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With “review season” under way, Circle members have been playing games.  A lot of games! Here are some of our members’ stories in this week’s Roundup!

Jeremy Voss started playing Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.  About an hour in, he gives us his initial thoughts on his blog Shouts From The Couch.

Chris Plante has been into Shadow of Mordor as well, only when he plays, it makes him feel like a terror-inducing mass murderer.  That hasn’t stopped him from playing though…

If fantasy isn’t your fancy, Dualshockers’ Jorge Jimenez reviewed FIFA 15. He also recorded a video play-session where he attempts to become the greatest athlete ever.

And if you’re looking for something a little…stranger, Alex Navarro reviewed D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die over on Giant Bomb.

Jason Schreier checked on the progress of Nintendo’s recent entry into the world of DLC and how it has affected the company’s recent games.

Over on Gamespot, Nick Capozzoli reviewed Spacecom, the abstract, minimalistic strategy game about one-on-one galactic battle.

And as an added bonus for this week, Evan Narcisse played a Suda51 game called Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day.  According to Narcisse, playing it is “probably the most otaku thing you’ll do all year.”

 

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by Harold Goldberg

SIGNIFICANTLY UPDATED: MAY 13, 2014

May 13 will likely be lucky for author and filmmaker Blake J. Harris. That particular Tuesday is the day Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined A Generation (It Books), his well-researched and compelling narrative history of Sega, Nintendo and Sony’s battles, will be released. I met the affable Harris a few years ago – shortly after All Your Base Are Belong to Us, my own narrative history of games, hit the shelves.

We hit it off immediately. Harris has many fascinating stories to tell, of his collaboration with Seth Rogen and Scott Rudin for the tome’s film version, of the geniuses of videogames, and of the writing process itself. Part One appears today. Part Two will appear on the book’s release date.

Also, Harris will read and answer questions from Console Wars at the Astoria Book Shop on May 15 at 7 p.m. If you get there early, you can play old school games with the author.

Now, on to the interview.

1) What compelled you to write a book on the Console Wars?

My journey down the 16-bit rabbit hole was as unexpected as it proved
to be delightful.

A little over three years ago, my typically terrible-gift-giving
brother surprised me on my 28th birthday with the perfect gift: a Sega
Genesis, which is what we had when we were kids. Holding that
controller in my hands after so years away from videogames brought to
the surface all kinds of memories and then, after the barrage of that
nostalgia hit me, came all kinds of questions. What ever happened to
Sega? How were they even able to compete against Nintendo in the first
place? And ultimately: what the hell was going on behind the scenes
all that time?

To answer these questions and all the others that kept bubbling up I
wanted to read a book on the subject. But, as luck would have it, no
such book existed. Not only did no such book exist, but I quickly
learned that for an industry as gigantic as videogames there was an
alarmingly small number of books about this wonderfully wild world.

Well, after reviewing my old college econ notes on supply and demand,
I began contacting former of employees from Sega and Nintendo to find
out if there was an interesting story here; something exciting and
dramatic with twists and turns that would appeal to gamers and
non-gamers alike. Needless to say, what I soon discovered exceeded
even my wildest expectations.

2) What do we need to know about Tom Kalinske, who’s kind of the
protagonist of Console Wars?

The most important thing to know about Tom Kalinske is that he’s the
man responsible for the childhood of anyone born in the 70s or 80s.
From Barbie and He-Man to Flintstones Chewable Vitamins and Matchbox
cars, his ability to turn unusual ideas into iconic properties is
second to none. And in 1990, when Nintendo had over 90% of the market,
that made him the perfect guy (and perhaps the only guy) capable of
transforming Sega from an industry punchline into a
generation-defining market leader.

3) What did he do right and what did he do wrong?

He did a ton of things of right. Some that many of us might remember
(like launching the famous Sega-Scream-infused Welcome to the Next
Level campaign), some that many of us never knew about (like
brilliantly and unexpectedly getting the Genesis into Wal-mart) and
some that none of us will ever know or fully understand (like how he
convinced a team of rebels that they truly had the golden touch).

What did he do wrong? Like any CEO, a variety of mistakes were made
along the one. Perhaps the most notable (and perhaps inevitably
unavoidable) was to focus on beating Nintendo (and then Sony) when a
more crafty enemy was lurking much closer than he realized.

