The Wii in Context

New Games

Nothing here. Still job seraching and scraping by so there probably won’t be much in this section for a while. Still, I’m hoping to pick up the BlazBlue Premium Pack since it offers more or less the same extras as the Street Fighter 4 Collector’s Edition, except without the premium price. I also just received my copy of Bioshock: Breaking the Mold Developer’s Edition today. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, its a paperback version of the free artbook released online shortly before the release of the original Bioshock but with more artwork (the book is nearly 100 pages longer than the original PDF) and includes commentary by the development team. I find it fascinating, myself.

The Wii in Context

This is a reposting from a comment I left on kwonstein‘s recent Devil’s Advocate blog. This was basically my defense of the Wii itself, mostly from a historical perspective where I take a look at the Wii as part of the ongoing development of console games as opposed to a ground level perspective.

First thing I will say though, is that the Wii is far from perfect. Despite my strong advocacy for the system, I do realize that it has plenty of faults but I have a firm belief that the Wii itself is more beneficial to gaming as a whole than it is detrimental.

Where to begin? I guess I’ll start with the whole “casual gaming” phenomenon that gets people so upset. A lot has been made about Nintendo’s new audience. Most of it from gaming aficionados (to use a polite term; a more familiar term would be “hardcore gamer”). Now this group is one that has been the target demographic since video games began to gain popularity. I don’t mean demographic as in a set age group, I mean this specific set of people. The ones that were old enough to have played with an NES when they were young and who graduated to a Genesis or an SNES, then to a Playstation, PS2, and finally to where we are now.

The console-gaming industry, as a whole has been following these people as they grew up. For the past twenty-years, the industry has tailored itself to fit the tastes of these specific people who are now roughly in their twenties and thirties and the majority of them male. Generally speaking, games in the NES and SNES-era were aimed at children. Yes there were more mature-oriented titles here and there, but this era is known for Mario, Sonic, and dozens upon dozens of imitators. The roots of the favorite “hardcore” genres were there, but they were niche genres at best. Even then, in the Genesis and SNES era there was the ongoing trend of making game characters hipper and edgier, epitomized by Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog.

The Playstation hit when most of this age group were in their teens and early twenties. At this point in time, many of those niche genres began to explode in popularity as the audience hit a new level of maturity. During this age, the story-heavy, and traditionaly action-light RPG really came into the spotlight with games like Final Fantasy VII. Horror games, which have roots in games like Maniac Mansion in the late 80’s became immensely popular with Resident Evil, despite its b-movie quality. The platformer got a new look with the arrival of the sexually appealing Lara Croft. At this point, games like Goldeneye and Rainbow Six brought the first-person shooter a great deal of popularity.

The trends only continue as we move to the Playstation 2/Xbox/Gamecube era where we begin to get the half-naked female fighter cliche’s and the incredibly juvenile Dead or Alive commercials. If you’re looking for proof, look no further than the evolution of Soulcalibur’s Ivy. In the first Soulcalibur, Ivy, though definitely having a great deal of sex appeal, had a more realistically proportioned body and an outfit that again, emphasized her sexuality, but was not incredibly revealing. Ivy’s figure and outfit in the recent Soulcalibur 4 are legendary and makes her first appearance modest by comparison.

The epitome of this era of video games was the now-classic Grand Theft Auto III. Pretty much anything an adolescent male could want was here. Sexuality, violence, open-world freedom, the power to resist authority, it was all there. What a lot of people forget nowadays is that this was not the first Grand Theft Auto game. Hell, the title alone lets you know it was the third game in the series (fourth if you count the London expansion), and aside from a great conversion into 3D, was not incredibly different from its predecessors yet, few people remember these, and fewer have played them.

What does this short console gaming history have to do with the Wii? Well, for twenty-years the industry has been focused towards this single group of people. What the Wii is doing differently and one of the things that has most of this group of people upset is the fact that the Wii isn’t tailoring itself to suit their needs. Its no mystery that the majority of the Wii’s content and all its advertising isn’t aiming at the 18-35 year-old male. Its aiming at just about everyone else.

