BeiN True to Yourself: How Nintendo Wins

I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a while now, and with E3 having just happened, I think I can finally get started now.  As my past articles may give some ultra-subtle foreshadowing of, I am quite happy with how the Switch has been received so far.  After at least four years of almost unrelenting negativity towards Nintendo’s console division, someone finally flipped a switch and turned the light back on.  The Switch has recreated the phenomenon of the original Wii’s launch, an even more impressive feat considering it launched in March instead of November.  With Nintendo seeming to have finally fulfilled their longstanding goal of a launch year without droughts and an incredible E3 that featured a healthy mix of 2017, early 2018, and far away but ultra-exciting games, Switch’s future looks very bright.  So with Nintendo’s four most recent consoles alternating between explosive success and market failure (no, you having nostalgia for GameCube doesn’t mean it sold well, it was closer to Wii U in sales than it was to Nintendo 64, and that didn’t even win its generation), is there any way to make sense of this pattern?

Well, let’s look at the goal behind the four consoles in the most general terms.  The GameCube and Wii U had a focus on attaining something that Nintendo’s competition had in the previous generation that they lacked (disc based software and HD graphics, respectively) and bringing Nintendo back to getting the biggest third-party games and controlling the traditional gaming demographic again.  Both systems also suffered from something of an identity crisis, having drawbacks that stopped them from achieving true parity with their competitors (GCN’s smaller disc space and Wii U’s limited power compared to competing systems) and having stylistic features that conflicted with the goal of winning over the competitor’s fanbase (GameCube’s general “kiddy” image, Wii U’s tablet inspired controller).  After showing a lot of promise at launch, both systems quickly fell behind in market share and third-party support, becoming solid but niche systems you bought for Nintendo’s games.

 

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And look how well pandering to EA worked out.

 

Now let’s look at Wii and Switch.  They actually don’t seem to have fixed the problems I mentioned above, you could even argue they got worse.  Was Wii any less “kiddy” than GameCube?  Is Switch a powerhouse that obliterates or at least matches PlayStation 4 and would be giving PS5 a run for its money if the generations hadn’t gotten completely de-synced?  Did/will either one get all the AAA third party multi-plats that PlayStation/Xbox/PC share?  The answer to all those questions is no.  So why did things work out for these systems, but not their predecessors?

Because Nintendo didn’t half-try to be something they weren’t, they embraced what made them different and turned those weaknesses into strengths.  They flipped things around and succeeded at things their competitors weren’t even trying.  The Wii may have been at least as “kiddy” as GameCube, but it appealed to middle aged parents and senior citizens just as easily, it genuinely was for all ages.  The Switch may be only marginally more powerful than Wii U, but take it out of its dock and it’s a technological marvel as a portable system.  Nintendo solved their problems in ways that their competitors never would have attempted, and unlike trying to copy the other systems, this approach has been rewarded.

 

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Mocking its name just made it stronger.

 

Of course, that doesn’t mean GameCube and Wii U didn’t contribute anything to Nintendo’s future.  Remember GameCube’s bizarre controller layout and various gimmick controllers (bongos, the Game Boy Advance)?  I’m sure you remember Wii U’s attempt to get people excited to play games on the controller’s screen.  Neither of these features caught on, but Wii and Switch managed to evolve these ideas into a functional, wildly popular form.  The Wii had a new way of controlling games that got a huge amount of mainstream attention, and it being included with every system allowed it to thrive.  Wii U’s ability to stream games to its controller at a limited range turned into Switch being a true hybrid that allows you to take complete console games anywhere you want.  Instead of giving up on these ideas, Nintendo believed in them and turned them into something hugely successful.

 

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Its heart was in the right place, it just needed a few tweaks.

 

Now this section is a bit of a leftover from one of the earlier incarnations of this article, but since I’ve compared Wii and Switch so much, I think it’s worth addressing.  Some may ask if we really want Switch to turn into another Wii.  Was its success actually good for gamers?

Yes, it absolutely was!

It’s time to get over the delusion that Wii was nothing but Nintendo lazily making mini-game compilations and third parties badly copying the aforementioned mini-game compilations.  Yes, the Wii ___ series and shovelware that all market leaders attract existed, but you could and can ignore them, and there is a diamond mine hidden under them.  Nintendo made some of their best games on the Wii, and I don’t just mean the Super Mario Galaxies and Xenoblade.  Punch-Out, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, Wario Land Shake-It, Metroid Prime 3, Sin and Punishment 2, Pandora’s Tower, games you should give a genuine chance like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo absolutely did not just focus on gimmicky mini-game compilations during the Wii’s lifespan.

But the lack of attention those games get is nothing compared to the third-party hidden gems on Wii.  Zack and Wiki, Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands, Muramasa, Madworld, No More Heroes 2, Dead Space Extraction, A Boy and His Blob, Rabbids Go Home, Sonic Colors, Epic Mickey, Lost in Shadow, Red Steel 2, Trauma Team, House of the Dead Overkill, Goldeneye 007, Medal of Honor Heroes 2, Boom Blox Bash Party, Rodea: The Sky Soldier, there are so many third party Wii games that may not have been super hyped AAA budget games but were the type of quality mid-ware that people thought died in the seventh generation.  Switch turning out like Wii would indeed be a good thing, and fortunately, there are already signs of its portable ability bringing back some of those mid-ware style games.

