Nintendo Media Summit Diary, Part 2
Click here to read Part 1.
There weren't so many media types at the Clift on the second day of the Nintendo Summit, and I could easily swipe a chair up front to listen to the earnest, resolute and caffeinated speeches without throwing the gaze of death upon the young ones who might deign to save the front seats for some ghostly fanboy that never appears. A chair up front in the dark-wooded Clift meeting room was exactly what I needed, too, since no one really knew what to expect of Nintendo as it unveiled the details of its heretofore secretive foray into casual games. I ensconced myself in the first row, for I had to hear; I had to listen closely and attentively. Microsoft was there with casual console games before Nintendo, and so was Sony. What took Nintendo so long to produce these games that'll cost between $5 and $15?
I needed a psychic to find out. No one from The Big N really talked process; specifically, no one said why the games had been in production for two years with nary a paragraph in a press release to explain. The most I'd heard up until two months ago was this: A year and a half ago, former marketing honch-ess Perrin Kaplan said coyly, "They're doing some real interesting things with casual games. Real interesting.? That's all I could pry out of her -- and it wasn't just me. That's all anyone could glean. They hold them thar cards close to Mario?s suspenders, don't they?
Dan Adelman, Nintendo's head of WiiWare games acquisition, began the festivities in a subtle, sincere manner, even as he introduced Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People. It's a point-and-click game based on a Web cartoon by two brothers, Matt and Mike Chapman, and it bears the kind of punch-you-in-the-gizzard humor for which "South Park" is known. Strong Bad, a tough character in a Mexican fighting mask who has a proud, deep voice full of odd bravado, says things like "You're not good enough to have a giant slice of my style.? The concept may not be as titter-inducing as "South Park," but it gives a bullying Wet Willie to pretty much anything on YouTube.
Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People is made by Telltale Games, the same erudite people who brought you the Sam & Max episodic masterpieces that were rife with cheesy satire. The gamemakers at Telltale originally hailed from LucasArts where they engineered fine games such as the ever-laudable Grim Fandango. Strong Bad will be episodic in nature as well, and will be presented in, as Strong Bad says, "all 3 of the glorious Ds."
It's a strange but colorful game whose humor won't be for everyone. Want honesty? The adventure aspect seems very 1990s. The environs within the game appear even more retro than that as Strong Bad owns an old boom box on which he plays his tunes and switches on a TV with rabbit ears to play a micro-game in which our hero is a boxer who takes on a snake. It's this sometimes whack characterization that will keep a decent percentage of Wii lovers coming back for episode after episode. One look at the big, clownish wimp of a brother and you're intrigued. When bro says, "I'm not a crybaby, I'm tormented,? all of us who don't have the muscles of The Rock can relate.
Next up was 2-D Boy's World of Goo. Up crept co-creator Kyle Gabler, who had a dark aspect to his stride as if he were someone out of Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil," except this dude was probably haunted by his tenure at the big corporation, Electronic Arts. The hard-working Gabler had stayed up all night preparing a video for his presentation. With deadpan humor, he said that he and his partner Ron Carmel had left the Redwood City empire to create their game in small cafes where they could steal bandwidth from the Internets. Gabler used the "F" word a few times during the presentation, probably a first for Nintendo PR people to deal with. Will the kiddies' moms be horrified and boycott the Wii? Probably not.
A Flash version of Goo was already lauded at the recent Game Developers Conference, garnering an award for technical excellence. In World of Goo's dozen levels, there's a thin metaphor that's actually fairly powerful. As you try to get as many Goo Balls into a pipe as you can, you'll learn about the morally-challenged Goo Corporation (possibly, no, probably, Electronic Arts). Forget the fact that the gamemakers may disdain their former employers; there's a terrific puzzle game for you to play, one produced with careful physics, one that has you construct bridges of Goo balls as if you were those ingenious Panamanian army ants who grab onto each other by the hundreds and make a brave, living conduit in order to cross a rivulet.
You'll have different kinds of Goo balls to get you where you're going, too, like an Ivy Ball to allow you to climb with the greatest of ease. At one point, the Goo balls are stuck in a stomach and you have to get the esophagus to blow Goo chunks to achieve freedom. Says Gabler, "The Goo balls are na?ve and extremely curious. They have high hopes and don't know what they're in for (from the evil corporation).?
