Miyamoto ISN’T retiring

The big news last night was that Shigeru Miyamoto, the saviour of home consoles, was to retire from Nintendo. An announcement like that unsurprisingly sent shockwaves throughout the gaming community ranging from those saddened by such news and others (ignorantly) cheerful that Miyamoto would be leaving games. But as with so many things on the internet, the facts have become somewhat misunderstood. The original story was from Wired.com who stated that in an interview with Miyamoto (59), the legendary creator said he wanted to retire from his current position and take on a smaller role still within Nintendo, allowing younger designers to be in charge. His plan was not to ever really leave the company but focus on less demanding games and was excited to show off his first mini project next year.

Shortly after the news spread online, Nintendo was quick to clear up the potential PR nightmare by issuing a statement (via Reuters) saying this was not true and that what he has said all along is that he want to train the younger generation.

“He has no intention of stepping down. Please do not be concerned.”

And why should we be concerned? Firstly, it’s not ‘we’ as such but investors in Nintendo whose market stock has been rather turbulent ever since the launch of the 3DS which didn’t go exactly to plan. But in the last couple of months, after the price drop and release of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, things have started really kicking off for Nintendo’s handheld. So when the man responsible and who has very direct links to all of the company’s main IPs – the games that people buy Nintendo hardware for – confidence will naturally begin to falter.

However it does indeed have an effect on the everyday gamer as Miyamoto’s influence is pretty much everywhere. Most if not all platform games look to the Mario franchise for inspiration and the Mario games themselves are nearly always superb in their execution. And even further a field, game designers are applying ideas from Miyamoto’s games in titles that you’d never expect. Cliff Bleszinski of Epic games was famously quoted in saying that Gear of War was like Mario without the jumping. And of course, there’s the Z-targeting. Pioneered in Ocarina of Time, Z-targeting has become such a staple of third-person action games that it’s hard to think of a time when it didn’t exist. Lastly, we have motion controls. Love them or hate them, they’re now a huge focus for all the main platform holders and if it wasn’t for Nintendo and Miyamoto’s desire to push the boundaries of video game interaction, we wouldn’t be where we are today in the industry. The neigh-sayers may argue that motion controls and casual games are ruining the hardcore but in reality, that’s not exactly true so their importance is very much valid.

The idea that a visionary like Miyamoto could be working on smaller games that may not feature any of the usual characters is quite an exciting one indeed. The 3DS has the space and delivery method for these smaller games to exist and the chance that new IPs may spring up with of the same quality of Mario and Zelda is reason itself for at least some of the original story of Miyamoto’s stepping down to be true. But whether it’s PR tidying or delaying the truth, the fact is that one day Miyamoto will have to retire and even sooner, younger designers should be allowed to take control of Nintendo’s top franchises though for now, I’m quite happy to see Miyamoto on stage at each E3 to reveal the next big thing from Nintendo. Apart from Wii Music.

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PSVita is a little more expensive than you thought

The PSVita now has an official UK price tag, set last week when Sony announced what us folk here in Blighty are expected to pay. And as with pretty much everything video game related, we’re getting screwed. You’ve seen the numbers by now, the Wifi only model has an RRP of £229.99 and the all singing all dancing Wifi plus 3G will set you back £279.99. Converting those figures into American dollars will only add insult to injury but needless to say, it ain’t pretty.

Much like the 3DS which may not have had an official UK RRP, the price was initially £229.99 and soon dropped once online retailers and supermarkets found ways of subsidising costs. I would like to think the PSVita will experience the same fury of price competition close to the February 22nd 2012 release date but Sony have made it quite clear in the past that they’re not budging when it comes to RRP. That’s fine, the PSVita is a beastly piece of kit with a gorgeous OLED screen and has oodles of potential to right the wrongs of the original PSP but one thing that’s not been at the forefront of press releases is how not all games can be saved directly onto the game card (via Kotaku). Some, like the poster boy for PSVita, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, requires a memory card to save progress. Proprietary memory cards that is meaning we’ll be paying overly inflated prices for standard hardware. Exactly how much isn’t known but if the Japanese figures are anything to go by, a 4GB card will cost ¥2,200 or £19 whereas a 32GB card is ¥9,500 or £78 (roughly).

