Gaming

Nintendo Unveils the 2DS XL

At face value, it makes sense to “complete” Nintendo’s line of handhelds with this model, in terms of there being a lack of a 2DS model with an XL size like the 3DS, but also in terms of price tiers – its introductory price is $149, between the 2DS and 3DS XL, allowing the 2DS to be even cheaper at $79. (I should note that the regular-sized 3DS seems to have been phased out.)

The timing of this is questionable, however. Nintendo’s flagship console, the Switch, is well into its launch period, and it’s weird that they’re okay with drawing even a little bit of attention away from it with the 2DS XL. Maybe Nintendo sees these as serving different markets – in that case, the Switch seems to cater more towards serious gamers/Nintendo fans while the 2DS (regular size and XL) seems to cater more towards casual gamers.

Factoring in Nintendo’s mobile initiatives like Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem Heroes, and the upcoming Animal Crossing title, it gets a bit more complicated. At this point, my best guess for the role of each of Nintendo’s platforms (mobile, handheld, and home, in order of “fullness” of the Nintendo experience) is to leave customers wanting more – more to the point of wanting to play games on the next best platform.

Insights Into Mario From Shigeru Miyamoto

Chris Kohler interviews Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto for WIRED amidst Nintendo’s press tour for Super Mario Run. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are a couple of things that caught my attention.

On the idea of a one-button Mario game:

 
Although this is the first Super Mario game in which the hero runs automatically, it’s not a new idea. “On Wii, we experimented specifically with a game where you only press the A button on the Wii Remote to make Mario jump,” Miyamoto says. It didn’t go anywhere, he says, because it wasn’t suited to the console.
 

Turns out this is something they’ve wanted to do for a while, but had to shelve cause the conditions weren’t right. Also, a company exercising restraint? This all sounds familiar…

Miyamoto on why the original Super Mario Bros. was never simply ported over to the iPhone:

 
We’re more interested in looking at how we can be creative with Mario, and design for iPhone in a way that takes advantage of the uniquenesses of that device and the uniquenesses of that input and the features that that device has. For us, that is much more rewarding creative work.
 

This collaboration between Nintendo and Apple has been so satisfying to watch as a fan of them both. Apart from their corporate philosophies being almost uncannily similar, you can tell that there’s trust and understanding between the two companies.

I can’t wait for what’s in store. 

Jimmy Fallon Demos the Nintendo Switch

I can’t imagine a talk show host introducing this other than Jimmy Fallon.

Some takeaways:

  • Note how Apple has quite a presence in the marketing of Super Mario Run. Reggie Fils-Aimé notes how the game will only be available on iOS devices, and that demos will be taking place at Apple Stores. That latter bit reminds me of how Apple wants their stores to be more than just places to buy products.
  • Speaking of which, Apple held an event of some sort with Shigeru Miyamoto at their SoHo store. Hopefully Apple and Nintendo’s relationship pans out well in the long run – this is such a great start.
  • Fils-Aimé mentions how big the world of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is, which I find kind of odd given how many games are out now with vast worlds that look infinitely more detailed than this. Still, it’s got magnificent sights and I’m sure it has a lot more to offer than meets the eye.
  • The colors on the screen of the tablet component seem to be washed-out – not just by a bit, but by a lot. I really hope it’s just the camera, cause a vibrant game like Breath of the Wild deserves a colorful display.
  • Also, this.

Thoughts on Nintendo Switch

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While I was gone, Nintendo released a video just over three minutes long previewing their upcoming console, Nintendo Switch. The video was pretty short, but it revealed quite a lot of things, particularly in regards to Nintendo’s direction, as a company, going forward.

 

 
 

 

Experience over mechanics

It’s hard to not compare the Switch with Nintendo’s current home console, the Wii U: the Switch is the Wii U’s successor, but also its actualization. It’s what Nintendo really wanted the Wii U to be. Well, sort of.

Particularly absent in the Switch trailer was motion control, a staple of Nintendo gameplay for the past decade. There weren’t many unfamiliar gimmicks present either. I think it shows Nintendo realizing that these are things people don’t latch onto, and what people do latch onto is their IP: Pokémon, Mario, Zelda, Fire Emblem, Animal Crossing, etc.

