Since the latter half of the Xbox 360’s lifespan, it has become increasingly clear that Microsoft has opted out of the console exclusives arms race. Whereas Sony and Nintendo continue to pump out a wide breadth of quality first and second party titles, the Xbox has had to make due with the trinity of Gears of War, Halo, and Forza. While some former exclusive developers (like BioWare and Bungie) continue production of new games as multiplatform titles, the same cannot be said of Microsoft’s three UK studios. Bizarre Creations, former Project Gotham Racing series developers, have wilted under Activision’s ownership and have not released a game since 2010. A similar fate has befallen storied developer Rare, who have been kept in Kinect and Avatar purgatory since 2008. But perhaps the most depressing story belongs to Peter Molyneux’s former studio, Lionhead, which was shuttered in 2016 after years of irrelevance. With the studio’s shutdown it is unlikely that we will see another entry in its flagship series, Fable, and that is a true shame.
Though not as highly regarded as other major RPG franchises, the Fable games have always delighted in their own way. The first game carved out a niche with its charming sense of humor and focus on building up the hero’s reputation through a unique dialog and relationship system. The second game built upon this foundation by adding a fully realized economy, online cooperative play, and a much larger scope. The last of the mainline games, Fable III, for some reason or another has been maligned as the franchise killer, sending it towards the excretable Fable: The Journey before dying off completely. After nearly seven years of avoiding it, I finally decided to see what all the hubbub was surrounding the third Fable game and, by extension, what it did to kill off such well-regarded series. Onward to Albion!
Fable III starts out approximately 50 years since the end of Fable II. Albion has entered an industrial age, with the attendant bellowing smokestacks and rampant child labor. You are the son or daughter of the now deceased Hero, scion to the throne and second in line to rule. Your older brother, Logan, is a hated tyrant whose policies have become increasingly onerous upon the citizenry. After he presents you with a cruel decision to save either your significant other or a group of protesters from execution, you are spurred into action to lead a revolution against him. This results in the game’s first half, which feels a lot like the previous game in which you quest around Albion, building up your army and reputation prior to confronting the royal army in the capital city of Bowerstone. Upon defeating Logan and his loyalist forces, the game’s big twist is revealed. You are now the rightful ruler of Albion, however a supernatural army will arrive at your shores in one year to kill every man, woman, and child in the country. The only way to oppose this is to amass 6,500,000 gold pieces in order to fund an army large enough to prevent the impending havoc. With this crisis looming you must make the hard decisions between filling the royal treasury and becoming a tyrant, or emptying the coffers and having the people love you.
It’s the second half of Fable III that really pushes the series forward. The larger scope of looking after the best interests of Albion is something that feels unique to the game. It also allows the game to become surprisingly political by presenting the player with such heavy issues as balancing the needs of industry with the protection of Albion’s natural resources. Though you can help fund your government’s policies by transferring personal wealth over to the treasury, it can be difficult to stay out of debt if you give the go-ahead to every popular measure. Making the “right” decision becomes all the more difficult when the other option typically allows you to pillage Albion’s people and resources for gold, like if you choose to convert an orphanage into a brothel, netting over 1,000,000 gold pieces in revenue. Heavy is indeed the head that wears the crown.
Despite being Albion’s head of state, the game smartly does not limit your comings and goings in its latter half. You’re still a Hero, and so you will continue to journey across the land solving problems and killing all manner of beast and man that threatens the peace. The typical Fable nonsense is still present, with writing that recalls the dry English wit of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. It’s still great fun to interact with the locals, get married, have lots of sex (and deal with the consequences), and commit the occasional crime spree. The real estate system from Fable II makes a return, which made me care greatly about the world as I owned vast swathes of it by the end of the game. Of course, it’s still easy to game this system, and tying a rubber band to your controller and leaving the system on overnight remains an effective way to gain essentially infinite gold.
That’s not to say the game is perfect. Fable III comes with it a myriad of technical shortcomings, including a control scheme that feels sluggish, textures that sometimes fail to load, and the occasional hard freeze. The game is clearly straining under the limits of the Xbox 360, with the chugging framerate being a constant reminder of that fact. Additionally, the lack of menus can make questing more tedious than it needs to be and the series staple breadcrumb trail can be somewhat unreliable. However, if you’re willing to overlook these issues, the underlying game remains incredibly charming and compelling.
With the passage of several years and the arrival of a new console generation, I wasn’t expecting to be taken in by Fable III as I ended up being. I was reminded how much I enjoyed being in the quirky nation of Albion and how neat it was to see the world advance over the course of three games. It’s disappointing that we are unlikely to see a Fable IV harness the Xbox One to create a modern day (or future) version of Albion. There’s still much potential in the series to offer a less serious form of epic RPG, but only if Microsoft wishes for it to be so. Until then, Fable III remains an excellent send-off to a memorable series.
It’s astonishing to think about how far game design has come in the past decade. In recent years we’ve seen an unprecedented blending of genre elements into all manner of video games. Open world games are now expected to have top of class shooting and driving mechanics, all shooters must have some sort of RPG-inspired customizability, and god help any RPG that lacks “tight” controls. However, it wasn’t long ago that this wasn’t the case, and one must only look back to the Xbox 360/Playstation 3 era to see a far more eclectic mix of game designs in big budget titles. In no genre was this most apparent than in shooters, which evolved a great deal from early generation titles such as Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and Call of Duty 2 to “split-gen” games like Titanfall and Destiny. But during the decade that shooters established now-modern conventions, there were many titles in which “incorrect” design decisions placed them in the dustbin of history. Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 was one such game, but playing through it with modern eyes reveals it to be a fascinating case study in the evolution of shooters.
I can’t really separate out my interest in Vegas 2 from the timing of it hitting the market. Released on March 18th, 2008 (five months after the seminal Call of Duty 4 and eight months before Gears of War 2 solidified its predecessor’s legacy) the game felt like Ubisoft had designed it for a previous era of consumer expectations. That isn’t to say that the game was not warmly received, as it got solid reviews across the board (including a positive, four star review by Jeff Gerstmann). But for a well liked game, no one ever really talks about Vegas 2 nowadays. Not even as a weird curiosity. Why is that?
For starters, the game itself controls oddly and never feels very comfortable. Aim down sights is consigned to clicking the right thumbstick, sprinting is on the left bumper (with your character’s stamina being that of a 60 year-old smoker), and there appears to be no way to melee opponents in close quarters. And for all the praise that the first Vegas got in 2006 about its cover-based combat, Vegas 2’s system never really improves on it. As before, the player must hold down the left trigger near a wall of cover and the game seamlessly shifts the perspective from first person to third person. What’s not so seamless is the act of shooting behind cover. Oftentimes I would find myself behind unobstructed cover but unable to take a shot because the game deemed it so. Worse still were cover points that had my character automatically peek out, exposing her to very lethal enemy fire.
