Tagged: iOS

The Top 10 Games of 2013: A Personal List

2013 was a watershed year in gaming. It was a year that saw countless developers, whether swimming in oceans of cash or struggling to pay rent on studio apartments, pouring their best efforts into an overabundance of amazing experiences that, frankly, the gaming community at large simply didn’t deserve. With such a glut of unforgettable games released over the past twelve months, the act of declaring a definitive top 10 list comes off at best as an exercise in absurdity,  and it’s with that thought in mind that I present a list of the ten games I enjoyed the most in 2013.

10. BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360)

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BioShock Infinite wasn’t the best AAA action game I played this year, nor was it the most visually or mechanically impressive, with textures right out of the pre-dawn ages (circa 2006) and artificial intelligence that doesn’t try even half as hard as the splicers in the original BioShock. But Irrational sure knows how to paint a picture. From its haunting opening moments involving a choral arrangement of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to its shrewd commentary on the time we’ve all wasted on fruitless pursuits, BioShock Infinite is a shining example of this generation’s shift from games as games to games as art, and for that, it’s a game I think everyone should experience.

9. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)

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Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is a testament to the players-over-profit design ethic that’s guided Nintendo over the past three decades: give players a simple goal and let them have fun accomplishing it. With its spooky environments, deliberately crafted environmental puzzles and emphasis on physical comedy, Dark Moon feels like a cross between a classic Sierra adventure game and a Saturday morning cartoon, and I still can’t help cracking up when I think about Luigi’s reactions to the various spiteful spooks that haunt him through the game’s 5 mansions. Pure joy, through and through.

8. Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale (3DS)

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As we go breathlessly from day to day, trying not to collapse under the often maddeningly complex state of being known as adulthood, it’s easy to forget how simple life once was. When making friends was no more complicated than saying “hello” to a new kid on the playground. When storm drains were secret portals to the magical and mysterious. When the future was defined not by the ability to pay rent on time, but by the infinite possibilities borne from our dreams. If you’ve forgotten what that feels like and you’d like get it back, Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale will make you remember.

7. Guacamelee (PS Vita)

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DrinkBox Studios nailed the Metroidvania formula with Guacamelee, with its vast, interconnected environments to explore, secret collectibles hidden everywhere, and plenty of sequence-breaking exploits for speedrunners to take advantage of. But what sets it apart from countless other Super Metroid wannabees is its unique, lovingly humorous take on Mexican mythology (you play as a recently-deceased farmer-turned-luchador, on a quest to save El Presidente’s Daughter from a sombrero’d skeleton with plans to merge the lands of the living and the dead.) Also, those snazzy, sassy trumpet anthems. When I reviewed the game in April, I called it “quite possibly the best game ever released on a PlayStation platform,” which apparently led to the review being featured on the PlayStation Blog. I stand by that assessment. If you love open-ended platformers, you won’t find better outside of a Nintendo console.

6. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)

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I didn’t review Animal Crossing: New Leaf this year, because I was busy packing all my earthly possessions and moving my family from California to New York when it came out. And I’m honestly not sure how I could have reviewed it, because it’s been kind of like a weird parallel to my own life this year — one in which all my neighbors are furries and I only have to pay bills when I feel like it. But in all seriousness, New Leaf has kind of been like the gaming equivalent of Chicken Soup for the Soul for me over the past six months… a warm blanket to wrap myself in during the extended periods of self doubt and loneliness that accompanied the biggest change I’ve ever made in my life. My wife and I are finally, slowly starting to make friends in New York, but for awhile, this (and FaceTime) were the closest things I had to human interaction. It’s hard to meet new people, but even when you’re at your lowest, Isabelle will always be waiting with a smile.

5. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D (3DS)

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Super Mario 3D Land is my favorite Mario platformer ever, so you’d logically expect to see Super Mario 3D World somewhere on this list, right? Wrong. As much fun as I had with the game (a metric ton, I assure you!), it was on the wrong platform, and the lack of stereo 3D really dampened my enthusiasm for it after the 500th death caused by my inability to judge space within the game. Similarly, Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii was a beautiful game that was rendered almost unplayable by Nintendo’s insistence on shoehorning motion controls into the experience. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D eradicates those issues by giving the game the traditional control scheme it always deserved. Both in terms of artistry and game design, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of any other 2D platformer on the 3DS, even outclassing the three legendary SNES games that preceded it. The new levels and optional easier difficulty level are just icing on the banana bread.

4. Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

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The Fire Emblem games have always been one of Nintendo’s best kept secrets – expertly tuned turned-based strategy bolstered by well-crafted dialogue, a diverse cast of characters, and stirring musical scores from industry veteran Yuka Tsujiyoko. And though the story in Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t particularly original, it transcends this limitation by inserting players directly into the narrative and trusting them to fill in the details through the relationships they forge and the decisions they make. Add to that a ton of non-essential missions, copious DLC, and dozens upon dozens of characters to customize and develop as you see fit, and this is one game that gives, and gives, and gives. I’m still playing it, almost a year later.

3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (iPad)

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my game of the year in 2012 — a superb modern update of a game I’ve been playing since 1994. Firaxis made Enemy Unknown even better when it released the Enemy Within expansion for consoles and PC in October, but it’s actually been the mobile release of the core game that’s kept me constantly coming back since it launched this summer. It’s never been better than it is on tablets, which is exactly why I bought an iPad Air this year instead of a PS4. Seriously. It’s that good. Also, don’t bother trying to catch me on the technicality that Enemy Unknown was originally released last year. My list!

2. SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt (3DS)

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What more can I say about Swedish indie developer Image & Form’s western-themed mining platformer? It came out of nowhere and took me completely by surprise. It blends elements of Super Metroid, Dig-Dug, and Minecraft into something completely new. I love, love, love this game (and in fact, I gave it a 9.5 in my IGN review.) It doesn’t get any fresher than this.

1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

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There’s so much to love about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I love how fluid it feels. I love the character designs based on concept art for the original Legend of Zelda. I love the Maiamai sidequest that hearkens back to Link’s Awakening’s hidden seashells, and the not-incredibly-difficult-but-still-awesome bosses, and the simple, challenging StreetPass battles that paid for several of Link’s most expensive tools. And I love the ending. But most of all, I love how Nintendo has cut out all the bloat that has been slowly taking over the Zelda series for the past 6 years and built a game that hearkens back to a time when developers trusted players to figure things out for themselves. A Link Between Worlds is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it’s my favorite game of 2013.

 

Keep Your “Next-Gen.” Mine’s Already Here.

Over the weekend, I went to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York, picked up the largest capacity iPad Air money could buy, then boarded the F train toward my apartment in Brooklyn and spent the next 40 minutes acting like I wasn’t hoarding $900 worth of hot new Apple tech in my backpack. When I got home, the first thing I did was marvel at how light the Air was compared to my two year old iPad 3. The next thing I did was install XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which I then proceeded to play for an embarrassingly indeterminable amount of time before realizing I should probably get back to my clients.

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When I reviewed XCOM for iPad in July, I gushed about how remarkably complete it was for being a so-called “mobile port” of a AAA console game. And while I briefly touched on my disappointment over how unstable it was on an iPad 3, what I didn’t mention is that I would gladly have bought a new iPad if it meant getting a better portable XCOM experience. Four months later, XCOM is more at home on Apple’s tablet than ever, where, thanks to the Air’s A7 processor, it now screams along at 60 FPS with near-zero load times at 2048×1536. I don’t know how I’m ever going to get anything done again.

What I do know is, I’m giving my PS4 pre-order to my brother-in-law.

