A New Book on the 1990s ‘Console War’ Sounds Less than Groundbreaking

The New Republic, not usually known for its video game coverage, has an absolutely abysmal interview with Blake J. Harris about the latter’s “entertaining new book”: Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation.

The magazine’s Liel Leibovitz describes the book, ”like the best in the behind-the-scenes-of-epic-business-enterprises genre,” as a “celebration of big bucks, big risks, and big personalities.”

Why Digital on PlayStation is Good but Not Great

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It’s just after midnight on May 20th, 2014, the day that Transistor is set to release on PC and PlayStation 4. I “pre-ordered” indie developer Supergiant Games’ latest an hour earlier with an eye to downloading it and having it ready to go once the clock struck twelve. But nothing. So used to the convenience of services like HBO Go and Amazon Prime, the thought that Transistor might not be available immediately on launch day didn’t immediately even occur to me.

Sony has been toying with pre-loading for the PS4 for some time now, but sill no real progress has been made. While most core Sony titles are certain to take advantage of the feature, it’s still left up to the individual publisher whether or not to give consumers that option. Thus a smaller indie title like Transistor, despite being a (at least for the time being) PS4 console exclusive, can get by without doing so. Though I don’t hold it against Supergiant in particular, the way PSN and other digital gaming platforms have dragged their feet on the subject is extremely unfortunate.

Examples of Bravely Default’s Thoughtless Design

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I’m about half way through Bravely Default and, try as I might, the list of things I don’t like about the game has grown far faster than the one of things I do.

On the surface, Square Enix’s spiritual successor to Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light looks like the second coming of classic Square JRPGs. Its turn-based combat is relatively fast-paced and littered with seemingly exotic attacks, abilities, and magics, each the result of a job system that resembles the much revered ones of Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics

Furthermore, the world the player inhabits is riddled with tried and true JRPG hero archetypes and idiosyncratic JRPG villains, as well as a host of elementally themed towns and instantly familiar dungeon types, including but not limited to: “the maze,” “the dark forest,” and the always much beloved “generic cave #9.”

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However, the deeper one plunges into the seductive nostalgia plastered ever so invitingly across the majority of Bravely Default's world, the more one struggles to see how each of these elements is supposed to meaningfully fit together, or why any of them were chosen in the first place.

Unsung Story Still Struggling to Meet Its Kickstarter Goal

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Though not the most prolific game designer, Yasumi Matsuno is still one of the most critically acclaimed. And deservedly so, given his central creative role in classic titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant story.

Now Matsuno is developing a new role-playing game called Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians. Already set to release on iOS and Android tablet devices, Playdek, the studio behind the game, launched a Kickstarter campaign last month in order to raise the funds necessary to port Unsung Story to other platforms, including PCs, consoles, and handhelds.

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To the surprise of many (including myself), the campaign has yet to hit its $600,000 pledge objective, let alone any of its $1 million plus stretch goals, despite having less than 30 hours left to go in the funding drive. While other Kickstarted RPG projects like Double Fine’s Massive Chalice and Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity had little trouble attracting financial support, Playdek’s Unsung Story has struggled.

Differences Between Talking About a Game and Playing One

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In a brief feature at Edge, Steven Poole makes the case for people who talk about games they’ve never actually played.

Did I mention that I haven’t played GTAV? Well, I haven’t. I mean, not for a second. I’ve read what other people have written about it and watched YouTube clips. Does this render my opinion about the torture scene invalid? Not a bit. We should all talk more, and more confidently, about videogames we haven’t played.”

I’m not sure that his analogy to the work of Pierre Bayard is particularly clear or useful, but I think there’s a general, more basic point in what he writes that’s worth teasing out.

Namely, all arguments should be judged on their individual merits. That mostly goes without saying, but often times we get distracted by ancillary information. A politician might make a good argument that we nevertheless disagree with or dismiss outright because they hail from an opposing political party, or someone might raise a worthwhile point about a book or movie, but because they haven’t “experienced” it as it was meant to in its entirety, we ignore them and anything inconvenient they might have to say about it.