There are signs that Nintendo, while having done this all along to some extent, are taking advantage of their IP more than ever. See their various ventures into mobile thus far, for instance. See Super Mario Maker. See their t-shirt competition with Uniqlo. See their upcoming park at Universal Studios. Also, while not entirely Nintendo’s doing, I don’t think the resurgence of Pokémon in pop culture is a coincidence at all – Nintendo, along with the Pokémon Company, Game Freak, and now Niantic, have been firing on all cylinders to try and make 2016 the best year in the history of the franchise.

What Nintendo also seems to have realized is why people latch onto their IP: it's because of the quality of the games that have brought them to life. This is Nintendo’s claim to fame, and I think it will be for as long as they make games.

The Switch seems to be a product of that realization. The Wii U was a console only Nintendo could take advantage of because it was a playground for them and their style of game development. As I mentioned before, Nintendo had a bit of a fixation with gimmicks, and a lot of them were found in the Wii U (see the GamePad and Amiibo). On top of that, while the quality of their games were still great overall, nothing seemed novel or noteworthy (with Splatoon as an exception) – nothing seemed to set it apart from games on the Wii and prior consoles. Neither third-party developers nor customers were particularly receptive to the Wii U as a result.

Instead, the Switch is a playground not just for Nintendo, but for everyone else. Sure, the Switch has its bells and whistles like the Wii U had, but I think these are things that people will appreciate more. With the Wii U, it was a matter of people maybe getting into Amiibo or maybe using the GamePad while the TV was used for something else. With the Switch, the features that set it apart from the Wii U have more definitive appeal – either that, or they’re designed to have their defining features taken full advantage of. (We’ll get to that later.)

This, alongside their mean streak of milestone games in recent years from doubling down on IP, boils down to one objective: making the Nintendo experience better for everyone.

Nintendo’s product portfolio – how will the Switch fit?

All that said, it’s safe to say that this will effectively replace the Wii U. I’m sure Nintendo will continue to support the Wii U through some games in the pipeline and software updates, but nothing substantial.

What I’ve been hearing a bit about is how the Switch also aims to replace the 3DS, which I think is totally wrong. The 3DS is, in its essence, a handheld console, meaning it’s a more personal console. The 3D capability is exclusive to one person, and doesn’t work for two sets of eyeballs at the same time. In addition, many of the DS commercials over the years featured only one person enjoying a game by themselves.

The Switch teaser video not only featured, but made sure to emphasize the social aspect of the gaming experience with the console. Sure, it’s also a portable console, but that’s where the similarities end – it’s basically a home console with the TV included. The multiplayer experience will probably be the Switch’s key differentiator from the 3DS, apart from its catalogue of games.

The hardware will have to be great

I think people know by now to not expect the highest-grade hardware and processing power to come from a Nintendo console, but there’s still a base-level of power and quality the hardware should have to fulfill the promises and expectations they’ve set.

I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I think those expectations – even for Nintendo – will be a challenge to meet, and I don’t know if they’ll go at length to prioritize having the hardware be optimized for third-party games, especially as Nintendo’s been explicit in their adamancy towards mainstream gaming, at least through the decisions they’ve made.

There’s also the fact that the console is really, really small. In my understanding, all the hardware of a basic home console ought to be packed into the small “tablet” component of the Switch, unless additional capabilities are enabled by other hardware components in the dock connector. In that case, there’d have to be limitations when the Switch is in “portable mode” and not connected to the dock, which seems off-putting to me. Oh, and a battery has to fit in there, too – with sufficient power, no less.

Home-console-quality games seem to be a big selling point of the console, and it would be a shame if, one way or another, it would be limited by hardware constraints. I’m a little pessimistic that the staggering expectations will be met, but I’ll be happy if I’m proven wrong. I’ll keep my eye out for news about this as the launch approaches.

Quality gaming outside the living room

The Wii U dabbled a bit with the concept of bringing a more immersive gaming experience from the living room to elsewhere. I think the Switch is Nintendo’s more serious attempt at doing that.