After the presentations, I spoke briefly with Nintendo's Adelman about the future of WiiWare. He said there are already over a hundred games in the pipeline, and they may come out weekly on Mondays beginning in mid-May along with Nintendo's old-school games for the Virtual Console.
Enough of the freakin' gabfest. Down, down the carpeted stairs I trod for some hands-on gameplay. World of Goo looks challenging with the Wii remote, kind of Sisyphian in the work you must put in to win. Strong Bad was fun more because of the humor than because of the gameplay. There was also a game in which I popped bubbles that was banal to no end.
One of the more enjoyable co-op games for WiiWare may well be a competitive eating offering some blond dude with a slight and sickly Mohawk was demonstrating. (Sickly or not, it was nice to see the kiddies are keeping the punk alive.) Mastiff's Major League Eating: The Game is a partnership with those obnoxious Barnum and Bailey-type entrepreneurs who go on ESPN every Fourth of July to pimp out their hot dog eating contest. They call it a sport, but it's really just eating big. As sage videogame writer Ben Silverman said, "If eating is a sport, what we do with writing should be considered a sport, too.? Amen and show me the money. Give me a million dollar signing bonus, and I'm there.
Whether it's a sport or not, the game's damn fun. You can choose to be any of the current entertainers with stretched stomachs, although I wish they had gone back in time to resurrect some of big eating's early heroes like Stan Libnitz. Choose to compete with peppers, corn, shrimp, hot dogs and the like, then flick the Wii remote to pop them virtually into your maw. To eat corn, you have to hold the controller horizontally and then press a button to chew. As a cursor moves by the food in your mouth, you have to chomp on a certain tooth or you won't be able to masticate. If you see green stuff growing in you stomach meter, you have to shake the controller or you'll puke, thus forfeiting the game.
Finally, there was the pretty LostWinds, a running and jumping platformer set amid a world of verdant plants and bluish, dungeon-like caves in which you have to capture wind to move through the 22 levels. Gamemakers Frontier Developments have produced everything from Wallace & Gromit to Thrillville in their 25 years of existence. As for LostWinds, it'll probably take you three or four hours to complete the whole game, once you get the hang of using wind to move. Judging from the learning curve of the gamers I watched, it'll probably take almost a half-hour to master riding on the wind.
Later in the afternoon, they held an eating contest to and journos were asked to guess how much sushi a real live competitive eater could ingest. I saw the sushi being brought out and they were big pieces: about two would make a hot dog, and the hot dog eating champ downed something like 65 wieners last Independence Day at Coney Island, so I doubled that to make 136 pieces. Then I forgot all about it because the besuited N'Gai Croal, Bill Trinen and I got into a discussion about a new piece of software that, when properly filled with detailed information, can tell gamemakers precisely how many copies of a game they could sell. I felt this was a soulless was to go about judging the potential of videogames, but the logical N'Gai argued a reasoned case about why it could work, stating that 70 percent of all games are the same and it's the tweaking of the other 30 percent that may or may not lead to a hit. If you could place these pieces of the puzzle into this magic machine software, maybe the makers could predict a hit. As the discussion went on, I was told I won the contest and was presented with a shirt 10 times my size and signed competitive eating book.
My head was again pounding from all the gaming and I went outside, walking zombified into the shadowy San Francisco evening. Not 150 feet from the hotel, a bearded man dressed in a suit without a tie (who looked a lot like Sayid in ABC's "Lost") pointed at me from 10 paces away and said, "I see something in your head.? With his gaze intensifying, he approached my game-dazed and confused life form and began doing a psychic evaluation. He even told me my birth year and favorite color. This may have been done by sleight of hand with a pen and paper crunched up into a ball; I was so woozy that I couldn't recall. He had that disarming, frighteningly hypnotic gaze and said, "Remember the face of this yogi. Remember the face because you will see him again. Remember also that you will be very lucky at the end of May." I wished he'd been around a year ago when Kaplan was so mysterious about Nintendo's casual games.
Then, he asked for $5. Since I was just dumped at VH1, I judged that three bucks was all the entertainment was worth. I figured someone at Nintendo should make the yogi lucky. If they can make a popping bubbles game for WiiWare, they can make a psychic/magician/yogi game, too. Either that, or this guy has a future as a character in BioShock 2. After all this distraction, my headache had vanished. Luck was with me indeed, oh, yogi who resembled Sayid. That's two extra Tylenol I could save for the Namco event that's coming up.