Encore Extra Stage #09

Hello all, and welcome to Encore Extra Stage, back from the dead! Miss me? You DIDN’T? Well…shit…

Seriously, I know I took another long break. But at least I WARNED you way back in early November that this would happen. School was very demanding in recent weeks, and I needed to put forward 90% of my energy into that, and that alone. And I think that 2 As, a B, and a C was well worth an extended absence, don’t you think?

So the upside to the break was the kick-ass grades. The downside is that I missed a LOT of stuff that happened. The DS launch, the EA hullabaloo…and I probably pissed a couple people off by not returning their e-mails during the down time. Fear not, as they are answered here today! (One-month-old e-mail rocks!)

So you can consider this my official “catch-up” session. I’ll spare the more boring topics (well, boring to me) and cover what I deem worthy subject matter. Ready? GO!


THE NINTENDO DS

Back on November 21st, I was the first in line at my local Gamestop to obtain Nintendo’s brand new handheld system. And I was looking forward to this puppy more than most things on my 2004 video game hit list. My anticipation for the unit was brought down a little bit over the last couple of months, however, through a combination of factors. There were other games coming out in the same time frame I already had on reserve, with both Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 2 coming out the same stinkin’ WEEK. Then there was my schoolwork, which can put a hamper on ANYTHING. Finally, in regards to the unit itself, was the fact that most of the titles I was looking forward to were pushed back to the next year. No Wario Ware until February. No Metroid until May. No “New” Super Mario Bros. until whenever the hell they decided to releases it (at that time, of course). So, perhaps I wasn’t as psyched as I could have been. But, I was still psyched.

So launch day comes, I open the box, and I experiment with my new toy. Overall, I’m very impressed with everything this unit can do. It can play DS games. It can play GBA games. It makes use of a touch-screen. It makes use of a microphone. It can display two screens of gaming at once, allowing for quite the innovative experience. And after spending all this time with it, it is probably the handheld that shows the most promise and contains the most possibilities in comparison with its rival, the PSP.

Now for the other side of the coin: while the unit itself is quite amazing, the games department really didn’t leave me that impressed on the whole. Sure, the system was amazing, but a system is just a paperweight if there are no good games to support it. And don’t get me wrong; there ARE good games out for this right now. You saw my reviews for both Super Mario 64 DS and Feel The Magic XY/XX, after all. But the bad thing is…that was ALL that was top-notch heading out of the gate. The only other title I was interested in between now and February was Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits, and I picked that up three weeks after the fact. The games are fun, but the unit is seeing limited play thanks to the limited number of games out right now. I find myself playing my GBA more than my DS at current, as well as my console systems.

And before you start hollering at me about how the DS plays GBA games, I already know that. I have a Pokemon Ruby cartridge in there right now that I go to from time to time. However, I kept my GBA for the sole purpose of GBA-GC linking capability. Plus, it feels more natural to me playing GBA games on my GBA SP. It’s sleek, it’s compact, and it has served me well for the past five months now.

Add to the fact that it’s the limited edition NES GBA SP, and you see why I have no intention of getting rid of it. At all.

Things should pick up around the February/March area, though. The PSP will be landing in the US in March, and Nintendo isn’t going to let it slip by. This is the main reason why we aren’t seeing all the “cool” titles displayed at E3 yet. They are waiting to release those in order to combat the PSP.

In a sense, I can see the marketing maneuver they are trying to pull. Release the system now in order grab everyone’s attention, but save most of their good stuff until the February/March period. Then Nintendo can say to consumers “Well, you COULD buy a PSP for $200, possibly even more if you want to save games and stuff…OR, you could use that same money to add to your DS library with titles like Wario Ware and New Super Mario Bros.

The fact is that if Nintendo wanted to, they could release all their big name titles right now. The games are essentially done, or very close to being done. However, they’re sitting on a large number of these games at the moment because (a) they would not sell as well during the holiday season in comparison to GTA: SA, Halo 2, and the other huge big-name titles out there, or (b) they want to use these games to stop Sony from getting a bigger share of the handheld market. The up is that Nintendo gets more sales numbers. The down is that I’m kinda pissed that Japan is playing titles like Wario Ware Touched and Pokemon Dash and I am not.

So to close off this ramble, the Nintendo DS is awesome, but the initial game launch was less than stellar. It will change once February rolls around, but for now, there are other games/systems more worthy of my undying devotion.


