Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

Posted on Feb 22nd 2012 at 11:38:46 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Vita, launch games, system launch, PlayStation

This week marks the North American release of the PlayStation Vita, Sony's second handheld gaming device and the follow-up to the PlayStation Portable.  As a PSP enthusiast, the Vita has me quite excited; in fact the Vita is the first system of any kind I am picking up on release day in over a decade (the PS2 was the last time I had a system from day one).  Since I also happen to run a blog that focuses, in part,  on system launches (I've previously chronicled the launch of the Game Boy Advance, the NES, the SNES, and the VCS), I figured it would  make sense to share my thoughts on the Vita's debut.

There are several interesting considerations when analyzing the Vita launch: the machine itself, the launch lineup, and its place in the current gaming landscape.

The Hardware
The Specs. As was the case with the PSP before it, the Vita comes onto the market as the most impressive handheld gaming device ever created.  It has a blazing quad core processor (vs. the 3DS' dual core), the ability to push 33 million polygons a second (vs. the 3DS' 15.3 million), a relatively small 512MB of RAM (vs. the 3DS' even more paltry 128MB), a beautiful 5 OLED screen with 221 pixels per inch (vs. the iPhone's superior 320ppi retina display), and a host of ways to connect the device to wireless networks, computers, the PS3, etc.  The unit is backwards compatible with PS1 classics and PSP games downloaded from PSN.  The price point of $250 for the base system, considering what you are getting, is quite impressive.  It would seem that Sony is probably selling these at a loss, which follows their standard model.

The Features.  Easily the most maligned design choice of the original PSP was the absence of a second analog stick, forcing many genres to abandon the platform altogether or to be adopted with hit-or-miss work-arounds. The most obvious addition to the Vita is the inclusion of a second analog stick, an addition that places it more comfortably in the hands of gamers who prefer a dualstick or a 360 control pad.  In addition, the rear touch pad on the Vita allows for both interesting gameplay mechanics as well as way to incorporate L2 and R2 buttons (via touch) into the unit.  Like most handheld devices made in the past several years, it also sports a pair of cameras, a touch screen, and a gyroscope, all of which further expand the potential to do lots of different things with the Vita.  Battery life over time is yet to be determined, but 3-5 hours of gameplay at a time seems to be typical for most users so far and is pretty close to what you can get with a 3DS or with more resource-intensive iOS or Android games. 

The Media. One questionable design decision Sony has made with the Vita is the lack of substantial on-board storage memory.  Instead, users are required to purchase a separate proprietary flash card (between 4GB and 32GB) if they want to store PSN downloads, media, or game data.  Sony also will continue to publish games at retail, abandoning the UMDs used for the PSP for flash cards that are similar to (but smaller than) what is produced for the DS/3DS.  That means that most users will have two cards -  a game card and a memory card - in their system at any given time.  Sony is also pushing digital distribution of all Vita games for users who want an experience closer to what was available on the PSPGo, Sony's less popular UMD drive-less version of the PSP.

The Launch Lineup

The U.S. launch of the PS Vita includes a pretty strong selection of games from different genres, and at 24 titles, features about 25% more games than the PSPs launch seven years ago (by comparison the 3DS launch featured about 18 games and the DS launch featured only 6 games).  A few things stand out about the launch lineup:

Racing Heaven. Even though the Vita is the first PlayStation system of any kind to launch in the US without a Ridge Racer title available on launch day, there are five racing games available for the system at launch ranging from futuristic racers (Wipeout 2048), to Kart Racers (ModNation Racers and Ben 10: Galactic Racing), to more standard racing fare (F1 2011 and Asphalt: Injection).  Racers are traditionally good at showing off system horsepower, and most of these titles have features which are only possible on the Vita (ModNation's use of the rear pad for design, Wipeout's cross-platform play, etc.).  If you are at all a fan of racing games, odds are there's something for you in the Vita's launch.

Lack of games that benefit from the second stick.  One surprising component of the Vita launch is that the vast majority of the games are in genres where the second analog stick -  one of the Vita's major selling points - is rarely used. Uncharted and the PSN-only downloadable game Super Stardust Delta are the most obvious second-stick required games, but the majority of the games available at launch could have worked with the inputs available on the original PSP.  There are no FPSs and only a few games that would require the second stick to navigate the camera (e.g. Touch My Katamari).

