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Video Game Handheld War Part 13 March 21, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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Welcome back to our chronicle of the Video Game Handheld War, where we tell the story of everything related to handheld consoles. In the last part, we devoted an aside to talk about the history of smartphones and tablets, and their place in the handheld gaming war at this time. Today, we’re picking up from where we left off in Part 11, where the Nintendo 3DS was absolutely dominating the Playstation Vita. Now, we are about to enter the beginning of 2013. Smartphones and tablets were starting to make it clear that the majority of games that were going to be available on them could no longer be considered games, and game developers were slowly realizing dedicated handheld gaming consoles still had their place.

The Nintendo 3DS was fully backwards compatible with Nintendo DS cartridges, just as the Game Boy Color had been with Game Boy games a decade earlier. Because of that, even though the 3DS had launched in 2011, the newest Pokémon Games, Pokémon Black 2 and Pokémon White 2 released on the DS. Game Freak did take some advantage of the 3DS’s capabilities by digitally offering a companion app, Pokédex 3D on the 3DS’s eShop. They also sold a digital mini-game in the form of Pokémon Dream Radar, which allowed players to use the 3DS’s AR functionality to “catch” legendary Pokémon that could not be easily found in the games. With the help of the 3DS’s game card reader, anything caught in that application could be transferred to the newest games.

I don’t normally get personal in these articles, but the time has come to switch perspectives. If you remember one of the earliest parts of this article, Pokémon was the MUST OWN handheld game franchise. By the late 90s, everyone had a copy of Pokémon Blue, Pokémon Red or even Pokémon Yellow. This time period is what I like to call the first wave of Pokémania, and it existed between the US launch of the original games, up to the release of Pokémon Crystal for the Game Boy Color in 2001. After 2005, very few people I knew talked about Pokémon out of the context of it being a game for kids. It wasn’t openly played at my local college, and the animated movies which used to be summer blockbusters at the local cinema were now choosing direct-to-video or made-for-television. It was not a great era for the franchise, although new games were being released on a regular basis for the Nintendo DS, the games were only played by either children or devoted fans. That was about to change.

By 2013, fans were clamoring for a Pokémon resurgence. The Generation 5 games were very good (I would argue the best games of the entire franchise to this day), and fans all over the web were starting to produce their own independent video retrospectives and reviews reminding people of just how great Pokémon was, and how big a phenomenon Pokémania was. As Nintendo released their first Direct of the year, Satoru Iwata (Ed Note – RIP) deferred his time to the President of The Pokémon Company who revealed the very first Pokémon games for the Nintendo 3DS, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y. Most of Nintendo’s Pokémon-loving customers had a 3DS by this point, and the time was right for Pokémon to come back into the mainstream, and return it did.

The PlayStation Vita was down, and due to its high price and limited library had little to offer potential customers. However, instead of ending their support for the Vita and cutting their losses, Sony tried one last play to bring the Vita out of obscurity. Smart TVs and streaming boxes were slowly gaining popularity at this time. While game consoles had offered access to services like Netflix and Amazon Prime in High-Definition for half a decade and newer “Smart” HDTVs came preloaded with access to those services without the need of a separate box, many older-HDTV owners of limited means turned to cheaper mini-streaming boxes (like the Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick) to access these entertainment services. They were much cheaper options than gaming consoles, supported the HDMI standard so picture and sound on them were good enough, and so they sold very well. The interesting component about that story, at least in Sony’s eyes was, is the rules of a streaming box is not all that dissimilar to that of a handheld. The components had to be small and yet still be able to pack a central processor, internal memory, WiFi and video chip. The Playstation Vita already had all that, only it had a beautiful screen nobody was willing to pay a premium price for and lacked a video out. In 2013, Sony made the decision to create a television streaming box based around the PlayStation Vita. It would be called the Playstation TV.

The Playstation TV launched in November 2013 and absolutely floundered at retail. Even die-hard Vita owners, who may have already had either a Smart TV or streaming box, were hesitant to buy it. The biggest problems with the PlayStation TV was price and limitations. If you didn’t have a wireless Dual Shock controller, the PlayStation TV cost $125US, a hefty price for a mini-streaming box only capable of 720p output at that time. While it had a slot for Vita game cards, it was incompatible with many of the Vita’s best exclusive games, including Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Silent Hill: Book of Memories. Had the PlayStation TV supported ALL Vita games, and worked with any third-party PC Bluetooth controller or remote, it might’ve done better in sales. On top of that, Sony was also releasing the Playstation 4, and many gamers chose to save their money to buy a superior console that took full advantage of their 1080p HDTVs with a new library of games that were guaranteed to work.

By 2014 a second wave of Pokémania was taking over, fueled by excellent 3DS remakes of the Generation 3 games, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire. However, by 2015 game developers were starting to have problems with the 3DS’s limitations. Having only one analog stick was becoming an enormous control problem, and the 3DS XL’s Circle Pad Pro accessory (which was designed to solve this problem) was enormous and unwieldy. The 3D feature was being underused, as most players who couldn’t get comfortable with viewing the 3D screen at the proper angle would turn the feature off. On the other side, the 3DS’s CPU was starting to bottleneck newer games, especially when it came to making use of the 3DS’s Home Screen while a game was active. The solution was clear, Nintendo would release a New model 3DS which offered an enhanced CPU, better battery life, a second analog stick, and face tracking to adjust the 3D screen to match the player’s eyeline. This New 3DS would be called…The *New* Nintendo 3DS.

The New Nintendo 3DS handheld would only be released in Japan. In the United States, the 3DS XL had come out as the superior form-factor based on sales. In fact, I never picked up the 3DS myself until the XL was released. The US and Japan would get the *New* Nintendo 3DS XL, which boasted all the *New*’s features in the XL’s larger and more comfortable XL size. Games across the board ran better on the *New* 3DS, and the second analog was able to replicate circle pad pro functionality better than the original accessory did.

However, there were some problems. Some games, including Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, shipped as *New* 3DS exclusive and would not function on an earlier model console. SNES-ported Virtual Console eShop games, including Super Mario World and Earthbound could only be downloaded on a *New* 3DS. Many gamers in the US (for some reason) preferred the size and form factor of the original 3DS and refused to purchase the larger XL. Personally, I felt the XL form factor was the superior 3DS in every single way, and to this day I can’t comprehend the outcry over Nintendo’s refusal to bring the Non-XL to the US. Eventually, 3DS players either chose to make the upgrade or they moved on.

2016 was going to be a big year for Nintendo, as it with the 20th anniversary of the Japanese release of Pokémon, and the second wave of Pokémania was still in full effect. In February, Nintendo released digital ports of Pokémon Blue, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Yellow on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, where they sold like crazy. If you asked me, they should have done that three years sooner, but it was better late than never. The Generation 7 Pokémon Games, Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, sold well, but Nintendo released “Ultra” versions of the games just a year later with new features making the vanilla games feel more obsolete sooner than I felt was needed.

At the beginning of 2017, Nintendo announced the Nintendo Switch, a combination game console and portable tablet. It was later released to incredible success, surpassing the install base of the Xbox One. You might remember I talked about it’s launch in the last part of my Console Wars articles, so why am I talking about it here? Because, while the Switch can be considered a dedicated game console like the PS4 or Xbox One, its TV-out functionality is entirely optional. Like the Sega Nomad decades earlier, which played Genesis games on the go but also had a TV-out function, the Switch fits the definition of a handheld better than a console. Why would Nintendo release the Switch to function as both console and handheld, especially since they were dominating the handheld war with the 3DS? Well, I have my own opinions on that, but these are just that, opinions.

My opinion is that Nintendo wasn’t satisfied with being compared to Sony and Microsoft as a game console maker. Their company’s philosophy has always been to provide a unique product for recreational activities. The Wii U was a complete miscalculation that was marketed incorrectly and due to its lower power yet unique touch screen gamepad could not be fairly compared to either of the consoles on the market. However, time and time again, Nintendo made the right decisions when it came to the handheld market. Even back in the days of the Game and Watch series, Nintendo’s handheld products were juggernauts. By designing a handheld to be something as powerful as a game console, Nintendo could bank on what they were historically best at, handhelds, and still have a library of high-quality exclusive titles ready for it.

The final games released for the 3DS was an English translation of a previously Japanese-only game which was being adapted as a Summer Theatrical Blockbuster, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. The game was an adorable sendup to the point and click adventure titles I played on the PC as a kid, which took place in a new region of the Pokémon World. Ports of Pokémon Gold, Silver and Crystal from the Game Boy Color were also released on the 3DS eShop. For some reason Nintendo chose to stagger the release of Crystal, they did include access to the Celebi DLC campaign that never was activated in the US, and that was good.

With the release of the Nintendo Switch Lite phasing out the 3DS line, and with Smartphones and Tablets capable of providing casual games on the go (alongside all the other major features they already offer), the Video Game Handheld War has concluded. At this point, I am ending this article series and bringing future installments into the Console War series as the progress of the Nintendo Switch evolves.

