Switchery

202879_detail_03.jpg

Looks like Santa brought me a gift early. A peace offering, he called it. I see through his lies, though. I made my way out of his devil’s workshop with the loot in hand. Always careful, always wary, I checked it over for traps a hundred times. I’m still not sure there isn’t any sort of trick to it. But still, it’s hard to turn down a brand new Nintendo Switch.

It’s odd, but there’s a lot about the Switch that doesn’t translate over until you see it in person. I think part of that may be coming from Nintendo’s recent track record with consoles, where, while they didn’t quite overpromise and underdeliver and definitely have some quality experiences on there, still always felt like they should be something more than they were. The Wii didn’t have quite the detailed motion controls everyone hoped for, the Wii U didn’t have the games that took the hardware features to the limits, there was just a small amount of untapped potential with both of them.

It’s still new enough that I might yet be getting a touch of that new car smell off of it, so I may be changing this opinion in the future, but so far, it feels like the Switch is living up to every bit of what I expected of it.

pane1.jpg

Let’s start with the base hardware. The thing is tiny. It’s a little bit thicker than your average tablet, but not by much. It doesn’t seem like there’s much room for the actual console in there, it’s all taken up by the screen. And yet it does. It packs quite the powerful machine within that small space. Graphics aren’t quite as good as the PSBone, but the few games I’ve played off it so far are able to to build things a definite step up over last generation, all within full and complex settings that, much like most of the rest of Nintendo’s offerings, are processed with very little stuttering and load times. Resolution on the Switch screen itself isn’t as high as on TV obviously, or even on many tablets, but it’s still high enough to make things look niiiiiice.

So if you know anything about me, you know that I’m a gorgeously huge sexy mangod. And that means I have gorgeously huge sexy mangod hands. A lot of Nintendo’s offerings don’t fit comfortably in my hands. The Wiimote’s sized pretty nicely for me, but I have difficulty positioning myself comfortably on the Wii U’s gamepad and the 3DS will actually cause me pain if I’m playing it for too long. When I first saw how tiny the Switch’s controllers were, I was worried I’d be running into the same thing here. Especially with the placement of the d-pad and buttons, I did not have much hope for good things there. Yet, I don’t know what it is about their design or ergonomics, but I’ve played for hours at a stretch and had absolutely no problems with it. Slotting the controllers into the… uh… controller attachment… the one that holds them like a traditional controller, that gets a little tighter than I’d like, but it’s still about as comfortable as the average Playstation gamepad. Playing with both of the joycons free has been my preference, and that’s about as liberating as it gets. The controllers are surprisingly small and light, but have a decent rumble to them, and they actually have better motion sensors than the Wiimote did. They’re lacking an IR pointer, which was the best part of the Wiimote, but I’ve still been able to finely aim things just using the motion controls.

One downside, the system has the weakest wireless receiver of any machine I’ve encountered lately. I keep my TV a couple of rooms away from my router, and although my laptop, consoles, and phone all have absolutely no problem connecting there, the Switch has a tenuous connection with the internet there at best. It’s a good thing the system’s mobile, because I had to take it all the way across my house just so it had enough reception to properly download anything. I thought it was broken at first. On top of that, I don’t know if this is a problem with the receiver or the controller, but the Switch does not always have the best connection with the right joycon. If I let my hands drop to my lap, or my aforementioned mangod hands cover up part of the bottom of the controller, my body will block the console from getting signal from that joycon. If that happens in the middle of a hot fight or tough platforming section, it pretty quickly spells doom.

Moving it from console to handheld mode is even easier than I dreamed. Thing doesn’t so much plug into the tv mount as it does rest comfortably on the connectors, so taking it out is a process that’s needlessly simple. It does take a bit of doing to mount and disengage the controllers, but nothing much really. And just like with the Wii U, I didn’t think that I’d enjoy having a mobile console, but surprisingly, I do. I never thought my lifestyle required it, but it is really handy being able to take my game into the other room when the orcs across the street get too whiny about how I spoiled their latest pillaging run or when my hordes of amorous suitors won’t stop calling me to the bedroom. Get to take care of those mild meatspace annoyances, while still bringing my all important virtual worlds with me.

Of course, no matter how good the console is, it’s all about the games on it. The console is a tool. It’s the artist’s palette, the playwright’s quill, the videographer’s camera. It’s necessary, yes, and determines a large amount of what the creators are capable of, but it’s really the creators themselves that determine what’s done with it. And there, I’m cautiously optimistic.