That’s not to say that the cover system doesn’t work, but just that it only works if you’re playing the game within some very rigid parameters. Doorways in particular are very consistent cover points that help facilitate the game’s core “breach and clear” gameplay. Like most Rainbow Six games, the crux of Vegas 2’s gameplay lies in infiltrating and clearing rooms full of bad guys. To that end, the campaign is structured around the specific cadence of your team stacking up against a door, you using a snake camera to see what’s on the other side, and then giving the “go” order to have your guys flash/frag/breach and clear the room. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the planning and execution of clearing a room provides a great rush and adds a layer of strategy to the proceedings. However, like in previous Xbox 360 era Tom Clancy games, it’s too easy to game the difficulty by sending in your revivable team mates to soak up bullets while you pick off distracted enemies. This is exacerbated by the fact that the game seems only designed to have one or two points of ingress per room. Usage of any non-traditional entry points, such as a window, results in some incredible clunky shooting and movement that almost always guaranteed me taking a fatal bullet.
Similar to the gameplay, the game’s story seems to have come from a bygone era. Like the novel on which the series is based, you are an agent of Rainbow, a multi-national coalition of elite soldiers who act as a sort of a worldwide SWAT team. Your team is in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that conveniently end up in Las Vegas during the events of original Rainbow Six: Vegas. Cue multiple scenes of people frantically screaming “Where is the bomb?!” until the bomb is located. Or was it really? Or is there a second (or third) bomb? Of course it is a bit rote to criticize a shooter for not having the deepest of stories, but even considering that the plot of Vegas 2 remains especially threadbare. There’s very little that establishes the state of the world, nor anything that justifies why Rainbow needs to deal with the situation instead of US law enforcement or military assets. The result is a campaign that grew repetitive as I kept clearing rooms with a story that seemed to get duller by the minute.
The counterpoint to my criticisms is that I’m looking at it through a modern perspective. Of course Vegas 2’s plot can’t compare to the likes of Wolfenstein: The New Order or Titanfall 2, nor can its gameplay hold up to Gears of War 4 or DOOM. But one need not come this far forward to see the game’s deficiencies. Remember, Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 came out in early 2008 following a bumper crop of excellent shooters, including Bioshock, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, and Team Fortress 2. Compared to what was already on the market in 2008, the game feels very much rooted in its predecessor’s 2006 design paradigm.
Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 is a classic example of mistiming the market. The first Vegas came out early in the life of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 and felt sufficiently fresh at the time to establish a fanbase. But as the developers sought to expand on their success in the sequel by making everything bigger and better, they missed the larger trends in the industry pushing shooters forward. That isn’t a slight at the design team, who had no idea what 2007 would bring for gaming, but it does show how a game can fail to capture the zeitgeist despite the best of intentions. Even still, the game’s failure to move shooters forward provides valuable insight as to why modern games are designed the way they are. It may not have the most glamorous spot in the gaming canon, but Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 remains a beguiling artifact of its unique era.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game that really wants the player to like it. From the very start it seeks to steep you in its world. The game looks gorgeous, its presentation incredible, and its voice acting top notch. From start to finish, the developers at The Chinese Room display a confidence in what they wish to present, and for that I can’t help but applaud their efforts. But for all the work that clearly went into an incredibly polished final product, I could not shake the feeling of disappointment at how close the game comes to achieving greatness while still falling short. Let’s take a walk through the English countryside and break it all down.
The game starts you off on the outskirts of the fictional town of Yaughton. Though immediately charming with its lush fields and rustic architecture, all is not well. The populace seems to have disappeared quite recently, and throughout the town are orbs of light that play out vignettes of what they were up to in the days leading up to their disappearance. It quickly becomes apparent that the reason for the mass disappearance was due to the work of Stephen and Kate, a married couple and fellow astronomers who worked at the local observatory. The pair recently arrived in Yaughton, Stephen’s hometown, to continue their work. However, Stephen’s return has caused trouble with his family who don’t like Kate’s outsider status and wish he settled down with his old flame Lizzie. As the player further explores the town, they begin to see how the troubles of these people fit together with the coming cosmic rapture.
Given The Chinese Room’s legacy of popularizing the walking simulator genre with Dear Esther, it’s no surprise the Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture holds to a similar structure. Like their previous work, the characters are written with care and depth, and the cast does a phenomenal job in bringing conviction and emotion to the script. It’s even more impressive considering that the heavy lifting in bringing these characters to life relies on audio alone. Though the orbs animate the characters in broad strokes, detail is sparse and tough to follow visually. This is especially apparent in vignettes where characters are seated or otherwise not moving. That said, there are times when the animations sync up with the environment where it's worth watching the orbs as they move around, like when a knocked over paint can is revealed to be the result of a vignette.
For as successful as the game is in presenting its world and story, a lot of that work is undermined by game mechanics that don’t feel all that great. The game was roundly criticized at release for having a slow movement speed, and despite the developers adding in a speed up button the movement still feels plodding. I know I don’t move around at 100 km/h in real life like Doomguy would, but I know I can get through a wheat field faster than my player character in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The sluggish nature of the game’s movement becomes even more apparent indoors, where the player’s speed is slowed down further and the speed up button is disabled. Whatever the developer’s intention in having such an unhurried pace, it only served to undermine the enjoyment I was getting from exploring Yaughton.
Unfortunately, the game’s flaws don’t end with the snail-like movement of the player character. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture undermines its story by its very structure. There’s an orb that leads the player to various points of interest, but it ends up being quite difficult to follow at times. This resulted in me missing out on large chunks of story that were needed to fully understand the game’s climax and overall plot. Furthermore, the mechanic to activate vignettes remained obtuse and inconsistent throughout my playtime. Certain vignettes are activated by moving the Dualshock 4 around until you hit the right “frequency”, which in and of itself is a perfectly fine mechanic. However, other vignettes automatically played as I got in their vicinity, and yet others would not play at all for some reason. While I didn't necessarily need to see every bit of content to understand the story, having this strange and inconsistent method of doling out story beats proved to be incredibly frustrating.
I really wanted to like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The Chinese Room had previously established themselves as one of the premier studios working in the vibrant walking simulator genre and I was excited to see them raise the bar yet again. Sadly, their latest release does not live up to Dear Esther’s legacy. That’s not to say the game is complete write-off; there’s still plenty of quality writing and beautiful countryside to wade through in its four hour run time. If that’s enough to pique your interest, then perhaps this beautiful apocalypse is one worth experiencing.
In the nearly ten years since its release, Grand Theft Auto IV to me remains one of the most daring big budget releases ever created. Centered around the struggles of the immigrant Niko Bellic as he seeks to escape his past and achieve the American dream, the game painted a rich portrait of how heavily a lifetime of violence can weigh down on one’s soul. With untold millions of dollars riding on the game’s success Rockstar could have easily doubled down on their successful PlayStation 2 era philosophy of making goofy wide open sandboxes, but instead insisted that their follow-up actually say something. Sadly, despite the acclaim that GTA IV garnered at its release, time has shown its influence to be limited. In the ensuing years open world games have gone on to focus on superpowers (Crackdown, inFamous), repeatable objectives (Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry), or general zaniness (Saints Row, Sunset Overdrive). While these games are by no means bad, none of them have scratched a similar itch to GTA IV. Even Rockstar appears to have moved away from it, following up their opus with the bonkers Grand Theft Auto V, a definite course correction back to the PS2 days.