 

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Have you played this game? Do you know what it is? This is Trauma Team, just one of the many underappreciated Wii games.

 

So in conclusion, I think the moral here is pretty obvious.  Nintendo systems with one syllable names do better, end of story.  In seriousness, I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo does a lot better when they focus on their strengths instead of trying to attain the strengths of others.  Directly competing on their competitor’s turf doesn’t work, and with the console generations being out of sync between companies now it is barely measurable (I defy you to find a way to compare Switch and PS4’s success that doesn’t require waiting 5+ years to judge).  While it would be nice for Nintendo to achieve the third-party dominance they had with the NES and SNES, I don’t think it’s practical right now and both Nintendo and their fans will have a better time if they focus on what worked for Wii and Switch instead of trying to bring SNES back with one fell swoop.  Wait a second, if you pronounce them “Ness” and “Sness”, those systems are also one syllable… that IS the key!

Broad Strokes

For anyone that’s spent any significant amount of time interacting with the gamer community at large, you’ll know that there are certain specific phrases and subjects that provoke controversy, usually causing a conflict between two diametrically opposed but equally zealous sides of the argument. We’ve seen the big offenders: who has the worst DRM, used games, sexism/racism/social justice/etc. However, there are also those phrases that invoke an overwhelmingly negative reaction, to the point where there is little to no debate. One such phrase fills the entire online gaming community with overwhelming vitriol: “we’ve decided to try to broaden the audience”. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of on their side: retooling games to capture a larger market share tends to leave long-time fans of specific series and genres out in the cold and it’s been done so many times with the significant majority of attempts ending up as diluted failures, as opposed to visionary titles that bridge the gap between newbies, casual players and the long-time hardcore fans.

One has to keep in mind the reason why games tend to get retooled in order to appeal to a wider audience. The answer’s pretty simple: money. Like it or not, the majority of video game publishers are businesses, many are traded publicly on various stock exchanges. Above all, these companies have a responsibility to put the interests of their stockholders above all else, and making big bank is job 1. Of course, the art of making video games in the first place is getting more and more expensive by the generation, and this is especially evident now since we’ve just entered a new generation, with a whole new set of standards to meet, at least with regards to AAA titles. It only takes one big-budget bomb to wipe out a developer now, so there is absolutely no room for error anymore. Sometimes, a successful game isn’t even big enough to keep their dev team running: Irrational Games was recently closed despite their latest title, Bioshock Infinite, selling over 4 million copies.

Despite the understandable reality of the situation, gamers still remain cynical and hostile towards the broadening the appeal of video games, especially “hardcore” gamers. It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case, though. Many attempts at taking older games and crafting sequels for a larger audience have ended up as shallow reflections of their predecessors. Simply put, most of the time, the new games end up being dumbed down. I don’t mean simplified for the sake of streamlining (which I’d actually argue is a good thing), but literally dumbed down. As in a shell of its former glory, a game that resembles the originals in appearance and name only, but retains none of the compelling gameplay that made its old fanbase fall in love with it in the first place.

Of course, there’s another narrative here that’s become more common. Instead of the hardcore gamers fighting to keep the spirit of the original game alive in future incarnations, I’ve seen several game journalists pose an alternate explanation: hardcore games are nothing more than a bunch of big babies who refuse to “share their toys” with casual players. Of course, this is just another phase of yet another on-going narrative within the industry: the culture wars between “casual gamers” and the “hardcore”, but I’ll go into greater detail with that another time. The main thing to keep in mind is that many hardcore gamers feel that games that typically cater to them are being retooled in order to bring in a wider audience, but at the cost of what made that experience special to them in the first place. It was all perfectly encapsulated in the Dark Souls II “easy mode” controversy: a simple mistranslation in an interview led fans of the series to rage over the loss of one of the few modern games considered hardcore and gaming journalists tore into them, like a pack of wolves into a crippled doe. The whole situation was ridiculous, but it illustrates the issue at hand: many long-time fans tend to be left high and dry when publishers appeal to a larger audience.

While modifying games for wider appeal take on a multitude of different forms, I have noticed that there are some common methods that typically crop up, especially in the case where the new games offend the pre-existing audience. Perhaps the top offender is simplifying the gameplay. While this isn’t always detrimental to the gameplay (in many cases, I think it’s actually beneficial), there’s a difference between streamlining the game and removing the game’s complexities. Related is reducing the game’s overall difficulty, usually achieved by removing obstacles and dumbing down enemy AI. Of course, this isn’t always intentional: poor AI and level design are the hallmark of poor designers. One last common culprit of expanding a game’s audience is tacking on a multiplayer mode to a game that is either awkwardly implemented or simply isn’t needed. While this is commonly done to prevent trade-ins and attempts to appeal to hardcore gamers instead of casuals, it still has the negative effect of taking away resources from single-player campaigns.

