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The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009, Part 2

By Douglass C. Perry

When we look back 20 years from now, the first decade of the 21st century will look obvious to us, like a paint-by-numbers drawing for kids. It’s almost incalculable how many little triggers have shaped our current place in the games race. But there more than a handful of events, dozens of key games, and entire years that pushed this one-time cottage industry into the full-blown billion dollar industry it is now. While this isn’t the definitive historical account of single thing that happened between the years 2000 and 2009, this Decade in Review is an insider’s look at the decade filled with significant events. This is part 2 of the feature, The Decade in Review. Check here for part 1.

January 11, 2005: The Best Thing About GameCube

Making up for its poor third-party relations on the N64, Nintendo signed a multi-title, multi-year deal with Capcom, securing the Resident Evil franchise for the GameCube. While all of the previous games (RE1-RE3) were updated and released on GameCube to no real fanfare (outside of insanely excited Nintendo fans), Capcom rekindled the sagging survival-horror genre with the remarkable and visionary Resident Evil 4. The action-packed game blended scare tactics with high-level action scenes, quick-time events, and a new story that, while still cheesy in many respects, breathed life into the series.

March 22, 2005: A God Appears

On the heels of Capcom’s Resident Evil revitalization, David Jaffe and Sony’s Santa Monica Studios burst onto the scene with little pre-hype fanfare (due to the ambitious and prickly Jaffe team), but immediately stole the spotlight, stunning gamers with a Greek myth-based action game that maximized every aspect of the PS2 in its final years of life. Introducing Kratos, the vengeance-filled semi God, Sony mixed platforming, quick time events, and a high-impact combat system like nothing else before it. God of War becomes the one of the definitive action games of all time.

March 24, 2005: Sony launches PSP

Seeing that Nintendo’s game Boy has yet to see a substantial rival, Sony engineers the beautiful, sleek, and expensive PSP, the ultimate cool games/music/movie gadget.

November 4, 2005: Microsoft Defines Next Gen Gaming

Jumping the gun by shipping a year earlier than Sony’s PS3 and Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft stole the hardware spotlight by defining the next-generation with high-definition graphics, connected multiplayer functions, and a virtual, online marketplace. Introducing achievements, a multi-folder interface, an online marketplace, and improving on its already established online gaming service model, Microsoft stole Sony’s thunder and ended its uncontested two-generation rule. Full retail games like Call of Duty 2 and downloadable games like Galaxy Wars paved the way for Microsoft’s insurrection. The American console maker would then pick off Sony’s premiere third-party exclusive titles one by one (Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy, Air Combat, Grand Theft Auto, even Metal Gear Solid). However, consumers exposed Microsoft’s hardware issues (the “Red Ring of Death”), which, along with a media battle between HD-DVD and Sony’s Blu-ray, have tainted opinions about the Xbox 360.

November 8, 2005: Guitar Hero Changes Everything

After quirky-cool endeavors Frequency and Amplitude made gamers feel cool on PS2, Harmonix teamed with Konami to sell millions of copies of Karaoke Revolution, the world’s first sing-a-long videogame. But its best and biggest partnership with Red Octane would revolutionize the game industry. Bravely confronting the statistically proven industry notion that expensive peripherals didn’t sell in high numbers, Red Octane gave the industry’s old idea the finger with Guitar Hero. Merging Harmonix’s innovative music gameplay with Red Octane’s functional, sturdy plastic guitar, the duo would blow past Konami’s musical endeavors, and then blow past everyone else. The rest of the story — Guitar Hero 5, Lego Rock Band, DJ Hero, and The Beatles Rock Band–nearly explains itself.

2005: Epic Floods Next Gen Middleware

Quietly in 2005 and loudly in 2006, Epic Games established itself as the defacto software engine for the new generation of consoles with its Unreal Engine. In the previous generation, a handful of developers created middleware for consoles: Id Software (with Id Tech), and Criterion (with RenderWare) to name a few, but Epic marketed and sold the Unreal Engine heavier, harder, and more convincingly than any other studio. And every time Epic showed game journalists Gears of War, the company’s new in-house game for Xbox 360, a dozen more developers would sign up.

2006: The Music Wars Begin

In May 2006, Activision acquired Guitar Hero publisher, Red Octane for $99.9 million. Then in September 2006, MTV Networks acquired Harmonix, the creative software studio behind Guitar Hero, for $175 million. In November 2007, Harmonix, under publisher MTV Networks and distributor Electronic Arts, released Rock Band, the direct competitor to Guitar Hero, complete with plastic guitar, microphone, and drum kit. Activision and MTV/EA would fiercely compete to out-do one another with new games, features, and exclusive bands, such as with Rock Band The Beatles, in the not-so-distant future.