I mention all this because I feel that Mafia III is the GTA IV successor that I’ve been waiting for all these years. Set in the 1968 New Orleans analog of New Bordeaux, the game tackles such heady themes as racial prejudice, the role of organized crime in communities, and the cost of violence on both the victim and the perpetrator. It’s a rebuke of America’s “shining city upon a hill” image through the eyes of a man who has never been given reason to see his country that way, and as a result it feels like the first open world game in a long while to actually say something.
The game’s story begins with protagonist Lincoln Clay returning to his hometown of New Bordeaux after a stint running special operations in Vietnam. Orphaned at a young age, Lincoln’s family has become the city’s black mob, led by the charismatic Sammy Robinson. Though he intends on heading out to California to start a new life, Lincoln is asked by Sammy to do one last favor to settle the debt he has with the city’s crime boss, Sal Marcano. That favor ends up being a daring robbery of the United States Mint, which Lincoln manages to pull off. Of course, this being a mob story, Sammy’s crew is betrayed and murdered by Marcano and Lincoln is left for dead. Thanks to a timely intervention by Lincoln’s surrogate father, priest James Ballard, his life is saved and he begins a campaign of revenge against the Marcano syndicate.
Mafia III is framed by a documentary set in the modern day. Focusing on Lincoln, the documentary is narrated by those who knew the modern day legend and those who remain in hot pursuit of the infamous criminal. This framing device provides an elegant way to get through exposition and establish a mythology around Lincoln, but it also allows for the game to comment on the morality of his actions. Though his quest for revenge is presented as justified, his desire to replace Sal Marcano as the city’s premier crime boss is murkier. The question remains with us throughout the game: will Lincoln’s dethroning of the admittedly repulsive Marcano really change anything?
Structurally, Mafia III’s gameplay is centered around territory control, and the crime rackets associated with said territory. The game operates on a pretty static loop in which Lincoln gets the dirt on a district’s crime boss, dismantles the boss’s operation such that they are forced out in the open, and then kills the boss and leaves the district to one of his lieutenants. Though this process can sound a little rote, the developers at Hangar 13 manage to add variety thanks to the individuality of each district. Taking over the union racket at the docks feels quite different from dismantling a PCP operation in a well-to-do suburb, for instance, and each crime boss comes with their own mini-story that act as a distraction from the overall plot. That’s not to say that taking down one racket after another in rapid succession won’t get repetitive at times, but there are enough side distractions in the open world along with some well-crafted set piece missions to ensure the loop doesn’t get too stale. Add to that a metagame where lieutenants can turn on you if they feel slighted in how the city is being carved up, and the process of taking over New Bordeaux feels sufficiently complex to sustain the campaign’s 20-30 hour runtime.
What feels particularly special about the racket takeover loops is how they escalate. Mafia III makes clear that not all crimes are equal, and so Lincoln’s takeover of the poor districts’ marijuana and moonshine rackets don’t make the same impact as his going after the politician blackmail racket downtown. Furthermore, as Lincoln’s activities attract more and more attention by the city at large, the game begins to consider the greater implications of what a black man committing acts of violence would look like to a largely prejudiced white populace. For example, an ongoing subplot involves a white homeowner who murdered two black travelers seeking help at his doorstep. Though the facts of the case strongly suggests a racist murdering black people in cold blood, the accused is able to weasel out of a conviction by suggesting that he thought that they were the same criminals as Lincoln.
Unsurprisingly, the issue of racial prejudice comes up often in Mafia III. Lincoln, being a biracial man in the southern United States in 1968, faces an uphill battle against the bigotry of his time and place. The N-word is used liberally, and mostly not in the re-appropriated style of the African-American community. But further to that, the institutional racism of New Bordeaux is reflected in the game’s systems. Lincoln cannot walk into whites-only businesses without being chastised to leave or getting law enforcement called on him. Additionally, police presence in black districts is practically non-existent, whereas the harsh eye of the law is laser focused on Lincoln when he goes through white areas of the city. What makes these systems work is that they don’t just make a commentary on racism, they also compliment the game’s escalating difficulty as Lincoln is given less leeway as he takes his campaign to the richest and whitest neighborhoods in the story’s latter half.
Beyond making implicit gestures to racism in its world and mechanics, the game will also make explicit statements in the form of missions. One particularly memorable late-game racket involves a KKK analog that at first appears to be making money from racist literature and merchandise. On the surface this makes sense as the racket’s leader, Remy Duvall, is a well known radio personality who throughout the game has been spewing out white supremacist diatribes over the airwaves. However, Lincoln soon uncovers that the group’s surface activities hide a human trafficking ring centered around re-establishing pre-Civil War slavery of black people. This revelation shocks Lincoln, and by extension shocked me. To see a racket that seemed to exist simply to feed such appalling bigotry made me angry, and I began to savor the opportunity to take down Duvall and his cohorts. Soon enough, I had freed enough would-be slaves that the group staged a rally to come after Lincoln. While I previously tried to take down racket bosses stealthily, I wanted to go loud for this one. I equipped a grenade launcher and proceeded to rain death upon untold numbers of white hooded assholes. After a very cathartic showdown, Duvall had been taken down. Lincoln, an artist whose medium is brutality, fittingly chose to string up Duvall on a cross and burn him to death. Boy did that mission feel good.
But of course, Lincoln’s statement was made irrelevant almost immediately. New Bordeaux’s white citizenry was appalled to see their native sons slaughtered so savagely, and an upstanding community leader like Remy Duvall murdered in such a profane manner. They did not see this as an act committed by the individual Lincoln Clay, but rather yet another lashing out of the degenerate black community. The shockwaves were so large that the city’s police chief declared a race war in New Bordeaux, leaving a vulnerable populace at the mercy of an angry and violent majority. It was at this moment that I began to realize that Lincoln’s actions carried the weight of his race in the eyes of whites who cared not to differentiate one black man from another, and that revelation made me realize the undercurrent of futility throughout the game.
Mafia III feels most like a successor to GTA IV in its focus on futility. Like Niko Bellic wondering if he can ever break the cycle of violence, those around Lincoln express doubt if he can ever walk away from his criminality. Father James acts as the game’s moral center, advising Lincoln to put the past behind him and build a new life free from harming others. But the call for revenge is too strong for our protagonist, and his campaign brings with it collateral damage that affects untold numbers of New Bordeaux residents. While Lincoln himself brushes this off as the unintended consequences of his righteous quest, the game does not let him off so easy. Lincoln Clay is not a good man, it seems to say, but he is not so unique in such a wicked city.
There’s a conviction to Mafia III that elevates what should be a standard open world crime game to something greater. It’s certainly a game with flaws, including a world relatively barren of side content and a myriad of technical and stability issues. But Lincoln Clay’s story was so compelling from beginning to end that I couldn’t help but see it through. It’s a nuanced narrative that paints a portrait of a complicated man in a complicated situation, and I’m still unpacking what it all means. Mafia III may not give me wacky superpowers to play with or goofy emergent gameplay, but what it does give me is an open world that attempts to say something. I just hope that I don’t have to wait another decade to see something similar.