Target Audience?  Given Sony's past emphasis on attracting a different demographic than those who play on Nintendo's handhelds, it is surprising that there are only three M rated games at launch (Ninja Gaiden, Shinobido 2, and Army Corps of Hell).  Furthermore, there's an abundance of 2D titles (BlazBlu: Continuum Shift Extend, Marvel vs Capcom 3, Lumines Electronic Symphony, Rayman Origins), a few games aimed at children (Ben 10 and, arguably, ModNation Racers and Little Deviants), no first person shooters, only one RPG (Dungeon Hunter: Alliance), and no sports titles from the four big leagues in the USA (NHL, NFL, NBA, or MLB).  Many of these games are currently in the pipeline, but so far the Vita hasn't done much to differentiate itself as a platform to attract those audiences that blindly throw down $60 on any iteration of Madden, Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, or other "core" franchises.

Spin-Off and Port City.  Though the Vita lacks a lot of the big name franchises at launch, it does feature a lot of familiar titles.  Only 3-4 games are representative of new IPs (the PSP only had two at launch), with the rest of the launch library representing a port of a preexisting game or a new entry in a previously established series.  This is probably a safe bet for Sony, as new consoles need to have familiar names associated with them.  Still, it is a strategy that could backfire given the PSP's (perhaps undeserved) reputation amongst many gamers as a home for titles that were (sometimes inferior) ports and for less impressive entries in existing series. 

The Vita's Place

The hacking question.  Undoubtedly the PSP's life was shortened and sales were hurt by rampant piracy.  But, on the other hand, the ability of the machine to emulate a wide range of retro consoles and to play those pirated games certainly contributed to hardware sales.  I personally have little interest in playing pirated Vita games, but the prospect of playing PS2, GameCube, or Dreamcast games on the device via emulation and homebrew was enough to make me drop some extra dough on the largest memory card for the system.  As with any console, it is only a matter of time before hackers figure out how to do some interesting things on the Vita (some have already posted some exciting video clips of early work), and the thought of playing virtually every console game from pre-2005 on one handheld device is a tantalizing prospect.

Do Smartphones = Death?  A frequent point raised by the media at the launch of the 3DS last year and with the Vita this year is the question about whether or not there's still a market for handheld gaming devices given the widespread adoption of smartphones with excellent touch-screen gaming capabilities.  The argument goes something like this: "The Vita has to compete against not only Nintendo, but also against Apple and Android devices.  Many quality games can be had for free or $1-$5, take up minimal storage, and are stored remotely for download as needed.  In addition, smartphones can handle a lot of other tasks (web surfing, GPS navigating, etc.). Given that an iPhone can do so many things well, why do we need an additional device that does one thing better?"  These questions have some merit, and the answers remain to be seen, but it is hard to imagine Sony sees the Vita as a direct competitor to any of these devices or to the 3DS (which, incidentally, has now moved over 5 million units).  The PSP was certainly financially successful for Sony despite not eclipsing Nintendo in the handheld market, so is it unreasonable to expect that the Vita can be successful without being as successful as its competitors?  The question, for me, is less about whether or not the Vita can surpass or stay close to the sales of the 3DS or smartphones manufacturers, but whether or not it can carve out enough of a niche for itself to have a successful run in its own right.

Is anyone else picking up a Vita this week/month?  Are you enthused or bored by the launch lineup and by the potential of the system? Is handheld gaming on its way out? Share your thoughts below!

Posted on Feb 13th 2012 at 06:00:36 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Total Eclipse, launch games, Playstation

Looking across the PlayStation launch library, there are a number of games which, to this day, continue to ring familiar. NBA Jam Tournament Edition, Rayman, Ridge Racer, The Raiden Project- all of these games are part of ongoing franchises.  Even launch games like Battle Arena Toshinden and ESPN Extreme spawned a number of sequels, and are familiar to most gamers.  However, there were also some more obscure launch titles, one of which is the subject of this entry: Total Eclipse Turbo.

Total Eclipse Turbo is the PlayStation's version of Total Eclipse for the 3DO, a game which had been released almost a year and a half earlier for the that system (which was already starting to die by the time the PlayStation was released).  The PlayStation version added a password feature and sped up the gameplay (thus the "Turbo"), and can be considered the superior version of the game.  The game is an on-rails, 3D space shooter that shares some gameplay characteristics with something like Panzer Dragoon (but without lock-on).  There was a Saturn exclusive sequel named Solar Eclipse.  As a launch game, it is significant for several reasons...

Yes, the cover art is the same on the inside as on the outside.