To make the most out of your PSVita, it looks like a proprietary memory card is essential, a concept not seen in gaming since the last generation now that most systems and devices come packed with a hefty hard drive or indeed capabilities to save to humble SD cards. Will this hurt day one sales of the PSVita? Probably not. Those lucky enough to be early adopters will most likely find it to be an annoyance rather than a deterrent but it’s not all that welcoming to future consumers. When many are touting this to be the last generation of dedicated handheld devices, I would have thought the PSVita wouldn’t come with little surprises like this because the more people they can get on board, the better for Sony.

I want the PSVita to be a hit. I want it and the 3DS to re-ignite the glory days or handheld gaming but I’ve been slightly burned by picking up a 3DS so early and can’t quite get the bitter taste of the PSP – or its lack of attention from publishers – out of my mouth so am somewhat apprehensive about getting a PSVita. Who knows, come February I may have the cash for one. As long as these scratch cards deliver something…

UPDATE: It turns out that the choice whether or not to save directly to a PSVita game card or memory card has been left up to the publishers not Sony. The reason? Because saving to the memory card means that game can have post-launch DLC. But those which save directly onto the game card can only save in that way so from the get go we’re to have a minor fragmentation in software. Lets hope it stays minor too.

No lefty mode for Skyward Sword after all

For most things, I used my right hand but when the rise of shooters began on consoles around the late 90s, I became a southpaw gamer. The reason for such a turn of events was down to GoldenEye on the N64 and its control method. I chose to use the analog stick to aim while the C buttons controlled my movement and hence forth I was trapped in the world of the lefty. It was a weird place, not due to the company but rather the negativity that came with it. Like those who invert their controls, lefties who complained that a game had no southpaw support usually received an unhealthy amount of hate from the normos. And for a long old time, games that excluded left handed gamers from the control options were plentiful. Despite loving stealth action games, I never got into the Splinter Cell series for that very reason but I forced myself to relearn how to play games in order to play Gears of War and thankfully for my hobby, I’m no longer a lefty.

But southpaws had a leader, they had a character who kicked large amounts of butt all by slashing his sword with his left hand. He was Link and until his debut on the Wii, was a lefty. The percentage of Wii gamers however were not and since Twilight Princess had you waggling the Wii Remote to use the sword, it made more sense for Nintendo to make the new Link right handed. It didn’t matter too much because the precision was lacking in TP so gamers needed to do little more than shake their fists however, Link’s next adventure in Skyward Sword is different. It uses the Wii MotionPlus with added tracking for specific angled attacks. Originally, IGN reported that the game would have a lefty mode meaning not only would the player swap hands, so would Link but Kotaku has found out this isn’t the case.

Stephen Totilo of Kotaku and outed lefty didn’t feel the lack of a left handed mode made a huge difference to the game but if Nintendo want to go that little bit further in making players believed they’re assuming the role of Link, it wouldn’t have been much bother to simply swap hands depending on how your personally play Skyward Sword.

After all, it’s also been revealed that this new Zelda game was never meant to have motion controls, going back to using good old buttons instead (reports Siliconera). This I would have liked after not being a huge fan of waggle gaming (to clarify, I like the Wii and Nintendo games but don’t always appreciate shaking the remote or nunchuck when a button would be easier). After finishing Twilight Princess, producer Eiji Aonuma got to work on Skyward Sword with Hideomaro Fujibayashi directing. It was Fujibayashi who said to use Wii MotionPlus  but Aonuma wasn’t convinced until Wii Sports Resort was released and its mini games had similarities to some of Zelda‘s mechanics (like archery). Aonuma was satisfied but while this was going on, poor Ryuji Kobayashi was busy finishing Skyward Sword‘s combat using buttons. That was soon scrapped and replaced with what we have today, a full Wii MotionPlus experience. It’s a bit of a shame since I’ve been getting used to battling in Zelda with ease on the 3DS in Four Swords and Ocarina of Time and it would have been interesting to see if Skyward Sword would have played the same if it lacked motion support. Would you of had to fight enemies using specific strikes of the sword or was that added purely because of the added precision of Wii MotionPlus? And would removing that meant we’d get ‘just another’ Zelda game? Honestly, I don’t think I’d have minded if we did.