Note: Minor spoilers for Batman: The Telltale Series.
For as much as I’ve enjoyed Batman stories over the years, I’ve always subscribed to the notion that the Caped Crusader is always the least interesting character in his stories. This is definitely not a unique opinion to have about the iconic hero, but whether it’s the Joker, James Gordon, or any other charismaticGothamite, the Bat’s brooding, tight-lipped schtick pales in comparison to the various personalities he encounters. Batman: The Telltale Series’s retelling of the Dark Knight’s adventures is no different in this regard, but what’s new is the character that most dampens Batman’s shine is himself, or rather, his alter ego Bruce Wayne. Telltale’s focus on the man behind the mask opens up an aspect of the character that was minimized in previous video game adaptations, and as a result makes for exciting narrative and gameplay potential. Furthermore, by making some smart tweaks to our hero’s origin that reframes how he views his fight for justice, the episodic series manages to craft a distinct Bat-universe that drew me in despite a weariness for more stories featuring the famed cowl.
Batman: The Telltale Series very much follows in the formula of previous releases by the developer. There’s a five episode season, there are the trappings of a modern adventure game, the story superficially adapts to the player's’ choices, and action scenes amount to QTE button presses. It speaks to how consistent the formula remains in that I hadn’t played one of these since The Walking Dead season one and didn’t miss a beat. Unfortunately, with this sort of consistency comes a game engine that is being asked to do a lot more than it was designed for, and the Xbox One version of the game is full of bugs related to audio syncing, texture loading, camera placement, and sluggish framerate. Despite these issues, I found myself pressing forward simply based on Telltale’s fresh take on the iconic character’s well-worn story.
What makes this version of Batman so intriguing is its raising of a simple question: How did the Waynes become the most powerful family in the corrupt, crime-ridden city of Gotham without getting their hands dirty? The game’s answer is just as simple: They couldn’t. Indeed, by the end of the first episode, information comes to light that Thomas Wayne had collaborated with the city’s crime bosses in order to amass wealth and control Gotham. Later episodes detail the elder Wayne’s many crimes, including false imprisonment and assassination of his many enemies, and the revelations shatter Batman’s view of his crusade. The fortune and privilege he uses to fuel his campaign against crime was in fact generated by creating the conditions for that very crime to flourish, and many of the villains he faces were once victims of his father. These contradictions make for a fascinating re-alignment in Bruce Wayne’s moral compass while he works to rectify his family’s innumerable sins.
In many ways Telltale’s take on Batman comes rooted in a post-Great Recession world. With income inequality ever-growing and the regular drumbeat of wealthy individuals implicated in corruption scandals and abuse of power, there has been a growing distrust for the moneyed elite. Why then would audiences find a morally pure benevolent billionaire who takes the law into his own hands all that interesting? By compromising the Wayne family’s seemingly perfect facade, the hero is diminished in a way that no previous work has. Batman is now simply another impure cog in Gotham’s uncaring machinery.
One thing that modern Batman stories seem to struggle to justify is whether the large outlay of resources required to don the cowl could be put to better use in treating Gotham’s many ills. Rather than paying for a cutting edge Batmobile, wouldn’t it be more effective to put that money into improving schools? Rather than building a network to spy on citizens, couldn’t that effort be used to give the city free internet? But you can’t make a blockbuster film or bestselling comic book by having Bruce Wayne simply glad hand politicians and write checks, so extraordinary circumstances come up to make the Bat’s presence justified. Perhaps Gotham is a literal warzone of clashing gangs, or the police are corrupt to a man, or there’s a wide world of super-powered villains that no average human can fight. The developers at Telltale seem to understand this conundrum and smartly focus on the duality of Bruce Wayne and Batman and how each persona interacts with Gotham’s many systems.
The Bruce Wayne of Telltale’s imagining seems to understand that in order for meaningful and lasting change to take root in Gotham, there must be a fundamental realignment in how the city functions. To that end he funds initiatives like a new psychiatric hospital to offer more humane treatment compared to the ghastly Arkham Asylum. He also pledges his support for the mayoral campaign of Harvey Dent, who vows to clean up the corruption of Mayor Hill’s current administration. As such, much of the game has the player outfitted in Wayne’s bespoke suits as he navigates Gothamites’ competing interests through dialog. This conveniently compliments Telltale’s writing strengths and their excellent cause and effect system. There’s a building tension as Bruce must tactfully balance what’s best for the city, what’s best for those he cares about, and what’s best for him.
In many ways this aspect of the game reminded me of the The Wire, where an individual’s actions are shaped and limited by the institutions and machinations that surround them. Now, I certainly don’t mean that Batman: The Telltale Series rises to the quality of writing in The Wire, but its emphasis on systems affecting a city’s fortunes certainly evokes David Simon’s opus. Like the semi-fictional Baltimore, the overlapping systems and motivations that keep Gotham humming require that the player carefully consider how to deploy the vast resources at their disposal, often with incomplete information. It’s surprisingly nuanced, but it is ultimately undermined by the story’s dullest aspect: Batman.
Given the game’s title, it’s no surprise that the titular hero gets ample screen time. Batman’s portrayal comes across as fairly conventional. He wears an armored suit, wields a bunch of high-tech gadgets, speaks with a low growl, and punches a whole bunch of dudes in the face. Bruce dons the cowl whenever the story calls for him to take a sledgehammer to his problems, and unsurprisingly this is where the game’s nuances are smashed away. There’s minimal dialog in the Batman sequences and action is paramount. Unfortunately, this is also where Telltale’s game design also stumbles. In addition to the engine’s bugs feeling more pronounced in these segments, the action sequences are boring QTEs that awkwardly slows down the choreography while also failing to provide the player with a feeling of control. While there are slower-paced investigation scenes that are inoffensive, it never feels like there’s enough to prevent me from yearning to get back into Bruce’s imported loafers.
I can’t help but feel that Telltale could create something extraordinary were they unshackled from the demands of their various licenses. The Bruce Wayne half of Batman: The Telltale Series feels like a different, better game than the Dark Knight’s segments, and I wish that there was more of the former than the latter. To the game’s credit, there are scenarios in the game that allow the player to engage as either Bruce Wayne or Batman, and I hope that season 2 offers more of those segments. Despite my ever-increasing Bat-fatigue, the developers have managed to craft a compelling story that offers a new perspective on our hero’s well-worn mythos. If that’s enough to intrigue the overwhelmed Bat-fan within you, then Telltale’s latest may be worth checking out.
It’s become almost rote to point out the video game industry’s terrible portrayal of sex and relationships over the years. While established studios continue to turn out stiff and mechanical intimacy, indie developers of erotic games face ghettoization by being kept out of stores, both physical and digital. The result are erotic games that lack the budget or talent to churn out something more interesting than slightly interactive porn. The developers at Love Conquers All Games evidently saw an underserved market for well crafted, well written erotic fare and so made the superb Ladykiller in a Bind. A visual novel that transcends the weight of its genre and subject matter, the game weaves its excellent writing through a story that is genuinely funny, emotional, and sexy.