DDR ULTRAMIX 2

Yes, I’m devoting an entire section to a Dance Dance Revolution game. I’ll be doing it AGAIN in future columns as well. You should know me well enough by now to expect this. If not, and you’re reading this column for the first time, you’re just going to have to deal with it.

Anywho, if anyone read my review on the game, you’ll know its the version of DDR that I recommend over all others at this point in time. It has the most new material a DDR game has had in years, counting both the PS2, the XBox, and all three territories the game is released it. Granted the game has its flaws, as most DDR games do. But it’s a worthwhile investment for any fan of the series.

Yet there are SOME people who will proclaim the game crap and unplayable for the TINYEST infractions they can think of.

Starting about 1-2 weeks after the game was released, people on the Internet were posting their grievances about the game, mostly having to do with “bugs” that hadn’t been ironed out. I use “bugs” in quotations because of what exactly is being classified as a “bug” by these guys. To begin with, there’s been a lot of talk about XBox Live quirkiness. As an example, during head-to-head score matches, a person could theoretically have done better than all others in the match, yet lose due to the fact that the combo bonus can overshadow the individual’s performance. Or the fact that for a while, wins and losses were not saved in the online rankings. These are what I believe to be legitimate concerns, and hope that they are addressed as soon as possible if they haven’t been addressed already.

Then we have the other hot button issue people are complaining about: the “timing windows”. Timing windows refer to the amount of time that is open for someone to get a Perfect/Great/Good/Almost/Boo (or Boo/Miss for the purists) grade on a single step. (We’re talking fractions of seconds here, for those who don’t know.) The main complaint is that some are saying that the windows are “too large”, meaning it’s too easy to get Perfects and Greats in this game. They claim it’s nowhere near the “sanctity” of the timing in the arcade games, which is incredibly strict. Then they go even further that the game is unplayable, and DEMAND that the timing windows be tightened up to arcade or near-arcade standards.

So, let me get this straight. A game that comes out on a home console, that is not based on any arcade version, that is original in nearly every aspect, that has tons of new content and modes, is unplayable because the timing windows are (GASP! CHOKE!) not like the arcades? Just like every other home version on the planet?

Nitpick, nitpick, nitpick.

You see, there are two main sets of DDR players out there: casual and hardcore. The hardcore crowd plays primarily on the arcade machines, and uses the timing windows there as a measuring stick for overall progress. But lately, with the lack of new arcade DDR games being released, and the rise exclusive content being spread across the new wave of home releases, I find the arcade players becoming a bit more frustrated as of late. After all, with nothing new coming out of Japan making its way towards US arcades (mostly in bootlegged form), they’ve been stuck with the same arcade versions for two years now. Therefore, they take their anger out on said home versions just because the timing is not as strict as the arcades. Never mind that there actually might be a REASON for this practice, such as stricter timing windows on arcade versions equate to more of a chance of a person messing up, allowing for a higher ratio of “Game Over” occurrences, and allowing more people to put quarters/yen into the machines to play. The home versions do not follow this practice, and are looser in order to accommodate those who have soft pads.

Then again, there are those (like me) who have cheated and purchased special metal pads that replicate (but don’t truly duplicate) the arcade experience. They are more durable, and often more accurate than the official soft pads Konami puts out. Therefore, we tend to notice the timing more often than not. But really, is the timing windows the REAL reason we play the game? Do we all play just so we can achieve the highest scores and AAA every single song under the sun? Is that all there is?

The main reason I’ve played DDR for as long as I have is for one simple reason: the music. With every new version that comes out, both arcade and home, comes new music for everyone to play. And my tastes in music are incredibly broad. (The only music I can’t at least tolerate are most Country songs.) So despite any faults a DDR game may contain, and any lackluster step patterns I encounter, if the game has songs I like to play, than the game is worth playing. I’ve been down the hardcore road more than once. And I now have over 1,000 separate AAAs to show for it. Now its time to take a step back and enjoy the incredible music the series has given me.

It’s a good thing that complaints about the song list are virtually nonexistent. For once. Heh.


ELECTRONIC ARTS

Time to share some thoughts on Electronic Arts and all these things they’ve been doing lately. And there is a LOT to cover here.