Ace in the hole

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

In the late 90s I was exposed to the Ace Combat series after playing a demo on a friend’s PlayStation. I loved it. There was something about flying a plane without the multitude of button presses usual flight sims entail that really appealed to me. Not to mention the almost endless self-targeting rockets strapped to my wings. As the years passed, so did the Ace Combat games spanning a number of platforms but in recent years, arcade flying fans could only get their kicks on portable systems. As excited as I am every time a new Ace Combat is announced, I quickly grew tired of the series and since Namco Bandai shied away from home consoles, I figured so did a lot of its followers. Apparently not as the publisher has announced that total sales of the series has surpassed 10 million units worldwide, an impressive feat for any long running franchise.

Ace Combat started life as Air Combat in the arcades over 15 years ago and it was the comically dramatic story lines and increasingly striking graphics that prevented it ever becoming a cliche sim. The next in the series, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, is the first multi-platform release and throughout its development has promised a new approach to an evidently popular but tiring franchise. Dog fights are said to be more exciting, the pace is supposedly faster and helicopters have been included to the flying arsenal. A few weeks ago, a demo appeared on Xbox Live and PSN which proved to be very successful in terms of downloads. Over 1.2 million gamers have had a taste of the game and puts Assault Horizon in a good pre-release position.

But there is a snag. From what I’ve read from commenters online, although so many have downloaded the demo, I’m yet to read a more than a handful of positive comments for it. That’s not to say the neigh sayers won’t pick up the game (we all know how quickly the Internet can dismiss things) but I too found Assault Horizon to be a little lacking. As promised, the adrenaline was heightened and the pace has gone up a couple of notches however it still felt like the same kind of game we’ve had for the past 15 odd years. Maybe the demo wasn’t great at showing how the series has moved on but what I got out of it was a stronger desire to play this kind of game on my 3DS. It’s meant to be coming towards the end of the year and right now I’m holding out for that version as Ace Combat has become the kind of game I want to pick up and play rather then dedicate lengthy amounts of time in front on my TV. Is that a bad thing? Not really although is quite interesting how I’ve wanted the franchise to make a triumphant return to home consoles and Assault Horizon is the closet thing to that yet I’d rather play it on a handheld. I wonder how the rest of the 1.2 million downloaders thought.

How long is too long for a demo?

How long would you like your demos to last? Enough to get a good sense of the game? Enough to leave you wanting more? How about long enough to actually complete it? That’s what one PSP game is offering. According to Famitsu (via Kotaku), the PSP’s version of Ragnarok, an online strategy RPG, the demo released by GungHo Online Entertainment lasted around 16 hours allowing the publication to see on of the many endings. And that’s why this model works for Ragnarok, because if people want to see the other ones they’d have to purchase the full game. If you fancy giving it a go, the demo can be downloaded here.

Technically, this can be considered a freemium model which may not be big on consoles, but is something that’ll have to be considered in the long run. The PSP has already had a freemium game and again it’s an RPG. Bakumatsu Revolution could be downloaded from PSN and then distributed among PSPs via wireless connectivity. A genius way of virally spreading your game inside a tight community and then charging for additional quests and loot thereafter. Sony seem more keen to adopt the freemium model than other platform holders and are even changing PlayStation Home to incorporate free-to-play games.

Microsoft initially appear less than on board with the freemium model. When Dungeon Fighter Online comes to XBLA, the current plan is that it won’t be the free-to-play version seen on PCs but a fully paid-for game. However, in June, several sources claimed Microsoft was collecting data and discussing the possibility to bring free-to-play games to the 360 where gamers exchanged MS Points for in-game items. Maybe Dungeon Fighter Online will stay a freemium game after all.