Thank you for joining us through this incredible thirty year chronicle that has taken half a decade for me to write. The winner, forever more, is Nintendo, but I like to think that gamers are also the winners here as well.

Console War VI Part 4 March 19, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Console War, Histories.
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As we entered 2017, the PS4 was dominating the sales charts over the Xbox One, but Microsoft was showing no sign they were throwing in the towel. Nintendo, on the other hand, was. Sales of the Wii U console were in the toilet, despite its incredible library of exclusive games and the imminent release of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Nintendo was preparing to shift their focus to their next console, the NX. Due to the fact it would not be released in time for Christmas 2016, Nintendo took the unprecedented step to not reveal their console at E3 that year. Since E3’s foundation, no new console had ever missed an E3 showing and after the Wii U’s poor sales performance, many mainstream pundits wrote the NX off as Nintendo’s final product just as they had with the Wii nearly a decade earlier. We would find the answer very soon as Nintendo held a press event at the start of 2017. Their topic would be the NX.

Nintendo took the stage to announce the Nintendo NX was going to be coming to retail as the…Nintendo Switch. But what was the Nintendo Switch? Was it a console follow up to the Wii U or a handheld follow up to the 3DS? It was actually both. As the console was presented on stage, it appeared to be a fully functional tablet with detachable motion controllers. Then, it was placed into a charging dock where the game being played moved over to display on the adjacent HDTV. The Press dropped their jaws. There was no latency and no loading time in the transition between tablet and television, and Nintendo also showed the transition from television to tablet was just as seamless.

But what about the games? The Nintendo Switch would launch with a series of exclusive titles and ports of beloved games from the Wii U. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which had already been shown on the Wii U, would get a native Switch version at launch. Mario Kart 8 from the Wii U would also get ported to the Switch at launch as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. This Deluxe version included all of the Wii U version’s DLC and some new features. This was good because the Switch was completely incompatible with the Wii and Wii U’s games and controllers. The Switch didn’t even have a disc drive, so retail games would ship on game cards, similar to the carts used for the DS and 3DS. It also had 32GB of internal memory, but its memory could be expanded if the user installed a microSD which had a transfer speed of 65-95Mb/s. The downside was the Nintendo Switch, even docked, could only produce a maximum 1080p image, making 4K UHD gaming out of reach for the Switch. Even after all that, the final price of the Nintendo Switch in box with controllers and a dock would be just $299 US.

The Nintendo Switch released in March 2017 and sold like hotcakes. Within no time it even surpassed the known sales of the Xbox One. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a must-own launch title (as expected) but one of the games brought over from the Wii U, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, was a big system seller and became the de facto multiplayer title for the Switch at launch. Players like myself were impressed with the Switch, but we were looking forward to some of the later games that were announced for the system including Octopath Traveler, Splatoon 2 and (of course) Super Mario Odyssey. No new Pokémon game was announced for the Switch, but Pokémon’s arcade fighting game Pokkén Tournament would get a Switch port in the form of Pokkén Tournement DX, and it would include three new characters that until that point had only been seen in the arcade version.

E3 2017 came and Microsoft finally revealed the final specs of the 4K-native Xbox One console they had previously been teasing as Project Scorpio and its name, the Xbox One X. This 4K native X console would feature an improved GPU and CPU and promised superior performance over the PS4 Pro bundled into a console that would have the capability to play 4K Blu-Ray movies on disc. It would be coming in November 2017 for a price of $499 US, a $100 premium over the PS4 Pro. Not a single first-party title was released alongside the Xbox One X to show the possibilities of the increased horsepower, but Microsoft did release a free patch for Halo 5 near the X’s launch to bring the game 4K 60fps support on the X. Other third-party developers also took the time leading up to the X’s launch to prepare patches for multiplatform games they already enhanced for the PS4 Pro including Final Fantasy XV. Since the Xbox One X had an improved CPU as well as a GPU, Microsoft assured players their new console’s performance was just as good as the PS4 Pro, and in some cases might be a little better. That was good since it had a nearly $100 premium over the PS4 Pro.

While few PS4 owners chose to trade in their original PS4s for the newer Slim model, many of them were more impressed by the Pro and made the more expensive upgrade to the 4K console. Sony was even nice enough to add a data-transfer feature into the PS4’s operating system using the console’s Ethernet port. People who chose to upgrade to the Slim or Pro from an earlier PS4 found the transfer process painless if time consuming. At a base price of $399 for the Pro, which was still $100 cheaper than the Xbox One X, PS4 games across the board looked so much better on it. In fact, Sony partnered with companies like EA and UbiSoft to make sure that their third-party titles could take full advantage of the Pro’s improved GPU, so games like Battlefront II and Watch_Dogs 2 would launch with full 4K Pro support when they released. By E3 2017, Sony’s entire lineup of first-party titles including Detroit: Become Human, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy would all preview in 4K on the show floor. While The Last of Us Part II would need more development time, all of the other games I listed shipped with PS4 Pro native support, and those games looked fantastic.

After the Nintendo Switch launched, Nintendo allowed its early adopters the chance to play their multiplayer games online for free, but they needed to sign up for an online account because the fact it was free was merely temporary. However, games like Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe had great online functionality gamers enjoyed. However, even gamers who loved their Switch were getting more and more frustrated by the Switch’s limited features. Game saves could not be backed up, which for a handheld (that could be lost or dropped) was a serious issue. Downloadable classic games from Nintendo’s back catalog (which was a big reason why I bought a Wii and a 3DS back in the day) were not offered for sale on the Switch’s digital marketplaces. On top of all of that, The Pokémon Company had not yet announced if an all-new Pokémon game would be coming to the Switch. Pokémon games pushed Nintendo handheld sales unlike any other release, and since the Switch functioned as both a handheld and as a console, I could not imagine a better design for a platform a Pokémon game to be released on than the Switch.

Nintendo assured players this issue would be rectified when they launched their premium online service, Nintendo Switch Online. When it launched, it would allow subscribers to resume playing multiplayer games online, and offer them new features including cloud save sync for selected games and access to a select catalog of NES games. At merely $20 per year, the price Nintendo asked for put the $60 a year price for Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus to shame. In 2019, The Pokémon Company finally announced an all-new Pokémon generation would be coming to the Nintendo Switch which would use Nintendo Network for online functionality, but that is a very long story that is not going to be addressed in this article.

As this generation’s console war comes to a close, the winners are clear. Sony’s PS4 is the winner, Nintendo Switch (despite being a late entry) receives the Silver, and the Xbox One comes in third with the Bronze. The Nintendo Wii U can be considered as coming in 4th place, and receives no medal.

So how did the PS4 come out on top? A few reasons, but I think it can be boiled down to price and superior first party offerings. Microsoft made a lot of mistakes this generation and it cost them deeply. At launch, the PS4 was $100 cheaper than the Xbox One and ran multiplaform games at better performance. The exclusive titles Microsoft hoped would help the Xbox One overcome that price premium were critical flops full of microtransactions gamers were not interested in playing. Great exclusive titles like Quantum Break and Sunset Overdrive were not considered enough to put an Xbox One in people’s homes. Those games would have to make up for lost sales when they released on the PC. After third parties looked over just how much they were losing in sales by being Xbox One exclusive and Microsoft did away with the Kinect, no third-party publishers were willing to make exclusive titles for the Xbox One by 2016. This was devastating for the console.

In 2019, Microsoft did their best to cut their losses by releasing a new version of the Xbox One S that lacked a disc drive. This was arguably one of the dumbest calls Microsoft has ever made for two reasons. One, the 4K Blu-Ray Disc player was a major reason why people bought the Xbox One S in the first place, and a disc-free console essentially removed what was the ONLY positive the console had over the PS4 Pro. On top of that, at the same time the disc-free Xbox One S reached retail at a price of $250 US…it had to compete with the thousands of Xbox One S consoles that were already on most retailers shelves…that were at the same time selling at discounted prices far below $250. The budget-minded gamers Microsoft was trying to attract with a disc-free Xbox One S would not pay for a $250 console when they could pay for a superior one that had a major feature they wanted for $50-100 less!

Meanwhile, PS4’s own exclusive titles were considered some of the finest games of the entire generation and Sony refused to fill them with microtransactions. God of War (2016) and Marvel’s Spider-Man went on to critical acclaim and even though it is still too early to tell, could be considered games that will be talked about for years to come. Microsoft can’t say the same about the exclusive titles that were released on the Xbox One. Even Halo 5: Guardians, has been considered by Halo fans to be a disappointment and the worst game of the franchise. Even though the Xbox One X could deliver superior performance to the PS4 Pro on multiplatform titles, by the time it released in 2017 it was far too late in the console war for anyone to care. Now, you could probably find a Xbox One X at retail for $299, whereas the PS4 Pro still commands a full price of $399, and people are still buying it.

