The incredibly fast rise and fall of The Last Night

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Yesterday, during Microsoft’s E3 press conference in which they featured 42 games, one in particular seemed to stand out: The Last Night, a cinematic platformer, that blends games like Another World and Flashback with the aesthetics of Blade Runner. Though it was only featured for a couple of minutes during Microsoft’s two hour presentation, the game resonated with many across Twitter. The trailer manages to be bright, sexy, and incredibly entertaining, all while simultaneously taking place in a bleak, seemingly cyberpunk future. Seemingly being the key word here, as a look at the synopsis of The Last Night on Steam reads as follows: “Stabilised by universal income, people struggle to find their calling or identity, and define themselves by what they consume, rather than what they create.” Uh…?

I can’t help but think of this scene every time I imagine The Last Night being pitched: “Well, everyone knows a universal income and the end of hard labor would be great for society. What this game presupposes is… maybe it wouldn’t?” While this premise is a hard sell to a large portion of potential consumers regardless, it’s especially controversial considering the current, depressing political climate and disproportion of wealth. This idea also directly contradicts the essence of the genre of cyberpunk itself, though Tim Soret, the game’s creator, seems to be going out of his way to refer to The Last Night as “post-cyberpunk”.

Then, earlier today, Allegra Frank of Polygon posted an article about Soret’s praise of Gamergate and criticism of feminism. In the past, Soret has tweeted, The Gamergate people are for journalistic integrity, honest debate, transparency, inclusiveness, & egalitarianism” (which is fundamentally untrue) and that he is “against feminism”. Soret offered a hollow defense of his tweets after, which you can read in its entirety in the article above. He claims that his statements were taken out of context and that he completely stands for “equality and inclusiveness” even though his tweets directly contradict this.

Look, the trailer for The Last Night is hot as hell. But there were 41 other games announced at Microsoft’s press conference yesterday, with many looking as, if not more, intriguing. And there will be at least double that announced during the rest of the conference, with both Sony and Nintendo still to deliver their presentations. In a medium already oversaturated with great games on the market right now, it’s impossible for anyone to play everything they want to. With the obvious restrictions of free time and finances, players already have to make difficult decisions about which titles to play and which to skip. A game that makes the argument how having basic needs–such as food, shelter, income, fair working conditions, etc.–for all could potentially be bad for society, made by a person who supports a hate group and argues against equal rights for women, should be easy to cross of the list.

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A modest Virtual Console wishlist

Update: Obviously, Nintendo has announced the Virtual Console will not be available at launch. However, this wishlist still applies for when they eventually do.

We’re about ten days out from the Nintendo Switch launch and there’s been no announcement regarding its Virtual Console. Nintendo has dodged questions on the topic of the inclusion of GameCube games and have yet to even state if the service will be available at launch. At the very least, here are a few (incredibly realistic) problems that have plagued previous Virtual Consoles that Nintendo should address with the Switch’s:

  • Offer a thorough line-up of consoles I had assumed that the Wii U Virtual Console would have the same core consoles as its predecessor, but that turned out to not be the case. The TurboGrafx-16 never received support until late last year and the Genesis, inexplicably, never appeared. At the very least, the Switch’s VC should carry games from the NES, SNES, TG-16, Genesis, N64, GameCube, and Game Boy Advance, along with Game Boy and Game Boy Color which appear on the 3DS VC. And though they don’t have the deepest libraries, it was nice having Master System and Game Gear support, albeit briefly, on the Wii and 3DS respectively.
  • Offer heavily discounted games for early adopters To celebrate the Famicom’s 30th anniversary, the Wii U VC cut prices on the following seven games to $0.30: Balloon Fight, F-Zero, Punch-Out!!, Kirby’s Adventure, Super Metroid, Yoshi, and Donkey Kong. Offering a similar program would help build excitement and goodwill, especially if Nintendo expects users to repurchase VC titles from the 3DS, Wii U, or Wii.
  • Tie purchases to a central account I can’t believe I’m even typing this because it’s something that should have been addressed with the 3DS back in 2011, but if Nintendo doesn’t consolidate downloadable purchases to a singular account used across different hardware on their fourth try…
  • Fix the ugly overlay The Wii U VC is a dim, blurry mess. The NES Classic Edition looks razor sharp and offers a few display options including a CRT filter. Hopefully, the Switch VC will be more like the latter.
  • Don’t lock game prices by console It’s silly that both Ice Climbers and The Legend of Zelda are priced at $4.99. Lowering the prices on shorter and simpler games would promote users to purchase more (Balloon Fight or Excitebike would be a no brainer at $1.49 each, but difficult to justify for $4.99. Plus, this would promote more local multiplayer and the social aspect that Nintendo seems to envision for the Switch with their marketing. Users would be far more likely to drop a dollar or two to spontaneously download Double Dribble or Blades of Steel to play at a party than if it were $5-6.) Conversely, allowing the option to charge more for premium titles may promote more third-parties (ahem, Square) to release more games.