There’s been a lot of furor surrounding the launch of the so-called “next generation” of console gaming, but when you strip out all the noise, what it boils down to is that the next iteration of the PlayStation and Xbox brands are dropping into our laps in just a couple of weeks, and a lot of people are very excited. But to be honest, I’m really struggling to understand what’s got you all so batty.  I know a lot of you want to crucify me for this… I’ve already gotten a ton of flack on Twitter for announcing that I’d decided on a new iPad instead of a PS4, as if that decision meant I wasn’t qualified to write about or play games anymore. But hear me out, and share your thoughts on the topics below… maybe we can come to some kind of mutual understanding.

There’s Nothing to Play!

I bought my PS3 in 2008 under the assumption I’d be playing The Last Guardian in the not too distant future, and we all know how that turned out. Okay, so maybe it turned out alright: the PS3 has one of the best stables of exclusive titles of any console released in the past 10 years. But it took 3-4 years from launch for the system to get to that point. As for the PS4 and the Xbox One, there are very few titles coming this year that can’t be done in exemplary fashion on the consoles you’ve already got sitting under your TVs, and I’ve seen nothing coming within the next 12 months that has me convinced I need to upgrade. Honestly, you’re better off taking the $450-$600 you have earmarked for a new console and splurging instead on pretty much every new game coming out this holiday season.

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Breaking News: Super Mario 3D World will *not* be coming to Xbox One!

Think about it for a minute: for the cost of an Xbox One, you can buy Assassin’s Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Origins, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Gran Turismo 6, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Pokémon X or Y, Super Mario 3D World, The Wolf Among Us, and XCOM: Enemy Within. And what’s better: spending $500 to play one or two games, or spending $500 to play 7-8 games?

Next-Gen What?

For decades, platform holders pushed the notion that “next-gen” equaled faster processors and snazzier graphics. And that made sense before the likes of Cave Story, Mega Man 9, Fez and Retro City Rampage started releasing alongside titles like Halo 4 and Mass Effect 3. With developers releasing such a broad variety of software on today’s gaming devices, it’s pretty clear gamers no longer see things in terms of the old paradigms. And if we no longer chart the growth of gaming in terms of “giggleflops” and “mecha-hurts,” what exactly is it that’s so “next-gen” about the PS4 and Xbox One?

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Does this screen from Assassin’s Creed IV look “next-gen” to you?

Perhaps it’s the slick new social features promised by the PS4? The off-screen Vita play? Maybe it’s the snappy multitasking capabilities of the Xbox One? Now, don’t read my probing as sarcasm; these are all features I’m genuinely excited to see implemented in the next versions of the PlayStation and Xbox ecosystems. But if, like me, you define “next-gen” by these new features that are going to fundamentally change the way we play, I’ve got news for you: there’s nothing next-gen about the PS4 and Xbox One. That’s because consoles and other devices have already been doing these things for years.

Nintendo did next-gen in 2012 with the Wii U’s pioneering off-TV play. Apple did next-gen in 2008 when it launched an App Store that pushed games into the hands of hundreds of thousands of people who would never have been caught dead in public with a DS or a PSP. And I won’t even bother talking about how reactive Microsoft has been in its design of the Xbox One, because Xbox Live aside, that’s been the company’s MO since it was founded. Been there, done that. Moving on.

So tell me, again: what’s so “next-gen” about the PS4 and Xbox One?

Play What You Love

Listen. I know it sounds like I’m down on the PS4 and Xbox One. But honestly, I just hate to see so many people getting excited about spending what little money they have on something that’s going to be a letdown, at least in the short term. Will I be getting a PS4? Absolutely, when there’s a game that I want to play and I can’t do it anywhere else. Will I miss out on the adrenaline rush of a new console launch? Not really: I bought a Wii U last year. But just because I’ve become cynical about the next-gen console rat race, it doesn’t mean you have to be. After all, we buy new consoles because we love games, and I’m sure you’re all eventually going to find something to love about your PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones. In the meantime, there’s just too much to love about the systems I already own for me to care about what might be coming for the ones I don’t.