As for Nintendo, the success of the Switch was unprecedented in this generation, but its late entry and the already massive existing install base for the PS4 kept them out of contention for the Gold, Nintendo still needs to be commended. They have proven time and time again when they’re more interested in creating a product that can enter the console war at a unique angle, they will succeed. They did it with the DS and Wii to great success, and now the Nintendo Switch is doing it again. The failure of the Wii U will go down as a black mark against the company, but with the Switch it is clear they learned from each of the Wii U’s failures to release an incredible product.

In 2019, Nintendo released the Nintendo Switch Lite, a slimmer Nintendo Switch tablet with integrated controllers and a longer battery life. It was only $199 US but it had a lot of downsides. It had no TV-Out functionality, making the Switch feature of something called the Switch moot. Its integrated controllers lacked rumble, making it incompatible with some launch titles and putting some hurdles into players interested in couch gaming. However its price, size and battery life were major strengths and the Switch Lite sold as a popular alternative to the Switch. Nintendo didn’t care what their customers were buying they were making a profit on each Switch that was sold.

And that is where we will wrap this generation’s console war. As I type these words out Microsoft and Sony have already revealed their successors to the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, and if all goes according to plan we will find those consoles on shelves by this Christmas. There have also been rumors a 4K Switch might be in development, but those are unconfirmed at this time. Stay tuned, because in the next generation we will be pitting the Playstation 5 against the Xbox Series X, and the Nintendo Switch is still very much in the game. What will happen? Only time will tell.

Console War VI Part 3 March 13, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Console War, Histories.
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It was 2016, we reached the midway point of the Console War, and we had a clear race. Sony’s PS4 was in the lead, Microsoft’s Xbox One was in second place, and Nintendo’s Wii U was in the far third. At around the same time in the PS3/Xbox 360/Wii generation, Sony and Microsoft had decided to mix things up by adding in new motion control peripherals for their consoles. After the painful launch of the Xbox One with the Kinect, that was not going to be repeated. Something else would need to take its place.

In the PC space, another revolution was making way. Virtual Reality gaming was a big deal in the mid-90s, with enormous headsets that promised to put their users “inside” the game. However, while the headsets of the time could replicate 3D head tracking, the primitive computing technology of the time was far too limited to create detailed real-time 3D environments or characters. By the early 2000s, VR gaming had been passed over as a fad and companies no longer invested in it. However, over the 2000s, PC hardware was becoming more and more powerful, and the Kinect, Playstation Move and Wiimote has proven new methods of motion control tracking were available. By the mid 2010s, PC gamers everywhere started to ask, “The time is right to do VR correctly! Why isn’t VR back?”

Before this time, only multimillionaires had the power to finance major products. But the world had just given birth to services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, which allowed millions of regular people to pledge financial support for potential products. A company called Oculus decided to test the waters and asked for financial backing for an all-new VR headset designed to take full advantage of HD gaming on high-end PCs. To say the campaign was a success would be an epic understatement and Oculus would go on to be purchased by Facebook. Even after the successful backing campaign, it would take a while before Oculus would end up on store shelves, but in that time many major companies including Sony and Samsung, stood up and took notice.

There was some disagreement over what kind of hardware would work best with the VR headset. Oculus argued the PC should be the best VR component. Sony, however, argued the PS4 would be the best option for VR, and revealed they were working on a VR headset specifically designed for the PS4, Project Morpheus. Even though the PS4 wasn’t as powerful as a top of the line PC at the time, Morpheus would be able to run most of the same software as Oculus, and get its own exclusives. Soon, Morpheus would get an official name, Playstation VR, and it would be compatible with all PS4s at a price of $399US. Besides the headset, gamers would still need to buy a Playstation Camera and Move controllers to play VR games, but that would be included in the headset’s bundle pack. Plenty of games were announced for it, including a VR sequel to Psychonauts and a VR game that took place in the Batman: Arkham universe. Also some standard PS4 games could ship with VR modes.

In 2016, few had high hopes for Nintendo. The Wii U was floundering at retail despite a lineup of great exclusive first party games and Nintendo had seemed to completely give up on the Wii U. At the time Sony and Microsoft started revealing their PS4 and Xbox One hardware revisions, Nintendo was musing about their next console, dubbed the “NX”. Only one Wii U game was shown at E3 2016, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, with the caveat that it would also come to the NX when it launched. The game impressed everyone who demoed it, but it did not move Wii U sales. Instead, most gamers wanted to know more about the NX, but Nintendo was not talking about it yet.

On the other technology front, 4K televisions capable of Ultra High Definition (UHD) resolutions with High-Dynamic Range (HDR) color had hit the market months earlier (at very reasonable prices) but lacked hardware and content to natively take advantage of all the extra pixels in the television. There were no UHD channels (heck even to this day most HD networks don’t even broadcast in 1080p) and content providers did not have 4K capable cable or satellite boxes to offer customers who bought these new TVs. Most UHD TV home users would have to be satisfied with plugging a high-end PC into the TV to get native 4K content. This was not really the best option. In the last generation, the Xbox 360 and PS3 pushed the sales of HDTVs by offering customers the opportunity to take full advantage of their new televisions. The time was right for that to happen again.

Almost as if it was back to back, Sony and Microsoft announced new hardware revisions to their consoles were coming to retail and 4K would be at the forefront. Sony announced two new consoles would be coming to stores by that Holiday, a slim version of the PS4 that would be functionally identical to the original model (just smaller), and a 4K native PS4 Pro. The PS4 Pro would not only support all PS4 games, Sony promised they would allow developers to make their games run natively in 4K HDR. If a game had already been released, developers could bring 4K HDR support to their game in the form of a free patch. However, while the PS4 Pro could stream movies and video off the internet in 4K, the system would not support the new 4K Blu-Ray Disc format. To prove to their users that the base PS4 could still handle itself, Sony released a free firmware update for the PS4 to give gamers the chance to enable HDR on supported televisions. The catch was that HDR would sadly not work if the user had a PSVR connected to their PS4 although they promised PSVR games played on a PS4 Pro could look or run better.

Microsoft also announced two new console revisions were coming for the Xbox One, but admitted they would not be available at the same time. The first would be the Xbox One S, a slim Xbox One that unlike the PS4 Slim would support UHD Televisions, but only through upsampling their game. However, unlike the PS4 Slim or the PS4 Pro for that manner, The Xbox One S would ship with a 4K Blu-Ray Disc player. They also announced a Xbox One would be coming that would natively support 4K UHD games, and they were calling it Project Scorpio, but it would not be ready for a while.

The PSVR launched in October 2016 with a lineup of exclusive games and multiplaform titles ported from Oculus. Some games got positive praise including Batman: Arkham VR and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, but Arkham VR received negative points for being a brief game. VR enthusiasts unable to afford a high-end PC bought the PSVR headset day one, but very quickly it became clear that VR-enthusiast market was smaller than Sony expected. Ultimately, it’s high price, small catalog and hardware limitations did not push the PlayStation VR out of being considered a niche accessory to the mainstream consumers, but the users who bought it were very pleased and were eager for more games to come to the platform.

The PS4 Pro launched in November 2016 and eventually sold incredibly well, but not at first. There were stories of hardware issues with the first lot of Pros, although Sony would honor their warranty and replace units when needed. However, despite the improved graphics and native 4K gaming support, the PS4 Pro still used the same CPU as the original PS4, and some games updated for the Pro (like Final Fantasy XV) had minor performance issues the standard PS4 did not have. This made some current PS4 owners decide to wait on upgrading to the Pro. These performance issues would eventually be worked out, but it took time.

The Xbox One S launched around the same time as the PS4 Pro and went on to become the first major positive step for Microsoft in this generation’s console war, due to the fact it was cheaper than the PS4 Pro and could play 4K Blu-Ray Discs. This introduced 4K UHD TV owners interested in buying an inexpensive 4K Disc player the opportunity to also play a hefty library of Xbox One and Xbox 360 games. Since the Xbox One S was merely upsampling its games, performance was pretty on par with the launch model of the Xbox One. However, the Xbox One S lacked the port for the Xbox One’s Kinect sensor, essentially killing that peripheral. Some users would be lucky enough to ask Microsoft to send them an adapter to make the Xbox One’s Kinect work on the new hardware, but Microsoft made VERY few and they disappeared from shelves quickly. This made current Xbox One owners hesitant to upgrade to the S, and many (including myself) decided to wait for Project Scorpio.

The PS4 Pro, PSVR and Xbox One S would all be out by Christmas 2016. The lines were drawn, and consumers were preparing to trade in their consoles for new systems. After 2017 began, Nintendo finally struck. It was going to be a VERY busy year, and that will be a story for next time.