Because of their silence, I’m nervous that Nintendo will fail to deliver on many of these aspects, and the Switch Virtual Console will be as disappointing as the Wii U’s. Still, I have hope, especially in light of the announcement that their online subscription model will include one free game to play a month. As mentioned by others, having one free game to play for a month (before having the option to buy) forces the online community to focus on and actually play a single game all at the same time. This, in turn, will foster more interest in retro games and the Virtual Console in general. Hopefully, Nintendo will take a more forward thinking approach to the Switch’s Virtual Console overall, and avoid the drip feed of the same old shitty NES games like Urban Champion and Yoshi each week with the occasional Mario and Zelda game sprinkled in.

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Nintendo can’t win

Few corporations face as much armchair managing as Nintendo. Spend a few minutes browsing message boards or the comments section of a video game website and you’ll see wild and counterintuitive proposals on how Nintendo can solve their current problems or “fix” an already popular product by offering more features without, of course, raising the price. It’s not unlike listening to sports talk radio and hearing fans of a team offer inane and unreasonable hypothetical trades that a general manager should do: just trade Over the Hill Veteran A and Minor Prospect B for Superstar C and instantly the team will be competitive and contend for a championship!

I don’t mean that Nintendo is infallible or that there aren’t plenty of just complaints to be made. (You still can’t get an NES Classic Edition months later and the Switch’s launch titles seem to be… nonexistent?) It’s just that whenever Nintendo releases a new console, they face paradoxical expectations which Sony and Microsoft do not. On one hand, consumers expect the system to feature similar specs as the latest PlayStation and Xbox and innovative; and on the other, it must be extremely affordable. This was evident during last night’s announcement of the Switch, with many Twitter pundits having the expectation that it be under $200, or declaring the system to be dead when it was revealed to be about 75% of what the PS4 and Xbox One debuted at three years ago.

This contradicting criticism has spread to the controllers as well. The Joy-Cons are innovative in terms of both use and technology. They can be used as a traditional controller, split off into two separate smaller controllers, and even used for motion controls like a Wii Remote. They feature what Nintendo is calling HD Rumble, replicating extremely delicate sensations, such as an ice cube tumbling in a glass, or the pouring of water into a cup. One of the Joy-Cons also features an infra-red sensor that will be able to recognize shapes, motions, and distance. Still, there was outrage, both on Twitter and even by some media outlets, when Nintendo announced that an extra set of Joy-Cons would be $79.99. A common argument on message boards is that to play four-player local co-op Mario Kart, on top of the costs of the console and game, one will have to invest an additional $79.99. That happens to be the exact same price of two additional Wii Remotes, nevermind that in this hypothetical four-player Mario Kart argument, one must purchase three additional Wii Remotes, whereas the Switch only requires the purchase of two.

I’m not sure if the Switch will be a Wii-esque success, or a flop like the Wii U (GameCube, and, to a certain extent, N64) was before it. And I don’t know which path Nintendo should pursue, if they should try and compete others in terms of technology in an attempt to lure more third-party developers, or if they should offer something affordable and different or quirky. The latter has led to great success and frustrating failure. I just know that it’s an either/or argument and consumers can’t hold Nintendo to the unrealistic expectation to do both.

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Out of print

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Last week I played Harmful Park, the weird Japanese-only shmup for the PlayStation. It’s a very rare and expensive game and is only available on the Japanese PSN store. This means if you want to play Harmful Park in the United States you have two options: you can buy a used copy on eBay (the last one sold went for $441.53), or, you can emulate it. I chose the latter, downloading an iso and burning a copy which I was able to play on my PlayStation with the help of an Action Replay. I’m not interested in commenting on emulation or piracy here, but rather, the strange commercial situation the medium of video games finds itself in: the vast majority of games are out of print. Not just just physically. In 2016, you cannot legally purchase most video games outside the used market.

Imagine the same being true of film, music, or television. Much more of the canon of popular music is available digitally on iTunes than popular video games are on Steam, Virtual Console, PSN, et. al. Best selling LPs from the eighties and nineties remained in print through format changes to cassette, CD and mp3, only to be repressed on vinyl in recent years once demand for the format returned. Most of this argument is partially cribbed from Frank Cifaldi’s excellent “‘It’s Just Emulation!’ The Challenge of Selling Old Games” talk from GDC this past spring. It’s well worth watching for anyone even remotely interested in video game preservation, but I feel compelled to relay one specific anecdote from the speech: Uncle Buck, the John Candy comedy from 1989, is available in nearly two dozen different formats and streaming services, but your average NES or Genesis game from the same year is only available on its original cartridge. If I can walk into a Best Buy in 2016 and buy a brand new copy of Uncle Buck, why I can’t I do the same for Einhander? If we don’t expect someone to track down an old VHS copy of Uncle Buck on eBay to watch it, why do we do so for video games?

