Don’t Bet Against the House of Mario

There’s a decent chance you don’t have a WiiU yet. I can’t really blame you, because there’s a simple lack of software. Going into E3 week and looking ahead towards the Holiday season, many analysts have already written Nintendo off. Nintendo has been characteristically tight-lipped about what games it might have in the works, so consumer confidence has been low. Notwithstanding a bizarre blip in the UK where WiiU sales climbed astronomically after the XBox One announcement two weeks ago, the WiiU has sold only a paltry 3.6 million worldwide since its launch last fall, millions shy of its predecessor’s sales from the same time period.

There’s also the puzzling move of not having a proper E3 press conference, but instead doing an online E3 Nintendo Direct address on Tuesday, June 11. We’re at a lull in the game industry, the calm before the storm, and gamers are incredibly curious about what the new generation of consoles has to offer. They’ve been hesitant to buy the WiiU because of the lack of software, extant or promised, and they’re waiting to see what Microsoft and Sony have to offer before they decide where their money goes. Not doing a huge press conference could be a missed opportunity by Nintendo to assuage those doubts — or perhaps it suggests that the Big N just doesn’t have anything strong to offer.

Despite all this, it’s too early to write Nintendo off completely. This doesn’t mean I have blind faith in Nintendo. I’ve been a Nintendo fan my whole life, through thick and thin, but I’m a realist. Nintendo’s made some mistakes that are just too weird and ludicrous to ignore, like the Virtual Boy, and we can’t ignore the fact that it’s a profit-driven company, not some benevolent sky-god that doles out perfect software from its immaculate heavenly cloud. Don’t forget, no figure has a more fearsome and cutthroat reputation in the game industry than Hiroshi Yamauchi, former president of Nintendo Co, Ltd., and still its largest shareholder.

What I have for Nintendo isn’t faith. It’s more of an ingrained response, almost Pavlovlian. Nintendo has surprised game analysts time and again since the NES was first released, defying the oracles who predicted its demise. Through it all they’ve been stoic and tight-lipped, the classic closely-held corporation, even in the face of enormous pressure to say or do something. So when I hear that Nintendo’s staying quiet, I don’t take that as a sign that it’s on the verge of collapse. To me that’s just Nintendo being Nintendo.

When I was a kid, we didn’t “play video games,” we “played Nintendo.” Now there’s this whole video game industry that rivals Hollywood in scope and is packed with high-budget projects and celebrity voice actors. In this new industry, it’s expected that the major players will be extremely open about their plans so that they can please shareholders. The voices the industry listens to are those like Michael Pachter, a professional game industry analyst at Wedbush Securities and perennial Nintendo nay-sayer, who doesn’t understand how Nintendo can hope to compete with titans like Sony and Microsoft.

With all due respect to Mr. Pachter, who really is an intelligent and reasonable person, he’s sort of missing the big picture. Nintendo isn’t really part of the game industry — it never really has been. The NES was released in the US at a time when video games were thought to be dying, yet Nintendo succeeded by branding itself as the anti-Atari. It didn’t sell video games — it sold “game paks.” It wasn’t an elite gadget for computer geeks, but a simple and inexpensive toy. The NES was laughed at when Nintendo took it to trade shows, and analysts remained extremely skeptical. Yet the NES became an unmitigated success.

With the advent of competitors like Playstation, and XBox, Nintendo is no longer the dominant force it once was. Many see this as a failure on Nintendo’s part, and in some ways that’s true. Nintendo made a serious misstep with the N64 thanks to the difficulties of development, allowing the original Playstation to claw its way to the top. It would seem that Nintendo has failed in its quest to be number one.

But here’s the critical problem with that line of thinking: everyone assumes that Nintendo is trying to compete with Sony and Microsoft, when in reality it has absolutely no interest in doing so. As a closely-held company, Nintendo has no obligation to shareholders to constantly show profits and growth, or to be forthcoming about its upcoming plans. It can do whatever it wants, beholden to no one, and what it wants to do is make inexpensive toys that play fun games. Nintendo’s not trying to make an all-in-one multimedia device. It isn’t trying to make blockbuster games with cutting edge graphics and celebrity voices. Nintendo is going do what it’s always done, which is to make interesting and innovative games that make the most of the tech at hand.