 

XCOM: Enemy Unknown iOS Review

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Hi, my name is Michael, and I’m addicted to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

When Firaxis’ re-imagining of one of my all time favorite games launched late last year on PC and consoles, I was excited, but not overly hopeful. 1994′s X-Com: UFO Defense, a game about extraterrestrial invasions, kept me up well past bedtime during the long summer nights of my childhood in Sacramento, California, staring up at the sky after each game, wondering at the possibility of life beyond our solar system, often paralyzed with a fear that I still can’t adequately describe. And as I waited for the modernization machine to transform 1994′s X-Com into 2012′s XCOM, I pessimistically assumed those indescribable, essential qualities of the game that kept me watching the skies well into my teenage years would be lost in translation. How wrong I was. Firaxis’ XCOM was easily my favorite game of 2012, and though it can never replace the original, it stands proudly alongside it.

Now, thanks to an excellent iOS port by 2K China, I can play XCOM: Enemy Unknown pretty much anywhere I can take my phone or iPad. Which would be a very good thing, if it weren’t such a very, very bad thing.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown for iOS devices is essentially the same game you played last year, retrofitted with a touch screen interface that you’d swear the game was always meant to be played with. All the nail-biting, turn based tactical play of the console and PC versions is fully intact; every research and engineering tree present and accounted for. A few things have been sacrificed in the translation. Visual fidelity has taken a noticeable (if mostly ignorable) hit, with the game now looking like it’s running on a below-minimum-specs PC. Interrogation and autopsy animations and an assortment of maps have been axed in order to fit Apple’s arbitrary App Store size limitations. And characters mouths no longer move when they’re talking. But once you start playing, you forget all of this, because you’re playing freaking XCOM on a goddanged telephone, which has to be some kind of alien voodoo.

XCOM in the palm of your hand? Uh…yes, please!

That said, while XCOM does run incredibly well on the iPhone 5, the interface is a bit cluttered thanks to the tiny screen space. It’s best played on an iPad 4, but also runs mostly pretty well on the iPad 3, with disappointing frame drops caused by extended play periods (and maps with large alien ships) filling up that device’s memory and forcing you to take a break and hope things get back to normal once you restart. Players with pre-iPhone 5/iPad 3 devices or iPad minis should know that while XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t exactly unplayable on your hardware, you’re going to get a pretty compromised experience, and 2K hasn’t responded to my inquiries about the possibility of device-specific optimizations being made in the future.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is easily the most expensive app I’ve ever purchased from the App Store, but there’s no question it’s worth every penny, provided you’ve got the hardware to support it. I haven’t been able to stop playing it, despite all the other games demanding my attention lately, and I’m not typically one to champion iOS gaming. But that’s the thing: this isn’t some watered-down smartphone game. It’s simply a fantastic video game that you can now play while waiting in line at the grocery store, or when you’re on a conference call at work, or during your non-driving shift on a cross-country road trip.

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Just, you know, make sure you take a break every once in awhile.

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Aliens Versus Humans: At Long Last, X-Com in the App Store

 

Ever since the first crummy Snake-alikes and variations on Klondike started showing up on the iPhone app store way back in the days before App Store was a thing, I’ve frequently bemoaned the lack of a solid X-Com clone on Apple’s iOS platform. In fact, I’ve been throwing a low-level hissy about the series’ lack of portable representation since series creator Julian Gollop’s Rebelstar: Tactical Command landed on Gameboy Advance back in 2005 and proved that X-Com without the base-building, research and manufacturing, and Geoscape mode just wasn’t really X-Com at all.