Video Game Handheld War Part 12 March 9, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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I know I promised in the last part that I would talk about the great resurgence of Pokémania in 2013, but I felt that since this whole series is focused on video game handhelds, up until this point I had been ignoring a major elephant in the room, smartphones and tablets. Because of that, I wanted to devote this part to talk about personal computing devices and their place in the video game handheld war at the time of the PS Vita and 3DS generation.

In 2007, Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs (Ed Note – RIP) went on stage to announce new products that Apple would be releasing over the next year. Since he had returned to Apple in the early 2000s, the company had seen a tremendous wave of success thanks to the release of the iPod and OS X Mac computers. As he concluded his speech he announced a series of features Apple intended to sell to the public that year, all in a product Apple had never provided before. A personal music device that could allow its user to read emails, browse the Internet, and make phone calls! It had a twelve hour battery life, a camera, and could function from a cellular connection! It would be called, the iPhone.

The first generation iPhone was revolutionary but it suffered numerous setbacks. It had a $500US price tag, which was quite expensive for a phone at the time. While it was more capable, its interface was not as user intuitive as other phones on the market. It also had many of the same limitations of the iPod. It could only work with Apple’s proprietary iTunes program, it had no replaceable battery, but the biggest issue was there was no third-party software support, which meant the phone was reliant on Apple to provide its users all its features. Tech geeks and Apple enthusiasts purchased the iPhone on day one, but the mainstream was not impressed with it yet. That would change, and quickly.

Nearly a year after the iPhone’s release, Steve Jobs took the stage again to reveal new features that would be coming to the iPhone. Apple was improving the iPhone’s interface, allowing for easier access to things like its camera. They were also adding in support for third-party applications, both free and paid. This meant that GAMES could be written specifically for the iPhone, and many major developers looked forward to the challenge of designing a game entirely around a touch screen interface. At the very least, ports of old PC games looked inevitable. Apple assured users they would be testing EVERY application that would be sold on their phone, making the chance of programs leaking personal data much slimmer. While they intended to ship these new features in an all-new improved iPhone, Jobs revealed most of the software features he demoed would work on the original iPhone. Oh, and the price was being slashed by several hundred dollars thanks to subsidies by the cellular providers.

Now, the public took notice and major companies including Blackberry, Microsoft, Palm and Google prepared to release their own phones to compete against Apple. This started what has been dubbed as the smartphone revolution. Palm, having been one of the first companies in the personal data assistant space, was heavily favorited to release a phone that could compete against Apple. Eventually, Palm released the Pre. While it could do multitasking in a way iPhone could not, it was clearly rushed to market and was paired up with a poorly designed phone. If there was going to be competition against Apple, it would not be from Palm. Eventually, Apple would get some real competition once phone makers began to ship phones loaded with the Android operating system. Android was developed by Google using Linux code and while its interface was nowhere near as elegant as Apple’s, Google allowed their users to run their own third-party programs, including ones Apple would never sign off on. For non-Apple smartphones and tablets, Android was the go-to operating system. By the end of the smartphone wars, only Apple and Google survived.

Apple would eventually fall into a pattern of releasing yearly hardware updates for the iPhone line, bringing some of the new software features to older devices when they could. Despite the massive success of the iPhone line, Steve Jobs was not merely satisfied with total domination of the phone market, his company’s next major product was going to be something that had only been seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a fully interactive portable touch screen computer. Basically Apple was making a BIG iPhone, and it would be called the iPad. The iPad launched in 2010 and was slow to be adopted by the mainstream. However, the iPad was cheaper and lasted longer on battery than a laptop of the time, and could handle simpler tasks like web surfing and email on the go just as well as the iPhone could. It also supported a line of third-party games from major publishers like EA. Apple’s continual support of new features including the video chat program FaceTime, slowly made the iPad a must-own device. Once it was clear the iPad was also going to dominate the market, competitors like Samsung, Microsoft and LG released their own similar products which became known as the newly minted tablet line of computers. While Microsoft’s own products shipped with their own tablet versions of Windows, most third-party iPad clones used Google’s Android operating system.

So if these smartphones and tablets were as revolutionary as I’ve described them up until this point, and their hardware specs have made them perfectly suitable for gaming, why haven’t they been included in this list up until this point? The answer is complicated but we can try to simplify it here. The modern smartphone or tablet can be classified more as a PC than it could be a gaming device. While today’s smartphones can certainly be capable of running unique games, like with the PC, gaming is not their mainstream purpose. Also, like the PC, Apple and Google regularly release new features and security updates to their products. While this is a great thing, these updates have had a tendency to downright break programs, even purchased ones. Once a device update breaks compatibility with a program, only the game’s developer can fix it. Sometimes, especially if the game is old, they just won’t do that. However, if the game was somehow still making its developer money, the chances it would stay supported was much higher. But how would that get determined?

I mentioned earlier in the article that when Apple launched their support for third-party applications they would offer iPhone owners both free and paid applications. As you could imagine, free applications were far more popular than paid ones. By the time the third iPhone was released, both Apple and Google allowed developers to charge users to unlock in-app content. I’m sure the mainstream believed this feature could be used to allow users to purchase full versions of a program from its demo or unlock expansion packs with new levels or content (like PC gamers would buy back in their heyday), instead developers discovered this new feature could be used far more often than anyone could have expected.

Inspired by browser-based games like FarmVille (which can barely be considered a game by most dedicated gamers) game developers discovered they could charge users money to complete simple in-game tasks quicker than they otherwise could. These purchases were eventually dubbed Microtransactions, and the games that used them, since they were free to download, became known as free-to-play. Within no time, developers discovered that releasing their games for free and charging people for essentially using in-game shortcuts were earning them more money than if they had charged them up front for the game. This gave certain games designed to take advantage of it a consistent monetary income flow. Developers quickly realized they had an excuse to keep games that supported this kind of an income flow running, and would regularly release new updates to keep free-to-play games functional even as other traditional pay programs stopped working.

This inconsistency is why we haven’t been addressing the smartphone and tablet platforms in this history to this point. As of the time this has been written, nearly all games being released on Apple or Google platforms revolve around a free-to-play design. The ones that haven’t eventually stop working, even if you initially paid for them. This, as far as I’m concerned, disqualifies them from further consideration on this list. I know major publishers have attempted to bring these income-driven game mechanics to mainstream PC and console games over the years, but a vocal subset of the gaming community have vigorously opposed it.

Thanks for joining us for this aside in the Video Game Handheld Wars. When we return, we will be going deeper into the domination of the 3DS, the disappointment of the Vita, and what might be the final chapter of this series for all time. Stay tuned.

Gaming History You Should Know: Who Created Video Games? February 7, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Gaming History You Should Know, Histories, Uncategorized.
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I think there are a lot of people out there that want to know more about the history of gaming, but don’t know where to begin. I do not believe I would be any good to anyone without a full history of the industry I’ve been covering on this site for over the past year, nor do I think anyone should dare put a key to the keyboard that isn’t fully versed on what they’re writing about. As someone who has been following the history of gaming for the past ten years (and sharing some of that information with all of you) I would like to share with you a few of my favorite sources for gaming history.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of disinformation out there (even from normally genuine sources). We live in a world where I saw a documentary on The History Channel call the original Playstation the first (compact) disc game console, and that’s just completely incorrect. Compact discs have been used in game consoles since the days of the CD-i, 3DO, and Sega CD, all of which came out around 1991 (some of those first came out in Japan) whereas the original Playstation launched in December, 1994 in Japan.

So where can one find good information about gaming history, and where did gaming start? Well, I don’t want to give a whole lecture about the history of games in general (that might be for another day) but I would like to float out some great sources I’ve found over the course of my life which still hold up.

There has been tons of disagreement over who is the first creator of video games. The first video games were created by the late Ralph Baer, a television engineer who’s family fled to America from Germany in the 1940s. He was the creator of the “Brown Box” a prototype game console which through its controllers manipulated a television’s blanking signal to produce a two-player game of tennis. Here’s a look at some old footage of how his prototype worked. Props to the videogamesfoundation for hosting this video.

A replica of his original Brown Box is currently on display at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. I was fortunate enough to see this display in person and take these pictures.

Nolan Bushnell, the father of Atari and Chuck E Cheese, witnessed Baer’s early demonstrations of the Brown Box. We know this because his name was written on the sign-in sheet. The prototype functioned very similar to the game PONG, which was a game that would go on to turn Bushnell’s Atari into an overnight sensation.

Once the legal matters were settled over who owned video games (Baer’s patents held up in court), the spark to create video games ignited into a multi-billion dollar industry with profits that eclipse all other forms of entertainment.

If you’d like to watch a full documentary about the life of Mr Baer, I recommend seeking out the defunct channel G4’s Icons documentary about him.

May he Rest In Peace.