I’m guardedly optimistic about the upcoming E3 Nintendo Direct because if there’s one thing Nintendo does well, it’s surprises. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a game company has to behave like other game companies to be successful. It bothers a lot of game journalists that Nintendo doesn’t give them enough to write about, but it’s unfair to compare Nintendo to Sony or Microsoft. Those companies are multinational, publicly-trade conglomerates. Nintendo is a small company from Kyoto whose name means “leave luck to heaven.” It was here before there was such a thing as a “game industry,” and it’s not going anywhere.

Are you stoked about Nintendo’s E3 plans, or have you written them off already? Let us know in the comments!

Artistic Satisfaction in Gaming

What’s the most beautiful game you’ve ever played? Think about it for a minute. It would be easy here to fall into the trap of naming a game with near-photorealistic graphics, like Crysis 3, or something current like Tomb Raider or Bioshock Infinite. Those certainly aren’t bad choices, because a lot of artists worked very hard on the concepts and implementation in all of those games and it shows in the presentation.

But think about this: art doesn’t need to reflect reality. In fact, a lot of the best art specifically rejects it. I’m not a painter, so I don’t have a lot of fancy terms I can throw at you, but consider briefly Van Gogh’s Starry Night:

You’ve probably seen this painting before, because it’s one of the most recognizable works of art ever created. You see it hanging outside of the art room at an elementary school, or in a co-worker’s office at work. Starry Night is universally recognized as being beautiful and evocative, even if we can’t quite say why or of what. Van Gogh was at least half out of his mind when he painted it (he was in an asylum at the time), so it’s hard to say what he was thinking. Yet if we look at the foreboding, upstretched olive tree, the swirling air currents, and the soft glow of the stars, we get a sense of otherworldliness that lets us escape for an instant into the fantastic.

Now consider Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, probably the most famous painting of all time:

Da Vinci’s painting has stood the test of time because of how perfectly he captured his subject matter. The detail in the barest hint of a smile is exquisite. We love this painting because of the stunning technical prowess Da Vinci demonstrated.

I went through this whole art appreciation exercise to make this point: beauty and realism are not necessarily the same thing. Starry Night isn’t realistic at all, yet we still consider it beautiful. Mona Lisa is stunningly realistic, but does that make it more or less beautiful than Starry Night? I really don’t know. You tell me.

We can certainly apply this lesson to games. Many current-gen games skirt the edges of photorealism, but how many of these are artistically satisfying? How many use the art direction in a game to actually say something about the human condition? I love the Gears of War franchise, but the graphics there do little more than make ultra-buff commandos look that much more grizzled and surly. Gears of War explores a lot of complex themes and emotions, but those come from the writing and the voice work, not from any interplay with the art style.

If photorealism is the Mona Lisa of gaming, the end-all, be-all, the model by which everything else is measured, then what’s the Starry Night? Games like ICO and Journey come to mind immediately, games that use graphics as a medium that in itself can convey ideas and emotions, not just a vehicle for smart writing and professional voice work. Yet there is another game from all the way back in 1996 that matches the otherworldly, non-real ethos of Starry Night better than anything that came after it: The Neverhood.

Developed by Doug TenNapel’s (creator of Earthworm Jim and numerous other amazing things) The Neverhood, Inc. and published by Dreamworks Interactive, this game went where none had gone before by being the first game created entirely in claymation. The game, a point-and-click adventure, takes place on a bizarre island in space called the Neverhood, and deals with themes of good and evil, loss, and redemption, often peppered with TenNapel’s trademark zany sense of humor. As you might imagine, a game this off-the-wall didn’t do very well commercially — but then again, neither did Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Sometimes it isn’t about how much you sell. The Neverhood refuses to sacrifice its artistic vision for mass appeal, to its commercial detriment and lasting ardor from fans.