This was the only 3D flying game at launch. Though the PlayStation's early days would eventually be dominated by titles like Air Combat and Warhawk, both of which used polygons to allow players to move around in space like never before, Total Eclipse Turbo is the only launch game to feature this style of graphics (albeit on very flexible rails).  The engine actually uses a combination of 2D and 3D graphics to an excellent overall effect, and the experience is ultimately faster and more arcade-like than any of the aforementioned titles.  Total Eclipse Turbo ends up feeling like a 3D shmup of sorts, and is the only launch game that probably didn't really fit into a traditional genre category. (The closest gameplay one may have found previously would have been in something like Star Wars: Rebel Assault or StarFox)

There is evidence that the game was rushed to meet launch.  Other than the very slight additions to the game over the original 3DO version that were mentioned in the intro above, there are two other things suggest that Crystal Dynamics rushed this to the PlayStation in order to make the launch.  For one, theres a discrepancy between the names of each level in the instruction manual and those in the game itself.  For example, the manual lists the title of level 2 to be "Omega Nebula"  whereas the game itself calls this level "Magma Prime."  Second, it feels rushed because the game features a very basic and bland menu (something that was typical of many early PS1 games), which is difficult to navigate and unintuitive.  If the developers spent any resources working on new presentation elements for the PlayStation, they were minimal.

Same level, different names!

Total Eclipse Turbo shouldn't be overlooked as just another clunky FMV-filled game from the early PS1 days.  It features a fast and consistent framerate, forgiving gameplay and ample continues, and decent production including what, for the time, was well-done CGI and a non-typical game soundtrack.   Compared to most other launch titles, the game has faded into obscurity a bit, and it obviously didn't become the powerhouse franchise that Crystal Dynamics probably had hoped for.  Still, if you were standing in a store on August 30, 1995 trying to pick out a game to go with your new PlayStation, you could have done much worse.

"The more you kill, the better you feel!" Brilliant marketing!

Posted on Feb 6th 2011 at 02:02:32 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Street Fighter The Movie, Launch Games, Playstation, Street Fighter, Classic Gaming

Here we have a perfect postmodern product, the kind of thing that made Baudrillard's head spin and which will make future generations look back on our culture with painful embarrassment.  This is a game based on a movie that is based on a game that is a sequel.  The inspiration for this game, Street Fighter II, was a beautiful and innovative arcade giant. The film, on the other hand, was a widely panned and campy take on everything that made the game interesting.  Where would the game stand?  Would it improve on the lowly film, or would it drag the Street Fighter name further down?

It would be easy to understand if early adopters for game consoles were leery of the Street Fighter name, as the previous launch title in the series largely failed to deliver the goods.   Nonetheless, on the day the PS1 launched in September 1995, early adopters who were interested in bringing home a fighting game (at a time when fighting games were still all the rage in the arcade) were presented with a choice of two titles: the new IP Battle Arena Toshinden providing a 3D graphics engine or the newest release in the wildly successful Street Fighter series: Street Fighter: The Movie.  Neither had seen an arcade release (although a different SF:TM game was released in arcades a few months earlier), so the new buyer had to rely on word of mouth, what they could learn from their past experiences, and what they discern from the boxes themselves.

So, if you were standing at a Babbage's or EB on that fateful day in September of 1995 with the two fighting games in front of you, what did you see?  For one, you saw Van Damme's giant fucking head:


On Street Fighter: The Movie you also saw a few additional important pieces of information on the cover.  You saw the boast of "DIGITIZED GRAPHICS FROM THE HIT MOVIE!"  You saw two names that were giants in the arcade industry in Capcom and Akklaim.  Turning the box over, you saw that the back cover was filled with content:  five in game screen shots, 14 pictures of the digitized fighters ("including Jean Claude Van Damme!"), and no less than 15 exclamation marks.  The whole thing appears to be a beautiful and/or unholy marriage of Mortal Kombat graphics, Street Fighter mechanics, and celebrity worship.  By contrast, on the Battle Arena Toshinden cover you see some awkwardly drawn, generic looking Japanese fighting characters, a handful of less than flattering screenshots of the game, and a description that does its best to make the launch title sound like the most generic fighting game of the era (and only seven exclamation marks).  So, if you had to go on the box art in front of you on launch day, you probably made a decision that you would come to regret: you probably took home Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game.