There’s no better way to characterize the harmful effects attempting to broaden a game’s demographic improperly can have on the game’s overall quality than listing some examples. The first one that came to mind was Resident Evil 6: it attempted to recapture their old survival-horror fanbase from RE4 while holding onto the more action-oriented third-person shooter audience from RE5, but only delivered a bland, mediocre game decried by gamers and journalists alike. Mass Effect 2 and especially 3 were criticized for ditching some of the RPG elements from the original in favor of cover-based shooter gameplay, while Dragon Age 2 had been accused of reducing the gameplay to mindless hack-and-slash action gameplay. Dead Space 3, while otherwise a fine game, was tainted by microtransactions, which EA added under the pretense of “appealing to mobile gamers” and you can probably guess how well that turned out.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts has been argued to be an example of this as well, ditching the game’s classic collect-a-thon gameplay (and openly mocking it at times), though the only real evidence we have that this was done to appeal to a broader audience is an interview with the game’s composer, Grant Kirkhope. This practice isn’t even limited to the previous generation: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was developed because Squaresoft was under the impression that JRPGs were too difficult for Western audiences. However, the most drastic example is probably Bomberman: Act Zero, which reimagined the classic character in a gritty, grimdark reboot with mediocre gameplay.

That’s not to say that there aren’t examples where attempting to broaden the audience for a particular title ended up making it a better game overall. Take for example, Street Fighter IV and its various expansions. As Street Fighter III ended up being a commercial failure for Capcom, SF4 ended up taking on gameplay more similar to that of the SF2 games, with slower, more deliberate action and reduced the complexity of various game mechanics. The parry system was dropped, while “focus attacks” were added in, which ended up being used by tournament players in a number of ways. Perhaps most controversial among hardcore fans was the transition from 2D sprites to 3D models, as this evoked the failed “Street Fighter EX” spinoff. However, the gameplay stayed entirely true to the game’s roots, resulting in a 2.5D game. Old fans of Street Fighter from the 90s ate the game up, and after a brief period of hostility, so did the majority of fighting game enthusiasts. That’s not to say it won over everyone in the community, but with the FGC, you have to realize there’s just no pleasing some people.

My next example is probably going to be the most controversial: the “Super Guide” function that’s appeared in recent Nintendo platformers. Yes, yes, I know it’s generally a win button that’s considered lame by most “real” gamers, but hear me out on this one. First, it’s optional, so even if it gets triggered in-game (after dying 5 or so times), you’re never actually forced to use it. Second, Nintendo’s made a pretty big point of trying to cater to casual gamers as of late, especially compared to Sony and Microsoft. So, with that in mind, Super Guide is probably the best solution to this problem: novice players have a way to continue on without getting stuck at some particularly difficult level and Nintendo has free reign to beef up the difficulty. And trust me, they have: Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country Returns are incredibly difficult games if you beat them without any help, even if you don’t take their post-game campaigns into account.

One last major case where simplifying gameplay to broaden an audience had a net positive effect was Saints Row 2. While the original Saints Row was your typical Grand Theft Auto knockoff, SR2 removed some of the more obvious design flaws that hurt GTA’s base gameplay: a lack of checkpoints during missions, long drives back to the starts of a missions and being penalized for causing chaos outside of missions. While game reviewers still thought of Saints Row as a low-rent GTA clone, many gamers prefer it, even to the then-recent GTA4. Furthermore, by differentiating itself from GTA in later games, the Saints Row series gained an audience of its own, being one of THQ’s most successful original franchises and was one of their first titles to be obtained after their bankruptcy.

The point I’m trying to make with this article is simple: video game budgets have swollen to the point where what would’ve been considered phenomenal sales a decade ago are simply not enough to keep AAA development going. Appealing to a wider demographic is one way to circumvent that and that’s not an inherently bad thing. What is bad, is using that as an excuse to deliver a shoddier product: one that doesn’t streamline existing gameplay, but rather scraps the elements that made the original game so engaging for its fans. That’s why core gamers revolt every time any publisher mentions “broadening the audience” – because it’s become a code phrase for “here comes an inferior product we’re literally pushing out to exploit casual gamers, but using a cult-classic IP to draw in the hardcore too”. If you ever want to buck that trend, you’re going to have to work hard to make games that are easy to learn but difficult to master, as opposed to just appealing to the lowest common denominator like you normally do. You need to make games that literally appeal to everyone, from the novice casual player to the veteran hardcore gamer. In short, deliver more games like Street Fighter IV and less like Resident Evil 6.

Wii Retrospective: All About the Games

As Wii’s life draws to a full close, there is a lot to say about the system.  While you could fill several articles talking about the disbelief when it was revealed, unorthodox system design, massive mainstream success, and bitter hatred from several sectors of the gaming community, that’s not what is really going to matter when we look back on the system in the future.  The only thing that is going to matter from this point on is the game library, and that is what I am going to be looking back on.  While I could wait for the Nintendo cycle to make the entire world love Wii once Wii U’s successor is released, I’m just not that patient.  Wii’s lineup has been severely under appreciated, and I’m going to overview several categories to show just how much there is to the system if you look.  Instead of going genre by genre, I’m going to try something a little different and divide games by first and third party, with three sub-categories for each.  Let’s dive in to the best Wii has to offer.

