May
13
Posted by James at 09:33
Inti Creates weren't the only publisher to share Nintendo Switch sales data, as the CEO of Nippon Ichi Software America, Takuro Yamashita, recently spoke to MCV UK about how Disgaea 5 Complete has been performing globally.

The game's western release has accumulated 114,000 pre-orders ahead of its launch later this month, with two thirds of those coming from North America (78,000 pre-orders) and the remaining third from Europe (36,000).

This was far from most people's wildest expectations for the title, including my own, given the game's tepid reception at Switch launch in Japan. Indeed, Mr. Yamashita stated that the game has yet to break 20,000 sales in the region.

What's intriguing is that this demand for Disgaea 5 Complete in Europe and North America suggests a widening gap between sales of Nippon Ichi Software's games in Japan and copies sold from players in the rest of the world.

In February last year, a year after Disgaea 5 launched on PS4 outside of Japan, NIS revealed to Famitsu that non-Japan sales of Disgaea 5 stood at 112,000, while Japanese sales reached 60,000 units. That's a ratio of 2 copies sold in Europe, North America and non-Japan Asia for every copy sold in Japan, but the Switch version performance suggests that gap is widening, something NIS America hadn't anticipated to happen with the Switch version.

Based on these figures shared by the publisher, the Switch version of the game is on track to swiftly outperform first-year sales of the PS4 version outside of Japan in a matter of days after it launches on May 26. Hopefully this signals more support for Nintendo's hybrid going forward - we've yet to hear a peep out of some publishers, like Spike Chunsoft...
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May
12
Posted by James at 15:13
Speaking at the Tokyo Sandbox game developer event/mixer today, Inti Creates gave some insight into the development of 3DS and Switch release Blaster Master Zero. The reimagining of NES darling sidescrolling platforming/shooter hybrid Blaster Master took 35 people six months to make before arriving just in time for the Switch's launch day in Japan.

We also heard about the game's sales performance on the eShop; the Switch port of the game has currently racked up 80,000 copies sold. We weren't told whether this met Inti Creates' own expectations, but this is a fairly respectable figure for what was presumably a version of the game bolted on fairly late in development.

There are tell-tale signs that this was indeed the case: The Switch version of the game inherits the 3DS's strange 5:3 aspect ratio, and the game uses non-integer scaling to scale up to both 720p and 1080p resolutions, so it's fairly clear that the game wasn't originally planned to be on Switch.

In any case, 80,000 sales for the Switch version alone should have net Inti Creates a tidy amount of revenue and would have almost certainly justified the cost of the port. Whether the game sold enough for them to have broken even is hard to say, since we lack information about sales of the 3DS version, and we don't know whether the 35 staffers working on the project were solely dedicated to it or were working on other games. The former is more likely there.

Regardless of current sales, Inti clearly plans to make sure Blaster Master Zero has long legs. Last week it released an update to the game which added a new, remixed difficulty setting, and it's currently working on new DLC characters who are more than just a palette swap.
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May
11
Posted by James at 03:38
Last year's Hitman was Square Enix's first foray into producing a AAA episodic game, and it was positively received, both as a game and as a way to make a big budget third person stealth-action game work in a new episodic format.

But it appears that the game has underperformed - at least to Square Enix's lofty expectations. Just as the company revealed their greatest ever operating profit for the last financial year, they also announced today that Hitman's developer, IO Interactive, is up for grabs. The future of the Hitman IP, which Square Enix maintains ownership of, remains uncertain.

It's not the best start to Square's new focus on producing episodic content for larger games. Going episodic would bring in a return on financially risky projects sooner rather than later. Instead of spending five years and tens of millions crafting the next Final Fantasy while the dynamics of the market change around them, going episodic also enables them react to change faster.

It'd be difficult to accuse Square Enix and developer IO Interactive of doing episodic wrong with Hitman, given the quality of the game, the frequency of episodes and the responsiveness of the team to react to demands of the game's players. But it seems something didn't stack up financially with Hitman, and it's a shame that a game of its ilk couldn't exist in today's market, and an even greater shame that Square Enix won't give IO Interactive another shot.

Square Enix notes that it plans to double down on its most well-known IP. No pressure on Final Fantasy VII Remake, Square's next big budget episodic game, then...
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May
10
Posted by James at 15:18
When retail listings began to emerge for the UK release of Puyo Puyo Tetris, it was hard to imagine a situation where the PlayStation 4 version wasn't going to be the preferred platform for fans of Tetriminos or Puyos.