First off, their treatment of their workers. Now, I doubt I have a full grasp of the entire situation, as all the information pertaining to this came from personal blogs. Some of the info might be embellished, some may not be. But if even an iota of the treatment stories we’ve been hearing are true, than I am outraged at the types of practices that are currently going on. I understand there are crunches involved in the development process, but “crunching” for literally the entire development process with no let-up is appalling. I feel embarrassed about this, and I don’t even WORK for the industry.

Although I did receive some e-mails a while back on the subject, and it did provide come clarification on various matters. If you don’t mind seeing over one-month-old e-mails in response to the news post I put up about this, I’d like to share them with you…

To start, here’s semi-regular writer Serge Levesque:

Welcome to the world of software designers… It’s not like that everywhere, thank God, but I believe it’s not uncommon. Really, those two stories remind me a lot of my former job (mass transportation).

When a project was approaching a milestone date we would quite often do 12/14 hour days and weekends. BUT the overtime was paid, for us… The hardware designers that were working the same hours as us were not, so they were pretty much doing slave work. And just before I left the software guys’ salary was converted from an hourly rate to a weekly rate (meaning between the branches that overtime is not paid). Fortunately I never had to work crazy hours under my new rate before I left. And stories of blaming some shmuck for the most inane things, making them look bad publicly, never getting a “good job” from the bosses when warranted but always having to hear how we screwed up… the whole nine yards.

Well, thanks Alex. I’m considering applying for a game company and if anything, you’ve confirmed me that I do not want to work for EA. I had a feeling that such a big corporation would treat their employees as an expandable ressource. But I dunno about pointing them out like that, ’cause I really doubt they’re the only ones.

Take care.

Serge Levesque
La Pocatiere, Canada

I doubt they’re the only ones either. However, they are so far one of the few that have been pointed out to be performing such actions. So until we here something about how Take Two chains their coders by their necks and whips them, or how Atari performs a monthly sacrifice of one of their software designers to Satan, this is all we have to go on.

(NOTE: Take Two and Atari do not really perform such actions…do they?)

Next, we have something from a guy who’d like to remain anonymous:

Hey, just a quick note about this EA thing. What is posted in Story #1 is not uncommon at all within the game industry. Is is VERY common for there to be weeks where employees will work in between 12-18 hour days. Crunch time is especially a bitch.

In my experience, people weren’t getting sicker during those times…just getting sick about as often as normal.

And I don’t know of any companies who will give overtime for salary jobs. That’s the main reason these people GET salary is because the companies don’t want to pay OT. Most companies have profit sharing programs though, and add to the fact that some people are simply paid out the ass, it makes up for the lack of overtime pay. Oh, and if anyone gets into the game industry and then bitches about these things, they didn’t do enough research. It’s pretty common knowledge that when you get in the industry, you give your life to it during some times. The rest of the time, it’s VERY laid back and a lot of fun.

Granted. While I don’t necessarily WORK in the gaming industry, I can understand that when a deadline is fast approaching, more time is needed in order iron out all the kinks, tighten the bolts, etc. But then again, everything is a situation. And from the sound of EA’s situation, they are guilty of pushing their workers FAR more than the standard amount when it comes to crunch times. They also seem guilty of poor HR management.

In any case, that was burning me for a while. Then the news broke about how the NFL crowned EA Sports as the winner of the football game wars, thanks to a gigantic check and an exclusivity deal. Now my attitude changed from “passively pissed” to “actively pissed.”

Thanks to this deal, two things happened. One, EA Sports officially took away from me my right to enjoy the ESPN line of football games. Two, the NFL betrayed me by letting this happen. I may not be the biggest sports fan overall, but I was born and raised on NFL football, and more specifically, Washington Redskins football. I’ve been a fan of the sport for as long as I can remember, and the sport had always treated me well in return. And now…wow, you put a good 20 years into being a fan, and then they turn around and do something horribly moronic.

I know I can’t pin this one directly on EA, but I was about to. Before I knew the whole story behind “Operation: Screw Sports Consumer” (OSSC), I was about ready to start a movement to boycott both EA and the NFL. Nearly sat in front of the computer and wrote the petition for it, too. But after I had a chance to calm down, I really didn’t know what to think. EA was turning out to be a really bad company, yet this is something that is not ENTIRELY their fault. They just had the most money on the table at exactly the right time. I’m certainly not going to buy any Madden games from here on out, that’s for sure. But would boycotting EA really solve anything at this point?