The setup for the game is pretty much described in its full title: My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress as Him and Now I Have to Deal with a Geeky Stalker and a Domme Beauty Who Want Me in a Bind!! The story opens with the protagonist, known canonically as “The Beast”, tied up by her twin brother, known as “The Prince”. The Prince begins questioning The Beast about the events of the past week, in which the protagonist had been posing as her brother aboard a cruise with his high school classmates. As The Beast relates her story, we find that the cruise will last for 7 days as it crosses the Atlantic, and a game shall be played wherein the winner will take home $5 million. Cue a week of flirty banter, intense sex, and juicy drama.
Admittedly, the premise for the game sounds insane, and it doesn’t make much more sense in the context of the game. But Ladykiller manages to sell its setting and characters with some breezy banter supported by a lively art style. I cannot overstate how much I liked the game’s art. From its excellent character designs that pop with personality to the detailed backgrounds, Ladykiller always looks excellent. However, what really sells the premise is that the game refuses to split the difference between being sexy and being good. Instead, it foregrounds its desire to titillate and makes no apologies for it. This is a teen sex romp, but it’s a damn good teen sex romp.
Opportunities for sexual encounters come frequently for the well-coiffed Beast, and I doubt there exists a way to finish the game without getting it on. With so much sex present I was worried that the game would start to feel repetitive after a while, however the developers deftly sidestep this issue by acknowledging that sex need not follow a prescribed script. The Beast, being a queer woman, participates in a variety of intimate encounters that could encompass anything between just passionate kissing to far more steamy activities. Though the sex scenes are presented in their entirety and are highly <ahem> explicit, they are merely explanatory details to the game’s genuinely sexy dialog.
Ladykiller’s writing stands out for how it effortlessly weaves sex in and out of its story. Though it can acknowledge the amusing aspects of intimacy with a cheesy joke here and there, the dialog is sharpest in the lead-up to the various sexual encounters. With the $5 million up for grabs, a lot of The Beast’s interactions with her fellow coeds rest on negotiation, and the use of sex in said negotiation. Power, both in the bedroom and out of it, becomes the point of breathless discussion. This structure elegantly foregrounds one the game’s biggest themes: consent.
From the opening screens of the game, Ladykiller goes to great lengths to ensure that all parties are consenting to the acts being performed. It even asks the player at various times if they are comfortable with what’s being presented and if they would like to skip or censor certain scenes. But further to providing a valuable public service by informing people about consent, it convincingly makes the argument that consent itself is sexy. The dialog leading up to and during the sex scenes is filled with frank discussions of the acts to be performed and whether the parties agree to them, but rather than detracting from the mood, these discussions only heighten it. The sexual negotiation begins to feel like a tease of what was to come and becomes indistinguishable from dirty talk. Add to that the buildup of the characters’ relationship and the associated power dynamics, and the sex not only looks hot, but feels necessary.
In addition to ensuring a sexual safe space with its adherence to enthusiastic consent, Ladykiller is steadfastly inclusive to a spectrum of sexualities. Characters are respectfully portrayed as gay, lesbian, straight, gender nonconforming, and even asexual, and the game embraces these identities to craft a truly astounding variety of relationships and sexual encounters. No one is marginalized based on their preferences, and although the player is given the option at times to make fun of a person’s particular kinks or wants, the game never attacks those characters’ sexualities. But for all the great strides the game makes for inclusivity, it is tempered by awkward racial dynamics.
As much as I enjoyed Ladykiller in a Bind, I couldn’t help but notice the monochromatic nature of its cast. The vast majority of students present as white, with a few actually acknowledged as such. That part in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad considering the inherent racial ambiguity of Japanese anime, of which the game takes inspiration. However, the game’s case is not helped by the fact that the only two explicit characters of color are The Maid, an employee of the cruise ship who is simply there to serve the passengers, and The Rival, an antagonist with few redeeming qualities whose only sex scene has him fiercely straining the definition of consent. Both portrayals come across as nods to some unflattering racial stereotypes that are hard to ignore, regardless of the intentions of the developer. The game isn’t necessarily racist because of this, but it does take some luster off it’s otherwise inviting and inclusive vision of sex and relationships.
Being a fan of a previous Love Conquers All Games’ title, Digital: A Love Story, I knew going in that Ladykiller would have solid writing. What I didn’t expect was a game that was genuinely erotic while also being a compelling interactive experience. The Beast’s eventful week proved to be an intricately plotted and fascinating romp that left quite an impression on me. It is by no means perfect, with certain awkwardly written lines and a limit on the game’s inclusivity, but where it succeeds it pushes gaming in a new, sex-positive direction. Ladykiller in a Bind is a must play for anyone interested in how video games can better present intimacy. But if all you want is to see sexy people getting nasty, the game is happy to oblige.
If there’s one word that can describe the output of Danish developer Playdead, it is “unnerving”. With their 2010 game, Limbo, the studio established a distinct style that emphasized a squishy sort brutality. This was most apparent in the gruesome death scenes of the game’s player character, but it was also reflected in the harsh and hostile world that surrounded him. Everything felt rundown, and much of the game involved exploiting the environment’s state of disrepair in order to make progress. The result was a game that never let me feel safe and made for a stressful yet engaging experience. Now, six years later, Playdead has come out with a follow-up to their debut by releasing Inside, a game that doubles down on Limbo’s unnerving qualities, for better and for worse.
One can easily list the similarities between Limbo and Inside. Both games involve a young boy protagonist as he navigates through a 2D environment of unspeakable horror. Both games feature visceral and gory violence done by and to the protagonist. Both games extensively utilize physics based puzzles that feel organic to the environment. And both games’ narratives amount to the player figuring out what it all means through environmental cues. Although it is apparent from the outset that Inside is very much a successor to Limbo, the game does differentiate itself by presenting a distinct setting that seeks to disturb the player in new ways.
Inside begins with the game’s unnamed protagonist (who I’ll refer to as “the boy”) on the run from sinister looking men. These men, equipped with vehicles, guns, and search dogs, are relentless in their pursuit of the boy and will not hesitate to shoot on site. As such, the beginning part of the game is a trial-by-fire tutorial where most players will die at least once or twice as they learn the game’s mechanics, namely jumping and grasping objects. Soon enough, the boy has eluded his would-be captors and comes across an abandoned farm. It’s here that the differences from Limbo starts to become apparent. Inside’s initial agricultural inspired art design gives it a more earthy feeling than Limbo’s industrial motif, though that earthiness does not inspire much comfort. The farm is littered with dead pigs, and, as the boy proceeds, dead humans. There’s a rot to Inside’s world that is only bearable due to the player’s detached perspective, and I’m thankful that the camera didn't zoom in any closer.