But getting back to the point: touch-driven interfaces and turn-based tactics go together like milk and cookies, and it’s remained a deep mystery that on a popular platform where everybody’s ripping off everybody else’s ideas, we haven’t seen anything that even attempts to ape a design that’s been ripe for the taking since 1994. Now, on the eve of the release of 2K’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown – a series reboot that looks to successfully mix the best qualities of the 90′s classic with an interface that even your blind granny could navigate – someone has finally gone and done it. Nevermind the fact that the game is called Aliens Versus Humans, and that it doesn’t have a Sectoid or Skyranger to its name: this is the game X-Com fans have been waiting to put in their pockets for nearly two decades.

As it happens, anyone who’s Googled “X-Com for iPhone” in the past year will likely have stumbled upon the game, and quite possibly given it a pass. AVH has been available on the App Store for nearly a year, though until recently, it was little more than a generic-but-accurate riff on X-Com’s tactical layer (like the aforementioned Rebelstar game.) That’s not to say that the work of husband-and-wife development team Jim and Vanessa Cloughley (the independent software company professionally known as Leisure Rules) wasn’t impressive for their first release: it was just incomplete. I’d sampled the game here and there, found it amusing in a sort of nostalgic and “isn’t that cute” way, but ultimately forgotten about it due to many other higher priority releases. It wasn’t until I stumbled on the developer’s Twitter account a few weeks ago and realized there was an update it the works that I decided to give it a second look. And, boy, am I glad I did, because what I saw blew me away. Since the update, I haven’t been able to stop playing, and if there’s any better measure of the quality of a game, I don’t know what it is.

“There’s something out there, man,” said squad member Miles Davis.

The 2.0 update to Aliens Versus Humans – what Leisure Rules calls “Onslaught” – has, at long last, brought the X-Com experience to iOS devices. I don’t know how such a small, inexperienced team pulled it off, and I don’t care: I just want to keep playing. It’s nearly all here: the Geoscape, where alien activity is monitored and missions are launched; the base building and management. The research and manufacturing, purchasing/recruiting, firing and selling; the region-specific biodiversity and day-and-night cycle. The game’s even got an ominous 90′s synth backing track to round out the experience (though it could stand to have a few more.) What’s missing from what I’ve played so far – namely, Interceptor-style aircraft to shoot down alien ships – is written off by the game’s fiction, and I have a hunch it’ll show up in a future update or new game once the Cloughleys figure out how to program it.

That’s not to say the game is perfect: there are certainly a few problems here. For one, there doesn’t seem to be a cancel button for any action outside of the tactical mode, which can make accidental button taps expensive, especially when building or expanding bases. For another, the game seems to lock the research trees away until you’ve completed a handful of missions, even though you’ll already have collected a fair amount of alien technology and stinky Bhodon corpses by the time you’ve completed your first tactical mission. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the game wasn’t as ridiculously difficult as the series it’s based on – in fact, it may be on par with X-Com: Terror From the Deep for mind-numbingly difficult, even on the easy difficulty. I lost 90% of three separate squads of 8 (and one “Skyhopper” – good one, guys) before I’d acquired enough alien alloys to research a basic armor upgrade for my soldiers, and by the time I was able to manufacture it, I could only afford to make one. It would’ve been nice to be able to research armor and a few other essentials from the get-go, and it seems like an odd change to make to the formula when the rest of it is so spot-on.

Of course, none of this really matters when I’m playing Aliens Versus Humans, because when I’m in the groove with the game, I’m no longer playing an X-Com clone – I’m playing X-Com. If this is the closest we ever get to official series representation on iOS, I’m okay with that. This is the real deal, folks, and it’s only $2.99. Hats off to the Cloughleys for pulling it off. Now let’s all throw a bunch of money at them so they can buy their kids some ice cream, and then start making the game even better.

E3 2012: I’m Gonna Wreck It!

How this ever came together is beyond what my tiny brain is capable of, but oh my goodness.

Also, I saw this cool little piece of faux history at Disney’s booth at E3 yesterday:

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The sign reads “We are looking for any working version of the classic Fix-It Felix, Jr. arcade game. Only 185 cabinets were produced in 1982. Please contact us at FelixArcade@disneyanimation.com if you have any information.