This was mostly down to a couple of reasons which seemed to offset the game's natural fit for the Switch's hybrid local multiplayer party trick: Pricing, and release timing. The European publisher for the game, Deep Silver, appears to have set wholesale pricing for the Switch version at nearly twice that of the PS4 release, as the PS4 version could be had for Ł20 from most major retailers, with the Switch version going for Ł35.

To make matters worse, Nintendo decided to release Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the same day. It seemed like there would be only one game Switch owners would be interested in that weekend.

Instead, quite the unexpected happened: the Nintendo Switch version sold the lion's share of boxed copies over the game's launch weekend, outselling the PlayStation 4 version by 3:1. According to GfK Chart-Track, Switch sales accounted for 74% of all copies sold over that period.

What is even more intriguing is the sales split doesn't stop there: due to strange Tetris licensing rules, a digital version of Puyo Puyo Tetris can only be released on the Switch as the PS4's PlayStation Store already plays host to Ubisoft's Tetris Ultimate, resulting in an even wider sales split by way of the digital release on the Switch's eShop. That version currently sits at third place on the eShop's sales ranking, which counts software sales over the last two weeks.

If any game has benefitted from the famed 'launch effect', then, it's this one. I've been finding it to be a top-notch puzzle game, one which not only blends Tetris and Puyo Puyo together rather thoughtfully, but is a great fit for the Switch's portability. The ability to invite anyone to a local multiplayer session with ease is a boon here.

While the PlayStation 4 release is a bargain, it's absolutely worth the asking price on Switch, which begs the question: Given the wide sales split between both platforms, you could argue that it was going for too little on PS4...
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Hatsune Miku:
Project DIVA Future Tone
Jan 21
Posted by James at 11:15

Rhythm action games, as a genre, have been through some tough times. Just over a decade ago a market still existed for original, mid-budget affairs, with wholly unique soundtracks to boot. Yet today these games are almost nowhere to be seen, and the mainstays of the past – Guitaroo Man, Pop’n Music, Dance Dance Revolution, Ouendan, Rhythm Tengoku – either died a slow death or retreated back to the arcade.

But mercifully games based on licensed music and characters have found their way to the home, and it’s allowed Sega to sustainably produce and iterate on a new modern rhythm action series for almost a decade. The end result - Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone - is the culmination of all the Vocaloid rhythm games Sega’s esteemed AM2 team has worked on over the years.

The Project Diva series feels like a love letter to all things Hatsune Miku, the synthesised idol from Crypton Future Media. A song list comprised of music from fan favourite vocaloid composers? Check. Plenty of unassumingly delightful nods to vocaloid culture? It’s all there. Gorgeously modelled music videos that bring the music to life? Yup.

Since the lyrics are all composed in Japanese, that last point is rather important – the scenarios of the story-focused music videos do a lot to bring out the meaning of the lyrics while playing to the compositions’ strengths. It’s not hard to feel the mood while playing a song like From Y to Y, for instance.

Being an arcade conversion, Sega has included over 200 songs, spanning every genre you can imagine, and not only every previous game in the Project Diva series, but the cuter, more bouncy Project Mirai series on 3DS. Those willing to give Vocaloid music a fair shake are unlikely to be disappointed with the selection on offer, and based on my own personal experiences, it’s likely you’ll still find something to love in the songs that you don’t find catchy, thanks to the storyboards in the music video, or some rather brilliant choreography on display.

Tracklist natter aside, Future Tone’s roots at the arcade means Sega have brought over some of those arcade sensibilities with it. Basically: It not only looks and sounds the part, but it plays the part. Here’s the gist of it: button prompts fly in from the sides of the screen. You clear them by pressing the appropriate button when the prompts land in their designated zones, which are placed ahead of time to the vocaloid music.

What’s always made the series stand out is the depth to these mechanics. Not only do the flying button prompts and fixed zone markers keep things unpredictable yet fair, those that learn to “dual wield” the controller – interchanging the face buttons for the D-Pad and vice versa – will discover hidden depths to playing each song.

Dual wielding means that you can clear a button prompt for pressing Cross by tapping down on the D-Pad instead. Left on the D-Pad thus becomes the same as Square, Triangle can be substituted for Up, and so on. Which mercifully allows you to tackle more complex note charts that the developers cook up on the harder difficulties.

For instance, pressing Square, Triangle, Square in time and in quick succession to a three-syllable word would be difficult using just the face buttons, but with practice it soon clicks in your brain that you could dual wield, and either bash out Square, Up, then Square with your two thumbs, or Left, Triangle, left to the music.