(more…)

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By Harold Goldberg

A few moments ago, Nintendo officially released some heretofore unannounced plans for this holiday season, a new handheld device called the 2ds.

As part of this announcement, Nintendo had me over to their offices to see the 2DS in action. With a release date of October 12 and a price of $130, the 2DS sports some of the features of the 3DS in a kind of micro-tablet format.

The device I saw kind of looks like a slice of red/black cake, millimeters thin on one end and a bit thicker on the other. It was so new when I saw it that the FCC hadn’t yet given it a go ahead.

With two screens that are smaller than those on the 3DS, it plays 3DS games in 2D. And, like the 3DS, it offers up WiFi access to the Nintendo shop. The single speaker sound isn’t quite as good as the 3DS’s stereo. But it’s clear and generally fine.

Why would Nintendo announce this particular little machine for the holidays? Says Nintendo’s Cindy Gordon, “We wanted everyone to have access to Nintendo games. Some people might not have the income to buy a 3DS, and the 2DS is $40 less. We feel it’s the perfect entry point, and then consumers can move up the (hardware) line.” I then asked when the machine began its development cycle, but was not given a direct answer: Nintendo wanted to stay precisely on message.

So I asked, If parents who are a bit cash poor want a handheld gaming device for their kids, wouldn’t they go to eBay for a used 3DS? (Later, a quick search showed a used 3DS could be had for $120 and up.)

Gordon countered, saying that, Yes, people might do that, but wouldn’t they want a brand new device as an entry point instead?

Nintendo says the 2DS might be right as a child’s first machine (“for young, budding gamers,” says Gordon), and I do agree with that assumption. It’s less complicated that the 3DS with fewer buttons to deal with. For instance, there’s no slider button for the WiFi access.

I believe there’s another reason for Nintendo’s release of the 2DS.  Sony and Microsoft are releasing their new systems in November, and there’s a lot of buzz around them. Nintendo wants to have at least one tangible thing that’s new, something related to hardware that they can tout for the holidays.

Really, it has to do with the console wars. Executives may say publicly that there are no such battles. But that’s a matter of semantics. These companies are very, very competitive. Hence, the thinking would go, a new machine by Nintendo for the holiday season is a salvo that might help the company. So will lowering the price of the Wii U by $50.

While the 2DS is a decent machine, the devil’s advocate in me thinks it might be the next Game Boy Micro, popularity-wise. Yet it also could take off. To help that process, wouldn’t it be a prudent and wise move if the 2DS came with a game made exclusively for it, a mini Zelda game perhaps? That would sell the device, perhaps even to those who have a 3DS.

After all, everything ultimately is about the games themselves.

Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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It’s really one of our best Full Circle shows yet.

Host Sarah Awad went to XCubicle on Hester Street to find out about the art they sell — and the rumor of cockroaches in a PS3!

Founder Harold Goldberg talks about the subversive nature of Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

And there’s some serious discussion between Sarah and Harold about the Ouya’s potential success or failure.

As always, thanks to the great Victor Kalogiannis for editing the show!

Check it out, right here.

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by Jeremy Voss

The criticism-oriented game enthusiast who keeps a very active game-centric blog called Shouts from the Couch is both enthused with and bemused by Nintendo’s latest offering. He penned this essay just prior to becoming a new father.

Around 10 hours into my playthrough of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – even though I’ve had a very pleasant experience for most of that time – I’m just about ready to break my 3DS in half.

I suppose I should admit that I never actually planned on playing Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon.  It was not on my radar, nor was it in my rental queue, and I never owned a GameCube and so I don’t have any nostalgic remembrances of the first game. (As it happens, as far as my 3DS usage is concerned, I was already pretty heavily invested in Etrian Odyssey IV anyway.)  I suppose I might have felt compelled to pick it up if the gaming press gave it good reviews, but here I’m in the unique position of being on the other side of the fence for the first time, as a contributor of opinion rather than a receiver.

On my blog, I don’t actually write reviews. I do more of a progress report with every few hours of gameplay, so that I can better explain where a game might have gone wrong for me.  Don’t get me wrong – I always intend to finish every game I start.  But as a dude with a day job and a bunch of extra-curricular activities – one of which is about to include taking care of a newborn baby – I don’t generally stick around with a game once it starts to go bad on me.