I’ve been a die-hard Nintendo fanboy for most of my life, up until Nintendo had that phase in the middle of the Wii generation where I wasn’t in the target market anymore. Then, Nintendo’s consoles just became one of the myriad array of gaming devices to me. My loyalty dropped, but in so doing, my world broadened. There were a lot of experiences out there, and once I started exploring them, my gaming habits became a lot more diverse. And I’m glad for that. Nintendo still makes some great games. They cultivate some fantastic experiences, and are truly one of the best developers in the industry. Their games are what’s kept them in the console race for so long. But, as the Wii U has shown, if you’re buying a Nintendo console, you have to be prepared to only get Nintendo games for it.

And that does take a lot of faith. And it’s one of the reasons why I was so cautious to pick it up until recently. I did get a Wii U at the very end of its production, but even now, after all the games have come out for it, the only creators that have put out a number of games I care about for it are Nintendo themselves and Platinum Games, who were contracted with Nintendo for those. I wasn’t willing to do so again, dropping a couple hundred on the Switch and only have Nintendo’s properties for it. But I did so, and so far, Nintendo’s the one that’s had any major releases for it.

Why did I do so? Well, for one, the Switch is showing more promise than the Wii U had. A lot of people claim that the Wii wasn’t a ‘real gamer’s’ machine, because they’re dumb. The Wii didn’t have the major releases the consoles of its generation had, but it had a lot more smaller, creative, experimental titles from a wide variety of developers, all of which brought some really nice quality to the console. The Wii U didn’t have that. Its sales numbers meant that niche titles being brought to the system had a long way to go to reach the levels where they could draw a decent profit, whereas PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 had a much more stable install base. I’m trusting in Switch’s surprisingly high sales thus far to take it closer to where the Wii was. It seems to have come out of nowhere for a lot of developers, much like the Wii did, but I’m hoping that once again, they’ll take notice of the Switch’s place in the market, and be bringing a lot more of the types of gaming experiences we saw a couple generations ago to us. It’s a gamble on my part, particularly as Nintendo has always struggled with relationships with other developers, but one that I’m hoping will pay off.

That gamble is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Nintendo seems to have more of a cohesive vision for this console. They’re still marching to the beat of their own drum, like they always do, but they seem to have much more of an idea which way they’re wanting to go. And they’ve been bringing the games to back it.

I’m imagining it’s going to take me a while to build my Switch library. I’m a notorious bargain hunter, and the Switch is still so new that game prices haven’t dropped yet. Moreover, with the biggest releases for the console coming from Nintendo, who are very aggressive in maintaining their games’ prices in a way few other publishers could manage and in the face of conventional economics, I might have to be on the prowl before finding deals I’m satisfied with. I’ve only picked up two games so far; Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Super Mario Odyssey. But those games. Some of the best I’ve played recently.

71-HLgrCoZL._AC_SL1280_.jpg

Nintendo gets a lot of flak for running wild with the franchising, which is ridiculous, because they mix their gameplay models up withing these franchises a lot more than nearly any other developer out there. Breath of the Wild is a great example of that. It is very, very different than most any other Zelda game you’ve played before. So much so, that it feels like it could be its very own game. It’s a 3D Zelda that largely eschews the gameplay model the series has been using since Ocarina of Time, building something completely new out of it. And although the mechanics, storytelling, styling, everything like that are all so new they’ve still got that new car smell, the game still feels a lot like playing the original Zelda 1 way back in the day did.

Super-Mario-Odyssey-Nintendo-Switch-868378.jpg

And Super Mario Odyssey. I’m not going to go the full review here, you can probably catch what I would say any other place on the internet. But I will state that I get the same feeling playing this as I did from Ocarina of Time back in the day. You can tell this is something very, very special as you’re playing it, a rare piece of excellence that only comes around every so often. This is the best Mario has been since 64, and given how great some of the other games to come out have been, that’s really saying something. I would be surprised if this has as much impact on the medium as Ocarina of Time did, we’re just not in a place where that’s generally going to happen anymore, but I do get a similar feeling that this is a game people are going to be talking about and coming back to for a long, long time.

Beyond that, there’s some fun stuff to look forward to, even outside Nintendo’s standards. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Shin Megami Tensei V, whatever Octopath Traveller ends up being, there’s some real promise with this console. I really, really hope it ends up seeing that through.

Random Thoughts on What I’ve Been Playing

Batman Arkham Knight

Arkham-Knight-Shot-06.jpg

I said that the similarity between Shadows of Mordor and the Arkham games made me a bit less interested in playing Arkham so soon after Mordor.  Turns out, I was right.  I’ve loved the Arkham games, but Arkham Knight already feels a bit stale, just because I’m trying to pick it up so soon after an extended run with what’s pretty much the same engine.