Apparently there’s an iOS version of the game playable at the show floor…maybe I’ll go back and check it out tomorrow. Assuming it’s the same game featured at the beginning of the trailer, it looks delightful.

Core Discrepancy: iOS and the Problem of Hardware Variation

The release of N.O.V.A. 3, Gameloft’s most recent “me too” FPS, casts a pretty big spotlight on one of iOS’s most pervasive but little talked about problems: hardware variation. The game actually looks and runs better on an iPad 2 than an iPad 3, despite the older device’s lower resolution and smaller cache of memory. The culprit? Apple’s design team, who fitted the latest iPad’s with a 2048 by 1536 pixel display but not enough extra RAM or processing power to fill that display with the kind of visual effects that make the game so attractive on the previous-generation device. Depth of field blur, airborne debris, and heat distortion have all been disabled on the latest iPad, in order to maintain a playable frame rate.

N.O.V.A. 3 running on a third generation iPad…

Same level on an iPad 2, with smoke, fire, floating debris, and subtle particle effects.

The perception of iOS gamers as “not like us” in the eyes of the traditional gaming crowd means that you probably haven’t heard much in the way of complaints about this issue, but imagine the outrage that would spread among fans if the HD remakes of God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, or Metal Gear Solid ran worse on a PS3 or Xbox 360 than the original PS2 releases. Sony and Microsoft would be laughed off the face of the Earth for building inadequate hardware. In fact, iOS gamers are complaining about N.O.V.A. 3′s performance on the new iPad, and it’s pretty easy to find the most unhappy customers for those willing to look: just search for the game on the iOS App Store and sort ratings by “most critical.”

As it turns out though, there’s a far bigger issue at play here than some missing graphical effects. Take a look at some of the other “console-style” games released for Apple’s devices – Infinity Blade II, Grand Theft Auto 3, or Minecraft, for example. Even a few seconds perusing reviews yields pages and pages of complaints like these:

What’s going on here, exactly? Take a look again:

As it turns out, GTA 3 doesn’t run so well on a first generation iPad – which is pretty crummy, considering the game came out only a year or so after the original version of the tablet. But it’s not just the oldest hardware that can’t keep up with the latest App Store releases – it’s easy to find similar complaints about every device from the iPhone 3G and first-generation iPod touch to the iPhone 4S and latest iPad. With 8 different devices in the hands of literally hundreds of millions of potential gamers, the problem is clear: App Store developers simply can’t keep up with the ever-increasing variations in hardware found in the devices they’re obligated to support.

PC gamers will quickly point out that they’ve been dealing with this problem for years: if your rig can’t run the latest and greatest software, then you either upgrade or dial back your settings and find a sweet spot you’re happy with. But this solution doesn’t apply to iOS: the kind of person willing to spend $700 on a new PC graphics card every eight months isn’t the same kind of person that relies on an iPhone for their gaming fix. Even hardcore Apple fanatics are finding it harder and harder to justify the financial investment of keeping up with the latest devices year after year. Besides, most iOS games don’t even allow players the ability to tweak their settings to improve performance, because doing so would introduce a very PC-like wrinkle into the “it just works” world of Apple products, and we all know what Apple thinks about the personal computer. Unfortunately, with or without the option to tweak an iOS game’s settings, it’s becoming clear – games on Apples devices don’t always “just work.”

Gameloft recently announced that an upcoming N.O.V.A. 3 update would, in fact, allow owners of the latest generation iPad to choose between the higher resolution of the Retina Display and the enhanced visual effects found on older devices, but the developer might be fighting a battle it’s already lost: the average iPhone or iPod Touch gamer just isn’t all that likely to keep their apps up to date. For most people, it’s just easier to move on to the next five dollar download and forget all about the grief of the previous latest, greatest, and ultimately disappointing iOS game.