And so while the first eight hours of LM:DM were pretty goddamned terrific, it is here in these later stages of the game where I’m starting to lose my mind a little bit.  I’m not sure I want to keep pushing through.  I have other things I need to get done before this weekend is over.  My dogs are feeling sad that I’m ignoring them.  This is where my sense of professional obligation ought to be kicking in, and instead I’m here on my computer trying to coyly dance away from the thing I’m supposed to be doing.

Let’s at least start with those aforementioned first eight hours, where everything is quite wonderful.

It is clear from the moment the game launches that a tremendous amount of care and effort have gone into the game’s development; the overall production values are among the best I’ve yet seen on the platform.  The game looks absolutely gorgeous. Every nook and cranny is filled with playful charm and a goofy sense of humor, even as the subtle lighting and physics imbue the world with a spooky reality.  And I don’t believe I’m overstating it when I say that the quality of Luigi’s animations are on par with Pixar.  Every move he makes is believable and relatable and nuanced – even while the game’s sense of humor is relatively broad. And all the while, his movements are actually relaying valuable information to the player in terms of what’s in the room with him.  It is further proof, for better or worse, that nobody develops for Nintendo hardware quite like Nintendo.

There is a story of sorts. The Dark Moon, which keeps the local valley’s ghosts at bay, has been broken into 5 pieces, etc. and the ghosts are on the loose.  But it’s largely a superficial excuse to send Luigi into various haunted locations and perform specific objectives for Professor E. Gadd.  There are five locations, and each location has five levels, even though you’re largely in the same environments each time.  It’s sort of like a Metroidvania-type design, except that you’re whisked out of the environment once you’ve accomplished a certain goal, and when you go back for your next mission, it’s possible that the environment has changed significantly in your absence – largely because of things you’ve already done.   Levels can be replayed in their original state, however, even with your extra-high-powered gear, and each has a three-star scoring system and a hidden Boo ghost encounter.

The core gameplay loops involve exploration, environmental puzzle solving, and ghost wrangling. And as you get deeper into the game, those ghosts become more devious and plentiful. The controls are largely easy to understand, and even though they can be somewhat unwieldy at times, they generally respond quite well. You almost always find yourself doing the thing you’re trying to do.  And since there’s a lot of activity going on at any given moment, that’s very much appreciated.

And yet.

For all the obvious and appreciated care and hard work that went into development,  there are some glaring design flaws that can cause an inordinate amount of frustration.

While each level can be completed in 10 to 20 minutes, there are no checkpoints.  This means that if you die at the very end of a level – and you will – you go back to the very beginning. You will lose all the gold and hidden jewels you may have found; you will have to solve every puzzle again.  And you must finish every combat scenario again, of which there are many.  And unless you find the hidden Ghost Dog Bone in each level, which grants you an instant revive with full health, you will get sent back to the beginning if you snuff it.  The boss at the end of World 3, the clockworks level, is a 12-stage gauntlet. When you die at the 12th stage, and you find yourself returned to the beginning, you will want to murder things.

LM:DM also frustratingly adheres to an apparent fundamental “if/then” principle of gameplay design that dictates that if a game console has tilt controls, then a game is required by law to implement some sort of balance beam section. Has there ever been a fun and not-at-all annoying balance beam section in any game, ever?  Even Uncharted figured it out eventually.  But I’m in the beginning of World 4, which features tons of ice and a mine, and the balance beam section (the third such section in the game) that I just finished (after literally a dozen stupid deaths) nearly drove me insane.

Plus, some of the ghosts can be jerks.  And while that may be largely the point of the challenge, it’s not necessarily endearing.

I hate to close this thing by dwelling in such detail on the frustration I’m feeling with LM:DM, especially when there is so much to love about it, but I can’t help it. I was charmed for a long time and now I’m just angry and frustrated, and if I weren’t feeling professionally obligated to see all there is to see, I’d probably give up at this point.  I mean, I’d like to think it’ll get better in the later levels of Worlds 4 and 5, the Treacherous Mansion which boasts a kind of castle environment. But it seems rather unlikely that the game will suddenly get more forgiving.  And hey, maybe the multiplayer experience is something extraordinary – but, unfortunately, I can’t test it out yet, and to be quite honest I’m not sure I’d be inclined to try it even if I weren’t reviewing it.  (I’m not really a multiplayer kind of guy, is the thing.)