Fall 2006: PS3 and Nintendo Wii Launch

One year after Microsoft’s Xbox 360 launch, Sony’s newly launched PlayStation 3 had the looks of a lost system. For a Blu-ray player, the PS3 was an economically priced system. For a console, its high price tag was reminiscent of the 3DO–way too expensive. Sony’s gamble on winning a media/storage war started well before mass consumers were even aware they needed a Blu-ray player–and before the world had decided which it wanted more, HD-DVD or Blu-ray. The result? Sony’s powerful new PS3 would start slow and remain in third place behind Microsoft and Nintendo in the console race.

While the PS3 launched November 11, the oft-laughed at, low-end Nintendo Wii launched November 19 with the free Wii Sports bundle. To everyone’s surprise (except Nintendo), the Wii captured the imaginations of consumers worldwide. The Wii, with the equivalent of Xbox 1 hardware and maximum 480p output, would go on to topple Xbox 360 sales, steal the console marketplace crown, and recode the next generation with its non-stop sales to the casual market, females, families, and weight-conscious gamers. If Microsoft defined the next generation with HD graphics and connectedness, Nintendo’s Wii rewrote it with its wireless, interactive Wiimote and its simple, accessible games, broadening the game market in a way Microsoft and Sony could only wish for.

June 29, 2007: Apple Launches the iPhone

Following its string of successes with the iPod, Apple released the unprecedented touch-sensitive interface and app-filled smart phone, the iPhone. While the device sold millions and remained the coolest gadget in the world for a good year, it wasn’t until Jul 12, 2008 when Apple launched its online app store that videogame developers were introduced to the full potential of a publisher-free videogame marketplace. With the app store in place, hundreds more developers started making apps in their garages. Just like old times.

July 11-13, 2007: Good-bye E3, Hello…Business Summit?

Booth babes: Did they make or break E3? (Image courtesy of CNET)

After escalating costs, the expansion of t-shirt-throwing barkers, endless parades of booth babes, stage shows, and a general circus mentality growing each year at E3, a majority of game publishers led by EA, agreed to end E3 as we knew it. In its place appeared a multi-venue, splintered, no-frills “event” known as The E3 Media and Business Summit. To put it mildly, the majority of attendees voiced their opinion that the new E3 was a poor substitution for the old one.

September 12, 2007: The Wii Takes Over

Despite launching one year after the Xbox 360, owning a kooky name, and delivering hardware that wasn’t as powerful as the PS3 or the Xbox 360, The Wii took over the console market in sales. The Financial Times reported September 12, 2007 that the Nintendo Wii had surpassed the Xbox 360 and had become the console market leader, the first time Nintendo had done so since the Super NES. (Sales based on NPD Group, GfK and Enterbrain tracking numbers for North America, Europe, and Japan.) Nintendo fans go berserk (and have remained giddily proud ever since).

October 11, 2007: EA Purchases BioWare, Pandemic

EA takes another big gulp out of the development world. One wonders why Microsoft didn’t buy BioWare, after its long partnerships and Mass Effect. But it took a hungrier, more ambitious Redwood City publisher to take over the reigns of the biggest Western RPG maker in the world, one famous for its work on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, not to mention earlier works with Interplay such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Oh yeah, and EA got Pandemic too.

Dec 3, 2007: Activision Merges with Vivendi

The Activision merger with Vivendi created “Activision Blizzard,” a publisher that would soon become the biggest independent game publisher in the world, nudging long-time king EA into second place. The deal would be legally completed on July 10, 2008.

Fall 2007: Gamers Rejoice Part 2

In a collective burst of creative output, videogame developers harnessed the new console hardware with dozens of original titles and exceptional sequels on every system. Gamers scored in every genre and on every system. Titles such as BioShock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Crysis, Halo 3, Skate, Forza Motorsport 2, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Pac-Man Championship Edition, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, Assassin’s Creed, Super Mario Galaxy, God of War 2, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Rock Band, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Mass Effect, and The Orange Box, just to name a few, stole gamers’ hearts and emptied their wallets.

February 2008: EA’s $2 Billion Move to Acquire Take-Two

In an opportunistic bid just prior to the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, Electronic Arts proposes an unsolicited bid to buy Take-Two Interactive for $2 billion dollars, or $25 a share. After an initial refusal, EA upped the bid to $26 per share, but Take-Two rejects the offer again. The press went hog wild with the story because of all the opportunisties to speculate on how EA would handle Rockstar, which games would get killed, etc. Analysts practically begged Take-Two to accept the offer, but Take-Two’s “take” on the offer was simple: “We’re worth more.” The biggest news? EA would have surpassed Activision Blizzard as the biggest independent softwre developer in the world with the acquisition. Somewhere, Activision’s Bobby Kotick is giggling madly in a room filled with plastic guitars, skateboards, posters of Spider-Man, and World War II guns, with money signs burning brightly in his eyes.