First Party:

Nintendo Staples:

These are the franchises you expect on every Nintendo system (and God help them if they miss even one) by default.  Two of the big ones, Zelda and Metroid, both had a pair of Wii releases.  I don’t care enough about Metroid: Other M to defend it very much (although the fact that I view it as forgettable instead of an abomination probably counts at this point), but the other three entries in those series all deserve much more love than they’re given.  Zelda: Twilight Princess is what it promised to be, a direct follow-up to Ocarina of Time.  Yes, it’s pretty easy in combat, but everything else is done pretty much perfectly.  Shooting with the IR pointer feels great, screw Wii Sports, that was what impressed me at launch.  Skyward Sword, on the other hand, changed the formula quite a bit more.  While I wish aiming was done with the IR pointer, the sword combat worked perfectly.  One thing it annoys me that no one acknowledges is that SS fixed the combat difficulty problems and is one of the hardest Zeldas in that area, even without the unlockable hard mode.  Both games have incredible level design, focusing on intricate dungeons and dungeon like fields instead of wandering around.  As for Metroid, Metroid Prime 3 is another game that greatly benefits from the Wii controller.  The emphasis on aiming and shooting means that the IR pointer adds a huge amount to the series, and there were some very appreciated changes (FINALLY there are teleport points).  If you can overlook the fact that it doesn’t copy the Super Metroid formula as exactly as the original Metroid Prime did, I think you’ll see just how good MP3 is.

As for other Nintendo staples, one of Wii’s biggest strengths was its platformers.  Wario Land Shake-It, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and Kirby’s Return to Dreamland are all great entries in their series and a major part of what made Wii so great for those who missed the console 2D platformer.  Smash Bros. reached a new level of hype with Super Smash Bros. Brawl, although the most vicious fighting involving it is probably from fan wars between it and Melee.  There were also entries in Fire Emblem, Nintendo Wars, Pokemon spin-offs, and Warioware for your Nintendo staples.  I know, I know, there wasn’t any Starfox, Pikmin or F-Zero and that’s the worst atrocity in human history, but as we’ll see in the next section there were things to make up for those.  I’m also aware that I skipped over one really, really obvious series, but again, just keep reading.

New and Revived IPs:

Not every Nintendo IP gets to show up on every system, and Wii had its share of revivals.  The Excite series kept its tradition of skipping every other Nintendo console, but Wii somehow managed to get an astounding three games in it, with Excite Truck, Excite Bots, and Excite Bike World Rally for Wiiware.  Punch-Out came back after a very long absence with a fantastic update.  After the original Sin and Punishment finally got a worldwide release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, it got an even better sequel that will easily fill the gap Starfox left in you.  Rhythm Tengoku got its first console release in Rhythm Heaven Fever.

But of course, everyone wants to know about the new IPs (until Nintendo skips over a major franchise in favor of one, at which point public opinion will immediately reverse).  The most prolific one, obviously, was the Wii (Insert word) series.  Wii Sports was the system seller for the mainstream, while Wii Play, Wii Fit, and Wii Sports Resort all sold very well along with their respective pack-in peripherals.  Wii Music did not have one and was a relative failure (and really hated by the gaming community).  Coincidence?  Probably.  Near the end of the system’s lifespan Nintendo brought in some new IPs in more traditional genres.  The rain fell and the world got to play Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower, all of which filled a much needed genre gap for Wii.

Mario:

Yes, Mario gets his own section.  Mario’s presence on Wii was one of the biggest for any Nintendo system, and that presence was well earned.  The first Mario game on Wii was actually Super Paper Mario, an RPG-platformer hybrid that suffered from an identity crisis but had some very creative ideas and great writing.  Mario Kart Wii is not one of the best games in the series for level design, but had probably the best implemented online play of any first party game on the system.  After a disliked Mario Party 8, Nintendo toned the series down quite a bit and released the much better received Mario Party 9 five years later.  Although it taught me I simply can’t get into a soccer game no matter who stars in it, Mario Striker’s Charged was a good effort from Next Level on their rise to prominence with Nintendo franchises.

Mario’s Wii games may not sound all that great so far, but that’s because I’m saving the best and most obvious ones for last.  After the traumatic Mario platformer drought on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, which only got one Mario platformer each, Wii had three Mario platformers on it, and all were absolute masterpieces.  New Super Mario Bros. Wii may have an army of internet posters who hate it because it has repeated world themes and a cappella, but if you give the game a chance you’ll find a platforming classic up there with Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World.  It also heralded the revival of the home console 2D platformer.  As for the Super Mario Galaxy games, do I need to say anything?  Even people who hate Wii acknowledge them as classics, they will be remembered as some of the best games of all time.

Well, that’s the first party section of Wii, but that’s all the system had to offer, right?  Considering I already said there would be a third party section, you can probably guess that’s wrong.  Let’s look at what third parties had to offer on Wii.