There’s been a lot written about how the Batmobile sections drag the game down.  This is true.  The developers had this new gameplay component that they devoted a lot of time, effort, and segments too, and it wasn’t as good as they expected.  They took a risk, it didn’t work out, and you know what?  I’m fine with that.  What is really odd to me about the Batmobile is just how much they have to stretch to still fit what they wanted to do in the whole “Batman doesn’t kill” deal.  Drive into a mob at 140 MPH?  Look, they’re twitching with electricity, they’re only stunned, not dead!  Your cannon?  It’s a good thing you’re only fighting drone tanks.  Ramming cars around at high speed until they flip end over end?  Eh… you just forget about that.

You know, if they just put people in those tanks, rather than using drones, Batman would be able to do nothing against them. Continue reading

Is it Next Gen yet?

videogames8thgen

One benefit of this big life shift I’m still finding myself digging through; I’ve jumped into the deep end of the new console generation.  Aside from the 3DS and a few select releases I could pick up on last gen’s consoles, I’ve been mostly ignoring the immediate past of video games, but I’ve had to adapt to life on the second floor by replacing my old, massive CRT TV with something I could actually lift up the stairs, and now that I had a tv that could accept the signal and enough credit card rewards to get a new console for virtually free, things just lined up.  It was like God had decided that he’d been putting me through some rough times, so he’d toss me a PS4 and call it even.

For the first time in a good long while, I’ve actually been looking at the games that’ve been coming out.  Playing newly released games.  I’m in the now of videogames.  Well, at least as far as Fallout 4 reaches.  Aside from that, don’t have much of a collection.  Anyways, I’m paying attention to new releases for the first time, and I’ve not really been finding what I expected.  I’ve been through a few generation handovers in my day.  I remember, how the games are, I remember the wonder and adjustment of actually being able to do new things in your games.  Sure, every console has made better looking games, and that’s been the big selling point, but visuals only take you so far.  Where the new console generations have truly excelled is by offering the power to create new types of games, new gaming experiences.

And they’ve all had games ready within the first couple months to really highlight that.  The 32/64 bit era had Mario 64 lead the charge by making the third dimension work, and work fluidly, for the first time in a long while, followed by Final Fantasy 7 demonstrate the cinematic and storytelling potential newly available to the medium. The PlayCubeBox era had a couple of games you could point to for this, but for me, it was Pikmin, which showcased the console’s ability to compute numerous actors in a wide area, keeping the span and amount of moving parts in its RAM going in a way that was not even thought of in the last generation.  Last gen brought us both the Wii, with Rayman Raving Rabids and WarioWare: Smooth Moves bringing to light all the potential uses of the Wiimote, and the PS360, where the Xbox’s Dead Rising demonstrated the new generation’s power in being able to process and compute so many independent parts of a game in much the same way Pikmin did a generation ago.

For this generation, even after two years, I’m not sure what games we have to lean on, that truly demonstrates the new consoles’ capabilities over the old.  WiiU aside.  There’s plenty I’ve seen that takes advantage of the WiiU’s capabilities, to the point that I was rather torn as to which console to pick up.  There’s a lot of games to show the new levels of detail available with the PS4 and Xbox One, which is nothing short of impressive, but as I said, visuals only go so far in creating an experience.  I haven’t seen a lot of the new generation’s games yet, and there’s still plenty for me to consider before making any sort of judgement, but still, I find myself wondering if we truly needed a new console generation.  Visuals aside, have the new machines really expanded the tools available for developers, or could these games just as easily have ended up on last gen’s consoles?

Good to be Back!

super_mario_3d_land_wallpaper

Nintendo and I have an estranged relationship.  Once upon a time, we were inseparable.  For most of my life, in fact.  I had always been a dyed in the wool Nintendo fan.  For the longest time, I’d only owned Nintendo consoles, bought all of their major releases, subscribed to their magazine, made stupid arguments on their behalf in forums, all that sort of thing.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on the original NES right about the time I was learning to read, and my loyalty to the company was kept strong throughout the years that followed.

I had even been one of those guys that always seem to get shown on local news at console launches, waiting around well in advance for the release of the Wii.  It seems kind of silly now, but once upon a time I was so excited for a console launch I spent six hours sitting next to an ex-girlfriend in the gardening section of Wal-mart impressing my fellow nerds with my knowledge of how the Nintendo Zapper while waiting for midnight to strike so I could be one of the first in town with the system.  For a while after the release of the Wii, things were good.

Yet slowly, surely, I started to grow apart from the company.  I’m not going to be one of those consumers who claims the Wii has no good games, and that Nintendo’s abandoned their core market, because that’s not quite true.  The Wii has plenty of quality games, and Nintendo’s efforts on the DS at least show that they’ve still got the dedicated game player in mind.  It was true, however, that the frequency of game releases on the Wii that delivered the experience I was wanting was pretty low.  I started to dally in other consoles.  First, I took a PS2 off a friend’s hands, then I bought an Xbox 360.  Meanwhile, I slowly started to use my Wii more for its backwards compatibility than anything else, with only the most significant Wii releases finding a spot in my library.  I did have some really good times with my Wii, but those times were fewer than I would have liked, and as a result, Nintendo and I just grew apart.