This has been a staple to the series since the second entry on PSP, but Future Tone raises the bar in a way that provides a lot more depth to mastering and interacting with each song in the game. There are three main additions: Button prompts that beg to be held down instead of tapped, multi-button presses, and Left/Right markers that require either a trigger tap or a slide. At the arcades, an inviting multi-coloured touch-bar handled the slides, but on PS4 you can either hold down the left trigger, or more characteristically, tilt the controller or slide your thumb over the touchpad.

Having to now hold down some buttons, or press several at once, adds more nuance to the game’s scoring systems. For instance, holding down a button continually adds to your score, but it’s no easy feat to do this *and* continue playing the song as normal using the other, unoccupied buttons. Likewise score tracking is a lot more detailed, letting you know the exact boundaries for getting a Great, or an Excellent. It’s a no-nonsense approach to rhythm action that also feels great to play – feedback is crisp and the sound effects are inviting, as they should be.

It’s also a return to form after the two PS Vita games introduced some odd new mechanics which had the effect of creating the illusion of more complexity; the first introduced “scratch notes” that forced players onto an imprecise analogue input in response to a precise note – tilting the sticks or swiping at the screen. The second game replaced some prompts with on-rails markers, preventing the player from being able to read the music ahead of time.

Future Tone provides a firm but fair challenge that feels familiar and fresh to longtime fans, while keeping the hardest elements out of harder difficulties so not to alienate newer players. Some of the note charts on Extreme difficulty tended to reward memorisation rather than skill, however, but overall there’s little to fault here. It’s one of the best mid-budget home rhythm games in years – even if you’re not accustomed to synthesised Vocaloid music this is the perfect introduction.
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Kurukuru-ing
Edition
27-09-16
Posted by James at 14:56

I've had an itch for pick-up-and-play, arcade-like experiences lately, which nudged me in the direction of an imported copy of Kururin Paradise to play on my lovely Game Boy Micro. And it’s reminded me of how much craft large teams poured into decidedly lower budget handheld game back when the majority of the market only consisted of these two, very distinct worlds of console and handheld.

Much has been written about Kuru Kuru Kururin before here, but for the uninitiated, you pilot a helicopter (a helirin) through a series of puzzle mazes in search of the level goal. Except it's not really anything that resembles a helicopter; it's a constantly spinning stick as seen from above and the direction it’s facing determines where you can lead it on the way to the goal.

The beauty of Kururin is it’s an idea that can serve an entire game and then some, much like Super Monkey Ball, which has you rotating a maze to guide your simian to each level goal. That's reflected in the game's name, where "Kururin" is Japanese for "spin".

What sequel Kururin Paradise has to offer, then, is an expanded version of this very concept. In the first game, your stick only spun at a set speed, making harder levels feel a lot more restrictive than they ought to. It was too easy to be stuck waiting for your stick to rotate back round to where you needed it to, and it meant there could only be a certain number of ways to tackle some of the trickier levels as a result.

Paradise lets you speed up your stick’s rotation with the R button, and it’s revelatory. Impatient players like myself can use this new move to try and “game” the game as much as possible, calculating when and where to speed up the stick’s rotation ahead of any upcoming obstacles and never slow down on the way to the goal.

Above and beyond opening up new opportunities to attempt speed runs, it simply gives you so much more control in dodging obstacles, and this is reflected in the game’s level designs. One level sees you try to avoid ghosts that latch onto your helicopter, slowing down its movement. Another sees you dodge a plethora of flames, danmaku style. There are minigames which ask you to perform abstract tasks – like mowing a lawn – against the clock. This all wouldn’t be possible in the game's predecessor.

I really enjoyed my time playing through Kururin Paradise. It has all the hallmarks of a great Game Boy Advance game: A super solid gameplay concept, excellent use of sprite scaling, beautiful pixel art sprites and backgrounds, and a catchy soundtrack that also manages to make use of Game Boy backwards compatibility.

There’s a GameCube sequel: Kururin Squash. I've yet to play my copy of the game, but when I do it’ll certainly be interesting to find out whether Eighting can improve the core gameplay concept once more with the addition of analogue control…
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Sep
06
2016
Posted by James at 15:20
So Nintendo’s shutting the DSi Shop at the end of the month. While DSiWare will continue to live on as part of 3DS’s eShop thereafter, this is our last chance to download the games to an actual DS, the best way to experience them. And it served as good enough an excuse as any to take a quick look back at the DSiWare service.

