Sunday, January 14, 2007

Reflection 2006!

Reflection 2006!
       Now that we have all celebrated the coming of 2007, it seems appropriate to reflect upon 2006. And what a year it was. There was corporate deception, government conspiracies, and blockbuster games that blew us all away. Two new systems entered the fray, the Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3, each with its own set of triumphs and failures. The pocket-sized war between Sony and Nintendo raged on, and the world began to look a little crisper with HD-DVD and Blu-ray, but did we really like what we saw? Let's start with Nintendo.

       In 2006, Nintendo once again proved themselves the least predictable of the Big Three when their next-gen console ("Revolution") was renamed to Wii, leaving gamers scratching their heads as to why Nintendo would throw away a perfectly good name for one that's not even in the dictionary. And though Nintendo posted an explanation about how "together, Wii will change everything," the obligatory penis jokes rolled in a-plenty now that the name of the console reflected its phallus-shaped controller. Personally, I think that Revolution is a better name, but like everyone else I've gotten used to "Wii." However, the price point is something that also shook it up a little. Nintendo announced in May that the Wii would be no more than $250 and confirmed it in September. This put the Wii well under the PS3 and XBOX 360's respective price points, allowing it to appeal to a market share previously untapped: Non-gamers.
       Unfortunately, Nintendo couldn't manufacture enough at launch to satiate demands despite outpacing the PS3's barely-there launch and faced trouble with breaking wrist straps, resulting in a voluntary recall. I would also just like to mention that because of these shortages, I still haven't been able to find a Wii. (UPDATE: I found one within a week of writing this feature. Coincidence?) Back to the Nintendo retrospective. The Wii also was left without any online gaming in 2006 as we wait for Pokémon Battle Revolution in Spring 2007, which will be the first online Wii game. The last thing to examine on in regards to the Wii is the Virtual Console. The basic premise is that you can buy old games from NES, SNES, N64, Genesis, and TurboGrafx-16 games for use on the Wii, but the problem lies in the games themselves and how much they cost. We may have gotten the Wii first, but Japan got far better Virtual Console games, and besides, the price point for some of these games is too high, which seems to be the general consensus among gamers.
       And lastly, Nintendo introduced us to the DS Lite, an updated model of the Nintendo DS that improved upon the originial in almost every possible way. It was smaller, brighter, more efficient, and looked oh-so-sexy. The DS Lite combined with the 2005 price drop and (arguably) great software resulted in an explosion of DS sales, allowing it to assert its dominance over the PSP.

       Speaking of the PSP, 2006 was not an easy year for the device. Most of the games ended up being ports from the PS2, and there were very few stand-out games among the bunch. Of course, there was Vice City Stories, Lumines 2, Exit, and Metal Gear: Portable Ops, which were all completely original and designed for the PSP and ended up being the biggest on the system. Despite this, though, the PSP still had sluggish sales throughout most of the year, even with a $50 price drop, not to mention Sony's ridiculous attempt at getting gamers hyped for a PSP Christmas. Let's hope the PSP can find its ground in 2007.
       Sony surprised us all with their PS3 controller. At the beginning of 2006, the PS3 controller looked like a boomerang, but by the end, it was a tweaked version of the Dual Shock, had tilt control (resulting in a loss of force feedback), and was named SIXAXIS. Let's go over that decision briefly. Tweaked Dual Shock: Good changes, but something more significant would be nice. Tilt Control: From what I've tried it's a nice addition. No Rumble: This is bad. Rumble is something I really enjoyed in most games. Poop on you Sony. Just pay up and we can enjoy rumble again. SIXAXIS: I like palindromes, but this is a ridiculous controller name. Seriously.
       Unfortunately, Sony wasn't completely at all honest with us either. At the beginning of '06, the PS3 was scheduled to come out in Spring, which no one really believed, but Sony kept saying they were on track. Eventually, they finally admitted to having problems and announced a delay, but the damage was done. They announced launch details in March and the price of the system at E3, coming in at $499 for the 20GB version and $599 for the 60GB version, which most people consider too much, as well as the worldwide November launch date. In September, however, they owned up to that whole "worldwide" thing and announced a delay to March 2007 for Europe/Australia/etc. They barely talked about PS3's online until weeks before the system's release, and kept promising to have 2 million units at launch. They ended up with 197k units. Again, time to reflect. Sony would have been much better off telling us outright that they were having some problems with Blu-ray, but they'll do all they can to get the system out by Spring, so then the delay wouldn't have come as quite a bitter shock, not to mention that they shouldn't have kept feeding us all that "on track" BS, not promised us XBOX Live quality online service, etc. They should have been honest. People like that.
       So while the PS3's launch ended up being a jumbled, violent mess, the format war between Toshiba's HD-DVD and Sony's Blu-ray raged on. Blu-ray, the format I hope will win, has more support, more storage space, and the PS3 backing it up. Sony has had two formats now fail on it, Betamax and the PSP's UMD, so they've really put their neck out for Blu-ray. The PlayStation had CD, the PlayStation 2 had DVD, and the PlayStation 3 has Blu-ray.