Claymation as a medium has always been evocative of the fantastic because it brings to life objects we know should be inanimate. It imbues life into that in which there was none before, a theme which The Neverhood itself deals with intimately. The protagonist, Klaymen, was himself lifeless clay before the god-like Hoborg created him, and so too was the antagonist, Klogg. The actions these artificial creatures choose to take once imbued with life make for a compelling internal conflict.

I can’t think of another game that engages the user so directly and effectively with the graphical medium itself. The team at Neverhood, Inc. painstakingly crafted an entire world of clay for the game to take place in. While sweat of the brow alone doesn’t guarantee satisfying art, it certainly makes a work of art more impressive when you know how much work went into it.

Fans of The Neverhood will be happy to know that right this very minute, Doug TenNapel and co. are hard at work crafting a spiritual sequel to The Neverhood called Armikrog, which will be another fully-claymated point and click adventure game. Head on over to their Kickstarter page to donate, because a game like this won’t get made without the support of fans. Van Gogh may not have been appreciated in his lifetime, but Doug TenNapel certainly is, and if you like games that manage to be both strikingly beautiful and wildly fun, you can’t go wrong with anything that has his name on it.

Now, I’m not saying every game should be claymation, because it’s simply unfeasible. The Neverhood is a relatively short and simple game, yet it took a year and over a million dollars to develop. No current gen blockbuster game could run on just clay because the medium doesn’t allow for the same freedom of movement or design. And games certainly don’t need claymation to be artistic — a game like Journey manages to be wonderfully evocative with conventional computer generated graphics. The only point I’m making is that art doesn’t need to be realistic, and often times the most appealing art, like Starry Night or The Neverhood, is just the opposite.

Graphics and the Burden of Imagination

I recently built a new computer, and by that I mean I purchased a whole bunch of parts and watched a few friends build it on their living room table while I nodded and looked like I knew what they were doing. How much I did or didn’t retain from my ancient study of computers is besides the point. The point was that I walked away with a machine that could play games that had come out in the past five years. I wasn’t stranded in any sort of dark ages, I own a Playstation 3, but a PC is something special in that for a short while it will play new games and look like heaven’s gift to gaming. A few months after that window a steady decline begins, and it ends with your computer hurling obscenities at you for even entertaining the idea of playing a new release. It did get me thinking about graphics though, and as we all know when I get to thinking about something, it probably means I have a lot of overwrought  ideas on the subject!

Since consoles brought gaming to the masses in the 80’s it has been steadily growing more mainstream. This is fantastic, because more sales mean more games. The thing is more sales also mean that companies want to keep surpassing those sales, and the only way to do that is to appeal to broader spectrum of customers. As all entertainment industries find out, broad typically means “bad”. Of course this is all subjective, but intelligent, complex, and well crafted art doesn’t have the best track record. Most people live stressful lives, and when it comes to their entertainment, don’t want to be challenged or have to put too much effort into the appreciation of something that they use to escape their daily lives. So wildly successful comedies tend to feature all the same dumb gags, and wildly successful dramas all tug on the same heartstrings. Gaming is no different when it comes to appealing to a broad spectrum of people, and so the industry keeps trudging forward with more and more games focusing on superficial aspects that will placate a majority of gamers. This is sometimes, but not always, to the detriment of other aspects of a game. All of this is a long winded way to say that graphics are the most immediate thing apparent about any video game, and quickly they became the defining way to sell video games to a broad market.