March 2008: The Indie Movement Arrives (Again)

While indie gamers have been around since Nolan Bushnell’s Pong started it all, a perfect storm of marketplace scenarios came to light in 2007 and 2008, creating a perfect environment for indie games to flourish. The world finally noticed in a big way at the Game Developers’ Conference in 2008. Jonathan Blow’s Braid, 2D Boy’s The World of Goo, and a dozen other quirky, creative, and low-budget titles created more than just a lot of media buzz, they showed the world new and different ways of thinking about and playing games.

The Games of 2008

While we can exalt in the monumental barrage of games that flowed through game stores in 2007, 2008 featured distinct breakthroughs. Bethesda’s award-winning first-person RPG Fallout 3 captured the essence of the beloved Fallout RPG series and brought its epic sense of story and size to the IP. Rockstar stunned the world with its updated, realistic vision of New York with an online, multiplayer Grand Theft Auto IV, garnering perfect scores and generating record-breaking sales. And Will Wright’s quirky god-game Spore hit the streets, generating buzz and good scores, but sales that did not match Wright’s previous hit, The Sims. With other breakthrough games including LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War 2, Dead Space, and Prince of Persia, game publishers warded off the beginning of the biggest recession since the Great Depression.

February 12, 2009: Midway Goes Bankrupt

Confronting a $240 million debt, Mortal Kombat publisher files Chapter 11. Meanwhile, the last Midway-made Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat vs. DC, ships 2 million units. The last of the Old School arcade publishers, Midway’s closure was cause for a moment of profound silence, followed by, “Get over here!”

March 27, 2009: Square Enix Secures Acquisition of Eidos

Ever since I’ve been in the business of writing about videogames, Eidos has been on the table for purchase. After succumbing to too many Tomb Raider failures (from TR4-TR:Angel of Darkness), Eidos never really climbed back up to its previous heights of success in development or on Wall Street. During that time, nearly every publisher in the world has engaged in talks to purchase the English publisher. But no one in their right mind thought Japanese giant Square Enix would be the one. Anyone for a Final Tomb Raider Fantasy?

March 24, 2009: Could OnLive Change Everything?

OnLive CEO Steve Perlman and COO Mike McGarvey introduced the cloud-based computing online service, OnLive. The service is designed to eliminate the need to continually upgrade PCs or to buy new consoles. EA, Epic Games, Take-Two, Ubisoft, THQ and several others show initial support, but direct issues such as eliminating lag and cost structure posed problems, while indirect worries such as the next generation of consoles led by Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft also weigh in.

June 1, 2009: Microsoft, Sony Reveal Motion Controllers

At E3 2009 (which had returned to the LA Convention Center), Microsoft unveiled the potential next step in controller-less gaming, Project Natal. Combining the use of an RGB camera, depth sensor, microphone, and proprietary software, Microsoft discussed the importance of eliminating the barrier between gamers from games (a la Nintendo’s Wii). At Sony’s press conference, Dr. Richard Marks introduced Sony’s own proprietary engineering prototype which combined the abilities of the EyeToy and a motion sensor. Neither project would ship in 2009.

June 24, 2009 Bethesda Acquires Id Software

After quietly announcing it had transformed from a developer into a publisher, ZeniMax Media Inc., the parent company of Bethesda Softworks, acquired industry pioneer Id Software. Id’s departure from the conservative creative culture at Activision and acceptance at Bethesda’s well-funded, new studio-friendly system was a surprise and a shift whose repercussions have yet to be determined.

November 2009: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Smashes Records

Infinity Ward’s first-person shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 took in $550 million during its first five days, beating Grand Theft Auto IV’s video game record, while setting a single-day record with 2.2 million unique Xbox Live users playing the game on November 10. Modern Warfare 2’s remarkably fast-paced single-player campaign is joined by a new Spec-Ops mode, and a highly improved, highly desired multiplayer game. Christmas will never be the same again.

***

Surely that’s not everything–not every single thing–that happened. What about…? If I forgot, missed, or ignored an event worth posting, write and let me know! I’ll see if I can post it in the story.  Missed part 1 of The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009, part 1? Check it out now.

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The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009, Part 1

By Douglass C. Perry

When we look back 20 years from now, the first decade of the 21st century will look obvious to us, like a paint-by-numbers drawing for kids. It’s almost incalculable how many little triggers have shaped our current place in the games race. But there more than a handful of events, dozens of key games, and entire years that pushed this one-time cottage industry into the full-blown billion dollar industry it is now. While this isn’t the definitive historical account of single thing that happened between the years 2000 and 2009, this Decade in Review is an insider’s look at what happened. See “Part 2 of The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009” here.

