4th entry in the series Super Smash Bros. Wii U and 3DS came a further 6 years later. With that in mind were not likely to see a new game until around 2020, well into the NX life-cycle.

Series director Masahiro Sakurai has also expressed a desire to move on from Smash Bros. due to its lengthy development time and fan expectations. If Sakurai really is done then Nintendo will want to carefully select a worthy development team to take over the reins – this could take some time. All signs then point to the next Smash Bros. being a fair few years away yet.

Chance: 20%

  1. https://www.nintendo.co.uk/News/2016/April/Nintendo-provides-updates-on-mobile-NX-and-The-Legend-of-Zelda-along-with-annual-earnings-1102529.html
  2. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii/super-mario-galaxy
  3. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/02/28/wii-u-is-a-powerhouse-says-donkey-kong-country-developer
  4. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii/metroid-other-m
  5. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-06-17-next-proper-metroid-prime-would-likely-now-be-on-nx
  6. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-07-20-pikmin-4-in-development-and-very-close-to-completion
  7. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427_4e.pdf
  8. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427_4e.pdf
  9. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-07-26-nx-is-a-portable-console-with-detachable-controllers
  10. http://www.metacritic.com/search/all/star%20fox/results
  11. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii-u/splatoon
  12. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427e.pdf
  13. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/software/wiiu.html
  14. http://www.metacritic.com/search/all/smash%20bros./results
  15. http://www.gamesradar.com/super-smash-bros-creator-may-be-done-series/

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

Club Nintendo Game & Watch: Ball

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Anybody who buys a reasonable amount of Nintendo games will probably be aware of the Club Nintendo Stars Catalogue. This is a store that allows a user to spend points of a range of items such as key rings to miniature statures to rare items such as a replica SNES controller specially designed for the Wii.

Stars are collected by buying a Nintendo system or game, generally you can pick up something like 500-1000 stars for registering a code included in a system box such as the WiiU or the 3DS while games will generally bag you 250 stars. In the past I have spent stars on “Nintendo Points” which can be redeemed on the virtual console to purchase digital games.

Some of the rare items cost thousands of points, one of which is the Game & Watch reissue of “Ball”. This classic was the first Game & Watch game Nintendo released, dating from 1980. I decided to save my points and bag myself the exclusive Club Nintendo gift.

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The system comes complete with a cardboard box, packaging and far too many manuals (multiple languages).

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The system itself is tiny, far smaller than I expected. For dimensions I’ve compared it to a 3DS XL (the blue console) and a DS Lite (White). The build quality is fairly decent, with a burgundy shell and a mock chrome faceplate. The buttons are rubber while the screen itself is a monochrome LCD display.

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As for the gameplay, don’t expect to be blown away, after all the game is over 30 years old. The premise is to catch the balls that you toss up into the air, in other words it’s juggling. Game A has the player throwing 2 balls and scoring 1 point per ball caught, each ball is tossed into the air and over to the opposite side of the screen. The left and right buttons are then used to adjust the position of the left and right hands in order to catch each ball. Game B is much the same but there are 3 balls in play and 10 points are scored for each successful catch.

As the system name suggests (Game & Watch), the system is also used as a watch. You can set the time and when not in play the LCD screen will display a demo and the current time.

Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Vincent Diamante

Vincent Diamante
Audio Director
thatgamecompany

Notable games Vincent has been involved with:
Cloud, Flower, Skullgirls, Castlevania: Order of Shadows

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One of my favourite things about this generation is the great indie games we are getting to experience on consoles. Recently I have been particularly fond of games such as The Unfinished Swan, Thomas Was Alone and Journey but the first few games to really grip me were flOw and Flower, both of which were developed by thatgamecompany.

thatgamecompany really shine when it comes to telling a story simply by engaging the player with great music, visuals and gameplay. Vincent Diamante has been kind enough to suffer the fate of leaving luck to being rescued but before I send him away to survive he’s going to talk a little bit about the award winning game that is Flower, his time in education and what games make him tick.

Brad: Flower is a fantastic game but explaining the concept to somebody cannot do it justice. The game takes the player on an incredibly emotional journey simply by allowing the player to guide petals through the world; this is thanks to the soundtrack and level design working perfectly together.