Things got even MORE complicated when I read that EA officially bought about 1/5 of Ubisoft’s stock, with the possibility of a takeover in sight. Now this company isn’t even playing FAIR. I don’t like EA, yet I like Ubisoft. If I boycott EA, and EA takes over Ubisoft, I’d be boycotting Ubisoft. I’d have to sell back my Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time game that I haven’t even taken out of the shrink-wrap yet. And now there are rumors floating about that EA is after an exclusivity deal with the NBA, as well as MORE company takeovers.

A mindless, heartless software developer is positioning itself to take everything I hold sacred about the industry, acquire it, piss on it, and FORCE me to like it.

This isn’t fair.

What EA is doing right now sickens me. Yet they are going to keep pushing and pushing until we either succumb to their wishes or just get the f*ck out of our favorite sports titles / gaming companies. And to think, I LIKED Mutant League Football. That game was amazing! Why have you gone completely downhill since then?

Is there a point to this rambling? I don’t know. Will I boycott Electronic Arts, and any/all of its new acquisitions? Perhaps, perhaps not. They’ve forced me into a decision that I just don’t want to make. But I’ll end this little “rant” of mine with the following:

Electronic Arts, as of today, December 24th, 2004, your company blows goats. If I buy ANYTHING from you in the future, it’s going to have to be good. VERY good. As in, “This game took tons of effort and came out nearly perfect” good. And surprise of surprises, nothing with your name attached on it answers that. Consider me an incredibly displeased gamer.


I GOT MAIL?!?

And now I shall answer MORE e-mail that I received over four weeks ago. Timeliness, thy name is Encore Extra Stage.

To begin with, here’s my favorite fan, Chad Smith:

Holy shit man!

First off, I didn’t expect you to include the ENTIRE email I sent, but
thanks.

No problem. It made great column filler, AND I was able to put the whole emulation issue this column dealt with to rest. Very appreciative.

re: japanese vs. US mixes, in japan and in north america

It’s about damn time someone else said that. Why can’t people realize that the earth is, you know, somewhat large? There’s this new concept.. perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called Culture. Different countries have different cultures. Different movies, music and games (and other media) cater to different cultures, and thus, different countries. Companies, such as Sony or Konami, realize this. This really isn’t a difficult concept to grasp.

Exactly. Yet this doesn’t stop the mindless from complaining about it. And you want to know the sad thing? The complaining usually comes from…oh, about 20% of the DDR players that have access to the Internet. And only 20-30% of DDR players in GENERAL have Internet access to begin with. So the amount of asiaphiles may be small, yet are largely represented. Yet they feel that a mix that would cater to mainly such as SMALL number of people in this country would be 100% successful on the whole. Trust me, if a mix were released here that contained nothing but Japanese bubblegum pop, the American fan base would drop exponentially.

re: Licensing in the US vs Canada over DDR tracks

Damn, I didn’t think of that. On the bright side, I got my copy of DDR Extreme :D And one of my dance mats died. Can you recommend a good, somewhat-cheap dance mat? I don’t want to spend tons of money on a metal pad, but the flimsy ones I have right now just aren’t cutting the mustard.

Oh, and still no Top Loader NES. Know anyone with one that wants to part with it?

(1) I’m glad you finally got it. As far as pad recommendations, I would try my best to secure an official Konami soft pad if nothing else. I wouldn’t trust the Mad Catz brand, or other third-party controllers at all. Or, if you’re willing to spend a little more, you can purchase a Red Octane “Ignition” pad from most EB and Gamestop locations. It’s high in cost, but they’re pretty durable from what I here.

(2) Top loader NES? Um…I got nothin’. Sorry.

Next, we have…hmmm, what’s this?

Sir, Madam

We are pleased to inform you of the result of the Lottery Winners International programs held on the 24TH of NOVEMBER 2004 Your E-mail address attached to Ticket number 50467854365-8098 with Serial number 352-978654 drew the lucky numbers 5-78-54-34-09-56 which consequently won in the 1st category, you have therefore been approved for a lump sum payout of US$ 1,000,000.00 (One Million United States Dollars). This is from a total cash prize of USD$10,000,000.00 Million shared amongst Ten International Lucky Winners in the Category A (Plus).

CONGRATULATIONS!!!

Aw, crap! This is undeleted spam! Why did I save this in my inbox?

Ugh…NEXT E-MAIL!