The End of an Era

The decade started with a tumultuous bang. After the Sega Dreamcast roared into the world’s consciousness on September 9, 1999, breaking sales records, introducing online gaming to consoles, and introducing David (Visual Concepts) to Goliath (Madden), the Japanese hardware maker shocked everyone again in 2001 by declaring its console was kaput.

Perhaps more remarkable was that Nintendo’s biggest competitor in the 1990s, the creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, and EA’s biggest partner, was re-focusing its energies to become a “console agnostic” software producer, meaning Sonic and his pals would appear side by side with Nintendo’s mascot, Mario. To the gaming world, this was like Bill Clinton announcing he was Republican, Bill Gates admitting he stole the Mac’s operating system, or saying you didn’t really like The Empire Strikes Back–all of it anathema.

Sony’s Big Empty PS2 Launch

Sony Computer Entertainment American launched the black, asymmetrical, and interesting (it was neither beautiful nor ugly, it just kinda “was”) PlayStation 2 in Japan in spring 2000 with lots of Sony-built hype, but few significant games to back it up (Tekken Tag Tournament and Ridge Racer V just didn’t cut it). The even bigger North American launch was amazing in that it packed 28-launch titles, only two of which were truly memorable, Madden NFL 2001 and SSX (originally proposed as a Dreamcast game). Sony scrambled to get 1 million consoles to the US, some flying on planes at the last minute.

Sony’s Stunning 2001 Line-Up

So while Sony’s launch year was a bust in many regards, replete with lots of faulty aliasing and sketchy titles, Sony (and its partners) made plans for 2001. Sony’s fall 2001 PS2 line-up was remarkable, perhaps the greatest line-up of a single system ever. In many ways it secured Sony’s first-place spot in that console generation. In the fall 2001, Sony and its partners launched Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Ico, Final Fantasy X, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Grand Theft Auto III, Onimusha, Red Faction, Gran Turismo 3: A-spec, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Devil May Cry, SSX Tricky, Twisted Metal Black (which admittedly came out in the summer), Jak and Daxter, NBA Street, Klonoa: Lunatea’s Veil, Half-Life, Silent Hill 2, and Midnight Club, among many others. The knock-out punch was thought to be Metal Gear Solid, but in fact in was Grand Theft Auto III, which swept the message boards and radio waves, and became the PS2’s exclusive killer app for the next four years.

September 11, 2001

The al-Qaeda-backed hijacking that led to the destruction of four commercial airlines and the devastation of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York affected the entire world. In the video game business, publishers with games based in New York, removed the Twin Towers from the skyline of their games (i.e. Spider-Man 2). The grim repercussions stole the industry’s light step, killing four-day PR stunts and junkets (some of which were too long and crazy, anyway), forcing marketers to edit creative use of violent language, and heightening American’s fears of Middle Eastern religious groups, the subject of which would appear in games to come.

Grand Theft Auto III Steals the Show

Grand Theft Auto III launches; and with it Rockstar Games brings a whole new way of looking at game design, game production, and a maturing gaming audience. GTA III brought open-world gaming–sandbox design–to the forefront of game development, but it was Rockstar’s magic touch of high-cost development, mature themes, good story-telling, enormous geography, stellar, hand-picked soundtracks, and most importantly, humor–that parodied American civic life–that made the Grand Theft Auto series so revolutionary, not to mention one of the best selling series of all time. Activision, Midway, and several other companies tried their best to imitate it, but between 2001 and 2005, none came close. Pandemic’s Mercenaries, Vivendi’s Scarface, and Activision’s Spider-Man 2 came in at a distant second.

Halo Captures a Generation

When Microsoft entered the videogame business in 2001, it tried buying developers across the world. Its big catch was Bungie Studios, which was in development with the first-person shooter Halo (originally for the Mac). With Halo, Bungie revolutionized FPSs on the consoles. The Halo franchise won over millions and millions of college students who spent endless nights playing linked systems and Master Chief strangely displaced a generation of confused, lone college women. The Halo franchise went on to break previous opening day retail sales records and remain the number one selling game on Xbox during its four-year life-cycle.

2001: Titus Acquires Interplay

French publisher Titus Interactive, best known for its phenomenal failure, Superman 64, completes its acquisition Interplay. French gamers are oblivious. American RPG fans openly weep across the nation.

2002: Square and Disney Raise a Kingdom

In 2002, after navigating high-level political discussions and crashing into license cul-de-sacs, Square demonstrated its creative genius again with its fully licensed Disney action-RPG, Kingdom Hearts. One part Final Fantasy (without being Final Fantasy), and the rest a bamboozling assortment of Disney characters, Kingdom Hearts, up until the recent Batman Arkham Asylum–became the pinnacle of innovative licensed work.

