The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

You may have read the first part of this column in the December 2009 Play Magazine. It was intended as a single article, and the start of a whole series of such lists. In the event, I was asked (due to my incorrigible verbosity) to break the article into three pieces; only the first found its way to print. Here is the column in full.

Used to be, when a game was successful enough to demand a sequel, the design team would do its best to avoid repeating itself. Though I’m sure they mostly wanted to keep their job interesting, the practical effect was that if the games were different, they would both remain relevant. In an arcade, Donkey Kong Jr. could stand handsomely by its father, each shilling for its own share of the coin. You might call them companion pieces, rather than updates or replacements.

When home consoles hit, design teams were even more modest, and were generally left to do their own thing. So starting on the NES, you will see a certain trend: successful game spawns weird, only tenuously related sequel; fans of the original scratch their heads; a greatly expanded dev team releases a third game, which is basically just the first again, on steroids; fans think it’s the best thing ever, because it’s exactly the same, except better! And to hell with that weird second chapter.

Thing is… usually the second game is the most interesting you’ll ever see. Continue reading “The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos”

How to Make the DS Better

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

That the DS is a sensation is both indisputable and deserved. That it has helped to change the industry should by now be reasonably obvious. All the more shame, then, that the system is not really built for success.

The DS was an experiment – a cautious stab in the dark, introduced almost with an apology in Nintendo’s early assurance that it was not replacing the Game Boy. Instead, Nintendo insisted, the DS was meant as a “third rung” in the company’s strategy in addition to its traditional handheld and console systems. Judging by how long it took the industry and its followers to “get” the system and its improved follow-up, the Wii, Nintendo’s caution was probably well-advised.

To Nintendo’s credit, it wasted little time. Continue reading “How to Make the DS Better”

It’s-a Heem! Again!

So far, New Super Mario Bros. isn’t as annoying as I expected. Kind of flavorless, yes. Well-made, though. Some nice ideas in here.

I like how they’ve stripped down everything except the mushrooms, fire flowers, and turtle shell — and then refocused the game so it’s basically all forward momentum. There’s plenty of stuff to dink around and find; that’s kind of peripheral, though. The overworld map pretty much drives the point home: it’s a straight line from the first level to the final castle, with only the occasional tangent to access an alternate route or a special item. The levels themselves are much the same. And the way the secret routes and items are hidden is nice and old-fashioned; reminds me of Mario 1 and Sonic 1.

Likewise, the focus on Mario’s size-changing is interesting. In past games (except Mario Land), there’s never been much point in being small. Here, not only is being small occasionally of value; you can also be smaller than small. And to trade it off, you can be bigger than big. Conceptually, it’s definitely got its stuff together; this is kind of like how Gradius V focuses on the Options. In execution — well.

The problem, as Toups pointed out earlier, feels like a lack of confidence. That seems to be an issue with a lot of Nintendo games these days. A shame. I mean. With more confidence in its own ideas, Wind Waker could have been really amazing. And again, whoever conceived of this game was a really clever person. You want to revive an imporant series, you break down what defines it and you build upon that. In this case, you focus on Mario’s growing/shrinking ability and on forward momentum; ditch all the suits and playground design and as much clutter as you can get away with, then slowly build back up with an eye toward the central themes.

Even the level design is often quite snazzy. Same with the very limited treasure hunt aspect, and how that ties into the world map: spend the coins however you like, whenever you like; go back and dink around to find the other coins whenever you feel like it. No pressure to complete everything; to the contrary, the game’s constantly pushing you forward. Yet it allows leeway if you want to explore. Again, sorta reminds me of early Sonic. Heck, Mario even runs like Sonic now.

Partly because of all that, I really wish this thing felt less generic. Less… cardboard. Whereas Gradius V and OutRun2 almost supplant Life Force and OutRun, this comes off more like a tribute game than something important in its own right.

EDIT: Actually, I want to say it reminds me a lot of a milquetoast follow-up to Super Mario Land. You’ve got some of the same ideas in it: better use of Mario’s size and working it into level logistics; more thematic enemies, and levels with memorable one-time quirks. I keep expecting the fireball to work like the Power Ball, and bounce all over, allowing me to collect coins. Instead, it just creates coins. (Not sure of the in-game logistics there. I think the Mario Land model would have fit better.) What Mario Land has that this doesn’t is a bizarre and quirky personality of its own, allowing it to stand as a response to Super Mario Bros. rather than just a new take on it.

The Nintendo Syndrome

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part two of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation.

So Nintendo’s at the top of its game again – or near enough to clap, anyway. The DS is one of the bigger success stories in recent hardware history. People are starting to buy into the Wii hype; even Sony and Microsoft’s chiefs have gone on record with how the system impresses them. Japan is mincing no words; 73% of Famitsu readers polled expect the Wii to “win” the next “console war”, whatever that means. And these people aren’t even Nintendo’s target audience.

Satoru Iwata has done a swell job, the last couple of years, taking a company that was coasting on past success, whose reputation had devolved to schoolyard snickers – that even posted a loss for the first time in its century-plus history – and making it both vital and trendy again.

So what happened to Nintendo, anyway? How is it that gaming’s superstar was such a dud, for so many years? What’s the white elephant in the room, that everyone has taken such pains to rationalize? It is, of course, the same man credited for most of Nintendo’s success: Shigeru Miyamoto. Continue reading “The Nintendo Syndrome”

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint. Continue reading “NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History”