Sony Has Me Believing in Japanese Development Again

Final Fantasy VII RemakeTo say that Japanese game development has been a letdown would be underselling it. The once bastion of brilliant original games had become lost in mediocrity, reliving exhausted tropes and dated mechanics. Games stuck in development purgatory as they never seemed to fully grasp how to actually build a game in a world filled with ballooning budgets, massive sales expectations and technology that managed to make the once thoughtful and artistic look dull and boring.

Rather than take risks, Japan became a nation filled with companies who were afraid to gamble, afraid to put themselves out there to recapture the illustrious magic that brought us all into gaming in the first place. With smart phones and tablets threatening to kill the home console we have seen names like Capcom teeter on the brink of oblivion, Konami give up on console development and Square Enix look west.

But then a trend developed. Brave developers soldiered on without their companies. Keiji Inafune brought Comcept to the forefront with Mighty No. 9. Koji Igarashi smashed through crowd-funding ceilings with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. And Sony brought life to the classics that made Japan the Mecca of gaming.

The Last GuardianThe Last Guardian. Final Fantasy VII. Shenmue III.

Three vastly unique games, each with their own story of development turmoil. One mired in mystery and cryptic messages, with many wondering if it would ever see the light of day. Another a standout classic of one of the most famed franchises of all time. And the last the concluding chapter to a game that the entire world had written off.

It was a simple, calculated move that ended up being a perfect storm for Sony. One that Microsoft never saw coming.

The tone was set early today with Microsoft’s frenetic whirlwind of a E3 presentation that had many feeling invigorated by their renewed focus on core gaming. They hit as hard as they could with refined peripherals, backwards compatibility, not to mention a pair of Xbox standards in Halo 5 and Gears 4.

But Sony didn’t even blink. They managed to trot out the games that everybody knew about in No Man’s Sky and Uncharted 4. They turned a few heads with Horizon: Zero Dawn. But by recommitting to Japanese development, they are going back to what made the PS2 a standout purchase.

Shenmue IIIWe are still a ways off to see how these investments pay off with The Last Guardian due next year and no solid date for the Final Fantasy VII remake. Shenmue III, while a glorious undertaking, will need to pass the public barometer of Kickstarter (a place where it is currently blowing past records) and is projected to release no earlier than 2017.

But the proof is out there that Sony is supporting these projects openly. The Last Guardian is an in-house exclusive. Final Fantasy VII will arrive first on the PlayStation 4, as will Shenmue III when its development finally concludes. Pair Sony’s bombshell announcements with their support of Street Fighter V and the pending releases of Metal Gear Solid V, Final Fantasy XV, the Kickstarter projects of Mighty No. 9 and Bloodstained and all of the work Nintendo is doing, it appears that Japan has finally recaptured the magic .

Need for Speed, Don’t Call it a Comeback (Reboot)

Need for SpeedElectronic Arts is calling their next entry into their iconic Need for Speed series a reboot, echoing buzzwords and happy memories of the many highpoints that the racing series has provided over the past 20 years. Announced with their signature “in-game engine” teaser trailer, a Porsche and a Mustang are sliding around a city’s late night streets as police cruisers scream after them in tow.

Whatever Electronic Arts is up to, their marketing team needs to stop using lowest common denominator terms. It is insulting.

Let’s be honest.

Need for Speed does not deserve the term “reboot”. It is a series that’s sole purpose has been racing and that style of racing has changed from title to title. Sure the early Need for Speed games were just about racing exotics through the country hills, NFS3: Hot Pursuit added police chases. Then it got crazy with Underground’s popularity, which led to Most Wanted and the proliferation of the incredibly campy (but slightly endearing) FMV cutscenes. But what did NFS ProStreet, Carbon, Shift or Rivals have to do with any of this formula?

Need for SpeedNeed for Speed does not have a formula beyond fast cars, loose arcade style physics with the modern focus of police pursuits that has been a recurring feature for over 15 years.

So to call it a reboot is incorrect. Nothing has changed about Need for Speed. EA has gotten progressively more impatient with the development studios that have done great things (and mediocre things) for the franchise. Black Box brought on the popularity of Underground but met their end after ProStreet, Undercover and The Run were underwhelming. Criterion Games, one of the best arcade racing development studios of all time, flamed out after two games. Both Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted were critical darlings, but had trouble latching on to audiences in the way that past games had. Criterion ended up handing Need for Speed off to Ghost games, which made the decent but hardly attention grabbing Rivals.