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Graphics have come an absurdly long way in an extremely short amount of time. In just under thirty years we have gone from blocked pixels representing a man to motion captured actors being fully represented digitally, their motions perfectly mimicking their real life counterparts. This dramatic shift has also signaled a shift in the way people approach and enjoy video games. Video games are a two way street. A developer has a vision, and they execute it to the best of their ability, and then they invite us to take part in what they have created. Players buy a game and bring their own preconceptions and unique ideas into the process when playing the game. We all react differently to the same situations, and our imaginations are what make this whole process possible. Who would have ever played Pitfall if you couldn’t imagine those pixels as a lush jungle that the intrepid hero was having to navigate? As graphics have become more and more realistic this two way street is slowly becoming one way. In a game like Gears of War we don’t have to bring our imaginations to the game. It’s fully realized.

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This advancement is a double-edged sword. On one hand the vision of the developers is more accurately represented. It’s their imaginations which are being put on full display, and that’s fantastic. These are people with vision and talent and the better they can show us what they have in their heads, the better art we are going to get. On the other hand, the player is becoming less and less integral to the experience. We can turn our brains off and just let games wash by us without ever truly engaging with them.

All hope isn’t lost for the imaginative gamer, however. Indie games, which lack the budget and manpower to bring cutting edge graphics to life are finding new artistic ways to use simpler graphics, often finding a way to bridge the gap of realizing their own vision while still letting the player bring their own imaginations in to fill in the gaps. This is one of the reasons I love video games so much. Each time the business side of the gaming industry threatens to narrow the types of games that you’ll be able to play the industry adapts and finds a way for a whole new set of developers to share their visions with us. So there’s room for both hyper-realism and retro simplicity, and hopefully things will stay that way.

Wario Is Just the Best

Nintendo has an impressive stable of characters. The obvious example to make my point here is the Super Smash Brothers franchise, and I could spend a lot of time just listing every character ever featured in an SSB game, but I don’t want to bore you. The really striking thing about SSB is that every character featured in those games, with the exceptions of Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog, were (mostly) created and are completely owned by Nintendo Co., Ltd. Sony’s Playstation All-Stars, while a perfectly competent and enjoyable game in its own right, can’t quite claim that same distinction. Sony owns the rights to many of the characters in All-Stars, but they were created by a disparate group of second and third party studios, some with only tenuous connections to Sony Corporation. There’s something unique about a group of characters who can really be said to be not just part of the same business conglomerate, but of a gaming family. Even though some are anthropomorphic space foxes and others are surprisingly gymnastic overweight Italian plumbers. Whatever.

Nintendo has so many damn characters that it’s really hard for most people to pick a favorite. Many will go with Mario, the old stand by, a tried and true friend who’s never let us down. Some prefer Link, the stoic hero who overcomes fantastic odds in pursuit of justice. Others might pick Samus Aran, the silent, fearless bounty hunter. As much as I love those three, and every other Nintendo mascot, there is absolutely no contest in my mind for favorite: Wario.

Wario is the quintessential greed-monger. He’s so misanthropic, in fact, that he was actually the central villain of his first game, Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins for the Gameboy.* He is perhaps the simplest and most honest of all video game protagonists because he doesn’t long for fame or glory or the love of a beautiful woman. He wants treasure, gold, and dollars, and he doesn’t care what he has to do to get it.

Before I go any further, a brief lesson in Japanese language is in order. The word warui means, roughly, “bad.” So Wario is a warui, or bad, version of Mario. A pretty good pun, eh? Incidentally, Waluigi is the warui, or bad, version of Luigi, which is an even better pun if you ask me, since r and l are interchangeable in Japanese. But I digress. The point is, Wario is in every way an opposite of Mario. Where Mario is an egoless hero, Wario is a self-pitying antihero. Where Mario pursues noble goals, Wario pursues self-interest.

There’s something deeply subversive about the concept of Wario. Not in the way a game like God of War is subversive, with complete disregard for life, human and otherwise. And not in the way a game like Final Fantasy X is subversive, in that it questions the idea of dogmatic adherence to religious faith. It’s subversive in a much more innocent and childlike way. It doesn’t stray into the complex moral implications of the protagonist’s actions, but rather tells you as a basic premise that the character you’ll be playing as is, essentially, a huge jerk.

