Hail Mario 2: Electrodrome Boogaloo

In 2014, I wrote Hail Mario, a post about Nintendo’s aggressive strategy to bolster Wii U sales with the release of Mario Kart 8:

Nintendo gambled for positive reviews two weeks before launch, is now chalking up at least $40 in games to every US and Canadian Mario Kart owning household, and prays that their Trojan horse will be the spark to move units. Since release, the game has received stunning accolades, Club Nintendo has been brought down by what can only be assumed as immense traffic for free games, and at least one Wii U newcomer is being tugged at by curiosity.

When people think of video games, a large majority picture a mustachioed plumber in a red hat, but Master Chief and the Minecraft universe are only 3 points down. There are still many plays to be made but a well-timed, well-calculated marketing play this big could be enough to save the game. Mario Kart 8 may give Nintendo the lead they need to send a message to the HD Twins: Nintendo’s race is not over.

The post was picked up on Daring Fireball and is far and away the most popular Zero Counts post. (Thanks, Mr. Gruber!)

Mario Kart 8‘s early review embargo showed confidence in the game and got media outlets openly singing the game’s praises well ahead of release. In addition to building hype, Mario Kart 8 came bundled with a free download for one of four AAA games.

For the Switch, Nintendo has released Mario Kart 8 Deluxe — a slightly enhanced version with a revived and much beloved battle mode and all cups, courses, characters, and DLC unlocked. To add, what I had already considered the best Mario Kart entry to date, can now be taken on the go and played in a myriad of situations — TV or portable; solo, local split screen, or online; out of the box 2-player with Joy-Cons, 8 paired Switches, or 12 player wired LAN. (Mic has a great breakdown.)

Until this point, the Switch has been a Zelda machine; a single player experience. There were a handful of multiplayer games, but nothing close to a must-have or system seller. With Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo has released the true test of the Switch’s promise — console-level gaming with anyone anywhere. How would new Switch players react? Would previous Wii U owners (and likely Mario Kart 8 owners) care? How does portable multiplayer hold up?

On Mario Kart 8 Deluxe‘s release day, I brought my Switch to work. It was the perfect venue to test the Switch’s out-of-the-box local multi-player experience. In fact, it was the first time I’d attempted any multi-player on the device in any of its various forms. As far as I know, I’m the only one in the office with a Switch. Gasps filled the room when I removed the Joy-Con from the display. I handed one over to a colleague, showed him around the tiny controller, and away we went.

While the 6.2-inch display is fantastic for a single player experience, split-screen is a bit uncomfortable, but not impossible. The fun had over bouts of office Mario Kart eclipsed the discomfort, but it was never completely put it out of our minds. Likewise, a few gripes and cramps were had from the ergonomics when using a single Joy-Con as a primary controller. The situation is tight, but for an experience like Mario Kart 8, the pain seemed to be worth the pleasure.

At home, as my wife and I settled into bed, we decided to have a go at one race. I tried to place the Switch on the bed between us — an impossible feat due to the unforgiving kickstand. So, a book was used as the foundation. We peeled away the Joy-Con and we’re off to the races. Together we squinted at the tiny screen. I proved to be too uncomfortable for extended periods of play, but we agreed that it would serve well on flights.

The main annoyance came from the placement of the L and R buttons. For her, they felt too close together. To be fair, fitting such a functional controller in the palm a hand is a feat. In fact, there were multiple instances throughout the day when players were shocked to find that the Joy-Con rumbled too.

Breaking out Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch is all fun and good, but there’s not much for players of the original Mario Kart 8. Mario Kart has always been about the party atmosphere, and this version is the ultimate. And I can see myself jumping into a quick pick up game here and there, but otherwise, I’ve been there done that. There’s nothing to unlock. No new cups, courses, or characters. The portability of the Switch paired with Mario Kart plugs a some gaming holes some may never been the wiser, but nothing more than a quick casual experience romp.

I wish I could speak from the newbie to Mario Kart 8 experience. For that, see Jeremy Parish’s Retronauts review of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It’s a fantastic game, but even for newcomers, what does Mario Kart feel like without triumphing for new cups or characters? Does the high polish of Mario Kart 8 hold its luster without striving for something other than victory? Does the out-of-the-box portable multiplayer feel as novel when you haven’t played MK8 on a TV for the past few years?