2002: Titus Fumbles Interplay

Interplay’s shares descend drastically, and Interplay is de-listed from NASDAQ. American RPG fans claw their eyes out, wander the streets blind.

September 20, 2002: Square and Enix Merge

In one of the biggest mergers in Japanese game history, Square, makers of the popular Final Fantasy franchise, and Enix, makers of the Dragon Quest franchise, join in holy matrimony. The new company is called Square Enix, and its formation has as much to do with the crumbling Japanese economy and staying solvent as anything else. Years after this merger, Square will make yet another purchase of note.

September 12, 2003: Valve Launches Steam
Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam, might have launched in September 2003, but it wouldn’t be until Half-Life 2 released in 2004 and third parties joined the party in 2007 that Steam gained traction and reached profitability. By carrying big third-party companies such as Eidos, Capcom, and Id Software, and seeing financial successes with The Orange Box, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and BioShock, Steam took the leadership role in digital distribution.

December 8, 2003: Black Day, Indeed

Interplay lays off the Black Isle Studios staff. A spat of former Black Isle staff members bitterly recalls the final days of their studio’s collapse. American RPG fans walk off cliffs, in front of cars, into the mouths of sharks.

September 1, 2004: Acclaim (Finally) Calls it Quits

One of the oldest publishers in the arcade and video game business, and makers of titles Shadowman, Burnout, NFL Quarterback Club, WWF Attitude, Re-Volt, Extreme-G, Vexx, Fur Fighters, Dave Mirra’s Freestyle BMX, and many others, Acclaim finally throws in the towel. After its multiple comebacks, all of its ghastly Mary-Kate and Ashley “games,” and the last, gasping hope at re-kindling Turok (once a great series), Acclaim Entertainment filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in fall 2004, purportedly owing $100 million to its debtors. Nobody, not even Acclaim employees, weep a single tear.

2004: EA Buys NFL License, Kills NFL 2K Series

In a move that crushed the healthy competition between annual football developers EA and Visual Concepts (and football-based videogames in general), EA out-bought its competition. EA convinced the NFL to an exclusive five-year licensing deal granting the Redwood Shores publisher the sole rights to the NFL’s teams, stadiums, and players. The move followed Visual Concepts/Take-Two’s risky move to sell its game at just $19.99, undercutting EA’s Madden sales with a superior game at a lower price. EA went on to produce three years of substandard Madden games in the new generation of systems, proving true the adage that competition is healthy for any market.

The Fall of 2004: Heavyweight Sequels Reign Supreme

The year 2004 was one of the greatest all-encompassing creative achievements for the game industry. In the fall of 2004, heavyweight games were in abundance and every system had its killer-app lined up. After an alleged security breach forced developer Valve to stall the release of Half-Life 2 in 2003, the Seattle-based developer delivered the wildly popular sequel on the PC in fall 2004, garnering dozens of high scores and game-of-the-year awards. Bungie followed up its first Xbox success story with Halo 2 to high scores, incredible sales, and a technologically advanced online system that revolutionized console multiplayer games. Rockstar Games brought its biggest, grimmest (and subsequently most controversial) game in the Grand Theft Auto series, GTA San Andreas. GTA San Andreas brought in the highest ratings and sales for the franchise, but also produced the hidden Hot Coffee sex scenario that caused characters like Jack Thompson to have their day in the sun (you know, before he lost his license to practice, soon thereafter). While these titles initially garnered the lion’s share of press, awards, and sales, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft silently took over the PC, wooing millions of casual gamers to subscribe to its highly addictive MMORPG, which went on to become the most successful MMORPG ever.

November 21, 2004: Nintendo launches the DS

Ever marching to its own drum beat, Nintendo launches the dual screen (DS) handheld, a modern new take on the Game Boy, which doesn’t instantly take off. It wasn’t until Brain Age and Nintendogs were gobbled up like candy in Japan, Europe, and North America did the system surpass sales of major consoles.

See “Part 2 of The Decade in Review: Videogames 2000-2009” here.

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Looking Back at 1998: Nintendo’s Fall, Part 2

mariocrackedimage_1What happened after N64’s launch? What happened with third-part support? What ultimately happened to the Nintendo 64?

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With the wildly successful Nintendo DS and Wii hitting record sales month after month, Nintendo looks like a million bucks. All of Nintendo’s well calculated strategies and inventive risks look like–and may very well be–genius.

Going against the grain of more sophisticated machines such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, in 2006 Nintendo launched the Wii, a console less powerful than the original Xbox, accompanied by an un-tried game controller that smacked of trickery, and a name that sounded so close to urine that it made everyone over 10 years of age giggle.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“Looking Back at 1998: Nintendo’s Fall, Part 2” is the second part of a series originally published on Edge-Online.com.