As the composer of Flower’s soundtrack how did you approach the difficult task of creating the score? Did you start work based on concept art and game flow alone or were some of the levels partly fleshed out?

Vincent: Well, I started Flower really early. I began writing music even before there were any core game mechanics, art, or levels were defined. Granted, pretty much all those early tracks didn’t make it in the game, but they had an influence on everyone when it came to searching for all the different aspects that comprised the game. Back then, there were a lot of really rough mechanics prototypes that we were experimenting with. These were really rough pieces with mostly programmer art that I’d do music and sound effects for.  Back then, I think a lot of the influence came from the shape of the controls and the really low-level decisions being made with your hands while playing the game. That continued to be a huge part of the music and sound all the way to the end.

Brad: Typically, with many games it feels as though the sound design is created to complement the visuals so it’s refreshing to see that the audio and score actually had an impact on the overall game design. Were there any instances during development where you thought something didn’t quite work from a visual point-of-view and it was subsequently changed to better suit the soundtrack or vice-versa?

Vincent: There were some subtle changes here and there to better match the audio, but nothing too drastic. There were, however, a few places where the match of visual and aural originally struck the rest of the dev team as: not right. The most notable example of this is probably the exit from the canyon and the entrance of the wind level’s third music. I felt very strongly about the sound there and had to really stand my ground to keep it the way it was. From there, the guys decided to humor me a bit and work around what I was giving them, I guess! The audio and music there in the retail copy is the same as the first pass there, save mixing and mastering.

Now that I think of it, I believe that was the first time in the process I was really obstinate about my position on the overall game, and I got to really elucidate that with the audio. I’m glad they let me do that, even though my relationship was technically just as a contractor at that time rather than as an employee…

Brad: I know you had a hand in the level design and layout of the flowers throughout the game. Do you feel this was an important part of allowing the score to gel with the level design?

Vincent: When it came to level design, well, it was less about the big level design and more about flower design.  The arrangement, shape, size, and density of flower groups, lines and areas were really important because of their direct impact on the sound effects, which were designed to be an extra musical layer on top of the rest of the score.  Because of that… yeah. The flower arrangement in the levels was incredibly important to the success of the score.

Brad: Interacting with flowers to trigger audible feedback to complement the soundtrack is a nice touch. What other games stand out to you as doing something particularly interesting or unique with audio?

Vincent: I was a huge fan of X-Wing and TIE Fighter back in the day. Besides getting me really into the whole modding and level design thing (thanks to a program called TIE Mission Builder), I was hugely enamored with the interactive score and all the fast splicing of MIDI that was happening on the fly. Can’t ignore the NanaOn-Sha games; I really loved Vib Ribbon when it came out. I was just gobsmacked by the music for Vagrant Story, and I always do a close-listening of the extremely subtle interactive score for the game’s playable title sequence. More recently, I’ve been pushing Diamond Trust of London for Nintendo DS on guys; besides being a really neat electronic board game about blood diamonds, it has a looping/branching type interactive score that responds to the board game state. Oh, Rez… can’t forget about that! Loved the fact that the sound effects of the enemies and the player were an integral part of the musical score.

Brad: I know you’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and you’ve worked in other industries but did game modding and level design help you decide that you eventually wanted to work in the games industry or was it just more of a hobby at that point?

Vincent: Game modding was part of it. I did have fun messing with TIE Mission Builder, doing 3D Studio Max stuff in high school, messing with Pascal… things like that. I actually knew that I wanted to work in the game industry ever since the beginning: playing games on my cousin’s Commodore 64 back as a 6 year old brat. I’m pretty stubborn.

Brad: So I guess the stepping stone into the games industry then began at University with projects such as Cloud? How did you get involved with the game and did you feel like you were part of something special during its development?

Vincent: Cloud was definitely a major part of it.  Prior to that, I got some repute for writing, having co-founded a website called insertcredit.com, which was rather well-regarded as an enthusiast/New Games Journalism type site with a crazy writing staff. (I guess my niche back then was hardcore vehicle simulation, fighting games, and visual novels.)  As a games maker, I was part of a team at USC that just got a game called Dyadin into the IGF student showcase. Most of that team continued on the Cloud project that came afterward, though that game had a very different development structure, with Jenova as a clear creative director compared to Dyadin which was much more design by committee.  Dyadin definitely got some positive press, but the contrast of Cloud to both games in the IGF and in the mainstream really caught guys by surprise.