And so it was for a fair while, Nintendo becoming just a footnote in my gaming life, rather than holding the amount of brainspace it had earlier.  But something has given me cause to review that relationship.  Recently, I finally got myself a 3DS as an early birthday present, and with it, a small collection of some of Nintendo’s recent offerings.  And it feels just like old times.  Nintendo was such a large part of my childhood, and this new console is fulfilling that old nostalgia while still offering new experiences.  It feels like I’ve been welcomed back as if I’d never parted ways with the company that made up so much of my gaming history.  Even in my brief return to Nintendo’s worlds, their games on the 3DS has been offering me the exact experiences I was hoping for from the Wii.

It remains to be seen if Nintendo and I can build the bridges we had once burned, but with my new 3DS, I’ve got more hope in my once favorite company than I have in half a decade.  May this be the renewal of the treasured experiences Nintendo once offered me, and beyond.

Better Art Beats Better Graphics

evolution-of-mario

A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to draw better.  I picked up some basic erasers, a cheap sketchpad, and three grades of pencils.  Essentially, I had could produce one shade of light tones, one shade of middle tones, and one shade of dark tones with the tools that I had.  I stuck with those tools for a while, building up my skills.   I largely ignored any sense of color variation and shading, and just used the light pencil for basic sketching and detailing, the mid-pencil for tracing over my sketch lines and making them more visible, and the dark pencil for areas that were supposed to be black.  My drawings remained pretty rudimentary, limited by both my selection of pencils and my uses of them.

One Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a set of shading pencils as a gift.  Ten pencils of progressing gradients from 2H (relatively light) to 8B (really, really dark).  At first, I had no idea what to do with them.  I had no idea how to properly work shading into my pictures, and just drawing minorly different shades of lines didn’t seem that useful to me.  I kept experimenting, though, and once I learned how to properly use them in my drawings, well… I essentially went from drawing like this:

Death and Bunny

to drawing like this:

Unto the Breach

in a relatively short amount of time.  Those pencils not only gave me different shades to work with, they allowed me to use different techniques, to truly advance my artistic skills.  Sure, I could have just used them as I did my old pencils, and my pictures would have been a slight bit better, but it wasn’t until I started using them to do something new that I truly reached the next generation of my work.

The recent launch of the Xbox One and the PS4 has given me cause to reflect on that.  Just like I was when I received those new pencils, game designer should now have access to more tools to create their art than ever before.  Yet, if they just keep doing the same things with them, like if I had just used those new pencils for drawing lines, the eighth generation of consoles will be totally wasted.

Graphics get a lot of play when talking about, well, pretty much any console advancement, for solid reasons.  Evaluating a game’s worth solely by its graphics is about as dumb as evaluating an actor’s skill solely by how good he looks.  After all, I’m not the world’s greatest actor, am I?  However, there’s no denying that graphics have a universal appeal and can be markedly impressive.

Thing is, graphics are only as impressive as the work that they are used to produce.  The PS4 may be able to show 16 million colors at once, but if all of them are brown your game’s just going to look like a piece of crap.  Good graphics cannot stand alone; if you want to make a game’s visuals truly engaging, art style is key.  Graphical power is just a tool, like a pencil, to adequately display your art.

You could have the best graphics in the world, yet if your settings aren’t vibrant, your characters aren’t visually interested, and your cutscenes aren’t expressive, what is it even work.  A bland, drab landscape is never going to be interesting, no matter how high you turn up the fidelity.

Graphical power is just one more tool in the artist’s workstation.  In and of itself, it’s next to worthless.  It’s only once you learn to use it, once you’re able to add to your designs rather than simply doing what you’ve always done in higher resolution, that you’re truly creating better visuals.

As proof, I’m going to take a page out of Mental Gaming‘s book and show you some landscapes.  All of these are from games on non-HD consoles, yet the artistry on display on these makes them much more visually interesting than anything you’re likely to find in Battlefield Duty 8: Call of Honor 2 or whatever.

Xenoblade Chronicles-screenshot stolen from gamingenthusiast.net

Xenoblade Chronicles-screenshot stolen from gamingenthusiast.net

Baten Kaitos Origins

Baten Kaitos Origins

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X

Okami

Okami

Shadow of the Colossus-Stolen from psxextreme.com

Shadow of the Colossus-Stolen from psxextreme.com