I speak from an angle of adoration for the Need for Speed franchise. I want it to do good things, which is why I stuck by it over the years. It will likely never be the best racing game on the market, but it has managed to carve out a particular following with a great combination of mechanics and loose arcade-style freedom. I trumpeted praise for 2012’s Most Wanted, despite its slightly hollow core. I played through the entirety of The Run and concluded that the best moments of the game were contained in the demo. I adored Porsche Unleashed’s 4 point physics model that was unheard of in the franchise. I modded High Stakes, became obsessed with Underground and think Shift is the most underrated title in the franchise. But Electronic Arts can not lie to us.

Need for SpeedThe phrase that stands out in Electronic Arts’ announcement is “deep customization, authentic urban car culture, a nocturnal open world, and an immersive narrative that pulls you through the game.” They can tout a reboot as much as they want. But at the end of the day, they’re going back to a game that ended up making their biggest successes. This is Underground. This is Most Wanted. This is Rivals. This is Hot Pursuit. This is every Need for Speed game that they’ve ever made, put into one product. They are desperately fighting for recognition. Maybe they should bring back Black Box.

But unless it has FMV cutscenes. It’s not a reboot.

It’s Time to Let Go of Konami

KonamiKonami, as we knew it, is done.

The sooner that fact is understood, the sooner the healing process can begin.

I know it’s going to be tough, but together we can bear through this. Konami was amazing. They were at the center of some of gaming’s iconic franchises over the course of 20 years. Not only did they bring Metal Gear and Silent Hill into the conversation of modern gaming’s best but they also put out the classics Frogger, Castlevania and Contra.

So why would a company as rich a history as Konami seem to be having a fire sale?

Living through the successes of their past does not guarantee success in the future. Especially in the Video Games industry that has seen Atari go out of business just to be resurrected for the name alone, Sega unceremoniously bullied out of the console space and THQ implode around themselves, despite being on the verge of becoming a true AAA publisher.

Metal Gear Rising: RevengeanceAsk yourself this, are you really surprised that this happened?

In recent years, Konami’s only games that performed well enough to turn a noticeable profit have been entries into their Winning 11/Pro Evolution Soccer series and Metal Gear. But none of the entries were chart burners. Metal Gear Rising: Revengence, the last full Metal Gear game, brought in an external developer (albeit a stellar one in Platinum) and only managed to draw 1.7 million copies in global sales across both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. In contrast, the last true Metal Gear Solid title, MGS4, sold nearly 6 million copies worldwide.

The brutal truth of Konami’s involvement in games development is that the sales numbers are no longer worth the massive investment it takes to properly develop games for home consoles. Letting classic franchises like Castlevania, Contra and even Hudson’s Bomberman are byproducts of Konami’s prolonged exit from the home console space.

It seems that the only thread holding everything together was Metal Gear and Hideo Kojima. Kojima has long been a proponent of innovation, artful direction and games as a medium to rival film and television entertainment. Behind Kojima Metal Gear became the mammoth property that Konami held dear and was responsible for spearheading the ambitious Silent Hills project as well as a major factor in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainBut let’s be honest. Metal Gear has become a whale in the boardroom. Producing a multi-million dollar entertainment game only increased in size as Kojima ballooned the project out to include luxury features like casting Keifer Sutherland, building their own game engine and creating the multi-SKU nightmare that was Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain. Combined with insane publicity stunts with the infamous Joakim Mogren stunt, Kojima, while brilliant, had become a liability.

The only reason why we are really noticing that Konami is unceremoniously leaving traditional gaming development is because of the ill-timed confluence of events. Kojima and Konami falling out. Metal Gear Solid V’s rocky development period. Silent Hills cancelled. Delisting themselves from the New York Stock Exchange. Konami no longer cares about developing games to create worlds and tell stories. They are a company, who happens to have made a few successful games. They also have health clubs. They also make pachinko machines. They also make slot machines.

So when Konami CEO Hideki Hayakawa said, “Gaming has spread to a number of platforms, but at the end of the day, the platform that is always closest to us, is mobile. Mobile is where the future of gaming lies,” I am disappointed but I am not surprised.

KonamiOr when the state of Nevada approves a bill that allows for gambling games of skill to be including in casinos, a move spearheaded by Konami’s gambling division president Thomas Jingoli, I am not surprised. Odds are the only chance we have at seeing a new game of Frogger is on a skill based slot machine in Vegas.

And that is depressing.