The group of people for who games had been almost exclusively made for for the past twenty years have, somewhat understandably, developed something of a possession complex. Everything from gaming press, development, advertisement has been aimed at them. As fun as a “My Little Pony” or “Barbie” game would be for their intended audience, no self-respecting “gamer” would take them at all seriously and now here’s a major gaming platform that’s flying in the face of twenty years of tradition and comfort. It’s as disorienting as your car suddenly propping up on three wheels while you’re driving.

What’s worse is that the rest of the industry is realizing that there is an audience for video games outside of the traditional 18-35 year-old male. Women and girls could be interested in games as well. Mothers, fathers, entire families, even will play games that are designed for them. Many of these games violate the values that “hardcore” gamers have been nurturing and the industry as a whole encouraging for twenty years. Many of these games have simple control systems, and lack complex and in-depth character customization, campaign modes, and gameplay.

For the “hardcore” gamer, video games have become something new. These people, if only subconsciously, appreciate video games in a different way. They appreciate the fact that video games can take you to exotic places, put you into extreme or unusual situations, or weave a fantastic, unimaginable tale in the same way a book for film can. But what is very easy for them to forget is that everyone else may simply be looking for a game. Entertainment. Something with which to waste a few minutes with before they have to meet up with friends at the mall or join some girlfriends for lunch.

Video games, like every art form, have different demands from different people. I have used the example of film before and will reiterate it here. Most of us are the casual-gamer equivalent in our relationship to movies. If only the desires of the “hardcore gamer” equivalent were acknowledged, we’d have more Citizen Kanes, Un chien andalou, The Bicycle Thief, etc. When I was at film school, one of my professors provided us with a list of films the American Film Institute required its students to have watched before beginning their program. While I recognized several of them, there were many that I hadn’t even heard of, much less seen.

For the average viewer, very few of these films would have had any real appeal. Many of them we’d probably hate outright. These films have layers of complexity not only in the storyline, but also in their use of cinematography, set design, nuances in the acting itself; details that are aimed at those that understand the language of film. Most of which would go over our heads. What we want is something exciting. We want to be entertained. That’s why we love movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean, The Fast and the Furious, Transformers,etc. I am not saying that these movies and many others beloved by the general audience are bad movies. Far from it. But they are also not made for those that understand and appreciate the finer points of film.

The situation is similar with “hardcore” and “casual” games. The audience is simply different and many times it is difficult, if not impossible for people on either side to fairly judge games from the other. Granted, there are games that can appease both sides, just as there are films that can appease the film aficionados and general audience alike. My point being is that much of the animosity felt towards the recent surge in popularity of casual gaming is a response to threat of strangers encroaching on what has long been considered “owned” property. Gaming as a whole was ours and we liked it a certain way. Now we have a massive audience of people who too want to play games, but their values, understanding, and appreciation is different than ours.

The other major point of contention with the Wii is the quality of the games in respect to the system’s motion controls. To address this point, let’s go back in time once more, back to the NES. Video games have never been an exact science. They always take time before they are really able to work. Mario Brothers almost created the platforming genre. Its controls and its gameplay all worked brilliantly, which is why it is one of those games that is so highly regarded by today’s gaming aficionados. Games like Punch-Out, Zelda, Metroid, Kirby, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and dozens of others are held in high regard these days for having built the foundations of traditional gaming as we know it.

Still, nearly 800 games were released on the NES in North America. Of those games, what percentage of the games do we remember and love? The fact is, a lot of games just didn’t work. Watch any episode of the Angry Video Game Nerd to see how so many games had such fundamental problems with gameplay and level design.

For a racing game you’d think it’d be a no-brainer to assign a single button to move your vehicle, yet there were games like Bigfoot on the NES where you tapped left and right repeatedly to move your vehicle. It may be obvious now, and you can argue that it should’ve been obvious then, but things are rarely so simple when you’re on the ground floor building something from the ground up.

For nearly a decade, console games were entirely in 2D. Late in the SNES era we were seeing games like Star Fox that experimented with rudimentary polygons and Sega was also experimenting with 3D with its console peripherals. It wasn’t until the Playstation where 3D games would begin to become the standard. The Playstation was released in late 1995 in North America, nearly a year after its release in Japan. Still, it would be months before a notable 3D platformer would appear in Crash Bandicoot, and over a year until Super Mario 64 would set the standard.

