Thank God It’s Thursday News Report 02.26.04

Welcome! Thanks for stopping by 411 Games and checking us out. I’m Bryan Berg, and this is the Thank God It’s Thursday News Report – the one-stop source for gaming news and commentary!

Shameless self-promotion aside, we’ve got a bit to discuss today. A major delay to start off with, then a concession by Nokia, some more news, the usual plugs, and lastly, the conclusion to the debate of the past few weeks – will there ever be a game that, in essence, brings us back to our childhood?

Rather than meandering and talking about nonsense, I say that we dig right in. Let’s go!



TOP STORY: PSP Delayed
In a previous statement, Sony expressed hope for a global release for its upcoming handheld, the PSP. It’s now been confirmed that the PSP will not see release in America until 2005. This comes months after the planned release of the PSP in Japan, which will occur later this year.

Sony plans to release the PSP in the 2005 fiscal year, which ends on March 31, 2005, but probably not before the 2004 calendar year is over. Why the delay? In the words of a Sony spokesperson who talked to gamespot.com…

We have received an overwhelming amount of support from the software development community with regard to PSP. In order to ensure that the launch timeframe is well-supported, we want to allow developers and publishers sufficient time to optimize content for our new portable entertainment platform.

What’s this mean? Basically, it’s not Sony’s fault, but the third parties that will be producing software for the handheld. The system’s done and would be ready for the proposed global launch. Instead, Sony will give developers and publishers time to work on titles for the system.

In a word… BRILLIANT. If this really is the reason and not just a PR job, then Sony deserves all the credit in the world. Rather than rushing out a system with a bad launch lineup (read: GameCube), Sony is taking its time with the PSP to ensure that the games that are released with the system are the ones that showcase all that the PSP has to offer. That’s what you want to do with a launch, and that’s what Sony will do. Evidently, the company didn’t feel that this can happen by the end of 2004. They lose the holiday sales, but their launch will be incredibly solid with the right titles available, not only in the form of Sony first-party games, but for third-parties as well. My only question is, why put out the PSP in Japan if the holdup is on the software end and not the hardware? Shouldn’t they have the same problems overseas? Perhaps there’s a greater difference between the two markets than one might hypothesize.

Getting back on topic, where does this leave the Nintendo DS? Well, they have competition with itself if it launches in 2004, which has been the announced date for the system’s release. However, the question of third-party support is now a significant one. With Sony taking the time to make sure that the best games will be out at launch, will Mario DS (or whatever Nintendo puts out) be enough? Outside developers haven’t had a whole lot of time to put anything together for this system. Can Nintendo really be expected to have the kind of launch it needs on such short notice? This is a company that should know all about setting a tone for its system, if only from its failure to do so in the recent past, so that’s definitely something to watch for.

Also, realize that no matter what Nintendo says, the DS IS intended to compete with the PSP. Think about it. The market hasn’t demanded a system with two screens, yet Nintendo’s putting one out anyway. This is with Nintendo already having the top handheld out there. What’s more is that they were intended for release around the same time. This has obviously changed due to the delay of the PSP. What I’m saying is, don’t be surprised to see Nintendo push back the DS, and especially don’t be surprised if they use the same reasoning as Sony did.

X-Box Next – Not Hard Drivin’?
Rumors have been abundant regarding the successor to Microsoft’s X-Box, particularly the rumor stating that the new system will come without a hard drive. The current X-Box, of course, features a large hard drive that eliminates the immediate need for a memory card. This has been a relief to many gamers who feel that it’s criminal for hardware providers to charge an additional $25 just to make a system fully functional.

Much to the dismay of these gamers, it’s looking more and more like the new X-Box will take a different route for memory storage. Here are some of the options that have been linked to X-Box Next…

Memory Cards. Memory storage company M-Systems has already gotten on board with X-Box Next, presumably to develop memory cards for the system. These memory cards would be far superior to the current 8 MB standard. According to M-Systems CFO Ronit Maor, “What we’re going to offer for the X-Box doesn’t currently exist.” Hmm.
Online Storage. Microsoft has announced plans to expand X-Box Live into the realm of online memory storage. Not a whole lot could be stored on Live, but it’s the kind of thing that could easily be expanded at Microsoft’s behest. Obviously, this would be used in conjunction with the memory card system.
Computer Storage. Later this year, Microsoft plans to release a device called an “extender kit” that will link to PC’s using Windows XP Media Center. This will allow X-Box gamers to use their PC hard drives to store game information rather than the X-Box hard drive. This would definitely be a pain compared to having the luxury of an internal X-Box hard drive, but sure beats having eight different memory cards and forgetting which one has which data on it.