What Happened to Quinni-Con? May 7, 2018

Posted by Maniac in Histories.
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In 2012, a good friend of mine told me about a free fan convention that was going to be held at Quinnipiac University. It was called the Quinni-Con, and focused on anime, cosplay and video games. As a fan who had to spend their late teen years repeatedly traveling to the other side of his country to participate in any fan conventions, a local convention seemed like a pipe dream to me. So my friend and I packed up in my car and drove to the Quinnipiac York Hill Campus.

The inaugural Quinni-Con was being held in the Rocky Top Student Center. The venue not only looked cool, but it had plenty of space for all of the attendees. The cafeteria area was perfect for vendors and an artists’ alley. The high tech classrooms on the second floor were perfect for screening rooms and Q&A panels. There was even a maid cafe in the back which was offering tea and small cakes free of charge. What followed were two days of fandom bliss. We had a blast.

I wasn’t much of an anime fan in my youth, but the person who went with me was the biggest anime fan I know. Because of my lack of anime experience, I was a little confused when deciding which panels we should attend. Thankfully, I did recognize something on the list, Pokémon. Q&A panels for a webseries called Pokémon ‘Bridged were being held throughout the weekend. The panels were being hosted by 1KidsEntertainment and Nowacking, two of the three creators of the series. I used to watch episodes from the early seasons of Pokémon back when they aired on Kids WB!, and Pokémon ‘Bridged took those exact same episodes I remembered and redubbed them with hilarious results. I had such a nostalgic blast watching their series and I became an instant fan! Ironically, my anime friend was not familiar with Pokémon, but I was able to explain it to him well enough for him to understand the panels. We also had a blast attending the Q&A panels hosted by Voice Actress Lisle Wilkerson. She and my friend were fans of some specific animated shows that aired in Japan during the 70s, and they had a spirited discussion about it. Overall, it was a great first year and it looked like it would be an even better second.

Quinni-Con 2013 was even better. Before the con started, I bought my first Nintendo handheld in twenty years, the 3DS XL, and made the decision to get into Pokémon games. OneKids and Nowacking were returning along with a new guest, voice actor/director Chris Cason. Walking onto the York Hill Campus that second year was like stepping into a real-life Pokémon Center.

Yep, that’s what it looked like!

Voice actor and director Chris Cason hosted a few Q&A panels during the day. Some of them were more formal and focused on his work and others were more laid back, where he got to know the attendees at the show.

Chris was a funny guy with a great personality and listening to him talk about what it is like in a recording booth directing people like Briana Garcia was amazing. Overall it was an incredible experience and certainly better than the previous year. The next event could not come soon enough!

Quinni-Con 2014 was held about a month earlier than usual, but it was very welcome. The cherry blossoms were in bloom at the Rocky Top Student Center, making it the perfect photo spot for tons of cosplayers in kimonos. The complete cast of the now named Elite 3 was in attendance for the first time, and they had an all-new episode of Pokémon ‘Bridged to show us. It was great to finally meet xJerry64x. Quinni-Con even held a real-life Pokémon Center panel, where attendees were encouraged to use the time to trade, StreetPass and battle each other with their Nintendo handhelds.

However I would be remiss to say that Quinni-Con was entirely without problems. A quick search of the hashtag #quinnicon on Twitter will bring up posts by a few angry Quinnipiac students resentful of the people hanging out in costumes at the Rocky Top Student Center. Some convention attendees responded kindly, others were not so kind with their responses. By the end of Quinni-Con 2014, the word started to circulate that the organizers wanted to expand the con and started taking ideas from the attendees.

I had previously done video reviews of the convention, so I attended the idea panel. I spoke to them honestly about what I liked about the event and how some panels could be improved in the future. Apparently, some of the people in the panel room were aware of my videos and told me they appreciated them. My favorite bit of advice remains the request to put up something on the projector during the Pokémon Center panel. The organizers loved that idea and said if they couldn’t put their own live Pokémon feed for the projector they would be fine showing a Pokémon Let’s Play on it. I made it clear that overall I thought the con was fantastic the way it was, and part of the reason the con was so great was because it was local and it was free. I begged the higher ups not to move forward with their plans for expansion.

There was no Quinni-Con 2015, even though there were plans for it to happen. The event organizers sent out a mass email to former attendees and stated their expectations for the next convention were grand and required at least another year of planning. I was disheartened to hear that, but I understood their perspective. The reality, it seemed, was worse than I expected.

It turned out new management took over the con. By itself, this is understandable and is actually more common than you think with a student-run convention. Students graduate, and organizations are meant to shift to new student managers each cycle. The problem is new managers may not be as up to the task of running an elaborate event as the previous ones were.

Quinni-Con 2016 was announced, and it would be held off-campus for a fee of $15. The con organizers planned to host the event at a Hotel/Waterpark/Convention Center in Waterbury, CT. While this sounds like a fine place to hold an event on paper it was the worst choice for a venue the organizers could have thought of. Geographically, Waterbury is pretty far away from Quinnipiac University, and getting there requires at least an hour drive on Connecticut highways that are always jammed. The hotel they chose had a two-star rating online, and even worse, it was planning to close the day after the con ended. What incentive did the cleaning crew have to actually sanitize a hotel that could get dirty very easily if they were all about to get fired? The Elite 3 was invited to come, and they were willing to tough it out despite cleanliness concerns, but only if they were booked at another hotel. The con agreed, but it turned out to be all for naught.

Six days before the event was to be held, Quinni-Con 2016 was cancelled in the worst way possible. No official announcement of the event’s cancellation was ever posted on the convention’s official website (which is now defunct) or Twitter feed. The ONLY place on the entire internet that mentioned the event’s cancellation was on their Facebook page…which at the time had a tendency to lock out non-Facebook users from even viewing it.

It’s all quite a shame. In its prime, Quinni-Con was a well run fan event. It brought locals together in a way this part of the country sorely needed. I’ve been a fan of Pokémon ‘Bridged since finding out about the series at the first Quinni-Con and I consider to be a huge contributor to my return to Pokémon fandom. It would be nice to see the event return to the Rocky Top Student Center some day, and when that day comes I’ll be there.

Console War VI Part 2 May 3, 2016

Posted by Maniac in Console War, Histories.
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This is the second part of our ongoing history on this generation’s console war. If you’d like to read the first part of this article, please click here.

If there was anything that gamers could take away from E3 2014, it was that Microsoft was going to do everything they could to try and regain their lost customer base.  Without telling their developers, Microsoft announced they were no longer bundling the Kinect sensor with every Xbox One, effectively dropping the price of the console by $100 US.  As for new titles, while Microsoft had its own games coming to the Xbox One including Halo 5, they had bought exclusive console rights to many third-party published games hoping gamers would buy an Xbox One to play one of their exclusives.

Nintendo meanwhile was having their own problems with the Wii U. While the system sold decently at its launch, Wii U sales stagnated after the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One. When a console’s hardware sales slump, sales of third-party games on that console slump as well. Once they saw their games were not selling well on the Wii U, third-party publishers slowly pulled their support from the console, leaving Nintendo alone to develop and publish the vast majority of Wii U games. Nintendo announced they were cutting back on E3 plans in 2014 and decided to focus on showing their next major title, Super Smash Bros for Wii U, directly to fans by making E3 demo units playable to the public at Best Buy retailers.  While the general public could only preview the game for a few hours, Nintendo also hosted an enormous Super Smash Bros tournament in Los Angeles during E3. This epic tournament was not only open to the public, it was streamed live on Twitch.TV to a massive viewership.

When Super Smash Bros was released on the Wii U a few months later, it became a huge seller, but that wasn’t the only hit that Nintendo sold.  Around the same time Nintendo was promoting Super Smash Bros, they announced a new technology would be coming to the Wii U called Amiibo.  Amiibos were collectible figurines which made use of the Wii U controller’s NFC transmitter. They were designed with the likeness of various popular Nintendo characters and Nintendo promised anyone who used them could bring their Amiibos into their game, and that they would become more effective the more they were used. When Amiibos launched alongside Super Smash Bros on the Wii U, retailers could not keep them on shelves.

The PS4 was still selling very well throughout 2014, but even if you looked at events with the perspective of time, it is difficult to precisely determine why. Microsoft’s agressive third party buyouts ensured many popular titles like Dead Rising 3, Sunset Overdrive and Titanfall would remain exclusive to the Xbox and/or PC platforms, but gamers saw these exclusives as corporate pandering and refused to buy the Xbox One on principle, and voiced constant complaints to the publishers. In response, while Sony only had their first-party developers to rely on for exclusive PS4 titles, Sony boasted the PS4 would offer superior graphics and performance over the Xbox One when it came to multiplatform games and many independent testers confirmed this was the case.  The PS4 would get great exclusive titles like inFAMOUS: Second Son and Until Dawn but their releases were widely spaced out.  In fact, a vast majority of the system’s exclusive titles were ports of popular PS3 games like The Last of Us and God of War III.  The strength of the multiplatforms and the promise of great upcoming exclusives like Uncharted 4: Among Thieves made the PS4 the highest selling console of the year.

