E3: Microsoft

There are times in history when companies have made decisions that everyone, except for the powers that be in said companies, knows are going to fail miserably. New Coke, the Netflix company split, $599 US Dollars, etc…  Right now, I feel we can add Microsoft to this list for their policies regarding the soon to be released Xbox One.

There is always a caveat for products that are yet to be released, but I feel it’s safe enough to make some calls on the next generation behemoth from Microsoft.  After an unveiling that focused on seemingly everything except actual video games, MS, to their credit, used E3 to focus solely on games. No TV, no streaming, no instant chat, it was about the games. I’ll also give them some praise for scoring a few exclusives such as Dead Rising 3 and Sunset Overdrive (oddly, both seem to be about zombies of sorts).

While credit is due for keeping it about the games, criticism is due as well for what wasn’t spoken of. MS declined to even remotely address the two largest criticism of their next console: the online check-in requirement and the still foggy used game policy. Part of me believed that they would surprise everyone by announcing a change to one or both of these policies after the outcry following the unveiling. Had they done this, I feel they would have generated massive goodwill by showing that they had listened and adapted. No such luck.

Actually, it was made worse when MS’s Don Mattrick was asked about gamers without an internet connection:

“”Fortunately we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity; it’s called Xbox 360,” said Mattrick. “If you have zero access to the Internet, that is an offline device.”

Believe it or not, I do understand the sentiment here, but it came off as dismissive of that segment. It had a rather elite quality to it, which doesn’t sit well with me. It’s worth mentioning here that if the Xbox One can’t connect once every 24 hours, you will be unable to play you’re games on it, even if it is an offline, single player game. There are many, many places all over the world, including in the US, that lack internet access or stable internet access. This policy only serves to shrink your consumer base while offering no positive to offset the shrinkage. Where is the logic in this move.

But it gets better. In very generic terms, it seems, as of right now, that when you buy an Xbox One game, you aren’t actually fully buying it. You are committing to a lifetime rental. My current understanding of this policy, and it seems to change weekly, is that once a game is registered on a system, it cannot be played on another system without a fee being paid. Worry not, though, as that fee is only equal to the MSRP of the game. Those times you’ve taken a game to a friend or sibling to try out for a few minutes? Not happening. Again, I can’t understand the business sense behind this. The positive of a small bump in new game sales can’t possibly outweigh the negatives of this policy.

All I can figure is that MS made a massive assumption that Sony would be adopting a similar strategy, and found out far too late that they were completely wrong. Hysterically wrong, based on the reactions Sony received when announcing their stance on these issues at their E3 conference (but that’s another blog entry). They also may have made a mistake in pricing, announcing a price point of $499 versus the $399 price tag of the PS4.

Look, MS is an established company and they Xbox 360 is a strong system that has sold extremely well. They can still pull themselves out of the negative press cycle they now find themselves in, but it will not be even slightly easy, and is going to take a long time. My gut feeling is that the Xbox One is going to sell more slowly than the WiiU is currently selling until they find something to make consumers look past the negatives for a larger positive. At this point in time, I can’t even imagine what that might be.


Post Game Wrap-up: Robowarrior


I have a tendency to put on nostalgia glasses when playing old games, and I’m willing to admit this may be why I’m still so enamored of Robowarrior for the NES. Robowarrior has an odd release tale. It was initially part of the Bomberman series when released in Japan, titled Bomber King, and was developed by Hudson Soft (moment of silence). Due to licensing issues, it was rebranded for the western market as Robowarrior and distributed by Jaleco (another moment of silence). It was released in the U.S. in December of 1988.

Robowarrior #2

The Set-up/The Story:
You play as ZED (Z-type Earth Defense) and are tasked with saving the planet Altile from the Xantho Empire and their leader, Xur. Altile was created due to Earth over-population. It was a prosperous planet at peace until the invasion by the Xantho Empire. ZED is the latest in a line of robotic warriors/fighters and is sent after an SOS is received from the planet. As with many NES games, the story isn’t exactly deep. You’re the good guy and are working to overcome the force of the bad guys.

The Gameplay:
The links to Bomberman are evident right away in the gameplay. You play from a top-down view, reminiscent of the Legend of Zelda and, of course, Bomberman, and progress horizontally (there is no vertical scrolling, other than the opening screen and secret rooms hidden behind bomb-able walls along the top border of the level). You are blocked in your progress by bushes, trees, rocks, etc… that can be bombed and destroyed. The bombs can hurt Zed, so you have to watch yourself when laying them. ZED is also equipped with a gun that can take out most enemies in a reasonable number of shots. There are also ten special items that can be used with various effects (lanterns, candles, mega-bombs, speed boots, etc…). These can be found in the bomb-able obstacles as well as in the aforementioned secret rooms.

At the end of each few levels, you will encounter a boss that must be defeated. You may also enter a store of sorts at the end of levels which offer items in exchange for medals you will find. The best place to find items is to find hidden subterranean areas (these are numerous). The downside of this is that these areas are entirely dark and you’ll have to use a candle to find items as well as the exit. The positive is there are no obstructions and the items are lying in plain sight to be picked up.

