Making a Switch

Making a Switch

The NES Classic is here, and it’s about as popular as expected. It sold out virtually everywhere within hours, and remains difficult to find even almost three weeks after release. According to eBay, an NES Classic was being sold every 18 seconds, with listings commonly reaching triple, quadruple, or even quintuple digits. At 1.5lbs, that puts the unit at about $400 per ounce, putting it in competition with some precious metals. Considering the NES Classic launched with an MSRP of $60, if this were a stock, it would be one of the most successful IPOs in history.

So now, everyone’s question is: what’s next?

At least a few cards of that hand have already been tipped. Nintendo announced their next console, the Switch, about a month ago, showing off some impressive concepts. But one thing they’ve been rather mum about has been one of their most imporant assets: the Virtual Console.

It’s far from secret that the Wii U fell short of expectations, and among those disappoitments was the Virtual Console. Let’s analyze for a moment.

As of this writing, some 398 games are available on the original Wii’s Virtual Console in North America. Another 219 are accessible on the 3DS, with just 257 on the Wii U. It doesn’t look great; this is one of Nintendo’s most reliable cash cows, and they have all but refused to capitalize on it. For most of the Wii U VC’s history, it has been releasing games at a rate about half that of the original Wii. Another way to look at it: it has averaged 1.2 games released per week (from 7 original consoles), against the Wii’s rate of close to 2 per week¬†for the same time period. It feels horribly underutilized, considering a great deal of gamers are perfectly willing to shell out $5 for a 30-year-old game (which, to be fair, has some added nifties like save states).

Nintendo kind-of sort-of took advantage of this nostalgia tap with the NES Classic, a compact MiniMe of an NES that has 30 games stored onboard and can be hooked up to a modern TV and plays its games very well. Reviews are generally good, but for one common thread: you are stuck with those 30 games. You cannot download or install more.

That’s not to say it’s an unreasonable limit. Outside of the top 10% or so of games for a given console, popularity falls off quickly, and the return on investment for bringing more games to playability is nil. This problem also hits the most popular console emulators, and is the reason why niche games with odd programming quirks are never fully compatible: perfect accuracy is expensive, in terms of processing power. Often, the rarer or lesser-known games tend to have more idiosyncracies, and the combination of both these qualities greatly impacts the chances that someone will take the necessary time to ensure it runs properly.

This is compounded by Nintendo’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it comes to emulation. Releases tend to be slow coming and limited by hardware, such as in the case of SNES games, which are only available on the New 3DS and not the older model, due to the lesser power of the CPU. While there is no doubt that the old 3DS could run SNES games¬†acceptably well, they wouldn’t run up to Nintendo’s standard. While their standard tends to be rather high, that’s not necessarily a bad thing when one considers the aforementioned issue of idiosyncracies.

But that’s also somewhat beside the point for Nintendo: they have massive cash reserves and some great programming genius in their pocket. One easily-executed solution for them would be to simply create a new division of the company that does nothing but focus on Virtual Console releases. It must also be said that licensing is another issue (and rather a bitch of one, often), but the simple reality of the situation is this: if companies want to make money, they will license out these games. A game not being sold doesn’t make money, and more often than not, drives people to emulation, which also commonly entails illegally downloading ROMs of games. An easily-available legal solution is a powerful deterrent in this realm.

This leads directly into the next point: The Virtual Console could easily be a subscription service. This sort of concept has been done before, with varying degrees of success, but with the power of Nintendo nostalgia behind it, a VC service would be a juggernaut. It is something that has been talked about in publications and podcasts for years now, and it has definite merit. Sell a box like the NES Classic, but with space for an SD card or laptop hard drive, and make it powerful enough to run everything up to the N64. Put a monthly price on it, or allow games to be bought outright, and people would want this. Make it simple to buy the unit and the games, and make it easy to use. RetroPie already has a great UI design and wide compatibility, and would be a fantastic model to build on.

Nintendo should, at very least, be considering this. Form a new division specifically to support the Virtual Console, and release a box to stream or download games for a subscription. $5, or even $10 a month would be a steal for the hundreds of games that could be made available this way–even if Nintendo only released its own first party titles, it would result in a catalog numbering in the hundreds. A relatively cheap, compact, low-power machine with a dual- or quad-core 2GHz processor would be capable of emulating most anything up to and including N64 with sufficient accuracy. It could include Miiverse support just like the Wii U for sharing screenshots and posts. It could really be something.

