Archive for January, 2008

No More 8-bit Heroes

It figures. No sooner do I admit to being a closet Xbox 360 addict than a title truly worthy of Wii appears. No More Heroes is in the same instant a glitched out celebration of gaming past and a cleverly different vision for its future. It takes big pixeled icons and cell shaded characters and an 8-bit soundtrack and a deceptively deep wiimote control scheme and somehow emerges with genius. It’s a genius that makes all those disparate elements into a cohesive whole and uses them to blow knowing kisses to those of us who’ve grown up loving videogames. What could fit Wii better? (As champion for what gaming once was and should be again.)

NMH evokes many of the same past perfect memories as Super Paper Mario but, where SPM comes off shiny and polished, NMH continually flies out of left field with its pants around its pixelated ankles, building up macho archetype after macho archetype only to hilariously pull the rug out from under every last one of them (just try recharging your sword). And ultimately it’s walking that fine line between self mockery and serious challenge that gives the game a charm that’s truly special. Well, that and the fact that its lo-fi/hi-fi presentation makes nearly any glitch, accidental or not, seem winkingly intentional.

A friend put it this way: “No More Heroes is a videogame love letter to Jason Ellis.” That pretty much says it. I was in love the moment I got my first phone call. See if you aren’t.

The game is sold out all over Manhattan (I know, I hunted mine down). Clearly, Ubisoft didn’t expect demand for such an offbeat title to be so big. But that’s the hunger of a massive installed base that’s been trudging through shovelware for months. Time will tell how successful NMH is, but its early sales serve as a reminder to developers that Wii is where it’s at. Strawberry on a shortcake!

Visit the No More Heroes website and developer Grasshopper Manufacture. Don’t miss the Edge review.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Xbox

It’s like a disease. In the game industry, everyone starts off the new year listing their favorite games from last (we’re guilty). This year is different — because, when I stopped to think about it, there were so many games I just wasn’t able to play. How did that happen? It starts with three words:

I dislike Microsoft. Okay, that’s an understatement. Growing up at a time when the only way to survive as a young company was to hope Microsoft bought you (because the alternative was to be put out of business by their anticompetitive practices), they didn’t exactly engender much love. Stifle innovation much? Oh yeah.

So when the original Xbox hit, it was nauseating. Another embrace and extend from the master of idea theft, only this time they were moving off the desktop and into the living room. It was bad enough to see Microsoft own the office but attempting the same for the rest of our lives (using the trojan videogame console to monopolize online content distribution) was too much to bear. And paying a monthly fee to play online? No thanks. It didn’t help that they joined the fight with testosterone aplenty, either. I mean black and green on every imaginable surface? (And remember when Bill Gates bizarrely gave away signed keychains to bewildered Japanese Xboxers?) Wrong on all counts, then. Thankfully, Sony won that round of the console wars going away.

But this round? PS3 fell down out of the gate, Xbox 360 stole the hardcore (except for Japan), and Wii? We all knew it would take some time for it to get traction; that much was clear once it was left for dead at E3 2005. When the Wiimote startled us at E3 2006, it was too late. Plans had long solidified to spend the big dev dollars elsewhere and turning the boat would take time. After all, making a AAA title takes a minimum of 2 years — 3 if you like weekends.

The shadow of those early decisions still looms over the industry today, from stories of Wii ports added to the docket at the last minute and outsourced to second rate contractors, to stories of PS3 being the de-facto dev platform because porting to it is such a nightmare (see Burnout Paradise). All signs point to the boat being more fully turned come Christmas 2008, but it’s likely to be slim pickings on Wii for some time to come, even as it sells through the roof.

Gamewise, then, 360 is the biggest beneficiary of the current way of things. This year saw BioShock (talk about environment design), Crackdown (mmm…agility supplements!), Portal (most with the least), Halo 3 (well, co-op, anyway), Rock Band, E4, Forza 2, PGR4, COD4. (They’re a lot of shooters and racers but, for better or worse, they’re also some of the best videogames available.) That’s why many of the Wii faithful I know — the deepest of the deep purple Nintendo fans — did the unthinkable this holiday and bought into the Microsoft agenda, accepting the golden handcuffs of Xbox Live. More surprisingly, it wasn’t even like they struggled with the decision; no, after all the talk, they acted as if buying an Xbox was the natural way of things. And, well, I suppose they might be right. Gamers follow great games plain and simple. As much as we want to believe in the Wii dream, most of the heavyweight developers are still trying to figure out what building games for it means (some are coming). They already understand 360 because it’s an evolution, not a Revolution. I finally bit.

The last time we made this kind of painful choice, we were giving up Dreamcast for PS2. This time is easier because we know Wii won’t die like Sega’s final console, but it’s harder because we’re buying in to an ugly history that we swore not to. Okay, full disclosure: playing great games helps dull the pain a bit.

with apologies to stanley

Disney’s First Black Princess Takes Shape

Boy does this early shot from The Princess and the Frog make me smile. We’ve known for a while that Disney was at work on an animated film with their first black princess, but it’s another thing to see her in the flesh. And it’s nice to see them revive their fine tradition of hand animation (just four years ago they said they were permanently abandoning the technique) for this kind of first.

Of course, the road here has not been without a certain amount of controversy (Disney has been pretty responsive). And lots of questions still remain. Will voodoo be presented in a realistic or stereotypical light? Will the characters find the right balance between overly PC sterility and obnoxious caricature? How will it deal with the racial issues of the time (1920s)? This is a tough one both because it hasn’t been done before and because there are so many eyes on it.

Still, you have to applaud the Mouse House for taking the risk. After all, when you’re designing new characters, the easy road is to stick with what works culturally. We know white characters work. And it sure seems like Disney hasn’t exactly been comfortable with black characters. (I mean how else could you explain Lion King spending an entire film in Africa without ever encountering a person?) Under Disney’s new stewardship (read Pixar), that’s changing. Who better than the folks who gave us the Incredibles’ fabulous Frozone?

Considering Princess and the Frog is set in New Orleans, I hope Disney does it right. Those folks deserve it. I mentioned that Disney is returning to its old animation technique for this film. One could read that as the studio saying: “we wish we had given you a black princess sooner.” If that’s their frame of mind, I imagine things will turn out all right.

Find more Princess and the Frog at Wikipedia and FirstShowing.

Crank Defibrillates Your Face

New York, Tokyo, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap in one week (see the trip). Man, I was a vegetable. And that’s what I blame for the moment of weakness that had me sit down and watch a little 2006 movie called Crank one weary night.

Let’s get something out of the way straight away: Crank is moronic. Could a Jason Statham film about a guy given a “high tech Chinese cocktail” that will stop his heart if he doesn’t keep the adrenaline pumping be anything else? (I mean, why not just put a bullet in the guy’s head?)

It’s all guns and explosions and running around in a hospital robe screaming, with nary a plot in sight. It’s boxing matches with a guy who just had his hand severed by an axe. Mindless testosterone pours from every orifice.

But, unfortunately, that’s also what makes it awesome. There’s no pretense, no complex hero backstory, no international intrigue, no damsel in distress. And the visuals have a hyperkinetic cleverness typically reserved for the best music videos. (The bit that conveys a ridiculous crash by showing only shots of the road is worth the price of admission alone.) I haven’t laughed so hard at full velocity senseless violence since Evil Dead 2.

Crank, then, is a special kind of stupid and, well, a special kind of genius, too. Can’t wait to hear more from creators Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

Watch the trailer and find more Crank at Wikipedia.

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