Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nintendo Celebrates its 125th Anniversary

Nintendo celebrated its 125th Anniversary today. 

Founded on September 23, 1889 in Kyoto, where its headquarters remain, Nintendo, which means "leave luck to heaven," originally sold Hanafuda playing cards. Beginning in the 1950s, Hiroshi Yamauchi, grandson of founder Fusajiro Yamauchi, began to experiment in other industries, including taxi services, food products, and, surprisingly, love hotels. 

It was only in 1966, when Nintendo employee Gunpei Yokoi created a toy called the Ultra Hand (in his spare time, mind you), did Yamauchi transform Nintendo into a toy company. Ultra Hand, pictured below, was a commercial success for Nintendo, the first of many. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, by way of the business savvy of Yamauchi, the technology design skills of Yokoi, and the game design skills of a young product developer named Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo gradually transitioned from toys to video games. Then in 1981, after a few small arcade successes, Nintendo released Donkey Kong, designed by Miyamoto, reaping huge profits. Two short years later, Nintendo released the Family Computer in Japan, alongside ports of its most popular arcade hits. Two years after that, in 1985, the Family Computer, now renamed Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), launched in North America. Bundled with Miyamoto's Super Mario Bros., the NES was a huge hit in North America, resurrecting a fledgling video game industry that had all but collapsed in 1983 and making Nintendo a household name. By 1990, 30% of American households owned the NES. In 1989, Nintendo followed up the NES with its portable gaming system Game Boy. In North America, it sold its entire first shipment of one million units in a matter of weeks.

The following decades saw high points and low points for the gaming giant, but it maintained its popularity and independence throughout. In the years since the Family Computer launched in Japan, Nintendo has sold 654 million units of hardware and 4.1 billion units of software, including many of the most popular and critically acclaimed titles ever made.

Happy birthday, Nintendo. Here's to 125 more.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tearaway

Game: Tearaway
System: Vita
Genre: Platform
Developer: Media Molecule
Release date: November 22, 2013

Pros: Amazing art direction, good music, immersive and interesting use of the Vita hardware

Cons: On the short side, not challenging at all, tedious gameplay


From the makers of LittleBigPlanet comes Tearaway, a visually beautiful game with impressive art direction and and a great sense of style. Unlike the majority of Vita games it uses the Vita system nose-to-tail, so to speak. The touchscreen, rear touchpad, gyro sensors, camera, and microphone are all used creatively and in a way that immerses the player, who, by the way, is able to customize this adventure to his or her liking by way of papercraft models and designs.

That's the good. Now the bad. It's not much fun to play. The game is far too easy. The platform sections, which are few and far between, are simple and straightforward, and, with infinite lives and checkpoints every 20 feet, there is no cost to failure. The same holds true for the arena sections, where waves of disposable enemies appear. They're dispatched with little effort.

Yes, riding a rampaging pig through a field is as fun as it sounds.

Apart from that, the gameplay in general is underdeveloped. There are some interesting sections of the game, slides and piggyback riding most notably. But they're too short and too simple. Platforming is woefully underused and unsophisticated. As mentioned earlier, it's foolproof. And, while the rear touchpad and touchscreen functionality makes Tearaway unique, it serves to make the platforming areas uncomfortable. It's no fun doing finger gymnastics while trying to cross a bottomless pit. The awkward camera doesn't help either.

The best way to describe Tearaway might be as an interactive art exhibit. Using the Vita camera, players can, quite literally, put themselves in the game. They can photograph their living rooms or soda cans or even their own faces and impose those images into the papercraft world. In addition, they can cut custom objects from colored paper using their fingers as a stylus, and customize the hero (or heroine) of the story at an time with a range of facial features and accessories.

In the end Tearaway is an interesting, artistic game that celebrates individuality, but also one that's too easy, too simple, and too in love with it's own papercraft universe.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Title: Guardians of the Galaxy
Director: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker

Guardians of the Galaxy is a study on contradiction. It manages, somehow, to parody its source material – indeed the entire superhero sub-genre – yet, simultaneously, produce a sincere, serious sci-fi adventure movie. It’s subversive and self-referential, but it also conforms to the tropes and parameters established by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to which Guardians, like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, belongs. In short, Guardians of the Galaxy, despite its big bankroll and big studio backing, boasts the heart and soul of a budget B-movie. It makes the proceedings a little corny, a little silly, and a lot of fun, and it goes a long way toward making Guardians the best Marvel movie since The Avengers.

Guardians of the Galaxy begins on Earth in 1988. The audience meets a young Peter Quill, who, shortly after losing his mother to cancer, is abducted by an alien spaceship. Fast forward 26 years and Quill, now a professional space pirate, is roaming the galaxy in search of treasure. His latest trophy is a mysterious orb, coveted by the Nova Corps – an intergalactic police force – a genocidal madman named Ronan, and several others. When Quill escapes with the orb, he immediately becomes a wanted man.