But who knows? It’s very possible Nintendo is planning something like this right now for the Switch. It would work well for that, too. I just hope they don’t continue to let this atrophy; we’ve already lost too much to corporate apathy in the last few years to see this be neglected as well.

miiwhatnow

My Nintendo and Miitomo finally reached the West the other day. For years Nintendo’s fans have endured outdated, sometimes badly-supported online systems, and finally the light has arrived to drive back the dark age.

Sometimes you just need a brighter bulb.

So far, My Nintendo is mostly a replacement for the long-beloved Club Nintendo. There are certainly some nice things in there: you can use points to get games at a discount, or get games for free outright, or get new digs for your Mii. Points can be earned by doing social activities like logging into the eShop or doing things in the Miitomo app, or by spending money on the eShop. So far, it feels like Nintendo is trying to be a facsimile of itself, and not entirely doing it well.

For one, coins are no longer awarded for registering games or doing surveys. No, you actually have to spend money on Nintendo’s eShop to get those “gold” coins that can later be spent on…other games. The loss of surveys particuarly irks me. They allowed for a channel of feedback from people who played the games to state what they did and didn’t like about those games, which could (hopefully) be used by developers to improve further releases. It was one of the few survey systems out there that actually rewarded the survey takers with something more concrete than a vague chance at winning an undefined prize. Not only was this communication allowed, it was encouraged…and now that’s gone. It’s a big loss in my mind. We’ll see how long that sticks.

Now there are three types of points, and three primary means of earning them. Miitomo points are earned through actions taken within the Miitomo app, such as making friends, answering survey questions and logging in. Platinum points come from slightly more meta activities like logging into the eShop and Miiverse, and linking a Nintendo Account to various social media. Gold points are only given in response to eShop purchases, and (thus far) can only be used to redeem games or discounts on games on the eShop. Everything is now broken down into categories…if you want something specific, you have to do something specific. Most notably, if you want an item with some real value (ie, a game), you ultimately must spend money for it.

This categorization alone isn’t something that concerns me. The rate of return, and relative value of these points, seems to be somewhat less than in the old Club Nintendo system. Super Mario Land 2 on the 3DS Virtual Console costs $3.99. It is listed as a My Nintendo reward for 35 points, making MN Gold points worth roughly 11 cents apiece. But to get 35 Gold points, you have to spend at least $30 on the eShop. Is it worth it to spend $30 just to get a $4 download for free? Of couse not, but it still puts it in “nice bonus” territory. You definitely don’t spend purely to get the freebies, unless you’re really that gullible, but it’s nice to get what amounts to a loyalty reward. But just to ruin the experience a little, physical purchases can no longer be registered to get points, only eShop purchases do. This cuts out a lot of people who prefer owning games on disc, and kind of turns this into a shit sandwich for them.

Now the rub: My Nintendo points don’t live forever. In fact, they have a rather short shelf life of six months. Yes, you have half a year to use up those points before they vanish forever. I get the impetus to drive customers to “use it or lose it”, but this just feels barbaric to me. It reminds me of retail store gift cards that would expire, sometimes within a year, whether they were used or not. Of course, this isn’t an entirely comparable situation, as these points are very much not intended to fill the role of a gift card. But it’s still kind of dickish. Then again, it will depend entirely on how often the virtual stock of the My Nintendo rewards rotates.

I still can’t quite figure out Miitomo. It’s like Nintendo tried to make their version of PlayStation Home, except it doesn’t have the big persistent lobby. Or they wanted to reinvent The Sims via the Wii U dashboard. I don’t know. It’s weird. Other than the odd activities like dressing your Sim Mii, what really confuses and irritates me is the lack of social integration. Well, not even that…there is social integration in the app, but not with Nintendo’s own social network. What?

Among the swell of hopes and promises of this sea change, many anticipated the arrival of a modern account system, something Nintendo has had trouble grasping over the past decade as Microsoft and Sony passed it by. While they’ve made strides with the web-accessible eShop, purchases are still heavily tied to hardware rather than accounts, making replacing a broken console a tedious and frustrating process. But Miitomo seems to have been concieved in a bizarre quantum state, a mix of old and new, lacking most of the advantages of both.