Eventually, the boy will stumble upon a helmet suspended by a cable. Attaching to the helmet causes nearby human corpses to rise and follow the boy’s commands. It’s here that Inside’s central conceit is revealed; of humanity in this world being a disposable and controllable product, no different than the pigs that were previously seen. It quickly becomes clear that the farm is just the start of a massive process to somehow enslave human bodies and turn them into some sort of product. To what end is unknown, but as the game progresses the extent of the operation becomes increasingly grotesque. The relative familiarity of the farm is quickly abandoned for poorly maintained processing facilities and laboratories, and the player’s sense of alienation from the game’s world only grows stronger.
Though Inside is a relatively short game to finish (~3 hours), I often questioned my resolve to complete it. The tableaus the game produces are truly stomach churning and I kept questioning why it needed to be presented. I respect Playdead’s minimalist approach and the evocative art style they use, but absent any context or commentary the game’s visuals often devolve into torture porn. The game feels less like it’s trying to make a point and more like it’s trying realize the art director’s sketchbook. While I do appreciate that the game is open to interpretation, like a Journey or a Flower, those games however do not utilize the provocative imagery of Inside. By presenting such dark subject matter while choosing not to make a point about it, the game comes across as exploitative.
Whatever my reservations regarding the tone of Inside, I do have to admit that Playdead can craft a platformer that feels good to control. Between the realistic feeling physics and the seemingly endless supply of character animations, the game strikes a good balance between weightiness and responsiveness. That said, the game’s physics based puzzles are only intermittently successful. At times, the “aha” moments where the boy’s momentum, gravity, and positioning line up to make a just-in-time jump feel incredibly satisfying. At other times, the puzzles devolved into a trial and error affair where I had the correct approach, failed in executing to due to a minor variation in the game’s physics, moved on to incorrect approaches for several minutes, and finally tried the correct approach again, this time getting the physics engine to cooperate. Admittedly, this was a similar problem I had with Limbo, and part of it is inherent to designing naturalistic looking physics puzzles. However, I can’t help but feeling that certain puzzles could have used another round or two of polishing to make them feel a bit more intuitive.
With Inside, Playdead has firmly established itself as one of the most unsettling developers working today. The game they’ve produced is deeply unnerving, reducing the human body to a simple pile of organs that can be manipulated, packaged, and sold. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the developers have created a game that is tough to look away from. Ultimately, Inside is a memorable journey through an imaginatively sadistic world. Whether it’s a journey worth taking depends on your tolerance for body horror and narrative ambiguity. In either case, keeping away from underwater monsters remains good advice.
There’s just something about road trips that I adore. Driving around a new area comes with it a sense of adventure, of exploration. I feel more connected to my trip than if I flew to my destination, and I always seem to get a good story or two out of it. As such, I was delighted to find that Forza Horizon 2 centers itself on the joys of road tripping. While the game acts as a worthy follow-up to its Xbox 360 predecessor, complete with discount billboards, excellent racing, and a massive stable of cars, it carves out its own identity by encouraging the player to stop (or slow down at least) and smell the roses.
My girlfriend and I, having only dated for under 6 months, decide to take the plunge and move in together. She was finishing up grad school and I was just about to start, and happily it worked out that we would be in the same city. Amidst all the chaos of organizing our lives for such a big change, we decide to take our first major trip together. We pick Nova Scotia as our destination. I have a friend who lives there that not only puts us up, but also lends us his cream Mercedes C-Class sedan. We spend the week there cruising around the island, visiting Lunenburg, Halifax, and Peggy’s Cove, all the while playing Mother Mother’s discography on repeat. As we get into an impassioned argument of whether “Arms Tonite” is a creepy or romantic song, I realize that she’s definitely a keeper.
Between every championship event in Forza Horizon 2, the game takes you on a road trip. You, along with your fellow racers, head out on a 5-15 minute trip through the varied terrain of France and Italy that make up the game’s world. While there’s some natural competitiveness between the drivers, the main distraction is taking in the scenery as you go. From gorgeous coastal roads to dirt path-s through farm country, there’s never a moment that wouldn’t make for a great photo. The weather can also dramatically shift along the way, and what started out as a wet and stormy drive has cleared up into a blindingly bright day. Though the road trips are timed, the clock is pretty generous if you want to make a few detours. See a road you haven’t taken yet? A sign that hasn’t been smashed? A vista that would make for a perfect picture? Go ahead and do your thing; the game can wait.
I just got married a week ago and my now wife and I are driving north on California’s famed State Route 1 for our honeymoon. Our itinerary had us flying into Los Angeles, driving up the coast, and flying out of San Francisco two weeks later. We rented a forest green MINI Cooper for the trip, and insisted on the selection even as the rental agent offered us a free “upgrade” to a generic SUV. But the MINI had personality and was a lot more fun to drive. So we’re driving along near Big Sur and we come up to the Bixby Canyon Bridge. My wife puts on the Death Cab For Cutie song of the same name, and we quietly enjoy the moment as we cross the narrow bridge. Best honeymoon ever.
As much as I loved the first Forza Horizon, it did fall into the trap of most open world games of focusing my attention on the map. Like bubble wrap, I simply wanted to pop all the icons on my map in order to get 100% completion. Though Colorado was beautifully rendered, at a certain point I stopped paying attention to the majestic Rocky Mountains in order to trigger the last couple of speed traps. Forza Horizon 2 feels like a rebuke of that style of game design by focusing on making the player feel present in the world. The introduction of road trips did the same thing for me that it does in real life; it compelled me to become intimately familiar with my surroundings. In turn, I felt a greater connection to the towns and farms dotting the Mediterranean coast than I ever did in the Centennial State. Though fast travel was an option, I always opted to drive to my destination. There was too much beautiful scenery I’d miss out on otherwise.
As a belated one-year anniversary trip, my wife and I fly out to Calgary for a road trip through the Canadian Prairies. We rent a silver Nissan Altima and bump a medley of our favorite hip hop as we rip through some of the flattest and straightest highways known to man. As we are driving to Saskatoon, we happen upon the quaint little town of Hanna, Alberta. It’s a tiny hamlet of a few thousand people, and we likely would have forgotten about it the second we passed through. But then we see the town sign, emblazoned with the immortal words “PROUD TO BE THE HOME OF NICKELBACK”. We can’t stop laughing for the rest of the drive.
Make no mistake, Forza Horizon 2 is still very much about racing fast cars against other fast cars. Race events and challenges make up the bulk of the game’s experience, with road trips acting as a framing device and palate cleanser between high octane activities. However, that framing device imbues the game with a much different vibe than its predecessor, one focused on the joys of the open road. The result is a game that emphasizes joyful exploration and discovery. I love a good road trip, and Forza Horizon 2’s journey through southern Europe is one trip well worth taking.
If there is something that video games tend to do far better than most other media, it’s creating a sense of place. Whether we’re exploring the vast fields of Hyrule or the humble Greenbriar residence, there’s something special about picking through a virtual space. More so than most, the Hitman games have thrived on creating intricate, clockwork-like environments where the player is encouraged to poke and prod the systems present to accomplish their goals. But as these worlds have grown ever more complex and expensive to produce, it has become apparent that a good portion of the designer’s work will never be seen by the average player. But rather than simply accept the status quo and move on, the folks at IO Interactive brilliantly incorporated this limitation into Hitman’s design. By doing so, they have created one of the most compelling examples for episodic gaming in recent memory.