Third Party:

Prominent Exclusives:

This section covers third party games for Wii that had at least some sort of hype around them.  I am including timed exclusives as long as they were not announced for other platforms until the Wii version had already been released.  There were actually more games in this category than many people would expect.  Red Steel was the most hyped third party launch game, and while it didn’t turn out well it did manage to get a much better (and different in every way) sequel.  No More Heroes 1 and 2, Goldeneye 007, and Madworld were some other games that went against the tone often associated with Wii.  Wii also gave the rail shooter genre new life with House of the Dead Overkill, Dead Space Extraction, and the Resident Evil Chronicles games.

Not every prominent Wii third party game was about shooting or slashing.  The brilliant puzzle game Boom Blox, paint based platformer de Blob, and platformer/Katamari hybrid Rabbids Go Home were all unique games that the whole family could play.  Epic Mickey was somewhere in the middle, a dark but not violent take on Mickey Mouse with a surprisingly strong Nintendo 64 feel to the gameplay.  While somewhat stretching the definition of prominent, Muramasa was at least taken notice of in gaming communities and provided a great 2D combat engine to go with its beautiful painted world, while Capcom’s Zack and Wiki got attention for its great use of the Wii controller.  Speaking of Capcom, who can forget the anger caused by Monster Hunter Tri and Tatsunoko vs Capcom were announced as Wii exclusives?  But my favorite moment in this category was when, after a couple of mediocre storybook games, Sonic made his long, LONG overdue comeback in the Wii exclusive Sonic Colors.

There are also some Wiiware exclusives that deserve mention.  World of Goo is a brilliant physics based puzzle game that got a surprising amount of recognition.  Konami’s Rebirth series brought back Contra, Gradius, and classic style Castlevania.  Final Fantasy IV: The After Years may actually be the best received direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game.

Multi-platform Games:

Definitely not Wii’s strong point, and probably where much of the hatred of the system comes from.  Yes, Wii missed out on a huge amount of games that were released on both PS3 and 360, and apparently a system having its own library is a bad thing now.  Despite this, Wii had some multi-plats worth mentioning.  The Wii version of Rayman Raving Rabbids actually completely overshadowed the other versions, being one of the early showcases for the system’s controller.  Rayman didn’t forget this, and Wii got the incredible Rayman Origins at the same time and with the same content as the other systems.  De Blob 2 went multi-platform, but the Wii version didn’t miss out on anything from the others.  Despite being widely considered a disappointment, the Wii version of Epic Mickey 2 is actually the best one with the original developer and best control scheme.  The Call of Duty games didn’t have everything on Wii they did on other systems, but almost all of them did in fact make it to Wii, and Wii’s IR pointer controls could quite possibly make up for the shortcomings.  While sharing games with PS2 or PSP felt demeaning, there were some solid games where the Wii version was the definitive one thanks to the controls, such as Medal of Honor Heroes 2, Silent Hill Shattered Memories, and Ghostbusters (which was a completely different game than the PS360 version).  Wiiware had a better shot at sharing games with other platforms than retail releases, and Wii had some good games in that area like Mega Man 9 and 10, the Bit.Trip series, Cave Story, and Retro City Rampage.  Not a great lineup of multi-platform games, but it’s something.

Overlooked Gems:

Back in the height of the “Wii has hundreds of crappy games, the system therefore sucks!” days, I said that in the future they wouldn’t matter at all, and we’d only remember the gems in that gigantic pile of unnoticed third party games.  That time has come, let’s start with the cream of the crop.

Did you know Boom Blox had a sequel?  Boom Blox Bash Party may sound like a spin-off, but it’s actually a direct sequel that is even better than the first game.  Put assumptions aside, this series is not a party game or a simple arcade puzzler.  Boom Blox Bash Party had hundreds of brilliant and just inherently fun physics based puzzles, and is a must for every Wii U owner.  A Boy and his Blob is a fantastic sequel to the NES game that feels like a puzzle platformer merged with Zelda.  Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is actually a completely different game on Wii and uses the IR pointer for the best gameplay in any of the Sands games.  Lost in Shadow is another puzzle platformer, a deceptively huge game that doesn’t let the puzzle aspect completely overshadow the platforming.  Trauma Team combines Trauma Center gameplay and a few Phoenix Wright style play modes for a gigantic game that everyone should look into whether they’ve played the previous Trauma Centers or not.

While I don’t recommend them quite as strongly, there are some more obscure games worth checking out if their description catches your attention.  Blastworks is a shmup with a Little Big Planet style level editor.  Deadly Creatures is an aesthetically realistic platformer where you play as a spider and scorpion.  Elebits suffers from some early “is this a good way to use the controller?” issues, but is a creative and fun game almost impossible to describe.  The RPG Opoona, aerial combat game Sky Crawlers, and extreme sports game SSX Blur are some games I haven’t personally played, but their reputation suggests they deserve a mention.