An area that hasn’t been considered by a lot of people has to do with Custom Soundtracks. Custom Soundtracks don’t sell systems, but can be a great departure from the somewhat bland world of background music. Without a hard drive, Custom Soundtracks will be shoved to the wayside. That’s a shame.

So why eliminate the hard drive at all, you ask? It’s a simple matter of dollars and cents. It’s no secret that Microsoft is losing money on each X-Box console that’s sold. The X-Box hard drive is used and certainly is appreciated, but nobody has a maxed-out hard drive. Microsoft figures that instead of wasting this space and, by extension, money, it would be best to sort of “outsource” the memory. Not only would Microsoft save money by not producing and installing the hard drive, but it would also make money on sold memory cards, X-Box Live subscriptions, and extender kits.

Smart business acumen. But a tremendous pain. Remember the days of cartridge-based systems, where memory cards weren’t necessary? In that era, games could be saved directly onto the cartridge. That obviously can’t happen with a CD. The X-Box hard drive was a hearken back to old times in that you could play it right out of the box and not have to worry about game-saving. Sadly, it’s looking like Microsoft will join the rest of the soulless and charge for the simple right to save a game.

Nokia Tells The Truth
Longtime 411 Games readers know that we, as a staff, haven’t been too impressed with Nokia’s N-Gage. We said so before it came out, and we’ve been saying so ever since. It hasn’t been just us, either – most gaming critics dismissed the N-Gage as a nothing system long ago. Through it all, however, Nokia has maintained a rather optimistic stance regarding the system.

Today, the PR rhetoric ends, and the truth comes out. Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila spoke to the press about a number of topics, among them the N-Gage. To quote Ollila’s take on N-Gage sales so far…

The sales are in the lower quartile of the bracket we had as our goal.

To answer your next question, a quartile is essentially a quarter; for example, 25, 50, 75, and 100 are all quartiles. Here, sales numbers are divided into quartiles, and 100 percent is presumably the goal that was set before the N-Gage’s launch. Ollila’s quote reveals that sales have not even been a QUARTER of that!

Now, we’ve all heard some pretty crazy numbers in conjunction with the sales figures of Nokia’s system, but this one has to take the cake. Why? For no other reason than who it’s coming from. When a CEO admits something like this, it’s usually a PR nightmare. Fortunately for Nokia, nobody really pays attention to the N-Gage, so it’s not even a relevant point. That is the main reason why this news is so significant. It’s clear that the system doesn’t even have the support of Nokia, and if the company behind it doesn’t believe in the N-Gage, why should consumers?

Nokia maintains that 600,000 units have been distributed to retail outlets worldwide, which isn’t a terrible number; after all, the GameCube barely sold that many units in the first part of 2003. However, Nokia’s numbers are skewed – their figures indicate how many have been sold to retailers, not how many N-Gages consumers have purchased from retailers. Heaven only knows how many have actually been sold (or in the case of GameStop, “re-allocated”), so it’s difficult to get a gauge (HA!) on the specific number of units sold. You know NOKIA’s not going to let that go public!

Is Nokia going to throw in the towel? Not yet. The goal is to have 2 million units in worldwide sales accomplished by the end of the 2005 holiday season. This is the time frame that Ollila wants to use for judging the success of the system. But this is hardly a feasible goal. From the standpoint of a cell phone (which N-Gage defenders cite as its main feature), most people seek to trade in their phones on an annual basis. With the increasing quality of wireless gaming, it will be tough for Nokia to retain some of their customer base. The outlook becomes even more bleak when it’s considered that both the Sony PSP and the Nintendo DS are due out in the next 12 months. The N-Gage might have come before these two systems, but the technology of that system is not getting any newer. Why would a gamer want to invest $300 in a system made by a neophyte producer when they can get a system with better hardware, name recognition, and better games for cheaper?

The gaming climate has already made its feelings about the N-Gage clear – the system has simply not performed with one competitor. How can it be expected to fare when THREE opponents emerge? In other words, don’t expect a movement into any other “quartiles” than the bottom one.

MLG & Nokia Hook Up
On the bright side, the N-Gage is now a featured system of Major League Gaming. Nokia is a sponsor of the upstart league, and now the other shoe has fallen by way of MLG including the N-Gage in its competitions. When the year is over, the top two N-Gage players will be offered MLG contracts and become part of the N-Gage team.