Instead of hosting a live press event during E3 2015, Nintendo once again chose to host live demonstrations of their games at retail stores across the country. While they had great success with titles like Mario Kart 8 and the Wii U version of Super Smash Bros, their next major Legend of Zelda game was suffering delays in development.  Nintendo had also planned an incredible fan events, including the first Nintendo World Championships in over a decade!  While the gaming press didn’t understand what Nintendo was doing, the fans who attended these events sure enjoyed themselves.  They also had been tremendously successful with their line of Amiibo figures. They were the perfect combination of collectible and game accessory. Limited run figures would sell out immediately.  Heck, they were even being purchased by people who didn’t even own the Wii U.  Everyone was buying them like crazy, so Nintendo started integrating Amiibo support into many of their new games including Super Mario Maker.

By E3 2015, Microsoft got desperate. All of the exclusive titles they had bought were not selling as many consoles as they had expected them to, and the third party publishers were becoming wise that Xbox One exclusivity meant an unacceptable drop in projected sales. Public negativity towards the Xbox One had harmed Microsoft’s image, and even though Microsoft had stopped bundling the Kinect, price matched their competition and pledged not to engage in anti-consumer resale restrictions, gamers were still choosing the PlayStation 4 over their console.  At E3 2015, Microsoft announced they were bringing Backwards Compatibility (BC) for select Xbox 360 games to the Xbox One.  Similar to how the Xbox 360 could play only specific original Xbox games, Microsoft vowed that with a simple update and installation, gamers could play select Xbox 360 games natively on the Xbox One whether they downloaded them or got them at retail!

Microsoft’s Xbox One Backwards Compatibility announcement got a mixed reaction from the mainstream gaming press. While it was undoubtably great news for consumers, it couldn’t guarantee console sales this late in the Console War.  The Wii U had full Backwards Compatibility with Wii games and hardware, and it hadn’t helped them convince most Wii owners to upgrade from the Wii.  Nintendo went to a lot of trouble to make it easy for gamers to transfer all of their purchases, saves and DLC from their old system to their new one, but most consumers weren’t even aware of it.  While Xbox One compatibility with popular Xbox 360 games was a great show of goodwill on Microsoft’s part, there was just no way to know if this would be the decision that changed gamers minds about the Xbox One.

Meanwhile, Sony had no direct response to Microsoft’s Backwards Compatibility announcements, since the PS4’s hardware was completely incompatible with the PS3. If players wanted to play PS3 games on the PS4, they would have to wait for Sony to port it, and if Sony happened to port a major retail title, consumers would usually have to either rebuy it or pay an upgrade fee.

In all, the console war was starting to look like a repeat of the PS2/GameCube/Xbox era.  Sony was on top, Microsoft was trailing behind Sony and Nintendo was in last place making almost all the games on their own system.

As the Console War hit its halfway point, Sony announced they would be entering the Virtual Reality market. That, dear readers, is a story for next time.

Console War VI Part 1 August 25, 2015

Posted by Maniac in Console War, Histories.
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In 2011, Nintendo would be the first to enter a new generation of console war.  Fueled by the tremendous success of the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS, Nintendo was ready to take another gamble to try to repeat the unbelievable success of the Nintendo Wii.  They planned to create a low powered reasonably priced console which would reinvent the controller in a way that only they were capable of.  Taking inspiration from their successful handheld lineup, and the increasing popularity of personal tablet computers, Nintendo created a console based entirely around a controller equipped with both motion controls…and a touchscreen capable of displaying its own video feed.  The Nintendo Wii U was officially announced at E3 2011 to incredible fanfare, and a wide variety of first and third party games Nintendo was preparing for the console’s launch.

Sony and Microsoft said nothing about the Wii U’s announcement, and they were not concerned about Nintendo launching the next console war first.  They knew their consoles would have at least one more year in the market before they would be considered technically obsolete and they were not ready to reveal what they were working on just yet.  The mainstream gaming press gave Nintendo a lot of positive praise for the Wii U, but many were wary.  The console’s graphics were basically on par with what the Xbox 360 and PS3 were already capable of, and without the tablet controller, the Wii U was essentially a high-definition capable Wii.  The Nintendo Wii U launched at the end of 2012 with a pretty impressive series of launch games including Super Mario Bros UBatman: Arkham City Armored Edition, and the most anticipated third party game in the Wii U’s lineup, ZombiU,  To best show off the system’s capabilities, Nintendo bundled the game Nintendo Land with every premium black Wii U model sold, hoping that it would bring the same success that bundling Wii Sports with every Wii brought.

Wii U sales were slow, but the system gained a loyal following.  People who did buy the system opted to only buy the premium black model, so Nintendo eventually eliminated manufacturing the cheaper white model.  Reviews for the system ranged all over the place, while players loved Nintendo Land and ZombiU, most felt that the games alone did not merit the console’s purchase, even though it was compatible with every Wii game and allowed players to transfer all their save games, Miis and digital purchases from their Wii to the Wii U.  Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft continued to promote their current platforms but remained tight lipped if they had any plans to replace the PS3 or Xbox 360 with new consoles.  Christmas 2012 would be dominated by the Wii U, but would it be alone for long?

In February 2013, Sony announced their successor to the PlayStation 3, the PlayStation 4.  They had no demo unit available to show the press, only a controller, a 3D camera, and a very select amount of games.  The PS4’s architecture would be a complete 180 from what the PlayStation 3 used, making it completely incompatible with any PS1, PS2 or PS3 game.  In fact, most of the system’s presentation revolved around Sony’s plans to offer a game streaming service based on Dave Perry’s Gakai service.  After the platform’s creator unveiled some of the system’s major features, including an impressive standby feature, several games were shown including a racing game called DriveClub, as well as new entries in the Killzone and inFAMOUS franchises.  Third party developers like Ubisoft also demoed their upcoming games on the PS4, and showed Watch Dogs would be coming to the platform.

After the presentation concluded, PS4 buzz began almost immediately.  It was undoubtedly a powerful system, but there were still a lot of questions about it.  Since Sony had not included a mock up of what the console was going to look like at its initial presentation and spent so much time going on about the console’s streaming services, players did not know if the PS4 would even include a disc drive until after Sony released the system’s specification sheet.  Also, the lack of backwards compatibility was an issue, especially since Sony was planning to sell new PS3 and PS4 titles over the next year, and Nintendo was able to offer Wii compatibility with the Wii U.  However, the console’s specifications impressed and the games looked incredible.

After Sony’s PS4 announcement wrapped, all eyes were on Microsoft to announce their successor to the Xbox 360.  Microsoft would announce their next Xbox console a few months later.  At the announcement event, Microsoft unveiled what their next console would look like and it’s name, the Xbox One…which happened to be the exact same thing most of the mainstream was already calling the first Xbox console since the Xbox 360 launched.  To show the audience how revolutionary their new console was, they showed a clip from the popular game show The Price is Right to show the world their console could stream regular television feeds by connecting with mainstream cable/satellite provider’s set-top boxes!  That’s right, Microsoft was showing how revolutionary their next generation console was by demoing gimmick features nobody would make use of.  They also announced a new Halo TV series was in development with the help of Steven Spielberg, but to this day absolutely nothing has come of that project.  The first game that was shown on the system was Remedy’s Quantum Break, a game which has not been released at the time of this writing, but still remains my most anticipated Xbox One game.

To cap the presentation off, Microsoft announced that every Xbox One sold would come bundled with its own brand-new Kinect camera which would enable full voice control, motion tracking, and video streaming.  When Microsoft launched the first Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360 in 2010 a lot of people thought that it had a lot of potential, but most game developers were not willing to develop games for such an expensive optional accessory.  Now that Microsoft was planning to bundle new Kinect units with every Xbox One sold developers could take full advantage of everything the Kinect added to the platform.

The Xbox One impressed a few but a lot of people remained skeptical.  With the exception of Quantum Break’s showing, most of the time Microsoft spent unveiling their next generation games console was used to talk about everything the system could do but play games. Also, most of the mainstream press had a bad feeling about the things Microsoft was not saying about the new system.  The Xbox 360’s Kinect was revolutionary when it was released, but anyone who had one knew it was too unreliable to work as well as a controller did.  Plus, with the improved camera, a lot of people expressed major privacy concerns with what they considered should have been an optional accessory.  However, the biggest concern the mainstream media would have about the new platform was how it would handle used and traded game sales.  Several media outlets had heard musings that the Xbox One would deny playability to all resold, rented or traded games, one of the most anti-consumer practices that any game developer could have engaged in.  On video, Microsoft spokespeople denied these claims, but officially Microsoft had planned for the Xbox One to be one of the most anti-consumer consoles in gaming history.