I don’t mind playing as a huge jerk. In fact, I love it, because the Wario games are always designed so that while, yes, Wario himself is reprehensible, the villains he faces, like Captain Syrup or the Shake King, are always just as, if not more, crazy and egotistical than himself. You don’t become emotionally invested in the outcome of the game, but can simply revel in the brilliant fun and inspired hilarity. Whether he’s extending his flabby arms like a gymnast after sticking a landing, running around with his ass on fire, or cackling maniacally while hurling a hapless foe (or friend), he does everything with characteristic zeal. Wario is voiced by Charles Martinet, like several other members of the Mario canon (including Mario himself), who absolutely revels in trademark phrases like “I’m-a Wario, I’m-a gonna win!”, or simply “Wahahaha!” All of this over-enthusiasm at material wealth and fervent braggadocio reminds me in the best possible way of Scrooge McDuck, and only serves to make Wario more endearing. I mean, it’s not like he’s burgling houses or murdering people — he’s exploring ruins or beating up monsters, which in the video game world is about as tame as it gets.

The WarioWare series may not have the tight platforming pedigree of Wario Land, but it still manages to capture the madcap nature of the character. Why wouldn’t Wario start his own gaming company in an effort to make quick cash? Makes sense to me.

The design team for Mario Land 2, and character designer Hiroji Kiyotake, supposedly resented having to design a game based around someone else’s character (Shigeru Miyamoto’s Mario). So, they designed the antagonist to be the complete opposite of Mario, in an act of quasi-rebellion. Yet from such inauspicious origins sprang one of Nintendo’s most enduring and recognizable characters. He provides levity and release from the obligations of heroism and duty. He gives players a misanthropic antihero to root for without the blood and guts or cursing of mature titles. And most importantly, everything about him, from gameplay to art design to voice work, is unquestionably fun. If you’ve never played a Wario game, check out the hilarious promo video for the upcoming WiiU title Game and Wario. And seriously, you owe it to yourself to download one of his Gameboy classics on the 3DS Virtual Console — and you owe it to Wario, too, cheapskates! C’mon, chumps, Wario needs-a some money! Looking that-a good ain’t free, you know!

*Although he arguably appeared in the NES game Wrecking Crew as a rival to Mario.

To Platform is to Puzzle

There are all sorts of games. Action, adventure, roleplaying, first person shooter, fighting, and many others are all different monikers we give to games to describe the type of experience you have while playing them. They usually conform to a set of rules. Adventure games typically feature exploration and real time combat. First person shooters let you shoot things from a first person perspective (shocking, I know). One of these genres is “platformer”. A genre that until the 3d era of gaming was ushered in held the entire video game industry aloft. Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Mega Man are all platformers, and happen to be the most iconic franchises from the 8 and 16 bit era of video gaming. Platformers featured lots of jumping and hair trigger timing. What’s interesting to me, however, is that we were all being duped into playing a different kind of game then we were being advertised.

Platformers are typically thought of as action games. They are extremely fast paced, and often involve combative aspects mixed in with environment traversal that is the genres hallmark. As I was playing Mega Man 10 a few weeks ago something started to occur to me. Every time I died and replayed a level all the enemies spawned at the exact same points, and moved in the exact same patterns. This is true of Mario and Sonic games as well. Every time you start a level the world behaves in not just a similar, but in an exactly same manner. The only variable in one of these games is how you control Mario, or Mega Man. In reality, instead of playing action games, the iconic games of our youth were a new permutation of puzzle games.

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A puzzle is a problem that can be solved using logic. You assess patterns and manipulate variables to achieve a specific goal, or solution. When we think of puzzle games, we typically think of titles like Tetris, or maybe even a newer example such as Portal. These are games which put a problem in front of you, and then present you with a number of tools to try and solve those problems. Differently shaped blocks, or companion cubes along with a gun that shoots portals help you change your environment to achieve your goal. How is that so different from the ability to jump or move forward at great speed in the right context?