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“Something is Wrong with Nintendo 64”

In the May 1997 issue of Next Generation (number 29, Volume 3), eight months after Nintendo’s successful launch with only two games, Next Generation magazine took a hard look at Nintendo’s system with the headline, “Something is Wrong with Nintendo 64,” followed by the subhead, “There simply aren’t enough quality games. But is there hope? Revealed: The 70 new games that will make or break N64.”

next_gen_thenandnow_1

Next Gen compares the the Super NES launch titles to the Nintendo 64 launch titles. Super Mario World Vs Super Mario 64; PilotWings versus PilotWings 64; F-Zero versus Wave Race 64; and Actraiser versus Shadows of the Empire.

Those words were tough for Nintendo fans to face, but the cover image was even more jarring. It was illustrated with a picture of Mario’s face beneath a cracked plate of glass, splintering Mario’s smiling face into shards.

The basic premise of Next Generation’s feature article was Nintendo had promised “quality” ahead of “quantity,” but didn’t support that strategy with enough quality games. Additionally, the magazine wrote that the games that had arrived were:

1) “Out of date” (Doom 64, Cruis’n USA, NBA Hangtime, and Killer Instinct Gold among them).

2) “Too safe” (see previous list).

3) “And had all the flaws of cartridge-based games” (the lack of storage produced redundant textures, little to no FMV, and significant audio limitations).

4) NG also claimed that while Nintendo made a big deal about the power of 64-bit games over 32-bit games, “outside of Super Mario 64 and Wave Race 64, that extra power hadn’t meant squat to the quality of games. “

5) Finally, Next Generation claimed that there was “no third-party support.”

After two years of working at Next Generation, I headed up the first IGN site, N64.com, which launched in August 1996. The publisher of Next Generation Jonathan Simpson-Bint had given me the option to work on any of the IGN sites, and I had originally picked SaturnWorld.com. After some reflection, I decided to run the N64 site instead, shifting newly hired editor, Jeff Chen, to the Saturn site.

turok_boxartAs the new editor at N64.com, I was conflicted. I took issue with Next Generation. Mainly, I disagreed with Next Generation’s review scores. The magazine had only given two Nintendo 64 games, Super Mario 64 and PilotWings 64, five out of five stars. Everything else was ravaged. Wave Race 64 received three stars? Wave Race 64 remains a brilliant piece of technology and gameplay even today. Despite a slew of jet ski games ushered out on PS2, none have been as good as Wave Race. Even the sequel Wave Race: Blue Storm wasn’t better the original. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter received only three stars? Didn’t that game have the coolest set of weapons ever? Even Mario Kart 64 received three stars.

The conflict, however, was that even if I didn’t agree with Next Generation on a game-by-game basis, I agreed with Next Generation’s premise on the whole. On the whole, third-party games were lackluster, old, and safe. It wasn’t until one-plus year after launch that EA started supporting N64. And the 64-bit console’s power wasn’t vastly ahead of the competition, by any means.

cruisnexotica_cartAll of my issues aside, the magazine’s criticisms pointed out N64’s biggest flaw: the cartridge model was already a thing of the past.

The Medium Is the Message

“Numerous motivational factors explain why the third-part lineup thus far excels only in predictability,” reads Next Generation number 29, Volume 3. “One reason is directly linked to the Nintendo 64 business model which takes away a great deal of the profit potential for a third-party developer. Used to paying approximately $15 per disc for PlayStation, Saturn, and PC games, gamers pay about $35 for Nintendo cartridges and publishers must consider this carefully when planning games for the system.”

“‘From an inventory risk standpoint, we prefer working on CD platforms,’ admits Virgin Games’s Neil Young (in NG 29), which is part of the reason why Virgin is only developing one Nintendo 64 product as opposed to a number of games for competing CD-ROM systems. The bottom line is that when third parties have to pay Nintendo $35 up front for all the games they want to make, it requires a huge financial gamble.”

next_gen_indevelopment_1

What happened to Battle Sport II and Contra 64? Why did we get Clay Fighter 63 1/3 and Dark Rift instead?

As we now know, Sony’s PlayStation usurped Nintendo as the market leader partially by wooing developers off Nintendo’s cartridge-based ideology. Developers and publishers alike were attracted to the possibilities of the CD-ROM, which provided more storage versus Nintendo’s cartridge storage capabilities, not to mention more flexible, less risky production scheduling. Publishers could store more video, art, and texture work required in the emerging 3D world of gaming on a CD than on a cartridge. And Nintendo’s rejection of the new technology (or at the very least misinterpretation of its power) played a major role in its stumble from the top.