As a launch title, Street Fighter: The Movie is notable for several reasons:

It offered plenty of FMV.  It is important to remember that the PlayStation launched only a short time after FMV was the newest innovation in gaming, and if there's one thing Street Fighter: The Movie had going for it, it was copious amounts of FMV, both from the film and original to the game itself. This is especially prominent in the main story mode of the game in which you must play as Guile (Van Damme) and beat opponents on your way to M. Bison and the most obscenely gut-punching end game music video you've seen today:

Interesting trivia? This is actually the second music video affiliated with Street Fighter: The Movie.  The other? A video starring Street Fighter: The Movie actors, MC Hammer, and Deion Fucking Sanders .  Really. (CAUTION: the gut punch is even stronger from this video, as it manages to distill almost everything horrible about pop culture in 1994 into its purest form.)

"Hey! Kylie Minogue is in my PlayStation!"

It looked good when paused. Ok, this is debatable, but the game does feature passable digital capture work for the main characters, close approximations of the movie settings as backgrounds, and  reasonable effects for at least some of the various special moves.  If you were used to playing stuff like the Genesis port of Primal Rage or the SNES version of Mortal Kombat 3, then the look of the game (while paused) was quite impressive and showed off some of the potential of the PlayStation as a system.  When you unpaused, however...

The game was jerky, stuttered frequently, and controlled horribly.  A good fighting game must be fluid, and Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game's biggest flaw is that it is not a fun fighter.  It is randomly fast or slow, it isn't especially good at recognizing inputs for special moves, and the action of pressing a button isn't quite 1:1 with the movement on the screen, as it must be.  Even if you really liked Street Fighter: The Movie or really liked Capcom games, this title managed to kick you in the balls either way.  Built on the SSF2T engine, control shouldn't have been a problem (in theory).  I guess when you introduce motion-captured graphics into a 2D engine, problems result.

This picture of pissy Bison is courtesy of the excellent write up on the film and games @ RetroJunk!!!

The game didn't end the PlayStation's life immediately.  Bad launch games can hurt a system's pedigree from the start, and by the time the PlayStation came along the Saturn had already built an impressive roster of 2D and 3D fighting games (including its own launch title: Virtua Fighter).   The fact that a rushed, buggy, misguided game like Street Fighter: The Movie didn't kill the system's chances with fighting game fans is probably due to the fact that it had already been released on the Saturn and, presumably, been as widely panned as the film itself.  Maybe good-hearted Babbage's employees guided new PlayStation owners towards the superior Battle Arena Toshinden, maybe they urged them to wait for the upcoming Street Fighter Alpha (released about three months later), or perhaps they suggested that proof of the PS1's arcade chops could be found in games like Ridge Racer instead.

Street Fighter: The Movie must be regarded as one of the worst launch games for any system ever, and certainly the worst fighting game available for any launch.  As Van Damme's Guile asked Raul Julia's Bison in the film based on the game: "What happened to the purity of unarmed combat?!!!!"

Posted on Aug 3rd 2010 at 02:01:39 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Ridge Racer, Launch Games, Playstation, Racing

Some of you may instantly recognize the title of this post, others of you may be curiously scratching your heads.  If you don't recognize the quote, those are the immortal words uttered by the in-game announcer at the start of every race  in the very first Ridge Racer game for the Sony Playstation, one of the system's ten launch titles and one of its best known racers.  Many things can and have been written about the Ridge Racer series of games published by Namco, but they are interesting for this blog because five of the eleven games in the series have been in a console launch lineup.  The launch titles were:

This five part series of blog entries will look at each launch title in the Ridge Racer series and what, if anything, they did to showcase the new capabilities of each system.

Ridge Racer  - Sony Playstation

The Playstation's U.S. launch in September of 1995 featured only one game that had also been released when the system premiered in Japan the prior December: Ridge Racer.  In fact, Ridge Racer was the only launch game featured in all three major  game markets (JPN/NA/EUR ).  It seemed clear from the start that Sony was banking on Namco's arcade hit to help sell systems.

In the U.S., Ridge Racer was one of two racing games that new console buyers could choose from when entering their favorite game or electronics store on that Saturday morning in September.  The other, ESPN Extreme Games, featured an assortment of X-Games events such as street luge and mountain biking.  Only Ridge Racer provided a traditional automobile racing game.  So, new buyers looking to take the arcade racing experience home were faced with little choice but to buy it on launch day.  As it turns out, they couldn't have done much better: Ridge Racer is an absolute gem of a racing game that accomplished many technical feats fifteen years ago and holds up well to this day.