But you know what, it’s okay. I am glad that Kojima is leaving Konami. He is better than what Konami is now. It is a shame that Metal Gear will not leave Konami with Kojima. After all, it was poor production and direction that kept pulling Kojima back into the Metal Gear projects.

However Metal Gear Solid V performs this Fall, I’m sure it will make a ton of money for Konami. Let them relish in it. Let them lie through their teeth about it. Forget about the Konami you loved. Because that Konami will be long gone after this year.

Activision and Harmonix Want Us to Rock Like It’s 2007 (And That’s Fine By Me)

Guitar Hero LiveWith the obvious recent announcements of Activision’s Guitar Hero Live and Harmonix’s Rock Band 4 it is safe to wonder about the once mega-popular gaming genre that had seemingly jumped the shark. Has it been long enough? Why has it taken this long? I don’t have nearly enough storage space for more plastic instruments!

One thing will always remain constant: people love music and want to immerse themselves in it. Many attend concerts, some form cover bands, others hang out at karaoke bars every weekend. Others strap on plastic instruments and hammer away to their favorite guitar riffs.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of RockEverybody remembers the story, Guitar Hero was the popular lightning in the bottle that Activision and Harmonix jointly created, it was  a success that was built on the understanding of music and note charting that Harmonix had and the incredible peripheral that Red Octane built. When the two went their separate ways and Harmonix made Rock Band with MTV Games and Electronic Arts, Activision saw to keep churning out Guitar Hero, making Red Octane build more guitars and bringing in Neversoft to design the game. While their skill at note charting was not to the same degree as their predecessor’s, Neversoft managed to create several zany iterations of Rock Band until 2010’s Warriors of Rock.

On the Harmonix front, Rock Band saw a gamut of success from music purists with three core iterations of Rock Band. With their multiple instrument approach, weekly expanding library and mastery over creating challenging, yet playable tracks, Harmonix had a formula that worked. Sadly for Rock Band 3, arguably the best in the series, nobody bought in to the additional keyboard or pro controllers and fans of the franchise were feeling burnt out and claustrophobic in their plastic instrument cluttered living rooms.

Rock Band 2So it’s been five years since Rock Band and Guitar Hero filled every corner of retail space, why is it the right time for them both to be making a comeback? Doesn’t the same problems of overlap and oversaturation remain? Of course they do.

But we missed this genre.

Nothing has brought friends together in a space to play a game like a solid multiplayer rhythm game. Not even the dancing games like Dance Central or Just Dance have had the mesmerizing effects of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Shouting “Star Power!” at your bass player to get the bonus up in Guitar Hero, nailing those perfect drum solos on expert in Rock Band, battling with each other in Guitar Hero III. Rock Band and Guitar Hero were at the frontlines of gaming’s biggest foray into mass media popularity.

But what about the problem where they wore out each other’s welcome?

Certainly Activision has been guilty of beating franchises into the ground, and Guitar Hero was no exception to this story. Despite both franchises offering solid features in Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3, nobody cared enough to drop down all that money into more plastic instruments for barely any new gameplay offerings. While Activision may have stressed the issue, Harmonix was sucked into the whirlpool and did not do enough to differentiate themselves.

Guitar Hero Live2015, I hope, is different. Harmonix is continuing down the path that they know best with Rock Band 4. Retaining their massive back catalog, focusing on the four player band experience (and ditching the key-tar) and bringing players back together. This is the experience that I missed and craved. In a sort of greatest hits move, Harmonix is firing on all cylinders, giving fans the experience they are known for and that they expect.

So it turns out that Activision and Guitar Hero are the wildcards. They have gone in a completely different direction with their next iteration, Guitar Hero Live. The focus is once again only on the guitar, no more copying Harmonix’s formula, Activision is dead set on creating the best guitar experience on consoles. Rocksmith’s strong performance is evident that people clearly want something in this vein, even if Rocksmith is grounded in reality.

Guitar Hero LiveAs for that reality that Rocksmith provides, Activision is watching that. With former DJ Hero developer FreeStyleGames taking over, gone are the cartoony, over sensationalized characters of the sixth and seventh generations and now we have scripted reactions, in FMV form, at simulated concert venues, complete with band mates, crowds and roadies. They react to your great play, they react to your poor play. It’s an interesting concept that seems like it belongs in the days of Sega CD and the 3DO, but it seems to work. So I’ll let the gameplay be the judge. Don’t want that live experience? Activision is amping up their DLC library with Guitar Hero TV which replaces the scripted reactionary video with downloaded music videos that you will play along with.

