Nintendo Media Summit Diary, Part 1
My bald head rolled into San Francisco just in time for a spring heat wave, which is a decent metaphor for the generally hot news that was released at last week's two-day Nintendo Media Summit. At a media breakfast at the Clift Hotel, a bastion of hip darkness within the homeless-folk-populated Union Square area, I spied Reggie Fils-Aime, who has been mouse-quiet of late. Since the Wii has been selling so seemingly effortlessly, Reggie hasn't spoken much to the media because, well, the dude doesn't have to. I wish he would. My head told me to go over and submit a question or two for him to masticate upon, but the gut said eat, eat, eat of the lavish breakfast because, sure as a Mario traverses the galaxy, Reggie will likely have something to say at this Summit. Something big, large, momentous even.
The talk of the breakfast was whether a certain game-based supersite with $3.5 million in funding but an embarrassingly paltry monthly $10,000 freelance budget would have a giant impact on the gaming realm, and we all thought, probably not. While we were pontificating on such nonsense, the conference room next door was being populated by fanboy journos who weren't engrossed in the gossip of the moment. When I got in, I sat down amid the dust bunnies on the floor in the front row, so crowded were the environs.
A chair eventually was delivered, but Reggie was not. In fact, he had flown the coop and was said to be flying to parts unknown to us. Woe! Speak to us, Reggie, speak to us. I want to hear that bluster, that supreme confidence, that swagger that was so present in that first kick-ass speech eons, er, a couple of years ago. Give me hope, give me a reason to win, give me that assertive and/or aggressive spew of confidence.
Cammie Dunaway, the bespectacled enthusiastic new head of marketing, walked up to the podium and charmingly explained the cast on her hand, a war wound from snowboarding. No one over 30 should snowboard, maybe no one over 25: The bones can't take it if you're not a whippersnapper. Still, there was nerdy coolness to Cammie's statements that's perfect for Nintendo now. She spoke about how lifestyle-changing Wii Fit would be and complimented the journos' intensity and passion for games. If Reggie couldn't make a speech, Dunaway was a more than adequate replacement. Nothing particularly new was said, but, hey, it was very nice to meet a new Nintendo smartie.
The surprise game of the event? Super Mario Sluggers, a baseball disk that seems like a souped-up Wii Sports meets Mario Strikers Charged with fireballs as baseballs and boxing gloves as bats. Add the ballpark peanuts and a good time will be had by all.
Affable Nintendo product marketing manager Bill Trinen moved to the podium. Nintendo aficionados may recognize him from videos with Beatle-coiffed Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, for he's often his translator when the humble legend comes stateside to offer glittering generalities. Trinen's gospel was to tell us all that exercising with Wii Fit had made him the awesome man that he is today: thinner, fitter and graced with better posture. To prove this, he tried to swivel his hips with five or six virtual hula hoops -- 300 times in 30 seconds. During this period, he also had to catch hula hoops that cartoonish characters tossed to him willy-nilly. He got to 299 just as time ran out. Oh, the pain. Curse those mischievous fitness gods who live inside the Wii, for they are purveyors of fate that's almost worse than death by finishing moves -- embarrassment before jaded game writers.
If Trinen's words weren't proof enough that Wii Fit could transform us miserable 98-pound weaklings into veritable supermen and women, Wired Game/Life's Chris Kohler chimed in with a testimonial to say that he could now do 20 push-ups each day because of his profligate use of Wii Fit. Trinen then said that the device enables the decidedly overweight to develop a kind of assertiveness that allows them to speak, communicate and commiserate publicly about their excess of adipose. I thought Weight Watchers, Slim-Fast, the Zone and the like already added such empowerment to their fat burning campaigns. Maybe he means that those who play with the Wii can now be aggressive about losing weight and speak all AA-like before their peers. Maybe the Wii should have its own 12-step plan. Hear ye, hear ye: Recognize that a far greater power can give you strength. It's not NutriSystem. It's not Marie Osmond. It's Nintendo!
I'm a thin baldie, so I don't need the device to lose weight, but I'd be really happy with some extra energy and, even more, better posture. Come May when Wii Fit drops, I'll see whether the device is compelling enough to inspire a daily fitness routine.