Arcades in the U.S. were still doing quite well in 1994 and 1995, and though the focus for many players had shifted from fighting games to racing games, there was a lot to choose from in coin-ops around the country in the mid-90s.  Increasingly, the best arcade games were seeing  high profile ports for home consoles.  During the period of time that the Saturn, Playstation, and N64 were released (between May 1995 and September 1996) each console had a racing game associated with it, a game that promised to push the limits of the console.  For Nintendo, that game was Cruisn' USA (though the game didn't make the N64 launch).  For Sega, the game was Daytona USA.  For Sony, it was Ridge Racer.

At the time, I was a die-hard Sega fan and insanely jealous of my friends who were able to enjoy their copies of Daytona USA at home.  Sure, the Daytona USA port didn't look arcade perfect, but it seemed close and impressed me nonetheless.  When I couldn't play on a friends' Saturn, I would still frequently pump quarters into the Daytona USA arcade machine as my home racing was limited to Virtua Racing for the Genesis for several more years (an excellent game in its own right).  By the time I finally joined the 32-bit generation and picked up a Playstation in late 1996 (skipping the Saturn altogether!), I was anticipating the release of new racing games for the PS1 (most notably Gran Turismo) and passed on picking up Ridge Racer.  I'd had my fill of racing with Daytona and Crusin' and decided to pick up games for other genres in the interim. 

So, I only recently acquired the classic PS1 launch game, and now wish I had done so a decade ago. 

Early PS1 games didn't feature many of the icons on the back indicating compatibility with memory cards, number of discs, etc.

As a launch title, the game is significant for several reasons:

The graphics.  There's no denying that an important draw for purchasers on launch day is graphics horsepower. The graphics put out in the PS1 port of Ridge Racer are simply better than they were for the Saturn port of Daytona USA.  The polygons are less blocky, the sense of speed is faster, and the scenery is more diverse.  There are usually more things happening on the screen at any given time, and aside from the poorly designed menus, the interface is quite polished.  Daytona may have been better in the arcades, but if these racing games were meant to show off what the system could do, Ridge Racer was an early harbinger of the doom of the Saturn.  Ridge Racer's graphics are bright, pop in is quite good for a first-gen title, and the scale of the landscape surrounding the courses is impressive.   

It allowed you to choose your own music.  Once the game was loaded and a race started, you could swap out the Ridge Racer CD for your own favorite disc.  The game would then randomly select tracks on your CD to play while you raced and navigated menus.  Since Daytona USA was a frequent point of comparison at the time this game came out, I should note that I also prefer Ridge Racers original music over Daaaaay-tohhhhhhh-nah's ( especially given the "classic" nature of the latter's songs). That said, nothing beats choosing your own musical selection.  In playing the game again for this post, I chose the era-appropriate Beck album "Mellow Gold."  Hearing track 11 playing over the credits was a sweet bit of randomness.  In an age where CD sales were really catching on, this was a nice way for the Playstation to showcase its versatility.

Place this in the CD drive to make Ridge Racer unplayable.

It featured a mini-game with a generous reward during the only loading screen.  Popping Ridge Racer into a console usually meant a few resets until all the enemies in this one screen version of Galaxian were cleared.  Clearing all the enemies in the limited time granted you access to three times the number of cars that would be available otherwise.  Not only did you have more options, but many of these were better cars.  Furthermore, the game only loads once at the very beginning, a welcome change from the frequent and frustrating waits experienced by owners of many other CD-based consoles at the time.  The fact that the loading screen is a game itself was icing.

The game featured a hefty amount of unlocakbles.  There were certainly games with unlockables in the previous generations, but Ridge Racer was one of the first CD-based games to offer multiple versions of tracks to unlock, cars that could be won, and other goodies for the devoted player to discover.  The ease of saving data on a memory card (times, unlocked tracks, etc.) meant that you could take these unlocked items with you, one of the key selling points for Sony's console.

The back of the manual provided alternate cover art.

Taken as a package, it is easy to see why Sony pushed for Ridge Racer to see a release in every major region on launch day.  Better racing games would eventually come, but compared to racers on other consoles that preceded Ridge Racer, Sony clearly had the upper hand and could better capitalize on the ongoing arcade craze.  The game is far from perfect; it is single player, some of the drifting feels too loose, the various tracks are all variations of one main track, the announcer voice is annoying, and the difficulty ramps up considerably in later stages.  However, the game is still worth playing today despite these weaknesses, if only to appreciate how different it was compared to what had come before.  The game would go on to see huge sales and win numerous awards in the next year.  It would also become Sony's first pack-in game. 

Ridge Racer spawned over 10 sequels.  We will revisit some of those games in future installments.

Next Up: an "end game"

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