The implications of this are deeply troubling for publishers who have struggled for years to control even a percentage of the mindshare Apple has managed to maintain. At what point will players be fed up with devices that don’t play games as advertised? What happens when consumers start associating Apple with compromised experiences, broken promises, and wasted money? And with Apple being seen as the public face of gaming by more and more people, how long will it be before the gaming industry at large suffers irreversible damage to its reputation simply due to its proximity to Apple and the inconsistent experiences it offers?

Don’t get me wrong: there are some truly spectacular gaming experiences to be found on iOS, and for only a fraction of the cost of the latest console and handheld games available on more traditional gaming devices. But until Apple can start guaranteeing consumers the quality of experience the company has always promised, without requiring consumers to sell their organs on a yearly basis, casual and hardcore gamers are better served by the tried-and-true platforms that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have been delighting us with for decades. Sure, traditional consoles may look a little long in the tooth next to the yearly hardware refresh that Apple fans are used to, and the cost of the average Xbox or PS3 game may be hard to stomach next to an App Store purchase…but at least you know that the $60 game you just bought is going to work exactly as advertised, no matter what device you’re playing it on.

 

Editor’s Note: This piece also appears on 1UP’s Handheld Blog. Thanks, Jeremy!

Nintendo: Streaming Directly To Your Brain (Act Now! Limited Time Offer!)

 

 

News spread quickly recently that Nintendo hadn’t met its global sales target of 4 million   3DS units, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was amused by the “alarmed” tone with which many blogs and media outlets peppered their reporting of this fact. As if 3.6 million was a number to sneeze at. That’s like calling the PSP a failure at 67.8 million units sold worldwide.

Of course, the more relevant concern is whether Nintendo has what it takes to compete against Apple and the ever-increasing ubiquity of iOS devices. Satoru Iwata has made it clear that he finds uncomfortable the idea of Apple and Nintendo competing for the same consumers, but this is, in fact, a very strong reality. I’m the biggest Nintendo fanboy I know, and more often than not, my 3DS sits untouched in my bag, collecting steps and the occasional Street Pass tag, while I read the Times or The New Yorker on my iPad or Kindle.

The short term problem, of course, is the lack of killer software available for the 3DS. Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, Pilotwings Resort and Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition are all strong titles, to be sure, but they’re not going to sell systems the way a Mario or a Zelda or a Call Of Duty would. The company’s planned for this, of course, and I have no doubt in my mind that the system will be high on the holiday wish lists of the Nintendo faithful once these flagship titles are released.

But where do they go from there? What next, after much of the casual market they created has moved on from the Wii and is now getting its gaming fix on Apple hardware? Only E3 will tell, of course. The introduction of a new Nintendo console would be the highlight of any gaming convention in years past, and I’m certain the company’s press conference on June 7th will be no different.  But the market realities of 2011 mean that Nintendo’s got to do more than excite the hardcore. They’ve got to capture the hearts and minds of everyone who’s ever used Facebook, or streamed music through Pandora, or caught up on “Mad Men” via Netflix, all using the same device. More so than being the lord of the living room, Nintendo’s got to aspire to to be the king of the castle, the moat, the village, the pasture…and then they’ve got to invade and force their rule upon their neighbors. Or, like most monarchies, they can fade into the annals of history.

Nintendo has the creativity, the experience, and the brand power to survive the Apple shakedown. On June 7th, we’ll find out if they have the will.

Game Dev Story Review

A funny thing happened a few weeks ago. The work day had run long, and I had to catch a late train home. I had my DS Lite with me, and really wanted to power through the remaining few levels of Super Mario Advance 4′s World-e Mushroom levels, but I was just too tired to open my bag, boot the game up, and settle into a groove. Instead, I woke my phone up, tapped the icon for a game I’d recently downloaded, and before I knew it, 100 miles had gone by and the train was pulling into the station.