       While Nintendo and Sony both had a completely insane 2006 that culminated in the launch of their two new systems, Microsoft had its own fun this year. They started out the year with the early announcement of an external HD-DVD drive attachment for the XBOX 360, and emphasized that it would not be used for games, but only movies. Eventually they announced that it would be priced at $199, (which is actually a really good deal), and it came out mid-November in 2006. Reflection: Good move by Microsoft, throwing a punch against Sony's Blu-ray, but I can't help but feel that this kind of thing shows people that the PS3 is actually fairly priced, which is something that Microsoft shouldn't be doing. And reviews for the device put it below the average for HD-DVD players, though it is less than half as much money as a typical HD-DVD player, so it all evens out. But it really doesn't even matter since analysts predict that Blu-ray will win anyway.
       Microsoft's microtransactions really came under fire in 2006, starting with the horrendous Oblivion horse armor fiasco and ending with EA's little "experiments," with were more or less just "let's see how much we can get away with." You have to wonder if the guy in charge of this stuff at EA was just sitting around thinking "I wonder if we can get them to pay for things that are normally free?" Maybe I'll talk more about Microtransactions vs. Earth and The Future of Downloadables some other time. But let's get back to Microsoft- Gears of War, the game that may have cost Microsoft a billion dollars, sold over two million copies in 2006. Having played the game, I can tell you that these kinds of sales are completely justified and actually made me consider buying a 360. Sadly, I had to choose between a 360 and a Wii, and I chose the latter. That game is so visceral, with mind-blowing graphics, and is just plain fun, (especially with other people). If you have a 360, you need to get Gears of War.
       A game that couldn't be farther from Gears is Viva Pinata, a game about those colorful little animals that you tear limb from limb to feast upon their candy innards. The game got good reviews, it's own TV show on Fox Kids Network, and justified Microsoft's purchase of Rare (since Perfect Dark Zero obviously didn't), but ultimately got poor sales due to crappy marketing and being too complex for kids but too colorful for adults to stomach. I haven't been able to play it, so I can't exactly weigh in on the game. A game that definitely got enough marketing is Halo 3, and that game will come out in Fall 2007. It got a professionally made CG trailer, plenty of XBOX Live Marketplace videos, and incredible hype in the face of news that a "public" multiplayer beta would arrive Spring 2007.

Everything Else
       Of course, not everything game-related pertained directly to the Big Three. For instance, gaming got more mainstream attention than ever before in 2006, for better and for worse. The TV show South Park (a personal favorite) bestowed upon the four protagonists (Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny) the responsibility of saving the World... of Warcraft. Hilarity ensues. But South Park didn't stop there, and engaged in a two-part episode showing Cartman's journey to get a Wii when his plan to speed up the wait for launch goes awry (let's just say it involves makeshift cryogenic freezing). These were both hilarious episodes of the popular show and best of all, they didn't demean video gaming or try to make it out to be something evil or kiddy. Two kudos to South Park.
       Unfortunately, the rest of mainstream attention was more or less negative. News coverage started out good as reporters discussed the various features and aspects of the PS3 and Wii leading up to launch, but eventually it degenerated into the typical doom-and-gloom media heckling that we are familiar with. Coverage shifted to how long the lines were for the PS3 and the violence that proceeded, then when the consoles finally came out, all they could talk about was how scarce the systems were or the "injuries" being caused by the Wii. Reflection: The mainstream news needs to grow up and stop trying to scare parents. It'll be good for them and good for us gamers. And that whole "Wii injuries" business? C'mon people. Get a grip. Literally.
       And then there was the demise of E3. After the usual lavish showing at E3 2006, game companies banded together and looked at the cost of putting up expensive booths compared to profit and decided that it wasn't worth it. Soon after, the ESA announced that we had just witnessed the last Electronic Entertainment Expo and that future ones would take place as lots of meetings in hotels in Los Angeles. Reflection: Good that E3 was scaled down, but bad that it would be crazy meetings in hotels. Okay, next up is the ESRB vs. The Government. To give you the run-down, 2006 was the fallout after the Hot Coffee bomb. Video games came under fire from everyone- Joe Lieberman, Jack Thompson, Hilary Clinton, the state of Illinois, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger as they all clamored to ban violent video games outright, getting shot down by rational judges at every turn. Reflection: You want to protect our kids? Don't ban violent video games, just read the ESRB rating. Not that difficult.
       Unfortunately, Germany experienced the same thing, but much worse. Germany is a country that heavily censors their media, games especially, and they decided to try and ban all shooters, for retailers and even for playing them. That's right, for playing a shooter in Germany, you could be jailed for up to a year. If that law passes (the judgement will come down in 2007) then game developer Crytek has promised to flee the country, considering that they're developing Crysis, a violent first-person shooter. Reflection: Germany, you need to accept that the world isn't made of fluffy marshmellows and let people experience the world uncensored.

       Well, that's was 2006 for you. It was crazy. It was bat-shit insane. There were plenty of crappy games and plenty of blockbusters. The bad news? It's over. The good news? 2007 will be even better.
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