I think we had a feeling that this game would get a good response, though we weren’t quite sure just how much. As the sound dude, I was asked early on to create music to set the tone for both the game itself as well as inspiration for the fledgling design. It was a really interesting position to be in, though it made immediate sense to me as someone who fiercely believed in music NOT being a post-production process in games.

Brad: How important was it for you to network with other graduates during your time at University?

Vincent: The networking was pretty important. I just started working as Audio Director over at thatgamecompany, which means I’m back to working with Jenova and others who’ve come from USC.  Of course, it’s not just the networking within that grad program. While I was an interactive media student, I provided music for some senior animation thesis projects from CalArts students; that experience was probably a factor in me getting hired on that Skullgirls team which didn’t have any USC connections but more than a few CalArts guys who happened to also be connected with that website I helped build. 🙂

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Brad: Well you definitely keep yourself busy, especially being audio director at thatgamecompany and on Skullgirls. It’s probably fair to say then, that you can tire yourself out and have some pretty vivid dreams such as this one…

On returning home after a day at work you look out of your window and to your astonishment you see a lush green meadow and a series of windmills. You close your eyes and upon opening them your apartment has disappeared and so you begin walking towards the only visible landmark, a derelict skyscraper. Once inside you find the building has been used as a warehouse to store a rather large games collection, as the building begins to creak you manage to grab 5 games. As you run for the exit you notice a pylon has crashed through and damaged a wall, peering through you find a game soundtrack on the floor.

You set up camp next to a windmill that is powering a generator and you decide to have a look through your haul of games. What did you manage to grab?

Vincent: Haha… all right… let’s see…

1)  Garouden: Fist or Twist (PlayStation 2)

This is one of my favorite fighting games ever. The concept of hitstun is very different in this game compared to other fighting games; here it’s a variable that changes over the course of the match as opposed to simply a function of the attack landed, and this changes the story and drama of the fight in a wonderful way.  For me, at least!  Not a popular game among the mainstream or hardcore fighting game guys, but I absolutely love it.

2)  Star Wars: TIE Fighter (PC)

I mentioned this as being my first real foray into video game modding and level editing. Back in the day, I just ROCKED at this game, and I kept on giving myself ever more ridiculous challenges to survive. (Ex: In a TIE Fighter, dogfighting escort shuttles in a mine field with both lasers and concussion missiles…) I could probably play this game forever.

3)  Sid Meier’s CPU Bach (3DO)

Less a game and more a wacky piece of music software, this 3DO game tries to compose music in the style of JS Bach… and it sometimes succeeds… in places. 🙂  It’s not a bad version of a young music student trying to employ high baroque composition techniques…

4)  Puyo Puyo!! 20th Anniversary (Nintendo DS)

Probably my favorite competitive action puzzle game series. They finally got the online multiplayer thing going, so nowadays I actually have a challenge fighting against some very good competition over in Japan.  Or at least I did when I had the time to open up my DS…

5) Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

This shooter is not only my favorite scrolling shooter, but it also has my favorite video game soundtrack.  It’s pretty short when it comes to the actual music (the official CD soundtrack release actually has the soundtrack twice… once in original ST-V/Saturn mix and again in a slightly upgraded synth arrangement) but it’s a near perfect combination of clever and elegant.

Soundtrack – Vagrant Story OST (Hitoshi Sakimoto)

As for the soundtrack… hrm…!  I already mentioned my favorite soundtrack above… and number 2 would be another Hitoshi Sakimoto score in Vagrant Story… hrm… (man, maybe I should have put that game above, considering the legs of the core game loop there…)

Brad: I tell you what I’ll do; generally I allow the castaway to select a special edition of one of the games. I’ll give you the Radiant Silvergun soundtrack along with the game, which means you can also take with you the Vagrant Story OST.

Vincent: I didn’t mention one of my other favorite fighting games, and that game happens to have a brilliant soundtrack as well.