Next came a demo of the new Pok?mon DS epic, a sequel to Pok?mon Mystery Dungeon, this time a duo called Explorers of Darkness and Explorers of Time. One of the first things the demo expert Seth McMahill uttered was that the game had better graphics. You know, I'm down with these demos and the sometimes-exaggerated things producers and product managers say in the heat of the moment, but I didn't see graphics that were all that heady. Basically, you have little Pok?mon characters on a grid in various evil dungeons. That's not stimulating to one's artistic sensibility.
However, it's really cool that with this iteration, you get to be a Pok?mon, not simply a Pok?mon trainer. To figure out which Pok?mon you'd really like to be, you take a quiz -- you know, kind of like one of those psychological quizzes you take in order to date online. Except here you become the monster you date.
The conceit in the latest role-playing game is that your ship crashes, but you, intrepid boy adventurer that you are, survive. When you wash up on a deserted beach, you become a Pok?mon. The story, at the end, is supposed to be so touching, and it may make you cry (which sounds like it'd be the dream of Trip Hawkins', the EA founder whose mantra was to make a game that'd make you tear up). Great story or not, what's most impressive is the randomly-generated dungeons that change every time you enter, giving you extra gameplay in a series that never has been miserly in that department.
Along the way, you'll meet 490 of the little critters, which is a lot of virtual socializing. Now, it's not so much "gonna catch 'em all" as it is "gonna remember 'em all?" In fact, the Pok?mon may never leave you alone. In addition to the SD card gameplay, the Wi-Fi aspect assures that it'll be all Pok?mon, all the time: If your friends are in trouble, they can request help from you by sending you an e-mail.
After all this, we were enthused about moving downstairs to two large rooms for some hands-on action. Usually, people with immediate deadlines (or with some version of Asperger's Syndrome that makes them unable to care or even notice that people are waiting to play) hog the freakin' controllers for a couple of hours until they get their fill. Only then do quieter, more decent homo sapiens get a chance at play.
It's annoying to say that there didn't seem to be a dud of a game in the bunch. It sounds like I'm hyping, but it was true. It's a grand statement, and there should be, for the love of Pete, something, anything, for journos to trash, if only because trashing is easier than writing positive sentences and paragraphs. The only joy of possible trashing I envisioned was that each game was examined by me for only a half-hour. Once these grubby hands get the game in the house, the true testing will begin. I did find one momentary camera issue while working with Mario Kart Wii when racing in the coal mine level, but that's picking nits. The game played well with that white plastic wheel that isn't attached to a steering column.
Then, there was Boom Blox, the highly-touted game from Electronic Arts that's co-created by director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg didn't have the best luck with games when DreamWorks Interactive was alive, with the exception of Medal of Honor and the Goosebumps offerings in the late 90s, and I won't even delve into The Dig, released by LucasArts. What I've read about Boom Blox didn't really get me going. Sure, I liked the idea of 400 levels and a handy, create-a-level-yourself doohickey, but no one described Boom Blox alluringly, so there I was, drowning in my own ignorance, which was influenced by poor writing. When I played the game in which you toss balls in an effort to destroy various towers and Rube Goldberg-like devices, I could see there was true strategy involved in winning multiplayer contests. Even though I came from behind to beat the black pants and sci-fi boots off fellow journo Chris Hudak (who had already been playing for an hour), I think it was beginner's luck. Hudak said playing the game was like playing pool, and he was right. It was at once the optimal game for a hustler and the perfect game for a kid.
As I played, I kept hearing one of the EA reps say that Spielberg had an intimate relationship with the game from start to finish. He even said, "Spielberg played the game early on and said, 'Something's missing. I feel lonely when I play this game.' That's when we decided to add the characters in the game." There are flocks of different personalities within each of the environments, crazy little goblins and the like who cheer you when you "Drop Tower" and who kind of look at you oddly if you don't knock anything down. Think of them as fans in the stands without the stands.
As the morning drifted into late afternoon and most of the players, publicists and writers drifted away, and as the game fingers became numb from Wii-ing and the head became achy from the sheer number of screens with polygons and pixels and gameplay, I felt alone with the technology. As I popped Tylenol in the confines of my too-silent purple room, one thought somehow game me solace: Steven Spielberg gets lonely, too. Even when you are alone, utterly by your lonesome without a Wii nearby, all can be right with the world, because Steven Spielberg understands.
Click here to read Part 2.