Game Dev Story, a Kairosoft Joint, is the first, and so far only, iOS game to absorb me so completely. There’ve been a handful of other games I’ve enjoyed for Apple’s various devices, but for the most part, these tend to lean toward the more casual, social experience. Unlike something like Carcassonne, for example, or Words With Friends, Game Dev Story is a solitary experience. And though, like all good games on Apple’s platform, it can be experienced in short bursts, the depth it hides behind its cutesy facade and apparent simplicity can – and will – keep you going until you realize your device needs to be charged again.

Game Dev Story, as its title suggests, puts you in charge of running a video game company. It’s not as simple as sitting two guys down in front of computers and tasking them with creating the next big thing, because paying a college drop-out $10,000 to flex his C++ skills isn’t going to guarantee anyone’s going to buy Gun’n’Run, your ill-conceived first-person shooter with cross-country marathon elements. Besides hiring the best people you can on your meager starting budget of $500,000, you’ve also got to promote your company and software through activities ranging from online ads and gaming expos to securing television endorsements and advertising space on the moon, and keep your fan base growing – and interested – in the downtime between games when you’re scrounging together cash through contract work so you can afford a software license for whatever the next big console (or handheld system) happens to be.

If that sounded like a run-on-sentence, it was intentional, because Game Dev Story rarely gives you a moment to breath between projects, with both your fan base and your employees losing interest if you don’t produce anything. Even without the pressure of an upcoming release looming, you’ve constantly got to promote your employees’ collective and individual well-being: you want to shape them into the most talented, efficient group they can be, factoring in everything from their specific career concentration (coding, sound engineering, producing, etc.) down to where they’re sitting – if you’ve got a pair of chatty Cathy’s, you might find your best approach is to sit them next to each other, rather than across the office from each other. Hiring the right people and promoting their personal growth can be pretty rewarding, despite the fact that the actions for doing so involve little more than selecting options from a menu; on the flip-side, I was disappointed that not one of my employees quit during our 20-year career as a middling software company with occasional bursts of brilliance.

Caddy Quest

You’re given 20 years (game time) to develop your group into whatever it is you want within the confines of the game’s world. My studio, 1-Cup Studios, started out with very little and ended up with little more: after making a meager profit on our poorly received first game, a PC “Golf Shooter” called DoomBall, we eventually reached our peak in our 18th year with a Sonny PlayStatus “Ninja Online RPG” called Fat Ninjaz, which not only netted us a cool $11-milion profit, but landed a place in the Hall of Fame, basically guaranteeing a sequel would sell well. Unfortunately, the PlayStatus was discontinued shortly after the game launched, meaning 1-Cup Studios spent 2 years trying to raise enough capital for a license to develop software for the Intendro Whoops, and in an ill-fated move meant to inject the company with some quick cash, our producer Stephen Jobson decided to spend most of our profit on a Sonny Mini Status license*, where our final game, Minifuzzverz, an “Animal Online RPG”, itself the last chapter of a successful franchise of “Fuzzy” games, ate up so much time in development costs that we were forced to work contract jobs for two years before we could afford the Whoops license, and by then, Intendro’s market share had plummeted. 1-Cup’s days as a game changer were over. I fired everyone except Jobson, realized he couldn’t do even the simplest job by himself, and when I couldn’t afford any more quality employees, I did what any sensible CEO would do: I hit the home button.

The thing is, despite my general dislike for games of this nature, Game Dev Story’s streamlined gameplay, charming pixel-art, and tongue-in-cheek spoofing of familiar game devs has kept me coming back for weeks. In an iOS marketplace flooded with thousands of forgettable games, Game Dev story demonstrates, more than any other game I’ve played on an Apple device, that quality games are lurking out there, buried by fart apps and camera filters. Whether or not anybody notices it is a matter of Apple revising their approach to highlighting noteworthy apps, and I seriously doubt Kairosoft is going to remedy that by hiring booth babes.

B-Plus

 

 

 

 

*Alright. It wasn’t really Jobson’s fault. I can own up to this…but only in a footnote.