DSiWare gets a bad rep for shovelware, and while there is a fair amount of junk on the service, there are some gems too. The service arrived at an awkward time - the iOS App Store had only just opened for business, and physical and digital were words used to describe two very different worlds of video games.

The tried and tested way of getting games to audiences was still through physical media, something which held especially true for the DS, a platform with no means of purchasing games digitally for four years.

Which begs the question: How could you make a compelling DSiWare game DS games already thrived on emphasising a gameplay concept and good art direction and had relatively lower development costs than most games?

It turns out you had to take those ideologies even further. The best DSiWare titles aren’t attached to the most eye grabbing IP, or the biggest development budgets. And due to the comparatively smaller publishing costs, even the quirkiest game ideas became that much more viable.

Take Reflect Missile for example. It’s Arkanoid mixed with Puzzle Bobble, rethought as a methodological puzzle game. You aim a scarce number of Missiles at an arrangement of blocks, hoping to destroy those marked for clearing each level. It's simple enough, but developer Q-Games took this one concept and ran with it, programming characteristically playful physics for for each missile type and offering a whole tonne of level layouts that make the most of the idea of bouncing stuff off walls and blocks.

Then there's Mighty Milky Way, a game about exploding planets. Tap a planet and it explodes, propelling your green-skinned character into outer space. It's another simple concept, but the circumstances to which its released means it's also surprisingly well polished for what it is.

These games celebrate the importance of good game design above all else, and there are much more of them, listed below.

I’ve also found them fairly refreshing - it’s rather neat to see large scale publishers like Nintendo and Konami invest in tiny ideas like these, and the simplicity of the game ideas on display here.

If you’ve got a few quid spare, dig out that DSi XL, pick up a few of my recommendations below and remind yourself of simpler times. Times when digital distribution meant realising a simple game idea that might not make it to a store shelf. Times before publishers all set their eyes on the gamification movement on mobile...

DSiWare gems: Sujin Taisen: Number Battle, Art Style: Digidrive, Dragon Quest Wars, Art Style: Decode, Wakugumi: Monochrome Puzzle, 3D Space Tank, Trailblaze: Puzzle Incinerator, Aura Aura Climber, Glow Artisan, Snapdots, Art Style: PiCOPiCT, Alt-Play: Jason Rohrer Anthology, Maestro: Green Groove, Primrose, Surfacer+, Bomberman Blast, 10 Second Run, Starship Patrol, Divergent Shift.
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Pokémon Go
Edition
09-08-16
Posted by James at 15:44

It's obligatory Pokémon Go article time!!!

But there's a good excuse: It's the summer games drought, where publishers decide not to release any games because we're all out getting some sunshine in our free time and no one else can say otherwise. The climate does make a great case for Pokémon Go, though, so that's what I've mostly been playing over the last month.

In a way, Pokémon Go is the all-encompassing idle game. You walk around your neighbourhood or areas unknown in the chance that a rare Pokémon might come into proximity, or hoping that one of the nine nearby Pokémon will pop up on your map, ready to battle and capture.

Your phone then gives off a satisfying buzz, you prod the Pokémon on the map, catch the critter and then it's off to look for more. It never really requires your full attention, but the heavy reliance on random Pokémon spawns combined with the social pull for groups to play or discuss the game makes for a game that’s nearly irresistible to leave alone. You're not only always making progress; you’re increasing your chances of being able to do so in the first place.

I’m still unsure whether playing Pokémon Go has made my journeys more exciting yet. Discovering new Pokémon in the same old areas is always exciting, but on the flipside it can all feel like busywork if you’re playing on your own and the novelty of the AR feature wears off. In particular, evolving Pokémon for experience points is often a long and cumbersome experience, and it can be disheartening to visit gym after gym of more powerful Pokémon than your own.

What makes Pokémon Go a bit more unique in the realm of games-as-a-service apps on mobile is that it’s compelling without the need to rely on tempting you back with superficial rewards.

There are no daily log-in bonuses, and a new player can quickly get accustomed to the game without being "trained" through a long and arduous tutorial that points the player towards all the different things they can do. Many of Pokémon Go's mechanics are left entirely unexplained to the player, which gives the experience the same sense of adventure as your first main Pokémon game.

Because Pokémon locations are all shared among players, it doesn’t feel as cynical as other games in the genre can. Niantic simply doesn’t – and can’t – discriminate directly between players in an obvious, direct way.

While Pokémon Go is undeniably seen as a social experience, the game actually lacks any sort of direct social features, too. There’s no way to spam your friends’ social media feeds with invites to the game for in-game currency, neither is there any way to directly compare your own achievements with friends’.