Equally important to publishers were the economic issues involved with cartridges. There was no doubt in the mind of any smart executive that Nintendo would continue to be successful. Nobody had misgivings about the strength, brilliance, or popularity of Nintendo’s first-party games. Those would come and they would be great. Potentially they would open up sales, markets, and opportunities for third parties as well. Potentially.

next_gen_indevelopment_2

How fun was Virgin's Freak Boy--a character that could turn into any weapon, instead of carrying it? And what is this, Ubisoft? Ed?

But the cartridge business all of a sudden looked riskier and far more expensive in comparison to the CD-ROM business. With cartridges–essentially individual chip sets plugged into the console–publishers had to guess how many cartridges to make in advance of the game’s release.

As many publishers had experienced with the NES and Super NES, guessing wrong on precise numbers (500,000 versus 900,000 units, for instance) could backfire in at least two ways. If they guessed short, they would have to queue up again to make more and potentially wait behind other publishers waiting to have their cartridges manufactured–and potentially lose sales during the waiting time. Publishers could miss the Christmas rush entirely if they guessed wrong.

next_gen_indevelopment_3

Kirby Bowl transforms into Kirby's Air Ride. And of course, there is Mah Jong Master, wihch always threatened to arrive...

But if publishers guessed long and ordered too many, and customers didn’t buy as many as they had estimated, they would be stuck with extra, expensive cartridges. You always hear the real-life moral tale of Atari’s ET cartridges buried somewhere in the desert, but there is truth in that tale for all cartridge-based publishers. What do you do with thousands of pre-ordered cartridges that don’t sell? You could take Braid designer Jonathan Blow’s advice–to start at point zero and make a good game–but that’s easier said than done.

The PlayStation also touted 3D games with a hardware engine designed to create polygons and texture maps, not sprites. The Saturn, for instance, was a great sprite generating machine, and while the Nintendo 64 had serious power at the time, its storage and RAM limitations hampered the expanding demands gamers and developers were placing on better graphics and sound.

“[With CD-ROMs] publishers could provide more content without paying gigantic prices for memory,” explained Mike Mika, currently head of development at Other Ocean, and then soon-to-be associate editor at Next Generation. “No matter what size your game was, it was still just a single fixed cost. For Nintendo, you had a variety of cartridge sizes that became cost prohibitive very quickly. So you saw a lot of developers and publishers move to some exclusivity on PlayStation.”

Next Generation’s final argument in issue 29 crystallized the problem.

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F-Zero, Zelda, and SIlicon Valley made it to N64, and all in great shape.

“Many software publishers are still smarting from huge losses on unsold cartridge games at the end of the 16-bit era, and the last thing they want to do is take another financial bath. So this means that no one wants to take any chances. Third parties will release only the safest, sure-fire winners for N64. And this, (when cemented by Nintendo’s demands for exclusivity which removes any profits from other versions) means tried-and-trusted no-brainer game recipes, big licenses, coin-op conversions–and a resounding ‘snore’ from experienced gamers.”

squaresoft_logoSquare and the Third Party Problem

Squaresoft and Enix were two of the biggest RPG-making companies in Japan. On all visible fronts, both looked like staunch Nintendo supporters with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest having sold millions of copies in Japan, Europe, and North America on Nintendo’s previous systems.

While Square and Enix originally had stated they would support Nintendo’s system, in retrospect those statements proved differently. It was more than significant to see Square and Enix embrace the PlayStation and then quietly and politely distance themselves from Nintendo’s N64.

The biggest example was when Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy VII arrived on PlayStation in 1997. Sony Computer Entertainment America, which published the game in the U.S., proved its knack for marketing by positioning Final Fantasy VII as an action game in its TV commercials. The game, however, was anything but. Final Fantasy VII was a vast turn-based RPG with what seemed like hours of animated CG cutscenes. At the time, Squaresoft’s RPG was a remarkable visually stunning, and epic game. It sold millions of copies on PlayStation. If you were system agnostic, you bought your PlayStation and you were too were delighted. But to any Nintendo purist, Square’s FFVII on PlayStation felt like betrayal. ffvii_boxart


“The move by Square to CDs was very significant,” said Chris Charla, currently the VP of business development at Foundation 9 Entertainment, and former Editor-in-Chief of Next Generation Magazine. “First, it gave us a hint that Sony’s system might have some staying power… Seriously, it was really the ultimate seal of approval for optical media in games, and of course it marked a shift by third parties towards PlayStation as the system of choice.”

“It really made people understand what CD offered over cartridge,” added Mika. “There was no way that Nintendo could compete with the imagery and animation that Square put into Final Fantasy VII. People who were just starting to wake up to the next generation of gaming would look at FFVII and Zelda and see that FFVII was just simply a higher impact visually. It was in effect the better ‘book cover.’ And as far as marketing goes, that’s what you need to win people over. It looked better in commercials, screenshots, etc. Its brilliant use of FMV combined with real-time 3D was stunning.”