At the very least, this indicates that some people have enough faith in the N-Gage that it’ll be a relevant system beyond 2004. At the most, it’s a savvy move by MLG. When a system has a small fanbase, its fans tend to be more loyal to that system. That the N-Gage is now an important part of MLG will ensure that N-Gage fans will follow the events of MLG more closely. Will this help Nokia to move N-Gages? Probably not. But at this point, any positive publicity for the N-Gage is good for Nokia.

The Future of Gaming Has Been Foretold… By Research
If you’re a fan of assimilating knowledge of future trends from sources such as surveys and studies, this one’s for you. If you can simply guess what might happen because you possess common sense, you might want to skip down a bit.

A study has been conducted by Juniper Research that gives some insights about the future of gaming. Some of the highlights, as borrowed from ign.com…

– Next generation consoles will outsell those of the previous generation.
– Consoles will be equipped to handle non-gaming functions, such as high-speed Internet access.
– Online gaming is truly the future – 25 million console users will be connected by 2008.

The gist – gaming is becoming more popular and will continue to do so. That’s not exactly a revelation. There are more detailed reports out there of this study, but they will do nothing more than insult your intelligence. You already knew that more people were going to use consoles for online activity. I don’t know about that 25 million people thing. If they’re just talking about America, that’s ten percent of the country’s population, which is absurd. Do 25 million American homes even have Internet access at this point?

In any event, the study concludes by suggesting that gaming will become a mainstream forum for entertainment and will eventually be as commonplace in the home as hot items like DVD players and digital audio. This is absolutely true. Again, we didn’t need a study to tell us this. Just look around. One could make the argument that gaming already IS mainstream. And it’d be a good argument to boot. Still, don’t get any ideas about game consoles replacing, say, computers. The study indicates that systems will be used for many purposes aside from gaming, but they won’t become super-computers like some people seem to think. The future of gaming is very bright, indeed. Let’s just leave it at that.

Quick Hits
Sequels For Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank In The Works. Sony has confirmed that these two successful series will see third parts. The games should be available in the fall and, obviously, will be exclusive to the PS2.

For Real This Time – Ninja Gaiden’s Final Release Date. March 2 will become Ninja Gaiden Day for X-Box owners who have been waiting for this game to come out. The date has been set in stone by the powers that be, so count on this game being available next week (FINALLY).

THQ To Develop For Nintendo’s DS. No word on what games to expect, only that THQ is on the DS bandwagon. Nintendo’s doing a nice job getting people on board, eh?



Plugs
News Reports
Alex Williams – 411MAX: News News Revolution. The Norwegian Athlete, in the flesh. He and Laflin should be glad I had to work last Wednesday (and the small fact that I don’t own PGR2) or else they both would have been toast! No death threats this week, but hopefully I’ll still be in the lead after my favorite part of the week!
I guess this means the Kliq can set up a clan, and become an UNSTOPPABLE FORCE in the online world!

Cory Laflin – Gamer’s Hangover News Report. Cory included a great piece this week that I’ll be referencing later on in this column. Make sure you’ve read his intro before you go any further.
I asked him what I could do to improve things, “Write better or die,” was the succinct response.

Misha – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Video Games. Misha was kind enough to tell us about his weekend, which consisted of some old-school gaming! This is something that a lot of us do quite often, and it’s nice to see a large group of people getting together to just enjoy gaming. Odd, though, that you don’t often hear about large groups gathering to play NEW games.
I still have no idea whose stupid idea it was to put “Triv” on a console, but there it was.
BTW Misha – Reuters? The Wall Street Journal? High praise, my friend, high praise. Much appreciated. And just for the record, those two sources for news are incredibly weak compared to the force that is 411 Games!

Lee Baxley – Mid-Week Mid-Boss News Report. Lee brings it again with a good mixture of gaming content and anime news. We’re also informed of Lee’s new additions to the Baxley family! Wonder what he named the new animals?
Steel Battalion is one of those games where you don’t necessarily get it because it’s a cool game. You get it because it’s just cool to get a game that comes with a controller bigger than you are. I want that game.

Columns
Liquidcross – The Angry Gamer. Liquid continues his hot streak of right-on-the-money columns with this one. His main point – all these peripherals that are REQUIRED are taking the fun right out of gaming. Not only are they cumbersome, but they’re also way expensive. This is a good one, so check it out.
What if you don’t have a GBA? (Believe it or not, there’s plenty of people that don’t.) Then you get to spend nearly $100 on one, to use as a controller. That’s ridiculous.