The two things that your column has recently focused on is ROMs and
DDR. My question is where do you stand on the DDR simulators Stepmania and Dance with Intensity? I use Stepmania constantly because it is quite frankly more convient to cart a soft pad to a desk shift at 4 am in the morning (I work late nights at the front desk of a dormitory on a college campus) then it is to bring a small tv and my PS2.

I’m not going to go out and take the moral high ground as I do not import but I have bought every single mix released in the US on both the PS2 and the XBOX (2 out of 3 times with the soft pad) so it’s not exactly like I’m not supporting Konami anyways. Hell, I bought a PS2 to play DDR.

Konami, to my knowledge, has not spoken out against this mostly because if they try to do anything about it, they also would have to deal with the fact that several hundred illegal arcade units are in the US promoting the game. So what’s your take on simulators and since Konami is doing something similar, do you think they’ll ever do anything about it?

-Tom Pandich

VERY good question, Tom. I’m surprised I wasn’t asked this one sooner.

Before I get to it, I’ll bring everyone up to speed as to what these programs are. Stepmania and Dance With Intensity are both programs that create a similar experience to Dance Dance Revolution. I say “similar experience”, as one can’t really be considered the same as the other. You see, both of these programs are actual, honest-to-goodness legal programs. You download them and install them for free. Both programs main gameplay mode revolves around a four-panel dancing simulator like DDR does, but the four-panel dancing simulator concept has NOT been copyrighted by Konami or its subsidiaries. Therefore, technically anybody can make a game that features arrows that scroll upwards in time to the music. (This is why we see other dance games in the arcades, including Pump It Up and Technomotion.)

Now, both Stepmania and DWI are basically no-frills programs to begin with. They don’t come with any songs, and only one set of graphics. Therefore, it is your job to “find” or “make” your own songs and step data. How is this done? Well, you can take any MP3 you wish, create a special text file with step data, put it in your songs folder, and play to your heart’s content. Leaving the legality of the MP3 you might use out if it for the time being, this is perfectly fine for you to do.

Now the one thing that keeps these dancing simulators from being completely without fault is the fact that they are heavily customizable. Meaning, people can rip graphics, songs, announcer voice clips, etc from the existing DDR games, modify them ever so slightly, and place them into the simulators. Think of it: if you know where to look, you can have all the benefits of DDR on your computer without having to pay for it.

Now, I will go on record to say that I do use the Stepmania program. I also have quite a few songs from DDR that have been replicated for use on Stepmania. BUT, I also own all the songs I have on the actual games they came on. I believe this falls under the Fair Usage Act. Plus, I have never once used a dance pad on my PC to play the songs either. I leave that strictly for the console versions of the game. Instead, I use the arrow keys on my keyboard. Not the same, but it helps me memorize and practice the arrow patterns when I’m not around my consoles. So in my simulator endeavors, I HAVE supported Konami by buying their products first. And from the looks of things, so have most of the people who use these simulators. You said it yourself that you’ve purchased every US mix thus far, and that’s a good thing.

Konami doesn’t address these dancing simulators in general because they are legal programs. Using them correctly is not in violation of their copyright laws. They haven’t addressed the fact that you can download practically every DDR song in existence and play them without paying because, in all honesty, the simulators have NOT cut into Konami’s sales enough, if at all, to warrant such action. It’s not as if DDRMAX for the PS2 is being bootlegged and distributed over the Internet. If anything, the simulators have promoted DDR more than hurt it. So Konami looks the other way, has the simfile community have their fun, and still count their profits as the original franchise continues to sell.

And without getting back into the “emulation is a gray area” argument AGAIN (please?), lets skip straight into…


PARTING THOUGHTS

Damn, it feels good to be back. Now that I’m on a decent winter break, you can probably expect a column from me WEEKLY now! Aren’t you THRILLED?!?!?

Next week, I’ll take a good, long look at DDR Festival, considering I now HAVE the game, and I’ll deliver unto you my impressions of it. I’ll also offer some year-end reflections, as I’ll probably be the last thing you read on this site in 2004…I think. And there may be something else for everyone as well. What is it? Stay tuned!

Until next week, go to Orange Lounge Radio and LISTEN!

Oh, and have a Happy Christmahanukwanzaka. Or something. I KNEW there was a big holiday coming up that millions of people celebrate…can’t quite put my finger on it…


Alex Williams, The Norwegian Athlete