The key is the way the world behaves. We can’t call many modern third person action games or first person shooters puzzle games because they have developed those worlds to try and adapt to you. Enemies will employ different strategies depending on how successful you are, or will change their movements based on your position. One aspect of most games that can be considered without question to be puzzles are boss fights. These typically forego normal AI or expected enemy behavior and follow a strict pattern of actions that needs to be exploited in particular ways in order to damage the boss, or secure victory through some other method. Because the world and it’s inhabitants always react in the exact same ways in Mega Man games we can make the stretch and call them puzzle games.

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I’m not saying that these games are anywhere near traditional puzzles. It’s true that having a single character that can carve through the environment and set various pieces of it moving is more chaotic than puzzles traditionally are, but it’s also true that each level has a relatively small set of “solutions”, or correct paths and movements that will successfully take you to the end of the level. There are interesting variations to this in a series like Mega Man though. Above I mentioned that boss battles can very often be puzzles, but Mega Man takes that a step further and makes level selection a puzzle in its own right. Each boss has a weakness to a weapon gained from a different boss. Hazarding guesses as to each’s weakness is key component to the game.

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  The increasing amount of labels and genres that we shove all of our entertainment into is dangerous, as it can slowly devalue games, or music, or film that attempts to be more than just one type of thing, or something that strays too far from a formula. I don’t think we’ve reached any sort of juncture in gaming where we need to heavily critique the labels we put on games, but it’s interesting to look back and see how earlier video games used a very limited set of tools and made us think we were playing one type of game when in reality we were just playing a new spin on one of the oldest forms of entertainment there is. Next time you pick up a Sonic, Mario, or Mega Man game take a few moments whenever you become frustrated with the trial and error nature of success and think about how the game is slowly teaching you how to approach various situations logically. They are gradually teaching you the solutions that you need to unlock victory in the later portions of the games, and when you finally see that final screen denoting your success, feel a little more satisfied knowing that not only have you been honing your reflexes, you’ve been honing your puzzling skills as well.

Mindshare Over Matter

Final Fantasy VII: greatest game of all time. Well, greatest game of 1997, anyway. Square Enix has this odd love-hate relationship with its vaunted offspring, at once acknowledging its matchless success and refusing to remake it until a new game can surpass it. There’s nothing the JRPG-consuming public wants more than a FFVII remake, but Square Enix has this sort of egotistical desire to prove that it can make a better game.

Here’s the problem, though: Final Fantasy VII will never be surpassed. Part of this has to do with what an amazing game it is — this needs no real explanation. The intriguing setting, dynamic characters, deep combat, and a rich trove of side quests (no DLC here) stew together into an damn-near perfect experience. It’s consistently ranked as among the best games of all time by every gaming publication and website in the world. Here and there you might see a magazine like Famitsu put Final Fantasy XIII slightly higher — because for some inexplicable reason the Japanese love that game — but you always see VII close on its heels.

So yeah, it’s a great game, one of the best of all time, etc. etc. And that by itself starts to explain why even mega-hit games like FFVIII, FFX, and FFXIII can’t catch it in sales. But there’s another factor which everyone seems to forget, a really critical piece of the puzzle that puts FFVII’s success in perspective: there were almost no good PS1 games in 1997.

1997 was actually a pretty great year for video games — if you had a Nintendo 64. This was the year of Mario Kart 64, Star Fox 64, Diddy Kong Racing, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, and — most importantly — Goldeneye 007. The PS1’s list is much less impressive, with the most notable releases being Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tomb Raider 2, and Crash Bandicoot 2 (and Final Fantasy VII, of course). It gets even worse if you go back to 1996, where the only major PS1 releases were Resident Evil, Crash Bandicoot, and Tomb Raider.

Okay, so you’re thinking, hey, those are some great games. But there’s two very important factors to notice:

1) There’s only two consoles there. The Dreamcast wouldn’t be released until 1999 in the US, and the XBox was still years away. If we assume that each console has roughly the same amount of exclusives, that means there were a third fewer games in 1997 than there would have been if a third major console was on the market.