Nintendo is adamant that free-to-play games will not be a feature of their consoles. Time and time again Satoru Iwata has scoffed at the idea of this model so don’t expect to see any on the 3DS or Wii U which could make them less relevant to gamers in the near future. On the nearest supposed contender to Nintendo, the App Store, in-app purchases and free-to-play games account for 72 per cent of its revenue. Like it or not (and I don’t), the freemium model is very big business and a better way for console publishers to combat piracy and pre-owned sales than DRM or pre-order bonuses. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next generation of consoles focused on this type of gaming pushing us almost entirely into a digital distribution. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not

And on the seventh day they went to the Eurogamer Expo

Last Sunday, like many thumb-bandits, I ventured to London with a mate for the sights and sounds of Eurogamer’s 2011 Expo at Earl’s Court. Six hours were spent queuing, gaming and chatting to like-minded individuals all eager to get their hand on games either already available or in the very near future. There were a couple of things that I really wanted to see in particular like Bethesda’s romp back into the wilds of the Elder Scrolls Skyrim. However, I was thwarted by a rather long line up of people keen to wield a sword or shoot a fireball or two. I did stare longly at the obscenely thin Samsung TV screens that showed the gorgeous graphics of Bethesda’s (allegedly) new game engine. It was hard to tell whether it was running on the Xbox 360 or PC with a game pad but it sure looked mighty fine.

Next up was the 3DS booth where I dabbled in Super Mario 3D Land and have to admit, left feeling a smidgen of disappointment. It looked and played much like expected, a combination of New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Galaxy with visuals that felt perfectly suited for the 3DS. But when there was any hint of stereoscopic 3D, navigation became harder and smiles turned to frowns all too quickly. When first announced at GDC in March, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said the 3DS’ instalment of Mario would put an end to the troubles caused when platforming and jumping by shifting a traditionally 2D game to 3D. That sounded like a swell idea to me, someone who is more at home with the earlier Marios. But what I found from playing Super Mario 3D Land was that stereoscopic 3D did the exact opposite and made it harder to figure out where I was jumping. Off, and the game played great, on and I fell down every hole possible. Hopefully, this is more to do with the fact I hadn’t played from the beginning and eased into the new 3D looks though if not, well then I guess the 3D switch will permanently be off for that game.

Some games that did do 3D very well were Resident Evil Revelations, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D and Kid Icarus. Sadly all I could do with Resident Evil was peer over the shoulder of another player (in the ‘sweet spot’ too) to watch the superb graphics Nintendo’s little handheld can deliver. Jill Valentine was rendered beautifully and moved just as nice with the environments suitably creepy and the 3D enhancing the immersion (until you move your head. Top tip, don’t move your head). While Resident Evil Revelations had a constant flow of people wanting to play it, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D did not so I had a chance to get my grubby mitts on what is considered the best game of the series. And now in 3D. As expected, it looked as nice in motion (I had feared otherwise after some early screenshots looked a bit muddy) but as with the PSP games, Metal Gear Solid works best with two analog sticks. Since the 3DS second-stick add-on was absent from the show, the face buttons had to suffice in controlling the camera and unfortunately is wasn’t pleasant. I couldn’t see a way of using the stylus in lieu of another stick as that used to be an acceptable substitute on the DS. But hey, it’s Metal Gear on the go and if that go will have to include a bulky cradle then so be it. The 3D effects certainly worked well and the 3DS is where I want to be playing that game again in the hope the Kojima will do something interesting with all the new features of the system. Speaking of which, Kid Icarus was quite a joy to play. Fast, frantic shooting in a Space Harrier kind of way with 3D that didn’t intrude but sat nicely with the art style. I don’t think an expo was the best place to experience a game with narration and what looked like an interesting story but I left feeling confident that Kid Icarus was definitely a day one purchase.

One nice surprise as the venue wasn’t the superb Joker and Harley Quinn cosplayers but my experience with Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Tucked away in the over 18s section it wasn’t something I gravitated towards not being a big fan of the franchise as a whole. And the press haven’t been too kind either after its E3 showing in June. But the multiplayer match I played was more fun than I had expected it to be. A lot more. Maybe it’s because I’m Lancer deep in Gears of War 3 at the moment but Ghost Recon‘s movement felt similar when running from cover to cover and popping out occasionally to take out my foes which isn’t a bad thing at all. A neat addition is a reticule that you can place next to cover showing exactly where you’ll be running to. It made navigating the war torn street map really easy and combat quite fun. Though for a game in development for so long, it did look rough with questionable textures and jagged edges around pretty much everything. I hope Ubisoft can get it cleaned up and eventually released because it felt more tactical then, say, Gears and has promise but could so easily bomb at retail if left in its current state. The Kinect implementation wasn’t part of the demo either, not that I think it’s a deciding factor in whether people will pick it up.