And lastly, the guitar.

Guitar Hero LiveActivision is changing the way the guitar frets work, to further differentiate themselves from Rock Band’s classic five-button configuration. Now it is three frets, each with two buttons, making a total of six buttons to play. Just the thought of quickly processing the change between top and bottom frets confuses my left hand. Making the challenge greater is that Guitar Hero Live will be using black and white note indicators, doing away with the colored combinations of yesteryear.

When companies compete, the consumer wins. Now that Activision and Harmonix are finally competing with individual products, instead of fighting for who has the best version of the same idea, we can finally enjoy the unique offerings each has.

The music rhythm genre was once on of the most popular genres available and oversaturation killed it. Hopefully a wiser, patient strategy will take place and if Activision is to be believed, no longer approached on an annual basis. This is the perfect time for a comeback tour. Let there be rock.

Nintendo Just Doesn’t Care

Wave 4 AmiiboI should really stop complaining about Nintendo. Nintendo is, after all, my first love in video games. I grew up playing the NES, games like Battletoads, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jackal were my jam. The first console I ever purchased was a Super Nintendo to the tune of $150, which is a ton of money for a 10-year-old (my parents agreed to split the costs if I saved). I have the music to Super Mario Land on the Game Boy forever in my head.

So it is out of place of adoration that I am so incredibly disappointed and infuriated by Nintendo’s consistent ability to simply not get it.

Sure, this Amiibo debacle has rapidly spiraled to the point of PR disaster for Nintendo. There’s the timed release, the retail exclusives, the instantly sold out preorders, the impossibility of finding a “rare” figure in store, the reseller’s markup of at least 4-5 times the MSRP. But really, it’s not about that. I get the feeling that Nintendo just doesn’t care.

Here they are, sitting on a gold mine of a product, and they are not only refusing to produce enough to meet the demand, Nintendo has consistently and defiantly refused to acknowledge a problem exists. When GameStop’s online store crashed due to Amiibo hungry customers bombarding the website, Nintendo’s response was to retweet GameStop’s announcement of the crash.

When prodded by throngs of upset fans and questioned by the press, Nintendo has stuck to their script of silence, refusing to comment on a situation they know is volatile. Ultimately it is an argument that they can’t win, because they’ve already made their decision and there is no point in reiterating their stance. They have no interest in fully supporting Amiibos.

They have created these nifty little toys, that are basically little tricks that games can utilize. But they are no where near the level of interactivity of Activision’s Skylanders or Disney’s Infinity characters. Those figures actually insert the figures into the game, with the purpose of building around their particular worlds. Skylanders has you training these creatures ala Pokemon and Disney Infinity has the endless possibilities of the Toybox.

Nintendo’s Amiibos? Unlockable skins and the ability to train a character in Super Smash Bros. Skylanders and Infinity have a dangerous hook built into their system, the figures are required to add them into the game. If I want to have the Sorcer’s Apprentice Mickey in my Infinity, I need to buy that figure. The same does not hold true for Amiibos.

For all intensive purposes, all the features of the game are baked in from the onset. Super Smash Bros for Wii U and 3DS have all their base characters already present inside, the additional function of the Amiibo is storing your trained AI combatant. While certainly an intriguing feature for all those back-alley underground Amiibo fight leagues out there, the feature doesn’t actually bring anything to the game. So the fact that Nintendo is touting their expansion capabilities with their toys-to-game figures, they have kind of missed the point.

Sure, Project S.T.E.A.M. can add the Fire Emblem characters into the game, but you’d have to be one of the lucky few to have gotten a hold of any of the Fire Emblem Amiibos, notoriously the hardest to come by due to the supply shortage. Beyond the ability to add little things here and there, I get the feeling that Nintendo’s plan of action regarding Amiibos was never fully fleshed out to begin with.

There is a certain disconnect when it comes to Nintendo and understanding their modern fanbase. It is a fanbase that, while fiercely loyal, is notably stingy when it comes to their collections. Fire Emblem had long been clamored for a western release and over the past decade Nintendo has slowly made that a reality. Fire Emblem: Awakening’s massive success should have been a sign to Nintendo that they have something special on their hands, something that clearly their most dedicated fans want more of. Of course the Fire Emblem Amiibos, already the most popular of the Super Smash Bros. characters, would be the first to sell out.

And what does Nintendo do? They sit quietly in their suits while their social media campaigns don’t even mention the insanity occurring beneath them.