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe shows off all the Switch has to offer, but other than pure competition, there’s no hook. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a must-have for party moments and quick pick up game, but not a system seller. At least not at $60.

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Self-Competing and Time Blocking

Daniel Ahmad, writing on his new ZhugeEX Patreon blog (paywall):

This trend isn’t going anywhere right now but it is important to note that only a set number of service games can be successful each year. There is a danger of over saturation or poorer sales from self-competing games. We’re not quite at the point where this is a real danger but it does mean that games need to have higher production values and enough differentiation within one of the top super genre’s to be successful. This is probably something to watch out for at the end of the generation.

First and foremost, for my dollar, Daniel Ahmad is absolutely crushing video games industry analysis. He’s a great follow on Twitter (@ZhugeEX) and his efforts are well-worth supporting via his Patreon.

Now, I’ve been meaning/trying to write about an idea that self-competing games use game length as a means for competing. That is, the length and release date of a game can block the sale of another similar game with a proximal release date. I’ve struggled to put together a theory that these proposed “time blocking” tactics are meaningful, coincidental, or off-base:

  • Meaningful – Publisher X purposefully schedules release date of Game X against the release date of Game Y. (I find this hard to believe due to the large lead times and estimations required for AAA games.)
  • Coincidental – Publisher X and Publisher Y happen to schedule releases for Game X and Game Y around the same time. (More likely, but rings a bit too innocent.)
  • Off-base – There are so many massive, feature-rich games released that, like TV series and books, there will inevitably be overlap in release dates.

The latest example of this “time blocking” tactic occurred around March 2017. Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were released three days apart (Feb 28 and Mar 3) and clock in at an average of 45.5 and 72.5 hours respectively. (HowLongToBeat.com) Both games were followed up by Mass Effect: Andromeda (61.5 hours) and Persona 5 (102 hours!) within a month’s time.

One could make the observation that the hours necessary to experience these games as intended puts them on a closer par with a modern television series. (As of this post, there are roughly 55 hours of Game of Thrones episodes, 72 hours of Mad Men, etc.) So, with customers’ appetites for feature-rich gameplay experiences, maybe my concept of “time blocking” is off-base. However, I like to believe that this “appetite” doesn’t actually exist.

I’m currently 50+ hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and only 3/5 of the way through the main quest. No doubt that it’s an incredible experience with it’s unparalleled physics-based sandbox, wide-open exploration, and stunning art style. But for me, 50+ hours is an immense amount of a time to spend with a single game. Unlike a TV series, most of the 50+ hours I’ve spent with Breath of the Wild have consisted of wandering a vast landscape, retracing my steps, or banging my head against puzzles. It’s a fantastic escape of exploration, but I can’t help but think 30 or 40 hours to complete would have felt sufficient.

As a developer, I would certainly want my audience to experience my art and efforts for as long as possible. And as a publisher, I would want to players to adopt an affinity for my franchise over another. But as a player, it’s hard not to feel that the release dates of similarly massive titles, or “self-competing” games, are beginning to overlap. And this overlap has reached a point that players must now choose which experience will block another.

‘The schoolyard is the entirety of the internet’

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

Breath of the Wild feels like a return of the schoolyard culture, where friends meet to discuss the latest things they’ve found in a Nintendo game and share rumors of even bigger possible secrets, except now the schoolyard is the entirety of the internet. It’s comfortable with assuming that you’re smart enough to figure things out, and it knows that it’s not going to be ultimately responsible for everything you miss or even built-in frustration. The answer to every puzzle is a quick Google away, and the game’s design seems comfortable with that option being a viable path to moving forward.

I completely agree.

Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Breath of the Wild Game Director, on designing Breath of the Wild’s open gameplay at GDC:

Let’s not forget the fact that all the solutions to all the puzzles that we’ve painstakingly prepared for a dungeon are made available on the internet.