The shift to 3D was one of the few major paradigm shifts the industry had to face. The industry had to rethink decades of game design in order to adapt to this new innovation. Some genres died or became significantly reduced while new ones blossomed as this new format took hold. Many series’ were like Mario and Zelda made a successful jump to 3D during this era, while others, like Sonic and Contra, just couldn’t find their footing. The Metroid franchise skipped a generation before reappearing on the Gamecube, fully embracing the jump to 3D while other games, like Street Fighter stay rooted in 2D and only take what they need from the new dimension.

Developers now had to deal with things that they never had to consider before. Polygons, unlike sprites, had to be textured, and they interacted differently with their environment. Developers now had to deal with camera placement and control, which was never really an obstacle in two dimensions. The switch to three-dimensions practically reset a decade’s worth of game development theory as developers had to relearn and in many cases, create new techniques and gameplay mechanics from the ground up.

You could surely find people that would tell you that the shift to three-dimensions killed gaming, just as you can find people that will tell you that the shifts to sound, color, and more recently CG each killed, or significantly hurt film and the theory surrounding it.

Even today, over a decade after Mario 64 set the standard for 3D gameplay and two console generations later, it is not uncommon to find games that still struggle with the basics of working in 3D, most notably collision-detection and camera control.

With the Wii, we could possibly looking at another paradigm shift. This time it is not a change in dimensions, but a change in the way we interact with the game. The control pad, in some form, has been the standard input method for home games since the Odyssey nearly forty years ago now. The Wii is forcing developers to once again re-examine and re-learn, and even develop all new ways of interaction. This is surely a difficult process. For nearly forty years games were controlled with directions and buttons and for an industry to undo that thought process and to build it up to something practical will take time and we are currently experiencing the growing pains.

Still, we are already beginning to see advantages afforded by the control method provided by the Wii and the rest of the motion-control movement. Some genres are no-brainers. The point-and-click capability makes the Wii almost tailor made for first-person and rail shooters as well as real/turn-based Strategy, and adventure games. Wii Sports was produced by Nintendo to provide examples of what the new control method is capable of and The Conduit is already renowned for the sheer customizability of the controls and regardless of how the game, as a whole, turns out, developers will be looking at the game in terms of control for quite some time. Resident Evil 4, a game hailed as a masterpiece on a gamepad is considered to have seen its finest hours in the hands of a Wii remote.

Not all genres are that easy, unfortunately. Sports games for example have seen considerable growth on the Wii. With the Madden series we saw the initial jerk reaction and that was to try to imitate the gestures of the game and put that into the game. The result certainly was enjoyable, but perhaps there was a better way. The Madden game currently in production uses a control system that has been rethought, simplified, but still made functional. The Pro Evolution Soccer series plays quite different on the Wii than it does on the Playstion 3 and Xbox 360 and the general consensus is that it plays much better.

I also realize that I have been mostly concerned with the Wii’s pointer functionality, which seems to have found its use in modern gaming. Perhaps that is the contribution that will be carried to future generations and the motion controls left behind. Still, that is not to say that gesture controls have been a failure themselves. Wii Sports Bowling showed that the Wii remote is capable of some incredible things on its own. Games like Rayman: Raving Rabbids and WarioWare both served to exhibit a variety of gestural applications.

In a more practical sense, Medal of Honor Heroes 2 made extensive use of gestures in an attempt to provide greater immersion for the player. Shotguns had to be manually cocked, bazookas had you putting the remote to your shoulder as you would the actual weapon, artillery was aimed with hand cranks as they are in real life, sniper rifles’ zoom functions were set and locked manually, and explosives were primed and armed manually among other things. Not all the controls worked perfectly, but they did work to some degree and they definitely provided a wholly different experience from the traditional button-based controls.

Motion controls in general may not be an entirely new technology, but before now, if gestures were ever used for games, they were designed for a single game in mind. What the Wii forces developers to do now is to look at motion controls and gestures not for a single game, but for the industry as a whole. The Super Nintendo and Sega’s various attempts at 3D in the 16-bit days showed that 3D gameplay was possible in those days, but it required special hardware such as the 32X or Nintendo’s FX chip, so there was little incentive to truly explore 3D in those days. Alternate control schemes too, have been around before the Wii but again, it was only really applied towards specific games such as Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, Sega Bass Fishing, Samba de Amigo, and Track and Field but the Wii challenged developers to think about alternate controls for most, if not all game types.

