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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tradition and Potential

Disregard what I said in Internet Nations- it turns out I can download games on the Wii! So when Nintendo started selling original games this past Monday, I was right there. I was able to get a new Wii game on the same day it came out, without having to be in America! Imagine that!

This new initiative, called "WiiWare", isn't going to work the same way as normal retail. Normally (as I understand the process) the developer's working for a publisher, who has a lot of control over the game. The publisher manufactures the physical discs and markets the game to the public. Then it gets shipped to the stores, who are only likely to stock and put on display games which are similar to everything else (because they know that's what sells), and even those only for a limited time. The game finally gets sold at either $30, $50, or $60. There's not much room for creativity there. With WiiWare, there's only one middle-man, that middle-man being Nintendo. (Who will censor, but at least they won't try to homogenize.) The developer makes the game, the developer sets a price, Nintendo puts it on display in their store, and people like me buy it on impulse. This system is similar to how games are already sold on PC.

There's potential here. A game like my theoretical Through the Wind platformer might not do so well in the usual market. A dance-like 2D platformer isn't a safe bet for publishers or retailers. But in this new environment, it could exist and find an audience. Without all the middle-men and their greed, there's actual potential for art.

Out of the opening line-up of WiiWare games, the only one to catch my eye was LostWinds. It's a 2D platformer, 3-4 hours in length, 37 megabytes in size and 10 dollars in price. Look at this trailer to see why I was interested.

What we have here is an interesting set of controls. Though this is a platformer, there is no jump button. Instead, you use the remote to draw gusts of wind, which blow your character around.

Now, let's stop there for a moment. Imagine you're walking through the street, when you decide you'd really like to get up to that roof there. Suddenly, a gust of wind comes from underneath your feet, raising you so much that you can grab hold of the roof and pull yourself up. You'd be exhilarated, no?

That emotion is nowhere to be found in LostWinds. The game is perfectly pleasant. But you never get the sense of joy I'd identify with controlling and mastering nature. Essentially, the gusts of wind are not so much gusts of wind as a fancy double-jump. One gust up, one gust left, you're up. The game slows down as you jump, but not to give gravitas so much as to make your stroke more precise. The "wind" is localized, it is simple to control, it can only be used a few times in a row, and it stops in an instantThe "wind" is localized, it is simple to control, it can only be used a few times in a row, and it stops in an instant -none of these qualities say "wind" to me.

In fact, LostWinds feels pretty standard. At first you can only make one little jump, then later you can jump higher and higher to get to new parts of areas you've already been to. It works, I guess.

There's a lot of exploring. You know I'm a sucker for that. But the areas you explore (and are forced to return to over and over) aren't particularly enjoyable. There are occasionally little toys to interact with (like windmills in the background which can be blown around), and that's laudable, but for the most part the world feels like it was built for the abilities, and not vice versa. This is a critical distinction. Using wind to get over a platform which is the exact height you can get over is an obstacle. Using wind to get over a platform which seems too big for any human is fun. But the controls are not designed for that. You're not supposed to control the wind as you see fit, there are rigid limitations (mentioned earlier). The whole experience is mechanical and rusty. So going back to earlier areas isn't a treat ("I wonder if there's something cool there I missed!"), it's a chore. There are collectibles thrown around to encourage exploring further, but since it's never said what you get for finding them all, that's not much incentive.

Why is there so much backtracking, anyway, if the world design isn't distinctive? Well, it's obvious- it's because the world is so tiny, and the gamists don't want the experience you've paid $10 for to be over in a half hour.

But hold up a second - why is it tiny?

The game, as I said, is 37 megabytes. That's because, the method of distribution being what it is, the size limit for WiiWare games is around 40 megabytes. (A typical Wii game disc, by comparison, holds around 4,800 megabytes.) What I haven't said yet is that the game is gorgeous. I haven't said it because I don't care. High-quality graphics, of the sort this game has, take space. That's space which could have been used for making the game better. The 1996 game Super Mario 64, which I've downloaded for Wii and am enjoying immensely and is in a whole different league from LostWinds (though at the same exact price), is eight megabytes. Eight!

People expect lower graphic quality from downloadable games, so no one would have blamed the gamists for simpler visuals. People would have still bought it for the gameplay. And with that extra size, the game could have been less repetitive and more varied. The issue here is that these are developers who are still operating on the same old priorities. A 44-man team, most of them focused on flashiness. It's a new day, folks. You've got the opportunity with WiiWare to pour all your effort and creativity into making a good game. Don't waste it on superficialities.

The usual way of thinking pervades every aspect of this game. The music is prerecorded rather than synthesized, even though synthesized audio is much smaller. I assume this is why there are only three pieces of music in the whole game, repeating endlessly. There is an insipid fantasy story tacked on top, just because it's usual to put stories in games. There are many characters to listen to, even though that is totally disconnected from the premise and tone of the gameplay. There are enemies all over the place which have to be fought, even though the tone of the game is supposedly peaceful and mellow. (This contradiction is resolved by making all the enemies pushovers. But if there's no threat, then why waste the player's time with fighting?) There is a health system whose design makes no sense at all. It's totally unnecessary and redundant to begin with, but it's there because it's a standard feature of platformers. And finally, the game ends with the promise of a sequel, even though this is the sort of simple idea that does not call for a sequel.

The game has an interesting origin story. Apparently the team behind it come up with "Game of the Week" ideas. And one week someone had this creative idea of controlling the wind, and they all decided to run with it. The whole four-hour game was made in three months, in which time (I am judging solely based on the final product.) everyone else added on formula, imitation and flash. And that guy's good idea was turned into a bland game.

It's not bad, mind you. It's quite decent. And I look forward to seeing what new games this team will make, once they get this LostWinds 2 nonsense out of their system.

But WiiWare was supposed to be more. It could be more.



Don't give up on it yet; it's got potential. Give it time.

There is absolutely no danger of me giving up on an accessible source of new and creative games. :) That's true even if it doesn't turn out to be the revolution I'm hoping for.

Great Review.


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