With the Wii U, there wouldn’t be much detracted from the console’s appeal if the GamePad – supposedly its biggest draw – suddenly ceased to exist. Lots of games could still operate with just a Wii Remote. With the Switch, it would be a shame if the the portable functionality was neglected. I think the video suggested that, again, the Switch is primarily a portable device – still a home console at heart, but in a portable form factor.

Also, regardless of potential latency issues for now, if the multiplayer functionality works as advertised, that’s also an amazing thing that would be a shame to neglect. It won’t be as much an afterthought as, say, the 3DS’s multiplayer capabilities. (Then again, connecting to anything with the 3DS, even the internet, is an archaic experience at best. That said, there are a few big ways the 3DS can improve that I can think of – perhaps that’s for another post – which is to say, again, the 3DS probably won't be going anywhere as long as it has that room for improvement.)

Following up on the Wii

I mentioned how the Switch has potential to be what Nintendo wanted the Wii U to be, but what I think nudged the steering wheel in the wrong direction for the Wii U was that it also wanted to be the Wii 2. Hence the compatibility with Wii Remotes and sequel titles to Wii games (Wii Fit U, for example), among other similarities. The result was a confused product – still honest, still high-quality, but confused nonetheless.

Thankfully, the flaw was plain as day and Nintendo made sure that the Switch was not the Wii – instead, it's the best aspects of the Wii U, and more. Nintendo seems to have also made sure that they weren’t the same Nintendo they were during the years of the Wii’s dominance and popularity. When people were receptive to the control method they wanted to develop for, everything went well – that wasn’t the case anymore with the Wii U, so they’re now banking on their IP to draw eyeballs and interest to the fullest Nintendo experience possible, not just with gimmicks.

Considering the conditions of today, I think that’s a recipe for success. We’ll see if Nintendo can pull off the balancing act once again.

Thoughts on Pokémon Go

- 11 minutes -

I knew I had to talk about this sometime or other, even just from my unending affinity for the franchise. But, at this point, it’s become not just unavoidable, but bogglingly ubiquitous to the point where it’s a little unsettling seeing types of people who you wouldn’t peg as Pokémon fans at any point in their life engage with this game.

I knew I was going to probably link to an article or video about it, but after seeing Casey Neistat dedicate an entire one of his vlogs to the phenomenon, I think I’ve got a lot more to say than I initially thought.

 
 

Ubiquity

First things first, this thing is unbelievably popular. Even if you consider the factors — for example, Pokémon being a household name already, or the game, somewhat ironically, encouraging people to go out and walk around their neighborhoods, which is a relatively unprecedented and original concept — even with all that considered, it still boggles my mind how quickly this became a cultural phenomenon, perhaps more so than any other Pokémon game before it.

Here’s what I’m talking about: it not only outpaced Clash Royale as the fastest game ever to top revenue charts, but it is already the biggest mobile game in US history. It did all of that before launching in other continents like Europe and Asia. In fact, it isn’t even in Asia at my time of writing, and I still feel compelled to address it. (Update: Yes, an update before actually publishing my post. Nintendo is now almost worth twice as much as itself pre-PoGo. All because of this one game.)

Success

With that brings Nintendo immense and continued success: the game alone added $7 billion to Nintendo’s market value, and that figure is still growing. At first you wonder how a game like Super Mario Maker couldn’t do anything close to this for Nintendo, but it goes to show how big the mobile gaming industry really is.

It also tells Nintendo that mobile really is the best way forward. If this and Miitomo is anything to go by, their mobile efforts are almost guaranteed to go mainstream at this point. They would be incredulous not to pursue it further, but there isn’t any reason to believe that’s the case.

In fact, if any one company can see a future in mobile gaming, it absolutely has to be Nintendo. Only they have the IP with mass market attraction (e.g. Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Animal Crossing, just to name a few franchises) that appeals to almost every demographic, ranging from the long-standing nostalgic fanbase to completely new fans. (I think Neistat’s video should be enough evidence.)

They also have an understanding of casual games no one else has — to the point where “hardcore” gamers would scoff at their offerings, especially with the Wii a few years back — which lends itself to the smartphone gaming platform and how popular titles on that platform are developed. (There’s a reason why AAA titles on PlayStation and Xbox don’t have just-as-popular equivalents on mobile.) Thinking about it now, it’s strange that it’s taken this long for Nintendo to pop up as a big name in mobile gaming, which they’re mostly at fault for.