Cifaldi strictly makes the argument for emulation as a digital distribution to play these games. And he’s right, that’s the way the industry should (mostly) market and redistribute retro and classic video games. But much like how the music industry is repressing LPs to sell to collectors on top of digitally selling albums and singles on the iTunes store, I’d like to see video game publishers repress retro games. This might be too expensive and difficult for cartridge based games, but could done with reasonable ease for games on PlayStation and other disc based consoles. I’m not sure who holds the rights to Harmful Park (its publisher Sky Think Systems went out of business long ago) but it’d be nice to see it and other, more popular games of the era get a physical release. I’m not arguing this should be done full-scale or replace digital distribution, I’m merely suggesting that it’d be nice to have a physical option run parallel for the niche collector market, as we see in the music industry.

Perhaps we’ve already started in that direction. Physical releases of retro games in the plug-and-play format are already happening, with the release of the NES Classic Edition and the Retro-Bit Generations, alongside the seventh version of the Atari Flashback. (Update: In fact, Retro-Bit is even re-releasing Jaleco games on multi-carts.) Maybe in five years I’ll be complaining how Urban Outfitters gouges prices on PlayStation games much like they do with vinyl today.

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Why are video games so long?

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If I had to guess, I’d say about 60% of video games are too long. Your typical game takes anywhere from 20-30 hours to complete, which can stretch out over weeks and even months for the average player. This is, obviously, an enormous time commitment. But when compared to other narrative driven arts, it’s completely ridiculous. A comic book takes ten minutes or so to read, a trade or graphic novel about 45 minutes. A movie generally runs between 90 minutes and two hours. A 300 page novel takes the average reader about six hours to finish. A season of a television show is around ten hours in length. Your average video game is double that, but expect to at least triple or quadruple it if you’re playing an RPG. I recently started Dragon Quest VII on 3DS, but I have no plans to actually finish it, because according to the aggregator How Long to Beat? the game takes anywhere from 70104 hours depending on the version you play.

Many games could easily be chopped in half without losing much, if any, of the narrative or gameplay experience. Characters talk too much, cutscenes drag on far too long and are often unskippable. RPGs, particularly JRPGs, expect you to grind, adding hours and hours to gameplay. Save points are often placed far from difficult or tricky sections, causing the player to needlessly repeat easier sections. These mechanics are often intentional, to ensure that the game is artificially long, to give the consumer the feeling of getting their money’s worth. This counterintuitive thinking negatively affects both the designer and the vast majority of the players.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why retro gaming is so popular today. When playing via Virtual Console or some other form of emulation–be it through hardware such as the Retro Freak or Retron 5, or an anthology like Mega Man Legacy Collection–the player has a modicum of control over wasting his or her time. Save states quickly solve problems listed above. I recently played through Another World/Out of This World (a game already fairly liberal with its restarting points) in a few hours one Friday night by using a save state before any obstacles I found tricky or overly long.

If video games are going to evolve as an artistic medium and gain traction in the narrative vernacular, they must become more accessible. While some 40-60 hour narratives such as the Dragon Quest or Persona series should be welcomed; shorter, compact experiences like Inside–which tells an entertaining story while building a rich, terrifyingly real dystopian world in a scant four hours–should be produced far more instead of being a pleasant outlier.

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All the hottest Black Friday deals… from 1985

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It’s Black Friday, why not enjoy these old, video game sales flyer scans courtesy of the old Lost Levels. Lots of non-video game related nostalgia here: other toys, board games, old logos, stores that no longer exist, CRT televisions, Casio keyboards, weird computers, and more. My personal favorite is this: MAN WAS NOT MEANT TO PLAY VIDEO ALONE.

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The death of shmups

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The shmup–or, shoot-em-up, for those opposed to unfortunately sounding abbreviations–played an important role in the development of the medium of video games. Space Invaders and Galaga were instrumental in building the popularity of games both domestically and in Japan. Games like Gradius and R-Type were megahits on in the mid and late-80s, spawning multiple sequels that had equally massive sales. From the mid-80s until the early-90s, both Hudson Soft and Naxat released a new shmup each summer and held a yearly competition, called the Summer Caravan and Summer Carnival respectively. Gradius III was the only third party North American launch title for the Super Nintendo. In fact, the library of 16-bit consoles, particularly the Genesis and PC Engine, are littered with shmups and such games routinely find their way onto retrospective best of lists.

The transition to three dimensions was not kind for the genre. Rail shooters such as Star Fox and Panzer Dragoon splintered off, but for the most part, the genre left the mainstream and transitioned to niche. Many will blame this for its demise, but I can’t help but wonder if the insanely steep learning curve of most shmups is what actually led to the genre’s downfall. The average player won’t last more than a minute or so playing a contemporary bullet hell shooter like Caladrius or Genso Rondo and are more likely to develop a migraine playing than actually finishing either. Rote memorization and long hours of practice are required to beat these games. In an era where games often spend long introductions easing players into the controls and fundamentals, it’s a shame, though throughly unsurprising, that the immediate difficulty spike of shmups have left the genre practically vestigial.

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