With the last two major console announcements out of the way, all eyes were on E3 2013.  There was no doubt that Microsoft, Sony, and third party publishers would be showing off more games for the Xbox One and PS4.  Microsoft struck first, announcing tons of exclusive titles would be coming to the Xbox One including LocoCycleKiller Instinct, Dead Rising 3, D4, Forza Motorsport 5, and the next main Halo game.  As the show concluded, they announced the Xbox One’s price, $499 US, and said all systems would include a controller, headset, 500GB internal Hard Drive and a Kinect.  However, Microsoft said nothing about how the system would handle its games or how disc purchases would be handled by the system.  Even after the show wrapped, many were still extremely concerned that the Xbox One would not be usable for players who lacked an internet connection, and that game rentals and used resales would be impossible on the system due to heavy anti-consumer copy protection.

A few hours later, Sony took the stage to show the final version of the PS4 and several of the games that consumers would be able to play day one.  Most of the games shown were multiplatform titles and sadly, Sony had no God of War or Uncharted game to show.  However, near the end of the presentation Sony had a moment that most of the mainstream press considered one of the greatest moments in the history of E3, a “drop the mic” moment if you will.  Sony’s executives made it crystal clear in plain English that the PS4 would ship with absolutely no anti-consumer copy protection and have no problem playing borrowed, resold, and rented game discs.  The system’s final price would be $399 US, a hundred dollars cheaper than the Xbox One’s.  The crowd exploded, and preorders for the PS4 in the US went crazy that night.

Nintendo was the last to present, and they showed off a library of upcoming games for the Wii U including Mario Kart 8, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, and a Wii U remake of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.  It impressed Nintendo’s loyalists, but Wii U sales had been slumping and many were concerned that these games would not improve the Wii U’s sales.

After the E3 show concluded, both Sony and Microsoft started looking at their preorder numbers.  Sony was happy, Microsoft was not.  Oddly enough, Microsoft’s anti-consumer plans for the Xbox One were not resonating with consumers, and the lower price and solid titles offered by the PS4 was more than enough to earn gamers’ trust.  Fearing their own decisions would make them lose the console war before it even stared, Microsoft scrambled their PR teams to try to fix this debacle before the console’s launch, and they made a public announcement to all of their dedicated retailers that they were changing course with their plans and removing the online requirements and rented/resold/borrowed game restrictions of the Xbox One.  The console would have an initial online activation requirement at launch (similar to how a SmartPhone has to get activated in a store before you can take it home with you), but that would be all.  Many consumers, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief over this announcement, but the news was considered too little too late for many who simply didn’t trust Microsoft and had already planned to buy a PS4.

Fall 2013 came around, and the battle was about to start.  The PS4 launched first and quickly sold out its initial allotment.  Demand for the console was so high many were turned away with their money still in their pockets.  Even though it had no backwards compatibility, few exclusive titles, and a launch lineup of games you could likely get for other systems, new PS4s would not stay on retail shelves for long.  When asked why most players were interested in the system, the mainstream consumer listed price and technical capabilities as their primary reasons for buying a PS4.  They believed the multiplatform games looked and ran better on PS4, and for $399 US, the price was right.

Microsoft launched the Xbox One with a Kinect, a huge lineup of exclusive titles for download and retail release, and a $499 price tag.  Aside from a huge market for people who purchased the Day One edition of the console, any non-Day One Xbox One system sat on shelves to collect dust.  The peripheral that Microsoft felt would give the Xbox One a huge leap over Sony’s PlayStation 4 console became every conspiracy theorist’s whipping boy.  Even though Microsoft had reversed their decision to restrict used game sales and require a persistent online connection to play their games, privacy concerns over the Kinect sensor became the reason many gamers refused to pick up the console.  In contrast, Sony’s console was such a hot seller consumers wouldn’t be able to find it on shelves for another three or four months,  By E3 2014, Microsoft backtracked on their decision to bundle the Kinect with the Xbox One, and announced the Xbox One would be sold without a Kinect for a price of $399 US.

What came of this decision and how did this effect the Console War?  You’ll have to read that next time!

Gaming History You Should Know: The Half-Life 2 Leak October 16, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Gaming History You Should Know, Histories, Uncategorized.
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After producing our recent site video about the long and grueling development of Half-Life 2: Episode 3, I thought I would take another look into Half-Life 2’s past.  We all know that Half-Life 2 launched in 2004 and is considered one of the best PC FPS games ever made, but did you know some people just weren’t willing to wait until the game’s release to play it?  In 2003, an early build of Half-Life 2 leaked onto the internet.  With all the buzz generated from the game’s E3 2003 showing, the Half-Life 2 leak quickly became one of the most illegally shared pieces of content at the time.  Now, sit back and join me as I look ten years into the past at one of the biggest leaks in gaming history.  It is meant to inform gamers of a dark time in the history of gaming, and as a cautionary tale to game developers.  Enjoy.

Back in April of 2003 Valve announced that a sequel to their hit PC game Half-Life had been in production for the past five years in secret and would be coming out later that year.  Using a cutting edge in-house developed graphics engine and a real-time physics engine, Half-Life 2 was first shown to the public at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in May 2003.  All of the gaming press, myself included, were blown away by the incredible thirty minute demo shown at the trade show.  To cap the excellent showing off, Valve announced Half-Life 2’s release date would be September 30th, 2003.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t soon enough for someone.

Half-Life 2’s development was not keeping to Valve’s schedule and as the weeks ticked by it was becoming more and more likely that the game would not be able to meet its September 30th’s release date.  According to Valve owner Gabe Newell, on or around September 11th, 2003 a person other then himself was accessing his e-mail without his permission.  Whoever this individual was, he wasn’t interested in e-mail.  Valve soon discovered viruslike symptoms on their computer systems, including crashes when right clicking, but strangely their anti-virus software wasn’t picking up on anything unusual.  The hacker had used a modified version of a virus called “RemoteAnywhere” to exploit an Outlook Express buffer overflow exploit, and since it had been modified it was undetectable by the anti-virus programs Valve was using.  Once it had been installed, the virus in turn installed keystroke logs on all the computers at Valve Software.  By September 19th, the attacker had downloaded an unconfirmed amount of un-compiled source code and game resources (including sounds, maps, and textures) for Half-Life 2, as well as the source code and resources for as many as two other games they had in development.  All this data found itself on peer-to-peer sharing networks within hours, and the amount of users who downloaded and shared the content was monumental.  Gabe Newell was forced to officially confirm the leak on October 2nd, 2003, and asked for the help of the gaming public to bring those responsible to justice.

Even to this day, we don’t have a complete picture of just how much of the game was stolen.  Owner Gabe Newell claimed at first that only a minor amount of the final source code was taken, and when the leak first sprang up, only the game’s source code was available on the peer to peer networks.  As the days ticked on it became clearer that whoever had stolen all of the game’s content hadn’t released all they had just yet.  Over the next week gaming news sites were all over this leak, trying to report the most up to the minute information and as time went on, more and more copies were being made of the source code by the peer-to-peer users.

The content leak may have been fun to mess around with for those who downloaded it, but it meant a lot of headaches for its creators.  Because of the leak, Valve was now in violation of a contract they entered into with a company called Havok, who Valve used to license their real-time physics engine*.  A stipulation to the contract between Valve and Havok was that Valve needed to keep Havok’s code safe, but since their code was also included with the Half-Life 2 code, Havok could now lose a lot of business.  This was a major problem for Havok since their income was from leasing their code to game developers.  Another of Valve’s issues with having the game’s source code released illegally meant the increased danger of multiplayer cheating.  Cheating is a common occurrence among multiplayer gaming and can destroy the fun of playing games online.  With the source code out before the game’s release, the program writers for cheating programs can have a head start to write their cheats for release by the time of the game’s release.

On October 7th, 2003 a playable version (dubbed “playable beta”) of the game was released onto the peer to peer networks by the hacker (who refers to himself as Anonymous Leaker).  The previously released source code was only ninety-four percent compilable, and without the game’s content it was useless.  The leak had to either have been more massive then Valve knew or bigger then they were willing to admit.  Half-Life 2’s original publisher, Vivendi Universal Games, did a press release to push back the release to April 2004 and credited the leak.

But the most interesting thing about the playable beta was that users who downloaded the illegally released version of the game found a game that was in fact nowhere near completion.  It was missing a lot of content and looked like a barely playable version of the levels shown at E3.  While this could have been because the Leaker stole either an early build of the game client, or was unable to completely obtain all the game’s assets before the content leaked and claimed it was a finished build, it raised the question in a lot of gamers’ minds if this incomplete title was what Valve planned to release on September 30th.

On October 9th, in a questionable move, a forum user claiming to be the Leaker announced the content that was released online was indeed the current work Valve had for Half-Life 2 and that the game was nowhere near completion.  Because of this, he plead innocent and said that he was not the reason for the delay of the game.  On top of that he claimed that if Valve continued to claim that the leak was the reason for the delay, he would release all the stolen content he had.  On October 13th, the source code to the game maps were released to peer to peer networks.  As far as I know, that would be the final leaked Half-Life 2 content to make it onto the web.