2) Is there a particular genre of game underrepresented on that list? A genre, perhaps, which completely dominates the industry today? That’s right, astute readers: first-person shooters. 1997 was the year Goldeneye 007 came out, a game that revolutionized the console shooter genre with tight gameplay, interesting objectives, and a multiplayer mode unsurpassed until Halo: Combat Evolved’s release in 2001. But for all its success, console shooters were still in an incipient phase, and the PS1 had a severe lack of them.

So what does all this mean? Conditions in 1997 couldn’t have been more perfect for Final Fantasy VII’s release. Shooters hadn’t yet begun to dominate the market, and the PS1 had only the N64 to compete against — and while we all love the N64, there’s no doubt that the PS1 absolutely killed it in market share. So when FFVII came out in January, there was nothing to stand in its way. Everyone heard about the game because there was nothing else to talk about. It was the big PS1 release of that year, a game with mature themes and complex mechanics that was immediately compelling and had across-the-board appeal. Look at it’s chief competition — Crash Bandicoot 2. Don’t get me wrong, I love Crash Bandicoot 2, and it sold quite well, but you’re never going to see it on a “top ten games of all time” list. Final Fantasy VII’s release year was like Secretariat running against a pack of house cats. Those might be the fastest house cats alive, but there’s no way they’re catching Secretariat.

Now compare 1997 to 2010, Final Fantasy XIII’s release year. There were an astronomical number of blockbuster games that year, chief among which was the untouchable Call of Duty: Black Ops, which more than doubled FFVII‘s lifetime sales. This was also the year of Fallout: New Vegas, Rock Band 3, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Mass Effect 2 — just to name a few. Games have gotten so big and so popular now that we’re seeing this huge bevy of hit titles coming out year after year for all three major consoles. This makes it very difficult for a toothsome JRPG to compete against relatively simple, mass-appeal games — specifically, shooters. Even a multi-platform release like FFXIII got can’t reach the heights of the single-platform FFVII.

Which brings me to the real point: Final Fantasy VII will never be surpassed because it achieved a mindshare which Square Enix hasn’t enjoyed in the west before or since. Unless Square can figure out a way to have no other notable releases to compete against for consumer mindshare in a given year, they will always have to worry about the other guy down the road and the half billion dollars he’s spending on marketing. Crafting a fantastic game is only part of the equation. Even if Final Fantasy XV is a perfect game — and let’s face it, it won’t be — it will never surpass VII in terms of critical acclaim, adoption by fans, and overall sales because the market is just too saturated for a JRPG to achieve that kind of mindshare.

So c’mon, Square Enix — stop kidding yourself. Quit staring at that green light at the end of the pier. It doesn’t matter if you surpass Final Fantasy VII. That game came out in a completely different gaming industry than the one we have today. You can’t be obsessed with the past and expect to create great experiences in the present. Remake your old games, give the fans what they want. If you can do that, then maybe you can unshackle yourself from this bizarre bitterness over past success and finally make the successor the Final Fantasy franchise deserves.

Blockbuster Tie-ins

As the days get warmer, and the sun starts to hang in the sky a little longer, I start to think about certain things. Pollen counts. That’s one of the things. Whether or not this will be the year that the abysmal St. Louis heat will finally put a button on, what will in hindsight, have been a predictably short life. One of the other, less fatalistic things I think about is movies, summer blockbusters to be more specific. Tentpole action films that star Will Smith and Tom Cruise, and also Will Smith’s progeny because that’s a thing that will happen for the rest of time now fill our local theaters, and with them will come the inevitable tide of video game tie-ins. Make no mistake, summer is a harrowing time for a gamer.

Video game tie-ins have been around almost as long as the entire medium, and unfortunately have been terrible just as long. I’m sorry, it may seem like that statement came out of nowhere. The wonderful thing is that there are exceptions to every rule. I could sit here and spend the next thousand or so words telling you all about the terrible video game adaptations of various movies out there, and I’ll absolutely spend some of them talking about why they typically fail, but I’d also like to illuminate a few of the successes they have popped up along the way.