It’s just that good

I have the app installed on my phone — though I haven’t really got into the game as Pokémon have yet to pop up in my region, the tutorial procedures were refreshing to experience.

They weren’t an insult to my intelligence like many other mobile games. It just fleshed out almost exactly like in a regular Pokémon game, asking for a name, some customization of my avatar, and a quick walkthrough of how the mechanics work. They didn’t reveal everything — in fact, there are things in my inventory I have no idea what they do yet.

While there are in-app purchases, I wasn’t at all reminded of them by the game. I’m guessing they want me to compelled to purchase items and/or capabilities as I would need them in real-time, which I think is pretty smart.

The app itself is pretty solid. The design, while not very Nintendo-like (I’ll get to that in a bit), is tasteful, more similar to a productivity app than a more gaudy interface typical of mobile games. Also, I think the simulated map loads quicker than any of my ride-sharing apps. We’ll see how it fares once Go’s operational in Asia. (Update: Yes, another update before actually publishing my post. Apparently there are no plans to release the game in Asia. What a bummer. A little sad to think that even Japan of all places will not be receiving the game.)

Some nitpicks, though. As I already mentioned, you can tell Nintendo didn’t have much control over the development of the game. It was developed mostly by Niantic Inc., which was funded by Google along with Nintendo and the Pokémon Company. That’s why the app asks for your Google account information before letting you play, which is the only annoying part I’ve encountered in the game thus far.

While I can easily deal with that, what might grate at my mind a bit more is the art direction. Not only is it inconsistent, but it’s as if Nintendo just let Niantic do whatever they wanted, especially with the style of the avatars. (I will say, though, that the Pokémon themselves look terrific.)

Where the game lacks refinement, it totally makes up for in the concept, at least that’s how I feel from everyone else’s experience with the game. What fascinates me is the concept of a smartphone app, let alone a game, actively encouraging its users to not just be outside to play the game, but to roam around and never stay put to have the game be a rewarding experience. The closest thing to this that I can think of is Geocaching, but to have the action occur partially in the digital realm (being the capturing of the actual Pokémon) puts Niantic and Nintendo at an advantage, in that the rewards are made unlimited.

When we look back at the smartphone revolution years from now, I’m confident we’ll be looking back at Pokémon Go as a milestone.

Potential updates

That brings me to how the game could be improved over time. I think there’s lots of room for improvement, which Nintendo definitely wants considering the ephemerality associated with mobile games.

An obvious one, I think, would be to increase the number of available Pokémon to catch, especially as the average number of Pokémon caught among active users increases over time. This could be done every time a new generation of Pokémon comes out — one of those times happens to be some time soon with Pokémon Sun and Moon coming to the 3DS later this year. How convenient. It’s one of the easier ways to avoid stagnancy.

Compatibility with the traditional line of Pokémon games could be established, perhaps with Sun and Moon. For example, Nintendo could somehow create a link between Pokémon Bank and Pokémon Go, or create a reward system that rewards players using both games with items.

Speaking of the traditional games, traditional Pokémon mechanics could be introduced in the future. A lot of them seem to be missing from this game, I think to create a strong initial focus on the capturing aspect (“Gotta catch ‘em all” and all that). One that should be introduced later on is the use of Pokémon moves (i.e. limited to four moves and PP, use of TM’s, etc.) as opposed to the tap-based and level-based combat that exists now.

My bigger point, though, is that there’s a lot of stuff for Nintendo to draw from to keep the game exciting, which Nintendo has plenty of incentive to do given the game’s massive success — brand recognition isn’t the only advantage this game has by being backed by an established franchise.

WIRED Reviews the Oculus Rift

Peter Rubin for WIRED reviews the much anticipated consumer-facing model of the Oculus Rift VR headset:

In a nutshell: it won’t disappoint the fans it already has, but it won’t satisfy the curious. Positional tracking looks solid, but there doesn’t seem to be enough media to take advantage of it.

I say hold out, especially with the (much cheaper) PSVR just around the corner.