When you first launch the app, you can login via your Nintendo Network account, and then link the two together. This is an obvious move, being that all these things fall well within Nintendo’s ecosystem. The next obvious move would be effectively tying Miitomo and NN accounts together, making your friend list accessible from the app, right? Not in Nintendo’s world. Not only does Miitomo not give you direct and immediate access to your friend list, you cannot add friends via Nintendo Network IDs. Only three methods are available: the first two involve linking Miitomo to your Twitter or Facebook acount, which will trigger the app to search for friends who are also on Miitomo. The last method involves phones being in physical proximity to each other. I get that Nintendo wants people to be social, and that’s nice, but this is kind of a ridiculous method to rely on for something that’s intended to be internet-based. Oddly, there is a screen to generate a QR code, which you can distribute to people to scan in via their phones, but this does not function as a friend-adding mechanism; rather it only adds their Mii to your app. What exactly this does, I have no idea, and I find it rather pointless.

But still, Nintendo…why? Why isn’t there some cross-functionality with Nintendo Network? PSN and Xbox Live let users buy games, manage friends message people and organize groups from any point of the holy trinity of console, smartphone and PC. Nintendo saw this, and decided it needed to catch up…but then stopped somewhere along the way, presumably to talk about another Star Fox Zero video or reference its long history as a card company. It looks like they still have some studying to do. Or maybe even more changes are in store, and they’re just keeping them as pleasant surprises for now.

Let’s hope.

hard to port

I’m worried that Square Enix has forgotten how the process of porting works.

A store page for Final Fantasy IX has just appeared on Steam, just the latest in a long line of one of the biggest JRPGs ever to exist being brought to the largest PC gaming platform out there. It’s introducing Final Fantasy to an audience of players who don’t game on consoles, including updated graphics and gameplay and Steam achievements. What’s not to like?

A lot, apparently. According to the Steam store page for the game, Final Fantasy IX will require 20GB of hard drive space. Keep in mind, this is a game that originally released on four PlayStation discs, which at the time had a maximum capacity of 650MB. Assuming Square used every single bit of space on those discs, that’s 2.6GB total. This is just speculation with no real information behind it, but here’s something better: when the game was released on PSN as a download, the size was revealed to be 1550MB, a perfectly reasonable size for a multi-disc PS1 game. Somewhere between the two, the game’s size apparently increased by nearly a factor of thirteen.

The first response that comes to mind is that the game’s quality has been scaled up significantly. This isn’t without precendent, as the recent trend (and main motivation) behind all these oldies coming back is the use of the original uncompressed textures. But FF9 doesn’t seem to make use of that. Character models have been improved significantly, but the backgrounds are quite clearly the original artwork from the PS1 release. The resulting image is an epic Wagnerian symphony of discord. It is awful.

Surely, you say, there is a reason for this. The original, high-resolution artwork must have been lost in the intervening years since release. Worse things have happened to bigger projects.

But at least some of the original artwork is easily available. Two years ago, a neogaf user found, compailed and posted over 40 images of original background art; and as if that weren’t enough, also included high-resolution images of character models and concept art, all of which could be very effectively utilized in the process of an HD remaster.

But this is Square Enix. They seem pathologically fixated on phoning it in on almost any matter imaginable. It’s a sad truth–the gaming industry as a whole these days seems to be obsessed with trying to look as indifferent as possible to their customers and their products.

Final Fantasy V and VI were ported to PC from the mobile ports, except their graphics were smoothed in a way that made the games look like a Saturday morning cartoon with oversaturated colors. Not only that, but they featured badly-tiled textures with badly-rounded edges, and it all combines to create an environment that doesn’t feel cohesive. Then Square Enix came back with a port of FF6, which was again based on the mobile port…except this time, they decided to up their own ante by implementing the worst possible way to upscale pixel art, as well as stretching the game into a wide aspect ratio, on top of everything else.

But this isn’t a sprite-based game, therefore it needs a closer analog for comparison. Thus, the blog presents its next exhibit: Final Fantasy IV. Ported, yet again, from the mobile version, which itself was ported from the DS release, FF4 is the only other from the original six games to be ported in its 3D form. While the later 3D releases also suffered somewhat from bad background graphics clashing with higher-quality characters, FF4 goes the extra mile and adds framerate problems. Not only is the main game locked to 30 frames per second, but the battle screen is locked…to 15 frames per second. Sometimes it just boggles the mind, how game developers seem to hate this whole high performance fad going around.

Last-minute disclaimer: these are pre-release images, and as such very much at risk of changing by the time the game officially drops, which as of yet is unknown. But based on Square Enix’s recent history of porting their older (and newer) games to PC, hopes aren’t terribly high.