Like other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians borrows the worlds, characters, and technology of Marvel’s comic book collection. Unlike many of them, however, Guardians is interested in the extraterrestrial. The results are some spectacular environments, characters, and alien technology, brought to life by cinematographer Ben Davis (Kick-Ass) and makeup designer David White (Thor: The Dark World, Troy). From the rusty, industrial prison known as the Kyln to the cloudy, rocky, and lifeless basins of the planet Morag, Guardians paints a visually provocative picture of life on the other side of the galaxy (think Star Wars meets Heavy Metal).

The unlikely heroes of Guardians of the Galaxy

Inhabiting these alien worlds and environments are the true stars of Guardians of the Galaxy, the motley crew of anti-heroes charged with protecting the galaxy. In addition to Quill (Chris Pratt), there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin with a mysterious past; Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscle man tortured by the death of his wife and child; and, the dynamic duo of the ensemble, Rocket, an anthropomorphic raccoon, and Groot, a sentient tree creature. Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, bring a healthy amount of energy and emotion to the movie. Their Han Solo-Chewbacca relationship provides some of the biggest laughs and saddest moments of the movie.

The breakout star of Guardians, however, has to be Pratt, whose muscular, wise-cracking, womanizing Quill is a far cry from the doughy slacker Pratt portrays on the TV show Parks and Recreation. His character, greedy for profit but willing to risk his life for a treasured keepsake, is the anchor that a space opera like Guardians needs. Without him, and director James Gunn’s ironic and knowing screenplay, the movie could easily have become a leaden, self-serious mess. Fortunately, for viewers, the exact opposite is true. Guardians is a breezy, wacky ride full of accidental heroes and fantastic alien worlds that embraces the heritage of Saturday morning serials and pulp fiction. It’s a B-movie with a AAA budget, and it’s all the better for it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Snowpiercer

Title: Snowpiercer
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Written by: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton

Snowpiercer is something of an amalgam. Part high-concept science fiction, part social satire, part action thriller, the movie weaves in and out of several different genres and moods during its 126 minutes. Much like its director, Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer is interested in many things at once, and demonstrates mastery over all of them.

Set in the year 2031, after a devastating ice age freezes much of human civilization, Snowpiercer follows what's left of humanity on a giant train powered by perpetual motion. Rattling along icy rails and crashing through frozen overhangs, the train is home to a tiered class system, in which the upper class lives in the nose of the train and the lower class lives in the tail. Snowpiercer tells the story of this lower class staging a rebellion against the status quo.

What begins as a fairly typical jailbreak movie quickly and surprisingly morphs into something much deeper, more layered, and more intellectually, viscerally, and visually stunning than any other movie released this summer season. The screenplay, adapted by Bong and Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) from a French graphic novel, is a tapestry of political provocation, dark humor, shocking violence, and big ideas, all wrapped up in a powerful human drama set against a fully-realized and convincing dystopian future.

Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer.

Breathing life into that drama is a stellar international cast, anchored by Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) who plays Curtis, the stoical leader of the proletariat, and South Korean actor Song Kang-ho, who disappears into the role of Minsu, a politically pessimistic security specialist addicted to a toxic inhalant.

On a visual front, Snowpiercer is spectacular. Production designer Ondrej Nekvasil (The Illusionist) and his team of art directors, makeup artists, and costume designers have created in Snowpiercer a believable universe within the confined, steely space of a train. Each car has its own visual identity and story, and informs the pacing, action, and trajectory of the movie. Punctuating this trajectory are some thrilling and rattling action set-pieces, one of which is as good as any previously committed to celluloid. Expertly staged, visually inventive, and breathless in its brutality, this sequence is an instant classic.

The same could be said for Snowpiercer as a whole. Not since Neill Blomkamp's District 9 has a movie so deftly woven political allegory and science fiction with human drama. The result is a challenging and powerful motion picture that's both cerebral and visceral. With it, Bong Joon-ho has cemented his status as one of the industry's most creative, nimble, and visionary directors.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mario Kart 8

Game: Mario Kart 8
System: WiiU
Genre: Racing
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: May 30, 2014

Pros: Amazing track design; new anti-gravity mechanics; gorgeous graphics; strong, varied soundtrack
Cons: Battle mode


Since 1992, when Super Mario Kart first popularized the kart racing sub-genre, the Mario Kart series has been the video game industry's premiere kart racer. Challengers to the throne have come and gone over the past twenty years, but none have managed to unseat Mario Kart, which has relied on fundamentally-sound mechanics, addictive local and, increasingly, online multi-player options, and a stable of familiar Nintendo mascots to drive sales. Never before, however, have the developers at Nintendo EAD released a kart game, or any racing game for that matter, as deep, rewarding, and immersive as Mario Kart 8, the latest and greatest kart racer from Nintendo's evergreen franchise. 