Great design decision by Fujibayasha and team. Breath of the Wild is clearly not their first rodeo, but this strikes me as forward thinking for Nintendo.

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Switch On, Switched Off

I have felt an incredible sense of satisfaction in owning a Nintendo Switch. It sounds absolutely insane and gross, but owning the Switch has made me feel better. I feel less stressed and more focused at work. I feel less anxious as a whole. My mood has lightened. My spirits have been lifted. And unlike Gollum’s incessant need to touch and obsess over the Ring of Power, my joy and calm come purely from ownership. In the twisted space of consumerism, something strange is at play.

Federico Viticci, Remaster podcast:

This is the console that I’ve been waiting my entire life for. That’s based on the idea—and really the dream that I’ve been having since I was a kid and I got my first Super Nintendo—that I want to have the same games everywhere on one console that I take with me all the time, and that I can choose whether I want to play as a portable console or on the TV.

It’s been over 25 years since I’ve been playing Nintendo games and we’ve been through a lot of changes in the video game industry. Other companies have tried to do this sort of dual-screen, single console before. When you think about the PS Vita, when you think about the Wii U or the Nintendo DS, a lot of the ideas have been fragmented over the years in the industry. The Switch feels like the unification of 30 years of work from Nintendo. It’s the distillation of decades of work in portable consoles, in home consoles, and now in just one console.

I think the strangeness I’m sensing has a lot to do with what Federico outlines. The Switch is the amalgamation of decades of hardware design, innovation, and childhood fantasies.

Born in 1985, my first memory is of Mega Man 2 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. My babysitter owned one. How I yearned for that console. Christmas of 1989, I opened a Nintendo Game Boy. Not quite an NES, with it’s 2-bit color palette on green green display, but boy did my imagination soar. Surely, the tech would evolve and those 8-bit color experiences could live in my hands. The dream of taking the vast digital worlds I played on a TV with me on the go was sparked.

In 1995—the year the original 32-bit Sony PlayStation was released in North America—I was gifted a Sega Genesis Nomad. The handheld Nomad accepted standard Sega Genesis cartridges, enabling full 16-bit gaming on the go, albeit with a massive 6 AA battery pack that lasted 2-3 hours. While it was a console generation cycle off, we were getting closer.

In 2005, the PlayStation Portable’s (PSP) display and graphic capabilities re-inspired the dream. On it’s heels in 2006 was the promise of remote play from PS3 to PSP, later mandatory of PS4 games to the PlayStation Vita. In 2012, remote play was a core gimmick of the now infamous Wii U. Also in 2012 came Sony’s cross-buy service launched, allowing for a single purchase (of compatible games) to work on Vita and PS3/PS4. In 2015, the PlayStation Now’s cloud-based service would seemingly allow Sony devices, Vita and PS4 included, to access a library of online games from PlayStations 1 through 4. PlayStation Now has discontinued support for all devices save PS4 and Windows PC, including the Vita.

Now, the dual set-top/handheld console is a dream realized with the Nintendo Switch. And the versatility of it’s Joy-Con controllers takes it one step further, opening the console to instant local multiplayer. The Switch is a simple and obvious design that delivers and, for some sick reason, fills a hole in my life I never thought existed.

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Phil Collins: Crash Bandicoot man

A fun tidbit from Phil Collins’ memoir “Not Dead Yet”:

Somewhat dazed, I go back to the hotel, the Peninsula Beverly Hills. Lily, now aged nine, is waiting for me, which brightens things up no end. She and I start playing Spyro the Dragon—computer games are one of our new shared passions. I love them, and I love Spyro, although if push comes to shove, I’ll declare myself a Crash Bandicoot man. As if by magic, the hearing in my left ear roars back. It’s like I’ve been underwater, but the blockage is suddenly gone. Thank God for that.

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Eurogamer: ‘Docked Zelda Stutters in Places Where the Mobile Experience Does Not’

Richard Leadbetter, Eurogamer:

In terms of performance, it’s immediately clear to the naked eye that the docked Zelda stutters in places where the mobile experience does not – and to confirm this, we manually counted frames by eye based on our camera shots to ensure accuracy in producing the performance test below. It’s really easy to isolate this issue as it occurs frequently in the open world, right from the beginning of the game. In some places, we see the smooth 30fps update while docked drop down to a momentary 20fps – confirming a basic double-buffer v-sync implementation.