Robowarrior #1

Speaking of the levels, there is a bit of variation. Some levels are simple affairs, where you simply move to the right until you come to the end, where you will find  a key (always on the screen with the exit as you can’t backtrack). There will be levels that are totally dark, forcing you to use a candle or, hopefully, a lantern, to allow you to see. Some levels will also hide a chalice item that you must find. Fail to find it, and a portion of the level will continue to loop until you do. As you aren’t informed which levels have this chalice, it can be frustrating to realize you’ve repeated the same area a few different times and have made no real progress.

Another criticism I would give this game is the constantly depleting health of ZED. One of the items you can pick up is an Energy pack that will totally refill your energy and while these are plentiful, it is very easy to lose track of your health. When ZED gets hit, there is no invincibility period for him, and some enemies are quick and get take a great deal off your life. If it was low already, you could be in trouble. Bombs do a massive amount of damage to ZED and two will basically wipe him out. Somewhat helpfully, a “danger” tone warns you when you get down to 1/4th life.

Robowarrior #3

Despite the obvious flaws of this game, it still holds a spot in my heart. I sold it when I was younger as a way to raise funds to buy a Super NES, but purchased a copy off of Ebay a few years ago. I can still sit down and enjoy it to this day, even though it isn’t a very deep game. Does it stand up to the NES stalwarts such as Super Mario Brothers 3, Metroid, Zelda, Mega Man, and the like? No, not at all. But I still think this game has a lot of heart and is well worth giving a chance if you happen to still have an NES and come upon this game at Goodwill or a yard sale.

Trivia: A sequel to this game was developed for the Nintendo Gameboy. Called Bomber King 2 in Japan, it was called Blaster Master Boy in North America. This was an obvious attempt to profit on the Blaster Master brand, even though the game has no connections whatsoever to that franchise.

All game pics from: http://www.mobygames.com/game/robowarrior/screenshots

Xbox One: What it means

Last week, Microsoft finally pulled back the curtain on their much anticipated Xbox 360 successor, now named the Xbox One. To say that reactions around the internet were tepid would not be doing reactions justice. Negative voices always seem to overpower positive in volume, if not number, but I feel it’s safe to say that negative reactions were larger in number as well. Moving beyond general reactions though, what does this mean for what Microsoft is doing and for gaming consoles from this point on.

It took 28 minutes for Microsoft to discuss games for the Xbox One (and am I alone in thinking X-One is a better name?). Prior to that, they focused on streaming movies, running your cable television through your Xbox, and how a required Kinect sensor would make watching TV easier via the use of voice and motion controls (yes, easier). I won’t pretend that the 360 or PS3, and even the Wii to some extent, were 100% dedicated gaming machines. Heck, when my 360 is on, it’s for Netflix streaming about 1/3 of the time. Up to this point in time, however, these systems still existed primarily to play games. The extras (Netflix, IE, Facebook, etc…) were just that, extras that could be utilized. With this console, I feel that Microsoft sent the signal that they are broadening their scope to the point that “gamers” will no longer be the most sought after consumer group, but will be equal with those looking for an all-encompassing media machine.

Is this a mistake? Not necessarily. Nintendo expanded their focus with the Wii and scored a huge win, though the difference there is that they sought to turn non-gamers into gamers, whereas I don’t believe Microsoft is searching for that. Microsoft wants to cater to existing audiences by expanding their machine, as opposed to expanding the audience with the machine.

Of the games shown, one was an FPS (the next iteration of Call of Duty), while the others were sports games. Again, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. EA sells a butt-load of these games and it’s probably a sound strategy on their (Microsoft’s) part to showcase a special agreement for timed exclusivity (I think, need to follow up on that one) of future sports titles. The downside to this focus is that they chose to showcase games that feature very little innovation over what is offered in this generation. Innovation isn’t a must for all new games, but when showcasing a new console, isn’t it important to display what makes it different from the competition? Yes, these games were gorgeous, but that alone leads to the question…

When are graphics no longer enough? I asked my wife this towards the end of the Gamecube/PS2/Xbox era, prior to the unveiling of the Wii/PS3/360. It was a legitimate question then and remains one now. Nintendo leaned heavily towards reduced graphical power with a new input method and scored big. The 360 and PS3 started with the status quo, but eventually followed suit with Kinect and Move respectively. Now, Kinect 2.0 expands and improves upon the original, and that is innovation outside of graphical improvements. Again though, how will they be implemented? I feel that Microsoft chose a very safe route with what they showed, game wise, by really focusing on the the graphical abilities (individual arm hairs!).

Now, in conclusion I’ll openly admit that I’m making many, many assumptions off an hour conference. Microsoft can, and probably will, address many of these issues at E3 in a few weeks. The bigger picture is that the new normal seems to be that gaming consoles have to be more than gaming consoles. I really don’t understand this, and judging from the reactions of committed gamers, I’m not alone here. I like to play games. I’m not concerned with accessing Facebook (I can do that on my computer), checking sports scores (I have ESPN), or having someone pop up on my screen while I may be watching a movie. This isn’t appealing to me. I want games, and if you want my money at this point, you have to make those games be worth that money, not make the console a multi-media machine. Sorry Xbox, I may end up owning your newest sibling at some point, but it will always be for the games, not for the bells and whistles your console throws at me when I’m not playing those.

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