Whereas recent installments of Mario Kart have felt, at times, like variations on a theme, Mario Kart 8, for the first time in a generation, feels like a brand new game, built from the ground up. The game looks different, it sounds different, and, most notably, it plays different. Yes, it borrows some of the ideas, systems, and even tracks from earlier games in the series, but it re-purposes them in such a way to produce something entirely new. This is a game with newly found confidence and maneuverability, thanks in no small part to the spatial freedom allowed by Mario Kart 8's greatest gift, anti-gravity. 

Mario races along an anti-gravity section.

Anti-gravity goes a long way in Mario Kart 8, not just by providing the visceral thrill of driving up walls and along ceilings, but also by adding another level of strategy to each race and by opening up new physical space in which to drive. Even in Mario Kart 7, which allowed racers to glide through the air and dive under the waves, each track was neatly defined by barriers left and right, and by Newton's law of universal gravitation. In Mario Kart 8 those barriers are much more fluid and changeable. Players might speed horizontally across the face of a mighty dam or bounce off bumpers in a section of track suspended in space above a busy airport (how is that not a violation of FAA regulations?).

The end result is an amazing collection of tracks, arguably the best in the series. Stand-outs among the eight original courses include Thwomp Ruins, Twisted Mansion, Mount Wario, and Cloudtop Cruise. Even the eight retro tracks, which are usually borrowed wholesale from previous entries, are refreshed in Mario Kart 8. They feel new again, and, in many cases, better.


All these new ideas and courses wouldn't mean much, however, if it weren't for a solid mechanical foundation underpinning the game. Luckily, Mario Kart performs almost impossibly well, with a subtly altered driving system that welcomes in novices and provides enough depth and challenge for experts. In terms of presentation and performance, the game is a home run. Fluid animation, gorgeous environments, and amazing attention to detail make each track a joy to race through, offline and online. Then there's the soundtrack, recorded with a full, live orchestra, a first for the Mario Kart series. It's jazzy, it's bold, it's a perfect complement to the lavish production that is Mario Kart 8.

The only real flaw in the game is its battle mode, which eschews brand new battle arenas in favor of standard racing courses. Consequently, players will drive along each course searching, often in vain, for opposing players. At best, it's a diverting game of joust; at worst it's a painfully boring game of hide and seek.

Mario Kart 8 can be played locally via splitscreen or online with 12 players.

It's a relatively small flaw, however, when the entire Mario Kart 8 package is considered. Mechanically, the game provides enough control options and strategies to satisfy both the greenest novice and the most seasoned veteran; structurally and spatially, the game allows players to discover heights and spaces previously unexplored; and technically, the game is steady and silky smooth offline with a group of friends or online with strangers from around the world. Add to that some of Nintendo's most verdant and opulent visuals and an enlivening soundtrack and the outcome is the best racing game ever made, and an early contender for game of the generation.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

E3 2014: Best in Show

In the world of cinema, the Academy Awards is the premiere event. In television, the Emmys is the annual event worth watching. With video games, it's a different story. Although there are plenty of awards shows annually, it's actually an event focused around previews that takes center stage. That event is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, known colloquially as E3, where the industry's giants go to do battle every summer. This year, continuing its break from tradition, Nintendo opted for a pre-recorded digital presentation in lieu of a real-time on-stage presentation. Its competitors, Microsoft and Sony, and publishers Ubisoft and EA went the traditional route with spectacular floor shows. Unfortunately for all involved, most depressingly the fans, all those who presented had rather meager showings. Even Nintendo, which "won" E3, played it safe. There were few surprises during the entire week, which was dominated by recycled ideas, overlong presentations, and not nearly enough actual gameplay footage.

However, despite the overall disappointment that was E3, there were a handful of games that elevated the proceedings and made the show worth watching. Those five games are included below.

Note: for those who are interested, you can find last year's "Best in Show" here.


#5

Yoshi's Woolly World



From the team that created Kirby's Epic Yarn comes a new fabric-focused feature, Yoshi's Woolly World, this time with Nintendo mascot and beast of burden Yoshi. In this WiiU game, Yoshi retains much of the same moveset that has defined his other platform adventures, only this time instead of eggs he carries balls of yarn, which can trigger a number of unique events in the game word. The game will feature a two-player co-op mode, and will launch in the first half of 2015. Woolly World marks the first console Yoshi game since Yoshi's Story in 1998.