Home console?

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GameStop Announces Midnight Switch Launch

GameStop press release:

This just in: GameStop, a family of specialty retail brands that makes the most popular technologies affordable and simple, announced stores will have a limited supply of Nintendo Switch systems available for walk-in customers on the March 3 launch day. Customers who were not able to pre-order the system are encouraged to attend GameStop’s midnight launch events held at stores across the nation for an opportunity to purchase Nintendo’s revolutionary new home gaming system.

A few thoughts:

  1. I’m screwed. Fat chance I’ll make a midnight launch. Fatter chance there’ll be any Switch(es) left around noon in Tahoe. Fattest chance there’ll be Switch(es) days/weeks later.
  2. Five out of the six sites I found reporting this news did not source GameStop’s press release. Not Polygon. Not GameStop. Not USA TODAY. Not BGR. Not SlashGear. However, Tom’s Hardware did. Pitiful.
  3. “Simple” is the last word I would use to describe GameStop.
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Humble Freedom Bundle

Humble Bundle:

Take a stand for freedom. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door. – “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, from an engraving on the Statue of Liberty.

We humbly remember that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and we proudly stand with developers, authors, and charities that champion liberty and justice for all.

This special one-week bundle features over $600 in incredible games and books for just $30. 100% of your payments will go to the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Rescue Committee, and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Humble Bundle will proudly match your contributions up to $300,000.

We chose these three organizations because of the inspiring work they do in providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and displaced people as well as in defense of justice, human rights, and civil rights:

Humble Bundles are a fantastic way to spend your hard earned cash. Here’s the deal: you give your money to Humble Bundle and they give you great games, donate your money to amazing charities, and match your donation up to a particular amount. Win, win, win.

I’ve contributed to a handful of Humble Bundles and I can say the Humble Freedom Bundle is the greatest yet. It includes some of the best games released over the past 10 years for $30 and matches donations to three phenomenal charities. If you need more convincing, here’s my review of The Witness. Also, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is incredible (and has one of the greatest soundtracks ever!), and boy oh boy I can’t wait to play Stardew Valley, Polygon’s #8 Game of the Year 2016.

Do this. Do this now. Do this for many reasons. But do this now.

(The irony of a charitable organization contributing to your pile of shame!)

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‘Metacritic’ Still Matters, But For How Long?

Chris Baker, Glixel:

The hue and cry around that score is the best evidence that Metacritic deeply matters to many people. And not just fans – the bonus payments that game makers receive from their publishing companies is often tied to the Metascore and those same publishers spend a great deal of time and effort trying to predict the number as it could affect everything from retail orders to returns.

But the games business, and games themselves, are changing. In many ways, a snapshot of what the critical consensus is at the time of launch does not reflect the ultimate nature of a game. Is Metacritic still relevant in this new climate?

A great insight to the inner workings of Metacritic. Must read.

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Takahashi: ‘reach that broader smart device audience and entice them to move towards Nintendo Switch’

Nintendo’s Yoshiaki Koizumi and Shinya Takahashi were interviewed by The Telegraph. There’s not much new in here, other than confirmation of developing for 3DS through 2018, which also plays into a now confirmed mobile strategy:

Is it more to drive that smartphone audience into buying a Switch? 

Takahashi: Certainly one of our goals in releasing software for smart devices that features Nintendo IP is to reach that broader smart device audience and entice them to move towards Nintendo Switch.

By 2018, assuming the Switch can hold its own, I believe price drops will squeeze out a new Nintendo handheld console. (Maybe a mini-Switch is a possibility?)

On possible supply constraints:

Finally as we head toward launch there has been some reports of stock shortages. Are you confident that anyone that wants a Switch will be able to buy one?

Takahashi: Maybe within the first few days! It does sound like there might be a few shortages here and there, but once you get past that I think we’ll have a very steady flow. Some of our employees are worried about getting one… but we are making a lot!

I’m really hoping this is true.

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