Honourable Mention) Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

Asuka 120% Limited for Saturn is my favorite 2D fighting game, and the soundtrack by Keishi Yonao is just ridiculously good fun. The best release of the soundtrack, most of which was actually written in the early 90s, even though the game continued getting updated releases all the way to 2000, comes from the Tilde Game Music Collection Vol. 3 – Asuka 120%. Just great fun to listen to.

Brad: You have certainly chose a varied selection with a mix of fighting, flight simulation, puzzle… and I’ve never played any of these choices, probably due to most of them being released in Japan!

Unfortunately, being exposed to the elements in an open field a large gust of wind rushes in your makeshift camp. Your games are caught up in the wind but you manage to reach out and grab one of them. Which game did you decide to save?

Vincent: Hrm… Radiant Silvergun? Probably that. For me, playing that game is along the lines of revisiting a Scriabin or Beethoven Sonata. I can play it for fun as well as furthering mastery of the game…

So I say, but then I just end up watching superplay videos locally or on Youtube showing the true masters what it’s like to really turn in a virtuoso performance in that game. When you play that game smoothly, it’s a thing of beauty…

Brad: There certainly are some masters out there. I always find with games I like, when checking an online leader board there is always somebody with a ridiculously large high score. It makes you wonder how many hours they have to plough into studying and practicing the game to get that good at it!

Thanks for taking the time to talk about what you do and what games you love. I can’t wait to see what’s next for thatgamecompany.

Vincent: This was fun!  Thank you!

About the choices

Garouden: Fist or Twist

Developer – Opus / ESP Software
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release (JP) – 15th March 2007

Star Wars: TIE Fighter

Developer – Totally Games
Publisher – LucasArts
Platform – PC
Release – July 1994

Sid Meier’s CPU Bach 

Developer – MicroProse
Platform – 3DO
Release – 1994

Puyo Puyo!! 20th Anniversary 

Developer – Sonic Team
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Nintendo DS
Release (JP) – 14th July 2011

Radiant Silvergun 

Developer – Treasure
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Sega Saturn
Release (JP) – 23rd July 1998

Asuka 120% Limited 

Developer – Fill-in-Café / Success
Publisher – FamilySoft / Kodansha
Platform – Sega Saturn
Release (JP) – 1994

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

A Pilgrimage to the Nintendo HQ, Kyoto

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I have been a Nintendo fan since about the age of 6 so on my recent holiday to Japan I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit both the derelict and current Nintendo HQs.

My journey began on the day I arrived in Kyoto.  I had previously planned out routes to both buildings from so I had a good idea where in Kyoto they are located.  As luck would have it the now derelict HQ was literally a 10-minute walk from my hostel (Hana hostel) .  For the record Hana hostel is an excellent, very friendly place to stay.  The staff are very knowledgeable about Kyoto and can point out a range of points of interest, restaurants and things to do in Kyoto and the surrounding area.

During the short walk to the building we somehow managed to get lost and a lovely old Japanese woman who couldn’t speak a word of English understood me instantly when I stated “Nintendo”!  She proceeded to walk us, along with her grandchildren just up the road to the building.   The old HQ, which is hidden amongst houses, away from the busy streets of Kyoto is surprisingly larger than I expected.  After getting a few pictures of the building itself and a few posing shots we spotted one or two other passers by who may or may not have been purposely looking for the building but took pictures regardless.

The most important part of my Nintendo pilgrimage was seeing the old HQ, not just because of it’s history but because aesthetically it is far more interesting than the minimal, very corporate looking current HQ.  That journey would be left for another day.

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Although located only 30 minutes walk away from Kyoto station, I expected the journey to the new HQ would be slightly more difficult.  We decided to jump on the Kintetsu private rail line meaning we couldn’t use our JR passes.  As we would only be travelling 2 stops away (to Jujo station) the ticket price was around ¥120 (about £1).  After emerging from the underground we were once again lost so we headed for the near by convenience store to ask for help.  Yet again a local helped us out.  The middle aged man hopped on his rusty pushbike and proceeded to head towards the building.  We headed for an industrial estate filled with generic looking factories and just in the distance we spotted the familiar Nintendo logo at the top of a white square, unimpressive building.  Upon arrival we once again took a few photos of the building and a couple of posing shots.  After seeing the rather large security building just inside the entrance I decided not to venture any closer so we had a brief walk around the area then left, content and satisfied.

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