As I hope you can see, Wii actually has a much greater quantity and variety of good games than its reputation would lead you to believe.  As I said, I have complete confidence that people will acknowledge this in time since it will at some point be a Nintendo system benefiting from the nostalgia filter, but you don’t have to wait.  With Wii games still easy to find and cheap, now is the perfect time to dig into the system’s under appreciated library.  Like every system, games will be Wii’s true legacy, and they leave a much better one than many people give them credit for.

Top Ten Video Game Series Comebacks (Part One)

I like sequels. If you’ve read my previous articles, you know that. But I’ve done enough articles in a row trying to convince people of something, so let’s do something more upbeat. There are few things in gaming I love more than when an abandoned or tainted series brings out a new game that is as good or better than the glory days. To qualify for this list, prior to the game in question its series has to have either had at least two bad installments in a row, or been missing for at least one console generation. Let’s get right to it, I’ve even ranked the entries this time!

Number 10: Twisted Metal Black
Playstation 2; 2001

How Things were Before: One of the earliest games for the original Playstation, Twisted Metal popularized the car combat genre and enticed gamers with its interesting characters and quite dark setting and sense of humor. Everyone loved the weapon infused, city destroying destruction derby of the titular tournament. Twisted Metal 2 improved on the original in every way, and is a classic still enjoyable today. Then the original developer, SingleTrac, left the series and it was handed over to the infamous 989 studios. Twisted Metal 3 was a poor clone of Twisted Metal 2, using an identical formula but with much worse controls and writing. Twisted Metal 4 tried to be more original, but the gameplay was not improved and the story was a terrible fanfic (Calypso apparently had a never before mentioned magical ring of souls as his power source, meaning Sweet Tooth could steal it and take over the tournament). Twisted Metal had become a joke and no one wanted another one.

The Revival: Launching on the new Playstation 2, Twisted Metal Black was developed by a reincarnation of SingleTrac, Incognito Entertainment. Rebooting (well, kind of, it’s impossible to explain without spoilers) the series into the opposite of Twisted Metal 4’s corny insanity, Twisted Metal Black made it clear from the start that it was not a simple follow-up. One of the most disturbing games ever made, TMB’s characters all had horrific pasts that shocked gamers. The psychological horror angle was done excellently and made the series feel completely fresh again. The gameplay was polished to be even better than Twisted Metal 2, with balanced and strategic combat that the developers themselves called “Street Fighter II on wheels.” Twisted Metal Black was everything you could ask for in a series revival, so why is it only number 10? Unfortunately, upon being saved the series immediately went away, not getting a new entry until five years after TMB that was decent but underwhelming. Then it went away AGAIN until Sony decided to just have another reboot. The reboot was terrible, and the future of the series looks bleak. Twisted Metal Black did everything right, but its series threw away the new life it was given.

Number 9: Punch-Out!!
Nintendo Wii; 2009

How Things were Before: Punch-Out had two successful but not famous arcade games in the mid-80s, but what everyone remembers about the series is the NES installment. More a series of boss fights with puzzle elements than a boxing game, the NES Punch-Out became iconic and beloved. The series got another installment on the Super Nintendo, which didn’t get quite as much attention but was an excellent game that was even better than the first. Then… the series just vanished. Lost among the overwhelming number of franchises Nintendo had to support, the series did not get a new game on Nintendo 64 or GameCube. A lot of people thought the Wii’s controller would be perfect for the series, but did Nintendo still care about the franchise? With a different boxing game included in Wii Sports, it didn’t seem that way.

The Revival: In 2008, at the height of panic over Nintendo abandoning their fans and classic franchises (I’ll spare you the multi-paragraph rant on how people are now complaining about the exact opposite), a new Punch-Out game was announced for the Wii. Called simply Punch-Out!! (there are five games in the series, and only two names between all of them), the announcement was very welcome to Punch-Out fans and Nintendo fans in general. But now that the series was alive, there was the question of how it would transfer into the modern gaming client. The previous Punch-Out games were not very long, could the series justify a $50 release in 2009? As it turned out, absolutely. Punch-Out Wii may have had only 14 opponent boxers, but with their complete transformations in Title Defense mode, several special missions for each, and a high difficulty level, 100%ing the game was a massive undertaking. Add in the huge amount of personality given to the boxers and your trainer, and you have the best game in the Punch-Out series by a wide margin and a successful revival. Let’s hope another one is coming, even if it will probably be called Super Punch-Out yet again.

Number 8: Rayman Origins
Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii; 2011

How Things were Before: In 1995, 2D platformers were in the later part of their golden age. With the next generation of gaming starting, most developers focused on polygons and 3D gameplay. Rayman, however, was a traditional sprite based 2D platformer that used more powerful hardware to look absolutely beautiful. There were some very severe problems with the gameplay, mainly the difficulty balance, but the wow factor made the game popular. As the generations proceeded, Rayman would get 3D sequels that were less visually distinctive but better designed in gameplay, and the series gained a loyal following. In 2006, a fourth entry in the series was announced for the upcoming Wii, which would see Rayman battling a new enemy species called Rabbids. The game was taken over by novel uses of the Wii Remote, and became a collection of mini-games. The game was very popular, with the Rabbids overshadowing Rayman. The Rabbids became the stars, with Rayman eventually being pushed out of his own series. The Rabbids even got a few platformer spin-offs, without Rayman in them at all. Rayman seemed dead and forgotten.