Hands On with Nvidia’s Shield at PAX East

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PAX East happened last weekend in Boston, and while there I had the chance not only to hear a lot of interesting panel discussions, but also demo some new games and hardware.

When I first heard about the Nvidia Shield I was kind of dumbfounded. It looked like a handheld screen had been strapped to an old Xbox controller. It was and remains unclear who exactly will be creating software for the Shield. And its two big selling points made it feel too much like a piece of boutique gaming tech rather than an independent handheld like the 3DS or PS Vita.

The Nvidia rep’s explanation at the company’s PAX booth did nothing to alter that impression. He noted, as I already knew, that the device allows you to stream PC games to it as well as play them on an HDTV, but as Grant Hatchimonji writes,

“Yes, that’s a nice feature and all, but it needs to be connected to a PC to do so, and all of the work is handled by that machine before it’s spit out on Project Shield. At that point, it’s little more than a controller with which to play your PC games, and we all know those have existed for quite some time…and for far less money.”

Now we don’t know yet how much the Shield will cost. It could be as low as $99, which would make it an extremely interesting option. That’s also extremely unlikely though.

Why Mindful XP is a Model Proving Ground for Video Games

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Three students at Carnegie Mellon University have been putting together a gaming anthology in which each title seeks to express a different thought, emotion, or experience.

As Emily Gera reports for Polygon Mindful XP,

"[B]egan as the collective effort of Felix Park, Dan Lin and Michael Lee, three students from Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center who worked together during their Spring semester at the school to complete 10 standalone games that would be as mechanically and stylistically diverse as they could make them. The idea, they say, was to use games as a medium for communication; to portray meaning through specific attributes that can only be found there."

Unlike most video game developers, these students are working out something fundamental to the medium as a fledgling new form for art: how to communicate meaning.

Just looking at the the triple A games slated to release this March makes the merits of experimenting with the form in concise and discrete ways clear. The new Tomb Raider has already received a wealth of criticism for the dissonance between the character portrait Crystal Dynamics attempted to depict and the gamified violence and exploration around which the game is centered.

And despite the best efforts of those involved, I’m skeptical that the upcoming Gears of War: Judgement will be any more successful. Indeed, even Bioshock Infinite, a game pressumably built from the ground up around a central creator’s ambitious narrative vision, might not be able to blend its gameplay and narrative as well as it claims. In each case the core gameplay remains surprisingly similar, and in each case the creators are trying to force meaning through a pre-set system of conventions hoping to achieve something more.

Of course, it’s worthwhile that the developers behind these games are at least trying to overcome the problems which plague most games which want to be about something. I enjoy titles that have settled for just being fun, but there have been and continue to be so many games which satisfy that need that I’m more interested at this point in the ones that are trying to push for something weirder and stranger.

Hey Fire Emblem: Awakening, Why Does Everyone Like You so Much?

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Right now Fire Emblem: Awakening is sitting at 92 on Metacritic. That’s extremely good for any game a month out from release, but especially a JRPG that’s tactics-based and sports dragons, magic, and mystical prophesies.

But I don’t understand why. After playing the game for a solid 25 hours I was no more impressed with it then why I started (and in fact a lot less impressed by some aspects of the game I had initially found quite compelling).

Not so for Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton though. Kirk, whose work I admire and whose opinions I respect, recently wrote about how gripped he was by Awakening's conclusion,

Final Fantasy Tactics in six images. Final Fantasy Tactics in six images. Final Fantasy Tactics in six images. Final Fantasy Tactics in six images. Final Fantasy Tactics in six images. Final Fantasy Tactics in six images.
Fire Emblem: Awakening in six images. Fire Emblem: Awakening in six images. Fire Emblem: Awakening in six images. Fire Emblem: Awakening in six images. Fire Emblem: Awakening in six images. Fire Emblem: Awakening in six images.

Fire Emblem: Awakening in six images.