Movies and games are different. Of course, right? Movies are meticulously crafted experiences to be enjoyed almost solely as an observer. (I again, relent to certain exceptions such as Rocky Horror Picture Show and it’s ilk) Games are meticulously crafted experiences to be enjoyed almost solely as a participant. (*jokes about Metal Gear Solid, har har har*) That’s a pretty fundamental difference, yet year after year the latest summer blockbusters are released alongside games that try to maximize the marketing potential of their particular brand. Lately, comic book movies have been taking the most advantage of this type of tie in. Almost every movie that Marvel has put out in the build-up to last summer’s Avengers extravaganza had a video game to go along with it, and if you were to look at the metacritic scores for those games, you might be disheartened. There are innumerable reasons why games are bad, but the reasons why game tie ins are almost always disappointing are few and not that difficult to parse out. The word of today is “development cycle”.

The marriage of art and business is one of the truly necessary evils in our world. Business needs art to sell, and art needs business to reach a widespread market. Tools such as the internet have made it easier for artists to bypass deals that would compromise their vision, but when a company commissions a game to be made, they get to dictate the terms of the artistic vision. This can manifest in a simple way, such as the game developer being forced to fit the narrative of the movie inside the game. As I mentioned earlier, this is problematic because games and movies approach narrative in extremely different ways. Forcing an Iron Man video game to follow the exact same plot line as the movie makes no sense, and the developer has to pad the story out, both for length and to add in sequences which require more action that what the movie delivered. This is just a smaller problem in the face of the challenge of developing a game in a very specific time frame.

Back to the word of the day: “development cycle”. In the information age we have more knowledge about the highs and lows each game goes through during the time it’s being developed. Some developers needs years to hone their vision into an experience that is satisfying. Summer blockbusters typically only need a few months of shooting, and a few months of editing to deliver a finished product to the consumer. Games tied into these properties can’t be made before things like artistic direction, casting, and narrative direction for the film are decided. This limits the game developer to a window similar the the film itself. Not ideal conditions for any developer. This is the core cause for almost all of the other problems that plague this tie ins. The Captain America: Super Soldier game that was the tie in for the Captain America film dodged the problem of being tied to the film’s narrative, but fell prey to being a lesser version of a more fully realized game, Batman: Arkham Asylum in this case.

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The real tragedy is that for the most part these games aren’t even disasters. The Aliens: Colonial Marines debacle didn’t have any specific movie hanging above it’s development, and it’s proven to be more of a broken mess than any tie-in game in recent memory. Mediocrity is rallying cry for most of these games, and it’s saddening to see characters like Thor, who lend themselves to action games be undeserved.

So there are a lot of ways these games can fail, but sometimes a tie-in can rise above the pitfalls inherent in their development cycles. Spider-Man 2 is a game that immediately comes to my mind. The first Spider-Man game was an exercise in all of the problems I’ve detailed, the craziest thing being that when Spider-Man shot his webs into the air, they just mystically attached to nothing, allowing to full freedom in where you wanted to swing, but completely breaking the illusion of being Spider-Man. Spider-Man 2 introduced the player to a fully explorable New York City, complete with “realistic” swinging physics. It did have the problem of trying to cram the film’s plot line in with a roster of added villains from the comics, but wisely the game focused on the one thing Spider-Man does that no one else  can: swing on webs throughout an entire city. Most of the gameplay focused directly on moving throughout the city to complete objectives, and less time was spent on a serviceable but wanting brawler combat system the featured Spider-Man bouncing back and forth between targets.

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Ultimately making a successful tie-in is extremely difficult. The circumstances definitely work against the developers, but it’s definitely possible. If they can find the key to what makes the character or property dynamic and focusing on polishing those parts of the gameplay, even to the detriment of others, a game may just leave players feeling like they had a pretty good time.