But let’s get to the heart of the matter:  is it worth your hard-earned money?  Despite my current agitation with it, the good stuff here is truly special and does a terrific job of showing off the 3DS’s hardware capabilities.  Perhaps your hand-eye coordination will get you through those challenging ghost combat scenarios with greater ease than what I had to go through, and maybe you’ll take a glass-half-full approach when you get cheaply killed at the very end of a level and have to do the whole thing over again.  Or, perhaps, you’ll end up like me, utterly annoyed that all this inventive level design and endearing animation simply ended in yet another dozen balance-beam deaths.

EPILOGUE: SECOND THOUGHTS?

After I’d written what you just read, I’d more or less given up on LM:DM.  I was stuck and banging my head against the wall, and no amount of self-imposed “professional obligation” was going to make me finish a game that I’d ceased to enjoy playing.

Well, I suppose a little bit of obligation managed to hang around despite my best efforts, because after a few days I did ultimately feel compelled to go back to it and see if, at the very least, I could get past the level I was stuck on.  And so I did some grinding on the first few levels in an attempt to get the last upgrade to the Poltergust 5000, just to see if that would do the trick.  Lo and behold, it did!  I was able to get past that one fight that was killing me over and over again, and so I kept at it.  I was able to finish World 4, and then I started plowing through World 5, and I guess I figured that that last upgrade was really all I needed to keep things moving along.  And for a time, I was glad I kept with it – World 5 has some neat level design, and some clever puzzles, and the obligatory balance beam section took place at the very beginning and somehow I managed to get past it with only two falls into the abyss.  I figured the rest of the game would be a little challenging, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

Nope.  I’m now in the last mission of World 5, and it’s (once again) a gauntlet of ghosts, but now with the added absurdity of a countdown timer.  I made it pretty much right up to the penultimate battle but got killed – rather cheaply, I might add – and now I can either restart the whole thing over again, or get on with the rest of my life.

I still stand by what I wrote.  There’s a lot of great elements to this game, and for the most part it’s a lot of fun.  But the lack of a checkpoint system makes some of these later ghost battles feel like a punishment to be endured, rather than a challenge to be overcome.  I’m willing to concede that I might lack the patience of a younger gamer to help conquer this problem. But I’m also certain what I see as fundamental design flaws will drive a lot of people crazy, not just me.

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Last night, Nintendo’s Wii U, its newest game console, went on sale throughout North America. Many of our critics took the trek to Rockefeller Center to check out the event at Rockefeller Center. Without any fanboyism or favoritism, here are 10 things you’ll like and dislike about the Wii U.

1) Short battery life on GamePad is the worst of any console or handheld. Two hours was my minimum and three was my maximum.

2) The GamePad controller is too complex with buttons galore.

3) Not all apps are available on launch day. Where’s the promised TVii service, Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, for instance?

4) The GamePad is too heavy. It will affect your game play over time.

5) The GamePad takes a long time to recharge.

6) Games take a longer time to load than on the Wii.

7) Not all game music and audio comes through the GamePad when you use it without your TV.

8) It’s harder to set up and get going than was the Wii.

9) Software update takes soooooo long to download, well over an hour.

10) What an arduous process it is to move your old game profile and info – from the Wii to the Wii U.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder

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Last night, the Wii U, Nintendo’s newest game console, went on sale throughout North America. Many of our critics took the trek to Rockefeller Center to check out the event at Rockefeller Center. Without any fanboyism or favoritism, here are 10 things you’ll like and dislike about the Wii U.

1) Games are presented in high definition graphics, a fine step forward.

2) The GamePad functions as a TV remote control and your cable guide appears on it. Its touchscreen can be pretty effective, too.

3) You can play your old Wii games on it. Super Mario Galaxy, baby.

4) Nintendo Land is better than expected because it explains an essential thing: how to use the GamePad. The single player mini games aren’t bad, either.

5) MiiVerse lets you share screenshots from games with friends.

6) You can play games on the GamePad without turning the TV on.

7) It connects to the Web.

8) You could probably stream a webcast via the GamePad camera and WiFi, if Nintendo ever sets that up.

9) It’s a powerful machine that rivals the workhorses PS3 and Xbox 360, something Nintendo needed to do.

10) There are creditable games for adults as well as kids, from ZombiU to Scribblenauts Unlimited.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder

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