Brilliance and the Slow Decline

In winter 1997, early hardware and software sales figures indicated that despite Nintendo’s late entry into the marketplace with the Nintendo 64 (Nintendo switched the name from Ultra 64 many months after the Shoshinkai Exposition), the Redmond, Washington-based company had come out fighting.

According to TRST data (The Toy Retail Tracking System), an independent tracker of software sales, six of the 1996 holiday season’s best selling titles were Nintendo 64 titles. Those games included the season’s number one selling game, Super Mario 64, Star Wars Shadows of the Empire (#3), Killer Instinct Gold (#5), Cruis’n USA (#6), Wave Race 64 (#8), and Mortal Kombat Trilogy (#9). Super NES games Donkey Kong Country 2 and Donkey Kong Country 3 also made the top 10, leaving one Saturn and one PlayStation game in the top 10.

As Nintendo’s system built momentum, there were some key third-party titles: Konami’s International Superstar Soccer (AKA Pro Evolution or Winning 11), Midway’s Top Gear Rally, and a few others. Several elements kept N64 relatively close in the market race, but third-party support and consistent quality games were rarely part of the equation.

goldeneye007Second-party developer Rare, however, emerged into a powerhouse force during the N64 years. Best known for early hits Battletoads and Jetpac, and Super NES hits Donkey Kong Country 2 and 3, Rare hit its stride with N64, producing creative hits such as Blast Corps, breaking movie-game stereotypes with the first genuinely good console first-person shooter, GoldenEye 007, and producing clutch games such as Diddy Kong Racing for the otherwise empty Christmas holiday of 1997. Additional Rare hits included Donkey Kong 64, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark, and what many critics consider Rare’s best game, Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

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Ocean didn't want us to reveal that Mission Impossible's lead character had a face that merged John Travolta's and Tom Cruise's, due to Cruise's refusal to use his likeness in the game.

The supreme irony of Nintendo 64’s decline in sales and support was that Shigeru Miyamoto’s most transforming, innovative, and visionary work was done on N64. Today, Super Mario 64 remains one of the greatest games ever because of Miyamoto’s ability to successfully bring Nintendo’s flagship franchise into the 3D realm while remaining true to the original. In Mario 64, Miyamoto addressed and, in most cases, solved the difficulty that plagued many developers years after–the 3D camera.

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Zelda shows us what it means to target with a Z.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was even more visionary. Aside from introducing key innovative mechanics (which are staples in game mechanics today) such as Z-targeting (some might argue this same technique was simultaneously introduced in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver), and contact sensitive actions, Ocarina of Time evolved story-telling techniques by jumping in time and portraying Link as both a young and grown character. The time-jumping technique also delivered real consequences to earlier actions made in the game. Other clever innovations involved the use of the ocarina. The ocarina had an extraordinary emotional effect on players who had to memorize tunes, which then cast magic on characters and items, enabling Link to progress.

Next Generation called Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time the “game of the century,”‘ under Charla’s editorial direction. Future’s sister publication in England, Edge, in 2007 reported Ocarina of Time as the “best game of all time,” according to its reader poll.

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The 64DD did arrive, but in limited supply.

But even Nintendo had problems with how to deliver The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to its cartridge system. The Bulky Drive, later known as the 64DD, was originally planned as the defacto peripheral on which the game would arrive. But the 64DD (1999) arrived after Ocarina of Time (1998), and never took off. Nintendo, instead, doubled the size of its cartridge to 32 MBs and fit Zelda onto it, the biggest cartridge Nintendo had ever created.

Well before Nintendo 64’s five-year cycle had come to a close, the Nintendo 64, despite an impressive start and significant first- and second party games peppering its lifespan, continued to lose significant market share to Sony while third-party support dropped precipitously. By 1999, when the Dreamcast shipped, even companies like Midway and Acclaim, original members of the “Dream Team,” stopped supporting N64.

Sony’s win with the PlayStation was due to a combination of factors. First, Sony bet on the right storage medium. Equally important, however, was that Sony had earned market leadership by wooing and grooming third-party publishers who created a massive library of games that reached into all genres and sub-genres. It created its own first- and second-party hits such as Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Twisted Metal, JetMoto, and NFL GameDay, to name just a few. But one could question that if Nintendo, despite all its creative strides in software, had picked a different, better technology, the 32-bit generation console wars would have emerged much differently.

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Yuke Yuke Troublemakers was a weird a wonderful game, just like all of Treasure's game.

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How would Nintendo take these lessons and apply them to its next system, the GameCube? And how would Nintendo build upon Rare’s second-party strategy? And how would technology ultimately be the issue that Nintendo would tackle in a totally unique way? Look for part 3 of “Looking Back: Nintendo’s Fall” soon.

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