The Revival: As you might expect, despite Ubisoft seeming to have forgotten about Rayman, he still had a quite dedicated fanbase that was not happy about the Rabbids taking over. In 2010, it was announced that Rayman would return to his platforming ways in an episodic series of digital download games. In 2011 this changed into a full retail release, and the final game was better than anyone could have expected. In some ways it was similar to the original Rayman (which is good, since the plot had been all but removed, making the Origins in the title a relic), a beautiful 2D platformer using 2D animation to look absolutely stunning. However, unlike the original, the gameplay was just as good as the visuals. Rayman Origins managed to be a creative, very challenging platformer without relying on trial and error level design or bad collision detection like the original game. Rayman Origins not only got Rayman back in the spotlight, it far exceeded all previous games in the series and is sure to be remembered as a classic platformer.

Number 7: Mortal Kombat (2011)
Playstation 3, Xbox 360; 2011

How Things were Before: Anyone alive in the 90s, gamer or not, knows about Mortal Kombat. Most famous for the uproar its violent finishing moves caused, Mortal Kombat was always a series that got by on image. But what an amazing image it was, for a time period in the mid-90s Mortal Kombat was just the coolest thing imaginable. It wasn’t just the blood, the dark fantasy setting and seemingly endless secrets captured the imagination of gamers everywhere. It was enough to make you not realize how shallow and unbalanced the actual fighting was. Needless to say, when the cool factor wore off, the series fell hard. Mortal Kombat 4 had an awkward transition to 3D that hurt the presentation as much as the gameplay (the digitized graphics in the 2D MKs were a big part of the appeal), and gamers had clearly gotten sick of the series. The series went on hiatus, with a five year gap between Mortal Kombat 4 and the next game in the main series. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance and its follow-ups made more of an effort to be quality fighting games, but they still fell short and never came close to recapturing the aesthetic feel the 2D games had. That fighting games as a whole were far less popular than in the series’ heyday did not help. After Mortal Kombat vs DC was released over a decade since it would have been relevant, there seemed to be no hope for the series.

The Revival: With Street Fighter IV making fighting games popular again (more on that later) it made sense that another revival of the Mortal Kombat series would be attempted. Called simply Mortal Kombat, the game would be a reboot (albeit one caused by in-story reasons) retelling the first three games of the series, its prime. It would have almost every character and stage from the first three games included. But would that be enough to make people care about the series again? Turns out it didn’t have to be, after more than 15 years Mortal Kombat finally became a legitimate fighter. NetherRealm studios completely redid the fighting engine, and finally made a balanced, competitive fighting game for the series. There was also an exceptional amount of one player content added, including a story mode that had a ridiculous plot but showed off the setting people had loved in the past very well. The best game in the series by a huge margin, Mortal Kombat is the best thing that could happen to longtime fans.

Number 6: Donkey Kong Country Returns:
Nintendo Wii; 2010

How Things were Before: Donkey Kong is one of the oldest still active video game characters, debuting with Mario over 30 years ago. But the series this revival is about started in 1994 with Donkey Kong Country, a Super Nintendo platformer that blew everyone away with its pre-rendered graphics. It was followed by two sequels on the same system and the trilogy became some of the best loved games of SNES’ many, many classics. There was also a solid trilogy of GameBoy spin-offs. A Nintendo 64 sequel was a given, and it was released in 1999. There’s some controversy over its quality, but many, including me, feel its obsession with collecting and switching characters made for a far inferior game compared to the SNES installments. After that, the series faded away. The only thing you could even argue was a Donkey Kong platformer on GameCube was Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, which was a good and creative game, but very different from the Donkey Kong Country games. As a new decade began, the series’ glory days were far behind it.

The Revival: As E3 2010 approached, there were rumors of a new Donkey Kong game by the extremely talented Retro Studios. At Nintendo’s showing, these rumors proved true, but to our surprise the game was a 2D sidescroller. The platformer revival having just started, people were not accustomed to such an anticipated console game being two dimensional. There was some disappointment caused by the game being 2D, but most were just excited that Donkey Kong Country had finally, as the title itself announced, returned. The game turned out to be better than anyone could have hoped. With level design significantly better than the already excellent SNES games, and also a much longer game, Donkey Kong Country Returns was the best game in the series. Like another series that it isn’t time to talk about yet, Retro had given Donkey Kong Country a truly glorious rebirth. And with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze announced less than a week ago as I write this, that rebirth seems to have been sustained.

That’s all for now, but stay tuned for the second part of this article. We still have the top five video game series revivals of all time countdown!