Maybe that’s the truth of it. Whatever the fans shout about is beneath Nintendo. They are more interested in making a guaranteed dollar than actually listening to their fan base. Let’s face it. We all know that the Amiibo craze is ridiculous. Nintendo knows it by not supporting it in terms of physical content and in terms of actual software support. They could be doing so much more with the product by building a world where the figures could actually thrive, but they are way too conservative a company to let an outsider control their IPs.

Nintendo fans know how crazy it is by lining up in GameStops across the country with the hopes of snagging the maybe 1 or 2 rare figures a store might be allotted. Fans will overpay from scalpers, import from foreign countries and cry about the lack of support until they’re blue in the face.

All while Nintendo sits on their hands.

The sad thing is, I would still do anything for a Lucina Amiibo.

I’m Amiibo-Mad and Not In a Good Way

Lucina AmiiboToday marked the beginning of the chaos for Wave 4 of Nintendo’s Amiibo figures. With many of the main-line characters already receiving figures, the new waves of figures are proving to be more of a fight to get at due to their smaller numbers and perceived smaller fanbases.

So, in anticipation of this, I went out to a local GameStop in attempts to lock up a Lucina Amiibo figure, probably the only one I really wanted. As I walked through the doors as the store opened, the clerk informed me that their system was getting hammered by people trying to order the figures. She attempted to place the order for me but was blocked by her system (which was tied into the same online logjam) informing her that the stock was already sold through.

Living in Hawaii certainly has its perks, but not this time. Clearly being on the bad end of nationwide stock count puts my odds at next to nothing when it comes to reserving limited stock items. I chatted with the clerk, who was sympathetic as she wanted to purchase these things as well, but couldn’t since she was alone. I suggested to her that the a better approach would to have stock allocated by region that preorders can pull from. This would allow customers on the west coast to arrive at their prospective brick and mortars, make their reservations and go about their day. I had read about customers in the Pacific and Mountain time zones who were just as unlucky as me.

And in a day and age where online preorders are decimating the supply chain? Count that as a separate region as well, with its own supply. Once the brick and mortar preorders slow down, release those preorders to the online stock and open pre orders there.

Ultimately, the goal of a company like GameStop should be to drive customers into their stores, versus fighting a losing battle on their website. They already don’t have the greatest of web presences in the world and their draw is to get people into their store and looking at the plethora of games they have to offer.

At this point I am not out of the woods yet in regards to finding a Lucina Amiibo, there are other retailers who might have stock when Wave 4 releases in late May. So I will keep trying until I get one. Heck, I might even be willing trade this silly Gold Mario Amiibo that I somehow got in exchange for a Lucina.

Sega’s Console Gaming Future – On Second Thought…

Sega AtlusLast week it was reported that Sega would be downsizing their workforce and shifting their focus towards PC and mobile development. North American jobs were particularly hit hard with the closing of Sega’s San Francisco office and at least 120 employees targeted for early retirement.

What this means is the long run is left to be seen, but the signs pointed to Sega shifting away from their history of console game development and possibly doing away with their in-office localizations. Their localizations in recent years have been notably sub-par, with games like Yakuza running out of funding to make odd design choices when entries have been brought over to the states.

What I forgot when I was writing the original story was that Sega had acquired Atlus in late 2013 as part of their purchase of the Index Corporation. Atlus has largely been left to their own devices, doing their own Atlus thing by designing Shin Megami Tensei games and releasing their niche localized titles worldwide. It is a formula that made Atlus the sole desirable arm when its previous parent company, Index, went under. They didn’t mess around, stuck to their guns and gave their already niche titles the proper attention they needed for western audiences.

Sega’s move to decrease their localization costs by reducing their direct workforce actually makes sense then if they decide to give Atlus more control over their console game development. Sega even went as far as to give Atlus control over their back catalogue and said the company had the ability to dip into their dormant IPs. Franchises that include Jet Set Radio, Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia and more.

If my inclining is correct, there is no reason that Sega needed to burden themselves further with the development and localization of console titles, especially when they have an in house subsidiary that has proven to be better at it in recent memory. Whether or not they transfer Sonic Team over to Atlus remains to be seen, but with the freedom Atlus already has, I expect them to begin exploring properties outside of SMT and the niche JRPGs they already make.

As always, I end speculatory Sega articles with an obligatory Shenmue question. Maybe Atlus will bring Yu Suzuki out of hiding and allow him to finish Shenmue III. But even that might be out of their reach.