Alex Lucard – Retrograding. Numbers 24 through 22 appear in this week’s edition of the RPG countdown. I’m wishing that I had gotten into Phantasy Star II. I loved the first one even though I was maybe 7 when I played it; however, I missed out on the second installment. I’m kinda mad about that now.
Aeris is remembered for her death, Nei is remembered for her life AND death. So anyone who truly felt touched or some sort of emotion from FF7, I beseech you to go out and get Phantasy Star 2 and see a character’s sacrifice done right a full decade before FF7 came out.

Liquidcross – The Angry Gamer. The advantage of finishing this one late – I can plug TWO LC columns! Again, he’s correct with this piece. The idea here is that games include gratuitous violence, gore, and sexual content not for the hardcore fans, but to lure in casual fans and enable them to look past the other flaws in the game. Very well said, and totally true.
One of the most powerful suits has Vanessa running around in a thong. I seriously doubt that offers any degree of battlefield protection; that was put in there solely to get teenage fanboys to jerk off.

Reviews
Cory Laflin – NCAA March Madness 2004 (PS2). It’s almost time to start following college basketball again, so scoring a good b-ball title would be good right about now. According to Cory’s review, NCAA March Madness might not necessarily be that game.
Skinemax was a bigger draw to me Friday night than playing this game, and as has been adequately demonstrated in this review, I LOVE college hoops.



Commentary of the Week
If you’ve been following the recent saga of TGIT, this is the blowoff to it all. If you’re looking to play catch-up, here’s how it’s gone down so far. In my column dated 2/12/04, I made a sort of plea to game developers to recreate the magic that got us to love gaming to begin with. The next week (2/19), I printed a few responses that I got from readers as food for thought. Today, I’m closing it out.
(Just so you know, I’m referencing dates so that you can find the columns from the drop-down menu on the bottom. We’ve had a little trouble with links recently, and the drop-downs always work, so that’s the best way to get to where you need to go. Just to let you know that it’s not laziness or anything.)

Recently, I’ve been playing (and reviewing) the X-Box version of Counter-Strike. This is a game with NO story to speak of; rather, it has a few modes of play that have no connection with each other. Today, this is seen as a game with an obvious flaw. It’s not the norm in the current gaming environment. Some might even suggest that its’ lack of story dimishes the overall quality of the game. Others will cite X-Box Live as the glue that holds it all together.

In any event, the one-player mode of Counter-Strike is not unlike that of an old wrestling or fighting game. You simply go from stage to stage completing tasks with no rhyme or reason as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s simply what the game offers. In fact, even forgettable games like WWF Steel Cage Challenge gave a semblance of a story through ranked opponents and, eventually, the title fight against the Hulkster. Counter-Strike is different. Here, you pick the level, you play the level, and then you play the level again and again until you’ve had enough. There’s no progression – play till you’re done, and that’s it.

So why all the fuss about Counter-Strike? Here it is. This game has been ripped to shreds for its lack of a relevant one-player mode. The one-player mode in WWF Steel Cage Challenge was accepted for what it was. It wasn’t critiqued. Nobody complained because Jake the Snake didn’t run in on your match. Nobody bitched about the storyline becoming repetitive – there was no storyline! Instead, people enjoyed playing as their heroes and seeing how their skills translated to the video game environment.

That’s the difference between games yesterday and games today. Modern games are far too cerebral – what’s in front of you is irrelevant when it comes to comparing games. Instead, what’s NOT there is what sticks out. It seems like any area where a game does not match up to reality is cause for complaint. This is a stark contrast to the games of our youth, where a first-person perspective or a 3D environment was something truly remarkable. Somewhere along the line, we stopped being impressed with games and demanded more of them instead.

And more is what we got. We’ve come to the point where every nuance of a situation is presented in gaming. No longer is a game as simple as “B is fire, A is jump”. Now, we’re required to spend 20 minutes learning the controls of the game before it even starts. We must make a conscious effort to get inside the head of our controllable player in order to do things as he or she would. If we don’t execute a stealth attack properly, it’s game over. Back to the previous save point – wouldn’t want to be stuck playing through Mission 1 again.