#4 

Sunset Overdrive


Of all the exclusive games showed at Microsoft's press conference, Sunset Overdrive was the most impressive. It looks refreshing, different, and lots of fun. Developed by Insomniac Games (Ratchet & Clank, Resistance), Sunset Overdrive is an open-world action game focused on "agile combat." The heroes of the game can swing and jump around the metropolis Sunset City at breakneck speed. Apart from the single player campaign, there's an online cooperative mode called Chaos Squad that allows eight players to fight together.


#3 

Far Cry 4


Continuing the open-world mayhem that's defined the series, Far Cry 4 takes place in a fictional country high in the Himalayas ruled by a despot. Players can attack the game in the way in which they choose, whether taking down enemy patrols stealthily or riding a rampaging elephant into an enemy stronghold. Far Cry 4 will feature a co-op mode, also, and on PS4 it's a real treat. As with 3DS download play, the PS4 version of Far Cry 4 will allow players to invite friends to join their games, even if those friends don't own a physical or digital version of the game.


#2
Batman: Arkham Knight


As the first Batman game designed for PS4 and Xbox One, Arkham Knight manages to fit the entire city of Gotham into one tiny disc. In fact, the game is five times bigger than developer Rocksteady Studios' previous title, Arkham City. Combat has also been refined in the years since Arkham City launched. There are new, more powerful enemies, new combos, and brand new environmental attacks. Last, but definitely not least, this latest Batman game features, for the first time, the Batmobile as a drivable vehicle, which can be summoned to the player's location at will.


#1
Splatoon



As with Sunset Overdrive, Splatoon is changing the rules of what has become in the last decade a very stale and bloated genre. Splatoon is a squad-based third-person shooter that pits two teams of four players against each other, each squad composed of squid-kid hybrids armed with ink guns. During each match, players can transform from a kid into a squid, which can then surf through its own team's ink undetected, and maybe even ambush an enemy player. The WiiU GamePad is used cleverly in Splatoon, displaying a map of the battlefield covered in ink and the player's teammates. One swipe of a finger (or stylus) will launch the player across the map directly to his or her partner. Just be careful where you land.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla

Title: Godzilla
Director: Gareth Edwards
Written by: Max Borenstein
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliet Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

While walking out of the theater after watching the credits roll for the most recent installment of Godzilla, this one helmed by up-and-coming British director Gareth Edwards, I overheard a young man remark "it almost makes me forget about the 1998 Godzilla." If this is the sentiment expressed by the majority of moviegoers this summer season, then mission accomplished for Edwards and company, who several years ago set to wipe out from the collective unconscious the memory of Roland Emmerich's overblown and intellectually bankrupt 1998 blockbuster. What Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein have managed to do is make the anti-Emmerich Godzilla, a thoughtful, slow-moving blockbuster in which humans and monsters have equal billing. In some ways, this newest imagining of Godzilla goes a little too far in that direction. It suffers, at times, from self-seriousness. But overall, the movie is a successful reboot. The cast, anchored by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), lends credibility to the picture; Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey punctuate the movie with some amazing visual moments; and the monster itself is that rare creation in a world of overwrought digital effects -- one that manages to impress.

Godzilla begins with a pre-title sequence set in 1954, after which it jumps forward in time to 1999, where scientists are called to the Phillipines to investigate puzzling fossils and radiation signatures. From there it moves northeast to Japan, where the movie introduces Joe Brody (Cranston), his wife Sandra (Binoche), and their young son. The majority of the movie takes place fifteen years later, in 2014, where the events of 1954 and 1999 culminate in a major crisis for humankind.

Speaking of humans: for a long time they are the only focus of attention in Godzilla. As in Spielberg's masterwork Jaws, Gareth Edwards wisely chooses to keep his monsters under wraps and shrouded in secret so their arrival on screen is that much more impactful. The "King of the Monsters," after all, should make a kingly entrance. So it's up to people to keep the production moving forward. And while the writing is not quite worthy of a Pinter play or Shakespeare sonnet, and the drama is not quite as powerful as it should be, it still manages to set a solid foundation so that when the the forces of nature descend on human civilization, the audience appreciates the emotional baggage of the movie's protagonists and understands the science behind its monsters.

Emotionally and intellectually, Godzilla hits all the right notes. But visually, it rises into the stratosphere. The earlier comparison to Spielberg was no accident. In Godzilla, Edwards and McGarvey seem to be channeling the legendary director with their aesthetically arresting use of light, shadow, and, especially, mirrors. The visual highlight of the movie, however, is entirely original: a high-altitude low-opening (HALO) jump at dusk, framed against a stormy sky, lit by crimson-red flares.

Walking out of the theater on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I, too, had almost forgotten about the 1998 Godzilla. Whereas Emmerich's movie was boastful of its special effects and meager in its characters and science, Edwards Godzilla is rich in text and subtext, and uses digital effects to texture a vivid visual landscape of monsters, heroes, and nuclear weapons. It's the Godzilla movie we deserve.