The major issue with clockwork worlds is the large discrepancy between what content the developer must create versus what content the player actually sees. On a given playthrough, a player will pick one approach out of many to accomplish their goals. The remaining approaches, and the content made for them, may as well not exist from the player’s perspective. While having environments that allow for such freedom for the player is great feature to sell a game, it poses a major issue for AAA development at a time when budgets are ballooning at an unwieldy rate. So how can developers satisfy players while still keeping their game’s scope from getting out of control?
One remedy for this is to encourage the player to go through a level multiple times, trying out the different approaches and seeing all the content the developer labored to create. However, very few games actually do a good job in encouraging replays. Taking Deus Ex: Mankind Divided as an example, let’s say I want to complete a specific mission with guns blazing rather than the stealthy approach I used my first time through. Unfortunately, there’s no good way for me to get back to that point outside of having the foresight to make a save prior to commencing the mission. Failing that, I would need to start up a new game and slog through the story until I get back to where I want to be. It’s time consuming and tedious, and as a result, I have no desire to go back to the mission.
Hitman, on the other hand, actively encourages replays of its levels in a number of brilliant ways. First, each mission can be accessed separately from the menu. Second, each playthrough unlocks new disguises, starting locations, and gear that slightly tweaks how the player approaches their assassination target. Third, the use of elusive targets, escalation missions, and opportunities radically alters how the player views the static environment. And finally, the episodic structure prevents players from simply barreling through the story and setting the game aside. Combine these design decisions with gorgeous and detailed environments, and you get a formula that has players excited to go through Hitman’s content over and over again.
Despite the reservations from many regarding Hitman’s episodic rollout at the start of the year, the decision to dole out the game in a piecemeal fashion can now be seen as a resounding success. The structure of the game allows it to encourage the sort of freeform, multi-playthrough gameplay that the franchise is known for while also making great use of the assets created. The result is an excellent return to form for Agent 47 that finally shows a viable path forward for episodic AAA development.
Even at 10 years old, the Wii is something of an enigma. Though it remains one of the best selling consoles ever, its legacy has become tarnished by an enthusiast gaming community that felt largely abandoned by Nintendo’s focus on the casual gaming market during that era. Even the vast mainstream success of the Wii has not translated into much collective nostalgia, with casual consumers letting their systems collect dust after the initial hype faded. But despite these mixed feelings about the Wii, its impact on the gaming landscape cannot be denied. The console upended a lot of our traditional notions of what video games can be, and in doing so brought gaming to new audiences who otherwise would not have considered gaming as a hobby. Although no one could have predicted the diminutive console’s massive reach, its success was no accident. Prior to the Wii’s release, Nintendo had begun to reconsider its approach to video games, and the story of the system cannot be fully told without considering the environment in which it was developed.
To truly understand the Wii, we must consider the state of Nintendo in the run-up to the system’s release. The venerable Japanese video game giant had struggled to find any footing with its latest home console, the Gamecube. While its previous console, the Nintendo 64, managed to carve out a profitable niche by selling highly polished and revolutionary games to a dedicated fanbase, the Gamecube was squeezed out by the ubiquitous Playstation 2 and the cutting edge Xbox. Were it not for the continued success of the Game Boy Advance keeping the company profitable, Nintendo would likely have been forced out of the hardware business entirely. Clearly, another console in the same vein as the Gamecube would not suffice, but what would a next-gen Nintendo console even look like? The answer began to materialize in 2004 from a very unlikely success story.
At E3 2004, Sony announced what seemed like the killing blow against Nintendo. Not content with simply wresting control of the home console business from the House of Mario, they signaled their intent to take on Nintendo’s dominant handheld division with the announcement of the PlayStation Portable. Though many had tried and failed to topple the stalwart Game Boy line over the years, the PSP seemed like the first machine that could actually succeed. With multimedia capabilities, a gorgeous screen, a nub that imitated a control stick, and a processor that could do near-PS2 level visuals, the already aging Game Boy Advance looked like a relic in comparison.
Nintendo’s response to this very real threat was… odd, to say the least. In the months preceding E3 2004, company spokespeople had been teasing a new handheld system codenamed “Nintendo DS”. This system would not be the successor to the Gamecube nor the Game Boy Advance, and instead would exist as a so-called “third pillar”. After much speculation, with the codename inexplicably changed to “Nitro” amid mixed messaging from Nintendo brass, the system was finally revealed at E3 as the Nintendo DS. It possessed a clamshell design akin to the Game Boy Advance SP, but had two screens stacked atop one another. The bottom screen had touch capability and every DS would ship with a stylus to further cement the console as touch based. Though the DS was able to render environments in 3D, its processor could only achieve visuals similar to the ancient Nintendo 64. On paper this seemed like Nintendo’s panicked and disjointed response to Sony’s svelte challenger. However, that autumn the Nintendo DS was released, and with it gaming orthodoxy was turned on its head.
While the DS initially coasted on sales to the Nintendo faithful, and its launch titles demonstrated that developers were still trying to make heads or tails of the quirky new handheld, early 2005 marked a turning point. With the release of games like Nintendogs, Meteos, and Kirby: Canvas Curse, the design language around touch based games began to solidify, and casual consumers took notice. Sales of the system skyrocketed, and with the releases of blockbusters like Mario Kart DS and Brain Age in late 2005/early 2006, it was clear that DS had outmaneuvered the more powerful and better funded PSP. In response, Nintendo quickly abandoned the idea of the DS as a “third pillar” and devoted all handheld resources to the surprise success. But despite this good fortune, the Gamecube continued to struggle. However, Nintendo now had a tested strategy to compete in the upcoming console generation.
By early 2005 it started to become clear that the next generation of home consoles would arrive sooner rather than later. Microsoft, sensing an opening to overtake market leading Sony, announced their Xbox 360, a new console that would be powerful enough to output high definition graphics and take advantage of internet connectivity to deliver online gaming and digital distribution of media. Sony in turn unveiled the Playstation 3 at E3 2005, promising that it would output best-in-class visuals and truly embrace HD with its new Blu-Ray format. Nintendo, however, chose not to say much at all about the Gamecube’s successor. The system was codenamed “Revolution”, it would be about the size of 3 DVD cases stacked together, and the yet-unveiled controller would challenge our preconceptions of what an input device could be. Speculation abounded for the next few months, as Nintendo’s comments downplaying the processing power of the system sparked much debate as to whether the upcoming console could compete against Microsoft and Sony’s behemoths. Thankfully, Nintendo did not wait long to reveal what made the Revolution so special by unveiling the controller at the 2005 Tokyo Game Show.