Jumping From the Ashes: The Rebirth of Platformers

When we last left platformers at the close of the sixth generation and dawn of the seventh, things were not looking good. The transition to 3D that had seemed so promising with Super Mario 64 had caused initially hidden but quickly expanding problems for the genre, and the gaming market had shifted in a direction that was not very hospitable for platformers. Sonic had become a joke and Mario was for all intents and purposes missing from the genre. Ratchet and Clank could barely be considered a platformer anymore, and no other series from the last generation seemed to be making the leap. Was all hope lost?

It certainly seemed so at the beginning of the generation. While there was some hope with New Super Mario Bros. finally bringing back 2D Mario and its exceptional sales, this didn’t have the same impact as a console game would have, and Mario’s return could be more of a sign of Nintendo’s health than the platforming genre. Besides, a 2D game obviously couldn’t solve how to make platformers work in 3D.

As for what was happening to 3D platformers… it wasn’t pretty. The seventh generation’s large emphasis on cinematics led to what could be called auto-platforming: a jumping system where the player has very limited control over jumps and depends on set pieces to guide their character through acrobatic feats that look cool but take little interaction besides pressing the right direction now and then. This completely removes the point of platforming, platformers are about mastering a game’s jumping system and learning the patterns and layout of the environment so you can navigate it. Auto-platforming removes both of these features, since the jumping tends to be incredibly simplistic and the environments have been reduced to a prop that enables your platforming instead of testing it. There is no freedom in how you navigate the environment, platforming has been reduced to a quick time event. Games like the 3D Prince of Persias, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed are examples of games that contain auto-platforming, and for a short but painful time period it seemed that this was the closest we would get to 3D platformers in the seventh generation.

So things were at their darkest for platformers, who could save them? Well, it’s actually pretty obvious. Mario, who had both defined platformers and unknowingly set them on the path to destruction, had another 3D platformer coming out in 2007. I’ve tried my best to stay objective throughout these articles, but I’m going to have to let some emotion into this part. Super Mario Galaxy was miraculous. It was as if the decline of platformers had never happened, we had a game that kept the linear essence of the genre and used 3D to enhance the core gameplay and level design instead of replacing it with exploration. To make things even more miraculous, the gaming media and community seemed to recognize this. While few were brave enough to openly acknowledge that linearity could be a good thing, Super Mario Galaxy was incredibly popular and considered an instant classic in a way no platformer since Super Mario 64 had been. With such an amazing game to lead platformers in the seventh generation, the genre’s troubles were surely over, right?

Well, not exactly. Super Mario Galaxy may have been universally loved, but did that guarantee that other platformers would follow its example and that they would also be popular? In 2008, it didn’t seem that way. Despite Super Mario Galaxy the previous year, 2008 was arguably the darkest looking year for the future of the genre. Wario Land Shake-It was a good game that was completely ignored for being 2D, Sonic Unleashed gave up on platforming to focus on action/racing style gameplay and was still mediocre at best, and Little Big Planet focused on customization to the detriment of its core gameplay. Mario, the exception to the genre’s woes, was nowhere in sight and may have again gone into hibernation for most of a generation. Had all been lost?

It turns out all we needed was a little patience. Games aren’t made overnight, and this was truer than ever before with the seventh generation’s rising development time cycles. Platformers weren’t dead in 2008, they were charging. After more than a decade of turmoil, 2009 was the start of the platformer renaissance. If I had to pinpoint a precise moment where it started, it wouldn’t be with a game release, but with an announcement. At E3 2009, Mario shattered his one platformer (if that) per system curse with the announcements of New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2.

These announcements weren’t just good news for the Mario series, both games symbolized a wonderful development in the genre. Super Mario Galaxy 2 showed that the original Super Mario Galaxy was not a one time swan song for the genre, it was the new beginning it deserved to be. This would be demonstrated as games like Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time, Sly Cooper Thieves in Time, and Rabbids Go Home returned their series to a platforming focus. Arguably best of all, Sonic Colors systematically broke every step in the dreaded Sonic cycle and finally returned the series to platforming greatness. 3D platformers had changed again, and this time for the better. The damage done at the start of the 3D era had finally been healed.

But that wasn’t the only thing that caused the platformer revival. While the 3D platformer finally reached a good place in its troubled evolution, the 2D platformer made an astonishing comeback on consoles. Despite the dismissal Wario Land Shake-It was met with, New Super Mario Bros. Wii became one of the best selling console games of all time and companies took notice. Donkey Kong Country Returns, Rayman Origins, Kirby’s Epic Yarn/Return to Dreamland, and of course New Super Mario Bros. U continued the multiplayer console 2D platformer revival. If anything, 2D platformers are more prominent than 3D ones now, which no one would have ever predicted in the fifth and sixth gens.

So here we are at the dawn of the eighth generation. How do things look for platformers? While we don’t have the sheer quantity from the third and fourth generation golden age and probably won’t any time soon, 2013 seems to continue at the post-revival pace with Sly Cooper Thieves in Time, Rayman Legends, Yarn Yoshi, and a new 3D Mario all released or scheduled for this year. Mario aside, platformers aren’t the market dominator they used to be, but they’re selling well enough to keep a steady stream of them coming. There’s still a ways to go before platformers fully regain their 16-bit era glory, but things look far brighter for the genre than at any other time since then.