On the topic of motion controls, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was a game that I originally thought would have to slip to 2012’s list of purchases for me what with a full winter ahead but from what I saw a the Expo, I may have to reconsider. It may end up being the last Wii game that is worth our attention but what better franchise to go out on than Zelda? Everything looked bright and busy with a lot of things going on in the back and foreground making the world come alive. How was the Wii MotionPlus? Well, a bit hit and miss. Swinging the sword had less precision than I thought it would but enough to get the job done. Shooting arrows worked pretty much identically to Wii Sports Resort by holding the Wii Remote towards the screen and pulling the nunchuck back as if drawing a bow. And like Wii Sports Resort, you could quite easily lock you view at an odd angle making you wonder if a simple press of a button would have been better. I imagine the more time invested in Skyward Sword would help players get used to the quirks and there’s a charm that all Zelda games have that I’ve not found on any other franchise.

All in all, Sunday was a very good day for gaming. I didn’t brave the queues for Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare 3 but both looked stunning with MW3 slightly edging out ahead in terms of frame rate and graphics at least on the 360 anyway (the console I saw them running on). The lack of booth babes made the Expo feel creditable and not a nerd cliche though the ones that did strut about with a large percentage of buttock on show were harmless enough. As were the many guys trying to take pictures of them from behind. But it was a good day and as soon as we left, conversations of what will be buying and how broke we’ll be intertwined with what we’d like to see at next year’s show.

The great porting dilemma

Lord of everything Street Fighter and all round funny chap Yoshinori Ono has told Joystiq.com what he thinks of direct console to handheld ports. In a nutshell, Ono thinks they’re dumb. He and his team at Capcom prefer to see the transition to a portable device include specific features to take advantage of that hardware. Cramming a console game onto a something smaller are meaningless to him.

“A lot of people, when they’re porting to new hardware, especially a handheld, they’ll talk about how it’s difficult because of memory restrictions or speed or things like that, and I haven’t found that to be the case,” Ono said. “We’ve been putting less energy into the porting process itself and more energy into adding additional features, because we don’t want to do a straight-up port – that’s silly and meaningless.”

Two of Ono’s games making their way to the PSVita are Street Fighter X Tekken and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Both will feature additions that supposedly utilise the Vita’s many inputs much like Super Street Fight 4 3D did on the 3DS. Ono said how the 3DS game has helped with development as he’s already racked up some experience with a touch screen and making a game fun to play on it. But Vita’s multitouch capabilities offer even more cool opportunities for entertaining play although the rear touch panel is a bit trickier.

“The rear panel presents kind of a challenge for us, because when you’re playing a fighting game, given the button configuration you’re going to have your index fingers on the top and your thumbs on the front,” he said. “We don’t want a situation where you’re accidentally throwing shoryukens because you moved your ring finger in the middle of a bout.”

No, we certainly don’t and my thought is if it doesn’t work, don’t use it. The ethos of exploiting the new tech to its fullest is highly commendable of Ono but there’s a danger too that things may get a little silly with features shoehorned in for the sake of it. The great thing about Super Street Fighter 4 3D was how well it used all the best bits of the 3DS, the stereoscopic screen, boosted CPU, online mulitplayer, Street Pass and analog stick. Other than 3D, the Vita can do all those things for Street Fighter X Tekken and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and more – but it doesn’t mean it has to. If the feature set stopped there, I can’t imagine there’d be too much concern over an unused rear touch screen.

That aside, it’s the tailoring of games that will help the PSVita win over dubious consumers who aren’t sold on the idea of a pocket console. And I don’t mean handheld gamers, but those burned by the PSP which had too many titles trying to emulate home console games. The experience wasn’t right and the hardware couldn’t compete with PS2/3 graphics and controls so more often than not, things felt a little underwhelming. Not every game fell into this category and if developers continue to think the same as Ono, that category will become smaller and smaller.