If motion controls are the new 3D then its likely that certain genres will be come prominent while others may diminish. It is what happens when the industry is faced with change as deeply rooted as those the Wii brings. Still, just like the coming of 3D, I am sure that developers will find ways to make motion controls practical as well as relevant just as I am sure that traditional controls will never disappear in the same way 2D games have not disappeared.

Some argue that maybe Nintendo released the Wii too early, that its motion controls were still too rough and imprecise. Perhaps it was. After all, Nintendo is releasing the Motion Plus add-on to improve the system’s motion recognition functions. Still, had Nintendo not introduced the Wii when it had would there be any incentive to look into the improvement of motion controls as they are now? While the Playstation was certainly capable, it certainly wasn’t the finest technology for pushing 3D graphics.

All that said however, the Wii is not only an experimental ground for rough games. It certainly has its share of good titles but there is one major difference between it and its two high-definition competitors. Games on the Wii are rarely hyped up to the incredible levels of games on the 360 and the Playstation 3. I think this is important because you’ll find that all the hype and build-up makes up many peoples’ minds about the game long before they are released.

I realize that I’ve gone on for a while so I think I’ll stop here but I do realize that there are more aspects to the Wii that have not mentioned I chose to cover these two because I felt that they were the two largest objections to the console itself. I definitely understand that there are more things people have against the Wii, such as the availability of quality games, which I argue is partially the fact that many quality games on the Wii really are not promoted in the same way they are on its high-definition competitors, or the system’s inferior hardware specs, among others complaints, but I think I’ll leave it here for the moment.

Oh well, now we can move onto something quite a bit more enjoyable, the return of my LE Review!

Europa Universalis III Collector’s Edition

Europa Universalis 3

This PC Collector’s Edition includes:

  • Europa Universalis III
  • Strategy Guide
  • Soundtrack w/ linear notes
  • Poster/World Map
  • Paradox Stickers
  • Slipcase

Europa Universalis III: The game itself on CD

Strategy Guide: If you’re familiar with the gameplay of Europa Universalis you’ll know that the game is non-linear and has no predefined goals. Because of that, you’ll wonder how the Strategy Guide works. Well, instead of being a walkthrough, the strategy guide is more of an expansion of the already hefty instruction manual in that it describes the practical application of the many, many features described in the instruction manual. The guide also includes short historical notes from the time period covered in the game.

Soundtrack w/ linear notes: If you’ve been following my LE Reviews you’ll know I love soundtracks with my games but Europa Universalis goes a step further by including linear notes for each track. The linear notes provide some background into the composer’s inspirations and goals with each track, providing a greater appreciation for the music beyond simply its asthetics.

Poster/World Map: This fairly large map shows all of the nations, provinces, and territories abailable in the game. While I doubt anyone will be using the map to find their way around the game, it is definitely a nice addition to the set and provides a good look at the immense volume of city-states represented in-game. The opposite side of the map features a large version of the Musketeer battle used as the CE’s cover art. I’m personally very fond of the art style used on the poster as well as throughout the game materials.

Paradox Stickers: Just a set of stickers featuring the logo of the developer, Paradox.

Slipcase: A slipcase for holding the discs as well as everything else. The back panels are decorated with beautiful artwork features the Musketeers, conquistadors, and American Revolutionists.

While this CE may look a bit skimpy, the Strategy Guide is a godsend and the inclusion of the linear notes with the soundtrack is something I wish we’d see more often. For first-time players, Europa Universalis is an incredibly intimidating game and the guide really helps ease you into everything the game offers. The linear notes appeal to the side of me that loves developer commentaries and making-of content as it gives you some insight into the creation of the soundtrack, which I think increases your appreciation of the music itself.

This edition isn’t terribly easy to find on ebay. The few that are available range in price from $10-$40. Personally, this was one of those dumb luck finds as I found it at my local Target on clearance for $13 while they sold the regular edition for $30 a few aisles over.

Europa Universalis isn’t an incredibly well-known series, but fans and new players alike will appreciate the extra coverage in the strategy guide and fans of game music will definitely enjoy the linear notes by the composer.

That’s about all for now. I will probably revise and expand on my historical perspective for Game Observer sometime in the near future. If it gets posted, I’ll be sure to let you know.