Cory Laflin nailed it on the head with his assessment of the modern gamer and the modern game. We simply don’t have the time we used to. Games now are played to be beaten, not to be enjoyed. That’s why there are save points all over the place nowadays. Nobody had a problem with playing through Level 1 in Streets of Rage 8000 times when we were 11 and there was nothing else to do. If Streets of Rage came out today with no save feature, it would get ripped for having a low “replay value”. Why? Because you have to actually replay it! In the modern gaming climate, you can’t play through an entire game in one sitting. One, the games are too long; and two, nobody has the time to play a game for five hours straight. The target gamer is a 18-24 male. This is a person who’s either going to college by day and working by night, or is a career 9-to-5 worker who hits the gym after work and then spends time with the wife or girlfriend. Time to play games comes few and far between. This wasn’t the case when the biggest barrier to gaming ecstacy was homework or maybe a paper route or two.

Aside from the issues of time and complexity, we can’t forget the peripherals issue. Liquidcross’s piece last week said it perfectly. We are required to purchase all sorts of extra goodies that are necessary for the games we play. Do they enhance the game? Sure. But do they do so at the expense of actually ENJOYING it? That’s a tougher question. And the answer is on the negative side of the equation. I come from a generation that saw a relevant use for the Power Glove, of all things. This wasn’t a necessary component for gameplay, just one that sounded neat and so people were interested in it. You didn’t need one to play Punch-Out. Of course, the Power Glove was useless, but how much does the GBA really add to Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles? Seriously, as LC said, do you really need to spend that kind of money for what amounts to a controller? That’s where gaming goes too far, and that’s where the fun is lost.

Among the myriad issues of the loss of gaming magic, we’ve hit a few important ones: the demand for increased complexity, the lack of time, and the emergence of peripherals as requirements rather than enhancements. These will fly in any nostalgic argument, and not just about games, either. Now, the question becomes: How do we recapture what we once had? How do we revert from these modern ways and begin to appreciate simple things again?

The answer: We can’t. Trust me – nobody is sadder to say that than me. But it’s the truth. Gaming isn’t fun anymore, not the way it used to be. It’s a business now. And if you want to get paid, you have to conform to what’s expected. Today, that’s a game that’s incredibly detailed with a save point every five minutes that requires a memory card and who knows what else. The modern format works because it meets our needs and it’s a format that sells. That’s all you need to justify a success these days.

How, then, can we satisfy our need for a more basic gaming ideal? The best source (aside from breaking out the NES one more time) is the Game Boy Advance. The GBA is full of ports of old classics and new titles with simpler graphics and a less overbearing emphasis on detail. You don’t need a memory card, just a GBA and a $30 Game Pak. Unfortunately, with the Nintendo DS on the horizon, there’s a device that will take away the mindless fun of handheld gaming, replacing it with more complexity. The PSP will throw us head-first into a world of 3D portables, which will only serve to hurt the innocence of the handheld market.

The moral of the story is this – as kids, we all fell in love with video games for one reason or another. Instinctively, we cling to these memories as our fondest. The games we played when we were learning about video games are the ones that we remember as being “great”, even if they weren’t terribly memorable. These same games today would be classified as hollow, lacking substance, pointless, unrealistic, and boring. Some would say that this is due to the modern gamer’s loss of perspective. Others would claim it as a testament to how far gaming as a whole has come. Either way, gaming HAS changed, and it’s left the games of our youth far behind.

There’s always hope, though. The recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game reminded a great many people of the classic arcade game of years ago. It’s a game where there are about 50,000 enemies in one level to fight the one of you, yet you’re somehow able to take them all on. Side-scrolling action at its best. Just about everybody old enough was taken back by this game. Unfortunately, they may have also been alienated by the “unlockable” moves and sheer size of the game, both of which are staples of modern gaming. The truth is, we can never go all the way back. But once in a while, a game will come along that will remind us of where we’ve come from. It’s sort of like how cartoons remind us of our childhood and make us feel like kids again, yet we know that it can never be the same and that we’ll never have that again. Still, that doesn’t stop us from enjoying them.

It’s also crucial that us gamers don’t miss the chance to embrace such a title when it appears. Game fans tend to be quite cynical – these are the same fans, though, who plead for a return to the days of old. Games that are classified as “kiddie” might very well be the games that remind us of what once was. And what could be again. You never know – gamers could grow tired of the intensity of Splinter Cell-type titles and seek alternatives that are more fun. Then, perhaps a new generation could be swept away, as we were a long time ago.



That’s all for this week. Hope you got something out of today’s report, particularly the Commentary. A lot of us are looking for a reminder of how life used to be, and I think we all owe it to ourselves to allow ourselves to enjoy it once it comes along. But for now, there’s plenty of good going on in gaming that things aren’t so bad. Alex Williams and the rest of the 411 Games staff will tell you all about them in the coming week, and I’ll be back next Thursday with more TGIT. Thanks for reading. See you next week!