Social interaction is mostly driven from within the game’s intrinsic mechanics – I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with others, comparing our roster of creatures, or what we managed to capture over the weekend. It almost feels like a return to purer times as a result, where games weren’t actively trying to use their current playerbase to convert new players, or existing players into payers.

While I've unknowingly sunk many hours into catching dozens of Pidgeys and other common Pokémon in the name of levelling up and making progress, there's a lot to appreciate about Pokémon Go's design, and it certainly feels less cynical than other games on mobile.

Perhaps that's reflected in the spending patterns of players -- Macquarie Securities claimed that the majority of purchases in Australia were driven by a large number of players rather than super-engaged big spenders. Maybe I was wrong to point my finger at The Pokémon Company after all...
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Zero Escape
Edition
12-07-16
Posted by James at 14:36

I haven't really been playing all that much, admittedly. Since picking up a 64GB PS Vita memory card I've spent far too much time organising downloads for a bunch of previously deleted games, scavenging for old saves (this was less successful) and shifting whatever content I'd managed to back up over the years from a computer back on to memory card.

Among all the micromanagement I did manage to play something - Zero Time Dilemma weighing 1GB meant it was still on my old 16GB memory card, and thus ready to go. And...it's quite a departure to what came before it, just in ways which don't seem immediately obvious.

It's still a narrative driven experience interspersed with bouts of point and click puzzling, but its differences change how it fundamentally presents its story to the player, right down to each and every scenario. And it's why I shied away from calling it a visual novel in the previous sentence, as I would have done for its predecessors, 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue's Last Reward.

Unlike those games' first person narratives, Zero Time Dilemma is presented entirely in third person, with animated cutscenes replacing simple text screens and dialogue-in-textboxes.

This shift in narration is certainly unexpected given the series' visual novel roots. But the problem lies in the execution. 999 only had lines of text and simple sprites to work with, so it practically lived or died solely on the basis of its vivid writing.

Zero Time Dilemma replaces the text narration with animated characters and cutscenes, but it's also clearly been made on a budget. What results is the series' trademark tense and foreboding atmosphere is missing.

Animation appears wooden and stilted, making even something as simple as a talking character appear awkward. It's hard to feel shocked about a character's death when you're presented with a scene of some unconvincing blood (tomato juice?) spilling out beneath them. And the camera angles used - presumably to keep the on-screen graphic violence down to a minimum - don't help the narrative's cause either.

So while Zero Time Dilemma sees a return to 999's horror roots after Virtue's Last Reward diverged from them, it's just less effective at realising its scenarios. No longer is it asking the player to read some prose, listen to some music and picture a gruesome scene with their imagination. Instead it's giving them the whole picture, only it's a flawed one.

In a way the developers were in a catch-22 situation: The game wouldn't have existed without the support of western fans, and the switch in narrative style was likely made to appeal to western tastes. But the lack of budget behind the project has meant the game's original vision hasn't been realised.

While I'm not as engrossed into Zero Time Dilemma as I was 999, or even Virtue's Last Reward, I'm still enjoying it. It's just a shame it isn't as fully formed as its predecessors were - moreso as the game's a love letter to fans - but on the other hand you can't accuse Kotaro Uchikoshi of shying away from trying something new.
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Jun
16
2016
Posted by James at 16:08
Surprise! Announcements like this, which completely appear out of nowhere, are the best. Moreso after the dust settles at E3.

But did it really come out of nowhere? A bit of sleuthing suggests that Mastiff have been dangling this version of the game in front of our very eyes, having created a Twitter account with the handle @Gurumin3D back in March, and tweeting that they were off to E3. It all makes sense now...

Anyway...Yes, Falcom's action adventure game, Gurumin, is heading to the 3DS in July courtesy of publisher Mastiff, and this is a release to get excited about. No, seriously.

In fact, I recently picked up the PSP version as part of my effort to revisit those games I missed in the PSP's software library, and I found it to be a charming action adventure title that has its own unique identity, enough to hide some of its shortcomings.

A 3DS version of this makes a lot of sense. Gurumin has a lot of platforming, and some of it can feel quite rote -- at least on a handheld -- due to the lack of visual feedback as to where all the platforms lie in relation to your character, Parin. So hopefully the developers will program in a good 3D effect to make the game's platforming feel natural and confident.

It's currently being developed by Opus Inc, who have done good programming in the past with the PC versions of Half Minute Hero, in conjunction with Falcom and iNPLAS, who, er, previously worked on this.

Please make sure the 3D effect is good, programmers.
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