So who was this mysterious Leaker and why did he steal the biggest game of its time, just to release it before it was finished?  Well, as it turned out, the man did in fact have a conscience.  The Leaker, who’s name will not be posted on this site, would eventually get in personal contact with Gabe Newell via e-mail.  The purpose of the e-mail was not to gloat or threaten, but to apologize.  After verifying his identity by providing Gabe some information that had not gone public, Gabe knew he was speaking to the real deal.  At first, Gabe was furious at him for all the trouble he had caused the company, but he wasn’t planning to let the Leaker know that.  The Leaker said that he was just a big fan of Valve Software, and he had never meant for the content to go public as it did.  He just wanted the chance to play their games and he pleaded Gabe for his forgiveness.

Gabe played it cool.  On the one hand, he finally knew the Leaker’s motivations, but he still wanted to bring this person to justice.  He decided to set up an elaborate sting operation, with the intention to bring the Leaker to the United States and have him immediately arrested by the Feds.  Gabe told the Leaker that he was impressed by the Leaker’s actions, and wanted to bring him in to interview as a new “security consultant” for the company.  The Leaker was skeptical of course, but he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to work for Valve Software.

After Gabe spent some time trying to set up this elaborate sting operation, the law enforcement agency of the Leaker’s home country got wind of what Gabe was doing and stopped it, preferring to arrest him themselves.  Shortly after that, the Leaker was arrested by his country’s local law enforcement.  He would maintain that he never wanted the content he had stolen to leak out into the open as widely as it had, and that a peer of his that he had entrusted a copy of the data to had leaked it onto the web.

Half-Life 2 would finally release in November 2004 and became the flagship title for Valve’s online distribution system, Steam.  The gamers who purchased the game legally through the service or at retail found a polished masterpiece which won numerous Game of the Year awards in a year which also saw the release of titles like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Halo 2.  The game’s PC release was followed by a console port to the original Xbox shortly afterwards.  Two episodic expansions were produced for the game and these expansions were included alongside Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal when the game was released on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2007.

As for Gordon Freeman? He has not been seen since.

Video Game Handheld War Part 11 September 11, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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When we last left the Video Game Handheld War, Sony launched their second dedicated gaming handheld platform in the form of the Playstation Vita and it was practically dead on arrival. The system and its peripherals were just too expensive at launch and many players believed that after Nintendo’s 3DS price drop, Sony would respond with one of their own and chose to wait. Even though the handheld’s biggest launch title, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, received some favorable reviews from the gaming press, in gamers’ minds it did not merit an investment in the product just yet. Stock of the Vita gathered dust on retail shelves for weeks. Everyone expected Sony to announce a price drop at E3 2012 but strangely it didn’t happen. To further hurt the Vita’s chances, Sony didn’t impress much in the form of any new Vita games at the show. The biggest takeaway we got from that show was Sony’s promise there would be Vita connectivity with future PS3 titles. While none of the mainstream press mentioned it at the time, I had seen a similar tactic years before. Nintendo had brought GameCube connectivity features to the extremely popular Game Boy Advance, hoping to increase sales of the floundering console. It may have sounded like a gimmick at the time, but Nintendo was able to do some pretty creative things with that connectivity feature in games like Four Swords Adventures and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. In hindsight, Sony was not able to do much with their connectivity plans. They were able to offer some decent features, like cross platform multiplayer for select games but that was about it. At least they were willing to offer cross platform digital purchases, ensuring any digital games purchased on different platforms would be playable on any Sony hardware a player owned without forcing their customers to rebuy the same game multiple times. While it was certainly very consumer friendly, to this day neither Nintendo nor Microsoft will allow software purchased on one platform to be played on a different platform without making you rebuy it, it didn’t add much to enhance the multiplatform gaming experience.

Nintendo meanwhile had a great E3. To show off how strong their handheld platform had gotten since it’s price drop, they dedicated a separate live show exclusively to show players all of the upcoming 3DS games and Nintendo had a lot of surprises ready for that show. Tons of new games were shown at the separate presentation hosted on the first day of E3 including New Super Mario Bros 2, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and even a new Castlevania game. They also announced they were enhancing their digital download service capable of offering full retail titles for digital purchase. 3DS owners interested in purchasing all their retail games digitally would have done well to purchase a new High Capacity SD memory card, because Nintendo was planning to offer New Super Mario Bros 2 on digital download the same day and date with the game’s retail launch.

However Nintendo’s handheld release schedule for that year did not revolve entirely around the 3DS, there was one major release coming to the DS by the end of 2012. Well to be clear, there were actually two major releases for the end of 2012, Pokémon Black 2 and Pokémon White 2. That 2 is not a typo, these were the very first direct sequels to a Pokémon generation Nintendo ever released and continued the story of the fifth generation games. Nintendo was also planning to release two digital applications to the 3DS’s online marketplace which would tie into Pokémon Black & White 2‘s release, Pokémon Dream Radar and Pokédex 3D. So while the games would play just fine on the Nintendo DS for all current DS owners, 3DS owners would be able to download some extra applications which could enhance their gaming experience. Heck, the original Pokédex 3D application was totally free.

While the DS was still going strong, the PSP on the other hand was just plain dead. Retail stores, if they had any left over PSP games in stock, was trying to get rid of them at heavily discounted rates. If you were able to find them, games like The 3rd Birthday and Dissidia 012 would be at some pretty reasonable prices. It was also a great time to buy some last minute peripherals like spare batteries, earbuds, and tv out cables for the PSP because they would not be restocked.

With the PSP on the way out, the Vita needed to step up to the plate to keep retailer confidence. So what was next for the Vita in the form of new exclusive games? A new Resistance title. The Resistance franchise had garnered a dedicated following since Resistance: Fall of Man launched alongside the PS3. In fact, I believed that game was the best PS3 title until Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released in 2007. Sadly, the franchise’s creator, Insomniac Games, had moved on and Sony had put the franchise in the hand of another developer to produce the Vita exclusive title, Resistance: Burning Skies. Sony put a lot of hype into promising great things from Burning Skies but when it launched in June 2012 reviews of the game ranged from lukewarm to abysmal and it was not the system seller Sony desperately needed. The aftermath of the game’s failure was so bad many are worried it may have killed the Resistance franchise.

As the summer progressed, Nintendo had another huge announcement ready to go, they were preparing to release their first hardware revision for the 3DS. That announcement shocked just about everyone, since it hadn’t been that long since the 3DS launched, but Nintendo was ready. The new 3DS was larger and would feature a larger screen, making the handheld’s 3D effect much easier to see. It would also have an improved battery for longer gameplay and standby times. Nintendo even got rid of the 3DS’s annoying collapsable stylus, instead the XL would come with a solid full sized stylus. The new handheld was called the 3DS XL and the price would be $199 US, still $50-100 less than what the Vita was selling for. It would even come stock with a 4GB SDHC card for storage, offering an improvement over the 2GB cards which came standard in the original 3DS. About the only problem gamers had with the XL was that it lacked a second analog stick, and the new form factor made the XL incompatible with the 3DS’s Circle Pad Pro peripheral. However, most 3DS games were designed around a single analog stick and proponents of the platform didn’t believe this was much of a problem. Current DSi and 3DS owners would even be able to fully transfer all their save data and purchased content to the 3DS XL without much issue, making it a logical upgrade in the minds of many Nintendo fans, and gaining the interest of gamers on the fence about investing in the platform.

The 3DS XL launched in August 2012. On the same day, Nintendo released the highly anticipated title New Super Mario Bros 2, the sequel to the DS’s biggest selling game, at retail. Just as promised, Nintendo made it the first 3DS retail game to have a day and date launch online, and gamers were happy to be offered the option. This was the kick off point of a revamped 3DS eShop, and more 3DS retail games would be coming to complement the NES, Game Boy, DSi and 3DS downloadable titles the service already offered.

To compete with the launch of the 3DS XL, Sony had…nothing. After the failure of Burning Skies, Sony was unable to bring Vita games to the platform at the same pace that Nintendo was getting games for the 3DS. Gamers were not adopting the platform if it wouldn’t offer games and developers weren’t willing to take a risk on a platform with such a low install base. About the only thing that was in store for the Vita in the immediate future were ports. Meanwhile Nintendo was swinging hard with regular releases for the 3DS on the horizon. As 2012 came to an end, not only was it clear that Nintendo was keeping its crown in the Video Game Handheld War, it was possible that the Vita no longer had any chance in being even remotely competitive against Nintendo for the rest of the handheld generation!

However, total dominance in the handheld space wasn’t good enough for Nintendo, and little did they know that as 2013 began, the conditions were right for Pokémania to have a resurgence not seen since the year 2000. All it needed was a little announcement by Pikachu to kick it off. Stay tuned, dear readers. I’ll share that story with you next time.