The reveal of the Revolution’s controller was simultaneously surprising and expected. The controller, shaped like a TV remote and meant to be grasped by one hand, would allow for full 3D motion inputs in addition to standard buttons. Furthermore, it would have an infrared pointer, gyroscope, and built-in speaker to allow for a variety of unorthodox inputs and interactions. While the remote itself seemed alien to consumers who were comfortable with traditional gamepads, the design philosophy behind it was a natural extension of the DS’s ethos. Granted. consumer TVs lacked touch capabilities, but Nintendo was able to provide an approximation of the DS’s naturalistic gestures through the combined features of the remote. Discussion amongst enthusiasts shifted to what new types of games would be possible with this exciting input device, but any further news out of Nintendo would have to wait until E3 2006.
With its autumn release fast approaching, Nintendo needed to make a pitch to a gaming market already starting to commit itself to competitor platforms. Their 2006 E3 press conference provided an excellent stage to make that pitch, and they mostly succeeded in doing so. Nintendo articulated their vision for the Revolution as a console that would put graphical fidelity second to good old fashioned gameplay. The demo of the upcoming Red Steel showed off how the remote could breathe new life into action games with realistic feeling swordplay and gunplay. The addition of a nunchuck attachment to the remote would allow the console to support full analog movement, as demonstrated by the highly anticipated The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. And there was also the incredible Wii Sports, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Aside from the fresh and exciting games on display, the system came with a slew of other features. It would be fully backwards compatible with the Gamecube, going as far as including that system’s controller and memory card ports into its design. It would include a service, dubbed Virtual Console, that would sell digitally distributed games from old consoles by Nintendo, Sega, HudsonSoft, and SNK. Finally, it would include broadband and wireless networking to allow for online gaming and other online activities. With all these new features came with it a new name: Wii. While the odd name was seen as the only real misstep of the presentation, the Wii branding became synonymous over the next few years with Nintendo’s new direction.
Come North American launch day on November 19th, 2006, the hype for the Wii had reached stratospheric levels. Lines formed days in advance in front of stores by fans eager to purchase Nintendo’s latest gambit. At launch, the Wii was priced at $249 USD and came bundled with one remote, one nunchuk attachment, and a copy of Wii Sports. Compared to the $299 USD base model Xbox 360 and the $499 USD base model PlayStation 3, the Wii’s price seemed more than reasonable. While the initial week sellout was expected, the Wii remained incredibly difficult to find for the next several months. Word had spread from the early adopters to the mainstream consumer, and the Wii quickly became the hottest item of Christmas 2006. Demand grew so high that consoles were selling on eBay for over $1000 USD, and flipping Wiis became a highly profitable venture for many.
The early days of the Wii felt very much akin to the post-launch of the Nintendo DS, albeit with a sure-footedness that was missing in the handheld’s early days. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess satisfied the Nintendo faithful with a very good franchise entry that made limited but effective use of the motion controls. Non-conventional titles like Elebits and Trauma Center: Second Opinion were flawed but intriguing forays into embracing the inherent weirdness of the console. There were flops, of course, with Red Steel in particular being a broken mess, but there were surprise hits like the charming Rayman Raving Rabbids to make up for it. But when it comes down to it, no game defined the Wii at launch nor through its lifespan as well as Wii Sports.
It’s not unreasonable to link the Wii’s massive success to its pack-in game, Wii Sports. The game, a collection of minigames that mimicked sports like tennis, baseball, and bowling, used the Wii remote to replicate these real world activities with a fidelity that would have been impossible with a traditional gamepad. Further, because the concepts and actions inherent in these sports are so well known, the game was easily grasped by even those that had never played a video game before. The accessibility and simplicity of Wii Sports allowed it to penetrate into non-traditional gaming demographics, including seniors who used the game to remain active. The popularity of Wii Sports compelled Nintendo to release other minigame-based collections, including such games as Wii Play and Wii Fit, but none had the same impact as the launch title.
With seemingly everyone swinging around their Wii remotes by 2007, Nintendo doubled down on their runaway hit with a gamut of major releases. The year opened with strong franchise entries in WarioWare: Smooth Moves and Super Paper Mario, continued through the summer with an excellent port of Resident Evil 4 as well as the much awaited Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and ended the year with the incredible Super Mario Galaxy. Being Mario’s first 3D platformer outing since 2002, expectations were high for Shigeru Miyamoto’s design team to set the bar yet again for 3D gaming. Luckily, Super Mario Galaxy more than delivered, sending the famous plumber on a gorgeous interstellar adventure that put on a masterclass in game design. In a year stacked with classic games such as Portal, Mass Effect, and Bioshock, many critics chose to award Galaxy with their game of the year awards based on its fun and joyful gameplay.
Despite coming off an excellent 2007, the following year started to reveal the cracks in the Wii’s foundation. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were starting to come into their own, and with an ever increasing amount of consumers purchasing high definition TVs, the Wii’s standard definition oriented visuals began to look dated. Additionally, early grumblings of Wii owners about the console’s limitations, including the unreliable motion controls and lack of third party support, had started to grow louder. The one-two punch of Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii in early 2008 helped to quiet fans’ discontent for a time, but it was clear as the year progressed that there were precious few games coming out that were worth playing. The typically crowded fall game release season was notably barren, with only compromised ports, like Tomb Raider: Underworld, or disastrous flops, like Wii Music, dotting the release calendar.
The following year, Nintendo, hoping to address complaints about the motion controls’ lack of fidelity, introduced the Wii MotionPlus. The small cubic device would attach to the bottom of the Wii remote in order to improve the controller’s motion tracking capabilities. While the MotionPlus did in fact work and provided a substantial improvement to controls, it was seen as too little, too late and few games took advantage of the device. The accessory came bundled with a sequel to Wii Sports, named Wii Sports Resort, which attempted to capture the magic of its predecessor but failed to make a comparable impact. With software sales not meeting expectations, enthusiasts jumping ship to Microsoft and Sony, and with the DS becoming a more successful platform to latch on to, Nintendo started backing away from its once-popular home console.
The remainder of the Wii’s life continued down a path towards irrelevance. New releases increasingly tended toward poorly produced shovelware or ports that did not fit well with the system’s capabilities. Occasional releases from Nintendo, such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, were met with indifference. Sadly, quirky third party titles like MadWorld, Dead Space: Extraction, and Boom Blox were also affected by dismal sales, further pushing developers away from the system. By the time the successor console Wii U released in 2012, the Wii had become a punchline for Nintendo’s trendy and half-baked approach to home consoles.
Despite its ignoble end, the Wii deserves a better legacy than the one it’s been currently given. Certainly, Nintendo deserves some blame for not supporting the system better in its later years, but they also deserve credit for making a mass market friendly console in an era when Microsoft and Sony were aggressively focusing on enthusiasts to the detriment of others. The Wii should also be credited for creating one of the first commercially viable game preservation initiatives with the Virtual Console. Further, Nintendo’s commitment to keeping peripherals and controllers backwards compatible should be commended for being forward thinking and consumer-first. Finally, the Wii should be remembered for its small-but-mighty library of generation defining games. So here’s to you Wii, may you gather dust in our hearts forevermore.